Elizabeth Bowen & What to Read

Here’s a young Sylvia Plath interviewing Elizabeth Bowen for Mademoiselle magazine in 1953 (Plath used this time as inspiration for The Bell Jar), in May Sarton’s home incidentally! May Sarton and Elizabeth Bowen had some kind of relationship/affair also (here’s a Paris Review interview with May Sarton where she talks about Bowen, writing about her and her house in Ireland, Bowen’s Court). Such interesting literary links as I’ve been looking for Elizabeth Bowen photos and articles the past few days.

I’m thinking an Elizabeth Bowen read-along may work better than a reading week, since there seems to be enough excitement for her (and reading weeks are honestly exhausting to host!). When would work for those interested, the beginning of March or April or later? I will be going on holidays to Florida in two days (!! I’m not ready yet) for two weeks and will be trying to take a blogging break then, but let’s plan for something further down the road. The other question is, what do we read? I thought perhaps it could be fun to pick a date and then each post about whichever book of hers we chose, so there’s some variety, but if everyone wants to read the same book together, then we could discuss it more closely. Let me know what you think, Bowen fans, and if there is a book of hers you recommend reading or really want to read.

She’s also written a lot of short stories, as well as 11 novels (here’s the wikipedia page), so if you wanted to join in you could post about a story or two. (I read one yesterday that was rather terrifying, The Cat Jumps. Now I am a bit scared of her!) From what I can tell, her masterpiece may be The Death of the Heart (1938; “a story of adolescent love and the betrayal of innocence” the back of my book says, certainly it’s the book that made me like her so much), but you may have a different opinion! Her other most famous novels are:

  • The Last September (1929), about precarious position of the Anglo-Irish on the eve of the Irish War of Independence and the decisions a girl on the verge of womanhood has to make. (My review here.)
  • To the North (1932), which Darlene has just reviewed, saying “I was blown away by her writing and examination of the human psyche” and comparing the ending to Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski.
  • The House in Paris (1935), about two young children waiting for a day in a house in Paris, it also examines what has happened in the past, how the past of the parents affects the children (and is introduced by A.S. Byatt in my edition).
  • The Heat of the Day (1949) is set during World War Two and examines a love triangle, with a woman trying to protect the man she cares for by becoming involved with a spy.
  • A World of Love (1955) may not be one of her most famous novels, but it is mentioned in Singled Out: How Two Million Women Survived Without Men After the First World War by Virginia Nicholson, because the plot revolves around finding a packet of love letters from a soldier who died in WW1.

So there’s a few to choose from, plus she has earlier and later novels that may grab your interest. Right now I’ve got to choose some books to take with me to Florida — last time I actually brought two full bags of books on the plane with me! Perhaps only one bag this time. I actually began book blogging last year while I was in Florida (my in-laws live there, hence the annual pilgrimage), but this year I’m going to try to just have a holiday and enjoy the sun and the beach (and maybe a bookstore too) and stay away from the computer for two weeks! I’ll also be thinking about how I blog and maybe making some changes when I get back. I would like to start writing more regularly again and I don’t think I can do that and blog so often either, so I may have to cut back to a simpler approach here.

I haven’t managed to finish most of the books I’ve picked up this past week, I’ve been rather restless and depressed lately. I know reading is important to me, as I wrote in my last post (partly for my sanity and independence), but now the topic of what do I read presents itself. The classics everyone agrees upon? The books my friends like? I want to find my books, the ones that matter deeply to me, that speak to my heart, if you will. I know other people read for different reasons, to broaden themselves as people, for comfort, entertainment, escape, knowledge, but somehow I need to find the authors that don’t stifle and overwhelm me, I need to find echoing encouragement. Katherine Mansfield, Elizabeth Bowen, Marcel Proust, these are some of the writers who make me feel I am not alone.

I am a picky reader for these reasons, I don’t find it easy to get into many books. I also stop reading many books if it feels boring or just not something that resonates with me. I don’t know if this is a problem, if I need to force myself to keep going (I was only 100 pages from the end of The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai when I put it down for good, unable to stand such unrelenting misery, even if it did win the Booker) — somehow I can’t force myself (unless it was for a university class, which always enriches the experience anyways), my reading has to be for me. It’s not about how many classics can I stuff down my throat to look more impressive. I am all for reading the classics for enlightenment, but lately I’ve been feeling overwhelmed by the sheer amount of choice available to me as a reader and also the pressure in such a highly literate community of book blogging that I read ever more more more, more quickly. I’m just not a fast reader it seems or else perhaps I’m too easily distracted or I like to do other things, like thinking and journaling and talking with my husband… I don’t know how it is exactly, but some of you manage to read stacks in a normal full month, whereas I read 6 books in January while living out in the country with no job and plenty of time! I’m often torn between wanting to read more and write more and don’t do either as much as I’d like. (What am I doing, I’m online. Hence questioning continuing with book blogging the way I have been, but I do love the community here. It also shows me that I am not alone. I don’t know if full on artistic solitude is what I need either. Or is it, I’m scared to try.)

I did go into Edmonton, the nearest city, on Sunday and bought Orhan Pamuk’s The Naive and Sentimental Novelist, based on lectures he did at Harvard. It starts, “Novels are second lives.” I also got a purple library card (! something I didn’t even know existed so that I could wish for it!) — the Edmonton library seems quite good at branding itself, but there were fewer books on the shelves in prettier displays than the over-stuffed stacks in Calgary. I was able to find a few books I wanted (one Barbara Pym and Elizabeth Taylor each, a few Muriel Sparks), but not nearly the stack I’d find in Calgary, where they still carry many of the old green Virago Modern Classics, even if they are becoming quite battered. Did Edmonton used to have a better selection and just get rid of them in their drive to turn the library into a bookstore or do I have some librarian somewhere in the past to thank for taking the time to order in rare British books for the Calgary library?

One good book I have picked up lately is The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford, which was sent to me last year by the NYRB Classics people for participating in the Spotlight Series Tour for them. I didn’t think I was interested in reading it then as the book was sent unsolicited, but suddenly pulled it off the shelf and it’s this fresh American coming of age story set in the ’20s that I know nothing about, but somehow the landscape and characters feel more familiar than those in British books and it’s a breath of fresh air in my reading. There’s a longing for adventure in the characters, they are not chained to small British towns and duties. So I will definitely be keeping my eye out for more NYRB Classics, they seem to have found books that have great writing but like the ones republished by Virago and Persephone, somehow fell through the cracks. The joy in discovering them is that here is a book that is completely new and unspoilt, you know nothing of it culturally and yet it is a gem, not the brightest and the blandest of the bestseller and prize winning lists. Hopefully I’ll be able to find a few more of them in Florida, and may read another American book while I’m there, perhaps East of Eden by John Steinbeck.

Any holiday book recommendations? I’ve found reading a book in the country where I’m visiting works well (Dickens in London, Proust in Paris were my honeymoon reads), but despite going to Florida I don’t like ‘beach books’, something that is thoughtful but not too dense tends to work well, ie, Mrs. Dalloway is better reading at the beach than Middlemarch, in my experience! I was also sent a copy of The Tapestry of Love by Rosy Thornton, so may bring that too. Maybe I could try some May Sarton for the Elizabeth Bowen connection.

This may be my last post for a while, who knows. I’ll see you tomorrow or in two weeks!

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These are the stories

Thinking further about why I read. In my own experience, there was one great reason from the beginning: to escape. I remember as a child feeling so afraid, standing in my room, knowing that most people didn’t feel this way, but that I was afraid of what people would do to me. I read whatever I found on the shelves in the basement of our farmhouse, Swiss Family Robinson, Sherlock Holmes stories, an old book about heroic horses and dogs (I loved that book) and even The Cross and the Switchblade — yes, New York gangstas finding jesus in the ’70s! I have a poem I copied out from kindergarten, it was The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear, that one just enchanted me (‘The owl & the pussycat went to sea, in a beautiful pea green boat’) and I also copied out the story from one of those Mr. Men books about Mr. Tickle! I made up stories in my head too, largely romantic nonsense, but all mine.

In many ways, my mom showed me how to be a close reader. She has endlessly studied her bible over the years, not just telling us the stories fit for children, but getting us to read the whole things ourselves. We would discuss translations and different interpretations of a passage or word and how the translation in this or that version affected the meaning. When I finally came to read In Search of Lost Time, I felt at home with a long complex story like that, debating which translation to read, which edition to buy, I felt I had found a book to absorb me for years, just as my mother had. The other handy thing about so much of the bible learning was that in university, I’d be the only one to catch every biblical reference in books. The professor asking, what significance is there in this character (from To the Lighthouse actually) throwing his bread on the water? Up went my hand. It’s from the Psalms. As Michael Dirda has noted, the bible definitely is one of the patterning sources for Western literature.  (And certainly has many gruesomely entertaining stories that I enjoyed as a kid!)

The other thing my mother does is talk and talk. Endlessly and usually about herself. Her own stories, her past. I grew up a listener, while telling myself my own stories inside. As I grew older and began to find great English teachers, one of whom introduced me to The Secret Garden, I clung to books more and more. They were a silent place for me alone. I didn’t have to listen, I could join the story. Mary Lennox’s story in the garden could be my story, in an inner secret garden, safe where no one else could be, in my imagination. My mother’s stories were narcissistic, they kept everyone out, at an admiring or pitying distance. But books let me in, to some place better. I could play with the sisters in Little Women and the Boxcar Children (I read absolutely loads of those books, I suppose an American version of Enid Blyton maybe!) and explore bravely with Nancy Drew.

Books were what gave me a self. They gave me friends who understood and the hope that someday I would meet better people like that. I wasn’t taught to be autonomous or independent or strong, it was all about self sacrificing and clinginess. But books gave me different ideas, they gave me thoughts of my own, dreams, they gave me such richness. In high school when my teacher talked about going to university to study English, I felt lit up. That is what I want.

In the years at university, trying too hard to become something I wasn’t (a school teacher), I gradually let books go. I had to study, there wasn’t time. I felt lit up again studying To the Lighthouse, but my marks weren’t high enough, I had to stop reading for fun. (I don’t ever ever recommend doing this in university, by the way!) After eventually falling into depression, I finally remembered the books. And thus had begun my long climb out of my past. Facing the darkness and sorrow of my childhood, looking for a way to tell my own story, looking for the people who shared it. I found them in books, Portia in The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen. Dorothea in Middlemarch. Jane Eyre, of course. Young girls and what happened when they tried to grow up.

Books have been my salvation. They’ve given me a soul, a chance to be myself. They give me space, they let me grow. They’ve shown me how to grow stronger and wiser. They’ve shown me that my story and my voice matter, even just written on a page for myself. They’ve shown me that my perspective matters, even as it changes. They don’t try to hold me back. Through books I learned and continue to learn how to live, how to be. I left behind the stifling confines of The One Book written in commanding men’s voices, to find the many books by women and men that were open and accepting, that showed many views of life, that welcomed me into the great conversation of the ages.

Now I read to be comforted, I read to learn, I read for enlightenment, to laugh or be changed, I read for inspiration, I read to find the people and stories who will see me through. I read to heal. I read to meet the most original people, authors, creators. I read to think deeply. I read to feel my independence, my freedom, to pick what I want. I don’t read from a bible reading plan, with its ordered days by chapter and verse. I read to be myself, to keep my insides alive. I read for life.

Also, today I found a way to continue with Virginia Woolf. Last year I tried reading her more quickly, just to be able to get through The Waves and not drown in the poetic excess of it. But today, perhaps because it can still be ‘short story Saturday’ from time to time, I read a few short stories by Elizabeth Bowen, who helped me to figure out the right pace in which to read Woolf (they were friends), the way to pay more attention. To read closely, slowly, alertly. I was inspired to pick up my copy of her Collected Stories by 20th Century Vox and her post on Bowen’s WW2 stories called The Demon Lover. Demon lovers, not really my thing, but then I reread my favourite story of hers, called ‘Daffodils.’ It reminds me a bit of Katherine Mansfield’s ‘Miss Brill.’

A gust of wind rushed up the street, whirling her skirts up round her like a ballet-dancer’s, and rustling the Reckitts-blue paper round the daffodils. The slender gold trumpets tapped and quivered against her face as she held them up with one hand and pressed her skirts down hastily with the other. She felt as though she had been enticed into a harlequinade by a company of Columbines who were quivering with laughter at her discomfiture; and looked round to see if anyone had witnessed her display of chequered moirette petticoat and the inches of black stocking above her boots. But the world remained unembarrassed.

… Miss Murcheson remembered that her mother would be out for tea, and quickened her steps in anticipation of that delightful solitude. The silver birch tree that distinguished their front garden slanted beckoning her across the pavement. She hesitated, as her gate swung open, and stood looking up and down the road. She was sorry to go in, but could not resist the invitation of the empty house. She wondered if tomorrow would fill her with so strange a stirring as today. Soon, in a few months, it would be summer and there would be nothing more to come. Summer would be beautiful, but this spring made promise of a greater beauty than summer could fulfil; hinted at a mystery which other summers had evaded rather than explained.

… She was bewildered by them; could not fathom the depths of their cinema-bred romanticism.

… They had awaited a disclosure intimate and personal. The donor of those last year’s daffodils had taken form, portentous in their minds. But she had told them nothing, given them the stone of her abstract, colourless idealism while they sat there, open-mouthed for sentimental bread.

Sigh. Now I wish I could have Elizabeth Bowen week, to get you all reading her! She’s on those 1001 best of lists and a few of her books are still on the shelves even in western Canada, but I haven’t found many ardent fans of hers, what’s up with that? Clearly she needs some love. Maybe there is an Elizabeth Bowen group I could join, internet help me out! Or maybe I’ll just copy Laura’s Musings and create my own Favourite Authors page for her and other worthy members, where I may wax lyrical about their many wonders!

what the boy reads

Thanks for everyone’s warm comments yesterday — my husband is already home from the hospital because the surgeons were on holiday (??) and will have to wait a little longer for his surgery. At least he’s home with me, which is a relief.

In honour of that, I think I will write about my husband’s reading interests for a change! He manages a bookstore and has more books than I do, although our tastes don’t always overlap.

[Or first, the final answers to the first lines of my favourite books quiz.

1. For a long time, I went to bed early. ~ In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust, as identified by Atla at Book to Book.

3. What can I say about love? ~ The Lost Garden by Helen Humphreys, identified by Rachel at Book Snob.

6. That morning’s ice, no more than a brittle film, had cracked and was now floating in segments. ~ The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen, again identified by Rachel.

10. Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea. ~ The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, as guessed by Allie at A Literary Odyssey.

I’ll have to write more about these books later, especially Proust!]

My husband is rather obsessive about book lists, for a start. He is often madly scribbling out a new list of his favourite 10 authors or genres and loves to read book lists also. He loves what he terms ‘transgressive literature’ and ‘literary genre’ — anything from Bret Easton Ellis to James Ellroy to William Gibson to J. G. Ballard and William S. Burroughs. If it’s a bit disturbed, he likes it. He recently read The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek and loved it and right now he’s rereading his favourite Chuck Palahniuk, Choke. He also loves mystery novels (Elmore Leonard), science fiction (Philip K. Dick) and horror (Clive Barker), as well as philosophy (Jean Baudrillard) and poetry (Sylvia Plath, Arthur Rimbaud).

What I love so much about his reading is the way he combines what is considered high and low literature, enjoying David Foster Wallace and Star Wars novels at different times, but equally. I genuinely like reading the classics, but he’s helped me to become more open minded about trying a lot of different things in my reading. I used to love reading Nancy Drew as a kid and Agatha Christie too when I was a teenager and then stopped for almost ten years until I met him. Now we both read Patricia Highsmith and Raymond Chandler, although most of our other mystery tastes differ.

I’ve also read some science fiction since I’ve known him (William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition is set in the present day but has a futuristic edge and deals in part with online communities, it is so terrific) and even a few horror novels too (not that I like being scared, but once I start I can’t stop…! And H.P. Lovecraft is absolutely glorious old fashioned ridiculous spookiness.) I’ve also started to read a few graphic novels and even comics (the Buffy season 8 ones) since he loves Alan Moore and Superman and and and so much. 😉

I love having literary discussions with my husband (he’s picked up Henry James, Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence under my influence) and constantly reorganizing and reassessing our combined library! It’s our favourite lazy afternoon kind of shared activity. I feel lucky to be with a partner who shares my love of books (and one who had to read Jane Austen in university and liked her!)

First Lines

I’ve decided to post the answers to my little identify the first lines of my favourite books quiz today and write a few reasons about why I like each book so much.

I’ll start with the ones that were identified first…

2. ______, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence, and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

This is Emma by Jane Austen (the blanked out words are of course ‘Emma Woodhouse’), as correctly guessed by Atla at Book to Book and Nicola at Vintage Reads.

I can’t seem to quite decide if I like Emma or Persuasion more, but that day it was Emma! Which is I think the cosiest of Austen’s novels and always gives me warm family feelings. As Atla recently wrote, the books you read three times or more do become a part of you and all of Jane Austen is definitely in that category for me.

4. There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, as guessed by Atla and Nicola again.

I don’t think I’ve read Jane Eyre in years and now I’m wondering if I’ve even read it three times, but it has impacted me and I’m so glad I read it at 20. The example of someone shy and yet so strong willed and determined to be her own person and value love over religion made it for a while more of a personal favourite even over Jane Austen!

5. _____ had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.

Middlemarch by George Eliot, as guessed by Helen at She Reads Novels, with the blanked out words being ‘Miss Brooke’.

I read Middlemarch in my last year of university, after thinking it must be terribly dull and musty (a bad experience with Silas Marner in junior high is the only excuse I can give!) Instead, I found so much to relate to. Dorothea Brooke is excessively idealistic and almost ruins her life trying to pursue a great and worthy cause. In the end, she finds happiness in a more simple life that is balanced with love and shows how living a good and regular life is as important as becoming famous for some great and noble deed. It also shows how a good or a bad influence in life, can turn a person in a direction they didn’t originally set out to go in, for good or bad. I’ve never managed to quite reread it all the way through (there’s so many other characters) but I highly highly recommend it, George Eliot and Charlotte Bronte (and Wilkie Collins!) are by far my preferred Victorian authors (over ahem, Charles Dickens…)

7. I am always drawn back to places where I have lived, the houses and their neighborhoods.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote, as guessed by Nymeth at things mean a lot.

I only discovered this small nostalgic gem of a book a few years ago, but on rereading it this year, I’ve deemed it one of my comfort books and will likely be returning to it in the future. For starters, it’s much better and slightly more bittersweet than the movie. Also it is so short, a one sit read! I can relate to Holly’s ‘lopsided romantic’ mode of life, it’s somewhat how I lived parts of my 20s (with sadly less glamour) and something I still long to go back to somedays. It definitely speaks to the nostalgic romantic in me.

8. Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, as guessed yet again by Atla.

I love the drama of this book. It’s not really my idea of the perfect romance (I prefer slightly less conflict on that front), but for characters caught in emotional conflict, it can’t be beat. I’m not such a fan of Tolstoy’s earnestly good alter ego Levin, but everything to do with Anna was such great reading. There are so many great scenes too, the ball, the train in the snow storm, the horse race…. I kept making furious notes throughout on each new development. The first time I read it I was driving down a highway, having just taken it out from the library and being too intrigued to stop reading! (Uh, I don’t usually do that, ever…) I loved the Constance Garnett translation and for years looked for it, being unable to enjoy any other version (Modern Library publishes it), but I’m sure others prefer more modern versions of it.

9. ‘The Signora had no business to do it,’ said Miss ____, ‘no business at all.’

This is A Room With a View by E.M. Forster, again as guessed by Nymeth. The blanked out name is Bartlett.

This book is pretty short and was again a comfort reread this year. I’m sure my enjoyment of it is coloured by the wonderful Merchant Ivory film of it, but that’s no bad thing since it introduced me to Forster and Howards End too. More than the scenes in Italy, I like the cosy Honeychurch home and family at Windy Corners and the happy innocent side of Edwardian life it portrays, while encouraging people to take risks on what really matters in life, true love over convention.

And now… I think I will wait one more day to reveal the unguessed other four opening lines! Here are a few hints though…

1. For a long time, I went to bed early.

This is a surprisingly quick start to what is one of the longest books in world literature (in fact maybe the longest book in French literature, period). It also has ridiculously long sentences, which sometimes meander daydreamily over memory, the past, nature, sexual jealousy and high society and are sometimes quite comic in their portrayal of a wide varying of characters. This author is not literally a neuroscientist, but he may change your life.

3. What can I say about love?

By a lesser known Canadian author, this book (with a title bearing close allusions to Frances Hodgon Burnett’s most famous children’s classic) is about a London girl going to work on a British country estate in WW2 to help the Women’s Land Army grow potatoes and dig for victory. It’s a very poetic portrayal of a woman who’s long lived without love and what happens when she thinks she’s found it, along with a garden that’s been hidden perhaps since the last war… Absolutely gorgeous and I wish more people read it!

Here’s a further quote, just because:

Can words go straight to the heart? Is this possible? Can words be as direct as the scent of roses?

I only discovered this book five years ago (it was released in 2002) and have reread it at least four times since and already the pages are starting to come loose at the bottom! Another short gem.

6. That morning’s ice, no more than a brittle film, had cracked and was now floating in segments.

(Oh dear, yet another of my long posts!) This book is by a lesser known Anglo-Irish early 20th century female author (and I have already reviewed one of her books and mentioned this book in the review), who was friends with Virginia Woolf. This book is about a naive girl going to live with her step-brother and the cracks that come when no one knows how to deal with her, or worse yet, are falsely charming to her.

10. Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.

Lastly, a late 19th century classic by another author who is famously overfond of long and difficult sentences, although he is an American writing from Europe, about imaginary Americans being taken advantage of by those wily and so much more experienced Europeans… There are a lot of beautiful scenes in this book, from the opening with tea on the lawn of an English country house to a charming and worrisome Roman villa with roses in the garden. As well as writing dense and often impenetrable novels, this author has also written various novellas, including a famous ghost story, but this novel is one of his most accessible, being written in his ‘Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary stage’, as one reviewer put it.

That’s it! [Edited for one final hint: 3 of these books are shown in the photo header of my blog as well… ;)]

(ps: I’ve often found that if I write about what I’m currently reading I jinx it and lose interest. Does anyone else ever feel that way or am I just strange here?)

The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen

And now for one of those talked of book reviews.

The Last September, written by Elizabeth Bowen in 1929, is set in Ireland during the summer and early fall of 1920, in the midst of the Irish War of Independence. It concerns a family of Anglo-Irish landowners in County Cork and their house guests, busy holding tennis parties with the British officers (there to deal with the beginnings of the IRA, waging a guerrilla war in a bid for freedom from British rule), trying to brush off the growing brutalities as mere idle gossip and no reason to stop having tea. This portrayal of a small and sterile upper class society in denial amidst great change was fascinating to me.

The Anglo-Irish characters act very British, they have been educated in Britain, it’s just that their large estates happen to be in Ireland, not Surrey. They see themselves as different from the British (indeed Bowen, an Anglo-Irish herself, makes fun of several British officer’s wives’ lower class manners), but also apart from the local Irish cottagers and Catholics. They attempt to be friendly with both sides, patronisingly so towards the poorer Irish; the girls all dance with the British soldiers and worry over being seen as too Irish (and old fashioned) or maybe not Irish (and charming) enough and wonder what being Irish means at all, especially in the eyes of the English.  They made me think of the cozy Edwardian family homes in To the Lighthouse and A Room with a View, with rooks cawing and gossipy gardens, only there’s a local war going on in the background they’re trying to ignore.

I’ve read a few Irish plays in university, Playboy of the Western World by J.M. Sygne and The Plough and the Stars by Sean O’Casey (about the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin), as well as most of A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry (again about the Easter Rising and an Irish boy in the WW1 British army who’s brought back to fight against his own countrymen in Dublin), but somehow this novel brought me a greater understanding of the British/Irish/Anglo-Irish conflict. I love British literature, I love its calming feel of quiet sloping green lawns and the quietly complex dramas in large country houses (see: Gosford Park), it’s my old fashioned refuge from over-plasticized consumerism, but this book reminds me that before there was ever an American Empire, there was a British one.

{I’ve noticed whenever I read a classic or historical novel, I’m always trying to decode the time period, how background events and beliefs shaped the writing of the book. I love stories, the fiction of imagination, but am endlessly fascinated by the true facts out of history, those stories that are often even bigger and more dramatic than fiction. I suppose I would read more history if only it wasn’t written so dryly! Perhaps historical fiction offers me a way to work out human nature (the art in the novel analyzing character, the history offering plot) at a safer distance.}

This is also a coming of age (with love mixed in) story, about the generation gap between those born in the 19th century and those in the 20th co-mingling with the Irish tensions:

A sense of exposure… made Laurence look up at the mountain over the roof of the house. In some gaze — of a man’s up there hiding, watching among the clefts and ridges — they seemed held… with orderly, knitted shadows, the well-groomed grass and the beds in their formal pattern.

Driving home… Lady Naylor told them of a discovery she had made. Mrs. Carey, also, did not understand modern young people. They seemed, Mrs. Carey had said, to have no idealism, no sense of adventure, they thought so much of their own comfort… since the War they had never ceased mouching. She herself had had a deep sense of poetry; she remembered going to sleep with Shelley under her pillow.

… Laurence said nothing, but thought: he must write that novel… He would vindicate modern young people for his aunt and her generation. Only he did not know if he should write about cocktail parties or whimsical undergraduates.

Elizabeth Bowen is definitely in my camp of favourite authors, after I read The Death of the Heart a few years ago, I had to order almost all of the rest of her novels because they’re hard to find in bookstores or libraries, and have had the chunk of them sitting on my shelf, all matching covers and mostly unread for some time, but after quickly finishing this one off, I will be coming back for more! To me, she’s sort of a Jane Austen-Henry James-Virginia Woolf combo of an author, closely analyzing the individual in the midst of larger groupings and developments. Some of my friends have complained she’s too detailed, after I’ve gotten them to try The Death of the Heart (generally considered her best and still my favourite out of the two), but it’s just the sort of character observation I enjoy and I think she certainly ought to be more widely known as an early 20th century female Irish author.