After I finished the novel To the North by Elizabeth Bowen, I realized that one of the most poignant themes in literature is that of the orphan. The Victorian novelists did it so well -- Charles Dickens in "David Copperfield" and Charlotte Bronte in "Jane Eyre" are two of the most famous. "The Secret Garden" by Frances Hodgson Burnett and "The House of Mirth" by Edith Wharton are two other books dealing with this theme that come to mind. More recently, the Harry Potter books revolved around a sympathetic orphan. I remember reading "The House of Mirth" over the summer and pitying Lily Bart for her lack of family and support system. The reader watches her make so many mistakes that lead to her downfall; she would have benefited from a sister, mother or even best friend who could have advised and guided her. All of these orphans had to rely on the sympathy of distant relations or friends to whom they were a burden. They were operating in a vacuum with no role modes or instructive parent figures.
I have just discovered another author who deals with the theme of the orphan in a powerful and brilliant manner -- Elizabeth Bowen. In her 1932 novel "To the North" she tells the story of two young women who are thrown together by tragedy. Cecilia Summers is a young widow who has recently lost her husband Henry after just one year of marriage. Henry's sister Emmeline Summers (Henry and Emmeline are both orphans since childhood), who is now entirely without family, forms a bond with Cecilia after Henry's death. The two young women decide to live together and move into a sweet little house with French windows and flower filled rooms in the St. John's Wood neighborhood of London. It is there that they lead their lives, independent but finding comfort in each other's company. Their world is the other side of "Downton Abbey." Young girls living independently in London in the 1920's, they belong more to the avant-garde world of Bloomsbury than Downton Abbey. This world is vividly brought to life on the pages of this book by Bowen's exquisite prose. The girls are bright young things, attending sparkling parties, going away for country weekends, and having romances, but not quite on a firm footing with anything. And certainly not anchored down by a family like the Crawleys (from "Downton Abbey"). Emmeline has a career about which she is passionate, but there is a vague, unknown quality to these girls and their world, and hence an ominous feeling pervades our perception of their future.
From the beginning we know that Cecilia does not have a "nice character." In the very first scene of the book she meets and befriends a man who seems slightly disreputable on the train from Milan to London. She doesn't really care about this stranger at all, but she often makes decisions out of boredom and with little thought as to consequences. They exchange information and she worries that he may contact her in London. And it turns out that this man, Markie Linkwater, will play a large part in the lives of these two women. Emmeline will uncharacteristically fall head over heels in love with him. And Cecilia is so wrapped up in her own life that she never notices.
And so from the beginning we wonder what kind of influence Cecilia can have over the younger and innocent Emmeline, whom she really should be watching over. She is five years older than Emmeline and has been married; surely, we think, she can offer her some guidance and instruction about life. Though she cares deeply for her sister-m-law, Cecilia is not able to overcome her own selfishness and shallowness to be of any real help. At first we are not particularly worried about Emmeline, who is truly the more admirable character of the two. She is independent, happy, and runs a boutique travel agency with a friend in Bloomsbury. Her self-reliance and sense of contentment cause the reader to fall into the same trap that Cecilia does, not worrying about Emmeline. But Bowen's genius from the beginning of this book is to set up a foreboding of disaster that is present throughout.
"To the North" is an amazing book. It is short and powerful, and contains insights into human nature that are so true as to make us gasp with recognition. One of the most outstanding features of this book is the writing. Time and again I found passages of astounding beauty. I frequently thought: here is a great quote about love, friendship or loneliness, just to name a few of the topics Bowen writes about.
And there is wit as well. Cecilia is hosting a luncheon party at her house when she receives a telephone call from Justin Towers, the many whom she may marry; she has a tense conversation with him. She takes the call in another room and suddenly realizes she has left the door open.
"Cecilia's lunch party, having heard through the open door the first phase of the interlude, had exchanged less than a glance and, all raising their voices, maintained a strenuous conversation till she came back. They were not English for nothing."
"To the North" is a brilliant book about love and its destructive possibilities. The ending will have you on the edge of your seat. This book is a gem by the great writer Elizabeth Bowen and validates the notion of visiting books from the past by writers that are not widely read and not letting these books be forgotten. The exciting thing is discovering how many treasures there are to be found.