How much Irish literature can one read in one week?
If you’re working, the answer is, “Not that much.” But several books by Irish writers have spontaneously mushroomed on my coffee table, and it seems a good idea to read them.
I just finished Elizabeth Bowen’s A World of Love, an intense, poetic novel that is less perfect than her most famous books, The Death of the Heart (everyone’s favorite) and The Heat of the Day (a novel I like even more). But it is graceful and concise, if slightly uneven, and the vivid characters wholly inhabit my imagination. Bowen explores the strong bond among three Anglo-Irish women who loved, or imagine themselves in love with, the previous owner of their country house, Guy, who died in World War I.
Twenty-year-old Jane, who has been educated in England, is home on a visit before taking her first job. In the attic she finds a packet of love letters written by Guy, and she falls in love with the vivacious persona of the letters. Her mother, Lilia, was engaged to Guy before the war, and Jane assumes the letters are to her mother. But Antonia, Guy’s cousin, the pragmatic owner of Monefort and the patroness of the family, is uneasy, and soon Jane, too, cottons on to the fact that the letters are written to an unknown.
The dilapidated Irish mansion is the perfect background for the mixed feelings of vexation, dislike, and obligation that tie the two older women together. Antonia, who inherited the house after Guy’s death, felt responsible for Lilia, the beautiful but stupid fiancée, and eventually arranged her marriage to Fred, a cousin who married Lilia in return for living and farming at Montefort.
And Jane romantically sees Guy’s ghost at a disappointing dinner at a rich neighbor’s house, where Jane fails to find anyone appropriate to love.
Over the course of the novel, Bowen also impressionistically reveals the nature of Antonia’s relationship with Guy.
Montefort, the house, is one of the main characters.
“For the small mansion had an air of having gone down: for one thing, trees had been felled around it, leaving space impoverished and the long low roofline framed by too much sky. The door no longer knew hospitality; moss obliterated the sweep for the turning carriage; the avenue lived on as a rutted track, and a poor fence, close up to the hosue, served to keep back wandering grazing cattle. Had the facade not carried a ghost of style, Montefort would have looked, as it almost did, like the annex of its farm buildings…”
A World of Love ends abruptly, and the mood of the ending doesn’t match the sophistication and surprises of the rest of the novel.
So read her better known novels first. But I still liked A World of Love.