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.