So, being (as I was) at the seaside, and thinking about doing some rereading of Elizabeth Bowen, and happening to read a piece by Tessa Hadley in the Guardian about Eva Trout, her last novel (1969), in which she says that for Bowen ‘English seaside towns are carnival, unsound, stimulating places, where anything crazy might happen’, Eva Trout it was.
Eva is big, ungainly, awkward, solitary, wealthy, ungovernable, and she creates havoc: friendships splinter, marriages break up, estate agents are bewildered. Not least because of the misfit between, on the one hand, love and sex and desire, and on the other, the social codes. Eva is on the back foot from the start: family ties, after her father’s affair with the man who, until she comes into her inheritance, is her guardian, are nil.
Eva remembering another girl at the ‘experimental’ school she was sent to: ‘The hand on the blanket, the beseeching answering beating heart. The dark: the unseen distance, the known nearness. Love: the here and the now and the nothing-but. The step on the stairs. Don’t take her away, DON’T take her away. She is all I am. We are all there is.’ Against such, the whole awkwardness and comic absurdity of frustrated desire in action – here is Eric responding impulsively to Eva’s bland indifference to why he has left his wife to come to her: ‘Eric got hold of Eva by the pouchy front of her anorak and shook her. The easy articulation of her joints made this rewarding – her head rolled on her shoulders, her arms swung from them. Her teeth did not rattle, being firm in their gums, but coins and keys all over her clinked and jingled. Her hair flumped all ways like a fiddled-about-with mop. The crisis became an experiment: he ended by keeping her rocking, at slowing tempo, left-right, left-right, off one heel and onto the other, meanwhile pursing his lips and frowning speculatively. The experiment interested Eva too. Did it gratify her too much? – he let go abruptly.’
Like Eva herself, the novel is preposterous. A child is acquired by criminal means; the child turns out to be deaf and dumb; a chapter is given over to a letter from a character never met, and which is never received by its addressee; a mock marriage verges on becoming a real one; a gun is introduced, and you know that at some point it will be fired, and it is. Many of the sentences too (‘those prickly sentences,’ says Tessa Hadley of Bowen’s habitual style; my italics): ‘As though the train had started and started swaying, they swayed slightly.’ But it’s one of those late works in which an author has earned the right to go off the rails (TH: ‘There’s something of a lordly, deliberate carelessness in how Eva’s story’s emphasis is on accidentals, random swerves’), and in this case the ride is exhilarating.
For Tessa Hadley on Eva Trout, see here; or buy the new Vintage edition, which has Hadley’s piece as an introduction.
(I'd've prefaced this with a photo of my 1971 Panther paperback edition, whose cover is more true to the book than than the new Vintage edition, which suggests 1920s/30s and is altogether too slick, if the connecting cable hadn't vanished.)