To the North by Elizabeth Bowen

Bowen to the north1932. Anchor Books. Paperback. 307 pages.

Recommended to me by: Eva of A Striped Armchair, as part of the Most Particular Compendium she made for me.


Eva recommended To the North by Elizabeth Bowen because one of my favorite books is Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding and Eva thought their writing styles were similar. I definitely agree. Like Welty, Bowen excels in capturing place, atmosphere, and the dynamic of groups of people. Bowen was an Irish writer, and this book is largely set in England, though it starts on a train traveling through the night in Europe. On that train, young widow Cecilia makes the acquaintance of the somewhat amoral Mark Linkwater. He later forms a romantic relationship with Cecilia’s sister-in-law and housemate, Emmeline. Cecilia meanwhile weighs whether to accept a proposal of marriage from a suitor.

But the plot really isn’t the main draw of To The North. For me, the joy of reading this novel was in Bowen’s writing. When she is satirical, she is laugh-out-loud funny. There’s an older relative of Cecilia and Emmeline, named Lady Waters, who is shades of a comic Jane Austen character. Minor characters are sketched entertainingly but also with depth. I also loved how well Bowen could set a scene:

Gerda’s line as a hostess was of adorable inefficiency; with the air of a lost child she tottered among her guests, in one hand a glass dripping sherry, in the other a semi-opaque yellow drink in which the skewered cherry appeared as a threatening shadow. Wherever a glass was put down a small sticky ring stamped itself: she pounced on these rings with her handkerchief with little reproachful cries (no one advised her to wipe the underneath of the glasses) . . . She was followed around by a young man she had known in the Navy, who each time she succeeded in placing a drink with a guest smiled proudly, as though she had sold a raffle ticket, and gave her another drink off a tray.

p. 157

The book could also be characterized as a melodrama, especially in the story arc of Emmeline and Markie (yes that is what he is called). The ending reminded me of the classic film melodramas of that era. I’m not a huge fan of melodrama, but Bowen does it well.

Both Welty and Bowen wrote dense psychological passages in their novels that, for me, range from impenetrable to brilliantly insightful. For instance, Bowen sometimes lost me when she described the many shifting moods of Markie and Emmeline’s relationship. On the other hand, a fairly intricate and ambitious metaphor comparing Cecilia’s widowhood to the redevelopment of an old estate really paid off emotionally and aesthetically; I was really moved by it.

I’m so glad Eva’s recommendation pushed me to pick up a novel by Elizabeth Bowen. Bowen wrote about ten novels, so I know I’ll have more opportunities to soak in her writing.

Excerpts from other reviews:

A Year of Actually Reading My Own Books – “This was another book that I picked up and put down and had a hard time getting into . . . But I did appreciate her gorgeous writing and fascinating characters.  She so completely captures insincere love.”

Book Snob – “All of her characters are flawed; none is a hero or heroine, and they are all holding something back. Theirs is a world of surface relationships, of duty and unspoken feelings, hidden passions and silent griefs.”

roses over a cottage door – “This stunning piece of work by Bowen had me utterly and completely enthralled.  So much so that I swore when I had read the last line, how very unladylike!  It is brilliant and beyond me as to why it seems to be flying under a literary radar these days.”

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  1. Pingback: Joining the Classics Club | A Good Stopping Point

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