9 February 2021

To the North by Elizabeth Bowen

In a brief moment of eerie coincidence, I've just discovered that I first read To the North early in February, ten years ago.  Okay, moving right along....

Set in the 1920s, Elizabeth Bowen's fourth novel (1932) tells the story of two young women, one traditional and tragically widowed, the other business-minded and independent.  Sisters-in-law sharing a flat, devoted to one another but with their separate lives to lead.

The story begins with Cecilia Summers on a train bound for London.  Having left Italy behind, she assumes the posture of someone who doesn't wish to engaged in conversation.  Single women on trains seem fated to be the target of male attention and as a young widow Cecilia is eager to escape it.  Inevitably, a young man seats himself next to her in the dining cart.  Enter Mark Linkwater, a barrister in his mid-thirtiies...

By the end of five minutes he had composed himself for Cecilia, from a succession of half-glances, as being square and stocky, clean shaven, thickish about the neck and jaw, with a capable slightly-receding forehead, mobile, greedy, intelligent mouth and the impassive bright quick-lidded eyes of an agreeable reptile.  Presentable, he might even be found attractive - but not by Cecilia.

Cecilia does her best to skirt around 'Markie' for the duration of her travels.  With Italy now in the past, she looks forward to being back in her St. John's Wood flat, the home she shares with Emmeline.  Emmeline has invested in a travel agency.  It's a small but busy office in Bloomsbury where she works diligently with Peter and their underappreciated receptionist Miss Tripp.

Bowen fabulously creates a vivid image of place in her novels which is one of the reasons I adore her writing so much.  And never more so than during this time of pandemic.  The notion that certain bus routes could be deemed as 'moral' is an entertaining one... 

The No. 11 is an entirely moral bus.  Springing from Shepherd's Bush, against which one has seldom heard anything, it enjoys some innocent bohemianism in Chelsea, picks up the shoppers at Peter Jones, swerves down the Pimlico Road - too busy to be lascivious - passes not too far from the royal stables, nods to Victoria Station, Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, whirrs reverently up Whitehall, and from its only brush with vice, in the Strand, plunges to Liverpool Street through the noble and serious architecture of the City.

Back to the plot....Cecilia and Emmeline begrudgingly answer to the divinely stuffy Lady Waters.  She is Cecilia's Aunt, and very much grounded in the etiquette of the previous century.  Georgina possesses a magnetic gaze that frequently results in a headache of her oppressed visitors.  The younger ladies are wedged between Lady Waters' comments about the lowly act of stepping out with men.....and 'will you please marry'.

Oh I know this all sounds very amusing in a sort of Austen-esque manner, and in part that is true.  But there are dark and unlikable qualities about some of the characters that become more evident as the net closes.  Cecilia is so concerned with her future path, whether under the banner of widow or otherwise, to notice that Emmeline has become distant and distracted.  Emmeline is in love with Markie, a vile user if ever there was one.  Perhaps not as flawed, but frustratingly conflicted, is Julian Tower.  Responsibility is something to be put off if possible but there's a part of him that realizes the benefits that come with maturity.

The laws of etiquette and convention create much of the drama in To the North.  So much is wondered about as it wouldn't be 'proper' to openly question or converse.  Men and women talk in vague riddles to pry sentiments from one another.  The rigidity of societal roles can result in dire circumstance, such as when Emmeline and Markie drive miles out of London to spend a couple of days at a cottage.  For Emmeline discovery means ruin while Markie cruelly admits he is out for what he can get.

Leading up the climax of the story, that left me breathless despite having read this book before, Cecilia floats around the room, adjusting flowers and lighting candles.  Oblivious that her world, or anyone else's, is on the cusp of imploding.  This is literary melodrama at its best and Elizabeth Bowen was an absolute master at her craft.  In my book, this is perfection.

From portrait of Oonagh Guiness by Philip de Laszlo
(1931)