Close Reading: A World of Love, by Elizabeth Bowen

What makes great writing work? Is there a science behind the art? In a new series on Radio 4’s Open Book, Dr Sarah Dillon takes a forensic look at passages of prose from 20th century literature. BBC Arts presents her first analysis from the series, Elizabeth Bowen’s A World of Love. The extract here comes from near the end of the 1955 novel, after characters Fred and Lilia have their first, frank conversation about their difficult marriage.

Analysis by Sarah Dillon

This moment occurs in Elizabeth Bowen’s A World of Love, not as famous as Death of the Heart or The Heat of the Day but concise, intense and emotional. The two people in the passage are Fred and Lilia, husband and wife. They’ve just had their first ever frank conversation about the problems and infidelities of their marriage. They’ve been together for over twenty years, but have been sleeping at opposite ends of the house for most of that time. I find this passage so moving because it captures brilliantly one of those seismic moments in a long marriage when things shift. And I use the word ‘capture’ quite precisely. Bowen was very interested in photography; she described her short stories as ‘snapshots’. And this passage opens by presenting a visual image of the two sitting beneath a chestnut tree.

Dr Sarah Dillon

We have a frame here, a natural frame. The fact that the tree is a chestnut is not of course accidental – like most trees, chestnuts carry a weight of sybolic meaning. They’re associated with fertility, abundance, longevity, invigoration. In fact, in dream interpretation, if you dream you’re sitting under a chestnut tree, as Fred and Lilia indeed are, this is actaully symbolic of happy times on the horizon after a long spell of disatisfaction. The fact that the tree’s a chestnut then promises in its symbolism the potential reinvigoration of a marriage that we then find gestured towards in the rest of the passage. Bowen obviously chose her tree well.

What we have here then is a literary freeze frame, what Bowen calls a ‘majestic pause’, into which the previous conversation is seeping. Fred and Lilia’s talk is not a miraculous solution to their problems. But the power of their words begins a slow and steady process of dissolving, if not solving, their troubles. This may be only a ‘little redemption’, but even something so small is, in a long marriage, an overwhelmingly significant triumph.

Fred and Lilia have talked openly about her love for another man, about his feelings of rejection, about his consequent infidelities. This honesty does not lead to a dissolution of their marriage in the formal sense of an undoing of that legal bond. Not at all. What it does through words is dissolve the problems themselves. And we know what Fred and Lilia are experiencing – we have all experienced that curious way in which once you talk about your problems somehow they seem to disappear. This is the uncanny power of words, particularly of words finally spoken between spouses.

So what happens next? Can this dissolution lead to change? What follows is one of the most interesting lines in the passage. It’s a line that contains two sentences, connected by a hypen. The reader initially reads the first sentence as a statement, beause it doesn’t end with a question mark: ‘Impossible is it for persons to be changed when the days they still have to live stay so much the same’. The word order is odd for a statement.

The sentence would sound like Yoda from Star Wars

Normally we would say ‘It is impossible….’; but Bowen writes ‘Impossible is it…’. If Bowen had just moved ‘impossible’ to the beginning of the sentence, but kept the subject and verb in the correct order – ‘impossible it is’ – the sentence would sound like Yoda from Star Wars. And it would sound wise, like an aphorism: ‘impossible it is for’ people to change if they’re stuck in the same routines. If this is the case, we might lose hope; we might lose the fragile possibility that Fred and Lilia’s majestic pause could put their marriage and their lives back on a different track.

But Bowen reverses the subject and verb as well – ‘is it’ rather than ‘it is’. When we continue reading after the hyphen, we realise that this reversal can be explained by the question mark at the end of the second sentence. This would make the first sentence not in fact a statement, but a question: ‘Impossible is it (?)’ for people to change when their lives stay the same? The questioning nature of the sentence would then challenge the finality of the opening ‘impossible’, and our first reading. Is it really impossible? Or might people actually change, even if the circumstances of their daily lives do not? Possibly.

These two interpretations remain in tension – the reader is torn between the statement, that people can’t change; and the possibility offered by the question: that they might change, that there is a power inside a marriage, even one long dead, that has the potential to resurrect it and to move the people within it forwards. The final description of Fred and Lilia does not dissolve that tension. We leave them sitting under the tree, ‘almost apart’.

This is a brilliantly curious Bowen phrase. ‘Almost apart’ actually means ‘just touching’ but Bowen doesn’t describe this renewed intimacy as such. We are not allowed to forget too quickly the distance that has separated them for so long. They are no longer apart, not quite, but their slight closeness is fragile. The reader is left, like Fred and Lilia themselves, waiting to see whether they will be pulled apart again, or whether this new ever so slight intimacy, might just be the beginning of a journey back together.

Sarah Dillon is a lecturer in Literature and Film at the University of Cambridge. Listen to her close reading of A World of Love by Elizabeth Bowen on Open Book. The series continues with Aldous Huxley in Dec 2014, and Pat Barker in Jan 2015.

Extract: A World of Love

The chestnut, darkening into summer, canopied them over; over their heads were its expired candles of blossom, brown – desiccated stamens were in the dust. Over everything under the tree lay the dusk of nature. Only the car-tracks spoke of ever again going or coming; all else had part in the majestic pause, into which words were petering out. This was not so much a solution as a dissolution, a thinning-away of the accumulated hardness of many seasons, estrangement, dulledness, shame at the waste and loss. A little redemption, even only a little, of loss was felt. The alteration in feeling, during the minutes in which the two had been here, was an event, though followed by a deep vagueness as to what they should in consequence do or say. Impossible is it for persons to be changed when the days they have still to live stay so much the same – as for these two, what could be their hope but survival? Survival seemed possible now, for having spoken to one another had been an act of love. No word, look or touch were for some time to be needed to add more: instinctively now they rested, almost apart, under the saturating chestnut, with what they knew at work in them slowly.