Children in a Coloured Earthquake-City

“‘We might have been half-way to the what’s-his-name by now!’ Indeed, they might have been further than half-way.” — Elizabeth Bowen (MOSES)


MRS MOYSEY by Elizabeth Bowen

“Leslie raised an elbow and dropped his head back in an expressive gesture. “

“raising his eyebrows”, too.

How could I ever have forgotten this mighty mighty story! So Aickman-influential, and so utterly original and off-the-wall Bowenesque. Her brilliant touches of mainstream literature here mutated, in “Mrs Moysey”, into today’s co-vivid dreams… and vice versa, in a relentless rhythm  of competing forces, absurdism versus sense, cannibalism’s platefuls of mince versus chocolate box bingeing, subtlety versus blatancy, complexity subsuming simplicity like the ‘voluptuary’ lap of Mrs M, a lap itself subsuming the two “babies” of her nephew Leslie — Daph and Little Bobby one of them at least with a coal-scuttle profile, later stained in brown chocolate…oriental or so-called “small dark face”, or plain white?

“Someone wittily said she looked like Christmas Eve every day.”

This is Mrs M in her Aunthood with all her boxes, each day, a widow, who has her nephew Leslie stay with her on leave from his job in Japan, staying in her ungentlemanised house, a nephew later pursued by his wife Emerald Voles and their two ‘babies’…

There is much of stayings and goings, of stays and uncorsetings, of his staring out from her bow window at the ladies who pass in the street with nice figures, his being a curvilinear leaning. The ladies look at him up there from the street, too, stained on the glass. (“….Leslie, exotic and waxlike, began to be displayed in the bow-window,…”) Almost like prostitution on show in a red light area? Later, he is replaced there by “Some waxy-leaved ferns and a dish of thick-fingered cacti, palpably crawling,…” Later still, his two “babies” stare from there, after he escapes Mrs M’s house to live with a Mrs Moss (cf Moysey and Moses). 

Mrs M’s servants not only wondered about stays but also about strange “goings-on”.

“…as though she were trying a new kind of stays that were not a success.”

“She hitched the top of herself further over her stays, adjusted the stays as inconspicuously as possible,…”

“Leslie did seem to have passed the fine line between staying and living.”

The halfway house in the  no man’s land of time?

“Nobody specified what the little failing was; there existed an understanding. Yet it did seem curious that the parcels one saw her slip home with in the cold morning or in the evening dusk might be round, square or diamond-shaped, hard or bulgy, but were never cylindrical. And no one had ever seen her go into or come out of a – well, one wouldn’t like to say what. But so flushed, so abrupt, so secretive – there wasn’t a doubt.”

And Emerald finally arrives, and there is much significance attached to her Mackintosh that resonates with my review of Ellen yesterday in SO MUCH DEPENDS…

“Three days later a young woman with hands in her mackintosh pockets…”

“…studying the concavities of the mackintosh, she hadn’t much on underneath.”

Mrs M at first cannot believe this is her nephew’s wife because…

“Leslie would never have had a wife without curves.”

Emerald’s view of Mrs M, meanwhile…

“She saw a pink lady, expansive, with a curious toppling expression from the Pompadour-curves of her coiffure and round, apprehensive eyes.”

“Leslie’s children partook of his feeling for softness, for the curvilinear, for unrestraint.”

“At first Mrs Moysey, after a scuffle of preparation would come out like a flannel and marabout cloud and envelop them; beneath her vast impetus, trailing boas and shawls, they would be borne along to the nursery, where she would endlessly play with them. Then one day unexpectedly (to the breathless housemaid, incredibly) the door was held open a crack and Daph and her brother oozed round it. This privileged oozing-round became on wet mornings and all afternoons a precedent. They were engulfed in the innermost secrecy of that secret house.”

The “babies”, meanwhile…

“They became, it seemed incurably, yellow, spotty and demented. Their darlingness was in prolonged eclipse.”

Coming and staying, ups and downs, too…

“…their little ups and downs – we all have. Try … try a little medicine.”

Makes the reader feel…

“…against everything but forgivingness; in the tentacles of this icy and arid forgivingness,..”

“Emerald’s children looked up at her out of a coloured earthquake-city. Unnerved by her manner they turned to retreat; gilt, flowered and brightly pictorial boxes scrunched with the unresistance of cardboard under their wildly-placed feet. They evacuated, with shaken majesty, an empire of chocolate boxes. A kind of road system of ribbons twisted over the carpet; a round lid with a pussy cat’s head looking out of a horse-shoe bowled away from them, spun like a platter at Emerald’s feet and was still. The boxes were very artistic and striking.”

And now we realise that Mrs M is Bowen herself in such a mutant dream, her thoughts on her own writing, as surrounding this passage…

“Bobby and Daph enter into everything – why, I’m even reading them my book.”

“Then there are some things, of course, I leave out. Well, you wouldn’t expect to find in a book about anyone’s indigestion…”

…or even veiled cannibalism!

“Thick brown stains, dispersed from their mouths by the dabbing of Mrs Moysey, echoed over their faces. A thin brown dribble of chocolate ran down Daph’s frock.”

“And Mrs Moysey – most unwilling victor – half clutching the children to her because Mother was so frightening, half pushing them from her because Mother was so lonely, poor Mrs Moysey – most unconvinced voluptuary – did not know where to look …”

And I look away, too. Unsure of what I have just read. Wondering about my own reaction to it. But it is seminal within the context of this long journey I am still making into her short fiction here:

2 thoughts on “Children in a Coloured Earthquake-City

  1. Later..

    Home For Christmas by Elizabeth Bowen

    “He got up as soon as he woke and stood in the bow window, looking out in a queer, rather caged way.”

    This seems the natural follow-on to the previous story above. Tom, here, in the bow window, like Leslie, but looking at the snow, infrequent snow generally in this area, but matching the snow of a previous family Christmas at this house where, today, Tom has brought his new bride and wife Millie, travelling over seas, in what seems to be a rehearsed arrival echoing a previous one, for Millie to meet his sisters and parents.

    “They walked, with rather ironly happy steps, up to the homey house.”

    Was that an irony of steps, instead?
    Meanwhile, you must explore this house to get its full ambience but whatever you do, do not play hide and seek! This is possibly Bowen’s most creepy story, most nasty one even, with more than a mere Christmassy frisson. Claustrophobia in the Mistletoe Bough chest and madness, and Aunt Shandie seems to ‘devour’ Millie “with an interested eye.” But that veiled cannibalism to match that in other stories of Bowen and Aickman, may be a bit of a red herring on my part. And the abrupt ending makes this story seem even creepier, when, at this end, most of the characters looked at “me”, as if Aunt Shandie held the meaning to the yet untold ending

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