Friends and Relations by Elizabeth Bowen

Sigh. My love affair with Elizabeth Bowen continues. I am furious with myself for not reading her sooner. How can such an exquisite novelist who so suits my taste have not been on my radar for years? Why don’t I own a single novel by her? Why have I always bypassed her in second hand book shops? I simply don’t know. However, I am now making up for lost time. I am currently about to dive into The Death of the Heart, but first I must tell you about Friends and Relations. I don’t understand why this is the only one of Bowen’s novels that is currently out of print, as it’s a brilliantly perceptive piece of writing, and I genuinely couldn’t put it down. Bowen’s insight is extraordinary; in describing a glance she communicates a soul, and it is truly refreshing to read prose that is so effortlessly stylish without being self conscious. Bowen was a master craftswoman, and in Friends and Relations she shows how magnificent she is at depicting the complexities of the human heart and the relationships it forms with others.

The novel hinges on the friendships and relationships of the Studdarts, Tilneys, Meggatts and Thirdmans. The action begins at the wedding of the lovely young Laurel Studdart to the equally fair and lovely Edward Tilney. At the wedding we are introduced to Laurel’s sensible county parents, Colonel and Mrs Studdart, and her dark and interesting sister Janet, who has ‘interests’ rather than young men. Edward has a beautiful, glamorous and dissolute mother, Lady Elfrida Tilney, who was divorced by his father because of a torrid affair with a well known aristocratic explorer, Considine Meggatt. Hovering in the background are the socially uncertain friends of the Studdarts, Willa and Alex Thirdman, just back from Switzerland with their awkward teenage daughter Theodora, who is anxious to forge an alliance with the beautiful and elusive Studdart sisters. From this initial cast of characters, the story blossoms, as their lives interweave with one another’s over the course of the next ten years.

Shortly after Laurel and Edward’s wedding, Janet surprisingly announces her engagement to the dashing Rodney Meggatt, nephew and heir of Considine, Lady Elfrida’s old flame. This causes much difficuly and distress, due to the awkwardness of the two families becoming related, but after some deliberation, it is allowed to go ahead, and within the space of a year, both Studdart sisters are successfully married off. Bowen describes their early married lives, with Laurel and Edward’s sweet affection towards one another, and the strange awkwardness between Laurel and Janet, who cannot seem to find the words to describe their feelings to one another. Neither appear to have much passion in their relationships; the passion in the novel seems to have been reserved for Theodora. After a fractious summer spent moping around her parent’s stuffy Gloucester Road flat, making prank phone calls to people she met at the Studdarts’ wedding, she is packed off to boarding school by her anxious parents, where her attempts at attention seeking and desire to socially better herself by writing letters to people who have no desire to be friends with her are absolutely hilarious, and a perfect rendering of the embarrassing and totally un-self aware behaviour of teenagers.

We then skip forward ten years to see Janet and Laurel’s marriages in their maturity, now that children have come along and life has become routine. Laurel and Edward are struggling to make ends meet in Kensington, while Janet and Rodney live in Considine’s stately manor house, Batts, in the rolling countryside. Laurel and Edward are devoted to their children Anna and Simon, but they are nothing like their parents and their relationships are full of misunderstandings. Hermione, Janet and Rodney’s only child, is also a changeling, who appears to not fit in anywhere. Both marriages are quietly happy, and life is fine, but there is a lack of event and passion in all of their lives. Only Theodora, now in her twenties, and still insisting on having a place in the Studdart sisters’ lives, has any life to her, flinging her way around her friends noisily and spreading gossip wherever she goes. She is a stark contrast to the quieter, opaque Studdart sisters, whose true hearts never really allow themselves to be shown. Like the female characters in To the North, both Laurel and Janet are incredibly vague, and total enigmas to the reader. They say everything but precisely what they mean, as do Edward and Rodney, and so much is unsaid that it is almost painful to read their conversations, as they dance around the subject and quietly ache inside.

Bowen’s strength is in the period details and the magnificent dialogue between the characters. Her pen is so graceful, and so sparse; nothing extraneous leaks into her prose, and she makes her reader work to fill in between her lines. Bowen’s characters are fascinating, largely because she doesn’t reveal everything about them to the reader, as should be right; where is the mystery, the intrigue, the interest, in a character who has all their feelings and thoughts laid bare on the page? The most interesting aspect of the novel, however, is the legacy of Lady Elfrida’s affair with Considine Meggatt; their passion for one another hangs like a cloud over the lives of her son, his wife, Considine’s nephew and his wife. Their humdrum marriages cannot hope to compete with the intensity of feeling Lady Elfrida was capable of, and knowing that such passion can exist, can they ever be content with their own quiet lives?

There is much to savour, enjoy, intrigue and shock in this wonderful novel. Bowen is sublime, and I can’t wait to read more of her. Unfortunately, as I said, Friends and Relations is out of print, but it is widely available second hand, so I hope some of you will be able to read it.

ps. I have put up some more lovely books for sale in my shop, so do pop over and see if anything takes your fancy!

18 comments

  1. This was one of the least well received of EB’s novels. So much for the professional reviewers – as far as I’m concerned, everything she wrote is worth reading and Theodora (one of the many misfit girls she created so brilliantly) saves the book. So funny and, in her way, so loveable, even when she’s making us cringe.
    I am savouring every moment of your discovery of my favourite author. What will you choose next, I wonder? And will you ever be disappointed? I don’t think so. Still another 8 or 9 to go, if you include the collection of her magnificent short stories. You lucky, lucky person to have all that bliss ahead of you.
    In a way, I’m at the same stage with Dorothy Whipple.

    1. Yes, and I can’t think why. I thought it was brilliant. Theodora is especially wonderful, as you say – a perfectly realised awkward teenager. Well I have The Heat of the Day on my TBR pile and will be starting that just as soon as I’ve got through my current read – I can’t wait! I doubt I will ever find anything of Bowen’s that isn’t worth reading – she is amazing! You are going to adore all of Whipple’s novels but I suspect Greenbanks will strike an especial chord with you…so much joy for YOU to come!!

  2. This is an author that I have missed. I guess I spent too much of my life reading children’s books. Discovering new authors is one of the joys of retirement. Thank you for heading me in the right direction. You write such and intriguing review that I want to find the book immediately.

    1. Janet, don’t let any more time pass before you pick up a Bowen! She is truly marvellous. You are so welcome and thank you for your lovely compliments – I am only too glad to be able to introduce you to some new literary loves!

  3. I am so glad that you enjoyed Bowen enough to pick up another title so soon and does it ever sound good! Such a shame that it’s out of print though, I’m ready to buy.

    Your love affair with Bowen will grow even more once you get around to reading Beauman’s bio of Elizabeth Taylor. She was such a dedicated and loyal friend.

    1. Oh it is, Darlene! I’m sure you’d love it! I know, it is annoying – but seems to be widely and cheaply available second hand so do try and see if you can track down a copy!

      I can’t wait to read that bio, Darlene, you have so intrigued me…I need to whip through all of my Elizabeth Taylors when I get home and then I shall get cracking on that biography!

  4. Yet another fine author you have introduced me to, Rachel, and thanks to your reviews, one I will seek out. I love to look through the bargain bins and the rows upon rows of books in a used book shop and then giggle with glee when I find someone I have been looking for, don’t you?

    Your assessment of Bowen is as intriguing as that of the book and with regards of her work as in your line “Her pen is so graceful, and so sparse; nothing extraneous leaks into her prose, and she makes her reader work to fill in between her lines.” I just know this book and this author will be read by myself sometime soon.

    1. I am so glad to hear that, Penny! I am certain you will love Bowen and I hope it won’t be long before you gleefully turn up something by her in one of those bargain bins!!!

      Oh thank you, how lovely – good luck in your search for a Bowen!

  5. I must shame-facedly confess that I’ve not read anything by Elizabeth Bowen, but I will endeavour to rectify this soon, if not sooner. First stop tomorrow, after brekkie, will be my local library. If there’s no joy to be found there (in a Bowen context, I mean – there’s always joy to be found at the library), I’ll start checking out some second-hand shops (‘real’ ones and on-line ones) and see what I can (hopefully) come up with. I’ll let you know how I get on with my search and my introduction to Ms. Bowen. I think I’m going to love her work, just by reading your review of this book.Thanks for sharing all your discoveries, like this one, with us, Rachel.

    1. Well June, I hadn’t either until last month so we can both be novices together! I hope that you managed to find some Bowen in the library – she is such a treat to read and I can never bear to finish reading her! You are so welcome – it’s a pleasure to share the joy that is a fantastic author!

  6. I’m the same way with Jhumpa Lahiri – one of my favourite authors. I’ve read and re-read ‘The Namesake’ and ‘Interpreter of Maladies’ so many times now, that I could probably recite some of either or both of them by this stage. I love her beautiful and evocative style of expression so much so that I just do not look forward to either the short story or the book to end.

    I was that way with ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’ – I was so in love with that book that I really had a difficult time parting with it and giving it back to its rightful owner, the local library. But it’s a complaint that I make with lots of love attached. To have authors like these, who write incredible works of beauty like these, makes the ‘pain’ of seeing the story or the book come to an end all the more easy to cope with.

    I’m so looking forward to reading Elizabeth Bowen. I’ve put in a request/order form for a couple of her books at my local library, as they’ve none at that particular branch. Fingers crossed they won’t keep me waiting too long. Thanks again, Rachel.

    1. I love The Namesake, June, and must get around to reading Interpreter of Maladies. Oh A Tree Grows in Brooklyn! Such a beautiful novel! I am so excited for you to discover Elizabeth Bowen – we have many favourites in common so I have no doubt that she will be a new love of yours!

  7. Must just be an oversight that it is not in print-great review-I am looking forward to your eventual move into the short stories of Bowen-

    1. Well I think it got much worse reviews than the others and is considered a lesser work which I don’t agree with at all. Oooh I am excited at the thought of short stories, I have to say!

  8. Oh if only I had known you were reading Death of the Heart sooner… we could have had a joint read-a-long. Oh drats. I saved a copy of that very book from pulping recently along with some other gems.

    This sounds like another marvellous Bowen book. In fact really the way you describe her books they are going to all be marvellous if they carry on in this way. I will have to get reading her soon. I feel I might be missing out.

  9. I come to this as I am about 1/3 of the way through “The Death …”, which I just described on Facebook today as “desperately beautiful.” My third Bowen.

    1. Oh Steve, we are both having the joy of discovering Bowen…I can’t wait to read The Death of the Heart! I just finished The Heat of the Day and it was spectacular. You must read To the North if you haven’t already…it’s still my favourite so far!

  10. Just finished Friends and Relations this minute and went to find out what others had thought–yours was the first post I happened upon. I can only read her in doses. Her writing affects my mood more than feels healthy. House in Paris left me shaking.

    I can’t articulate what I feel for Bowen. You do so well! Thank you.

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