Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 852
A rather claustrophobic novel that takes place in the subconscious maneuvering of the main characters, Antonia Montefort and Lilia Danby primarily, A World of Love culminates in their half-verbalized, partially conscious realization of the true nature of their relationship to each other. The story takes place in the confines of a run-down country estate over the space of a few days. A World of Love might be better entitled “A World of Obsession,” “A World of Misunderstood Motives,” or “A World of Convolution.” Inasmuch as this is a modern novel, offering insights into the complications of love, perhaps all four titles are appropriate.
While the plot and the locale seem ripe for a traditional gothic romance, Elizabeth Bowen, with her imposing prose style, never lets the reader forget that this is a modern psychological novel:The month was June, of a summer almost unknown; for this was a country accustomed to late wakenings, to daybreaks humid and overcast. At all times open and great with distance, the land this morning seemed to enlarge again, throwing the mountains back almost out of view in the south of Ireland’s amazement at being cloudless.
The last four words of the above passage allude to the contrast between the “cloudless” family facade and the stormy disquiet they all feel underneath. This unspoken tension is the crux of the novel. The three adults—Lilia, her husband (Fred Danby), and his cousin Antonia—conspire to keep alive the fantasy of Guy Montefort, the dashing dead hero, sweetheart of Lilia, beloved cousin of Antonia, the man in whose footsteps the “illegitimate” Fred must tread, the phantom in whose shadow they all live. The air in the seedy, once splendid manor they all share is thick and stale with the effort (“humid and overcast”). The three are wedded in their complicity: the lie of Guy’s continued existence simultaneously sustains and enervates them. The realization that he is dead and gone is precipitated by the children: first, by Jane Danby (Lilia and Fred’s daughter) unearthing a bundle of love letters; second, by her sister Maud’s appropriation of them.
Bowen quickly explains the complicated living arrangement of her characters in the first chapter. Lilia, a young virgin, was engaged to Guy Montefort before he went off to war and was killed. Since he left no will, his estate and his fortune went to his cousin, Antonia. She, feeling sorry for his fiancee, decides to provide for her. In doing so, she establishes a mutual dependence which keeps both of them “girls”: “Thrown together, they had adhered.... Virtually nothing more had happened to them since their two girlhoods.” By the age of thirty, Lilia is still not settled. Antonia suggests to her illegitimate cousin Fred that he consider marrying Lilia. He, having greatly admired Guy, consents, thinking that if Lilia was good enough for Guy, she is good enough for him. Lilia balks, but Antonia threatens to cut her off without a cent. The arrangement is that Lilia and Fred will live in Montefort and take care of it, while Antonia will actually own it, the best room in the house reserved for her when she visits, several times a year. The marriage takes place, and Jane is born. Seven years later, Lilia leaves her husband and child but again Antonia coaxes her back. Meanwhile, relations between the inhabitants of Montefort manor become ever more deceitful.
The first lie with which they all live is that only Lilia loved Guy and that only she was loved by him. In truth, he was the beloved of not only Lilia and Antonia but also a third party, whose letters are in Jane’s possession. With much psychological writhing and worming, Antonia and Lilia finally admit his infidelity to them both. The second lie is that Antonia has run the family and engineered the course of Fred and Lilia’s relationship, when in reality, freed from the burden of upholding the Guy mythos, the couple find that they truly do love each other and that their relationship has a life of its own. Antonia is left alone; her protegee Jane, the couple’s first “golden” daughter whom she has all but appropriated, has begun to assert her independence, ironically by falling in love. Antonia must face the fact that she has clung to Lilia, Fred, Jane, Maud, and Montefort itself, only to hang on to the ghost of Guy, making him and then them the centerpiece for her entire adult life. Lilia realizes that she has clung to Guy’s ghost because she feared she had nothing else. In the end, she realizes that she does have something worthwhile: her love for Fred. Jane, who momentarily falls in love with Guy through his letters, brings him to the forefront of everyone’s consciousness, and they must all painfully deal (individually and indirectly) not only with his memory but also with his constant presence in their lives. By so doing they finally dispel him from their lives. It is the practical Maud who prompts the last exorcism—Antonia’s burning of the letters.
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