A Time in Rome by Elizabeth Bowen

It must be fairly obvious to anyone following me on social media that I’ve been on a bit of a Bowen Binge recently… I love the writing of Elizabeth Bowen, and I do have all of her novels plus the collected short stories. However, I was nudged in the direction of her non-fiction when I shared my Bowen shelf on Twitter; and I discovered that she was a prolific author of essays, reviews, broadcasts and all manner of works. Additionally, there was an enticing-sounding volume in the form of “A Time in Rome”; and I was fortunate enough to manage to procure a copy via the wonderful Hive website, so I could go vicariously travelling with Bowen for company…

I say travelling, by which I mean visiting Rome; however, there’s a certain amount of time travelling involved too, as this is no simple, straightforward narrative of a journey and the sights of the city. Instead, Bowen takes a perhaps unusual angle, and though anchoring her book in the city and her extended stay there in early spring 1958, she uses this as a launching pad to explore the city’s long and turbulent history, through its architecture and its people.

This book is not even my footnote to your guidebook; it is my scribblings on the margins of mine. I claim to be little help to anyone else.

“Time” is divided up into five long chapters, with titles ranging from “The Confusion” to “The Set Free”. In each of these, Bowen takes a particular element of her Rome and riffs on it; for example, “The Confusion” starts with her sense of disorientation on arrival, when she’s put in a hotel room which doesn’t work for her, and explores her attempts at grounding herself and finding her way around the city. She discusses the city’s architectural past, as well as its political history and the ever-changing rulers and regimes, and each angle is fascinating; her dismay at the complexity of the family relationships of some of the Roman Emperors is palpable! As she rambles, she constantly comes across the juxtaposition of old and new; Rome in the late 1950s is constantly changing, as it has over the centuries, and her explorations of the fate of many of what we regard as now fixed monuments reveals layers of history.

Gasworks, slaughter-houses, rubbish dumps, cattle markets, an abandoned shooting gallery, a defunct racecourse, duststorms of demolition, skeletal battles of construction, schools, asylums and hospitals, squatters’ villages, marble-works, and other relics of pleasure or signs of progress crop up according to where one goes. Each demands to be taken into the picture. Crazy or neat, no structure is out of use; if it has lapsed from one it has found another.

The changes Rome was undergoing in the post-WW2 period were obviously dramatic, and it has to be remembered that Bowen was visiting a place which had been through much during that conflict, switching sides halfway through and being bombed on a regular basis. So the city was, like so many in that period, going through yet another process of rebuilding and reinvention, and Bowen meets this on many of her travels, while musing on the city’s past and present.

But the core of the revolution is public transport – I know of no system more far-reaching than Rome’s, more energetic or more capacious: hilarious buses, electric road-railways zooming into the hills in ascending spirals, small eager trains darting from stop to stop across reclaimed marshlands or to the coast. One way or another, thousands hurl themselves forth…

The chapter entitled “The Smile” was a particularly powerful one, exploring subterranean Rome and then its gardens. This leads to an extented section on Livia, the wife of Emperor Augustus, with whom Bowen seemed to feel a strong connection. Her description of Livia’s life and achievements is an evocative and often powerful one, and this particular part of the book really struck me. It has to be said that Bowen’s writing is often exquisite; and in the passages on Livia, who comes to represent Rome’s ‘smile’, it soars to Woolfian heights.

However, Bowen is not without her lighter moments, and her dry wit often reveals itself – her short and punchy comment on a particular era made me laugh:

On the Middle Ages, I cannot find it too tempting to dwell at all. One could feel that they were endured by mankind in order that they might fascinate the historian…

And she posits a dizzying array of reasons for wanting to *leave* the wonderful city she’s visiting, which reflects the often turbulent political set up of the past:

Reasons for getting out are among the constants of Roman history – danger from personal enemies; an exposed conspiracy; civil disturbance; noxious weather; pestilence; persecution or pogrom; need to tone up in fresh air or reflect in calm; spleen; fashion; annoyance by barbarians; banishment; military or administrative duties; care of country estates; health; imminent scandal; financial crisis. A whole range, back through how many centuries, between desire and compulsion.

She also reveals her human side, confiding at times how tiring wandering round Rome can be, leaving the visitor with sore feet; and revealing her difficulty in adjusting to the idea of the midday siesta when everything comes to a halt.

Rome 1950 (via Flickr – Nathan Hughes Hamilton – https://www.flickr.com/photos/nat507/10370497245)

Reading “A Time in Rome” was a wonderfully involving and distracting experience; Bowen’s prose is beautiful, often impressionistic, and repays slow and thoughtful reading. The book’s heady mix of her thoughts on the city as she experiences it, together with her exploration of the past, is wonderful, and I’m not sure I’ve read another work like this. Up until now I’ve only read Elizabeth Bowen’s fiction, which I absolutely; but having encountered her non-fiction voice in this marvellous book, I really want to read more…