Bowen, Elizabeth (Dorothea Cole)
BOWEN, Elizabeth (Dorothea Cole)
Nationality: Irish. Born: Dublin, 7 June 1899. Education: Day school in Folkestone, Kent; Harpenden Hall, Hertfordshire; Downe House School, Kent, 1914-17; London County Council School of Art, 1918-19. Military Service: Worked in a hospital in Dublin, 1918, and for the Ministry of Information, London, during World War II. Family: Married Alan Charles Cameron in 1923 (died 1952). Career: Reviewer, the Tatler, London, from mid-1930s; associate editor, London Magazine, 1954-61. Awards: James Tait Black Memorial prize, 1970. D.Litt.: Trinity College, Dublin, 1949; Oxford University, 1956. C.B.E. (Commander, Order of the British Empire), 1948. Member: Irish Academy of Letters, 1937; Companion of Literature, Royal Society of Literature, 1965; honorary member, American Academy. Died: 22 February 1973.
Collected Stories. 1980.
The Mulberry Tree: Writings, edited by Hermione Lee. 1986.
Encounters: Stories. 1923.
Ann Lee's and Other Stories. 1926.
Joining Charles and Other Stories. 1929.
The Cat Jumps and Other Stories. 1934.
Look at All Those Roses: Short Stories. 1941.
The Demon Lover and Other Stories. 1945; as Ivy Gripped the Steps and Other Stories, 1946.
Selected Stories, edited by R. Moore. 1946.
A Day in the Dark and Other Stories. 1965.
Irish Stories. 1978.
The Hotel. 1927.
The Last September. 1929.
Friends and Relations. 1931.
To the North. 1932.
The House in Paris. 1935.
The Death of the Heart. 1938.
The Heat of the Day. 1949.
A World of Love. 1955.
The Little Girls. 1964.
Eva Trout; or, Changing Scenes. 1968.
Anthony Trollope: A New Judgement (broadcast 1945). 1946.
Castle Anna, with John Perry (produced 1948).
Anthony Trollope: A New Judgement, 1945.
Bowen's Court (family history). 1942.
English Novelists. 1942.
Seven Winters. 1942; as Seven Winters: Memories of a Dublin Childhood, 1943.
Why Do I Write? An Exchange of Views Between Bowen, Graham Greene, and V.S. Pritchett. 1948.
Collected Impressions. 1950.
The Shelbourne: A Centre in Dublin Life for More Than a Century.1951; as The Shelbourne Hotel, 1951.
A Time in Rome. 1960.
Afterthought: Pieces about Writing. 1962.
The Good Tiger (for children). 1965.
Pictures and Conversations. 1975.
Editor, The Faber Book of Modern Stories. 1937.
Editor, Stories, by Katherine Mansfield. 1956; as 34 Short Stories, 1957.*
Bowen: A Bibliography by J'nan M. Sellery and William O. Harris, 1981.
Bowen by Jocelyn Brooke, 1952; Bowen: An Introduction to Her Novels by William W. Heath, 1961; Bowen by Allan E. Austin, 1971, revised edition, 1989; Bowen by Edwin Kenney, 1975; Patterns of Reality: Bowen's Novels by Harriet Blodgett, 1975; Bowen: Portrait of a Writer by Victoria Glendinning, 1977; Bowen: An Estimation by Hermione Lee, 1981; Bowen by Patricia Craig, 1986; Bowen by Phyllis Lassner, 1990; Elizabeth Bowen: A Reputation in Writing by Renée C. Hoogland, 1994; Elizabeth Bowen & the Dissolution of the Novel: Still Lives by Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle, 1994.* * *
While Elizabeth Bowen's novels and short stories have established their place in twentieth-century literature, critics may not always agree precisely what that place is. Those who like to place writers like racehorses in some kind of order are agreed that historically she provides a link between Virginia Woolf and Iris Murdoch as a chronicler of manners and a prober of sensibilities; but while her later subject matter is often as English as that of Jane Austen, George Elliott, or E.M. Forster, her treatment of it frequently is not. Celtic melancholy frequently creeps in.
She was an Anglo-Irish writer, an aristocratic representative of a dying species, virtually the last of her kind. She was born into the English ascendency, inheriting the "big house," Bowen's Court, but at a time when such houses were becoming increasingly burdensome to maintain. Though she eventually had to sell Bowen's Court (to a demolishing developer), she never outgrew her Irishness. As the American poet Howard Moss put it, "being English in Ireland and Irish in England" enabled her to "grasp early the colonial mentality from both sides…. In the end it was a mirror of the most exploitive relationship of all: that of adult and child." Loss and unfulfillment, the evanescent nature of all experience, haunt her stories; her characters' states of mind often are made more memorable by being described with a poet's sharpness of observation and a precise placing of evocative, sensuous imagery. Yet there is often a kind of holding back that ensures an absence of sentimentality.
For Bowen houses often assume characters in their own right, haunting the living with failed promises, imprisoning with a false sense of permanence. Thus in "The Back Drawing Room" an English visitor to an Ireland seared by "the Troubles" comes upon a woman weeping in a "big house" left unaccountably open. In "Foothold" the new owner of a Georgian house is tormented by a "sickening loneliness" emanating from the ghost of a previous owner. In "No. 16" the last remaining occupied house in Medusa Terrace (St. John's Wood, London) is sought out by Jane Oates for a strange, disillusioning encounter. Clutching her portfolio of poems, she comes to seek the opinion of Maximillian, a journalist who has highly praised a prose book by her. Maximillian, like Jane, is suffering from the flu. When Jane reads her poems to him, he stops her. "Burn them. You'll only lose your way," he says. "Are you lost?" she asks. "Yes, I'm lost. You don't understand yet. We only know when we're ill. Eternity is inside us—it's a secret that we must never, never, try to betray." It is as if the poems might somehow bring about betrayal.
The majority of writers, Bowen suggested in the essay "Sources of Influence" (included in her collection of fugitive pieces Afterthought), "are haunted by the shadowy, half-remembered landscape of early days: impressions and feelings formed there and then underly language, dictate choices of imagery…. The writer carries about in him an inner environment which is constant; though which also, as time goes on, tends to become more and more subjective."
Many of these feelings formed in her early years animate her stories. Other issues include the bewilderment of young girls growing up, and child bafflement in the face of well-meaning adult incomprehension. An example of the latter theme is in "The Easter Egg Party," whose heroine, Hermione, is invited to stay by Eunice and Isabelle Evers, "Amazons in homespuns … whose lives had been one long vigorous walk"; it is a visit that ends in misunderstanding and unhappiness.
Bowen shows remarkable empathy, not only with the viewpoint of children, but also for those women "ordained to serve as their mothers," as Phyllis Lassner so aptly puts it. Loneliness, the inescapable weight of past tradition, and the anxieties resulting from claustrophobic homes are all recurring themes. Bowen's capacity for evoking a character in a single phrase or image, her vivid and accurate use of language, and the energy of her writing (even taking account of her occasional habit of awkward inversion), together with her poet's eye, give her fiction its oddly disturbing quality. In general, her earlier stories are strongest on Irish themes and settings, and her later stories focus on mannerly character studies of upper-and middle-class Londoners. With the possible exception of her novel The Heat of the Day, arguably as fine a work of fiction as any capturing the atmosphere of wartime London, her collections of short stories are her finest achievement.
See the essay on "Summer Night."