To the North by Elizabeth Bowen

I’ve already talked about what a powerful effect this, my first Bowen, had on me. I have to give Darlene my thanks for her fantastic review a few months ago, which made my already latent desire to read something by Elizabeth Bowen become a burning one. To the North is a superb, exquisite, breathtaking novel, one which became an addiction the more I read; it made my heart race while I was reading it, and it began to possess my thoughts when I wasn’t. Sitting at my desk all day at work, knowing I had to wait hours before the brilliant book smouldering away in my bag could be opened again, was torture. Bowen’s prose and characterisation effortlessly, wholeheartedly, carried me off into the world she painted on the page, and when I finished, with tears in my eyes, my hand to my chest, my heart pounding, I was distraught. Novels like this are rare treasures, and are totally unforgettable. Before I even begin to describe it, I entreat you to read it, whether what I say about it intrigues you or not. No one, no one on this earth, can fail to find this book mesmerising. And if you read it and you don’t find it mesmerising, email me; we need to talk.

To the North is the tale of sisters-in-law Cecilia and Emmeline Summers. Cecilia, 29, is a beautiful, glamorous and rather shallow woman whose life has become somewhat devoid of much depth since her husband Henry died tragically after just a year of marriage. Emmeline, Henry’s sister, is 25 years old, an enigma to all who know her, and wonderfully independent, elusive and enchanting. She and Cecilia are devoted to each other, and have set up house together in St John’s Wood, a leafy North London suburb, where they host dinners and have late night chats and enjoy lazy afternoons in sunny french windowed drawing rooms filled with flowers. Cecilia doesn’t work; she lives off her dividends and spends her rather empty days drifting between the dressmaker’s and luncheons and dinners with her set, most notably her wealthy, well meaningly domineering ‘aunt’ Lady Georgina Walters, who is Cecilia’s aunt by marriage and Emmeline’s distant cousin, and a key figure in both women’s lives. By contrast, Emmeline is furiously busy and devoted to her career; a travel bureau she has set up with a business partner, which sends people off to unusual places for adventurous holidays. The two women appear to be chalk and cheese, but they share a vague and elusive quality that makes them both irresistible and unfathomable, and this will prove to be their undoing.

As the novel opens, Cecilia is on a train back from Milan to London, insufferably bored and somewhat tired of her wanderings, which are her attempt to escape from the loss of Henry. In the dining car she ends up having dinner with a youngish, rather charming lawyer called Markie Linkwater. They have a pleasant enough conversation and suggest meeting up in London, though Cecilia has no interest in him as a potential romantic partner. When Cecilia returns home, she has Markie to dinner. He meets Emmeline, who intrigues him. The attraction is mutual, but Cecilia fails to realise, because she is too busy trying to work out her own feelings for her friend Julian Tower, an emotionally complicated man of a certain age who she loves, but not enough, or so she thinks, to build a marriage upon.

As Cecilia carries on floating through her uneventful, comfortable London existence, punctuated by visits to Lady Waters’ country house and trips with Julian, she tries to make up her mind as to whether she wants to marry again, and whether what she feels for Julian will be enough. Emmeline, normally so indifferent to romance, engrossed in her work, independent, and full of sparkling joy in life, falls crashingly in love for the first time, and is completely unable to cope with its effects. Cecilia, too wrapped up in herself, too used to talking around emotions rather than getting to the heart of things, is unable to pursue Emmeline’s guarded heart and find out the extent of what is happening between her and a man she suspects is not to be trusted. As such, she fails to give the inexperienced Emmeline the guiding hand she needs. Meanwhile, Emmeline has carved her heart out and laid it on a plate for Markie, her whole life outside of him becoming drained of colour. As both women dance with their partners towards very different conclusions, the tension builds and the foreboding increases as Bowen fleshes more and more of Markie Linkwater out for her readers, and we begin to realise that he is no gentleman…

Bowen builds a perfectly rendered 1920’s London, filled with languid socialites and unhappy flappers, brilliant snippets of conversation, dappled afternoon sunshine, clinking tea cups  and characters who never quite turn their entire heads to the reader, casting shadows that intrigue and unsettle. Her prose is beautiful, her plotting and characterisation, sublime. 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. Markie Linkwater is a truly odious character, whose presence on the page oozes menace, and both Cecilia and Emmeline are spectres of women, never allowing anyone to access their true selves, but leaving a profound mark wherever they have been nonetheless. The sense of foreboding for the future of these remarkable characters doesn’t let up from the first page, and Bowen’s incredible skill makes sure we become helplessly tangled in their lives; almost as if they were our own. Her portrayal of love as a force of destruction is powerful and disturbing, and there is little of romance to be found in a tale that is essentially about the pain love so often causes its victims to suffer. As awful as that sounds, it doesn’t prevent this from being a simply divine novel – which is quite an achievement in itself.

To the North really is just the most perfect reading experience, and to describe what makes this book so exquisite, to harness the essence of what makes it so atmospheric, so powerful, so utterly fantastic, is a near impossible task. It just is. And you have to read it.

69 comments

  1. This is a staggeringly beautiful review — I’m literally breathless. You review the way I wish I could, with such insight and lovely language. I’m nearly desperate to read this book now, too — I will be on a desperate search tomorrow!

    1. Oh wow, what a compliment, Audra! Thank you! I’m so glad you enjoyed the review enough to go and desperately search for a copy – I hope you have one in your hands right now!

  2. Okay, I am definitely going to have to give Bowen another try. I tried reading her five or six years ago but whether I was too young or just not in the right mood, nevertheless we did not click and the books were abandoned unfinished. Time to remedy that!

    1. Oh please do give her another go, Claire! She’s definitely for the more mature reader – not one for a teenager I shouldn’t think. To the North is fantastic though I haven’t read any others so I can’t comment on whether it’s the best place to start with her – but if it’s not her best then I want to know what is as I can’t imagine her getting any better than this!

  3. Oh alright! Bowen gets another go because of this, because of you. I quite enjoyed The Heat of the Day and even The House in Paris but Friends and Relations and A World of Love left me less than thrilled. Yes her descriptions can be lush, but lord, please let there be some sort of storyline to follow and not just endless paragraphs of staggering language. Impossible reading!

    1. Oh Heather, I am so glad to hear that you’re going to give her another go! My persuasive skills strike again!😉

      I’m sad that these other books have done nothing for you…I hope with all my heart that To the North will redeem Bowen for you! It’s certainly got a storyline and a stonker of one at that! Let me know how you get on!

  4. I love Elizabeth Bowen too – she really had complete control of craft. I heard she wrote a book about writing too, but I have never been able to find it? Have you heard of it?

  5. This sounds riveting! I’ve been wanting to read Elizabeth Bowen for a while, our shared Anglo-Irish heritage fascinates me! I have ‘The Last September’ on my bedside table, but haven’t cracked at it yet.

    Ps…Started ‘Illyrian Spring’ last night. My chest actually fluttered.

    1. Daniel, I’m sure you would die and go to heaven reading this!

      Oh that brings such joy to my heart! Joy unbounded! Can’t WAIT to hear how you get on with it!

  6. I have two Bowens in the TBR stack, but not this particular book. So many books, so little time. This having to work for a living has definite drawbacks.

  7. Rachel, I am so THRILLED that you have discovered Elizabeth Bowen, a giant author of the last century and my favourite of all. I’m always trying to persuade other readers of her wonderful powerful writing but, as I can see from comments above, she isn’t to everyone’s taste.
    Thank goodness you began with To the North – one or two others are harder (her prose became very convoluted and irritated many reviewers). My favourite is The House in Paris, although I adore all of them, which I know you’ll love too as it is about children (a subject she does so beautifully) and is heartbreaking. Make that your next Bowen!
    But then, The Death of the Heart is magnificent, so is the Heat of the Day. Oh dear, I’m raving about them all. How I envy you with a whole shelf of glorious titles to read!
    Going back to Emmeline, isn’t she adorable? I can just picture her vague short-sighted sweet face and pale wispy hair. The ending is heart-stopping.
    I am so happy to have read your brilliant review which does complete justice to a marvellous author. SO well done – thank you.

    1. Chrissy, such rapturous praise! We need to start an Elizabeth Bowen fan club! Between us we can convince the masses! It does seem that she’s hit and miss for some but I don’t see how I could ever fail to love anything she writes. I have duly noted your recommendation of The House in Paris and will make it my next Bowen!

      Oh yes…Emmeline is just gorgeous. I wanted to jump in and stop her, it was just so awful.

      Thank you very much – you are just lovely🙂 To do Elizabeth Bowen justice is a high calling and I am glad you think I met the task!

  8. You do write the best reviews, Rachel! I love the excitement of counting down the hours, then the minutes, until you clock off work so you can be reunited with a great book. This one was definitely like that. And the ending!…could you breathe? The walls could have crashed around me and I wouldn’t have been able to take my eyes off of the page!
    Which causes me to wonder why To the North is not more widely written or talked about?

    1. Oh Darlene, you are just too lovely! Thank you. I know, isn’t it fantastic?! The best parts of my days are when I can dash out of work and sit on the train and have my brain and my book to myself for half an hour!

      I lay on the sofa to finish the book and was just transfixed. When I finished I lay there staring into space for about five minutes. I just couldn’t take it in!

      I don’t understand that either. This should be a total classic, read by everyone – is it really such a niche taste? I can’t believe it is.

  9. Such a beautiful review. I read my first Bowen last year, Friends and Relations, and was completely underwhelmed. I do have a copy of To the North however. Your review has persuaded me to give Bowen another go!

    1. Thank you Estelle! I hope you will give her another go – I haven’t read anything other than To the North but all I can say is that I am SURE it won’t disappoint you!

  10. I also read this on Darlene’s recommendation. I read one novel by Bowen years ago when I was just a teenager and had a very hard time with it so when I originally tried To the North and had a hard time getting in to it I put it down and thought she wasn’t for me. After reading Darlene’s review I gave it another go and the second time was the charm, I loved it! Now, thanks to the two of you, I’ve added several of her other novels to my list. Great review, as always.

    1. Oh Heather I’m so glad to hear that! To the North is truly superb, isn’t it?! Thank you – I will be doing lots more Bowen reading so watch this space!

  11. Did you know that today was Elizabeth Bowen’s birthday when you posted? I see Laura also pointed it out.

    I read The Heat of the Day a few years ago and thought it very evocative of the period; I’ve aldo readsome of her short stories and Bowen’s social-historical insights are bar none. To the North is new to me, however, and sounds exquisite – you had me at flappers and tea!

    1. I didn’t! It was a happy coincidence!

      Hehehe flappers and tea are a good enducement aren’t they?! I hope you’ll read it, Claire – I am certain you would love it.

  12. I read The Death of the Heart last year, and I was rather bored by it. After that experience, I decided to shy away from Bowen. Now, after reading your review, I will give her another chance, Rachel. This books sounds gripping, and now, I want to read To the North. Thanks so much!

    1. Oh no, Virginia! I hate to hear that! You MUST give her another try – To the North is certainly anything BUT boring and I am certain you will love it! You are welcome! I am glad to spread the joy of Bowen!

  13. Rachel, Rachel, Rachel. Why would you ask people who didn’t like Bowen to email you? You want to ask all the people who DID love Bowen to email you. That’s who you need to talk to! It’s no use trying to talk people into loving your favorite book (as I have learned to my sorrow). Anyway, I give in. May I borrow an Elizabeth Bowen book off you?

    1. Oh Jenny! I love trying to persuade people! I have a *forceful* personality, after all!😉

      No, you can HAVE an Elizabeth Bowen book off me. It can be your back up birthday present!

  14. What a beautiful and eloquent review! Your writing puts mine to shame. I haven’t read any Bowen yet and only have The Death of the Heart on the TBR shelf. I started it a few years ago and couldn’t get into it, but it was at the beginning of my classics journey. I’m sure I’d appreciate it more now that I’ve read so many classics. I’ll definitely give it another try and I’m on the look out for To the North. I am convinced!

    1. Thank you, Karen! What a lovely (and not true!) thing to say. I am so glad you enjoyed my review. I am glad I have convinced you to crack on with Bowen – give her another go soon, I promise you won’t be disappointed!

  15. If you have not already done so, I think you will love Victoria Glendinning’s biography of Elizabeth Bowen-it shows just what a “class act” Bowen was-as I think I mentioned before-I love her short stories-Glendinning says long term those are what she will most be remembered for-you might enjoy going to the Manchester Guardian web page on the book section-they have a very well done reading of Bowen’s story, “The Jungle”-I am loving your love for Bowen

    1. Mel, I’d love to read that biography – I think I’ll storm through a few more of Bowen’s novels first then reach for it. Thank you for the recommendation! I will check out that short story too – thank you so much! I am glad to find so many Bowen fans…even if there are also many detractors!😦

  16. Hello Rachel, this is my first visit to your blog, I was drawn here by noticing you’d reviewed ‘To the North’ which is a novel I LOVE, and I was bowled over by your beautiful post. What a brilliant review! I am now insanely envious of your writing ability as I am finding book reviewing painfully difficult.

    I reread ‘To the North’ just a few months ago and I can only get through the ending by pretending it’s not actually as bad as it seems (I can’t go into detail as I don’t want to ruin the ending for anyone who hasn’t read it) and ignoring all signs to the contrary like the glove.

    I think you’d really enjoy ‘The Death of the Heart’ too. I have also read ‘The Heat of the Day’, which is great, and ‘The Little Girls’ which I must try with again as I was left with the impression I was just too coarse and thick to understand it. Must also read ‘The House in Paris’…

    Anyway, thank you for such a great post, I’ll be coming back again.

    1. Hello Helen, lovely to meet you! Thank you very much – what a compliment! I have just been over to your blog and you have no reason to be envious whatsoever – you write beautifully!!

      Oh I KNOW – it’s like the end of Villette when you desperately try and convince yourself that there is a chance what you THINK happened didn’t really happen but you know deep down it did. Devastating.

      I am so looking forward to reading more Bowen – those who love her rave about her so I anticipate much joy to come!

      Thank you so much and I look forward to seeing you again!

  17. Wow. This has to be the most enthusiastic review I’ve ever read! This authour is going on my tbr list right now. Thanks for sharing!

  18. I got into Bowen through The Last September, which (it seems) is nothing like as famous or popular as I’d assumed. I’m really surprised that Amazon UK doesn’t seem to have any copies of To The North at the moment – am going to try big Waterstones on Piccadilly this week…

    1. I hope you manage to find it, Rose! I am shocked that Bowen isn’t more popular – it really perplexes me as to the reasons why some amazing novelists fall off the shelves and far more mediocre ones manage to cling on…it must just be a matter of taste…mine being different to everyone else’s! If you manage to track down To the North do come back and tell me how you got on please!

  19. I so want to read this!! And, it is summertime now, the break is on! Hopefully, there will be many great reads in the near future:)

    Can’t wait to hear your thoughts on A Tree Grows in Brooklyn! That is one of my all-time favorites.

  20. And if you read it and you don’t find it mesmerising, email me; we need to talk. – Ha you have done it again, I am in hysterics.

    I have ordered this from the library, just on your say so… so it better be good.

    1. Hehehehe glad I made you laugh Simon!! Good – and yes it is MORE than good. And you will love it. I can’t wait to read your thoughts. They better be in line with mine or you will be in big trouble!!

    1. Hi Natalie! Glad you are a Bowen fan. I have collected loads more of her books but haven’t managed to get through many more…I very much enjoyed The Heat of the Day, but I have heard that The Death of the Heart is brilliant.

  21. You are so hilarious!!! I’ve become obsessed with your website and I spend most of my days reading all your posts. And I made an account JUST to post comments. I wish I had found out about sooner, and I wish you posted as much as you used to! You must be awful busy now though because you are so famous!!

    1. Oh thank you Toya! How lovely you are – I hope you’re still enjoying reading, and don’t worry, I’m still posting! Just having a bit of a summer break!🙂

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