Posts Tagged ‘Elizabeth Bowen’

Birthday Books

November 12, 2013

The LuminariesThis is my first post of my third decade… and still I am reading The Luminaries. Will I still be reading it by the time I reach forty, I wonder. It is a good book, but it has made me feel that people who write books that are so unbelievably long are obliged to make them unbelievably good. Indeed The Luminaries should be approximately four times as good as a very good short novel, because it will have demanded that much more of my reading time, and, if I’m brutally honest, while it is undoubtedly enjoyable, I’m not sure The Luminaries is quite good enough to be taking up so many weeks of my life. It’s not quite Proust. I think of all the other books I could have been reading in the meantime and feel a little bit peeved, but there we go, I shall give you a full report, let us hope, next week.

You might remember this time last year I wrote about a very special edition of Bowen’s Court, that my very generous mum bought me from the wondrous Peter Harrington. Well this year, we made a return visit …

Let me say right away that any of you who have not yet been to Peter Harrington should do so immediately. Go into the rather imposing building, look like you know what you’re doing by marching straight up the stairs to the first floor, where you will discover all the twentieth-century literature, a realm presided over by Adam. Talk to Adam. He will give you sweets and make you a cup of tea, while showing you the treasures on the shelves, telling you things about the books and their owners of which you’d never have dreamt.

This year we were in Adam’s realm a little while before him. No doubt he was having lunch, or boiling the kettle or some such. Reluctant to miss a second’s heavenly browsing time, I clambered up a ladder to peruse their collection of EM Forster, where I spotted a small blue hardback – The Writings of EM Forster by Rose Macaulay. I’m ashamed to say I’ve not yet read anything by Macaulay, though I have of course heard of her brilliant opening line to her novel The Towers of Trebizond:

“Take my camel, dear,” said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.

How I long to read the rest of it! Perhaps it shall feature in Emily’s Walking Book Club in 2014.

Well, oddly enough, Rose Macaulay has been on my mind over the past couple of weeks as she was a great friend of Elizabeth Bowen’s, and I have been doing a spot of thinking and writing about Elizabeth Bowen and her relationship to Regent’s Park, where she lived. I have been imagining her walking through the park with Rose Macaulay by her side, perhaps joking about the camels in London Zoo just round the corner.

Can you imagine my surprise when I opened up this little book, published by The Hogarth Press, to get an idea of what Macaulay might have to say about Forster, when I saw this?!

The Writings of EM Forster by Rose Macaulay

It’s too extraordinary, especially given the uncanny echo with last year’s purchase of Forster’s copy of Bowen’s Court. This time it’s Bowen’s copy of Rose Macaulay’s thoughts on Forster. I am rendered speechless as my imagination whirrs with overexcitement.

(On the subject of intriguing dedications, have you come across Wayne’s blog? Should you love it quite as much as I do, might I suggest buying the book of his blog, just out now?)

The other lovely books on which we alighted in Adam’s treasure trove, is this lovely set of Virginia Woolf’s essays. See how prettily they sit on my shelf, beside her diaries.

The Collected Essays of Virginia Woolf

Funny that I was just thinking about her essay ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ a couple of weeks ago, which I had to squint through on-screen. Now, I can have it in my hand, and can browse through her other essays – I do really think she is a fantastic essayist – and pick one or two to read in a spare half-hour. Leafing through, I see that she too has written some thoughts on Forster. I love this on the change from Howards End to A Passage to India:

The house is still the house of the British middle classes. But there is a change from Howards End. Hitherto Mr Forster has been apt to pervade his books like a careful hostess who is anxious to introduce, to explain, to warn her guests of a step here, of a draught there. But here, perhaps in some disillusionment both with his guests and with his house, he seems to have relaxed these cares. We are allowed to ramble over this extraordinary continent almost alone.

I love the thought of Forster as an anxious hostess, always at his reader’s elbow to point things out. It’s a very apt description for his earlier novels, and reminds me a little of Hitchcock’s pointing things out in his films, closing a scene by zooming in on something significant. It is a relief to feel Forster relax a little in A Passage to India, and I suppose it does make you feel more at home in his work – an aspiration for any good hostess.

(Some Emilybooks Forster trivia for you – Howards End is a highly important codeword between the husband and me. I hope it need never be used in your presence. Those who can guess when it might be used and what it might signify … answers on a postcard, or in the comments section below please, and, if correct, you might just get a prize.)

What wonderful books to own! If only I could binge on them all now in a gloriously decadent Bloomsburyish day.  I must, however, stick with The Luminaries if there’s any hope of getting it finished by next week.

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Second-hand book-hunting with Cosybooks

June 12, 2013

 

*********************Introducing the first guest blog ***********************

 

This special spot is a chance for you to meet, or, indeed, reacquaint yourselves with, other talented book bloggers.

The first guest blogger is Cosy Books – a Canadian librarian, who has a penchant for brilliant twentieth-century novels written by women. A taste that I, for one, share. Here she takes you on an illuminating tour of second-hand book buying in Canada.

If you would like to contribute to the Emilybooks guest blog spot then get in touch here.

*********************************************************************************

If you have been following Emily’s blog for a while or landed here via a link from another blog you probably already know that a keen interest in books is a connecting thread.  While my fondness for reading reaches back as far as I can remember a certain group of book bloggers has made it possible for me to achieve an even greater appreciation for the written word.  This camaraderie has also unearthed a side of me which never existed before I carved out my own tiny space in the world of book blogging.  As a circulation clerk at a public library I nearly always borrowed my books but over the past few years I have turned into a book buyer on a mission.  It’s a nice way of saying that accumulating books at a rate faster than I can find space for them has become a pleasurable pastime.  Woeful posts by bloggers surrounded by bursting shelves only serve to reassure me that my guilt about unread books is unwarranted and that my collection is practically inadequate.

Since 2009, my reading has been centred around twentieth century authors such as Elizabeth Bowen, Elizabeth Taylor, E M Delafield, Dorothy Whipple and their contemporaries.  Since I have yet to meet another person in my daily life who has struck up a conversation about any of the aforementioned authors you can imagine how rare it can be to find their books in nearby shops.  This makes the hunt more challenging than if I were spending the day on Charing Cross Road, but not impossible.

Little Boy LostSo where have I found some of my favourite treasures, you might ask?  The best place for turn-over is called BMV Books.  They have a few locations in Toronto with my favourite being on Bloor Street.  Each day there are green plastic book bins dotting the floor waiting to be unpacked and shelved.  There is no catalogue so if you’re looking for something specific you have to be willing to dig for it.  The books are mostly used but in excellent condition. BMV also get batches of books sold back to them from local university students so you get an idea of what has been on offer in the English courses that term.  I was thrilled one day to spot the orange Penguin edition of Marghanita Laski’s Little Boy Lost, pushed back a bit further than the other books and for the pittance of only two dollars.  The Persephone edition was already on my shelves but that image of the little boy on the cover has always haunted me so I just had to bring it home.

The Tortoise and the HareAnother interesting place, albeit filthy, for some outstanding older clothbound books has been our local Reuse Centre.  Picture a massive warehouse full of the contents of your grandparents’ attic or garage sale rejects.  It’s an intriguing mix of dump run/nostalgia tour.  The lighting is horrible, my contact lenses go dry and you can taste the dust but it’s where I found a gorgeous black Virago edition of Elizabeth Jenkins’ The Tortoise and the Hare.  The cover design features a young lady wearing the most stunning pair of red tights and I’ve never seen another copy like it.  The funny thing is that it was discarded from the library where I work but it must have been ages ago.  A couple of years ago I brought home a first edition copy of New Bond Story by Norman Collins as well as a first edition of Flowers on the Grass by Monica Dickens for the same price.  Books such as these are housed separately from the paperbacks but the room resembles something more akin to a hallway at five metres long and barely wider than my shoulders and I’m not very big!  Bending is done very carefully and usually sideways!

The Way Things AreAnother place I loved to visit was called Nostalgia Books in Port Credit.  Nestled at the end of a long high street and a bit past the bridge over the harbour it was a nice destination when I had the day off from work.  The owner, David, was passionate about books (of course) but he also enjoyed people.  When he discovered my daughter had chosen to do a minor in English Literature he asked if I could keep him updated on her reading lists just for interest’s sake.  This shop was where I found my first green Virago, The Way Things Are by E M Delafield, and I beamed all the way home.  Last month my husband and I took a drive out to the shop but were saddened to find brown paper covering the windows and no sign of life.

For an anglophile living in the land of maple syrup and moose (I’ve only seen one that’s been stuffed but I’m going for effect) there can be no greater book hunting expedition than in England.  I could spend ages browsing along Charing Cross Road or the Southbank book market, admiring the faded spines and drinking in the aroma of aged chimney smoke you sometimes find emanating from the pages.  I can hardly believe it has been almost two years ago since I met up with my friends from Book Snob, Stuck in a Book and Mrs Miniver’s Daughter for a bit of second-hand book shopping while I was on holiday.  Mary was dreading a case of tug-of-war should we both spy a prize at the same time.  There was no need to worry though as they were more than helpful in handing over all sorts of titles they thought I would enjoy.  The charity shops in Canterbury where my daughter did her MA were oh so tempting but those dreaded luggage allowances are always at the back of my mind.

Look at all Those RosesRegardless of where my books have come from I never fail to get a tiny thrill from the signature of a previous owner along with a date.  My favourite inscription is in the front of a first American edition of Look at All Those Roses, a short story collection by Elizabeth Bowen published in 1941.  I have Rachel (Book Snob) to thank for this one.  It reads:

For Scott Merrill from John Butler in affection –

Elizabeth Bowen’s wisdom

May 1944

A story within a collection of stories but one which will have to remain a mystery.

Emilybooks of the year

December 19, 2012

Looking back on the year, I see that I’ve developed a strange habit of reading in threes. There have been three Elizabeths, three lives, three children’s books, three of all sorts of things. Strange indeed.

So here are my favourites of the books that I’ve read over the past year, clumped, conveniently, into threes.

The Walking Book Club at Port Eliot

3 Elizabeths

I began the year reading Elizabeth Bowen’s intensely atmospheric wartime novel The Heat of the Day which set me up for a year of Elizabeths. Start as you mean to go on, I suppose. Well I went on to read Bowen’s The House in Paris, an entrancing, bewitching novel, which made a whole afternoon disappear. Best of all, it was a year in which I was given a very special edition of Bowen’s Court – EM Forster’s copy no less.

I loved Elizabeth Taylor’s Angel, a novel which every aspiring writer must read not just because it describes so brilliantly different moments of writing – the strange feverish stuffiness of writing non-stop, and the anti-climax of finishing, for instance – but because it will make you laugh hopelessly at yourself, at the sheer vanity of being a writer. We also had a splendid Walking Book Club discussing Taylor’s poignant novel about getting old, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, for which we enjoyed the illustrious company of Clare Balding. You’ll be able to listen to it on Radio 4’s Ramblings in February… watch this space!

The third Elizabeth of the year was Elizabeth Jenkins. The Tortoise and the Hare had me in tears, and Harriet had me in a nightmare. Both are utterly compelling, hellish portrayals of marriage – the first is a heartbreaking portrayal of its death throes, and the second is about a situation so horrific, it’s hard to believe that it was based on a true murder case.

3 houses

My novel, as those of you who read last week’s post will know, is centred on a house and the stories that lie within it. As a result, I have grown quite addicted to books with houses at their centre. I’ve already mentioned Elizabeth Bowen – her Bowen’s Court really is a great portrait of a house.

Rebecca is one of my all time favourite house novels. From that memorable first line, ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again,’ the house threatens to overwhelm the new Mrs de Winter. The most memorable moments of the novel are firmly rooted in the house – when she comes down the stairs for the ball, looking like the ghost of Rebecca, or when Mrs Danvers nearly makes her throw herself out of Rebecca’s old bedroom window. This was one of the books we discussed when I took the Walking Book Club to the splendid Port Eliot festival, not so far from Menabilly – the inspiration for du Maurier’s Manderley. I’ve read this novel so many times now, and each time find it utterly gripping, thoroughly brilliant. Perhaps I should allow myself one du Maurier a year.

But my house of the year has to go to the ‘convenient little house’ in Hampstead, which is the focus of Vita Sackville West’s All Passion Spent. Lady Slane’s husband, a great statesman, has just died when we meet her. She defies her foul children, who want to parcel her off between them, and retires to a pretty Hampstead house that she last saw thirty years ago. This perfect, slim novel, a fictional counterpart to Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, is beautifully written, and I especially enjoyed the way Sackville-West’s love of gardening – as attested to by the magnificent gardens at Sissinghurst – periodically surfaces, when she can’t resist arranging a few flowers here, or a ripened peach there.

3 lives

The best non-fiction I’ve read this year has been about the lives of people. The strongest presence has been the poet, Edward Thomas. I read Matthew Hollis’s biography of him, Now All Roads Lead To France – a fantastic book, which managed to turn his rather quiet life into a series of cliffhangers. There was also Robert Macfarlane’s majestic The Old Ways, in which this literary lover of landscapes wrote about journeying on remarkable old paths, haunted by Edward Thomas who was a great walker as well as a great writer. And there was Nick Dear’s powerful play at the Almeida. My favourite Edward Thomas moment of the year was walking with some friends around (the aptly named) Steep, where Thomas lived, and up Shoulder of Mutton hill. It was very special to feel we were walking in his footsteps. Towards the end, we sprawled across a leafy glade and read out some of his poems, accompanied only by birdsong, the wind in the trees, and our steady chomping of Percy Pigs.

I loved reading Penelope Fitzgerald’s letters – a wonderful thick collection, which was a steady and inspiring companion for many months. And now I am reading West with the Night by Beryl Markham, who became my new heroine by about page five. She tells of her childhood in what was then British East Africa, a childhood which included such instances as hunting warthogs with local tribesmen and being mauled by a lion. She grew up to breed and train racehorses, and then became a freelance pilot. This is an extraordinary memoir, bristling with the spirit of adventure, full of the romance of a lost way of life, and somehow Markham has combined a great lyricism with edge-of-your-seat thrilling tension.

3 new novels

Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home seemed to lodge in me like a shard of glass, painful, unforgettable and darkly beautiful. Susie Boyt’s The Small Hours was a peculiar and powerful novel. It is about a strange, larger-than-life woman who decides to open a nursery school. It soon transpires that her own childhood has been difficult, to say the least. I suppose it’s what you might expect from Freud’s great-granddaughter. Emily Perkins’ The Forrests follows a family over several decades. What really stood out about it was the quality of the writing, richly detailed, making every mundane moment sing like a poem.

3 children’s books

Like everyone else I read The Hunger Games, and I loved it. It was alarmingly addictive – I have friends who began reading it one evening and had to take the next day off work, as they had to stay up all night to finish it. Cynics dismiss it as a horrid teen novel about children killing each other, but I found it thick with ideas – about CCTV, celebrity culture, society and more.

I reread The Wind in the Willows, which was truly joyful, and even inspired a walk along the Thames, for which we strove to bring all the ingredients in Ratty’s notorious picnic:

coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrenchrollscresssandwidges

pottedmeatgingerbeerlemonadesodawater

And I reread A Wizard of Earthsea, an exciting quest about the battle of good versus evil, and – interestingly – the importance of language.

3 of everything else

There were of course other brilliant Emilybooks of the year, which don’t fit into these clumps of threes so neatly – Dorothy Whipple, Patti Smith, and it was certainly a year of Ali Smith, whose new book Artful – not quite a novel, not quite a collection of essays, is something entirely new and mind-poppingly impressive. It was a year of many great ladies, and, lest I forget, a few great men, (like the aforementioned Edward Thomas, Lewis Grassic Gibbon and L.P. Hartley). It has been a year of feeling terrifically happy that there are so many wonderful books to read.

Thank you for accompanying me through a wonderful year of reading. Now I have only to wish you a happy and book-filled Christmas and New Year. Emilybooks will be back in January.

The Next Big Thing Meme

December 12, 2012

The splendid novelist Anna Stothard has tagged me in ‘the Next Big Thing meme’, which means this week you get a bonus blog post from me. It’s a chance to tell you a little bit about my novel, which, let’s hope, will be the Next Big Thing.

What is the title of your next book?

A London House … I think.

What genre does your book fall under?

Fiction. Most of it is set in the present day, but there are also some historical chapters.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

I’m afraid I just don’t know for most of my characters, but I would love Bill Nighy to play Roger, an eccentric old man who lives on a houseboat. Anna, the main character, is trickier. Perhaps Romola Garai, who seems to have a habit of playing the main part in film adaptations of many of my favourite books.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

One night, two girls break into a derelict house, where the air is thick with stories of the people who have lived there in the past.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Perhaps it’s morbid, but I absolutely love buildings in various states of decay. I love to imagine them in their former glory, and wonder who might once have looked out of the broken windows, or trod on the rotting floorboards.

A couple of years ago, bulldozers were hard at work on a big school near where I live. There was a stage in its demolition when the whole back wall of the building had been taken off, so that you could see into each of the different classrooms and each one was painted a different colour. It was like looking into a box of paints, an image which really tugged at me. I began to imagine pulling off the walls of other houses, looking into all their rooms, painted and wallpapered in different colours and designs. It made me think about the marks and impressions people make on their houses by living in them, and how many stories lie hidden there in the smallest things.

Several books have helped to inspire me with my one – here are a few of them:

Inspiring books

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

My agent is Andrew Kidd at Aitken Alexander.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

Just over a year and a half.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Hitchcock and Picasso both have cameo roles.

Now it’s my turn to tag – too thrilling! Wayne Gooderham – journalist, blogger, collector of second-hand books and curator of an exhibition of book dedications now on at Foyles, and Samantha Ellis – playwright, blogger and writer of a fascinating-sounding book about literary heroines, consider yourself the next bearers of the meme.

Birthday books

November 12, 2012

As you’ll have seen from last week’s post, Thursday 8th November was my birthday. I suspect that you won’t be surprised to hear that I was given a few books as presents. They are all rather special – and one is little short of a miracle.

First, my friend Sophie – evidently inspired by my endless stories of strange things that happen in the bookshop – bought me this funny little book Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops by Jen Campbell. It is packed with all sorts of silly lines:

‘Is this book edible?’

‘Do you have any books in this shade of green, to match the wrapping paper I’ve bought?’

‘Hi, I just wanted to ask: did Anne Frank ever write a sequel?’

This exchange is particularly familiar:

Customer: You don’t have a very good selection of books.

Bookseller: We’ve got over ten thousand books.

Customer: Well, you don’t have the book I’ve written!

I still can’t get over quite how many strange things happen in the bookshop. At least once a week, I have an extraordinary encounter. You might remember the time when we chased the notorious Mr Men thief – an old lady who actually had a real get-away car and driver waiting for her outside. Just last week a strange man came in asking for books about herbs and then told me I had the face of an angel. ‘It’s your Grandfather’s face,’ he said, to which I replied that my Grandfather didn’t look particularly angelic.

It is truly an extraordinarily weird place to work, yielding one bizarre encounter after another. But it’s surprisingly tricky to convey the oddness of it to friends. Those exchanges – so loopy when they happen – lose something in translation, fall a little bit flat, and I’m usually left with a yawning husband trying to change the subject, while I wonder how I can be a writer and such a terrible story-teller. One day, I will sit down and write a book about it, and maybe then, I’ll manage to convey something of its strangeness. For now, at least I can comfort myself with this record of other booksellers’ similarly peculiar encounters – thank-you Sophie!

My aunt-in-law (probably the wrong technical term) gave me a very handsome Everyman edition of Doctor Thorne by Trollope. This was particularly good timing as I have been longing to get stuck into a big thick engrossing novel, rather than all these slim ones to which I seem to have grown addicted. Added to which, a friend just got back from her honeymoon and said that one of the best bits was reading so much Trollope. Praise indeed! I must read some, I thought to myself, as I’m ashamed to say I’ve not read any Trollope at all. No excuses now, I can’t wait to begin.

My mother-in-law gave me a beautiful exhibition catalogue of Sylvia Plath’s drawings. I hadn’t realised that Plath was an artist as well as a poet, and it’s fascinating to look at these intricate, beautiful drawings. There seems to be a honeymoon theme amongst these birthday books, as many of Plath’s drawings date from her honeymoon with Ted Hughes, in Paris and then Spain. They are mostly of things – pots and fruit, stoves, bottles, a few of buildings – roof tops, a ‘colourful’ kiosk, and not many of people.

I remember studying Plath’s poetry when I was at school, I think it must have been for GCSE. Bits of them have stayed resolutely with me, which is surprising as I have a terrible memory for specific quotations and am usually much better at  hanging on to the gist of things, while the actual words are forgotten.

Not so with Plath: I still have ‘Love set you going like a fat gold watch’, and the ‘bald cry’ of the child, mouth ‘clean as a cat’, ‘vowels rising’ from ‘Morning Song’. I remember ‘the swarmy feeling of African hands’, and the horrid idea of a coffin ‘of a midget, /Or a square baby’ in ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’. Most of all, I remember her poem ‘Mushrooms’ – ‘nudgers and shovers / In spite of ourselves’ – the threatening feeling of which freaked me out so much that I’ve struggled to eat our fungal friends ever since. Now I think of it, I suppose that like her drawings, her poetry is often full of things, rather than people. As Carol Ann Duffy, who has just brought together a selection of Plath’s poetry in another very beautiful book, wrote for the Guardian recently:

A vocational poet like Plath gives life back to us in glittering language – life with great suffering, yes, but also with melons, spinach, figs, children and countryside, moles, bees, snakes, tulips, kitchens and friendships.

Children and friendship are almost lost amongst the melons, spinach, figs, moles, bees and all those other things.

I’ve saved the miracle for last.

My mother very sweetly and thoughtfully told me that she’d like to buy me a special book – a first edition of something I loved – and suggested that it could be repeated every year, so she could help me to build up a library. (You might remember that she gave me this beautiful set of Virginia Woolf letters and diaries for my twenty-first.) So off we trotted to Peter Harrington, a fine antiquarian bookshop in Chelsea.

We went upstairs to the twentieth-century literature section where I let my eyes drift slowly across the very tall bookcases, packed with tantalisingly old and special-looking books. I stopped towards the end of the Bs, when I saw Bowen’s Court by Elizabeth Bowen. I’ve not read many books by Elizabeth Bowen, but those I have, I  adored. (I wrote about Bowen’s Court itself here, The Heat of the Day here, and The House in Paris here.) I asked the bookseller if he had any other books by Elizabeth Bowen, thinking that this might be a chance to get a special edition of one of her books that I had yet to read.

The bookseller leapt off his antique chair and bounded over to the bookcase. ‘That Elizabeth Bowen’s a great book,’ he said.

‘I know,’ I replied, ‘I’ve read it.’ I felt a little smug, for not many people have read Bowen’s Court, an idiosyncratic history of her ancestral home, Anglo-Irish family and Ireland itself, which is now out-of-print.

‘Look.’ He fished it down from the shelf and opened it up.

My eyes nearly dropped out of their sockets. There on the first page was this:

I realised then that when the bookseller had said it was a great book, he wasn’t talking about the writing, but the actual thing itself. This was a great book indeed.

I picked it up and held it, feeling the book weigh heavy in my hands. I told myself that I was holding a book that E.M. Forster had held. This was the actual book that Elizabeth Bowen had given to E.M. Forster. They had both held it, one after the other. I wondered if she had posted it to him, inscribing it, wrapping it up and taking it to he post office to send. Or perhaps she had given it to a mutual friend, who she knew would be seeing him soon. Or perhaps she gave it to him herself, when she went round there for tea one day. ‘Morgan, I do hope you like my new book,’ she might have said, over a slice of cake. There is a whole story here in this book aside from the one written in its pages. This story is nearly invisible, its traces remaining in that pencil inscription and in where it might fall open more easily (pages 62-3, 98-9, 222-223), or where there are liver spots of moisture (page 83), even a corner a little bent (229).

I read Bowen’s Court after I came across it in Alexandra Harris’ wonderful book Romantic Moderns. I thought it would be useful research for my own novel, which is about the stories held in a derelict house, and added it to my list of ‘house books’ – books in which houses have a real presence, along with those like Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Judith Flanders’ The Victorian House and E.M. Forster’s Howards End.

When it came to writing my novel, there were three quotations from all my house reading that I found particularly inspiring and which I decided to use as epigraphs. The first is from Howards End by Forster:

Houses have their own ways of dying, falling as variously as the generations of men, some with a tragic roar, some quietly but to an afterlife in the city of ghosts.

The second is from Bowen’s Court:

With the end of each generation, the lives that submerged here were absorbed again. With each death, the air of the place had thickened: it had been added to. The dead do not need to visit Bowen’s Court rooms – as I said, we had no ghosts in that house – because they already permeated them. Their extinct senses were present in lights and forms.

So you see, to have chanced upon Forster’s copy of Bowen’s Court, so soon after finishing the first draft of my novel, felt like a miracle.

I can’t wait to read all these books – to giggle at other booksellers’ weird encounters, to become thoroughly absorbed in a huge dollop of Trollope, to gaze at these drawings of objects that inspired such a poet, and to hold Bowen’s Court in my hands, gently turning the pages while thinking of Forster doing the very same thing in June 1942.

The House in Paris

June 18, 2012

I’ve just finished my third book by Elizabeth Bowen and really she is a brilliant writer. She’s very good at creating a bewitching, utterly engrossing atmosphere that sucks you in and makes it quite difficult to climb out and get back into the real world. I mentioned (here) that when I read Bowen’s The Heat of the Day, it held me so spellbound as I read it lying in my carriage on the sleeper train up to Inverness, that I didn’t realise we’d arrived and very nearly didn’t get off the train. The stewardess looked bewildered when she opened the carriage door to give it a cursory look and found me lying there in my pyjamas, my head stuck in London in the Blitz. ‘We’ve been here quarter of an hour already,’ she said as though I were raving mad. I suppose, maybe I was a bit.

A similar thing happened with The House in Paris. Last week, I sat down to read it for half an hour one afternoon after lunch, and before I knew it, it was gone five and I’d nearly finished it. My flat had almost disintegrated; its whole quiet world with the hum of the washing machine and occasional ping of my phone completely faded out and I was there stuck in the book, caught up in its deeply mysterious feeling so that time really had disappeared along with everything else.

I began The House in Paris thinking that it would be a little like What Maisie Knew by Henry James, or, indeed the lower-brow Atonement by Ian McEwan. This is because it starts off being told through the eyes of Henrietta, an eleven-year-old girl who is suddenly in the middle of a very adult situation. I love books like this. I even began trying to write one while I was at university – although I didn’t get that far.

Children of that age are still childish, yet they have a loose, overheard grasp on adult issues, enough to ape an adult understanding of things, which makes them seem terribly precocious, when of course they don’t actually understand the darker subtext of a situation. This combination of childish naivete and pretence at being grown-up, when placed in a truly complicated, adult situation of lies and secrets, with adults dashing about trying to make everything seem fine, makes for a fascinating consciousness to use as a filter.

So eleven-year-old Henrietta arrives in Paris, ‘one dark greasy February morning before the shutters were down’. She is collected from the Gare du Nord by a mysterious Miss Fisher who is to look after her for the day before taking her to catch the evening train down to the South of France where she is to stay with her grandmother. She learns in the taxi of another two mysterious characters, who will also be at the house in Paris: Leopold, a little boy who’s come from Italy, but is not Italian, who is there ‘for family reasons; he has someone to meet’ and Miss Fisher’s mother, who is very ill.

Miss Fisher is tense and responds to Henrietta’s questions by telling her far too much. Bowen reflects:

One of her troubles was, quite clearly, being unaccustomed to children. Henrietta had the advantage of her, for, as almost an only child – she had one married sister – she was only too well accustomed to grown-ups.

Henrietta gets to the house and meets Leopold, who is definitely a strange child. We see him first through Henrietta’s eyes:

He wore a bunchy stiff dark blue sailor blouse, blue knickerbockers and rather ugly black socks.

But here’s where it all becomes quite unexpected. For having been in Henrietta’s head for chapter one, chapter two puts us inside Leopold’s:

Henrietta, composedly sitting up on the sofa, pushing the curved comb back, made Leopold think of a little girl he had once seen in a lithograph, bowling a hoop in the park with her hair tied on the top of her head in an old-fashioned way.

It’s surprising, clever, and makes one draw a sharp intake of breath. It thickens things. It makes one wonder, what will happen next.

Well gosh I could go on and on about this book forever, but to spare all of us, I better speed things up a bit. Essentially the first part of the novel is about these two children, in this very adult sinister house in Paris. They, of course, completely disobey the adults, learn far too much, but don’t understand quite everything. An uneasy but very special bond is formed between them.

Then we get to part two, where another strange thing happens in the narrative. Bowen explains why Leopold’s mother, at the last minute, doesn’t come to meet him (for that is the reason for his being in Paris). She says:

Actually, the meeting he had projected could take place only in Heaven – call it Heaven; on the plane of potential not merely likely behaviour. Or call it art, with truth and imagination informing every word. Only there – in heaven or art, in that nowhere, on that plane – could Karen have told Leopold what had really been.

Bowen is saying that the whole premise of the first part couldn’t actually happen. As far as authorial asides go, this is pretty far out. And then it gets stranger yet:

This is, in effect, what she would have had to say.

The rest of the second part, which is around half the book, is the story of Karen, Leopold’s mother, and how Leopold came into the world.

It is a bizarre way of bridging the two stories, it feels perhaps clumsy, too obviously seamed, but somehow it works. And it was Karen’s story with which I sat down on the sofa and got completely wrapped up in for hours.

I think I shouldn’t give anything else away about the plot, but I will just mention one more thing that Bowen does very well: seedy meetings in ghastly restaurants.

One of the most memorable bits in The Heat of the Day is when Harrison makes Stella have dinner with him. He takes her to a fantastically hideous place, down some stairs into:

a bar or grill which had no air of having existed before tonight. She stared first at a row of backviews of eaters perched, packed elbow-to-elbow, along a counter. A zip fastener all the way down one back made one woman seem to have a tin spine. A dye-green lettuce leaf had fallen on to the mottled rubber floor; a man in a pin-stripe suit was enough in profile to show a smudge of face powder on one shoulder … The phenomenon was the lighting, more powerful even than could be accounted for by the bald white globes screwed aching to the low white ceiling – there survived in here not one shadow: every one had been ferreted out and killed.

It sounds just dreadful. A dodgy, horrid, underground place. They go on to have a terrible, tense, fateful confrontation of a conversation. And the setting, with its grimness, lends the whole thing an air of being unnatural, forced, not at all right.

In The House in Paris, there is another illicit meal in a restaurant. This restaurant is French and rather nicer, but there is still something hideously oppressive about it. It is lunchtime and blazing hot sunshine outside, but going in:

was so suddenly dark – and so suddenly chilly, making her cup her bare elbows in her hands … [he] read down his menu Napoleonically, and she looked at her menu blotty with mauve ink … Karen looked at a vase of roses on a middle table, then round the restaurant, with its embossed brown wallpaper, in which they were shut up with what Mme Fisher said.

These meals in these restaurants are acutely uncomfortable to read. The feeling of claustrophobia and oppression is remarkable. There is the clash of an intensely private meeting taking place in the public sphere, the smash of the outside against the inside.

In each situation, it’s the woman who feel this oppression rather than the man, who remains quite comfortable, even ‘Napoleonic’. The woman feels the outside world pressing in on her, strangling her private affair. Perhaps Bowen is iterating a woman’s need for her own private space – somewhere she can exist privately without the press of the outside. Just a few years earlier, Woolf had phrased it so famously as a woman’s need for ‘A Room of One’s Own’.

What Bowen does so well with her writing is create a fictional room of one’s own. Her books are so overpowering in atmosphere that they utterly succeed in taking you out of whatever real space you happen to be in and putting you inside this other space, which exists just for you and the characters of the book. Reading one of her books – even in the seediest of restaurants – one is safely transported to a private imaginary and immersive space. I, rather greedily, long for a whole fictional house made up of Bowen’s intensely atmospheric rooms. I can’t wait to read the next.

Reading in South Africa

January 23, 2012

Gosh it has been such a long time since my last post. I do hope it’s not too late to wish the dear and forgiving reader a Happy New Year.

My excuse – perhaps a little feeble – is that I’ve been on holiday. On my honeymoon, in fact. So I thought it fair enough to have a little break. And before that our roof and car broke. And before that it was Christmas … and … ummm … the dog ate it.

I have not, however, had a break from reading.

Christmas was a spent grazing on some of Stella Gibbons’s short stories, winningly republished by Vintage as Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm. Perfect for the Reading-Gassing Challenge. And I read Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson, which was utterly delightful and spurred a New Year’s Resolution to read more children’s books.

Indeed, I wrote rather an irreverent piece for the Spectator about New Year’s Reading Resolutions – which you can read here. One of my suggestions was to read geographically, which I expect many of you know is a firm belief of mine. So it’s a great shame that I didn’t follow my own advice when it came to picking books for my honeymoon in South Africa.

I had been reading The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen over New Year.

It is a magnificent book, about a love affair in wartime London. Ever since I so enjoyed Elizabeth Bowen’s book about her family home in Ireland, Bowen’s Court (see this piece here), I longed to read more, and I thought that Christmas was a good time for such a treat.

I won’t go on about Bowen too much – as otherwise I’ll never get up to the South Africa bit of this post, which is what it’s supposed to be about. I should quickly warn you that it’s a bit of a tricky book to get into. It’s full of long sentences with clauses that seem to come in rather a peculiar order:

She had left a lamp alight on the stool beside him: the watery circle on the ceiling seemed for the moment to swell or tremble – so earthquake stories begin; but this could be only London giving one of her sleepy galvanic shudders, of which an echo ran through his relaxed limbs.

It’s a beautiful sentence which makes perfect sense, but wow does it meander along. And the language and inflection does seem curiously dated, sounding less natural now than it might have in the forties.

But I loved it. There are two passages in particular that are some of the best writing I’ve read anywhere. In fact, I reached the first one on the sleeper train up to Inverness just before New Year’s Eve. I lay in my bunk reading it in a sort of dream, absolutely spellbound. It was only when the steward came in, looked shocked to see me still there and told me we’d been at the station for the past fifteen minutes, that I realised it really was something else!

As far as books go, I was still in that sleepy, holidaying, Christmassy mode when it came to choosing what to read during my honeymoon in South Africa. That first week of January was quite dreadful for me. Everything in London went horribly wrong and our car broke and the balcony was leaking and we had to do all sorts of exhausting things like rip up decking and lug trees around and phone up insurance companies, so I momentarily stopped reading anything whatsoever – there wasn’t a spare moment to read anything other than terrifying To Do lists.

So, although I eyed up a couple of Damon Galguts and Coetzees, I simply didn’t want to buy them. I still yearned for the indulgent reads of Christmas – the pleasure of reading sure-fire hits, books that I knew I’d love and had been longing to read for ages. Which is why I ignored the geographical rule…

I packed Matthew Hollis’s biography of Edward Thomas, which I suspect will win the Costa Prize tomorrow. (Some of you might remember my lusting after the hardback, which prompted my reading Hollis’s new edition of Thomas’s poetry, written about here.) I also took along New Finnish Grammar, which turned up rather fortuitously in my stocking, and, finally, Maurice by Forster, as I’ve wanted to read it ever since getting drunk one night at university and somebody telling me it was one of the best books he’d ever read. I do love E.M. Forster.

In short, I was a nincompoop.

Of course I got to South Africa and found the experience of reading Elizabeth Bowen on safari far too strange. How could I spend from 5am to 9am being driven around, looking at lions and giraffe and other amazing creatures in the boiling beauty of the Kalahari desert, only to return to the room and read about London being bombed? Well I managed it, but it was such a shame to force this disconnect between the different worlds. Rather than them enhancing each other, I had to enjoy them as separate things, each one an escape from the other. I’d much rather have read it in London, where I am 99% of the time.

After our amazing few days on safari – how I could go on about the giraffe in particular, but I shall spare you – we went to Cape Town. On finishing Elizabeth Bowen, I discovered that I had no desire whatsoever to read anything I’d packed. I wanted to learn more about South Africa. I was there and so of course wanted to try and make sense of it. I wanted to read about the big things like their very troubled history and about the little things like people making ‘brais’ all the time (barbecues – they’re obsessed). I knew that I couldn’t let my brain be taken over by Edward Thomas, E.M. Forster or anyone else who wasn’t South African, while I was there.

So I found myself in the idiotic situation of needing to find a bookshop as soon as possible. Talk about a busman’s holiday.

But we found a very nice bookshop, had a good little browse, and in the end I settled for a newish memoir by André Brink, A Fork in the Road. Gosh I was cross that I hadn’t bought it from my own bookshop!

To be completely honest, I don’t think it was the best choice. It was definitely quite good. And I was pleased to read it out there. Having just seen springboks bounding through the desert, I could immediately identify the one on the cover.

It was particularly interesting to read about Brink’s childhood, growing up in a small village, and learning about the unquestioned separation of the whites from the blacks – even when they played together as children:

As the daylight faded, we would disperse and go to our different homes: we, the white boys, to the sprawling homestead of the farmer, the black boys to their huts and hovels. This was never discussed. It didn’t even occur to us to do so. It was how the world functioned, according to the same immutable laws that governed the rising or setting of sun and moon…

Brink writes very well about fear. He uses the striking image of his childhood fear of there being a black man under the bed to crystallise a major issue for the country. (Please somebody write a thesis about the black man under the bed compared to the madwoman in the attic.) He also writes well about there being so much violence:

Somewhere in the background there always lurks something vaguely sinister or overtly menacing, something violent, something inexplicable. A sense of sin and menace without which no village could survive.

The instances of violence from his childhood are shocking and appallingly well-rendered, haunting stories that mean I’ll never forget the ‘blood-streaked face’ and the ‘dull smacking sound of those blows’.

On the back cover, the Literary Review is quoted saying that Brink is ‘at his considerable best’ in ‘the first sixty pages of his autobiography’. And I’m inclined to agree – the first sixty pages really are stunningly good. And there are some more good bits later. His account of being followed by the Special Branch police force during the seventies, when Apartheid rule was at its peak, is chilling to say the least.

But there are also endless digressions about all the women he’s loved. Ingrid, H, Alta, Karina … one beautiful poetic tragic nymph is lined up after another, which I’m afraid left me feeling bored and a little nauseous. And there’s rather a lot of Brink placing himself at the centre of a literary and artistic scene, which at its worst feels like long chunks of name-dropping.

And – dare I say it? In my exceedingly humble opinion, I thought there were quite a few passages that were very pretentious. They are mostly while he’s off gallivanting around Europe. For instance, there’s a terrible bit about  seeing some Picassos at the Tate:

… a spiritual tsunami. Never before this day had I fully realised that the impact of Picasso was comparable to that of Michelangelo, or Rembrandt, or Beethoven.

That kind of writing is just not my cup of tea. I kept wanting to shout: ‘Shut up and get back to South Africa and write about how it was growing up and being a liberal writer under the Apartheid regime!’ Because those bits really are good. Oh well, as one would say in South Africa, ‘shame’.

Well I now have a rather pleasing South African hangover in the form of The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut and Black Diamond by Zakes Mda. Now they are sitting by my bed in London, next to the as-yet-unread Matthew Hollis, E.M. Forster and Diego Marani, newly-plucked from my suitcase, and a few others that have been jostling for my attention at the end of last year. And, I have to say, it feels pleasantly exciting to know there’s a stack of good books to keep me going through the winter. I feel a little like a squirrel with a stash of hazelnuts. The only tricky thing is choosing which to read first.

EmilyBooks of the Year

December 19, 2011

Here, for your delectation, are my favourite books of the year. That is, books that I read over the past year, rather than books that were published over the past year. It must be strange and exhausting to read only the newest of books. I have to admit that I find those ‘books of the year’ lists that one reads in the newspapers at this time of year a bit dull. Lists are only really interesting when one understands the rationale behind the selections. So this is less of a listy-list (listless, ha!) and more of a chatty, discursive one.

Looking back, I suppose this year’s reading has been dominated by old women. This was my year of Jane Gardam – first The Man in the Wooden Hat, then Old Filth, then (again) – to calm pre-wedding jangles – A Long Way from Verona. And to keep Jane Gardam company, there was also Diana Athill’s Instead of a Letter and Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. All brilliant books. All written with elegance and subtlety and quite brilliant matter-of-fact wit. Some of these had a certain ‘coming-of-age’ element, which I inevitably find irresistible. For that very reason, other books of the year were Monica Dickens’ sublime Mariana and Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle – both of which can happily be described as ‘hot-water-bottle fiction’, i.e. blissfully comforting and snug. They would probably make it on to my desert island books.

It’s also been a year of reading rather a lot about houses, thanks to the novel I’m writing about a derelict house. Particularly good books, in which houses feature rather prominently, have been (as well as the already mentioned Mariana) Bowen’s Court, Howards End, The Small Hanand Rebecca. Bowen’s Court is written in such a unique voice, and is rather long, and I read it rather concentratedly (often in the bath) that by the end I felt like I’d made a new friend. It helped that Elizabeth Bowen had told me so much about her family and her own personal history during the course of her book. I long to read more by her and often think back to that very great voice booming through my head in the echoey bathroom and wish I could listen to it some more. I suspect I might revisit her in my Christmas reading.

Howards End was every bit as brilliant as I expected it to be. I really do think that Forster is one of the very best writers. Although that’s a terribly unfashionable opinion to hold. And Rebecca. Well I suppose Rebecca, like Mariana, combined a house book with a coming-of-age story. Winning combination as far as I’m concerned. Someone famously said of it that it’s the only book where the murderer gets away with it. That throws a rather alarming light on it.

The other classics that I’ve really adored this year have been Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig and a newly-published collection of Edward Thomas’s poetry. I’d been longing to read Beware of Pity ever since I read and loved Zweig’s autobiography The World of Yesterday a year or so ago. Beware of Pity is intensely psychological, a bit like Crime and Punishment, and is written so breathlessly that there aren’t even any proper chapter-breaks. It really is almost impossible to put down. Oddly enough, I read it soon after reading Crash by J.G. Ballard and tried to draw some comparisons between these two books about crippled people, but ended up just feeling bemused that the books could both revolve around the same thing but be so irreconcilably different. It was a joy to return to Adlestrop with Edward Thomas’s Selected Poems. Nature poet extraordinaire. I should also like to add in here by first encounter with Gavin Maxwell in The Ring of Bright Water, which was the perfect thing to read in the Outer Hebrides – a funny, eccentric book about living with an otter in Scotland. Although the best bit isn’t actually in Scotland, it’s when he’s trying to take his otter home on an aeroplane and the otter causes utter farcical delightful chaos.

But enough of all this old stuff, I have read some new things too. And actually some of them were quite cutting edge and very very good. They made me feel tinglingly excited about writing today. Ali Smith’s There but for the is a delightful riff of a book, jumping from pun to pun to pun, all within bigger meta-puns. It’s very clever but also very enjoyable. A playful love of language radiates from the book, which makes it hard to resist. Landfall by Helen Gordon was very good too, seeming to be quite a normal sort of book and then suddenly swerving into something quite extraordinary.

But – best of all – is A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, which I’ve just finished reading. This book has been so ridiculously over-hyped that I almost felt I knew so much about it just from everyone going on and on about it that I couldn’t quite be bothered to read it myself. But oh my god what an absolutely genius, brilliant book. It is written with such verve, so sharp, so funny – yet also quietly sad. It’s a book which screams NEW YORK at you. It is New York. Essentially, Egan looks at a group of characters who work in the music industry. Each chapter takes one of the characters at a certain time (jumping back several decades hopping forward into the future and stopping off at moments in between) and captures various moments in their lives. I loved it and could go on about it for hours, but shall limit myself here to one particular aspect that I found to be fascinating and brilliantly-realised: the future. There are two chapters set in the future. The first one is written in power-point slides, as though, by then, this is how people communicate. Lawns are a dream of the past, as you have to have loads of carbon credits to get them now, and there is a strange alien solar plant which also harvests moonlight. The other chapter sees the very clever invention of ‘pointers’ – toddlers who ‘point’ at what they want on people’s ubiquitous ‘handsets’ and thereby determine powerful trends. So, for instance, several bands have brought out songs to appeal to ‘pointers’, because the children literally ‘point’ at the handset to download it and the sales shoot through the roof. Having endured several nauseating conversations by yummy mummys in the bookshop about how ‘Little Rupert and Milly’ are so intuitive with their iPhones, this felt like an alarmingly plausible vision for the near-future. It is WEIRD how tiny children take to iPhones and iPads so easily and intuitively. How weird to think that this could be such a strong connection that it could essentially make them the ultimate consumer.

I shall end, appropriately, with Julian Barnes’ A Sense of an Ending. I expect, as it won the Booker, you’ve probably read lots about it already. It is very clever, very addictive and it’s likely that, as soon as you finish it (which will be soon after you start, as it is slim and so unputdownable), you will want to start again to try and figure it out. The cold, sparse way in which it’s written didn’t bother me as much as it might have done. Perhaps it was because it’s a cold, detached sort of story so that style is perfect. It’s a very good book. And a beautiful object too.

All in all, a brilliant year of reading. I wonder what next year holds in store.

Bath-time with the Bowens

March 21, 2011

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!