15 March 2019

A World of Love by Elizabeth Bowen

If you've never read anything by Elizabeth Bowen,  A World of Love will fit the bill quite nicely as your introduction.  It's very accessible, has a limited number of characters and the setting of a country manor alone will tick a box for many a reader.  If you are a fan of Bowen's writing but, like me, skirted around this book...and goodness knows why....go and find a copy! 

It's the early 1950s in County Cork, Ireland.  A small mansion dots the rolling fields....

'The door no longer knew hospitality; moss obliterated the sweep for the turning carriage; the avenue lived on as a rutted track, and a poor fence, close up to the house, served to keep back wandering grazing cattle.'

Montefort belonged to Guy Danby until he was killed while serving in WWI.  In the absence of a Will, the house was turned turned over to his cousin, Antonia.  Being disinclined to benefit from Guy's death, as well as a bit of a slattern, Antonia proposes a plan.  By suggesting a marriage between Lilia (Guy's fiancé) and Fred (an illegitimate cousin), Antonia brings Montefort to life once again.  

With beautiful prose and keen observation, Bowen portrays a marriage in which a ghost from the past is ever present.  Guy's presence even permeates their daughter Jane's first dalliance with romance when she finds a bundle of love letters in the attic.  The letters were written by Guy causing Jane to assume that the recipient is her mother, but there's room for speculation.  In her somewhat isolated surroundings, Jane steals away to luxuriate in the letter's romantic phrases.  It's not long before her younger sister Maud catches her out.

Maud is the comic relief in Montefort's tension-filled surroundings.  Lilia is suspicious of Antonia's close relationship with Jane, Fred feels as though he will never be enough for Lilia, Antonia feels like the odd one out in her own home.  Lilia wonders if Fred married her as a way of accessing Montefort.

At the village fete, it's Maud who wins the bottle of whiskey (she's 12 years old), she has an imaginary friend called Gay David and she quotes passages from the Bible which drives Antonia mad.  Maud is brutally frank and says exactly what's on her mind....

'If I'm to have a father, I don't choose to have a father who's not thought of highly, at any rate by me.  I've been to a lot of trouble, honouring him.  But in spite of it all, there he went about, this last day or two looking small.  Why should I put up with that?'

And then there's Lady Latterly from the neighbouring manor house.  She sends her driver over in the Daimler to collect Jane, now that she's of an age to be entertaining (or an accessory).  Jane is learning the nuances of etiquette at her ladyship's elbow, and Jane recognizes the difference between Antonia's boudoir and that of her more polished contemporary.

'Here it was true, the scene was differently set - no smears, no ash, no feathers on the floor; instead, who areas of undinted  satin, no trace of anything having been touched or used.  Here and there only, footprints like tracks in dew disturbed the bloom of the silver carpet.  Here, supposed Jane, courteously looking round, must be a replica, priceless these days, of a Mayfair décor back in the 1930s - apparently still lived in without a tremor.'

I loved the moment when I realized the family were turning a corner and everything would be alright.  With patience and maturity, Fred and Lilia finally understand that living in the past will only prevent them from moving forward with their own lives.  It's a simple story without much of a plot, but in the hands of Elizabeth Bowen it's cinematic and exquisite.

 Winifred Radford by Meredith Frampton
(1921)

6 comments:

  1. To be honest, I haven't quite been able to fall for her books...so I'll try again with this one. It does sound like my cup of tea!

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    1. I'll cross my fingers, Audrey! You know a book is really good when you're planning a reread before you've even finished the first one. This is one of those books.

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  2. Just finishing this novel tonight, as it happens. The style, microscopic in its focus, demands careful sentence-by-sentence attention, but is rewarding. This s my first but not my last Bowen.

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    1. I'm so glad you enjoyed it, Patrick! My gateway Bowen was To the North and then I quickly bought up everything I could.

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  3. Only read one of her novels. can't remember what it was called but it starts of in a frozen Regent's Park I think! Would like to read more so I will check this out. Good review.

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    1. I think it might be The Death of the Heart, Nicola. I read it a few years ago but only remember bits and pieces, whereas this title will stay with me for ages. Hope you give it a try!

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