About this title:
A young woman’s secret love affair leads to a violent and tragic act in one of Elizabeth Bowen’s most acclaimed novels. To the North centers on two young women in 1920s London, the recently widowed Cecilia Summers and her late husband's sister, Emmeline. Drawn to each other in the wake of their loss, the two set up house together and gradually become more entwined than they know.
About the Author:
But the comfortable refuge they have made is "a house built on sand"; both realize it cannot last. While Cecilia, capricious and unsure if she can really love anyone, moves reluctantly toward a second marriage, Emmeline, a gentle and independent soul, is surprised to find the calm tenor of her life disturbed for the first time by her attraction to the predatory Mark Linkwater. Bowen’s psychological acuity is on full display in a conclusion that plumbs the depths of this seemingly detached young woman in a single, life-shattering moment.
Elizabeth Bowen was born in Dublin in 1899, the only child of an Irish lawyer and landowner. Her book Bowen's Court (1942) is the history of her family and their house, in County Cork. Throughout her life, she divided her time between London and Bowen's Court, which she inherited. She wrote many acclaimed novels and short story collections, was awarded the CBE in 1948, and was made a Companion of Literature by the Royal Society of Literature in 1965. She died in 1973.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Towards the end of April a breath from the north blew cold down Milan platforms to meet the returning traveller. Uncertain thoughts of home filled the station restaurant where the English sat lunching uneasily, facing the clock. The Anglo-Italian express--Chiasso, Lucerne, Basle and Boulogne--leaves at 2.15: it is not a train deluxe. To the north there were still the plains, the lakes, the gorges of the Ticino, but, as the glass brass-barred doors of the restaurant flashed and swung, that bright circular park outside with its rushing girdle of trams was the last of Italy.
Cecilia Summers, a young widow returning to London, was among the first to board the express. She had neglected to book a place and must be certain of comfort. She dropped her fur coat into a corner seat, watched the porter heave her dressingcase into the rack, sighed, got out again and for a few minutes more paced the platform. By the time she was seated finally, apathy had set in; when two more women entered she shut her eyes. Getting up steam, the express clanked out through the bleached and echoing Milan suburbs that with washing strung over the streets sustained like an affliction the sunless afternoon glare. . . . As they approached Como, Cecilia and her companions spread wraps and papers over the empty places; but an English general got in with his wife, creating a stir of annoyance. The general took one long look at Cecilia, then put up The Times between them.
At Chiasso they stopped dead, it appeared for ever. Rain fell darkly against the walls of the sheds; Cecilia began to feel she was in a cattle truck shunted into a siding. English voices rang down the corridor; Swiss officials stumped up and down the train. She thought how in Umbria the world had visibly hung in light, and a bird sang in the window of a deserted palace: tears of quick sensibility pricked her eyelids. As the wait prolonged itself and a kind of dull tension became apparent, she sent one wild comprehensive glance round her fellow travellers, as though less happy than cattle, conscious, they were all going to execution.
The St. Gothard, like other catastrophes, becomes unbearable slowly and seems to be never over. For some time they blinked in and out of minor tunnels; suffocation and boredom came to their climax and lessened; one was in Switzerland, where dusk fell in sheets of rain. Unwilling, Cecilia could not avert her eyes from all that magnificence in wet cardboard: ravines, profuse torrents, crag, pine and snow-smeared precipice, chalets upon their brackets of hanging meadow. Feeling a gassy vacancy of the spirit and stomach she booked a place eagerly for the first service of dinner. She had lunched in Milan too early and eaten little. She pulled a novel out of her dressing-case, picked up her fur coat and ran down-train behind the attendant. The general sighed; he was romantic, it pained him to see a beautiful woman bolt for the dining-car.
In the dining-car it was hot; the earliest vapours of soup dimmed the windows; Cecilia unwound her scarf. She watched fellow passengers shoot through the door and stagger unhappily her way between the tables, not knowing where to settle. The train at this point rocks with particular fury. It seemed possible she might remain alone; this first service, with its suggestion of the immoderate, does not commend itself to the English; also, Cecilia by spreading out gloves, furs and novel, occupied her own table completely, and had the expression, at once alert and forbidding, of a woman expecting a friend.
She was not, however, unwilling to dine in company. Looking up once more, she met the eyes of a young man who, balancing stockily, paused to survey the car. A gleam of interest and half-recognition, mutually flattering, passed between them. They retracted the glance, glanced again: the train lurched, the young man shot into the place opposite Cecilia.
Unnerved by the accident, or his precipitancy, she rather severely withdrew her gloves, handbag and novel from his side of the table. The young man touched his tie, glanced at his nails and looked out of the window. Cecilia picked up the menu and studied it; the young man with careful politeness just did not study Cecilia. When the waiter planked down two blue cups her companion looked at the soup; she just heard him sigh. He was in no way pathetic and not remarkably young: about thirty-three. She was to say later she had looked first--and regretted now she had done so--at his Old Harrovian tie: the only tie, for some reason, she ever recognised. He picked up his spoon and she noted his hands: well-kept, not distinguishedlooking. By the end of five minutes he had composed himself for Cecilia, from a succession of these half-glances, as being square and stocky, clean shaven, thickish about the neck and jaw, with a capable, slightly-receding forehead, mobile, greedy, intelligent mouth and the impassive bright quick-lidded eyes of an agreeable reptile. Presentable, he might even be found attractive--but not by Cecilia.
The wine-waiter took their two orders, came back and put down the bottles. The train flung itself sideways; the bottles, clashing together, reeled; Cecilia's and his hands flew out to catch them. Their fingers collided; they had to smile.
"Terrible," said the young man.
With his napkin he polished a hole on the steamy window and looked through. "Where are we?" he said.
Cecilia, doing the same, said: "It looks like a lake."
"Yes, doesn't it: terribly."
"Don't you like lakes?" said Cecilia, with irrepressible curiosity.
"No," he said briefly, and lakes disappeared.
"This must be Lucerne."
"Do you think so?" the young man said, impressed, and looked through again. Woolly white mists covered the lake: through rifts in the mist the dark inky water appeared, forbidding: they ran along an embankment. Malevolence sharpened his features; he seemed pleased to catch Switzerland en deshabille--some old grudge, perhaps, from a childish holiday. "Why," thought Cecilia, "can I never travel without picking someone up?" His manner and smile were, however, engaging. She looked sideways; torn darkening mist streamed past her eyes; above, on the toppling rocks where the hotels were still empty showed a few faint lights. It all looked distraught but perpetual, like an after-world. And in an after-world, she might deserve just such a companion: too close, glancing at her--if any shreds of the form still clung to the spirit--without sympathy, with just such a cold material knowingness.
For his part, he considered her broad pretty hands with their pointed fingers and narrow platinum wedding-ring, her smooth throat with the faint collier de Venus and gleam of dark pearls inside the unknotted scarf, her shoulders, the not quite unconscious turn-away of her head. She had charming dark eyes, at once sparkling and shadowy, fine nostrils, a pretty impetuous over-expressive mouth. A touch of naivety in her manner contrasted amusingly with the assurance and finish of her appearance: she was charmingly dressed. One glance at her book--in the austere white covers of the Nouvelle Revue Francaise--made him fear she might turn out pretentious, even a bore. The very thought of an intellectual talk as they writhed through Switzerland over a muggy dinner made him sweat with discomfort and put a finger inside his collar. Looking again, however, he saw that the pages were uncut. He supposed she had borrowed the book from someone she wished to impress. In this he wronged Cecilia, who had chosen the book this morning, to please herself only, in the arcades at Milan.
"I hope," he said, with engaging deference, "you weren't keeping this table for anyone?"
"I'm sorry?" Cecilia enquired, returning her eyes from the lake.
"I said, I hoped you weren't keeping this table?"
"Oh no. . . . One could hardly expect to."
"No," he said. "No, I suppose not."
She found his way of not smiling a shade equivocal.
"With the train so full," she said coldly.
"Here comes the fish: sole, they say-- Do you know I thought for a moment . . ."
"What?" said Cecilia, who could not help smiling.
"I thought for a moment we'd met."
"I don't think so."
"No, I suppose not."
She saw no reason why he should be amused. It amused him that a woman with such command of a look--for never (he thought) had he been more clearly invited to dine in company--should keep such an odd little flutter behind her manner. She remarked rather nervously: "Last time I came back from Italy someone thought I was a Russian. . . . A Russian," she said, and looked sideways into the window--for they now ran through a cutting--where a reflected faint shadow under the cheek bones, with a sparkling petulant vagueness, accounted for the mistake.
"It would depend," he said gravely, "what Russians one knew."
Cecilia complained that she did not care for the fish. The indifferent wine set a pretty flush under her eyes; though she told herself she did not like him her manner animated and warmed. If she did not like him, she loved strangers, strangeness: for the moment he had the whole bloom of that irreplaceable quality. Dim with her ignorance, lit by her fancy, any stranger went straight to her head--she had little heart. She could enjoy in a first glance all the deceptions of intimacy. With one dear exception, she never cared much for anyone she knew well.
His name was Mark Linkwater. From the casualness with which he had let this appear in their talk, she took him to be a young man of importance, in his own eyes if not in the world's. It would seem likely the world shared his view of himself; he would be far too shrewd to admit what he could not impose. If,...
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