Saturday, 7 March 2009
Bibliotherapy: what to read during travel delays
Recently, while waiting at chilly train stations or airless airport terminals, in a ghastly limbo between leaving and arriving (a state that also seems to reflect an unhappy state of mind, when one dreads what lies ahead), I have been re-reading Elizabeth Bowen’s masterpiece, ‘To the North’. Set in the Twenties, but first published in 1932, the novel begins with a train journey and ends with a car ride, and traces the paths – both geographical and emotional – of the two young women who travel across its pages.
Cecilia Summers is recently widowed – somewhat cold-hearted, despite her name – and shares a house in St John’s Wood with her gentle short-sighted sister-in-law, Emmeline. Bowen’s novel has the crisp comedy of Evelyn Waugh, and its characters inhabit a world of cocktail parties and country houses, of Bright Young Things who glitter with icy brilliance; but like Waugh’s ‘A Handful of Dust’, ‘To the North’ is also a story of heartbreak and despair, of journeys that end in oblivion; of missed connections and the distance between those who should be joined by love.
Thus Emmeline runs a small travel agency, and is brought alive by the idea of the places that people might go, even as she remains at home. “Our organization is really far-reaching… We can tell anyone almost everything: what to avoid, what to do in the afternoons anywhere – Turkestan, Cracow – what to do about mules, where it’s not safe to walk after dark.” But she is too innocent to know how to avoid danger when it is invited into her home by the careless Cecilia, in the form of a predatory man, Mark Linkwater.
He seduces Emmeline, and she gives her heart to him; unaware that his very name is a signpost to a miserable destination, for he is as slippery as oil-slicked water, unable to commit to a solid link; a man who marks those do not defend themselves from him.
All of which might sound like gloomy reading for a delayed traveller, but Elizabeth Bowen – a writer with an exact understanding of the misunderstandings between men and women – is a marvellous companion on any journey, however difficult; a voice that speaks of the need to mind the gap, and then move on…