A while ago the very lovely (but, it turns out, fiercely competitive) Darlene laid down a challenge. She would read a book by my beloved Ivy Compton-Burnett, if I would give her beloved Elizabeth Bowen a second chance. “Game on!” said I, always happy to give respected authors two or three tries – but she comfortably beat me with her fabulous review of Manservant and Maidservant in early September, which you can read here. I took my time, but I’ve finally managed to keep up my end of the bargain, and on my trip to the Lake District I managed to finish The House in Paris (1935).
Well, Darlene, you were right. I didn’t enjoy The Last September at all, but The House in Paris is beautiful. Cancel the book burning, Bowen is back in business.
The novel has a layered narrative. The first and last quarters (called ‘Present’) take place in the Parisian house, belonging to Mme. and Miss Fisher, where young Henrietta is spending the day between one chaperone and another. Coincidentally, Leopold is also there – nervously waiting to meet his biological mother for the first time in his life. The middle half reverts to ‘Past’, and concerns Leopold’s mother Karen, who knew Miss Fisher (Naomi) when they were ten years younger, and the affair which led to Leonard’s conception.
It is the beginning and end of The House in Paris that I loved, and I half wish that Bowen hadn’t left the house in Paris at all. The scenes between Henrietta and Leopold are so perfectly judged that it seems impossible that writing can be so beautiful as well as so plausible – surely Bowen (one thinks) would have to sacrifice one to the other? But no, every moment described is a new insight into the way children interact, and beautiful because true. This is the first conversation they have while alone together:
He said: “Miss Fisher says you’re here for the day.”
“I’m just crossing Paris,” Henrietta said with cosmopolitan ease.
“Is that your monkey?”
“Yes. I’ve had him ever since I was born.”
“Oh,” said Leopold, looking at Charles vaguely.
“How old are you?” Henrietta enquired.
“Oh, I’m eleven.”
“Miss Fisher’s mother is very ill,” said Leopold. He sat down in an armchair with his knees crossed and, bending forward, studied a cut on one knee. The four velvet armchairs, each pulled out a little way from a corner, faced in on the round table that reflected the window and had in its centre a tufted chenille mat. He added, wrinkling his forehead: “So Mariette says, at least.”
“Who is Mariette?”
“Their maid. She wanted to help me dress.”
“Do you think she is going to die?” said Henrietta.
“I don’t expect so. I shall be out, anyway.”
“That would be awful,” said Henrietta, shocked.
“I suppose it would. But I don’t know Mme. Fisher.”
It is never natural for children to smile at each other: Henrietta and Leopold kept their natural formality. She said: “You see, I’d been hoping Miss Fisher was going to take me out.” Leopold, looking about the salon, said: “Yes, this must be a rather funny way to see Paris.” But he spoke with detachment; it did not matter to him.In the first quarter of the novel, little takes place to propel the plot. Henrietta meets Mme. Fisher (slowly, wryly, dying in a bedroom upstairs); Leopold snoops through Miss Fisher’s letters, and finds letters from his adoptive mother and Henrietta’s grandmother, and an empty envelope from his biological mother. What makes this section so special is the gradual, engaging way Bowen builds up the relationship between the children – character is paramount. Although they develop a fragile and fleeting friendship, they have the child’s selfish indifference to each other’s feelings – as Bowen expresses so strikingly:
With no banal reassuring grown-ups present, with grown-up intervention taken away, there is no limit to the terror strange children feel of each other, a terror life obscures but never ceases to justify. There is no end to the violations committed by children on children, quietly talking alone. This passage demonstrates one of the qualities of Bowen’s writing that I most admired and liked – the way she moves from the specific to the general. Authors are often told “show, don’t tell”, and Bowen finds an original way to follow this maxim while subtly evading it. She never plays too heavy a narrative hand with the characters, letting their actions and words form their personalities, but then she steps back a pace or two, and draws general conclusions about children or lovers or parents or people in general. She shows with the cast, and tells about the world.
As the first part closes, Leopold learns that: “Your mother is not coming; she cannot come.” Isn’t that sentence delightfully Woolfean, with its balance and half-repetition? No wonder people have often drawn comparison between Bowen and Woolf – including Byatt, in her excellent introduction (which, as always, ought to be read last – and pleasantly blends personal and critical aspects.)
|actual houses in Paris wot I saw once|
In the central section of the novel, we meet Leopold’s mother Karen, and witness her relationship with Naomi’s fiancee Max. Although longer than the other sections put together, ‘Past’ felt less substantial to me. It is, essentially, the very gradual and incremental development of the relationship between Karen and Max – from distrust to love, and… onwards. But here I shall draw a veil over the ensuing plot for, although plot is hardly primary in Bowen, it cannot be called negligible, and I shall not spoil it.
And, finally, back to Henrietta and Leopold, as they make proclamations about their lives, in the midst of situations they cannot understand for more than a moment at a time – and eventually they part. Without giving away too much, I shall remove one possibility – they do not end up living like brother and sister; they will probably never see each other again. Their encounter has been fleeting, and wholly at the whim of the various adults (present and absent) whose decisions so heavily influence the children’s lives. As a conceit it is not entirely natural, but we can forgive Bowen that – it structures the narrative perfectly, and gives opportunity for so many other moments where the natural triumphs against the artificiality of fiction: time and again novelistic cliches and truisms have the carpet whipped from under their feet, and the reader thinks “Oh, of course, that is what would happen.”
Above all, Bowen is a wordsmith. She crafts sentences so perfectly. They are not of the variety that can be read in a hurry – perhaps that is where I went wrong with The Last September – but, with careful attention and a willingness to dive into the world of words she creates – it is an effort which is very much repaid. Darlene, thank you for refusing to let me declare Bowen done and dusted – she’s now very much back in my good books. You might have won this competition, but this is a case of everyone’s-a-winner, right?
Others who got Stuck into it:
“From the very first page of The House in Paris when Henrietta is collected from the train station by Miss Fisher, both wearing cerise cockades so as to recognize one another, I adored this book. Elizabeth Bowen’s genius as a writer is staggering and to anyone who doesn’t agree or simply does not get on with her…I could weep for you.” – Darlene, Roses Over A Cottage Door
“The pages were awash with beautiful, sonorous language formed into exquisite sentences that swirled through my thoughts, leaving lingering, evocative images behind.” – Rachel, Book Snob [Simon: this review is much better than mine! Go and check it out if you haven’t done already.]
“I wanted to love Elizabeth Bowen; one of my most respected history profs at university cited Bowen as her absolute favourite author and ever since then I’ve intended to read her. I liked this book, I even found some quotable passages which I delightedly copied out. But somehow it didn’t coalesce into a Great Read, at least not for me.” – Melwyk, The Indextrious Reader