Last Updated September 5, 2023.
In this novel, Elizabeth Bowen explores the true meaning of family and the importance of accepting responsibility, especially in the face of social hypocrisy. She frames the story of friendship betrayed, undue maternal influence, and the reestablishment of family ties by using the character of Henrietta, a young girl arriving in Paris for an important stage in her education. Rather than learning what will become of this girl, however, the reader is inserted into another story, concerning a girl much like her but a generation earlier. The house of the title, and its domineering mistress, Madame Fisher, provide further continuity between the two girls.
Bowen builds on the English reputation of Paris as being a city of romance and often illicit love, where the relationship between Karen and Max begins. Because the two betray Naomi, their best friend and fiancée respectively, they must both be punished. Naomi’s mother plays a crucial role by forcing the engagement to end, rendering Naomi’s misery complete. Karen, succumbing to the social pressure against mothers of illegitimate children, marries Ray for security and abandons her child. Max ends his life in suicide, thus apparently abandoning both the woman he loves and their child.
The plot is resolved with Ray, who has no biological connection to this child, Leopold, stepping up to accept him into their family. Leopold has spent nine anguished years with foster parents in Italy, wondering why his biological parents do not want him. Significantly for Bowen’s message, it must be Ray and not Karen who arrives to announce this family reunion. This father, the reader can be sure, will provide the appropriate role model for the boy, in a way that his biological father never could have done. Although Karen has erred in her earlier decisions, she has matured into an appropriate mother as well by telling her husband the truth even though it might have ended their marriage. With these two mature adults, the boy will now find a true family and home.