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.