The Mulberry Tree: Writings of Elizabeth Bowen
Edited by Hermione Lee
Edited by Hermione Lee
Oh, this was lovely. It took me ages to get through because...well, it's Elizabeth Bowen and you absolutely must drink in every heavenly bit of prose that drained from her inkwell. The Hotel was her first novel and while the average reader, if there is such a thing, could be forgiven for thinking the language bogs a bit I found it to be quite readable. What is clearly evident in this book is that by the age of twenty-eight, Elizabeth Bowen was destined to shine in literary circles.
Published in 1927, the Italian Riviera is the backdrop for a group of upper-class English holidaymakers...'an ideal place to spend the winter'. Miss Pym and Miss Fitzgerald have had a tiff and must find ways of avoiding each other for the time being. The glamourous Mrs Kerr is searching for young Sydney Warren whose company she seeks out more than any other, a sort of protégé. With swishing pleated skirts, parasols, and loose gauntlet gloves to protect her ivory skin from the sun, Mrs Kerr begrudgingly invites Miss Pym to accompany her to the tennis courts. A coup indeed for the timid woman.
The atmosphere is something like a Merchant Ivory film with its rich seaside scenery, siestas from the heat, romantic pairings, tea-filled afternoons, and a lift with a steel gate, no less. Mr and Mrs Lee-Mittison (always with knitting close at hand) provide much of the social observations, the eyes of the group shall we say. In one of the more hilarious scenes Mrs Pinkerton ('...with her Olympic cloud of hair') and her sister-in-law encounter an unwelcome guest in their bathroom. It's supposed to be a shared bath but there is an 'understanding' with the other guests. Let's set the scene shall we...
'...here in white-tiled sanctuary their bowls of soap, their loofahs: here, too, their maid could do their smaller washing and hang the garments up to dry before the radiator. There generally were garments drying there, the two distrusted foreign laundresses, perhaps with reason.'
Then James Milton, the awkward clergyman, arrives...
'...going upstairs directly after his arrival locked himself into Mrs Pinkerton's bathroom. Here he hoped to remove by steaming and by prolonged immersion the grime, ingrained in one till one is almost polished, of a transcontinental journey....He did not notice the bath salts, but, unthinkingly, made full use of the loofah...'
Can you imagine a more cringeworthy moment for the poor Pinkertons? Oh the upheaval and anxiety!
As the season reaches its end and conclusions become crucial the chapters unfold like acts in a play and in one of my favourite scenes (read three times) from 'Cemetery'...
'Candles for the peculiar glory of the lately dead had been stuck in the unhealed earth; here and there a flame in a glass shade writed, opaque in the sunshine. Above all this uneasy rustle of remembrance, white angels poised forward to admonish....Everywhere, in ribbons, marbles, porcelains was a suggestion of the 'salon', and nowhere could the significance of death have been brought forward more startingly.
"I must say, 'remarked Cordelia, 'I do like Italian graves; they look so much more lived in."'
This is a book to be revisited again and again; something tells me the better you get to know the characters the more there will be to admire and amuse any reader. Don't ask me to choose a favourite novel by Bowen; so far I like each one I have read but if you are new to her work then I would highly suggest this as an excellent place to start.