Family relationships, even the best of them, can be unsettling, can’t they? Some families go for the “let’s share everything and do a group hug approach,” while others ignore (frequently for years) that huge emotional elephant in the middle of the room that is dominating their lives. Still others steer a midway course between disclosure and concealment that still, inevitably, leads to disaster. In short, isn’t it amazing how very difficult, not to say problematical, family life and friendships can become? These observations are particularly fitting for my review of Elizabeth Bowen’s Friends & Relations, as Bowen is a novelist with whom I’ve had a long and unsettling, not to say problematical relationship. Since I have a weakness for subtle, skilled, mid-20th century female British novelists, Bowen has been on my radar, and heavily represented on my bookshelves, for quite some time. And yet …. my reaction to her work is, quite frequently, “hmmm, I’m not really sure that she merits her rep (glowing assestments from Harold Bloom, no less) and I’m really not sure that I liked what I just read.” And yet, there’s undeniably something there, as far as I’m concerned; Bowen published ten novels and this makes the seventh one that I’ve read! Moreover, when I decided to participate in the 2019 Classics Challenge hosted by Karen K. at Books and Chocolate my only question about Bowen was “which novel will I read and what category will I put it in?” I ultimately selected Friends & Relations, published in 1931 and one of Bowen’s very early works of fiction, to satisfy the Challenge’s 20th Century Classic category.
Bowen, who was pretty upper crust herself (being an Anglo Irish aristocrat with an inherited ancestral home in Ireland) drew the “friends and relations” of her title from four upper class English families in the decade or two before the second World War. In a brief 160 odd pages of masterly prose Bowen shows you in some detail the orderly, elegant structure of her characters’ lives. The novel opens (in a section titled “Edward and Rodney”) with the wedding of pretty, conventional Laurel Studdart to Edward Tilney, followed shortly afterwards by the engagement of her younger, more introverted sister Janet to Rodney Meggatt, an even better match as Rodney’s the heir to a landed estate. “The Fine Week,” the novel’s second section, covers a brief period that occurs roughly ten years after the sisters’ weddings. At this time both couples have settled into the easy domestic routine of their time and class — servants (mostly off stage and doing the heavy lifting), kids (one for Janet, two for Laurel), life in the country (Janet and Rodney), a London routine (Laurel and Edward, who works in a government ministry) — all amid friends and connections from two other English families much like themselves. Included among the latter is Lady Elfrida, Edward’s slightly disreputable mother, Considine Meggatt, Rodney’s uncle and Lady Elfrida’s former lover, and Theodora Thirdman, a family “friend” who’s one of Bowen’s great comic creations. It is Theodora’s insatiable taste for drama and her monstrous narcissism (hopefully, none of your friends and relations include anyone like her. If they do, you’re in trouble) that leads to the seemingly trivial act disrupting the careful structure of the others’ lives. The resulting consequences, which occur on a single day, are covered in the novel’s third section (“Wednesday”). The novel’s plot, setting and characters are all very “Downton Abbey with a bit of a twist” and, if you care for that sort of thing (I do, to some extent, particularly when it’s as well written as this) reason enough to read this novel.
Reading Friends for its plot and character, however, largely misses its point. Bowen is a greatt stylist and her novel’s complexity (and, for all its brevity, this novel is very complex) lies in its style. Very gradually and elliptically, so gradually and elliptically that I wasn’t sure at first that I was drawing the right inferences (it turns out that I was), Bowen reveals the emotinal secret that governs her couples’ lives. The subtlety of Bowen’s prose, her time shifts, her elliptical and sometime incomplete dialogue, place definite demands on the reader, who sometimes has to use the prose to infer key information rather than being told it directly. To be blunt, this is not a novel to skim quickly while eating dinner and watching TV; it requires attention, care and, at times, a re-read of certain key passages. A subplot of the novel involving Lady Elfrida bears mentioning, as her ladyship’s very public sexual escapades have reverberated in the following generation, contributing to her son Edward’s rather uptight and priggish nature and at one point threatening Janet’s marriage to Rodney. Whether Bowen intends the reader to draw a moral from this is unclear; I didn’t myself and don’t feel I lost anything by failing to do so.
I fear I’ve made Friends & Relations sound terribly serious, haven’t I? If so, I’ve done both Bowen and her novel a disservice. Although it’s a bit too bittersweet to be a comedy, Bowen’s dialogue and descriptions can be very, very funny; morevoer, Lady Elfrida and especially Theodora are wonderful, comedic characters. Although I didn’t think that Janet in particular was fully fleshed out and Rodney was never more to me than a cipher, Bowen has moments of real emotional insight and tenderness, such as her description towards the end of the novel of Laurel and Janet’s aging parents:
They did not miss their daughters but they regretted them. After dinner, pulling round arm-chairs to the fire, with backs to the empty room, she played patience, with the board over her knee; he finished a detective story a night. If he died first, she would stay on here for the grandchildren; if she died first the house would be given up. Once or twice in an evening their eyes met.
Would I recommend this novel? Definitely, with a few caveats. Don’t be misled by its brevity and expect to read it quickly; have patience; focus on its style and language and be tolerant of its rather pedestrian plot and the conventions of upperclass British life between the wars. Friends & Relations is an early novel, considered by many to be unrepresentative of Bowen’s best work. For this reason, I recommend, if you’ve never read Bowen or you only intend to read one of her ten books, that you begin with, or read, a different work, perhaps The Last September, The Death of the Heart (my own favorite so far) or, if you want an atmospheric WWII “London in the Blitz” setting, The Heat of the Day. Do I like Bowen’s work myself or do I merely appreciate her ability as a writer? Do I think her glowing reputation is deserved? So very, very difficult to decide the precise nature of my problematical relationship with this writer ….. I think I’ll make up my mind after I read Eva Trout …………. or perhaps The Hotel ……