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To the North Paperback – April 11, 2006
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“To the North and The Death of the Heart are among the finest novels of her generation.” –V. S. Pritchett“A lavishness of imagination is brought to bear upon small moments, and the writing is of such intensity that a character is revealed in one expression, a way of life disclosed in a single scene.” –Peter Ackroyd, Sunday Times (London)“The worlds Elizabeth Bowen creates are so immediately absorbing . . . so fascinating, that one cannot help wanting more.” –Daily Telegraph
From the Back Cover
Set in London during the twenties, this fine novel centres on the lives of two young women, the recently widowed Cecilia Summers and her sister-in-law Emmeline. Cecilia, capricious and unable to really love anyone, moves reluctantly towards a second marriage to the kind, passionless Julian Tower. Emmeline, gentle but independent, is surprised to find the calm tenor of her life disturbed by her attraction to the predatory Mark Linkwater. At first she is able to accept their love-affair on Mark's terms but, in the pain of misunderstanding, Emmeline reveals her vulnerability in a violent and tragic act. Through delicate counterpoint, Elizabeth Bowen reveals her insight into the obscure motives that dictate human behaviour and explores the emotional chasm between men and women.
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Bowen's subjects, like Austen's, are typically young women in adolescence or early adulthood. But, as Henry James did in THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY, she takes them out of their domestic surroundings and thrusts them into modern society. Bowen gives us two young ladies: a young widow, Cecilia Summers, and her sister-in-law Emmeline, an independent businesswoman who runs a travel bureau (travel by train, air, or auto plays a significant part in the novel). Although close friends, the two are strongly contrasted: Cecilia stylish, but emotionally exhausted and barely able to cope with practical matters; Emmeline supremely competent, but shy and emotionally naive. For most of the book, very little happens, but we can deduce a great deal, in Jamesian fashion, by reading in between the lines of what does. That "affair," for instance, is implied only through hints. By the end of her career, as in THE HEAT OF THE DAY (1949), Bowen would describe sexual relationships unambiguously if not in detail, but in this relatively early novel (1932) she is almost as reticent as James himself. In both books, she is less interested in the facts of a relationship than its ultimate effects.
Bowen does a lot by indirect means. The book is full of landscape descriptions, evocative in themselves, and even more so as a reflection of character. A man in a bad mood walks in a suburban park: "Then someone's wife opened a cold piano: she tinkled, she tippetted, she struck false chords and tried them again. God knows what she thought she was doing. The notes fell on his nerves like the drops of condensed mist all round on the clammy beech-branches." Contrast his optimistic lover: "The glades of St. John's Wood were still at their brief summer: walls gleamed through thickets, red may was clotted and crimson, laburnums showered the pavements, smoke had not yet tarnished a leaf. The heights of this evening had an airy superurbanity: one heard the ping of tennis-balls, a man wheeled a barrow of pink geraniums, someone was practising the violin, sounds and late sunshine sifted through the fresh trees."
This feeling for ambience is essential to the bookend chapters that frame TO THE NORTH and give the book its title -- two journeys, both at night: a train trip from Milan to Calais in the rain, and a car drive northwards out of London. They balance one another with a symmetry that holds the entire novel between them, brilliantly contrasting the two central women, and answering the earlier comedy with seriousness. The novel may have flaws -- it flags about half-way through, and the men are less well-realized than the women -- but it remains a penetrating study of the interwar period when many women were looking to define themselves other than through traditional society expectations. And when Bowen pulls everything together in the last fifty pages, the result is quite simply magnificent.
"It is too bad," said Lady Waters, crossing the hall that night with her little file of visitors on their way upstairs to bed, "that Julian Tower had to go back so soon."
"Indeed, yes," said Pauline politely.
Cecilia said nothing: winding a wrap round her shoulders she stepped out into the porch. Above, the dark sky changed a little; something stirring behind the clouds shed a faint line of silver about the lime-tree. Cecilia looked up: while not a drop fell in the heavy darkness the clouds were in conflict, disturbed; light ran between like a messenger. Somewhere, the moon was rising. Somewhere, clear of earth's shadow, the radiant full moon received the whole smile of the sun. Clouds hid from the earth at this bridal moment her lovely neighbour, while to the clouds alone was communicated her ecstasy...Clouds closed in; the moon did not appear; darkness spread over the skies again; only the lime and wet path silver for less than a moment had known the moon's rising. The tree and path faded; cloudbound while that tide of light swept the heavens earth less than suspected the moon's perfection and ardour.
Cecilia sighed. "It's horribly dark," said Marcelle, throwing a match away into the darkness.
"That was nearly the moon," cried Pauline.
"Yes, it's there," said Cecilia, putting a hand out as though she expected the moon to fall into it.
Gathering up her furs, Lady Waters remarked: "It's a pity: we should have had a full moon."
Calling them all in, she shut the hall-door firmly.
"Perhaps," said Cecilia, "there is a moon in Paris."
To The North has many moments of delicate irony, masterful characterization and setting. Bowen's characters are quite the most real and compelling I have read. She has been compared to Jane Austen, and, at the risk of offending Austen fans, I'll say that I find Bowen was more interesting because she was more learned and worldly than Jane Austen. Imagine for a moment that Jane Austen had been born into the aristocratic class, and how that would have influenced and benefited her development as an author by granting her a greater social sphere, more congress with other intellectuals, more money, etc., and you would have an author much like Bowen.