The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen  

First published in 1935, The House in Paris is probably one of Elizabeth Bowen’s most accomplished novels. It’s certainly the most atmospheric of the four I’ve read to date, an elegantly constructed story of deceptions, infidelity and identity, infused with a sense of secrecy that feels apparent from the start.

The novel is divided into three sections, the first and third of which (both titled ‘The Present’) take place on the same day – a fateful day in the lives of Bowen’s four main characters, as the narrative ultimately reveals. As the book opens, eleven-year-old Henrietta has just arrived in Paris, where she will spend the day with the Fishers before continuing her journey to Menton, where her grandmother is spending the winter. In short, the Fishers’ is a stopover point for Henrietta between trains – a visit arranged by the girl’s grandmother, Mrs Arbuthnot, and her friend, Miss Naomi Fisher.

Also waiting at the Fishers’ house in Paris in Leopold, a nine-year-old boy who is due to meet his mother, Karen, for the first time since his birth – a reunion that coincides with Henrietta’s visit purely by chance, much to Naomi’s concern. The circumstances surrounding Leopold’s parentage are clearly something of a mystery, with Bowen dropping clues here and there for the reader to piece together. For instance, when Henrietta arrives at the Fishers’ house, she is introduced to Naomi’s mother, Mme Fisher, a manipulative elderly lady in the dying days of her life. While Naomi is keen for Leopold to be treated sensitively, Mme Fisher is much less discreet, readily disclosing her daughter’s link to the boy’s father as she talks to Henrietta.

‘Oh,’ Henrietta said, ‘did you know his father too?’

‘Quite well,’ said Mme Fisher. ‘He broke Naomi’s heart.’

She mentioned this impatiently, as though it had been some annoying domestic mishap. Henrietta, glancing across the bed, saw Miss Fisher’s eyelids glued down with pain. Then, with the air of having known all along this would come, the helpless daughter rolled up her knitting quickly, as though to terminate something, perhaps the pretence of safety, jabbing her needles through it with violent calm. (p. 43)

Leopold, too, learns something of the mystery surrounding his birth during his time at the Paris house. While Henrietta is upstairs with Miss Fisher and her bedridden mother, Leopold finds some letters in Naomi’s handbag – one from his guardians, the Grant Moodys, outlining various sensitivities to Naomi, and another from Mrs Arbuthnot on the details of Henrietta’s trip. However, a third letter – a note from Leopold’s mother to Naomi – is missing, remaining unavailable to the reader and Leopold himself. Nevertheless, there are worrying references to his parents’ temperaments – ‘instability on the father’s side’ and a ‘lack of control on the mother’s’ – in the first letter that Leopold discovers. 

Slowly but surely, Bowen ratchets up the sense of tension as the two children circle one another in the Paris house. It’s a dark, claustrophobic place, heightened by the oppressive air in Mme Fisher’s sick room and the poisonous events of the past.

Round the curtained bedhead, Pompeian red walls drank objects into their shadow: picture-frames, armies of bottles, boxes, an ornate clock showed without glinting, as though not quite painted out by some dark transparent wash. Henrietta had never been in a room so full and still. (p. 36)

Bowen excels at portraying these children, skilfully capturing their growing awareness of the adult world while a fuller picture of its mysteries remains tantalisingly out of reach.

In the novel’s second section (‘The Past’), Bowen takes us back ten years to a time when Naomi was engaged to Max Ebhart, a Jewish banker of French-English heritage. Central to this section is Naomi’s friend, Karen Michaelis – herself engaged to Ray Forrestier, a respectable man from the ‘right’ background and social class – and it is by focusing on Karen’s story that we learn the origins of Leopold’s birth.

One of the things Bowen does so well here is to show us how the past shapes the present, how former indiscretions and secrets can bleed into the here and now in the most painful of ways. Consequently, there is an air of damage or trauma surrounding Leopold, a lack of motherly love and sense of identity that have left their marks on his character.

Bowen’s prose is beautiful, if a little tricky to get to grips with from time to time. Nevertheless, there is some lovely descriptive writing here, from the glimpses of Paris in the morning light to the sun-drenched cul-de-sacs of Boulogne during a secret assignation.

Today, the salt sunshine bought every shape nearer, as though distance has been parched out. Doorways, cobbles, arches and stone steps looked sentient and porous in the glare. Buildings basked like cats in the kind heat, having been gripped by cold mists, having ached in unkind nights, been buffeted in the winter. Hot wind tugged now and then at the flags down on the Casino, stretching the flags, then letting them drop again. Flashing, a window was thrown open uphill. What you saw, you felt. (p. 139)

The House in Paris is an elegantly constructed novel in which the past is firmly intertwined with the present – a structure that Tessa Hadley mirrors in her 2015 novel, The Past, with a clear nod to Bowen’s approach.

The House in Paris is published by Vintage Books; personal copy.

28 thoughts on “The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen  

  1. penwithlit

    Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
    I would like to go back to read “Eva Trout” again – an unusual novel too. Have been reading about her life during the war along with Greene and others in Lara Feigel’s “The Love Charm of Bombs”

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s interesting. I haven’t read Eva Trout but would very much like to at some point – she sounds like a fascinating creation. Funnily enough, I have a copy of The Love Charm of Bombs on my TBR shelves, so many thanks for the reminder. I had forgotten that it covers Elizabeth Bowen alongside Graham Greene!

      Reply
  2. mallikabooks15

    Sounds a wonderful read. What a coincidence that you reviewed this today. I was just thinkingi should pick up some Bowen soon. I haven’t read any but have at least three waiting on my TBR including this one. The centering of the plot around the children somehow had me thinking of Henry James’s Maisie

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The Henry James is a very good reference! It’s a very long time since I read it, so much of the detail has slipped from my mind since then, but the style and themes are similar (as far as I can recall). I’ll be very interested to hear what you think, should you decide to dive in!

      Reply
      1. mallikabooks15

        It’s been a while for me too, but that was the story that came to mind when I was reading your review. I hope I do get a chance to pick up Bowen soon. I’m looking forward to it very much.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Cool. I hadn’t thought about the similarities with the Henry James until you mentioned it, but it’s a very appropriate connection to make!

          Reply
  3. 1streading

    I’m enjoying your journey through Bowen’s work – she does feel like a writer I will hopefully explore in the future there is so much about her that appeals!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’d find her interesting, Grant. She was a great admirer of Elizabeth Taylor’s work, even the ‘lesser’ novels like The Wedding Group, which I read earlier this year!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      To the North is definitely on my list for the future, so it’s great to hear you are a fan. I loved the opening to The House in Paris with Henrietta’s taxi ride through the city’s streets.

      Reply
  4. Liz Dexter

    That’s very interesting about the Tessa Hadley riff on the book at the end – I keep coming across / being recommended her. I certainly like Bowen a lot, though haven’t read much of her for a long time.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Having just read another book by Hadley (Bad Dreams and Other stories), I would have no hesitation in recommending her. She’s good on details and the nuances of relationships, which feels appropriate given her admiration for Bowen’s work.

      Reply
  5. madamebibilophile

    I really enjoy Bowen but I’ve not read this. She does houses and claustrophobic atmospheres so well! I agree her prose is tricky at times, but I’m always glad I persevere. Lovely review as always Jacqui.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s brilliantly claustrophobic – suffocating, almost, especially in the elderly Madame Fisher’s bedroom. You get the sense that everyone feels trapped by their respective circumstances, weighed down by various burdens from the past…

      Reply
  6. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

    Lovely review as always! I have a mixed reaction to Bowen’s fiction (haven’t read her nonfiction at all). I usually have to force myself a little to tackle her; as you say, her prose can be tricky and there are times when I findI her just a bit too subtle & elliptical for my more straightfoward approach to a story! But she’s a truly wonderful writer and I keep coming back to her novels, albeit at widely spaced intervals. I love Eva Trout, which I read last year but didn’t review; The Death of the Heart is probably my favorite, closely followed by The Last September.
    I read The House in Paris many, many years ago, when I was far too young for it. I mainly remember poor little Leopold and a incredible sense of claustrophobia associated with that house! Your review makes me think this one is due for a re-read, along with To The North!
    Fascinating link to Tessa Hadley (other than a few short stories in The New Yorker, I haven’t read much of her work). I have a copy of Hadley’s The Past, perhaps I should pair it with a Bowen re-read!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I have to be in the mood for Bowen as well, I must admit, but it was my reading of Tessa Hadley’s The Past last year that made me want to return to her. She’s not the easiest writer to get to grips with, and sometimes it takes a while to fall in step with her rhythm, but I liked this a lot, especially the scenes in the Paris house, which are brilliantly observed. She writes children very well, I think, capturing the curiosity and awkwardness of being too inexperienced to understand everything but sharp enough to know that something is being concealed. I’d love to hear what you think if you go back to her – and Hadley’s The Past, whenever you get around to it!

      Reply
  7. heavenali

    Lovely review. I lived this novel, that beginning section is so memorable, the claustrophobic atmosphere of the house, and those two children. I can’t remember if you’ve read The Little Girls, that and To the North are my favourites by Bowen. Her prose can be hard and a little elusive but so rewarding.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I loved that opening section too. She captures the oppressive atmosphere in that house so well, a place of secrets and repressed emotions. And no, I haven’t read The Little Girls, or To the North for that matter, but both are on the list for the future. It’s good to know that I have a couple of your favourites to look forward to!

      Reply
  8. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Wonderful review, Jacqui. I love Bowen but this is one I’ve yet to read and you make me want to get to it soon! I agree that her writing is complex and not always the easiest but it’s often so beautiful and worth any effort needed to read it. She’s brilliant at atmosphere too – must read her again soon! Her short stories are marvellous too – not sure if you’ve read any of these?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. I’d be fascinated to see what you think of this one, especially as you’re such a fan of Bowen’s work. The atmosphere is great, especially in the opening section, and the links between the two timelines are very well explored.

      I’ve read a few of Bowen’s short stories, mostly in anthologies — The Demon Lover immediately springs to mind! — and I do have a lovely Everyman hardback of her Collected Stories. A very thoughtful birthday gift from a good friend – something to look forward to, for sure.

      Reply
  9. Julé Cunningham

    I’m tempted by this book just because of the setting, but it sounds like it has far more than that to recommend it. Sometimes the writers whose voice a reader just needs to trust can end up being the ones who are the most rewarding in the long run.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, the setting comes through in the novel’s opening when Henrietta travels through Paris after being picked up by Miss Fisher from the station, but most of the ‘Present’ sections take place in the Fishers’ house. It’s quite theatrical in that respect, almost like a play or chamber piece.

      Reply
  10. Max Cairnduff

    I plan to read this given it’s links to Hadley’s marvellous The Past, but I have Bowen’s The Hotel still unread so not before that (I try not to buy books by authors where I already have unread books by them, though I don’t always succeed).

    Tricky seems to be rather a characteristic of Bowen’s prose. Sounds worth the effort to tune into it though.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, her novels aren’t the sort of things you can pick up for 10 minutes here and there as they demand a certain level of concentration to get into. I think I admired this one rather than loved it if that makes sense, but the opening section is excellent and Bowen’s great at creating an oppressive mood! It’s definitely worth considering, especially given the link to the Tessa Hadley.

      Reply
  11. Grier

    I had trouble with Eva Trout and gave up about halfway through, and will probably go back to it sometime. I’ve really liked some of Bowen’s other novels and like the sound of this one.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, that’s interesting to hear, Grier – thanks for that. I think I’ll go for The Little Girls or To the North next, rather than Eva Trout!

      Reply
  12. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

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