Elizabeth Bowen, Eva Trout

Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973, Eva Trout, or Changing Scenes. Vintage, 1999. First published 1968

I thought Irish-born Elizabeth Bowen’s final novel Eva Trout would be amusing/light relief after slogging through the hefty Trollope novel Phineas Finn. I was wrong.

Bowen, Eva Trout cover

The handsome 1950s Jaguar on the cover is similar to one Eva drives in the novel.

The writing style I found excessively mannered and florid. Characters are theatrical or caricatures (like the clergyman with dodgy sinuses). The syntax is often tortuous: there are oddly placed adverbs and clashing tones and registers. Purple descriptive passages intrude and interrupt the flow; random examples:

[Eva is in Paris] Viridian shadow clothed such trees as were not in the sun’s path.

Fresh-cut grass is said to have had its roots ‘exacerbated’ – a strangely fastidious usage; portraits of grand figures in an art gallery look out ‘lordlily’ – what a silly and awkward choice.

I’d concede that there are plenty of Bowen’s more familiar deft touches – there are also signs of her wittiness and humour, as when a bisexual game of cricket is proposed by Eva’s camp love interest Henry to his tomboy motor-cycle riding young sister, Catrina:

‘”Mixed,”‘ she corrected, ‘sex does not enter into cricket.’ ‘That is painfully evident.’ ‘If you’re so cross, why don’t you go to Italy?’

Too often the humour misfires.

The narrative takes us through the eponymous Eva’s life, from lonely, disrupted childhood to her sexually fluid thirties. She was orphaned at a young age when both parents died violently (partly as a consequence of their sexual incompatibility and dalliances). Her louche guardian Constantine shows little empathy towards his ward; she’s moved from country to country, school to school, and never learns to make friends or achieve emotional closeness with others. When she inherits her late father’s immense wealth at the age of 25 she becomes even more vulnerable and adrift, and more able to indulge her whims, secrets and fantasies.

This emotional immaturity and deficiency and sexual fuzziness is the cause of most of what subsequently happens to her – yet she’s also strangely innocent. She becomes fiercely attracted to several female figures, while most of the males who influence her are sexually ambiguous. She indulges in fantasies and deception to try to construct some kind of relationship out of these deceptive fragments. She’s unable to distinguish surface appearance from depth of character or authenticity of feeling. All this confusion gives rise to more disruption and pain for her and those near to her.

The most egregious of Eva’s deceptions involves the baby boy she claims to have given birth to illegitimately. The consequences of this are catastrophic for all she’s involved with.

Although Eva’s damaged personality has some psychological interest, I found her ultimately tiresome. The characters she’s drawn to are largely fey, affected, selfish and pompous.

It’s quite a while since I read her 1929 novel The Last September, set in the Irish war of independence, but I remember it being powerful and moving. The Heat of the Day I recall had a vivid evocation of wartime London. Last year I posted briefly on her novel Friends and Relations, and disliked it.  Eva Trout also left me unmoved and disappointed. It was shortlisted for the Booker in 1970 and won the James Tait Black memorial prize in 1969.

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6 thoughts on “Elizabeth Bowen, Eva Trout

  1. I don’t honestly think I’d ever consider Bowen a light read (although the essays I’ve read have been excellent). Even her short stories need commitment. I haven’t read this one, but it’s not the highest up on my Bowen TBR – so I may read it until I’ve read some of her earlier works!

  2. Your review sent me to my reading journal, to see what I thought of it. I wrote reams, but alas, because I was summarising the plot for a book group discussion, I didn’t really come to any conclusions. Except that I thought the stilted language was written that way to emphasise the theme of ‘failure to communicate’ and that I thought that Eva may have been modelled on that poor little rich girl, Christina Onassis!

    • It’s true that the florid language reflects both the class and education of the characters, and their flimsy grip on what most of us consider reality. Nothing wrong with a rich and varied vocabulary and ability to string together a sentence with more than a dozen words in it. But sustained over not far short of 300 pages it becomes wearing. Writers like H. James and Nabokov seem able to write in a highly mannered, complex style and still engage the reader’s attention; in Bowen there’s something lacking – vitality or humanity, perhaps, or a sense of something more than bookish or oblique engagement with the world.

  3. I really enjoyed this review, Simon. You may notice it is August 10th, and I am commenting in backwards order!! : )

    Am intending to check this book out of Montgomery County MD Library when I learn to operate the mysterious Inter-Library-Loan page. Sometimes, reading what NOT to do in writing a novel (still remember your pronouncements on polemics) is as useful as reading something that is fine and almost perfect!

    Cheers!

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