Telepoetic desire & techno-heartache in Elizabeth Bowen’s To the North
Keywords: women, communication, subjectivity, intimacy, agency
Full transcripts appearing online for the duration of Telepoetics (27 May – 5 June 2020) have been reduced to excerpts of approx. 750 words.
Elizabeth Bowen’s 1932 novel, To the North is a text preoccupied with telephony. The telephone is the medium through which its characters attempt to organise their lives – perform their social duties, stage romantic connections, even enact engagements. It is the medium that facilitates and defines its protagonists’ engagement in or struggle to engage with, ‘connective sociability’, a practice David Trotter defines as, ‘connecting in order to connect, connecting in order to stay connected, at a distance’. For the telephone is not simply a technological tool, but a form of media, a cultural practice imbedded in what Trotter (paraphrasing media historian William Uricchio) describes as ‘the broader fabric of a particular social order or mentality, including the “lived experiences” of those who produce, define and use them’.
Such media, as mode, materiality, and metaphor, are therefore fundamental to the narrative experience of sociality in this novel, but as I will argue, in particular to its rendering of romantic relationships. The protagonists of the novel, sisters-in-law Emmeline and Cecilia, have distinct user experiences of the telephone that alter the trajectory of their social lives and experience of romantic connections. This paper will explore what being ‘good’ at using the telephone enables Cecilia to achieve and what difficulties it poses for Emmeline; investigating what an overwhelming role such media plays in their lives, the telephone’s wires drawing connections between characters, building vast and pervasive networks. I will argue that such networks skew the power dynamics of human relations within the novel, even to the extent that they override, to quote Maud Ellman, ‘the boundaries that separate one person from another, creating mysterious and uncontrollable relations of dependency’.
Fundamentally, the telephone affects the characters’ sense of privacy and intimacy. Even its domestic situation within the home of Emmeline and Cecilia, in their shared hallway, for instance, alters what might be communicated via the medium. The receiving end though seemingly private, echoes in response. Modernist phones are still leaky, apt for overhearing – the receiver, though often curved to fit the ear and the mouth, was not universally modelled. Cecilia, whose husband, Emmeline’s brother, passed away a number of years ago, is particularly aware of aspects of interception and overhearing, as she manages what David Trotter would refer to as the ‘solitary- promiscuous traffic of interactions’ viable over the telephone.
For instance, during a lunch party with friends, Cecilia receives a phone call from Julian Towers, a romantic connection that despite having little feelings for, she entertains near constant connection with via the telephone. Despite interrupting her present social engagement, she’s delighted that he has called, for as David Trotter argues, in calling up just for the sake of it, Julian enters into a sort of pact with Cecilia, through such casual use of the telephone. But when Cecilia realises she has left the door open to her lunch guests, whom the reader assumes were able to hear the entire conversation, she slams the telephone down. This impact sends Julian a ‘sharp vibration across the wire’, leaving him with a ‘dumb black instrument’, inanimate and meaningless when inactivated by Cecilia. But she needn’t have worried – her guests have, knowing telephone politesse and protocol, raised their voices to cover any potentially intimate information they might have heard. Ultimately, Cecilia knows how to use the phone, and knows how she would perform her relationship with Julian, calling up, making arrangements, punctuating her life – and it’s such an enticing idea that she even considers getting engaged to Julian, who she has no true romantic feelings for – she daydreams about such telepoetic intimacy: ‘It sometimes startled Cecilia to think she and Julian might now be engaged, kissing each other officially, much on the telephone, trying to find a house’.
But when the lunch party leaves, and the telephone stands there taunting her with its ‘positive silence’, she seems to hear her own solitude, ‘brought up to the microscope of her nerves, a living tissue of shadows and little insistent sounds: the clock and the trees outside, a blind-cord tapping, her own dress rubbing against the sofa-back as she turned to listen’, Cecilia’s nervous system seems permanently attuned, listening in, in the hopes she will resound in another object, or person. She is oppressed by the emptiness of such a soundscape but decides to test her will, her ability to face such momentary solitude: ‘I will not telephone; I will not look to see if the ptw
ost has come.’ Bowen details how she takes ‘off her rings one by one’, hearing ‘each clink on the table-top… she exclaimed in thought: Mine, but nothing replied: Cecilia’. In this moment, Cecilia seeks aural identification, she wishes to hear herself echo in these objects, as she might hear her own voice echo back on the telephone, but does not. She begins to think of Henry, her deceased husband, but under the weight of his absence, feels herself dissolve ‘like breath on a mirror’, trailing ‘away like an echo when nobody speaks again’.
Cecilia is saved by the bell, as the telephone rings, she moves slowly back into her present, plugging in her bedside telephone she does ‘not immediately answer: she stood listening’ as the ‘usual music became discordant’, the stranger clamouring in its shrill tone, she mourns ‘how precious’ her solitude had been’, but of course, she eventually answers, and makes an appointment for dinner on Tuesday.
Elizabeth Bowen, To the North (London: Penguin Books, 1984)
Maud Ellman, Elizabeth Bowen: The Shadow Across the Page (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013)
David Trotter, Literature in the First Media Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013)
Wiliam Uricchio, ‘Historicizing Media in Transition,’ in Rethinking Media Change: The Aesthetics of Transition, ed. David Thorburn and Henry Jenkins (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), 23-38