Bowen, Elizabeth (1899–1973)
Bowen, Elizabeth (1899–1973)
Irish novelist and short-story writer of the acclaimed House in Paris, Death of the Heart, and In the Heat of the Day, whose novels focused on the world of the middle and upper classes and the cracks in their veneer. Name variations: Mrs. Alan Cameron. Pronunciation: BOH-en. Born Elizabeth Dorothea Cole Bowen in Dublin, Ireland, on June 7, 1899; died on February 22, 1973; buried in the churchyard near grounds of what was once Bowen's Court; only child of Henry Bowen and Florence (Colley) Bowen; married Alan Cameron, on August 4, 1923; no children.
Encounters (short stories, 1923); Ann Lee's (short stories, 1926); The Hotel (Constable, 1926); The House in Paris (1935); The Last September (1929); Joining Charles (short stories, 1929); The Death of the Heart (1938); Seven Winters (childhood memoirs, Cuala Press, 1942); Bowen's Court (a history of the Bowens in County Cork, 1942); The Demon Lover (short stories, 1945); A World of Love (1955); In the Heat of the Day (1959); A Time in Rome (1960); Afterthought (essays and short stories, 1962); The Little Girls (1963); A Day in the Dark (collection, 1965); Eva Trout (1968).
Born on June 7, 1899, Elizabeth Bowen spent her early years with her parents at Bowen's Court in what she called, "psychological closeness to one another and under the strong rule of the family myth." The court was built in 1775 and handed down from a long line of Protestant Bowens, but it was never finished for lack of funds. Hardly grand, the house was drafty, damp, and sparsely furnished; though there were two waste closets in the tower, bathrooms would not arrive until 1950 (to the dismay of Bowen's American editor Blanche Knopf , maids brought tin baths to the rooms). Bowen admitted that the house had a Charles Addams quality—"If you want anything, just scream"—but it was filled with life. On the eve of World War II, she would write a history of this family home (Bowen's Court, 1942).
Bowen's father, a barrister, was unworldly and introspective; he was also obstinate and rejected the traditional Bowen prescriptions for success: possessions, horses, and upper-class bias. Not interested in being a gentleman farmer like his father, Henry Bowen took pride in accomplishment rather than displays of wealth. Florence Bowen , Elizabeth's mother, was a font of ideas and described as rebellious, funny, and vague.
In accordance with Henry's law practice, the family spent half the year at their house in Dublin, where Elizabeth attended dancing school, took walks with her governess, and went to Sunday services at the Protestant St. Stephen's. Bowen was barely aware that she was in the doctrinal minority; she realized only that she went to church once a week while Roman Catholics were called to mass seven days a week, suggesting to her some "incontinence of the soul."
Elizabeth loved her mother, while her mother, having waited nine years to conceive a child, doted on her. "She thought of me constantly," wrote Bowen, "and planned ways in which we could meet and be alone." Florence's gregarious nature could not abide children who "burrowed when they were introduced," so she brought up her daughter to be a social maven, an inveterate partygoer and partygiver who thrived on company. Bowen's opening line in The Last September describes the arrival of guests, "About six o'clock, the sound of a motor, collected out of the wide country and narrowed under the trees of the avenue, brought the household out in excitement on to the steps."
When Bowen was five, her father left the bar for the Irish Land Commission, a job which came with enormous pressure. No one noticed anything too unusual until Henry politely
rose in the middle of a contractual negotiations meeting and tossed all the legal documents out the window. Though the elder Bowens had a happy marriage, wrote biographer Victoria Glendinning , they "were accustomed to living together in long phases of happy absence of mind, punctuated by moments of impetuous communication" thus, Florence was one of the last to know that the pressure was undoing her husband, and Elizabeth pursued, as she later wrote, a "campaign of not noticing."
Once the severity of the situation was realized, the family hastened Henry to England for treatment. On his return, he was still unstable, and, following an episode in which he became violent, checked himself into a mental hospital. Though the strain brought mother and daughter closer, according to Glendinning, it left Bowen with the slight stammer which would remain with her into adulthood, especially when tired. The stammer, however, never interfered with her speaking engagements. In later years, when one member of the British Council queried another on her effectiveness as a lecturer in light of her stammer, the reply was decisive: "She is a most successful lecturer with a most successful stammer."
At age seven, Bowen moved to England with her mother. Struggling financially, they rented villas along the Kent coast and were tended by a swarm of maternal aunts and cousins. Over the next five years, they were constantly on the move, with Elizabeth's schooling spotty at best since her mother was intent on not "tiring her brain." Florence blamed brain tiring on her husband's difficulties.
What [Elizabeth Bowen] saw was an Eden in the seconds after the apple has been eaten, when Evil was known, immanent and unavoidable but while there was still awareness of what Innocence had been.
—Spencer Curtis Brown
By the time Elizabeth, known as Bitha, turned 12, her father was back at work and began to visit. Though her parents had never been closer, her mother was reluctant to return to Ireland; she also had just been informed that she had cancer. Following an operation, she was warned that she had six months to live. "I have good news," Florence told a sister-in-law; "now I'm going to see what Heaven's like." She died less than two months later at the end of September 1912, and Elizabeth moved in with relatives and sobbed into the night. Writes Glendinning, "One of the words at which her stammer consistently balked her was 'mother.'"
Bowen was brought up by a regiment of aunts in Harpenden, surrounded by a slew of cousins. Socially, school was her salvation. Largely unsupervised, she took up cursing and witchcraft with ease. Summers were spent at Bowen's Court with her father, and her childhood has been described as "protracted."
In September 1914, Bowen entered Downe House, a girls' boarding school near Orpington, Kent. Its headmistress Olive Willis , formerly of Somerville College, Oxford, had started the school in 1907 with Alice Carver , the international hockey player. Though the powerful Willis disdained "silliness," vocal amusement was the school currency. As one graduate remarked about the effects of her education at Downe House, "To this day, the briefest lull at a luncheon or a dinner party is instantly filled by me with remarks of an inanity which startles even my children."
Elizabeth was a voracious reader, exulting in E. Nesbit, Baroness Orczy , George Macdonald, and H. Rider Haggard's She. She would later acknowledge Dickens and Jane Austen as major influences. When she began writing and producing revues, she took to walking around without her glasses for vanity's sake. Thus, her writing focused on nearby detail. In later life, while engrossed in talking, Bowen once walked into a hedge, then backed out "like a bus," recalled Stuart Hampshire, and kept on talking. Known as observant, analytical, and empathic, she had a sense of the comic. A year after she graduated in the summer of 1917, her father remarried; fortunately, Bowen liked her stepmother and visits to Bowen Court revolved around seeking invitations to garrison dances. She soon fell in love with a British army lieutenant John Anderson, but the engagement fell through.
Though Bowen had longed for a career as an artist, she began writing stories at age 20. She determined that all writers lived in London, and so sought out a London aunt and moved there. Olive Willis, her boarding-school headmistress, knew author Rose Macaulay , and the connection produced an invitation to tea. The meeting with Macaulay "lit up a confidence I never had," wrote Bowen, and introduced her to Naomi Royde-Smith , then editor of the Saturday Westminster, in which Bowen saw her first published story. Invited to Macaulay and Royde-Smith's literary gatherings, Bowen met many important writers, including Edith Sitwell , Walter de la Mare, and Aldous Huxley.
In 1923, Bowen's first collection of short stories, Encounters, was published. The same year, she married Alan Charles Cameron, a 30-year-old war veteran with two years at Oxford, who was then working as assistant secretary for education for Northamptonshire. "Their marriage," writes Glendinning, "which as the years passed sometimes seemed incomprehensible to the outside world, lasted." Alan doted on Bowen and took good care of her; he also took charge of her wardrobe, for she was not known for her fashion sense. Though in later years Bowen was often absent, she always returned to Alan.
Within the next two years, she wrote two books, a collection of stories titled Ann Lee's and her first novel The Hotel (which would be published by Constable in 1926). "I was now located," she wrote, "the mistress of a house; and the sensation of living anywhere, as apart from paying a succession of visits, was new to me." Having signed with an agent, she was selling stories to magazines in England and the United States. Bowen once described her subject as "human unknowableness. … The stories are questions asked: many end with a shrug, a query, or, to the reader, a sort of over-to-you." Her early fiction concerned pent-up characters who, in her words, lived "life with the lid on." Her camera was always panning just off to the side.
In 1925, when Alan was appointed secretary for education at Oxford, the couple moved there and would stay for the next ten years. They soon became friends with John and Susan Buchan and Lord David Cecil. During these years, Bowen would produce at least one book a year, including her second novel The Last September which was based on the world of Bowen's Court. Her father Henry, again plagued by mental illness, died in 1930, leaving the court to his daughter. Though she continued to live at Oxford, in summer she entertained at Bowen's Court, even though the house was forever a drain on her budget. She could not bear to sell it.
In 1931, Bowen began to review for The New Statesman and The Tatler. She also published two novels in quick succession, Friends and Relations (1931) and To the North (1932). In 1933, she fell in love with a man who has gone nameless; he was eight years her junior and engaged to be married. Well into their affair, he did marry, and, though his new wife was aware of Elizabeth, the affair continued. Bowen hung on, "living," she said, "at full height." But she found it hard to separate the fiction from the fact of the relationship. She wrote to him: "One may—I may—easily forget that a relationship with a person isn't a book, created out of, projected by, one's own imagination and will. That it is not, in fact, a one-man show. And that the exacerbations, perils and snags of joint authorship all lie in wait. That is where I went wrong with you." The affair would not end until 1936, when he took a job abroad. The year after, Bowen's A House in Paris was published.
The book, which drew on her love affair (there would be others), was her friend Virginia Woolf 's favorite. Though she had previously cautioned Bowen about being too clever, Woolf wrote that in A House in Paris, "the cleverness pulls its weight instead of lying to dazzle on the top." Bowen would be a house guest of Leonard and Virginia Woolf just a few weeks before Virginia committed suicide in March 1941. Wrote Bowen:
The last day I saw her … I remember her kneeling on the floor—we were tacking away, mending a torn Spanish curtain in the house—and she sat back on her heels and put her head back in a patch of early spring sun. Then she laughed in this consuming, choking, delightful, hooting way. And that is what has remained with me.
Bowen hated the tragic portrayals of Woolf thereafter and longed for a biographer to portray her friend's "capacity for joy."
In 1935, Alan had been appointed secretary to the Central Council of School Broadcasting at the BBC, and they moved to a terrace house in Regent's Park, London, where Bowen, called by Elizabeth Jenkins , "the last salonnière," became an enthusiastic host. Like Woolf, Bowen began a series of mentorships with young writers, including May Sarton , who describes her in A World of Light: Portraits and Celebrations:
Hers was a handsome face, handsome rather than beautiful, with its bold nose, high cheekbones, and tall forehead; but the coloring was as delicate as the structure was strong—fine red-gold hair pulled straight back into a loose knot at her neck, faint eyebrows over pale-blue eyes. I was struck by her hands, which she used a great deal, often holding one in the air before her with a cigarette in it. They were awkwardly large; the heavy bracelets she wore became them.
Through all this, Alan seems to have been an outsider, but Bowen was loyal and always spoke of him with respect. A good husband, he was much smarter than her dinner-table compatriots gave him credit. Bowen was dependent on him, especially in practical matters; once, as he watched her struggle with Britain's new dialing system, he cracked: "Just watch the whole great mind concentrate itself on a mere telephone." It's thought that Alan knowingly suffered her infidelities; some said he may have considered it a small price to pay for such a fascinating wife.
In 1937, Bowen was made a member of the Irish Academy of Letters. The following year, she published one of her most popular books, The Death of the Heart. Though she continued to produce short stories, nonfiction, and fiction reviews (as a reviewer she was reputed to be a soft touch), it would be 11 years before her next novel.
In 1939, when Britain took on the Nazi Axis, Alan joined the Home Guard, and Elizabeth became an air-raid warden. "Air raids were much less trying," she said, "if one had something to do." Early in the war, a V-1 bomb touched down across the street from their house in Regent's Park, wrecking every room. In the summer of 1944, the house was hit again; the blast blew out all the windows and brought down the ceilings. Despite the fact that they narrowly escaped alive, Bowen wrote Edmund Wilson that she was enjoying London during the blitz. "Everything is very quiet, the streets are never crowded, and the people one dislikes are out of town."
World War II effectively took the lid off Bowen's life. It brought her in contact with people she would have rarely gotten to know, producing an effect she described as "the thinning of the membrane between the this and the that." The result was In the Heat of the Day. Published in 1949, the book has become the classic novel of London during the war years. "I suppose you must know, inside you, what you've done," wrote her old school friend Rosamond Lehmann . "The sustained excitement, the almost hyper-penetration, the pity and terror. It is a great tragedy. Oh, and the wild glorious comedy, the pictorial beauty, the unbearable re-creation of war and London and private lives and loves. You do, you really do, write about love."
Now recognized as a major novelist, Bowen was named Commander of the British Empire in 1948, and Alan began taking over her business dealings. For the next two years, she made lecture tours outside the country for the British Council and was asked, along with one other woman, Dame Florence Hancock , to join the Royal Commission on Capital Punishment (the commission reported in 1953 in favor of abolition). In 1949, Trinity College, Dublin, awarded Bowen an honorary D.Litt., and, in 1951, Harrap published The Shelbourne, her popular history of the Dublin hotel. With all this activity, her writing suffered.
In 1952, she and Alan began to spend more time at Bowen's Court. Alan, who had sustained an eye injury in WWI, was now losing sight in his good eye and had to resign his job at the BBC. He died on August 26th of that year. Bowen would later write her American publisher Alfred Knopf, on the death of her friend Blanche Knopf: "I felt maimed when Alan died—after twenty-nine years together. That is the last thing he would have wanted me to feel; so I suppose it has been partly for his sake that I have tried to live my life well since." Alan's pension could not cover Bowen's predilection for picking up the tab for all comers. She worked hard to ease the debt, writing for magazines, especially American magazines that paid well. But, in 1959, she had to sell Bowen's Court to pay off debts, and the buyer demolished the house soon after.
From 1952 until her death, Bowen lived a nomadic existence. She spent a good deal of time in America, where she formed a close friendship with Eudora Welty and lectured at a host of universities. Popular with students, she was writer-in-residence at Vassar as well as the American Academy in Rome and had a fellowship at Bryn Mawr. But Bowen regarded herself as an intuitive writer, not an intellectual, saying, "I am fully intelligent only when I write. I have a certain amount of small-change intelligence, which I carry round with me as, at any rate in a town, one has to carry small money, for the needs of the day, the non-writing day. But it seems to me I seldom purely think … if I thought more I might write less."
In 1962, she sublet a flat in Oxford. One year later, The Little Girls was published, and she bought a small house in Hythe, on the Kent Coast where she had lived years before with her mother. "I suppose I like Hythe out of a back-to-the-wombishness, having been there as a child in the most amusing years of one's childhood—8 to 13. But I can't see what's wrong with the womb if one's happy there, or comparatively happy there."
In 1969, Elizabeth Bowen undertook her autobiography Pictures and Conversations. In early 1972, she lost her voice and was diagnosed with cancer of the lungs. She died on the morning of February 22, 1973, and was buried in Farahy churchyard near her husband and her father, just across from the grounds of Bowen Court.
Bowen, Elizabeth, V.S. Pritchett, and Graham Greene. Why Do I Write? London: Percival Marshall, 1948.
Brooke. Joselyn. Elizabeth Bowen. London: The British Council, 1952.
Glendinning, Victoria. Elizabeth Bowen: A Biography. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978.
Kenney, Edwin J. Elizabeth Bowen. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1975.
Lehmann, Rosamond. The Swan in the Evening. London: Collins, 1967.
Sarton, May. A World of Light: Portraits and Celebrations. NY: Norton, 1976.