This was my year of Nancy Mitford and Elizabeth Bowen, or the year of savage, brilliant, and vastly underrated female writers. I’m appalled to say I had never read either until this year; I tried to make up for my lost decades by reading furiously and fully, from their first books to their last. It in the end, however, it was impossible to read all that they wrote, because they were prolific, and because life was difficult this year and I ran out of steam. Well — also, I found that both women wrote books I loved and some I frankly disliked. (This is fine! A book’s impact has as much to do with where the reader is in her life as it does with the innate qualities of the work; and if I have a bad breakup with a book, the author and I can still be pals).
My favorite by Mitford was her fifth novel, The Pursuit of Love. My edition put some kind of accelerator on the feminist flames because it has “Love” in the title and the loopiest picture of a bride on the cover, and I did the automatic discounting thing we do — even people in the business who should know better — when faced with frilly, condescending covers of books by women. Gah. I don’t know if I hate more the idea that we have been conditioned to associate feminine with frothy, or the covers themselves, which actively dissuade a large swath of humanity from picking up such a worthy book in the first place. And, my lord, is this novel worthy. The story of an upper-class British family, particularly that of a sensitive free-spirit named Linda, was so slyly hilarious that I was smitten by the first paragraph; but it wasn’t until a few pages in, and the narrator describes her Uncle Matthew sending out the hounds on a child hunt — in which the children of the family take the place of hares and try to outrun four slavering bloodhounds, to the horror of the neighbors — that I knew this book would be a friend for life.
Of all the gorgeous Elizabeth Bowen books I read (and here I’ll give a shout-out to To The North and The Death of the Heart), my favorite is her second, The Last September, because I think it’s her most deeply felt and affecting work. It is such a deft and humorous and ferocious novel that I marvel that Bowen was only about thirty when she wrote it. Bowen, like the book’s main character, Lois, was the child of a large Anglo-Irish estate, and the book is set at a lightly fictionalized version of the house in 1920, at the cusp of the Irish Civil War. The tremendous pressure that politics bears on the estate is seen mostly aslant; all of the family’s visitors, though their days are full of dance-parties and tennis matches, are oddly brittle in their effort to ignore the tension around them. Bowen pulls off a terrific high-wire act that left me breathless — and nostalgic for a lost world that I’d only really known in Bowen’s pages — by the end.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.