Bath-time with the Bowens

I’ve just had rather an unusual experience of reading a book.

It began with Alexandra Harris’s utterly wonderful Romantic Moderns. I’ve blogged about this one before, but in case your memory needs refreshing, Harris meanders around several English writers and artists from the first half or so of the twentieth century, showing how their work is rooted in the past and the countryside. It isn’t all John Betjeman, rather she looks at how the modernism of Woolf, Piper, Brandt, Waugh (and many more) has more in common than Betjeman and his ilk than many people would care to admit. Encyclopaedic knowledge is dispensed with wit, charm and a rather endearing British eccentricity.

I adored every single moment of reading Romantic Moderns, but the added benefit, which I’m only beginning to reap, is the desire to read or re-read some of the books that attracted her attention.

First of all, I re-read Rebecca. That was one of the best reads of last year. What a wonderful novel! As I’d last read it when I was fifteen or so, it yielded rather a lot from a re-reading. I even gave copies to my Granny and my fiancé, and, feeling rather impassioned, hand-sold around ten copies the following week, desperate for others to share the pleasure. And one lady actually came back into the bookshop a few days later to tell me how much she absolutely loved it! (Both my Granny and fiancé enjoyed it too – I’m not sure quite what that means.)

And, most recently, I’ve just read Bowen’s Court by Elizabeth Bowen.

Elizabeth Bowen is one of those names that’s always floating around the literary ether. But, for some reason, I’ve only ever caught her name out of the corner of my eye, as it were. She’s mentioned in an interview with an author, for instance, or is dropped in as a comparison in a book review. She never came up in the course of my English degree at Oxford, and, in the bookshop, I’ve never sold any of her books.

So I was intrigued to read about Elizabeth Bowen’s Bowen’s Court in Romantic Moderns. Alexandra Harris argues that Bowen’s intricate detailing of a building gains significance from the fact that it was written during the Second World War, when buildings were being blitzed to smithereens:

Bowen’s Court resists fragmentation and builds something solid over the “broken surface” of the present … Stones, bricks, mortar plead against transience.

My own writing, at the moment, is rather preoccupied with houses, so I was quite excited about reading Bowen’s Court – which promised to be quite a big, quite a brilliant, personal history of a house. And it’s now out of print, so I also had a somewhat geeky sense of academic adventure. As though I might be about to discover a ‘lost classic’.

But I have to be completely honest here and say that, when I started reading Bowen’s Court, I found it a bit boring. And – even worse – as I continued to read it, I still found bits a bit boring.

You see, Bowen’s Court isn’t just an intricate detailing of a house, it is a history of the English in Ireland, and the Bowen family’s part in that history. In many ways, in fact, it’s not dissimilar to The Hare with Amber Eyes in its movement between the microcosm of the family history and the macro of the country’s. And it was tempting to skim through long passages about Irish history or long extracts from old family wills. I want to know more about the house, I kept telling myself, and – aside from the first chapter’s description of it – Bowen’s Court itself doesn’t enter the book until 140 or so pages in, when it was built.

But then this peculiar thing happened. Despite finding it a bit boring, I began to feel a strange tie to the book. It became a source of comfort. As soon as I opened it up and started reading, a calmness descended upon me, together with a smile and an odd feeling like a warm glow.

What a weird feeling to have while reading a history book!

This feeling was entirely down to Elizabeth Bowen herself. She wrote Bowen’s Court in such a personal way that she utterly endeared herself to me. I know this sounds unforgivably naf, but I felt like I’d made friends with her. I felt almost as though I were sitting down for a cuppa and a natter with a best friend.

She may be telling the stories of her ancestors (and, by proxy, the story of Bowen’s Court and the history of Ireland) but it is always, undoubtedly, Elizabeth Bowen – the ever-present ‘I think, I shall tell, I want, I do not want, I have shown, I feel quite sure …’ in the book – who is telling these stories. Take, for instance, her introduction of the first major character in the book:

[Henry] was the first of our Bowens to die in Ireland, he was the founder of the Bowen’s Court family, so from now on I shall call him Henry I.

Oh ok, Henry I it is, then. And, as the book goes on, we get all the way up to Henry VI!

Another idiosyncratic moment is in the story of Miss St. Leger and the Freemasons:

In a small alcoved room in Doneraile Court, a Miss St. Leger became the only lady Free Mason. The popular story is that she hid in a clock, her family say she happened to fall asleep on a couch: anyhow, whether by design or accident, she overheard what the Free Masons were saying, so they made her one of their number.  In her portrait the lady, who later married an Aldworth, has a dogged, impassible face.  I support the idea of the clock.

We get a place – the ‘small alcoved room in Doneraile Court’, the two versions of the story – clock and couch, a bit of Debrett’s-style placing of families – ‘who later married an Aldworth’, a very personal interpretation of her portrait –‘ dogged, impassible face’. And finally, most personal of all, Bowen’s choice of stories: ‘I support the idea of the clock.’

The prose is littered with little asides and anecdotes like this. It’s a very colloquial style, chatty and intimate. I wish it didn’t sound so patronising and disparaging to call it ‘tea-time writing’, only because I feel as though Elizabeth Bowen is leaning over her teacup, having just scoffed a biscuit, a few crumbs on her jacket, to whisper about the clock quite conspiratorially.

Perhaps it’s a bit gossipy and ever so juicy with it. But I also felt that in her writing of the book, in her telling of the stories, Bowen was trying to make sense of them, set things straight in her head. So in the Miss St. Leger and the Freemasons story, we get rather a brisk: ‘anyhow, whether by design or accident’ before coming down in favour of the clock version. There are endless summings-up, ‘What happened was this,’ or, ‘it was no doubt …’ or ‘in fact.’ It’s another way in which it feels like a conversation, as though the story is being finalised, a particular version of events settled upon, in her telling of it.

Bowen’s Court is quite a long book – 450 pages or so – and so I spent a good couple of weeks in Elizabeth Bowen’s company. My favourite time for it was bath-time, after dinner on a quite work-night, disappearing into a hot tub with a whisky and Elizabeth Bowen for an hour or so at a time. I imagine she might have preferred this description to the tea-time one. I felt increasingly fond of her as time went on.

But, the funny thing is, now I’ve finished the book, I don’t feel particularly bereft. Perhaps because it wasn’t really the end of a story. I don’t feel as though the characters have been extinguished, rather that there’s now a pause after several long conversations about them. It’s as though she’s gone away on holiday for a short while and will be back soon with more tales to tell. I can’t wait!

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