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!