Review: The House in Paris, Elizabeth Bowen

 From my time at university, I have a fair stack of unread 1940s and 30s novels and every so often it is nice to take a trip back.  I am a particular fan of Elizabeth Bowen, The Heat of the Day is such an intense novel and I also really enjoyed her short stories.  Bowen is an incredibly sure-footed writer, every sentence is perfectly crafted.  Nothing is ever over-stated, but yet it all has such an impact.  The House in Paris is no different, it is a claustrophobic and disturbing novel about the self.  Henrietta is eleven years old and obliged to spend a day with a family friend in Paris as she waits between trains to join her grandmother in the South of France.  However, also in the house is nine year-old Leopold who is awaiting the visit of the mother who he has never met.

Like a spiritual cousin to Henry James’ Maisie, Henrietta is introduced to an adult world, but although she shares similar immature perceptions of what is happening, Henrietta is a far more astute character.  Maisie only ever existed as an external commentary on the behaviour of adults, Leopold and Henrietta have their own internal lives and thoughts.  They are flesh and blood children, they are without mercy or sympathy – they have a ruthlessness and a vulnerability that makes The House in Paris a tour-de-force.   This is not a novel of high drama or sensation, but rather a novel to read slowly, so best to savour each perfectly crafted line.

Other houses in Paris

The first and third sections of the novel focus on ‘The Present’ as Henrietta arrives from Gare du Nord with the nervous Miss Fisher, who lives with her ailing mother in the house named in the title.  Henrietta is keen to see Paris for the first time and longs to visit the Trocadero and take tea in a cafe.  Miss Fisher warns her of Leopold’s presence and particularly of how important it is that no questions be asked of him.  The encounter between the two children is caught flawlessly, each utterly indifferent to the other’s feelings and yet reaching out uneasily for a friendship.  Despite Henrietta’s precocity, she still carries her monkey Charles with her everywhere and Leopold cares far more than he will admit.  There is something unsettling about their relationship, Bowen captures that kind of loneliness that can exist for a child, that sense of being apart from the adults.

While this could be a saccharine tale of rediscovered parents, Bowen’s message is quite different.  The middle section takes us to the past, ten years previously.  Leopold’s mother Karen Michaelis was an alumna of the House in Paris, then a boarding house cum finishing school for nice types of girls.  And Karen is a terribly nice type of girl; in her own words, she ‘did very well’.  With middle-class parents, a respectable fiance and artistic talent, she rather appeared to have everything she wanted.  Still, one hot day, she found herself allowing her hand be pressed into the lawn by her dear friend Naomi Fisher’s fiance Max Ebhart.

Elizabeth Bowen

Like a kind of proxy for the present day Leopold and Henrietta, Karen and Max are searching for their own identities and their ensuing affair is passionate and destructive.  His identity has been heavily shaped by the influence of Mme Fisher, hers by family expectation.  Karen is caught between her own fiance Ray, who she realises represents her mother, her home, all that she has ever known and then Max who is so alarmingly other.  As Karen and Max lie together in a hotel bed, Bowen explains that the idea of ‘you, Leopold’ first occurred to Karen, realising that any fruit of their union would be a disaster.  Leopold is utterly ignorant of the circumstances of his existence, his adoptive parents have been at pains to shield him from the facts of sex and write anxious letters to Miss Fisher to ensure that Leopold remains ignorant.  Of course, Leopold looks through Miss Fisher’s handbag and reads the letter in disgust.  Still, this idea of an omniscient narrator behind it all, explaining matters to Leopold, was one I found unsettling.

This search for the self is one that is common to both generations and yet it appears to leave no mark on Naomi Fisher, whose life has been subsumed by her mother.  She is awkward and uneasy around the children, embarrassed when her mother announces to Henrietta that Leopold’s father broke her heart and yet utterly passive concerning the pursuit of her own desires.  If she has any left by the end of the novel, they are unclear.  The sexual desire which drew Max and Karen together left her untouched and she has not even Henrietta and Leopold’s curiousity.

The past section of the novel seemed lest substantial; drawing in and out of Karen’s internal monologues, it seemed rather dream-like.  The present sections of the novel had an earth-bound realism reinforced by the children.  Henrietta finishes her interview with Mme Fisher and goes down to tell Leopold to stop acting strangely since ‘there are enough mad people in this house’.  There are so many memorable turns of phrase in The House in Paris; in the past section, the younger Karen and Naomi have a disagreement and both assume their mother’s ‘attitudes’ briefly before returning to their own true selves.  Again, that sense of a fluid identity runs through the novel.  Another line that caught my eye was when Karen caught the train back and with the other travellers, they had that sense of being ‘impaled’ on London, a wonderful way of describing that transition from countryside to the City.

The House in Paris is an intense novel; as Henrietta was dropped off in Gare du Nord at the end of the day, there was a real sense of breathing fresh air again at last.  Bowen creates a tense and even putrid atmosphere in the Fishers’ home.  The two children have shared a mere day together, pawns in the manoeuvres of the adults of their lives.  As Henrietta leaves, charged with the instruction to speak to nobody of what had passed that day, one cannot help but wonder what she will remember of that fleeting encounter with the boy who nobody knew existed.  Bowen is an elegant writer and The House in Paris is a book that manages this elegance in a manner that always appears effortless.

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The House In Paris by Elizabeth Bowen
Published by Random House on June 11th 2015
Genres: Fiction, General
Pages: 272
ISBN: 9781446485941

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