A World of Love by Elizabeth Bowen

It’s official – polyreading does *not* work for me… I wanted to read an Elizabeth Bowen book for the wonderful Read Ireland Month hosted by Cathy’s at 746 Books and Niall at The Fluff is Raging; and I tried to read it alongside a collection of Cortazar short stories. However, I simply ended up failing to get into either book and went off to read the John Dickson Carr instead. So having finished that, I applied myself solely to the Bowen book and things went much better. No more polyreading for me…

I have many of Bowen’s books on my shelves (although mostly unread) so I was spoiled for choice; I picked at random without looking, and “A World of Love” popped into my hand and so that was the one I read! A slim volume, published later in her career in 1955, it’s set in Ireland in the decaying country house of Montefort. The place houses an odd kind of family; it’s owned by Antonia, a renowned photographer, and she inherited it from her cousin Guy who was killed in WW1. Guy left behind a fiance, Lilia, but no provision for her and so Antonia basically marries her off to Fred, another cousin, on the understanding that they will live in Montefort and Fred will manage it, freeing her to go off and have her career. Also living there are the couple’s two daughters, Jane and Maud. It is 21-year old Jane who is crucial to the story, which takes place over a few days during a blisteringly hot summer.

Exploring the attic, Jane stumbles upon an old dress, wrapped in which are a packet of letters from Guy. She assumes these to be to her mother, although no name is given, and spirits them away. The somewhat naive Jane is bewitched by the letters, enchanted by Guy and his spirit is almost summoned by the sudden attention. Her action brings unresolved issues to the surface – Lilia’s first lost love, Fred’s jealousy, the cracks in their marriage, the relationship between Antonia and Guy, and also that of Antonia and the rest of the family. Jane is taken up by a visiting local aristocrat, Lady Latterly, and dazzled by the lifestyle she sees, and her connection with them will have a pivotal effect on her future. Maud meanwhile moons around talking to her invisible friend, attempting to extort money from a family member, and general being contrary and unpleasant. As the story progresses, there are gradual revelations and an unravelling of the past with eventual resolution of sorts, although there is ambiguity from the start which runs all the way through the story.

Bowen’s Court – the model for Montefort?

It took me a while to get on with this book, and I’m not sure it was only the polyreading issue. Bowen’s prose is beautiful but there is often an elusive quality to the narrative; things left unsaid between the characters in the house are also left unsaid to the reader, and the relationships aren’t always clear, with undercurrents needing to be picked up by the reader. Also, there’s a lyrical, lilting quality to the writing which you have to get used to. Because of these traits it is sometimes hard to get a handle on the story, and initially there were occasions when I found myself drifting off slightly. However, once I committed myself properly I was completely drawn in to the setting and the story, and it really is a wonderful book.

One of the things Bowen does do brilliantly here is create atmosphere: the hot summer days, the subtle tensions between the characters, are wonderfully rendered so that you feel as if you’re actually there. there is a sense of decay and ennui in both characters and landscape, and her description of the local town of Clonmore conveys exactly why Lilia in particular finds where she lives so claustrophobic:

….alternately dun and painted houses,. cars parked askew, straying ass-carts and fallen bicycles. Dung baked on the pavements since yesterday morning’s fair; shop after shop had insanely similar doorways, strung with boots and kettles and stacked with calicoes – in eternal windows goods faded out. Many and sour were the pubs. Overexposed, the town was shadeless – never a tree, never an awning. Ice cream on sale, but never a cafe. Clonmore not only provided no place to be, it provided no reason to be, at all.

Faced with that, it’s hardly surprising that an offer by Antonia of a trip to London becomes something she’s suddenly very keen to take.

The interconnections between the main characters are very subtly drawn, and the tensions between them are often simmering under the surface. Guy’s presence hovers over the whole book, and the letters are passed from person to person like a hot potato; it is not clear until the end why the letters affect everyone so much and why no-one really wants to take them. The relationship between Fred and his daughter Jane is unsettlingly close; he dotes on her and worries about her and the impression is that she’s the only important thing in his life. Certainly, as his marriage with Lilia seems on rocky ground, his relationship with his daughter seems invested with more significance than anything else.

Bowen’s Court – the book!

Montefort itself, crumbling and decaying, is a strong presence in the book too. Bowen, of course, had inherited the family property, Bowen’s Court, in Ireland which she wrote about at length and which she was eventually forced to sell before it was finally demolished. The state of Montefort and the fading landowning aristocracy perhaps mirrors what she saw happening in her country, although much like Antonia, she remained based in England and only made visits to the Irish country house.

The end of the book is interesting, and in some ways unexpected. Jane (with the hideous Maud in tow) accompanies Lady Latterly’s chauffeur to Shannon airport; this sudden step into modernity is a shock because, despite what I presume is a post WW2 setting, the country life is so steeped in tradition that it seems timeless. I’ve seen what transpires in the final pages criticised, and without wanting to give anything away, I can understand why. Personally, I found the whole book wonderfully enjoyable and evocative in the end, and I think there was probably much more lurking under the surface than I’ve covered here – it’s the kind of book you find yourself musing upon days later and picking up other little things you’ve missed.

Bowen in 1955

But I return to Bowen’s wonderful prose – here’s just a short description of some of the characters out in the sun and it makes you feel as if you were there with them:

Lilia, holding a cup and saucer, wore cotton of an extinct blue, of a shade only less indolent than the sky’s – side-by-side on a stone bench, she and Antonia were under a twisted apple tree silvered over with lichen. Jane had found a bed inside a box-edged oval; and not far off stood the sundial, around which old poppies lolled, bees dozed on the yellow lupins. Below, the river had almost ceased to run; a nonchalant stillness hung over everywhere. It was thought to be about eleven o’clock.

Even that last sentence, with its “thought to be”, conveys the atmosphere of a lazy, hot summer day. Elizabeth Bowen was a marvellous writer, and I’m glad I picked this book up to join in with Reading Ireland Month. Certainly every book of hers I read makes me keen for more, so it’s rather nice that I have a shelf full of titles to choose from!