A Day in the Dark

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A Day in the Dark

Elizabeth Bowen

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading


"A Day in the Dark" was first published in the journal Botteghe Oscure in 1955 and later in a collection of Elizabeth Bowen's short stories in 1965. Bowen gave the title of the collection the same name as the story, which she placed at the very end as an important closing statement to the work. "A Day in the Dark," considered a "timeless gem" by many readers including F. L. H. Jr. in his review of the collection, focuses on one afternoon in the life of a fifteen-year-old girl in a small town on the west coast of Ireland. What she learns that day forever changes her perspective on the relationships between men and women.

Barbie sets out to ask Miss Banderry, a descendent of one of the town's wealthiest families, a favor for her uncle, for whom she feels an innocent but powerful love. During her conversation with Miss Banderry, however, Barbie learns of the darker side of human passions, which fills her with a sense of dread. By the end of the story, she recognizes that she cannot retreat into the safety of her childhood beliefs after being indoctrinated into the complexities of the adult world.

Author Biography

Elizabeth Bowen was an only child, born in Dublin, Ireland, on June 7, 1899 to Henry Cole Bowen and Florence Colley Brown. Her father worked in the law and this kept the family between their two homes in Ireland, one in Dublin and another in Bowen's Court, her family house in County Cork. Bowen had a happy childhood until 1905, when her father had a nervous breakdown. Due to her father's long convalescence for the next several years, a family physician recommended that Elizabeth and her mother go stay with various aunts in England. Bowen's father recovered from his breakdown when Elizabeth was 12. However, her happiness at the family being reunited was short-lived since her mother died of cancer the following year. Her sense of displacement and loss of innocence as a result of her parent's death became major themes in her work.

After her mother's death, Bowen was sent to Downe House, a boarding school in Kent, England, where she stayed for the next three years. She wrote a great deal of short stories at Downe House, and decided this was what she was meant to do. Bowen was able to get started with her career as a writer partly due to Rose Macaulay, a friend who attended Downe House and who introduced her to influential editors and publishers.

Encounters, her first volume of short stories, was published in 1923. The same year, Bowen married assistant secretary for education in Northampton, Alan Charles Cameron. Bowen was soon immersed in the intellectual atmosphere of Oxford, due to her husband's promotion to secretary of education for that city.

Over the next several decades, Bowen's literary output was prolific. She published several novels, including The Hotel (1927), The Last September (1929), Friends and Relations (1931), and To the North (1932). Her literary reputation was firmly established with the publication of The House in Paris in 1935, The Death of the Heart in 1938 and The Heat of the Day in 1948. She also published collections of short fiction, including The Demon Lover and Other Stories (1945), and A Day in the Dark and Other Stories (1965).

In 1935, Bowen moved with her husband to Regent's Park in London, where she wrote essays for several journals, including the Tatler, the New York Times Magazine, Harpers, and the Saturday Review of Literature. During this time, she was also the associate editor of London Magazine. Bowen incorporated the subject of World War II in much of her writing. She was an Air Raid Precautions warden during the war, and she and Cameron often suffered through bombing raids in Regent's Park, which gave her firsthand exposure to the war. Bowen continued to write after the war. Her most well-received work was Eva Trout, or Changing Scenes, which earned her the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1970. On February 22, 1973, Elizabeth Bowen died of lung cancer at her home at Hythe, England.

Plot Summary

"A Day in the Dark" is set in Moher, a town on the west coast of Ireland. The story is narrated by Barbie, who looks back on herself as a fifteen year-old-girl and begins this story with a description of a row of houses under the bridge and the center of her town—its intermingling of houses with a "faded air of importance" and a main street that "prospers." She then turns to a history of Miss Banderry, one of the last of a once prominent family. Miss Banderry, who now owns some property and a profitable farm nearby, had insisted on getting half of the profits of the family mills, which eventually drove her "hope-less" brother to suicide. The narrator's uncle has had "dealings" with Miss Banderry and the two have fallen "into talk," especially about magazine and journal articles that she gave him to read.

One afternoon, the narrator pays Miss Banderry a visit to return a magazine and to ask if her uncle can borrow a farming tool from her. She has thought to bring some roses for her, which she pretends are from her uncle. At the door, she meets Mrs. Banderry's widowed niece, Nan, who informs Barbie that her aunt is resting and instructs her to wait. As Barbie passes the time, she notes the interior of the house, "peopled" with portraits of generations of Banderrys. She also examines her "thin" reflection in a mirror, with "no sign yet of a figure."

When Mrs. Banderry finally arrives, she appears disappointed that Barbie's uncle has not come himself. She begins bantering with Barbie, insisting to the girl, "I hear wonders of you," which Barbie recognizes is a lie. Mrs. Banderry pretends that she believes that Barbie's uncle has sent the flowers and thanks for the magazine he had borrowed. When she notices the marks on the magazine, she tries to embarrass Barbie by suggesting that her uncle reads during meals, obviously ignoring his niece. Yet, she immediately counters the stinging comment with "Oh, I'm sure you're a great companion for him."

Barbie imagines that Mrs. Banderry can read her thoughts and emotions, fearing that the woman will discover her love for her uncle. Her thoughts about him have been innocent: "There was not a danger till she spoke."

When Mrs. Banderry tries to conclude the visit, Barbie admits that her uncle wants to again borrow a farming tool. This point upsets the woman who calls him a "brute" and insists, "Time after time, it's the same story." When she declares that she does not like to lend out machinery, Barbie responds haughtily that she will relay the message to her uncle. At this, Mrs. Banderry reconsiders and says that she will think about it and teases that she might agree and she might not. She then returns her attention to Barbie. After a close examination of the girl, she concludes that her uncle should not "hide behind" her skirts, suggesting that he should have come himself. Barbie insists that her uncle is too busy to come that day.

Barbie's memory of the conversation stops after Mrs. Banderry compares Barbie's uncle to her dead brother. The narrator shifts to the present when she is older and more informed; she refuses to fill in any details about the woman that she later gained, insisting that she describe only what she experienced that day from her fifteen-year-old and innocent perspective. She understands that the woman felt an ambivalent "amorous hostility" toward her uncle but questions its cause. Barbie insists that she and her uncle felt no guilt about their relationship that summer, that they "did each other no harm." They "played house together on the margin of a passion which was impossible."

Barbie returns to her memories of that afternoon, relating that she left Mrs. Banderry's home with a little "ceremony," accepting a "thimble glass" of raspberry cordial. As she leaves, Nan asks her "conspiratorially" if she is going to meet her uncle. Barbie admits that she does not know he is in town and that she has planned to take the bus home. After practically shoving her out of the door, Nan watches Barbie as she walks away from the house.

As Barbie walks into town, she sees her uncle's car parked near the hotel. She searches for the bus that will grant her "independence" but discovers it has already departed. Her visit with Mrs. Banderry seems to have changed her attitude toward her uncle, of whom she thinks, she "did not want to be bothered." She feels people watching her from the shops as she walks toward the hotel. As she watches her uncle standing on the porch, she determines that "he was not a lord, only a landowner." He appears to have not been waiting for her. When the two meet at his car he asks how her meeting has gone, whether "the old terror" has eaten her. He is relieved that Miss Banderry has not sent him another magazine. The story ends as he touches Barbie's elbow, reminding her to get in the car.


Miss Banderry

Given the status her family once held in the town of Moher, Miss Banderry is most likely Anglo-Irish, a group in Ireland that made up the governing class. Her family was in the milling business and owned a profitable farm nearby. After her brother lost control of the family mills, she gained ownership of all the homes in the terrace, some property in another part of town, as well as a profitable farm. Although she is probably one of the wealthiest inhabitants of Moher, her house has a "faded air of importance." Presumably, she has lost the power her family once had when Barbie describes the oil portraits that hang from the walls of her home, depicting the "vanished Banderrys."

Her controlling, selfish nature becomes evident in her treatment of her "hopeless" brother, who sold the family business. After she demanded her share of the profits, he was unable to meet his debts and hanged himself. Later in the story, she callously compares him to Barbie's uncle, insisting that the two were quite "busy" men, ignoring the fact that she drove her brother to suicide.

Aware of her advancing years, she tries desperately to convince others that she is still desirable, as when she greets Barbie with a "racy, indulgent smile, to counteract the impression she knew she gave." She continues to insinuate that she and Barbie's uncle have an intimate relationship by insisting when she sees his thumbprints on her magazine, "I'd know those anywhere!" Later, she suggests, with distinctly sexual undertones as she "rub[s] her palms on her thighs," that Barbie's uncle often asks her for favors, referring to him as "my lord" and insisting that he must come to her himself.

She also cruelly taunts Barbie, whom she realizes is in love with her uncle. At times she plays along with the game as Barbie pretends to offer her tokens of her uncle's affection. Just as quickly, though, she tries to undermine Barbie and her uncle's relationship by insinuating that Barbie is too young and inexperienced to maintain his attention.


Fifteen-year-old Barbie has an innocent view of love before she goes to visit Miss Banderry. When she meets her, she is "unread," her "susceptibilities were virgin." She admits that she is in love with her uncle, and so will do what she can to "stand between him and trouble." Whenever Miss Banderry tries to attack his character, she defends him, even if it means she must lie to her. Barbie describes her feelings for her uncle as a slow process of transition, like beech trees turning from pink to purple. She is the one who sits in his chair and watches "the lassitude of his hand hanging caressing a dog's ear."

Miss Banderry's insinuations about her own relationship with the uncle as well as Barbie's, however, soon fill Barbie with dread and make her reevaluate her views on male/female interaction. Miss Banderry makes her feel defensive about her relationship with her uncle, so much so that she twice swears that she felt no guilt about their feelings for each other. Later, though she admits that they "played house together on the margin of a passion which was impossible" and that "convention was [their] safeguard," suggesting a certain danger.

She continues to feel a sense of danger and dread when she leaves Miss Banderry's, feelings that are reinforced by the appearance of her uncle at the hotel. Barbie longs to return to the innocence she felt before that afternoon but recognizes that she cannot get "out of reach" of the risks of sexuality. When her uncle touches her elbow as she gets into the car, she crosses over into the darker world of experience.


The widowed Nan is Miss Banderry's niece, who greets Barbie at the door of her aunt's house and shows her out at the end of the visit. She reinforces the dark, cynical view of sexuality that her aunt relates to Barbie. Nan, "ready to be handsome, wore a cheated ravenous look." While Nan waits for her inheritance from her aunt, the older woman has reduced her into servitude. Nan scoffs at the "overblown" roses that Barbie brings and doubts that they came from her uncle.

Apparently Nan makes it her business to know everyone else's. She tells Barbie that her uncle is at the hotel, thinking that he is waiting to drive home his niece, glancing "conspiratorially" at the girl. Nan claims that Barbie is "mad" for not wanting to ride home with her uncle.


Most of the information readers gain about Barbie's uncle comes from her discussions with Nan and Miss Banderry. He does not actually appear until the end of the story. He obviously relies on Barbie, as she appears used to standing "between him and trouble." The "winning, versatile and when necessary inventive talker" appears to be a charmer, who likes having relationships with women but hates "to tax his brain."

Barbie had felt comfortable in her relationship with him until her visit with Miss Banderry. She recognizes that he was fond of her companionship. After Miss Banderry's cynical insinuations about her uncle, Barbie feels a sense of danger about her relationship with him that she had not previously felt. This danger is reinforced when she meets him after her afternoon with Miss Banderry. Her uncle has been at the hotel, and Nan suggests "conspiratorially" that he may have been waiting there for Barbie. His surprise when he sees her, however, indicates that he was at the hotel for another reason, perhaps a secret assignation since he never explains to Barbie what he is doing there. He appears almost sinister at the end of the story as he touches her elbow as she gets in the car.


Innocence and Experience

In "Day in the Dark," Bowen presents a version of the conflict between innocence and experience. The innocents in the story are not necessarily pure, and the experienced become sinister. Barbie arrives at Miss Banderry's with an innocent heart, firmly believing that her love for her uncle is above reproach. But during her conversation with Miss Banderry, she begins to view her uncle and his relationship with her as well as others as potentially "dangerous."

Miss Banderry is a "formidable reader" of human nature. She immediately understands that Barbie's uncle has sent his niece to gain a favor from her and that Barbie has played a part in this deceptive game. Barbie willingly agrees to deceive Miss Banderry with her offering of roses because she is trying to protect her uncle, with whom she has fallen in love.

After listening to Miss Banderry's insinuations about the nature of Barbie's relationship with her uncle, Barbie becomes defensive, asserting to herself that she has no reason to feel guilty about it. Part of the narrative suggests that there has been no physical contact between Barbie and her uncle, but Barbie admits that the two of them "played house together on the margin of a passion which was impossible.

Miss Banderry introduces Barbie into the adult world of sexuality with her intimations concerning her own relationship with Barbie's uncle. Miss Banderry is also guilty of deceit as Barbie catches her "dealing the lie to me like a card" when she accepts the roses and reports that she has heard good things about Barbie. Miss Banderry, Barbie claims, "took a long voluptuous sniff at [the roses], as though deceiving herself as to their origin—showing me she knew how to play the game." The game becomes more sinister as Miss Banderry talks about Barbie's uncle, calling him both a "brute" and "my lord," and complaining about "what blows in off his dirty land." Ironically, while she is trying to assert her influence over Barbie's uncle, Miss Banderry is warning the girl about the dangers women face in their relationships with men.

Barbie feels a sense of betrayal after she leaves Miss Banderry's and sees her uncle at the hotel, which appears to confirm Miss Banderry's dark vision of him. Barbie has sacrificed her innocence in the process as she "sacrificed a hair ribbon to tie the roses." She sees her uncle as "all carriage and colouring" when he is "finished with the hotel." By the end of the story, she has discovered that "he was not a lord, only a landowner."


Barbie swears twice that she feels no guilt about her relationship with her uncle. Yet she admits feeling that people are spying on her, which seems to contradict her assertion. Before she arrives at Miss Banderry's house, she imagines that the vines on the terrace "leaned on the balustrade spying down upon [her], or so [she] thought." This initial sense of guilt may be a result of her involvement in her uncle's deceitful game with Miss Banderry.

Topics for Further Study

  • Read over the passages in which Barbie describes the landscape of Moher. Write a poem or a short sketch describing a scene in nature and your own or a character's emotional response to it.
  • Read Bowen's "The Demon Lover" and compare its themes to those of "A Day in the Dark."
  • Bowen lived in a "big house" much like the one occupied by Miss Banderry. Investigate the history of the region of Moher to get a sense of the changes that occurred that would have affected Miss Banderry. How do you think a woman like her would have lived before her family lost the milling business? How do you think this loss affected her? Use details from the story to back up your views.
  • Bowen had a difficult childhood as she continually moved from house to house and she eventually lost both her mother and father. Read biographical materials on her to determine whether you see any autobiographical details in the story. Do you think she would identify more with Barbie or with Miss Banderry?

After her visit with Miss Banderry, however, Barbie's guilt emerges from a darker source: her reexamination of her relationship with her uncle. She feels Nan watching her walk down the street to the hotel where her uncle is. As she walks, she insists, "people started to come to the shop doors in order to look at me in amazement. They knew who I was and where he was…. They speculated." As she looks for the bus to take her home, she feels that the people watching her are wondering, "what should I be wanting to catch the bus for?" Barbie longs to escape to the innocence of her past but she recognizes that the bus that would have taken her there is now "out of reach," and so she allows her uncle to help her into his car.


Point of View

In his review of A Day in the Dark, Edwin Morgan writes, "in this rich selection of her short stories the communication is often an ambiguity or a mystery which the imagination of the reader must try to unravel or complete." One way Bowen accomplishes this is by relating the plot through the narrator's limited point of view. Barbie tells the story as an adult but refuses to add any details that she did not observe or conclusions she did not make during that afternoon. At one point, she claims that memory has failed her and that she has lost half of her conversation with Miss Banderry. This truncated version forces readers to think about omitted parts of the experience and ambiguous parts of the story, like Barbie's sense of danger and dread. Yet this narrative technique provides a truer portrait of Barbie's experience, that of a young girl confronted with disturbing realities and trying to make sense of them.


Bowen's vivid descriptions of the setting provides meaning that deepens readers' understanding of the story. In his review of her collection of short stories, F. L. H. quotes Bowen as writing (in the Preface to her collection of short stories): "On the whole, places more often than faces have sparked off stories. To be honest, the scenes have been before me before the characters." She spends a good deal of time in "A Day in the Dark" setting the scene in which Barbie learns about the complex adult world she is to enter.

In the beginning of the story, Bowen juxtaposes images of life, transition, and decay, suggesting the movement from innocence to experience, which becomes the story's main theme. The opening image is one of transition, of one coming over the bridge and seeing the "faded air of importance" that characterizes the terrace, where, appropriately, Miss Banderry lives, and nearby the ruined castle. Barbie is literally the one in transition, as she walks from the prosperous town square to Miss Banderry's faded house, where she is to lose her innocent vision of the relationships between men and women. Also, the castle juxtaposed with the row houses under the bridge suggest the transition in generations of Miss Banderry's Anglo-Irish ancestors, who were themselves land lords (literally lords over the land worked by poor Irish laborers) and later became merely owners of the land.

Bowen also makes good use of interior details in Miss Banderry's house, decorated with pictures of ancestors and a stopped clock. In the parlor where Barbie waits, she has the chance to inspect herself in the mirror at the beginning of an afternoon in which she is forced to reexamine her relationship with her uncle. Nan notes that the roses Barbie brings are "overblown" and did not "travel well" as they drop petals on the doorstep. Miss Banderry, of course, recognizes the lie when she grabs them "thorns and all" and begins the malicious game she plays with Barbie. The roses are an apt symbol of Barbie's situation. Traditionally roses are given as a token of affection, and they can be used to suggest sexuality. But these are past their prime and thorny. By dropping their petals, they suggest the loss of Barbie's sexual innocence; their thorns suggest the thorny lie she is obliged to act out. Barbie's innocent vision of love, like the petal-dropping roses, dies as Miss Banderry introduces Barbie into the adult realities of relationships. The knowledge Barbie gains is later symbolized by "the copper beeches" that surround the house she and her uncle live in that summer "turning from pink to purple," colors that suggest a transformation from bright innocent affection to dark physical passion.

At the end of the story, Bowen uses setting details to further illuminate Barbie's transition. She becomes as powerless as the paper boat the river carries away, "traveling at uncertain speed on the current, list[ing] as it vanished under the bridge." She does not have "the heart to wonder how the boat would fare." But readers may well wonder how Barbie will fare. When she sees her uncle at the hotel, her impulse is to escape. Here the bus becomes the symbol of her freedom from this adult world. She longs to take the bus back to "scenes of safety … and solitude." But the innocence of that world is past; a means of escape is "out of reach."

Historical Context

The Decline of the Big Houses

After civil war broke out in Ireland in 1921, ancestral homes known as Big Houses went into decline. They were owned by the Anglo-Irish, British Protestants who made up the occupation governing class in Ireland and who had taken the land away from the Irish Catholics. During the war, many of these homes, like Bowen's Court, Elizabeth Bowen's family estate, were either taken over by soldiers or destroyed by anti-British mobs who regarded them as symbols of social and economic oppression.

Richard Tillinghast, in his article on Bowen, writes that she "was born into a Protestant ascendancy that rose to power and distinction in the eighteenth century and went into decline by the late nineteenth." Tillinghast reveals the influence this movement had on her when he concludes, "The alienation of the Anglo-Irish landowner, set above and isolated from the 'native' population, is a vantage point to which Bowen refers often when writing of Ireland."

In 1903 the Wyndham Act was passed in Ireland, which helped displaced Catholics buy back their lands from the Anglo-Irish. By the second decade of the twentieth century, landlords who had sold off their farms were left with not much more than their big houses. The wealth they had accumulated from the sale of their lands left them with little to occupy their time in a place where they felt a growing sense of isolation.

Girls and Sexuality in Ireland

A celebrated 2003 film The Magdalene Sisters depicts the harrowing consequences for Irish girls who experimented with sex during the first half of the twentieth century. Girls who became pregnant or engaged in sexual activities were often handed over to the Catholic Church by their families. Some of them ended up in convents that turned them literally into slaves, working in laundries or other money-making operations. The film paints a bleak picture of convent life, in which it claims the girls were brutalized.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1950s: Girls who engage in sexual activities continue to be sent to convents in Ireland to remove them from such opportunities and to teach them a sense of morality.

    Today: Reflecting the relaxed sexual mores of the twenty-first century, sexual acts involving young adults can be viewed on cable television as well as on the Internet.
  • 1950s: Ireland is plagued by high unemployment figures. This situation makes it even more difficult for women to find work. Women in the cities tend to stay home, but in rural areas, women often work farms alongside men. Both young men and women emigrate to other countries, including England and the United States, in search of better employment opportunities.

    Today: Many young Irish stay in Ireland, which in the early 2000s experiences strong economic growth, especially in the cities where employment opportunities are expanding.
  • 1950s: On both sides of the Atlantic, women feel a growing sense of dissatisfaction about the unequal treatment they receive in the home, the workplace, and in other institutions.

    Today: Women have made major gains in their fight for equality. Discrimination against women is against the law in Ireland, in Britain, and in the United States.

Sexuality in the 1950s

Traditional attitudes about sex began to change during this era. Still heavily influenced by the church, the Irish tried to encourage the young to refrain from sexual experimentation. But new attitudes in America began to filter into the Irish culture. Alfred Kinsey's reports on the sexual behavior of men and women (1948, 1953) helped bring discussions of this subject out in the open in the United States and overseas. Although many Irish clung to oppressive Catholic ideas about sexuality, they could not suppress questions that began to be raised about what constituted normal or abnormal sexual behavior.

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Movie stars such as Marilyn Monroe and Brigitte Bardot, who openly flaunted their sexuality, intrigued the public on both sides of the Atlantic and magazines like Playboy, begun in 1953, gained a wide audience. In the 1960s relaxed moral standards resulted in an age of sexual freedom in Europe and the United States. Yet, most Irish in the 1950s retained conservative attitudes toward sexuality: they did not openly discuss sexual behavior, and promiscuity, especially for women, was not tolerated.

Critical Overview

"A Day in the Dark" was first published in the journal Botteghe Oscure in 1955. It appeared in Mademoiselle magazine in 1957 and then became the title story in Bowen's 1965 collection of short stories. In a review of that collection, F. L. H. Jr. praises Bowen's detailed descriptions of setting, concluding that "Miss Bowen carries over a novelistic technique to her short stories." Many other scholars have applauded Bowen's attention to detail in these stories, including Edwin Morgan who writes in his review of A Day in the Dark that in this "rich selection of her short stories," "Miss Bowen shows again and again her skill in evoking atmosphere, weather, gardens, houses, brooding human feelings." He also finds a strong connection between place and the "convincing psychological realism" of her stories. Echoing this conclusion, Laurel Smith, in her article on Bowen in the Dictionary of Literary Biography determines that "Bowen unobtrusively steers readers through the geography of motives and interactions on which human identity and human character depend."

Turning to "A Day in the Dark," F. L. H. Jr. insists that the story is "a timeless gem about a girl's recognition of the complexities of love." In her article on the story, Lis Christensen claims that it "has been hailed as a Bowen classic." She echoes the positive reviews of the collection when she notes "the dominant role played by rooms and houses and landscapes" in the story. She also praises the story's narrative voice, commenting that "The handling of the narrator provides a degree of ambivalence and complexity … that places it among the most sophisticated of Elizabeth Bowen's writings." F. L. H. Jr. illustrates the appeal of this collection and specifically of "A Day in the Dark" with the conclusion that "It's great to be a reader in the same world in which Elizabeth Bowen writes."


Wendy Perkins

Perkins is a professor of American and English literature and film. In this essay, Perkins examines the theme of innocence and experience in the story.

Laurel Smith, in her article in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, notes that the central concerns in Bowen's short stories are "the complex truths of human relationships." In one of her most poignant stories, "A Day in the Dark," Bowen explores the complex truths in the relationships a fifteen year-old Irish girl has with her uncle and a woman in her town. Barbie's interactions with these two influential figures in her young life cause her to discover the darker nature of sexuality and so to be initiated into the realities of the adult world.

Angus Wilson, in his introduction to The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen, concludes that Bowen's best stories focus on the "never changing conflict of youth's hopeful imagination and the regretful doubts of the ageing." In "A Day in the Dark," Bowen alters this conflict a bit to one between "hopeful imagination" and a cynical vision of the adult world. Barbie's and Miss Banderry's conflicting visions center on the issue of sexuality. On the afternoon of her visit Barbie admits that she is in love with her uncle, exclaiming, "with him I felt the tender bond of sex." Since she had not known him when she was a child, she came upon his "manhood" without warning. She had not felt any danger in their relationship, "growing into love … like the grass growing into hay on his uncut lawns." Not at least until she visits Miss Banderry that day.

Barbie makes the trip for her uncle, who needs to return a magazine and borrow a farming implement. She insists that he has evaded meetings with Miss Banderry because although "a winning, versatile and when necessary inventive talker, fundamentally [he] hated to tax his brain," and Miss Banderry liked to discuss reading material that she often sent him. Barbie is hopeful that she can successfully perform the favor for her uncle and so brings roses as a gift.

She approaches the house with some trepidation, the cause of which is not immediately apparent. Perhaps it is due to her knowledge of Miss Banderry's hounding of her brother to the point of suicide or perhaps it is due to her understanding that her uncle has a certain relationship with the older woman. Bowen's subtle and indirect narrative style often forces the reader to follow barely detectable suggestions of plot line and character development. Soon after Barbie arrives, however, she confronts the complex realities of adult relationships, which will fill her with a sense of "dread."

Looking back from adulthood, Barbie admits that when she went to Miss Banderry's, she was "unread, [her] susceptibilities were virgin." Her innocence is immediately challenged by Nan, Miss Banderry's dependent niece, who "bets" that the "overblown" roses have not come from Barbie's uncle. The widowed Nan is a "regretful, doubting" older woman like the ones to whom Wilson refers. "[R]eady to be handsome," Nan "wore a cheated ravenous look" as she waits for her inheritance, since she has no other opportunities.

Nan's response exposes Barbie to the complex games that men and women often play, prompting her to acknowledge that her uncle "had never thought of the roses. He had commissioned me to be gallant for him any way I chose." He had insisted, "She'll be mad…. Better say it was you." Her love for him, however, remains unshaken for she "sacrifices a hair ribbon to tie the roses" because "it rejoices [her] to stand between him and trouble." She again expresses her love when she wonders, "how dared [Nan] speak of my uncle with her bad breath?"

Miss Banderry will soon challenge that innocent love with her subtle treacheries and manipulations. Bowen refuses to make the relationship between Barbie's uncle and Miss Banderry clear since she relates it through the eyes of an inexperienced fifteen-year-old, but the older woman implies that at least from her point of view, there is a sexual tension between the two. She views the young girl as a threat to her relationship with the uncle as she indoctrinates Barbie into the darker side of human desires.

Before the two meet, Barbie observes the portraits of the "vanishing Banderrys" and the stopped clock, which suggest Miss Banderry's faded youth. Yet when Barbie becomes self-conscious under their gaze and so inspects herself in the mirror, she sees, "A tall girl in a sketchy cotton dress. Arms thin, no sign yet of a figure," not yet a woman. When Miss Banderry arrives, she continues the inspection, exclaiming "so he sent you, did he?" and sits down "the better to look at" her. Aware of her aged "angry" appearance, Miss Banderry, pastes a "racy, indulgent smile" on her face and begins her banter with Barbie concerning their relationship with Barbie's uncle. Miss Banderry's obvious regrets over her lost youth prompt her attacks on the girl, whom she recognizes as a challenge to the uncle's attentions.

Miss Banderry begins "the game" by pretending to believe that the roses come from Barbie's uncle. She suggests her intimacy with him when she spies his thumbprints on the returned magazine and exclaims, "I'd know those anywhere!" and later, when she admits, "he's a handsome fellow." She does her best to make Barbie feel uncomfortable and to undermine the girl's vision of her own relationship with her uncle. Noting that the thumbprints must have been made while he was dining, Miss Banderry insists to Barbie, "it's a poor compliment to you" for him to read at the table.

Her remarks sting Barbie, who is not much of a match for the older woman. She feels as if Miss Banderry can see into her heart and recognize that she is in love with him. Until this point, her love for her uncle has been innocent but Miss Banderry's challenging banter with her, with its obvious sexual undertones, has sounded a note of "danger." Here Barbie glimpses for a moment the implications for her future as she faces the adult world of competition and deceit.

Miss Banderry implies that Barbie's uncle has asked many things of her when she cuts off Barbie's request "My uncle wants" with "What this time?" She tries to suggest the man's dependence on her when she exclaims, "Looking to me to keep him out of jail?" After calling him "a brute," however, she backs down and instructs Barbie, "tell my lord … I'll think it over." She insists that if he wants an answer "let him come himself" and accuses him of hiding behind Barbie's "skirts." Barbie tries to defend him but knows that some of what the woman has said about her uncle's behavior is true.

Mrs. Banderry's comparison of her brother to Barbie's uncle fills the girl with "dread," an emotion she feels even as an adult whenever she sees the woman's house. Barbie recognizes that Miss Banderry's "amorous hostility" to her uncle "unsheathed itself when she likened him to the brother she drove to death." This knowledge apparently affects Barbie so greatly that her memory of the meeting breaks off at this point; she notes, "The other half is missing."

The meeting forces her to reexamine her own relationship with her uncle, yet she appears still to deny certain realities. She insists twice that she felt dread during her meeting with Miss Banderry, "not guilt." Twice also she "swears" that she and her uncle "did each other no harm." What she cannot admit is that her encounter with Miss Banderry, arranged by her uncle, did damage her, as does her meeting with him at the end of the afternoon. She acknowledges that she and her uncle had "played house together on the margin of a passion which was impossible" but because of that passion, he had thrown her into the adult world of experience, which she realizes can be dangerous. Nan reads this on Barbie's face when she exclaims to the departing girl, "Anybody would think you'd had bad news!"

When Barbie leaves Miss Banderry's, she is surprised to see her uncle's car outside of the hotel since she told him that she would take the bus home. Her uncle's presence at the hotel suggests an alternate, secretive motive that he never explains. She recognizes that he did not go there to meet her. By the end of this afternoon, Barbie's world has become irreparably altered. The streets are now "filmed by imponderable white dust" that seems to her "the pallor of suspense." The bus that should have been there, granting her "independence" from her uncle and his adult world, has gone, denying her an exit to "the scenes of safety," and "hope of solitude." Her past, innocent relationship with him is now "out of reach," and so she determines that he is no longer her "lord." The end of the story signals Barbie's entrance into this adult territory as she gets in her uncle's car, prompted by his touch on her elbow.

Bowen ends the story on an ambivalent inconclusive note. Readers do not know what happens to Barbie and her relationship with her uncle. Bowen does show us, however, in her finely crafted narrative that she has left her hopeful innocence behind after her "day in the dark" adult world of experience.

Source: Wendy Perkins, Critical Essay on "A Day in the Dark," in Short Stories for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.

Lis Christensen

In the following essay, Christensen examines Bowen's handling of the I-narrator and other ambiguities in "A Day in the Dark."

I-narrators are so rare in Elizabeth Bowen's fiction that interest naturally attaches to "A Day in the Dark", a first-person story that has been hailed as a Bowen classic. It first appeared in Botteghe Oscure in 1955, and ten years later it became the title story of the last collection of her stories to be published in her lifetime. From the point of view of technique, most of the few other I-narratives in Elizabeth Bowen's Collected Stories read like experiments in how to convey necessary information to the reader in a plausible manner; this goes for stories like "Love" (1939) and "The Cheery Soul" (1942), whose puzzling circumstances are finally explained to the wondering narrator by one of the characters, in set speeches, as it were. There is no such air of technical experimentation about "A Day in the Dark", which obviates any problems of information by making the narrator the heroine of her own story, and by choosing as narrator a woman with an almost self-advertising literary flair, for whom it is quite in character to give a vivid rendering of a past experience. It is in many ways a recognisable Bowen story, both in its initiation theme—the sensitive adolescent thrown headlong into the power-games of the adults—and in its elements, from details like the propitiatory offering of flowers chosen by the heroine (roses, of course) to the dominant role played by rooms and houses and landscapes. The handling of the narrator provides a degree of ambivalence and complexity, however, that places it among the most sophisticated of Elizabeth Bowen's writings.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Death in Venice (1913), by Thomas Mann, is a tragic tale of an acclaimed author's obsession for a young boy and an exploration of the nature of beauty.
  • The Awakening (1899), by Kate Chopin, is a novel of a young woman who struggles to find self-knowledge and inevitably suffers the consequences of trying to establish herself as an independent spirit.
  • Lolita (1955), by Vladimir Nabokov, focuses on the relationship between a young girl and an older man.
  • "The Demon Lover," one of Bowen's most popular stories, focuses on a woman whose lover is killed in the war.

It will come as no surprise to Bowen devotees that there is more to the text than meets the eye, and for the uninitiated reader there are many pointers. The title itself, playing on the many overtones of the word "dark" as well as on the expression "to be in the dark", gives some forewarning of the ambiguities to come. The name chosen for the town on which the plot is centred, Moher, recalls a wellknown landmark on the west coast of Ireland, the Cliffs of Moher: several miles of high cliffs falling sheer into the Atlantic—a spot readily associated with danger and fall, as befits a story concerned, at least on one level, with the loss of innocence. For readers with some knowledge of the Irish language, the name has the additional point the mothar (/mohar/) in Irish means a thicket, jungle; it is also used of a ruined rath or fort—as Moher in the story has its ruined castle. There are, moreover, early, scarcely veiled hints of wider perspectives in woods that "go back deeply", a "backdrop of Irishblue mountains", and "elusive lights" in the valley beyond Moher. Reading between the lines in search of such perspectives, and focusing on what the narrator inadvertently reveals in the way she tells her tale, it becomes not so much a story of darkness as of light, luminously dwelling on an idyllic interlude of love-companionship between a charming, lonely man and a young girl on the threshold of sexual awakening. The first-person mould into which the story is cast leaves the author free to explore both the conscious and subconscious levels of her narrator's mind without forfeiting any of her habitual allusiveness, and to employ structural and stylistic features as part of that exploration. At the same time, the text is so overwritten as to approach metafiction, with a built-in distancing effect that appears partly in the guise of a take-off on the too professional text-book story; and the many echoes of Elizabeth Bowen's earlier writings suggest—again, unsurprisingly to her established audience—that it is she herself who is the object of her mockery.

"A Day in the Dark" is ostensibly the story of a young girl's terrifying encounter with the darkness of self-serving adult cynicism, told by herself many years later. Venturing into the neighbouring town on behalf of her farmer uncle to return a magazine and ask for the loan of a farm implement, the fifteen-year-old Barbie is met with snide suggestions about the nature of her relationship with her uncle, with whom she is spending the summer. Miss Banderry, the object of her visit, is an unprepossessing, unscrupulous woman who has hounded her own brother to death and now harasses Barbie's uncle, whom she pointedly refers to as "my lord", in a you-do-this-for-me-and-I'll-do-that-foryou game with unmistakable sexual undertones. On this occasion it is the young girl who has to bear the brunt of her hectoring manner, and she emerges from the ordeal with a lifelong feeling of "dread" (her own word). The story is divided into three sections, sharply marked off by linear spacing. The first section takes us through part of the visit and is abruptly broken off when Miss Banderry compares Barbie's uncle to her dead brother. The second contains the adult narrator's reflections. The third takes up the plotline with Barbie leaving Miss Banderry's house to find her bus, and meeting instead her uncle outside the hotel in the square.

The story shares certain features with other first-person narratives. One is that the sympathy of the reader tends to fall quite naturally on the side of the narrator-heroine; this is emphatically the case here, since Miss Banderry is clearly cast as the villain of the piece, the wolf in "Little Red Riding Hood." Her narrow, claustrophobic parlour is veritably "dark", crowded with mahogany furniture, curtained with heavy lace, looking on to a sunless dead-end road. Stagnation is the key-note. The only things reminiscent of life are the pictures on the wall, but they are all portraits of dead ancestors, and even the clock has stopped. The July afternoon, too, is "dead still", and the monotonous sound of the weir under the parapet of the terrace echoes the monotony of the houses. A liberating sense of movement is provided by the river running through the thriving little town of Moher, chiming in with the humming flour-mills and cheerful hotel, and the cars swishing by on the bridge. The reader is immediately drawn into the story by exclamations and direct address, and is moreover given a distinct identity as someone passing, or likely to pass, through Moher. This is signalled in the very first words of the story: "Coming into Moher over the bridge, you may see a terrace of houses by the river." The text goes on to describe the houses in the terrace, referring again twice to the brief imaginary visit of the reader. The contrast between stagnation and movement is thus established, even hammered home, already on the first page, with the readers on their travels firmly placed on the side of movement, against the Miss Banderrys of this world; and having enlisted us at an early stage as accomplices against Miss Banderry, the narrator can more easily presume on our sympathy with her teenage infatuation.

Again in common with other first-person narratives, the protagonist of "A Day in the Dark" is careful to establish her own credibility, insisting on the fact that she only sets down what she can actually remember. She makes a point of not filling in her here-and-now portrait of Miss Banderry, for instance, and draws attention to places where her memory has failed her; she has, so to speak, made it her business to be frank, and this is a part of that frankness. Frank, too, is the way she exhibits, even flaunts her schoolgirl infatuation with her uncle, orchestrating it with suggestively lush natural scenery: "With him I felt the tender bond of sex. Seven, eight weeks with him under his roof, among the copper beeches from spring to summer turning from pink to purple, and I was in love with him." The frankness is somewhat belied, however, by ambiguity as to what actually took place—notably where the narrator, commenting on a catty remark of Miss Banderry's, says: "It was as though she saw me casting myself down by my uncle's chair when he'd left the room, or watching the lassitude of his hand hanging caressing a dog's ear." Whether she in fact did one or the other is perhaps not so important as the impression we get that she is so lost in recollection—or fantasy—that she does not give a thought to making herself intelligible. The confessional tone is never far absent, however, and the narrator is clearly one of those ladies who protest too much: "It could be said, my gathering of foreboding had to do with my relationship with him—yet in that, there was no guilt anywhere, I could swear! I swear we did each other no harm." The appeal to the reader that ends this paragraph similarly defeats its own purpose: "All thought well of his hospitality to me. Convention was our safe-guard: could one have stronger?"

Much of this might arguably have been conveyed by a third-person narrator with Barbie as reflector. But there is a very real advantage in the choice of the first person in the use of style and structure to reflect the subconscious of the narrator-heroine, as in the rhetorical question just quoted, and in the way past events and adolescent emotions are filtered through an adult mind inevitably open to the suspicion of repression. The depth of the narrator-heroine's feeling for her uncle appears nowhere more clearly than at the very end of the story when, after a graphic vignette of him standing in the porch of the hotel, she lets fall the words, "He was not a lord, only a landowner"—puzzlingly, and seemingly out of context, until we realise that it is Miss Banderry's references to her uncle as "my lord" all those years ago that are still uppermost in the narrator's mind when she is telling her story.

The story moves in its own rather cavalier fashion between different temporal planes and modes of narration. The initial paragraphs describing the setting are held in the present tense, with a future perspective in references to the reader-traveller and a potted history of Miss Banderry before the story proper begins with the words, "So much I knew when I rang her doorbell." Even then, there is room for a thumbnail sketch of the niece who opens the door to Barbie and a pre-past paragraph giving a revealing glimpse of her easy-going uncle, before she is shown into Miss Banderry's "narrow parlour." When the story finally gets under way in the narrative past, it is still anchored in the present; the past is referred to from a present standpoint as "that afternoon" or "that day", and there are repeated present-tense interruptions in the flow of the past narrative in the form of general and specific comment, even a sortie into pure metafiction: "I refuse to fill in her outline retrospectively: I show you only what I saw at the time." The narrative voice is almost insistently that of an adult recalling past events, interrupted only by snatches of direct speech—and even that may be accompanied by narratorial comment: "'He told me to tell you, he enjoyed it.' (I saw my uncle dallying, stuffing himself with buttered toast.) 'With his best thanks.'"

It becomes increasingly clear, as the story progresses, that the narrator's mind is not really on the sleazy shadow cast by Miss Banderry on her relationship with her uncle, but rather on that relationship itself. Her subject is, in her own words, "Not what she [Miss Banderry] was, but what she did to me" [my italics]. Yet what Miss Banderry actually did is never explained in so many words; it is never made clear what exactly the narrator dreaded—whether it was a vague fear that Miss Banderry might harm her uncle, as she had caused her own brother's death; or that her insinuations were true, and the uncle-niece relationship might turn out to be not all that innocent; or, again, that it might lose its innocence. Perhaps this is what actually happens as soon as Barbie is made aware of the construction others may put on it; perhaps that is what is suggested by the use of words like "danger" ("There was not a danger till she spoke") and "foreboding" ("It could be said, my gathering of foreboding had to do with my relation with him"). Following this line of thought, we may pick up the word "suspense" towards the end of the story, taking it to mean that Barbie is on tenterhooks about meeting her uncle again in the light of what Miss Banderry has indirectly revealed: "That day the approach to Moher, even the crimson valerian on the stone walls, was filmed by imponderable white dust as though flourbags had been shaken. To me, this was the pallor of suspense." This would be quite in line with her longing to be alone, as in a prelapsarian state of innocence, in the peace and quiet of his house when he was not there. These are hints and guesses, however, in keeping with Elizabeth Bowen's customary narrative methods perhaps, but at variance with what we have been led to expect. Once the narrator has spelt out for us that it really is dread she is talking of—which she does quite literally: "When I speak of dread I mean dread, not guilt"—the word "dread" is not mentioned again. No analysis of the way Miss Banderry affected her is forthcoming, and the only direct information she offers as to any lasting effect of her visit is that she still "mislike[s] any terrace facing a river." The anticipation that has been encouraged in the reader is finally superseded by the interest surrounding the meeting between niece and uncle.

As the story gathers momentum, then, the emphasis veers away from Miss Banderry to the narrator's uncle. He is referred to throughout as "my uncle", with an appellative at once possessive and slightly distancing to the reader, who is not invited to share so much as his name (that he is feckless and devious and shirks responsibility we see for ourselves; the narrator withholds all comment, and perhaps all conscious knowledge, in this respect). The shift in emphasis accompanies the widely different presentation of the two contrasted adult characters, one commanding our attention at the beginning of the story, the other at the end. Miss Banderry is given an immense build-up: her name is introduced with awe, foregrounded in a simple sentence at the end of a paragraph: "You could, I can see, overlook my terrace of houses—because of the castle, indifference or haste. I only do not because I am looking out for them. For in No. 4 lives Miss Banderry." Then follows a brief review of her past history, and her handsome front door provides a concrete image of her substantial wealth. Her actual entrance is further delayed for several paragraphs, leaving time for a piece of stage business between the narrator and Miss Banderry's niece, and when she herself finally appears she is given a physical description such as we might expect when a new character enters a story: massive bust, choleric colouring, racy smile. The narrator seems to be following similar text-book guidelines (How To Introduce Your Characters) when she uses the gimmick of seeing herself in a mirror to describe her own appearance: "A tall girl in a sketchy cotton dress. Arms thin, no signs yet of a figure. Hair forward over the shoulders in two plaits, like, said my uncle, a Red Indian maiden's. Barbie was my name." She supplies her name almost as an afterthought, as though she knew it was something we should be told, a necessary piece of information that has to be fitted in somewhere. "Barbie" is never mentioned again and may seem superfluous; but it does serve to distance the narrator from her youthful persona, and to point up the fact that her hero is never given a name.

The uncle is introduced almost by the way. Indeed, he hardly gets a proper introduction at all, for he is first mentioned in the rundown of Miss Banderry's past merits, when the text assumes that we already know about him: "My uncle, whose land adjoined on hers, had dealings with her"; and mention of a blistered circle on Blackwood's Magazine "where my uncle must have stood down his glass" [my italics] suggests that the reader is well acquainted with the man's habits. Up to the very end of the story, this is how his picture is built up: the narrator concentrates on telling us something else, and the uncle is backgrounded—presupposing that we are in some degree familiar with him or at least with his existence, and at the same time inducing us to take him as much for granted as his niece does. The glass I have just referred to comes in by the way when the narrator is telling of her errand to Miss Banderry. The uncle's farm, too, which is juxtaposed so markedly to Miss Banderry's terrace as a telling indication of his easygoing nature, is never made the focus of attention; that he has an overgrown garden appears à propos of picking roses for Miss Banderry, where familiarity is implied by the use of the definite article: "I would not do too badly with these, I'd thought, as I untangled them from the convolvulus in the flowerbed" [my italics]. His physical appearance is never described in so many words, moreover, and it is only through Miss Banderry's remarks that we learn that he is "a handsome fellow." It is not until the very last page that he appears "in the flesh", as Bowen might say, and by then he has fully won our sympathy, if only because of Miss Banderry's hostility to him. We see him before we hear him, nameless as ever and even thus in a class by himself, a princely figure framed in the porch of the hotel under the gold letters of its name (the lettering highlighted by being mentioned twice); "He tossed a cigarette away, put the hand in a pocket and stood there under the gold lettering." This is a well staged entrance if ever there was one, which the narrator nevertheless has thought well to point up by telling us a few paragraphs earlier that the square was "an all but empty theatre." And such is the aura surrounding the unnamed prince that one almost forgets how easily—charming as he is, gallant, lazy, fond of a glass and easygoing to a fault—he might, seen through other eyes than those of an adoring niece, have become yet another version of the cardboard cutout that popularly does duty as the "typical Irishman."

In the final scene, the scene that stays in the reader's mind, the dread that the narrator initially seemed to have been leading up to has dissolved beneath the bantering tone of her uncle:

We met at his car. He asked: 'How was she, the old terror?'

'I don't know.'

'She didn't eat you?'

'No,' I said, shaking my head.

'Or send me another magazine?'

'No. Not this time.'

'Thank God.'

He opened the car door and touched my elbow, reminding me to get in.

This is an unusual note, surely, on which to end a story about dread. It is tempting to compare it with the very different ending of Joyce's "Araby", with which "A Day in the Dark" has a good deal in common: initiation theme, first-person narrator, opening description of a dead-end street, adolescent protagonist living with surrogate parent(s) and assuming the role of knight-defender of a less than perfect beloved. Joyce's story ends: "Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger."

The very last words in "A Day in the Dark" do nothing to resolve the story's ambivalence. The narrator ignores, or chooses to ignore, the intimacy of the uncle's final gesture, as she has a page earlier passed lightly over an earlier occasion when she and her uncle had "lingered, elbow to elbow" on the bridge—this in the same paragraph where she makes the Freudian slip of describing the battlements of the castle as being "kissed by the sky." She also seems blind to the suggestion that her uncle found her attractive, which appears when she quotes his rather novelettish comparison of her plaits to "a Red Indian maiden's." It is as though the narrator, while more than willing to reveal her own emotions, is at pains to avoid anything that might sully our impression of her hero. This leads her to assume a knowledge of his mind that is not quite in keeping with her necessarily restricted point of view: her own longing, she tells us, was not for an embrace, but for "him"; "as for him," she roundly goes on, "he was glad of companionship." Similarly, in the final scene she blandly asserts that he was not looking out for her with the same confidence that she tells us that he took her elbow to remind her—or rather, more ambivalently, "reminding" her—to get into the car. Whether she identifies so much with her uncle that she feels privy to his thoughts, or is playing down any suggestion of sexual attraction, her character has a psychological depth that is a major point of interest in the story.

It remains to consider the extraordinary degree of overemphasis by which the text constantly draws attention to itself as text. I have already pointed to early examples, such as the less than subtle contrast between stagnation and movement in the beginning of the story, and the introduction of Miss Banderry that reads suspiciously like a text-book example. The very creation of two so palpably contrasted characters as Miss Banderry and the narrator's uncle to represent darkness and light is in itself too neat to be overlooked, and their symmetrical positions are further underlined by the opposition between their nieces and their relationship with them. Miss Banderry's treatment of her niece almost amounts to mental terror; poor Nan—even she has a name—has no more liberty than a slave, and her every movement is watched. "She was not in her aunt's confidence", the narrator tells us, thereby ensuring that we notice, by way of contrast, the perfect amity between herself and her uncle that appears in the brief snatches of dialogue between them. The dark/light symbolism is further pointed up by the difference between Miss Banderry's claustrophobic terrace and the uncle's farm, with butterflies flying in and out of the open windows.

There are many other kinds of overwriting, for "A Day in the Dark" is chock full of literary devices and clichés belonging to the stock-in-trade of the professional writer, and the narrator is apt to crowd on her effects. Even paragraphing and sentence-structure often have a distinct air of contrivance: Miss Banderry is first mentioned in a fore-grounded sentence at the end of a paragraph, which I have quoted above, and when her door is opened, it is with the same end-of-paragraph foregrounding: "From the shabby other doors of the terrace, No. 4's stood out, handsomely though sombrely painted red. It opened." Even more melodramatically, change of time and mode is accompanied by spacing after Miss Banderry's last quoted words: "In my life I've known only one other man anything like so busy as your uncle. And shall I tell you who that was? My poor brother." The scene is cut off here by linear spacing, and when the text begins again it is with present-tense commentary.

Again, many images in the text are so obvious that they do not need drawing attention to, though this does not always prevent the narrator from being more than generous in her remarks. The dark terrace already referred to is a case in point: as if its claustrophobic description were not enough, we are told outright that years later it still "focuses dread." Similarly, Nan's frustrated life is clearly prefigured in the caged bird in the window, yet the two are neatly linked for us: "I think the bird above must have been hers"; and the moulting roses, which we might perhaps safely have been left to put our own interpretation on, occasion the niece's remark, "Overblown, aren't they!" plus the narrator's parenthetical comment, "I thought that applied to her". Moher's ruined castle is introduced prominently in the beginning of the story, singled out for our attention by rising "picturesquely", by being "likely to catch the tourist's eye"—and by being mentioned twice within three lines; towards the end of the story it reappears as "splendid battlements, kissed by the sun where they were broken." There are other glaring metaphors in the final scene: looking up the river Barbie sees a paper boat listing uncertainly into the current—the boat is seemingly unmotivated and invites the interpretation that the fragile young girl has now been caught up in the current of adult emotions. She recalls an earlier occasion when she and her uncle had seen a swan's nest—the nest is "now deserted", as, we supply, her innocence is now also lost. And the bus that might have carried her to "scenes of safety" has gone off, leaving only "a drip of grease on dust and a torn ticket" as a dismal image of the sordidness that she finds her romantic attachment reduced to in the eyes of the world.

As overwriting one might also include a tantalising literary allusion in the text, where Miss Banderry is knowingly discussed in terms of Irish and French literature: "She could be novelist's material, I daresay—indeed novels, particularly the French and Irish (for Ireland in some ways resembles France) are full of prototypes of her: oversized women insulated in little provincial towns." This must be enough to set anyone guessing what novels the narrator could possibly have in mind. An Irish reader might come up with one obvious example: Somerville and Ross's The Real Charlotte (1894), which is generally regarded as an Irish counterpart of Balzac's La Cousine Bette (1846). But how would the narrator expect a non-Irish (putative) audience to react? Were it not for the fact that the narrative voice is not that of the author, the slightly superior, self-promoting attitude might seem ill-judged; it fits in well enough, however, with the adult Barbie's less than discriminating use of structural and stylistic devices that I have been looking at.

For the purposes of "A Day in the Dark", then, Elizabeth Bowen created a narrator embodying many of the faults of the professional writer who knows all the tricks of the trade, yet succumbs repeatedly to the overriding sin of overemphasis. That she is also ridiculing her own foibles will not be lost on her established audience. The overemphasis itself would suggest that she was writing with her tongue in her cheek, for she was quick to find fault with any kind of overwriting, though much of her work in fact laid itself open to that accusation. The suspicion of self-parody in the present story is confirmed by the Irish setting and references to Irish literature, and the many echoes of her earlier writings. The reader-traveller addressed in the very first words of the story thus recalls countless other travellers and journeys in her books (The House in Paris [1935], for instance), and scenes of departure from a favourite ending (cf. again The House in Paris, which ends with two of the characters waiting for a taxi). The protagonist in "A Day in the Dark" is one of countless Bowen children who are either orphaned or living apart from their parents, among them several nieces (Lois in The Last September [1929], for one), and dark, stuffy interiors with unimaginative or bigoted inhabitants are recurrent features. Many elements in fact turn out to be survivors from earlier contexts, for example, women examining their appearance in a mirror, couples leaning on a bridge, swans nesting; the sexuality in the touch of an elbow was there in her very first story, "Breakfast" (1923), and the pleasure of having an empty house to oneself in her second, "Daffodils" (1923). Tripartite structure recurs in both novels and short stories, while the present story's conceptual framework, demonstratively holding out prospects of self-analysis that are not fulfilled, exaggerates the famed Bowen allusiveness to the point of pastiche. Add to this the informal, even chatty style often adopted by Elizabeth Bowen and transferred to her narrator (including one or two familiar tricks of style, such as the coyly inventive adjective ending in -y: "the wiry hopping of a bird in a cage" [my italics], and the unusually placed adverb: "On the other side of the bridge picturesquely rises a ruined castle" [my italics]), and "A Day in the Dark" offers as neat a collection of Boweniana as one could wish for.

Given such a dominant element of parody and self-parody, it is all the more remarkable that the story conveys a very moving sense of two characters hovering "on the margin of a passion which was impossible." It is a fair question whether the overwriting I have been discussing has any hand in this. I think it has. The story gains in credibility, even poignancy, by drawing attention to the actual text, and the would-be romance lives its own life, as it were, quite independently of the obtrusive mechanics of the story-telling. It is precisely because the narrator is so heavy-handed, so obvious in her striving for effect and use of cliché, that we are disposed to take her artless backgrounding at face value. Because she is so often less that subtle, we do not suspect her of being designing.

On this showing, the title itself may be read as smoke-screening on the part of the author. Certainly light counts for as much as dark in this story, and the "elusive lights" that are juxtaposed at the beginning to the "chalk drawing" appearance of the little town are an apt metaphor for the subtler emotional currents underlying the sharply etched surface of the text.

Source: Lis Christensen, "A Reading of Elizabeth Bowen's 'A Day in the Dark,'" in Irish University Review, Vol. 27, No. 2, 1997, pp. 299-309.

Laurel Smith

In the following essay, Smith discusses Bowen's writing career.

Though not a literary giant of the stature of James Joyce or Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen is an important twentieth-century literary figure whose fiction has been well received. In presenting the complex truths of human relationships that are her central concerns, that fiction typically attends carefully to realistic details of both character and place. Indeed, in her best stories as well as in her novels Bowen unobtrusively steers readers through the geography of motives and interactions on which human identity and human character depend.

Elizabeth Bowen was born 7 June 1899 in Dublin, but her family home was Bowen's Court, near Kildorrey, County Cork, Ireland. Since the eighteenth century this ancestral home, built by the third Henry Bowen, had been the place that Elizabeth Bowen claimed had "made all the succeeding Bowens." The family can be traced to Welsh, not English, forebears, but critics and biographers have considered her heritage, as did Bowen herself, "classic Anglo-Irish." This heritage was inherently paradoxical: having both Dublin and rural residences, the family lived in a country house yet was separated from the indigenous people by politics and religion. Such families were steadfastly connected to Ireland yet also steeped in the narrower cultural traditions of their particular families. Their lives, according to Bowen, were "singular, independent and secretive." The psychological closeness that pervades the best of Bowen's fiction recalls the condition of Anglo-Irish society during her childhood.

Elizabeth was the only child of Henry Cole Bowen and Florence Colley Brown, whom Victoria Glendinning calls two "vague and dreamy people," and thus Bowen added the independence of being an only child to that of living an isolated country life. As a small child Bowen divided her residency between 15 Herbert Place, Dublin, and Bowen's Court. This pattern altered in 1905 when Henry Bowen became more and more withdrawn, eventually suffering a nervous breakdown. His wife was not prepared to deal with this change by herself, so she and Elizabeth began living near cousins in southern England. Glendinning reports that Elizabeth saw these years as a time of "not noticing" harsh problems. She began to insulate herself from stress by paying close attention to place and to her childhood world; she found great solace in imagination. She also developed the stammer that persisted through her adulthood. Biographer Glendinning notes that a rich friend of Bowen once arranged for her stammer to be treated by an Austrian psychiatrist, who "laid bare before her his own personal anguishes, both private and professional." Elizabeth was "fascinated" by his disclosure but revealed nothing about herself—and consequently retained her stammer.

By the time Elizabeth was twelve Henry Bowen was recovering, preparing to reunite his family and resume his law practice. Unfortunately, Mrs. Bowen had been diagnosed with cancer and died when Elizabeth was thirteen, so from this time Elizabeth's upbringing was directed by her maternal aunts. They arranged for her to attend Downe House, a boarding school in Kent, from 1914 to 1917. The school, which Elizabeth enjoyed, had been Charles Darwin's residence; his study was the common room. When Elizabeth left the school to begin her adult life, her father had remarried and her main interests had shifted to England.

Even during her adolescence Elizabeth Bowen had thought that she would become an artist, and at age twenty she attended the London County Council School of Art for two terms in pursuit of this goal. She had also done much creative writing at Downe House, so she had been writing short stories even before she began art school. Writing was finally her dominant calling, but Bowen brought her awareness of visual arts into her vocation: she subsequently remarked years later that "often when I write I am trying to make words do the work of line and colour. I have the painter's sensitivity to light. Much (and perhaps the best) of my writing is verbal painting." Finding a first publisher took more than sensitivity and talent, however.

Bowen's first literary patron was Rose Macauley, who had been at Oxford with Downe House headmistress Olive Willis. By the early 1920s Macauley was an established critic and novelist who encouraged Bowen and introduced her to Naomi Royde-Smith, editor of the Westminster Gazette. Bowen's first published story appeared in this journal, and through Macauley and Royde-Smith, Bowen's circle of literary acquaintances expanded to include Edith Sitwell, Walter de la Mare, and Aldous Huxley. Although Bowen was not a member of the Bloomsbury group, she and Virginia Woolf did become friends. After her marriage Bowen was accepted into an Oxford intellectual circle that included David Cecil, Maurice Bowra, Cyril Connolly, Evelyn Waugh, Isaiah Berlin, Anthony Powell, and other major literary figures of the time.

In 1923 Bowen's first book, Encounters: Stories, was published by Sidgwick and Jackson. The value of a young person's perspective, one that Bowen would use repeatedly, can be seen in many of these stories. Adults become especially unsympathetic when they are self-indulgent, incapable of seeing with the cleaner, and sometimes more cruel, eyes of the young. An autobiographical story in this collection, "Coming Home," reflects some of the feelings and frustrations of the young Elizabeth, who had been sent away while her mother lay dying. In this story young Rosalind is disappointed to return from school and find her mother, "Darlingest," away. From disappointment Rosalind begins to feel worry and guilt that perhaps she is somehow responsible if something has happened to her mother. Once Darlingest safely returns, however, Rosalind sulks. When she later seeks forgiveness for her childish behavior, Rosalind must face the sad truth that Darlingest is more important to her than Rosalind is to her mother.

Her first book having been published, Elizabeth Bowen married Alan Charles Cameron in 1923. They had met in Oxford, where Elizabeth's cousin and lifelong friend Audrey Fiennes was living with her widowed mother. Cameron had attended Oxford, fought in World War I, and in the early part of their marriage seemed the dominant spouse. As Elizabeth was just launching her career, Alan did much to make her more sophisticated. Cameron began his own career as an Oxford schoolmaster, and his financial security as a civil servant in education eventually enabled Elizabeth to begin modernizing Bowen's Court when she inherited the ancestral home from her father in 1930.

During the first two years of their marriage, Elizabeth and Alan lived at Kingsthorpe, Northampton, where he was assistant secretary for education for Northamptonshire. There Bowen produced two more books, Ann Lee's and Other Stories (1926) and The Hotel (1927), the latter being her first novel. The title story of Ann Lee's had been first published in an abridged version by John Strachey in the Spectator. By this time Bowen had an agent, Curtis Brown. Her stories, however, were still largely rejected. In retrospect Bowen recognized that editors may have thought she had incorporated too much experimental "atmosphere" and lost an earlier freshness. Many of these stories, she noted, represent "questions asked" and reflect a stylistic tension born of Bowen's looking back and transforming her own experience into fiction.

Alan Cameron became secretary of education for the city of Oxford in 1925, and there Elizabeth Bowen gained acceptance in a society that did not often accept outsiders. Part of her success can be attributed to the fact that she was a legitimate writer with work in print, but her strong personality and many qualities as both a hostess and a friend ensured her success. Cameron was the one socially outside these Oxford intelligentsia, but he did not begrudge his wife's success, as the two loved and depended on each other. Bowen may have been the famous wife, but she was always formally introduced as Mrs. Cameron at social events.

Following publication of her second novel, The Last September (1929), Bowen's other writing during her years at Oxford included two collections of short fiction, Joining Charles and Other Stories (1929) and The Cat Jumps and Other Stories (1934). By the time the second of these appeared, Bowen's audience was firmly established: the fifteen hundred first-edition copies sold out immediately. "The Cat Jumps" is an interesting story that presents Bowen's deft handling of the supernatural. "Her Table Spread," also included in the 1934 collection, features the "abnormal" Valeria Cuffe, a statuesque young heiress who is still "detained in childhood," sees herself as a princess, and wraps herself in fantasies about her possible princes. Unfortunately, her life on an isolated estate offers her few interests other than her search for the perfect suitor, a search that eventually sends her into the evening rain toward a navy destroyer anchored offshore. There is no landing party to join her for dinner, and Mr. Alban, the dinner guest who might have been a match, feels regret and dismay along with a stirring of passion for the girl in ruined red satin who comes home in the rain. The physical and emotional atmosphere of "Her Table Spread" is rich in its suggestion of social tension that is a psychological tension as well.

Another landscape that reflects emotional stress and the power of situation or place appears in "The Disinherited." Davina Archworth has brought her new friend, Marianne Harvey, to the shut-up home of Lord Thingummy for a gathering of an odd group of people without money or real profession or place. Oliver, the would-be lover of Davina, is "an enemy of society, having been led to expect what he did not get." Marianne has her married life with her husband, Matthew, but she too seems out of place in the company of these people, and even her husband senses something wrong when they are home together the next day. Prothero, the chauffeur of Davina's aunt, has literally gotten away with murder, but he too is disinherited, and he spends his nights writing to his murdered wife and burning the letters. The repercussions of failed expectations follow everyone in this Bowen tale.

Bowen had also published three more novels by 1935–Friends and Relations (1931), To the North (1932), and The House in Paris (1935)—and in that year Cameron and Bowen moved to 2 Clarence Terrace, Regent's Park, London, when he was appointed secretary to the Central Council of School Broadcasting at the BBC. This move, like the move to Oxford, enhanced Elizabeth's career. By this time she was writing reviews for the Tatler in addition to her regular writing of fiction, and in 1938 she published The Death of the Heart, a novel that many readers have considered her best and that continues to receive critical praise for its psychological realism and technical achievement.

Look at All Those Roses: Short Stories (1941), a collection of works written in the same period as The Death of the Heart, contains two important stories that focus on children. In "The Easter Egg Party" Eunice and Isabelle Evers are contented spinsters, "Amazons in homespuns" who wish to "restore childhood" to young Hermione. But Hermione already possesses a mixed identity of childishness and maturity, and the country idyll planned by the two middle-aged sisters becomes disturbing for all three. The Easter-egg party that delights the country children only alienates the unattractive Hermione, who demands to return to her own world, with all its scandal and lost innocence. This story voices Bowen's demand for honesty and her apprehensions about the self-delusive folly of seeking to protect others from corruption or somehow keep them innocent. Hermione shows the sisters the reality that Eden is not, in fact, made to order for anyone.

In "Tears, Idle Tears" seven-year-old Frederick Dickinson seems to have no reason to burst into tears and embarrass his elegant, widowed mother. Yet this behavior is not unusual for Frederick, as he and his mother walk in Regent's Park. His crying, another consequence of lost innocence, dates from his father's death when the boy was two years old. At that time his mother had saved all her sobs to pour onto his baby cot, where the boy had silently awakened without fully knowing the reason for her grief. Now touching her fox fur lightly and appearing as "a lovely mother to have," his mother seems more like an ornament than a person in Bowen's descriptions. Her perfect world is just as false as that of the sisters in "The Easter Egg Party." Meanwhile Frederick meets a girl in the park who is not appalled by him and who mentions another boy, George, who has the same senseless crying affliction. This disclosure represents hope of salvation, and when Frederick looks back on this day, he remembers "a sense of lonely shame being gone"—even as he completely forgets the story about George.

The title story from Look at All Those Roses also features a young character, Josephine, as well as Lou, a young woman whose love affair is faltering. Lou and Edward experience car trouble after a weekend away from London; when Edward seeks help, Lou is left in the home of Mrs. Mather and her daughter Josephine, who is confined to an invalid's carriage. The atmosphere is almost sirenlike, as Lou lulls herself into thinking that Edward—like the runaway husband and father Mr. Mather—will not be coming back anymore. In fact, Lou begins to think that staying with the Mathers would be preferable: "No wonder I've been tired," she says, "only half getting what I don't really want. Now I want nothing." But Edward does return; Lou leaves, and the status of the affair remains vague. Both the reality and the humanity of the vagueness mark Bowen's art.

The complexity of a love affair and the ways in which others are touched by it are scrutinized in "Summer Night." Robinson feels perfectly free to entertain Emma, a married woman, at his country house, but this freedom does not guarantee happiness or true love. The visit of Justin and his deaf sister Queenie before Emma arrives faintly suggests other possibilities: that Robinson might find greater satisfaction in traditionally courting Queenie, or that making a home for his absent sons might drive away boredom more effectively. And Emma's husband, the Major, does not deserve his wife's temporary desertion when he is left with Aunt Fran and the children. Only Queenie, in her world of silence and memory, seems truly satisfied. Even her brother Justin feels betrayed enough to write Robinson a wild letter before he goes to bed. In these stories Bowen does not dwell on madness or frantic eros: men and women are too easily bored, or simply restless, even in their passions.

World War II dominated much of Bowen's life in London and the writing she produced during this period. While Cameron joined the Home Guard, supervising the defense of the Broadcasting House during the raids, Bowen became an Air Raid Precautions warden. The war also became an important backdrop for her novel The Heat of the Day (1949) and for her short fiction written during the early 1940s and collected as The Demon Lover, and Other Stories (1945).

In his introduction to The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen Angus Wilson notes that her stories may be some of the best records any future generation will have of London during the war and of the psychological violence and tenderness that the war evoked. Through the stories in The Demon Lover, and Other Stories readers may also gain an appreciation for Bowen's ghosts—spirits that are rarely malign but that seem to elucidate the "real" world. In "The Happy Autumn Fields" Mary prefers to dwell in a past peopled by ghosts inspired by letters that are more real than her own bombed house. London exists as its own moonlit ghost in "Mysterious Kor," a story that superbly displays Bowen's painting with words and also shows the threads of feeling that may become entangled in times of war. And the title story, "The Demon Lover," introduces the ghost or "demon" born of one woman's fickle nature.

There are other demons in the stories from this collection. In "Songs My Father Sang Me" a woman is haunted as much by her memory of the girl she had been with her father as by that of the long-absent father himself. In a conversation with her lover, the nameless woman recalls her mother's aspiration for good appearances and "middle classdom" while her father remained a romantic who could not, and finally would not, be a traveling salesman. Her father's inability to finish any song he started was akin to his inability to get beyond his youth in World War I. These songs for another age, for love itself, are melodies in the end voiced by the daughter, herself thwarted in love. "The Inherited Clock" depicts another kind of haunting past when Clara inherits her rich Cousin Rosanna's clock. Clara and her fellow heir, her cousin Paul, have always known about Rosanna's will and their equal shares of her fortune. Neither Paul with his fickle nature nor Clara with her steadfast and hopeless love for a married man are likely to find that their inheritances improve their lives. Yet Paul is determined to have the skeleton clock, and Clara, though she loathes it, is unwilling to hand it over. Finally, when Paul recounts their stopping the clock as children, an incident that Rosanna had never discovered, other truths come to light. Rosanna's disdain, not affection, have directed this "gift" to Clara, and once that memory is recovered, Clara is changed. Thus truth, not love or money, is the real force that moves people.

Bowen's short fiction reiterates those themes found in her novels. Some critics find that the short story seems an even more appropriate form than the novel for Bowen's psychological portraits and powerful sense of the period. The tight structure of the stories, comparable to that in the finely wrought stories of Henry James, allows Bowen to maintain control and to reveal, not state, those values and insights that present the truth of human feeling. In "Ivy Gripped the Steps" the hero returns to an abandoned house he knew from childhood on the south coast of England, accessible now just after D day. The power of place holds him, because he is still crushed by the memory of himself as a boy, often a visitor here, in love with a beautiful older woman who saw him only as a charming diversion. The perception and the power of childhood, the intricacies of history and place, and the poignant forces of love are familiar Bowen themes that are masterfully handled in this single story.

After the war Bowen's novels, short stories, and essays continued to appear along with reflections on her childhood and other memoirs. Of particular importance is The Heat of the Day, generally considered to be Bowen's last major novel, which she intended to be a retrospective, blending public record with personal recollection. Although three more novels were to follow this—A World of Love (1955), The Little Girls (1964), and Eva Trout; or, Changing Scenes (1968)—none of these demonstrates the mastery of Bowen's best fiction.

Bowen and Cameron had alternated between living in England and living at Bowen's Court throughout their marriage, but in 1952 the couple decided to live at Bowen's Court permanently. Unfortunately Cameron was seriously ill and died that same year. Following her husband's death Bowen remained at the family home until 1959, when she decided to sell Bowen's Court and return to England. Bowen, however much she was writing, remained an active traveler. From 1950 until her final illness she spent part of every year in the United States, where she visited campuses, lectured, and worked as a writer in residence. Glendinning states that the United States became as important to Bowen as Ireland, England, France, or Italy. When she returned from her travels, Bowen came home to Old Headington and later to Hythe in Kent, the place where her mother had died. Troubled by respiratory problems in the latter part of her life, she died of lung cancer on 22 February 1973 at Hythe.

Bowen was an energetic individual, a prolific writer, and a diligent woman of letters. A famous Bowen phrase from The House in Paris relates her philosophy of living: she feared having "a life to let." Bowen's lifestyle certainly precluded such an existence. During her career she had produced a new book almost every year, from fiction to history, autobiography, or criticism. She wrote essays and reviews for the New Statesman and Nation, the Tatler, the Spectator, the Cornhill Magazine, the Saturday Review of Literature, the New Republic, the New York Times Magazine, and Harpers. In the late 1950s she became associate editor of London Magazine after having been a contributor to this journal as well. But her life was not confined to writing and publishing. She entertained extensively in England and at Bowen's Court, and she moved beyond English and Irish literary circles to lecture in the United States, Canada, and Europe—and to be featured on radio and television.

As a strong woman who knew success in her lifetime and whose work has maintained a steady appreciation since her death, Bowen is a writer whose best short fiction, particularly that from the 1930s and 1940s, has confirmed critical regard for her as an important figure in English literature. Although the tight structure, the significant patterns, the impressionistic perception, and the psychological realism that may distinguish her writing have attracted the attention of some feminist scholars, Bowen was conscious of her literary success as something that she earned in an intellectual and literary milieu that was both male and female. Her themes are diverse and often uncomfortable, from incest and homosexuality to the absurdities of love and unpopular politics. Bowen appreciated independence on many levels, especially as an artist, but for her the heritage of that independence went beyond feminism.

Source: Laurel Smith, "Elizabeth Bowen," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 162, British Short-Fiction Writers, 1915–1945, edited by John H. Rogers, Gale Research, 1996, pp. 49-56.

Mary Jarrett

In the following essay, Jarrett details Bowen's background in having an ambiguous identity and how that extends to the characters in her short stories.

Elizabeth Bowen felt early what she called the 'Anglo-Irish ambivalence to all things English, a blend of impatience and evasiveness, a reluctance to be pinned down to a relationship.' This, I would argue, richly affected her fiction.

Bowen may be compared with the Anglo-Indian Kipling, with his similar ambivalence to all things English. Each was early exposed to betrayal, alienation, and compromise, and each sought refuge through 'magical' fictions. Kipling, born in Bombay, was abandoned as a small child in England. The hell of bullying into which he was delivered laid, he says, 'the foundation of literary effort.' He played imaginary games in which he literally fenced himself off from the alien world in which he had been made a prisoner, making the later comment that 'The magic, you see, lies in the ring or fence that you take refuge in.' And it was in his House of Desolation that he learnt to read: 'on a day that I remember it came to me that "reading" was not "the Cat lay on the Mat," but a means to everything that would make me happy.'

Elizabeth Bowen suffered feelings of dislocation and betrayal as a child from the lies told to her about her father's mental breakdown and her mother's cancer, and Edwin J. Kenney has pointed out that she learnt to read, at the age of seven, precisely at the time 'when her family catastrophes began to enter her consciousness with her removal to England. As she said later, "All susceptibility belongs to the age of magic, the Eden where fact and fiction were the same; the imaginative writer was the imaginative child, who relied for life upon being lied to." So from this time on, she said, 'Nothing made full sense to me that was not in print.' She instinctively connected being a grown-up with being a writer—that is, being in control of one's own fictions. For her, as for Kipling, fiction was a way of escape, a powerful magic, a means of a creating another, more tolerable, reality and identity.

Yet this identity could be a shifting one. Elizabeth Bowen, who was the first Bowen child to live and be educated in England since the family settled in Ireland in the seventeenth century, could never decide at school whether to present herself as Irish or as ultra-English, and this 'evasiveness' stayed with her all her life, this 'reluctance to be pinned down to a relationship' affected the way in which she presented her fictions. In all her best stories there is a refusal to pronounce on the validity of the worlds her characters create for themselves. Many of her characters share the fervent wish of Lydia in 'The Return': 'if she had only a few feet of silence of her own, to exclude the world from, to build up in something of herself.' But the nature of the silence, like the nature of the building up, in all her best stories is always left open to question. This is true too of Kipling: I would name in particular 'Mrs Bathurst' and 'The Wish House'. Kipling, however, draws attention to his ambivalence by the use of the frame of an outer narrator (in 'Mrs Bathurst' a double frame) in a way Elizabeth Bowen does not.

Nor do all Bowen's short stories have this richness of ambivalence. She wrote in 1959, of her art as a short story writer: 'More than half my life is under the steadying influence of the novel, with its calmer, stricter, more orthodox demands: into the novel goes such taste as I have for rational behaviour and social portraiture. The short story, as I see it to be, allows for what is crazy about humanity: obstinacies, inordinate heroisms, "immortal longings".' Some of this craziness and these immortal longings are made explicitly supernatural, for example in 'The Cheery Soul', 'The Demon Lover', 'Green Holly', and 'Hand in Glove'. That is to say, they are stories in which the surface of ordinary life cracks. This is to use Elizabeth Bowen's own image; in a broadcast discussion of 1948 she explained that she was fascinated with the surface of life not so much for its own sake, as for the dangerous sense it gives of being a thin crust above a bottomless abyss: 'the more the surface seems to heave or threaten to crack, the more its actual pattern fascinates me.' I would argue that in her finest stories the surface only seems to heave but never finally cracks.

One consistent cause of surface-heaving in Bowen is alienation, a loss of identity, like Mrs Watson's in 'Attractive Modern Homes', who begins to doubt her own existence when she moves to a new housing estate, or that of the drifting Tibbie, 'The Girl with the Stoop', who 'had not learnt yet how to feel like a resident'. Bowen remarks of the Londoners in 'A Walk in the Woods' that 'Not to be sure where one is induces panic'. Yet in this same story the 'city woman' exclaims to the young lover she has brought to the woods, "'Before you came, I was walled in alive.'" Imprisonment, the ultimate loss of control of one's environment, is another major preoccupation of the stories.

Imprisonment takes many forms. The prison can be one of vulgarity, an intolerable aesthetic assault, as it is for Mr Rossiter in 'Breakfast', trapped by the lodging-house's 'thick fumes of coffee and bacon, the doggy-smelling carpet, the tight, glazed noses of the family ready to split loudly from their skins'—an image in which even the family's noses become impatient prisoners. Cicely in 'The New House' make her escape into marriage, with the claim—which would be merely whimsical in another writer—that she was imprisoned in her life with her brother in the old house by the way the furniture was arranged. Oliver and Davina fail to escape into marriage, and their imprisonment is inaction: 'Their May had been blighted. Now, each immobile from poverty, each frozen into their settings like leaves in the dull ice of different puddles, they seldom met.'

Very often the imprisonment is the capture of one person by another. It can be deliberate, like the social capture of the young wife in 'Mrs Windermere': 'Firmly encircling Esmée's wrist with a thumb and forefinger she led her down Regent Street.' Or it can be involuntary, like the enslavement of the hapless Mr Richardson in 'Ann Lee's' by someone 'as indifferent as a magnet'. Ann Lee, the mysterious enslaver and hat-creator, incidentally appears to derive her power from the fact that she eludes identification: 'Letty Ames had said that she was practically a lady; a queer creature, Letty couldn't place her.'

For other characters, imprisonment can actually be the pressure of being a magnet, of feeling other people's needs. Clifford in 'A Love Story' feels that 'the nightmare of being wanted was beginning, in this room, to close in round him again.' In 'The Dancing-Mistress' Peelie the pianist, who wears a slave bangle on each arm, and Lulu, the male hotel secretary, are in thrall to their 'dancing mistress' Joyce James, whose name is perhaps an allusion to the 'paralysis' of James Joyces's Dubliners, since she is the prisoner of her own stupor of weariness. Bullying a clumsy pupil is all that affords her 'a little shudder of pleasure' and she is dismayed by Peelie's bright suggestion that the pupil might die, because 'She couldn't do without Margery Mannering: she wanted to kill her.' She wants, that is, the perpetual pleasure of hating and tormenting Margery. But, on another level, to kill Margery would mean that she need never do without her, for the Metropole ballroom in which Joyce and Peelie work is a vision of Hell. As Joyce says to her friend: "'Oh, Peelie, I'm dead!'", and when her would-be lover Lulu tries to hold Joyce's sleeping body in the taxi, Peelie implicitly warns him: "'You'll be as stiff as hell in a few minutes—I am, always.'" The story balances exactly between the real and the supernatural.

In many of the 'ghost' stories the ghost may be seen as the conscious or unconscious fiction of one of the characters. In 'Making Arrangements' a deserted husband is asked to send on all his wife's dresses, and his perception of her shallowness and her social dependence on him becomes his perception that 'From the hotel by the river the disembodied ghost of Margery was crying thinly to him for her body, her innumerable lovely bodies.' In 'The Shadowy Third' the second wife is haunted by the idea of the unloved first wife—although she does supply a technically correct explanation (murder) for the existence of a ghost by saying that she thinks "'that not to want a person must be a sort, a sort of murder.'"

Some ghosts are seen by the characters themselves as fictions. Thomas, a ghostlike figure himself who must never enter the world of the couple's children, visits Gerard and Janet. He is treated to a sickening, civilized display of luxurious acquisitions, but the fly in the ointment is Janet's acquisition of a ghost called Clara. It gradually becomes apparent that the ghost is the embodiment of Janet's own loneliness and unhappiness, so that Thomas feels how much less humiliating it would have been for Gerard for Janet to have taken a lover, and Gerard complains petulantly, "'She's seeing too much of this ghost.'"

In 'Dead Mabelle' the ghost is the dead film star whose films go on playing. Like Vickery in Kipling's 'Mrs Bathurst', Mabelle's fan William is drawn obsessively to her phantom image. The different worlds of reality comically collide when the distraught William returns home and jerks open a drawer for the pistol for a cinematic suicide, only to find a litter of odds and ends. Another collision of realities, or fictions, occurs in 'The Back Drawing-Room'. This story is relatively unusual for Elizabeth Bowen in having an outer framework of narrators. As one of the characters mutters disgustedly under her breath, "'Hell! … Bring in the Yule log, this is a Dickens Christmas. We're going to tell ghost stories.'" But the guileless little man who tells of his own supernatural experience in Ireland has no notion of the proper, literary way to tell a ghost story, despite hints about the House of Usher. He is actually presented as the prisoner of his ignorance as 'the others peered curiously, as though through bars, at the little man who sat perplexed and baffled, knowing nothing of atmosphere.' Mrs Henneker, the acknowledged arbiter of atmosphere, acts as a marvellous parody of Elizabeth Bowen herself as she urges the little man to recall correctly his entry into the phantom country house.

'You had a sense of immanence', said Mrs Henneker authoritatively. 'Something was overtaking you, challenging you, embracing yet repelling you. Something was coming up from the earth, down from the skies, in from the mountains, that was stranger than the gathered rain. Deep from out of the depths of those dark windows, something beckoned'.

This is a brisker, more peremptory version of the atmosphere Bowen herself establishes in 'Human Habitation', published in the same volume (Ann Lee's, 1926), in which two students on a walking tour blunder out of the rain into a heavily atmosphere-laden house. The pelting rain, and the physical exhaustion of the students, serve as the bridge into what one of them perceives as 'some dead and empty hulk of a world drawn up alongside, at times dangerously accessible to the unwary'. In his zombie-like state of weariness, he had already begun to doubt his own existence: 'He was, he decided, something somebody else had thought.'

Bowen uses a similar bridge in 'Look at All Those Roses', the story I would select as the best example of her delicate balancing of fictions against realities. Here the bridge is the 'endless drive' of Lou and Edward through the Suffolk countryside back to London. We are reminded that 'there is a point when an afternoon oppresses one with fatigue and a feeling of unreality. Relentless, pointless, unwinding summer country made nerves ache at the back of both of their eyes.' Beyond a certain point the route becomes pointless: unmappable. In any case it has always been a 'curious route', since Edward detests the main roads, and we are therefore prepared for the fact that when they break down 'Where they were seemed to be highly improbable'. They have already 'felt bound up in the tired impotence of a dream'. Lou and Edward may have driven over the borderline into another kind of reality—or they may not.

The title of the story becomes its first sentence.

'Look at All Those Roses'

Lou exclaimed at that glimpse of a house in a sheath of startling flowers.

The word 'sheath' has a sinister connotation. But the third sentence of the story runs, 'To reach the corner, it struck her, Edward accelerated, as though he were jealous of the rosy house—a house with gables, flat-fronted, whose dark windows stared with no expression through the flowers.' The curious syntax of 'To reach the corner, it struck her, Edward accelerated' emphasizes Lou's subjectivity. It is only her 'astounding fancy', later in the story, that the murdered father lies at the roses' roots.

The perhaps unsurprising lack of expression of the house's dark windows gains a resonance not only from Mrs Mather's greeting them with 'no expression at all,' but from Edward's and Lou's reaction when the car breaks down: 'He and she confronted each other with that completely dramatic lack of expression they kept for occasions when the car went wrong.' The car's breakdown itself is completely realistic and simultaneously a kind of magic spell: 'A ghastly knocking had started. It seemed to come from everywhere, and at the same time to be a special attack on them.' There is a 'magic' which is suggested by the curious isolation of the house and its dislocation: Edward speaks of the rest of the country looking like something lived in by "'poor whites'", although this is, on one level, Suffolk and not the American South. But Lou and Edward are themselves isolated and dislocated. Lou is perpetually anxious that Edward, who is not her husband, will escape her, whereas Edward feels that 'life without people was absolutely impossible'—by which he means life only with Lou. Lou is presented as rather less than a person: during the course of the story she is compared with a monkey, a cat, and a bird. When she says longingly of the 'rosy house', "'I wish we lived there … It really looked Like somewhere'", Edward replies tartly, "'It wouldn't if we did.'" Mrs Mather is also isolated, but it is a powerful isolation, like Ann Lee's, and one disconcerting to Lou and Edward, who cannot make out whether she is a woman or a lady. She has no 'outside attachments—hopes, claims, curiosities, desires, little touches of greed—that put a label on one to help strangers.' By contrast, her crippled daughter Josephine has 'an unresigned, living face'. She asks Lou which are the parts of London with the most traffic, and her restlessness is expressed by her canary 'springing to and fro in its cage'. Josephine is described as 'burning', just as the rose garden has a 'silent, burning gaiety'.

Various interpretations of the 'rosy house' and its occupants are possible for the reader who is searching for a label. One is that Josephine's father had escaped after injuring her back. (This would have happened when Josephine was seven, the age at which Elizabeth Bowen left her father and felt abandoned by him.) As Lou, whose 'idea of love was adhesiveness', think bitterly: 'He had bolted off down that path, as Edward had just done.' Another is that he has been murdered by Mrs Mather, a view which obviously enjoys much local support. The murder weapon was possibly the lump of quartz, the 'bizarre object' which props open the front door, wielded by Mrs Mather's 'powerful-looking hands.' This leads to another interpretation, that the house and garden are in effect haunted, and that the murder is manifested by the over-profuse roses, 'over-charged with colour' and 'frighteningly bright'. When Lou sees the same roses that Josephine sees, 'she thought they looked like forced roses, magnetized into being. 'This would explain why the farm is "'unlucky'", and why there is only one servant for the house, '"not very clear in her mind'." This in turn leads to another interpretation, that the 'rosy house' is a place of enchantment, which it is impossible to leave. Lou says jokingly to Josephine that she put the evil eye on the car, and when Lou refuses to eat tea, Josephine says, "'She thinks if she eats she may have to stay here for ever.'" (Eleanor in 'The Parrot' remembers Proserpine when she is offered figs by the Lennicotts.) The enchantment, however, may be either good or bad. Is Lou's 'ecstasy of indifference' to life, experienced as she lies beside Josephine's invalid carriage, an unaccustomed peep into the nature of things—one of her 'ideal moments'? Or is she succumbing to the lure of death, so that Edward rightly realizes that he had 'parked' her, like the car, in the wrong place? Lou realizes that she has always wanted 'to keep everything inside her own power', but to abandon this desire to control one's own fictions may be to abandon life.

The story is alive with ambiguities, like Josephine's "'We don't wonder where my father is.'" This reminds us of Edward's taunting Lou with "'You like to be sure where I am, don't you?'" Edward, who is a writer, comments on the episode, "'There's a story there'", which may reveal him either as a sensitive artist or a shallow journalist.

The title of the story is the first sentence, Lou's exclamation. It is also an exhortation to the reader to look at all those roses—and make what you can of them.

Source: Mary Jarrett, "Ambiguous Ghosts: The Short Stories of Elizabeth Bowen," in Journal of the Short Story in English, No. 8, Spring 1987, pp. 71-79.


Christensen, Lis, "A Reading of Elizabeth Bowen's 'A Day in the Dark,'" in Irish University Review, Vol. 27, No. 2, Autumn/Winter 1997, pp. 299-309.

H., F. L. Jr., Review of A Day in the Dark, in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 3, No. 2, Winter 1966, pp. 276-77.

Morgan, Edwin, "Shambling Man," in New Statesman, Vol. 70, August 6, 1965, p. 191.

Smith, Laurel, "Elizabeth Bowen," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 162, British Short-Fiction Writers, 1915–1945, edited by John H. Rogers, Gale Research, 1996, pp. 49-56.

Tillinghast, Richard, "Elizabeth Bowen: The House, the Hotel, and the Child," in the New Criterion, Vol. 13, No. 4, December 1994, pp. 24-33.

Wilson, Angus, "Introduction," in The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen, Knopf, 1981, pp. 7-11.

Further Reading

Chessman, Harriet, "Women and Language in the Fiction of Elizabeth Bowen," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 29, Spring 1983, pp. 69-85.

Chessman presents a feminist perspective of Bowen's work.

Dunleavy, Janet Egleson, "Mary Lavin, Elizabeth Bowen, and a New Generation: The Irish Short Story at Midcentury," in The Irish Short Story: A Critical History, edited by James Kilroy, Twayne, 1984, pp. 145-68.

Dunleavy explores the Irish context of Bowen's work and compares it to that of other Irish writers.

Glendinning, Victoria, Elizabeth Bowen, Knopf, 1977.

Glendinning's work is considered in the early 2000s to be the definitive biography of Bowen.

Sullivan, Walter, "A Sense of Place: Elizabeth Bowen and the Landscape of the Heart," in Sewanee Review, Vol. 84, Winter 1976, pp. 142-49.

Sullivan explores the relationship between Bowen's technique and themes.

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