Elizabeth Bowen’s luminous novel, To the North, is a classic, and seems, at first glance, surprisingly contemporary, especially in its descriptions of work. Although this novel is not about work, Bowen details the quotidian pleasures and problems of an unorthodox travel agency which specializes in off-the-beaten-track vacations. Bowen’s upper-class heroines can work or not, just as they choose, and needn’t fight to get out of the house, as in many novels of this era. (It was published in 1932 and set in the ’20s).
But of course the novel is more about love than work.
Under ordinary circumstances, the two young heroines, with very different attitudes towards love and work, might not be friends, but they are related by marriage. Emmeline, a quiet, creative young businesswoman and part-owner of a travel agency, thrives on work. Cecilia, the widow of Emmeline’s brother, takes taxis and goes to parties. She doesn’t work.
Work isn’t the problem in To the North. The problem is love.
Cecilia and Emmeline share a house Emmeline found (because she is a travel agent, of course), in a street no one has ever heard of, in a slightly inconvenient neighborhood. Cecilia, an attractive, witty woman in her late twenties, still misses her late husband and stares often at his photograph. At parties she attracts many men, with whom she can’t seem to fall in love, and is especially annoyed by Julian, a kind, sophisticated, serious suitor. Emmeline co-owns a very odd travel agency: she and her partner are committed to sending clients to places they’ve never heard of, where being uncomfortable is part of the bargain, and almost chic.
The two young women love each other, but don’t understand each other. When Cecilia is overdrawn at the bank, she stops taking taxis, but she doesn’t like to stay home alone: she asks Emmeline if she won’t spend more money entertaining at home than going out.
Emmeline, on the other hand, doesn’t enjoy parties, doesn’t think about love, and spends most of her time thinking up new travel itineraries. She also reads in bed, and I must quote this next sentence because I know most of you will love it. “Nothing could be as dear as the circle of reading-light around her pillow.”
When Cecilia returns from a trip to Italy, Bowen unnervingly describes both her deep loneliness and her reveling in leisure.
Cecilia resumed life at high pressure: before she was into her bath two people had rung up to know whether she had arrived. Then–as she could not bear to miss anyone–she was called twice from her bath to the telephone, and stood steaming and talking, while patches of damp from her skin came through her wrapper. It would have been sad to return unnoticed. All the same, as she lay turning on with her toe more and more hot water, melancholy invaded her. She thought how at sunset the little hills lapped like waves round Urbino, and having brought her whole pile of letters into her bath with her read them, all blotchy with steam, with tears in her eyes, dropping sodden envelopes on to the bath-room floor.”
It is Cecilia’s meeting on a train with Markie, an aggressive, power-hungry barrister, that disrupts their menage. It is not Cecilia who falls in love with him: she drops him soon, summing him up as an upstart and cad. Emmeline, who has never been in love with anyone, falls for him: she finds him very funny, enjoys his attention, and doesn’t understand his determination not to commit. She doesn’t tell Cecilia she is seeing him.
Emmeline’s relationship with him of course hurts her commitment to work. Markie is cruel to her: she almost blacks out his cruelties. Her looks fade. When he tells her he will never marry her, when he mocks the special arrangements she has made for a dinner, she is breathless but manages to ignore it. No amount of hurt will tell her he’s not for her.
As in all of Bowen’s novels, her elegant, poetic, vivid style almost obscures the plot. If you don’t like style, Bowen is not for you. In fact, Bowen seems to laugh at her own inimitable, gorgeous sentences in the passage below, Emmeline’s response to a long speech by Cecilia about Julian.
She had sat staring so fixedly at Cecilia that Cecilia had disappeared; instead, she had seen spinning sentences, little cogs interlocked, each clicking each other round.”
One of the best novels of the summer, one of the best novels I’ve ever read, and yes, it makes my If I Were Oprah Book Club.