Elizabeth Bowen Long Fiction Analysis
Elizabeth Bowen had a special talent for writing the conversations of children around the age of nine, as is evident in The House in Paris. Somewhat corresponding to her personal experience, her novels often present a homeless child (usually a girl), orphaned and shunted from one residence to another, or a child with one parent who dies and leaves the adolescent in the power of outwardly concerned but mainly selfish adults. Frequently, management by others prolongs theprotagonist’s state of innocence into the woman’s twenties, when she must begin to assert herself and learn to manage her own affairs. (At age twenty-four, for example, Eva Trout does not know how to boil water for tea.) On the other side of the relationship, the controlling adult is often a perfectly mannered woman of guile, wealthy enough to be idle and to fill the idleness with discreet exercise of power over others. The typical Bowen characters, then, are the child, the unwanted adolescent, the woman in her twenties in a prolonged state of adolescence, and the “terrible woman” of society. Young people, educated haphazardly but expensively, are culturally mature but aimless. Genteel adults, on the other hand, administer their own selfish standards of what constitutes impertinence in other persons; these judgments disguise Bowen’s subtle criticism of the correct English.
Typical Bowen themes include those of loss of innocence, acceptance of the past, and expanding consciousness. The pain and helplessness attendant on these themes and the disguise of plentiful money make them unusual. Although Bowen writes about the privileged class, three of her four common character types do not feel privileged. To handle her themes, Bowen frequently orders time and space by dividing the novels into three parts, with one part set ten years in the past and with a juxtaposition of at least two locations. The ten-year lapse provides a measure of the maturity gained, and the second location, by contrast, jars the consciousness into reevaluation of the earlier experience.
The fact that the Bowen women often have nothing to do is very obvious in The Hotel, set in Bordighera on the Italian Riviera, but of greater interest is the fact that, like Ireland, Bordighera is another place of British occupancy. The hotel guests’ activities are confined to walking, talking, taking tea, and playing tennis. Mrs. Kerr is the managing wealthy woman who feeds on the attentions of her protégé, Sydney Warren, and then abandons Sydney when her son arrives. At age twenty-two, Sydney, for lack of better purpose, studies for a doctorate at home in England. Back in Italy, she becomes engaged to a clergyman as a means of achieving an identity and popularity, but her better sense forces reconsideration, and she cancels the engagement and asserts her independence.
The Last September
The Last September, set in 1920, when the hated British soldiers (the Black and Tans) were stationed in Ireland to quell rebellion, shows Sir Richard and Lady Myra Naylor entertaining with tennis parties at their big house. Like Bowen, who wrote in Afterthought that this novel was “nearest my heart,” Lois Farquar is a summer visitor, aged nineteen, orphaned, asking herself what she should do. An older woman tells her that her art lacks talent. Almost engaged to a British soldier, Gerald Lesworth, she might have a career in marriage, but Lady Naylor, in the role of graceful-terrible woman, destroys the engagement in a brilliant heart-to-heart talk in which she points out to Lois that Gerald has no prospects.
As September closes the social season, Gerald is killed in ambush, and as Lois—much more aware now and less innocent—prepares to depart for France, her home, Danielstown, is burned down; this loss signals her separation from the protected past.
To the North
After Friends and Relations, Bowen entered the most fruitful part of her career. Her next four novels are generally considered to be her best work. To the North has rather obvious symbolism in a protagonist named Emmeline Summers, whose lack of feeling makes her “icy.” She runs a successful travel agency with the motto “Travel Dangerously” (altering “Live Dangerously” and “Travel Safe”); the motto reflects both her ability to understand intellectually the feelings of others through their experience and her orphan state in homelessness. Emmeline tries to compensate for her weaknesses by imposing dramatic opposites: Without a home of her own, she overvalues her home with her widowed sister-in-law, Cecilia Summers; frequently called an angel, she has a fatal attraction to the devil-like character Markie Linkwater. When Cecilia plans to remarry (breaking up the home), when Markie (bored with Emmeline) returns to his former mistress, and when Emmeline’s travel business begins to fail rapidly because of her preoccupation with Markie, she smashes her car while driving Markie north; “traveling dangerously” at high speeds, she becomes the angel of death.
The cold of the North suggested by the novel’s title also touches other characters. Lady Waters, who offers Emmeline weekends on her estate as a kind of second home, feeds mercilessly on the unhappiness of failed loves and gossip. Lady Waters tells Cecilia to speak to Emmeline about her affair with Markie and thereby initiates the fateful dinner party that leads to the accident. Pauline, the niece of Cecilia’s fiancé, is the orphaned adolescent character on the verge of becoming aware of and embarrassed by sex. Bowen describes Emmeline as the “stepchild of her uneasy century,” a century in which planes and trains have damaged the stability and book knowledge of sexual research (indicated by the reading of Havelock Ellis), thereby freeing relationships but failing to engage the heart. The travel and the lack of warmth make the title a metaphor for the new century’s existence. With her tenuous hold on home, love, and career, Emmeline commits suicide.
The House in Paris
The House in Paris is set in three locations that reflect different aspects of the protagonist, Karen Michaelis: England, the land of...
(The entire section is 2562 words.)