Skip to navigation – Site map
Mythes et mémoires

Milan, London and Paris: Cities as Interfaces in Elizabeth Bowen’s To the North

Céline Magot
p. 323-328


Cet article s’attache à montrer que l’influence du cinéma sur l’écriture d’Elizabeth Bowen ne se limite pas aux romans tardifs, mais peut être relevée dès les années trente, en particulier en ce qui concerne l’écriture de la ville dans To the North (1933). Ce roman est imprégné d’une vision cinématographique, véritable filtre esthétique qui vient transformer la perception que les personnages ont des paysages urbains. La ville n’est plus un espace à parcourir mais une surface plane couverte de jeux de projections, d’images cadrées en mouvement ou d’incrustations. Entre ouverture et fermeture, la ville-écran devient une interface, une fenêtre tout en supprimant toute profondeur. L’écriture qui naît de cette hybridité esthétique mène à l’émergence de personnages-spectateurs qui, bien que percevant la ville avec acuité, lui demeurent cependant toujours extérieurs.

Top of page

Full text

  • 1 It seems therefore that a decade after her essay, Bowen had acknowledged this cinematographical inf (...)

1One of the most recent discoveries concerning Elizabeth Bowen was disclosed by Allan Hepburn who studied Bowen’s legal archive and found that she had signed an agreement to write a script for the Strand Film Company in 1942. It is still unknown whether the film was actually shot or if the project was finally given up, but this new biographical element reminds us of Bowen’s close relation to the cinema, an acquaintance which she herself insisted upon, as in her 1937 essay entitled "Why I Go to the Cinema": "I should like to be changed by more films, as art can change one" (Bowen 1937, 219-20). Indeed, in her fiction she proves to have been changed by films; to take but one example, in a short story published in 1946 a small village is depicted as having "the two-dimensional brightness of a cinema setup" (Bowen 1980, 759).1 Critics have sometimes assessed how the cinema informed some of Bowen’s late works; for example, Dominique Gauthier showed how Eva Trout, her last novel published in 1969, was aesthetically influenced by the cinema, with its nervous rhythm, its abrupt changes of scenes and situations reminiscent of shooting sequences interrupted by cuts (Gauthier 373-82).

2The aim of this article is to try to demonstrate how the cinema played a determinant role in Bowen’s writing as early as the thirties, more specifically in the depiction of the city: in her 1933 novel To the North, it acts as a medium that filters the characters’ perceptions, keeping them at a distance while the aesthetics of cityscapes arc transformed.

3Among other descriptions of various European cities, the novel shows a spectacular travelling shot through London as one of the main characters, Emmeline, is driving back home:

Emmeline... crawled sedately west for a little, in second gear, down the Euston Road.... Leaving the hoarse dingy clamour, the cinema-posters of giant love, she turned into Regent’s Park, swept round under lines of imposing houses and, out of the park again, steadily mounted to St John’s Wood. First the stucco villas, smoky, sunk in their gardens, had the air of pavilions mouldering after an exhibition, retreats forgotten and disenchanted, unkindly eyed from the rasping buses.... The heights this evening had an airy superurbanity: one heard a ping of tennis-balls, a man wheeled a barrow of pink geraniums, someone was practising the violin, sounds and late sunshine sifted through the fresh trees. Someone was giving a grand party: more gold chairs arrived; when they flicked lights up a moment in the conservatory you saw tall frondy shadows against the glass. Emmeline wished them joy—but it depressed Cecilia to hear the music of parties to which she was not invited. (Bowen 1999, 94)

  • 2 It appears especially in the following expressions: "[f]irst the stucco villas, smoky, sunk in thei (...)

4One of the major aesthetic elements of this description is the disembodied quality of the city: sounds predominate, suggesting invisible actions performed by almost entirely absent people. The "airy superurbanity" only evokes the void of a complex urban structure. Even the visual perceptions tend to erase people through synecdochic descriptions ("unkindly eyed from the rasping buses", "more gold chairs arrived"). People dematerialise to become flat figures, part of a shadow theatre seen through glass. If the account of the route allows for some depth—with the succession of the prepositions "down", "into", "round", "out of" and "to"—the character’s view of the city reveals the same disembodiment. London appears as a backdrop: the buildings arc mere facades ("lines of imposing houses"), looking fake ("pavillions mouldering after an exhibition", "stucco villas"). Emmeline’s car seems to be gliding along the scenery, as suggested by the omnipresent alliteration in [s].2

5In this insubstantial cityscape, the "cinema-posters of giant love" emphatically stress the lack of flesh and reality, as well as its essentially iconic character, as the couple is only evoked through an advertised fake passion. Throughout the whole novel, the same kind of pictures proliferates in the city, composing a series of semiotic surfaces that duplicate the flatness of the urban landscape. Emmeline runs a travel agency in which one can find all sorts of pictorial representations of other cities or places: not only posters (Bowen 1999, 24, 31) but also "a picture post-card from a client in Prague" (Bowen 1999, 32) or a folder about Andorra entitled "Unknown Republics" (Bowen 1999, 1 16). London incorporates mass-produced pictures of other places, which lack what Benjamin calls "the hic et nunc of the work of art" (Benjamin 273). The city is therefore deprived of its "here and now", which seems to suggest that it has become a disrupted space-time. In the midst of this multiplicity of pictorial representations, the characters’ perceptions of cities become themselves filtered by printed representations, for instance in Paris where engraving becomes the medium of vision: "[m]oonlight felt glacial, sinister, Doréesque on the roofs of the city" (Bowen 1999, 149).

6As the eye turns cityscapes into pictures, so does the mind. Imagined cities are endowed with the same pictorial quality, as in the course of a conversation about Italy, when Cecilia’s mental image is thus transcribed: "Mark’s Rome was late Renaissance, with a touch of the slick mondanity of Vogue. The sky above Rome, like the arch of an ornate altar-piece, became dark and flapping with draperies and august conversational figures" (Bowen 1999, 9). The mass-produced magazine becomes the superficial media through which the personal experience of the city is paradoxically rendered, as the depth—the open sky—is again impeded by a painted backdrop, by the screen of the pictorial in the form of the altar-piece. This description also expresses precisely the process of the loss of aura: the city becomes the epitome of the desecrated work of art, since it is the place where the sublime, spiritual elevation ironically merges with the glossy mass-produced magazine cover. This printed version of Rome unbeknown to Cecilia is then transferred onto the character: "Cecilia... could not but be impressed" (Bowen 1999, 9).

7In a mirror effect, Milan is evoked in a way that is both similar and opposed to Rome. As he is facing Cecilia in the train, Mark’s thoughts are triggered by his looking at the flat surface of a book cover, which therefore stands again for the interface opening onto the city:

[o]nc glance at her book in the austere white covers of the Nouvelle Revue Française—made him fear she might turn out pretentious, even a bore. The very thought of an intellectual talk... made him sweat with discomfort and put a finger inside his collar. Looking again, however, he saw that the pages were uncut. He supposed she had borrowed the book from someone she wished to impress. In this he wronged Cecilia, who had chosen the book this morning, to please herself only, in the arcades at Milan. (Bowen 1999, 8)

  • 3 Similarly, both passages rely on the idea of "impressing" others through surface appearances.

8The arcades seem to be designed to connect this passage to the previous one, which also describes a frame, with the arch in Rome.3 As a symbol of 19th-century consumerism, this architectural element also reminds us of the Benjaminian figure of the flâneur reading the city as a semiotic surface and walking through it as if through a vast library. But a tension arises since the arch or the arcades are figures of opening while Bowen’s cities are connected to or described as flat surfaces, which tend to leave the characters out. Indeed, in the mirroring passages about the two Italian cities, Cecilia feels a stranger to Mark’s Rome just as he is left out in the sense that he is deceived and does not manage to read her. In the same way, Emmeline’s driving along the social shadow theatre to which she was not invited and which she can only glance at from a distance suggests that the character is kept away from an impenetrable surface.

9This car drive through London is only one among many others: the general impression that can be drawn from the novel is that of movement, of speed, or, as Maud Ellmann rightly suggests, of "transport" in the various senses of the term (Ellmann 96-100). The plot follows the characters from Milan’s station to London, on a trip to Paris, on board a plane and often in cars. Travelling is also a thematic component of the novel with Emmeline’s agency sending tourists to distant parts of the world. As a prevalent feature in the novel, movement can recall Bowen’s experience of going to the cinema, which she describes in those terms: "I go because I like bright light, abrupt shadow, speed" (Bowen 1937, 205). The novel opens on such a swift succession of flashes of a view, as Cecilia is sitting inside the restaurant of the train station in Milan and can only catch quick glimpses of the city: "as the glass brass-barred doors of the restaurant flashed and swung, that bright circular park outside with its rushing girdle of trams was the last of Italy" (Bowen 1999, 5). The fast-going trams are part of the framing effect in the description: they draw a circular "girdle", which is itself only the restricted view seen by the character through the abruptly opening and closing doors. The movement of the door is reflected in the rhythm of the sentence through the pair of words "flashed and swung" and enhanced by sound patterns in "glass brass-barred doors" which accelerate the rhythm and seem to illustrate the flapping of glass panels, the flashes of light.

10Cecilia’s last vision of Milan is thus a quick succession of pictures, flattened out and filtered by the glass screen. In this distant relation between the character and the world, even the exploration of the city becomes a mediated experience. Pauline is not a flâneuse who walks through the crowd to read the faces and the city. As a young orphan who stays in London for a week at her uncle’s, she cannot come into an intimate, physical contact with the metropolis. When she wants to see the city and asks for advice, an urban mythology appears in the text, with the Dickensian theme of the innocent in the city:

  • 4 Elements of popular culture colour this mystified perception of the city: "[f]ully subscribing to P (...)

[Pauline] had asked Mrs Patrick, the housekeeper, if it would be suitable for a young girl of her age to go out all alone for a ride in a bus. (Pauline had been told what happens in London and warned, especially, to avoid hospital nurses). Mrs Patrick, with hospital nurses also in mind, said it depended entirely upon the character of the bus. Taking thought, she had recommended the No. 11. The No. 11 is an entirely moral bus.... Except for the Strand, the No. 11 route, Mrs Patrick considered, had the quality of Sunday afternoon literature; from it Pauline could derive nothing but edification....
So she boarded a No. 11 at the corner of Smith Street, rode to Liverpool Street, admired the grimy glass arch of the station and rode home. (Bowen 1999, 40)

  • 5 This theme reminds us of how the city succeeded to the mythical forest as the place of danger and e (...)

11Karlheinz Stierle has shown how popular myths of the city rely on an opening movement, on the idea that "behind the world of appearances and surfaces, lies what is hidden and frightening" (Stierle 16).5 Similarly, the architectural motif of the arch suggests again opening and connection; yet its specificity, its being made of glass, also reminds the reader of the ambivalent way in which Pauline wanders through London: she is cut off from the streets and remains distant behind the glass panel which aims at protecting her from the corrupting city.

12The bus window, which plays the role of an interface connecting the inside to the outside, turns into a screen on which a two-dimensional city is projected. After the city of popular myths, a new representation is superimposed on the previous one, as Pauline tells her uncle of her bus ride: "I sat inside but saw everything. It was just like Punch" (Bowen 1999, 42). The vision of London is once more that of a picture, of a cartoon representing a "flat city" in the sense of the "flat characters" that Forster describes (Forster 67). The city becomes a caricature contradicting both the theme of the innocent in the concrete jungle and the intended reading of "Sunday afternoon literature". Far from being a deep, dark, dangerous network of streets, Bowen’s London turns out to be a series of pictures perceived by the cunning eye of the so-called innocent child who can read the city through a magnifying glass exaggerating its features and characters.

  • 6 Moreover, his first name Julian may refer to Julian the Apostate, the one who would not believe.

13Pauline’s remark about the fact that "the City looked quite enchanted" (Bowen 1999, 42) suggests that she managed to see the pictures through the mirror that turns London into a wonderland. On the contrary, her uncle’s reply ("It doesn’t enchant me", Bowen 1999, 42) betrays the fact that he is not a spectator of the charm of the streets and does not perceive a captivating cityscape. As his name suggests, Julian Tower is a pillar of integrity who can only grasp London fully, firmly and plainly, and cannot see it through a translucent, fantastic surface which opens onto another world.6 This dialogue about the enchanted quality of London streets is echoed by the later scene of Emmeline’s driving along the "pavilions... forgotten and disenchanted, unkindly eyed from the rasping buses" (Bowen 1999, 94). On the contrary, Pauline is endowed with the eyes of a spectator and manages to watch the city through a screen which acts as an interface, in the dichotomy of opening and closing, distance and revelation. In her essay on cinema-going, Bowen mentions this tension: "I go because the screen is an oblong opening into the world of fantasy for me" (Bowen 1937, 205). The surface of the screen opens onto an enchanted scene, reminiscent of the technique of superimposition, as in Friedrich Murnau’s 1927 epoch-making film Sunrise, and more particularly the kissing scene in which the background behind the couple changes from city to countryside, both as a surface of their own mental projection and an opening onto a fantastic pastoral scenery.

14Bowen therefore depicts an essentially ambivalent city: the multiplication, succession and superimposition of graphic elements builds a city made up of a series of flat surfaces acting as "interfaces" because of this tension between the figures of enclosure which turn out to be boundaries keeping the characters at a distance (magazine covers, façades and windows), and the impression of opening or connection that comes from the same elements. The cinema is the very art that reconciles that limiting flatness with a deep "world of fantasy", via the screen which is simultaneously a wall and a window. The repeated allusions to the architectural motifs of the arches and arcades embody the same tension: the urban setting follows the dialectic effect of the frame, which draws one’s attention towards what is inside of it, and at the same time restricts the vision. By exploring the cinematographic language and transcribing it into writing and into the perception of her characters, Bowen creates a paradoxical representation of the city, in which this tension that lies at the core of the cinema technique suddenly stands out. This hybrid form of writing leads to the emergence of a character-spectator who may have an insight into the enchanted cityscape yet forever remains a distant outsider.

Top of page


Benjamin, Walter, "L’Œuvre d’art à l’époque de sa reproductibilité technique", Œuvres III, Paris: Gallimard, 2003 (1939).

Bowen, Elizabeth, "Gone Away", The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen, London: Vintage, 1999, 758-766 (1980).

Bowen, Elizabeth, "Notes on Writing a Novel", Collected Impressions, London: Longmans, 1950, 249-263.

Bowen, Elizabeth, To the North, London: Vintage 1999 (1932).

Bowen, Elizabeth, "Why I Go to the Cinema", Footnotes to the Film, Davy, Charles ed., London: Lovat Dickson, 1937, 205-220.

Ellmann, Maud, Elizabeth Bowen: The Shadow Across the Page, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003.

Forster, E.M., Aspects of the Novel, New York: Harvest, 1985 (1927).

Gauthier, Dominique, L’Image du réel dans les romans d’Elizabeth Bowen, Paris: Didier érudition, 1985.

Hepburn, Allan, "War in the Archives: Elizabeth Bowen", Ransom Edition, 15 (2), Spring 2008.

Murnau, F. W. dir., Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, Fox Film Corporation, 1927.

Stierle, Karlheinz, La Capitale des signes. Paris et son discours, trad. M. Rocher-Jacquin, Paris: Editions de la Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, 2001 (1993).

Top of page


1 It seems therefore that a decade after her essay, Bowen had acknowledged this cinematographical influence, as she wrote: "[t]he cinema, cinema-going has no doubt built up in novelists a great authoritarianism" (Bowen 1950, 257).

2 It appears especially in the following expressions: "[f]irst the stucco villas, smoky, sunk in their garden", "the rasping buses", "sounds and late sunshine sifted through the fresh trees".

3 Similarly, both passages rely on the idea of "impressing" others through surface appearances.

4 Elements of popular culture colour this mystified perception of the city: "[f]ully subscribing to Pauline’s idea that a young girl cannot be too careful, [Mrs Patrick] would not, she said, have countenanced a No. 24, which goes down Charing Cross Road. Pauline blushed, she had heard about Charing Cross Road" (Bowen 1999, 40). This passage may be a reference to the popular 1931 song entitled "Underneath the Arches", written by Reg Connelly and Bud Flanagan, which is about homeless people sleeping there.

5 This theme reminds us of how the city succeeded to the mythical forest as the place of danger and enchantment in 19th-century folklore and imagination.

6 Moreover, his first name Julian may refer to Julian the Apostate, the one who would not believe.

Top of page


Bibliographical reference

Céline Magot, « Milan, London and Paris: Cities as Interfaces in Elizabeth Bowen’s To the North », Caliban, 25 | 2009, 323-328.

Electronic reference

Céline Magot, « Milan, London and Paris: Cities as Interfaces in Elizabeth Bowen’s To the North », Caliban [Online], 25 | 2009, Online since 13 December 2016, connection on 18 February 2020. URL : ; DOI :

Top of page

About the author

Céline Magot

Université Toulouse-Le Mirail

Top of page


Licence Creative Commons
Caliban – French Journal of English Studies est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

Top of page
  • Logo Presses universitaires du Midi
  • Logo DOAJ - Directory of Open Access Journals
  • OpenEdition Journals