“Ireland is a great country to die or be married in.” (Elizabeth Bowen)

Firstly, in breaking news (in the sense that it’s not news and of zero interest or urgency) I’ve finally joined the cool kids over at twitter so please validate my fragile sense of self and join me @madame_bibi. More importantly, I’ve tried to follow as many of my bloggy friends as possible but if I’ve missed you please let me know & I will rectify the situation forthwith 🙂

On with the post! This is my second contribution to Reading Ireland 2017 aka the Begorrathon, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Niall at Raging Fluff. I’m hoping to just get this posted in time, as I was sick for a week and while this meant I could finally watch the entire series of Taboo that I had stacked up, I was incapable of reading the printed word  (my capacity for dribbling over Tom Hardy remained unaffected).  If I’m too late, I hereby proclaim that there are at least 32 days in March 😉

So, its Elizabeth Bowen all round as I look at two of her novels, simply because I was lucky enough to find these lovely hardbacks in my favourite charity bookshop a wee while ago:

Firstly, The Death of the Heart (1938), which I pounced on as soon as I saw it, remembering Jacqui’s wonderful review.  Portia, a sixteen year old orphan, moves to London following a transitory life in hotels with her parents, to live with her half-brother and his wife who she barely knows. Wiki quotes Bowen as describing the novel thusly:

“a novel which reflects the time , the pre-war time with its high tension, its increasing anxieties, and this great stress on individualism. People were so conscious of themselves, and of each other, and of their personal relationships because they thought that everything of that time might soon end.”

Certainly the individuals in the novel are self-conscious, but they’re not really aware of one another. Poor Portia finds herself part of a society of selfish individuals who don’t know what they want and so end up tormenting each other while they try and work it out. Portia’s step-mother Anna is unhappy, as is her brother, but neither are sure it is the marriage to one another that is making them miserable. A rejected lover of Anna’s, Eddie, seduces Portia to alleviate his boredom, not realising that to do so to a naïve and loving 16 year old is cruel and damaging. There is an all-round lack of intimacy:

“But something that should have been going on had not gone on: something had not happened. They had sat round a painted, not a burning, fire, at which you tried in vain to warm your hands.”

Portia is temporarily packed off to the seaside to stay with a family that the London set look down as being a bit common, but they are at least lively:

“Mrs Heccomb took off her hat for tea and Portia saw that her hair, like part of an artichoke, seemed to have an upgrowing tendency…This, for some reason, added to Mrs Heccomb’s expression of surprise.”

However, while the Heccombs see Eddie for the cad and bounder he is, they are neither able to convey this adequately to Portia, nor is she willing to listen.  What emerges as Portia tries to find her place in the world and warm relationships within it, is how deeply inadequate human beings can be at communicating with one another. Bowen is interested in the fantasies that are constructed in lieu of real understanding and how these can be sustaining but ultimately empty.

“Not for nothing do we invest so much of ourselves in other people’s lives – or even in momentary pictures of people we do not know. It cuts both ways: the happy group inside the lighted window, the figure in the long grass in the orchard seen from the train stay and support us in our dark hours.”

The novel lacks any sentimentality and is a sharply observed portrait of interwar society.  What stops it from being depressing is Bowen’s glorious prose, her dry sense of humour (I don’t think we are supposed to take the characters as seriously as they take themselves) and the sense that love – imperfect and in many different guises – is there to be found, sometimes in the oddest of places.


Apparently hair like an artichoke was an actual thing, although I think Bowen had something more flamboyant in mind…

Image from here

Secondly, A World of Love (1955), which I thought absolutely stunning. Bowen has matured between these two novels and is telling less, showing more, to once again explore the complexities of human relationships with great subtlety. Lilia owns Montefort, a country house in County Cork, and her dead cousin Guy’s fiancé Antonia, lives there with her husband Fred, an illegitimate member of the family, who runs the estate so they live rent-free.

“Of this arrangement it had not yet been decided whether it worked or did not work, still less if it equitable or, if not so, at whose expense.”

Over the course of a few claustrophobically hot days in summer, Antonia and Fred’s daughter, Jane, finds love letters written by Guy to an unnamed woman which is assumed to be Antonia. This will act as a catalyst to bring the unspoken tensions between the adults into sharp relief:

“Almost no experience, other than Guy and their own dissonance, could they be said to have had in common; and yet it was what they had had in common which riveted them. For worse or better, they were in each other’s hands. Such a relationship is lifelong.”

Meanwhile, Jane is on the edge of burgeoning adulthood:

 “Not a straw stirred, or was there to stir, in the kennel; and above her something other than clouds was missing from the uninhabited sky.  Nothing was to be known. One was on the verge, however, possibly, of more.”

I really adored this novel. Again, it was sharply observed, psychologically astute, and with a wonderful undercurrent of dry humour. Bowen minutely dissects human relationships and exposes all their contradictions and conflict, but also how compromise and understanding can be reached. A World of Love felt tighter than The Death of the Heart, the containment of a few days in pretty much one place effectively conveying the claustrophobia that exists for the characters in their various ways, even as they roam a huge estate. Yet Bowen is almost baroque at times, her descriptions rich and layered and filled with meaning:

“No part of the night was not breathless breathing, no part of the quickened stillness not running feet. A call or calling, now nearby, now from behind the skyline, was unlocatable as a corncrakes in the uncut grass. Arising this was, on the part of the two who like hundreds, seemed to be teeming over the land, carrying all before them. The night, ridden by pure excitement, was seized by hope. .. All they had ever touched still now physically held its charge – everything that had been stepped on, scaled up, crept under, brushed against or leaped from now gave out, touched by so much as air, a tingling continuous sweet shock, which the air suffered as though it were half laughing, as was Antonia.”

I realise I may have lost some of you there. But if you don’t mind that sort of prose at times, especially when it’s surrounded by an astute unblinking eye for human foibles and a compassion for our frailties, please do given Bowen a try!

So that’s the end of a very hurriedly written post, please excuse all typos and general incoherence! Now to end with an Irish musician and a blatant grovel to my mother (as he is one of her favourites and I failed on Mother’s Day last weekend):

20 thoughts on ““Ireland is a great country to die or be married in.” (Elizabeth Bowen)

  1. There’s nothing quite like a good quote about hair… (unfortunately my only recent comparison comes from the hilarious podcast, My Dad Wrote a Porno, where a character emerges from a hedge maze and “…her hair had been remodelled to say the best. Perhaps by a maniac with a twist for the dramatic.”) Anyway, the artichoke provides a nice visual 😀

    Unrelated: I see that you are currently reading The Gravity of Love – I’ll look forward to hearing your thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I must listen to My Dad Wrote a Porno, I hear such good things!

      Yes, based on your recommendation I’m reading The Gravity of Love. I started it, then got ill, so I think I’ll start over & hopefully get properly into it today. One of the many from the TBR that are there due to your enticing reviews!


  2. I do remember reading, and loving, Death of the Heart, though it may be the only Bowen I have read. No idea why. Must rectify! And, sadly, I stay firmly away from FaceTwit, InstaChatApp, and all similar. The blog is as immersed as I go. So not even for the undoubted pleasure which your tweets would bring, will I venture……Thanks, though, for Rory.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Do rectify, Lady F, I’m sure you’ll love her!

      I think you’re wise to steer clear to be honest – I’m rapidly discovering that twitter is black hole which swallows up all my free time… I’m enjoying it far too much.

      Glad you enjoyed Rory 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Lovely reviews, Madame Bibi – and many thanks for the shout-out, most kind. Yes, there was very little real interaction between the main characters in The Death of the Heart, no sense of warmth or affection in their relationships with one another. It must have been so hard for Portia to be plunged into that alienating environment.

    A World in Love sounds excellent – one to look out for in the future. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Yep, you nearly had me till that last quote, but since I find it mostly incomprehensible and probably migraine-inducing, I fear I’ll have to pass! I did read one of her short stories recently, a kind of low-level horror, which I thought was excellent, but haven’t attempted any of her novels.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Begorrathon 2017: Go Raibh Maith Agaibh agus Slán! | The Fluff Is Raging

  6. Firstly, welcome to Twitter! Secondly what beautiful editions of both books! And thirdly, what lovely reviews. Both of these books are wonderful, aren’t they – Bowen is such an acute observer of character. Her short stories are marvellous too – what a writer!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you – I’m really enjoying twitter, much more than I thought I would!

      The editions are lovely aren’t they? I was so pleased to find them.

      I totally agree, a great strength of Bowen is her brilliant characterisation, it’s really astonishing.

      I’ll have to hunt down her short stories, I’d love to see what she does with the form – thank you for the tip!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I have never read anything by Bowen, but the second book especially sounds appealing!
    Welcome to Twitter! I was new only just a year ago, and was terrified of it at first. Now, I have lots of fun sharing all my favourite things.
    And, finally, glad you are feeling better!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Two more for the list! And is it just me, or does she look better in rollers than when it’s brushed out? I used to love those bendy curlers that made women look like Medusa. I with it was fashionable to wear them all the time.

    And I much prefer Twitter to Facebook. Both are full of awful trolls, but at least I don’t have to see pictures of a colleague’s BBQ on Twitter. The less mundane reality in my internet use, the better!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hooray – adding to other people’s TBRs makes me feel so much better!

      She does look so much better with the rollers, I’m not sure where all the curl has gone in the final version, it’s very strange… I had some of those medusa curlers in the 80s but I couldn’t get them to work – mind you, they were probably the kids version so a bit rubbish 😀

      I’m not on FB. So far I like twitter and it does seem blessedly free of news about what other people are having for breakfast. Long may that last!

      Liked by 2 people

  9. Pingback: “The pollen count, now that’s a difficult job. Especially if you’ve got hay fever.” (Milton Jones) | madame bibi lophile recommends

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.