Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Friends and Relations - Elizabeth Bowen

I had meant to post this on Monday night but got transfixed by rioting first in London, and then as it spread to Birmingham and Nottingham – both a lot closer to home, last night Leicester got its share of violence (I’m not sure why but a pound stretcher was done over, seems likely that the local ne’er do wells haven’t really worked out how this looting thing is meant to work). Tonight the police are letting the air out of the bike tyres of youths who are milling round the city centre. I’ve seen some derisive comments about this tactic on twitter but town is a lot quieter and so I’m neither complaining nor mocking. This whole chain of events seems to bring out a right wing monster in me so I’m not going to share my thoughts on events beyond a hope and belief that things are settling back down.

Now back to business, it’s almost a month since I read this book but happily (and unusually) I made quite copious notes about it (I was a fun holiday companion I can tell you). Spurred on by Book Snobs new found passion for Elizabeth Bowen I thought I’d have another go – I have a couple more of her books I want to read, really honestly want to read, and will read one day – but heavens do I find her hard work.

This was actually my second attempt at ‘Friends and Relations’, I had a run at it when I first bought it some time back but was easily distracted by something no doubt newer and more shiny. The same thing happened when I read ‘The Last September’; first time round it was a struggle but on my second attempt I loved it. Whilst reading ‘Friends and Relations’ I had to stop and re read things not just once or twice to get the proper flavour of it, but four or five times. The bit I’d already read albeit months ago was fine – enough had clearly sunk in to make an impression. I’m not sure why I have this reaction to Bowen, I enjoy her writing, I don’t find it especially hard to follow what’s going on, I engage with the characters and yet so much remains obscure and unspoken (I suppose that’s really unwritten) that taken all in all it was a bit of a struggle.

Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, I’m pretty sure that having to work for it increased the overall satisfaction I got from this book, I’ve come away from it with a lot to think over which is defiantly a good thing. The core of the book is the story of two sisters in love with one man. The complication is that he married one sister whilst being far from indifferent to the other. Sister number two is married happily to a man who adores her – which doesn’t affect her passion for her brother in law – a further twist is afforded by a mother in law and a wicked uncle who’s long ago affair led to divorce and disgrace for the mother in law and tense family meetings for the rest of the clan.

The things that interested me here are firstly what I take to be Bowen’s opinion that passion isn’t necessary for a happy marriage – the passionate marriage is indefinably wrong with the husband taking on the role of an extra, and entirely over indulged, child (I didn’t much care for Edward). Janet and her husband Rodney, despite Janet’s seeming ambivalence towards the man she’s married, are definitely contented, and more than that. It’s a vision that I find strangely attractive and reassuring – a reminder that successful relationships are about having a life in common as much as anything else.

The second thing that interested me is Lady Elfrida, Edwards’s mother who slipped with Rodney’s uncle and then realised that she didn’t love him anymore and couldn’t marry him despite her divorce. She loses her respectability and with it her confidence, marriage of any sort would have made her respectable again but she doesn’t do it which feels both brave and revolutionary.

I wonder where my next Bowen will take me.  


  1. I too have been inspired by booksnob and I too am struggling though mine is with The Heat of the Day, said to be her masterpiece. I've read and enjoyed one of hers but others I have tried and not got on with at all. I have exactly the experience you describe here -- re-reading several times to get the hang of it. I've put it aside but mean to finish it soon -- just to satisfy myself that I CAN. Glad to hear I am not alone, though.

  2. I am not sure if I am in the mood right now to read something that takes this much dedication, but whilst on a book fair last Sunday I just knew I had heard great things about Bowen somewhere, but couldn't quite remember where, I guess it must have been book snob. I have to add, that your review does make me eager to pick this up once life has settled down a little.

  3. Bowen's writing can be a struggle at times and I can fully understand why you had the experience you did with Friends and Relations, which I also found initially very hard going. The thing with her is that she deals mainly in conversation - much like Ivy Compton Burnett, who I can't stand - and so you have to stay on your toes. Plus no one ever says how they feel, and nothing ever really happens, but that's why I love it - it's all between the lines, and so skilfully done, too. I've never read novels that so evoke their period like hers do. I'm glad you got to the end and enjoyed it after the initial setback - I'm going to strongly suggest To the North as your next Bowen as I preferred that to her supposed 'masterpiece' - The Heat of the Day, which is fantastic but nothing like as good as To the North if you ask me.

  4. Harriet - my theory is that it's because she demands a lot of uninterrupted concentration from the reader. When I've read a chunk of the book already and find myself reading from the beginning again it's fine because I'm aware of the plot and able to appreciate the details. Otherwise it's the kind of demand that my reading habits struggle to comply with...

    Iris, I think you do need to be in the right mood, but when you are she's a remarkable writer.

    Books snob, I will persevere - 'the Last September' is one of my all time favourite books. I have 'To The North' to read at some point, but also have a copy of Bowen's Court which I think I'll hit next.

  5. sharing knowledge with others