Elizabeth Bowen Essay - Bowen, Elizabeth (Vol. 1)

Bowen, Elizabeth (Vol. 1)

Bowen, Elizabeth 1899–

Anglo-Irish novelist and short story writer, Miss Bowen is best known for her novel The Death of the Heart. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18.)

Elizabeth Bowen has often been called a novelist of 'sensibility', a term which, if it means anything at all, is apt too often to imply the exploitation of the writer's own particular temperament at the expense of those other qualities which go to the making of a good novelist. To apply this designation to Miss Bowen is to underestimate, by implication, the breadth of her talent…. Miss Bowen uses her sensibility (which is without question exquisite) as an instrument, merely, for producing the particular effects at which she is aiming in her novels and stories. (p. 5)

Apart … from the visual approach, what other aspects of her work remain most clearly in one's memory? Plot? Decidedly no: Miss Bowen's plots are, for the most part, of an extreme simplicity; indeed, her novels can hardly (with the possible exception of The Heat of the Day) be said to have 'plots' at all. Character? Again (though less decidedly) no: for Miss Bowen, though an adept at presenting and analysing her characters, is seldom, one feels, passionately concerned with them merelv as characters; and, though one remembers many of the people in her books, she cannot be said to have created any 'great' characters such as those of Dostoievsky, Proust or Dickens…. [But] with the consideration of character we do approach nearer to what I feel to be the connecting link between almost all her novels and stories, and the mainspring of her creative achievement. This I would describe as a preoccupation with the relationship between the individual and his environment. (p. 8)

[It] is, I think [Jane] Austen, among distinguished novelists of the past, with whom Miss Bowen has most in common. Like Miss Austen she knows her own limitations; but, within the acknowledged boundaries of her talent and her temperament, she has created a small and perfect universe which, though wholly her own, can be compared not unfavourably with the world of Pride and Prejudice. (p. 30)

Jocelyn Brooke, in her Elizabeth Bowen, Longman Group Ltd., for the British Council, 1952.

Elizabeth Bowen is one of the most talented of the novelists working in what might very loosely be called the tradition of sensibility (though she herself has reservations about the use of the term with reference to her novels). Her best, though not her most ambitious, novels are probably The House in Paris and The Death of the Heart. In the former there is an adroit use of the technique of revealing bit by bit the history of human passion which lies behind the puzzling situation with which the reader is at first confronted…. Miss Bowen has not only a gift for rendering states of mind with quiet precision; she is also concerned with local atmosphere, with place and with weather, and her novels contain many memorable scenes in which mood, region and climate effectively interpenetrate and interpret each other. The Death of the Heart brings into the open a theme which is implicit in much of her writing, both novels and short stories: all the main characters are portrayed as victims of each other, of the conventions they live by, of compulsions whose origins they do not understand, of the adult's fear of living fully and the child's fear of not living fully. The moral, which is never stated but only more delicately suggested, seems to be that in order to be livable, life has to be suppressed, to be emptied. It is only by the death of the heart that we can survive at all. No such view is, of course, being advocated by the author; but we can say that this deeply tragic insight (antithetical to the Lawrentian insight) is her comment on life in a certain phase of our civilization, or perhaps of any civilization.

David Daiches, in his The Present Age in British Literature, Indiana University Press, 1958, pp. 115-16.

Even the possibility of being a hero or committing heroic acts is far removed from Elizabeth Bowen's world…. Nevertheless [she is] concerned with good and evil, [and] not unlike her most apparent literary predecessor, Jane Austen, she weighs her morality carefully and concocts a curious kind of moral universe; but unlike Jane Austen, Miss Bowen's good people are not always rewarded nor are the bad ridiculed. Often, the good are rebuffed and humiliated, are shown that their sympathies and values are meaningless in a mechanical universe. The innocent and the good suffer for the crass casuality of the guilty and the evil, but even to use these terms is to suggest contrasts stronger than those Miss Bowen provides….

This, essentially, is what we find in Elizabeth Bowen's novels: a sense of good and evil blunted by the fact that the two qualities are really aspects of the same thing. We find, also, that the innocent, good person is very often the cause of the evil and guilt that is manifest in his antagonist. Frequently, the good person is drawn to the evil one, for good and evil in this scheme lie within the framework of what are considered "normal" human relationships; and humiliation becomes the sole vehicle of evil action….

Like her early nineteenth-century predecessor [Jane Austen], she believes in clarity of detail, precision of phrase, and irony of expression, in exploiting the humorous while eliminating the sentimental, in destroying the hypocritical and the vain, in maintaining the traditions of the past against the incursions of the present….

By centering many of her novels around the sensibility of a young girl or woman, Miss Bowen, by this very means, reduces the world of experience with which she will be concerned; for to maintain realism, she must sift through the girl's mind only those aspects of reality which can be received and acted upon. Furthermore, by keeping this young girl at the center of the novel, the novelist has forsaken any possibility of enlarging the scope of vision through more demanding personalities….

Elizabeth Bowen has been somewhat hurt by anti-intellectual literary movements. Throughout her novels, there is no major "thinking" character; not a scholar, pedant, or intellectual, but simply a person who comes to terms with life both mentally and emotionally. Unlike Virginia Woolf, Miss Bowen does not deride this type of person; she eliminates him. She sensitively depicts her kind of world, but it remains in several of her novels too overly feminine and gossipy, in a final view, shadowy.

Paradoxically, Miss Bowen's virtue of conceiving characters who move like spiders on gossamer webs results in her major weakness: that her women remain static, incapable of development, and, finally, immature in their quivering sensitivity…. Miss Bowen writes with complete comprehension about her one type of character, but the rest of the world disappears.

Frederick R. Karl, "The World of Elizabeth Bowen" (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1962 by Frederick R. Karl), in his A Reader's Guide to the Contemporary English Novel, Farrar, Straus, 1962, pp. 107-30.

Elizabeth Bowen is a highly conscious artist who has evolved over the years a prose style that has the elaboration, the richness of texture, the allusiveness of poetry, a prose as carefully wrought, as subtle in its implications, as that of Henry James in his last phase. She has, too, an intense awareness of, and sensitivity to, place and weather, to the living character of houses, for example, and the indefinable yet readily palpable relations set up between them and the people who dwell in them. Her characters are always people living in particular places during particular seasons and in particular climatic conditions; and she uses her settings in place and time symbolically, to further our responses to the characters that move in them.

Walter Allen, in his The Modern Novel (© 1964 by Walter Allen; published by E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc. and used with their permission), Dutton, 1964, pp. 192-93.

All [of Elizabeth Bowen's] books (there are not many of them) are exquisitely written, and this very exquisiteness is a limitation, since it is more easily placed in the service of the outer skin of life than used to probe into the fundamentals of human experience. Nevertheless, textures, colours, nuances of speech, surface subtleties—these are a legitimate concern of the novelist, the essential yin side which Sir Walter Scott recognized in Jane Austen, admiring and knowing himself incapable of it, chained as he was to the 'big bow-wow' stuff of the yang…. Elizabeth Bowen may be said to exhibit the Austen touch—humour, delicacy, restraint, common sense, a limited social field. There is also an eschewal of concern with the great good-evil opposition, so that the antithesis of innocence is not guilt but experience…. One of Elizabeth Bowen's great gifts is the power to render the external world—time and space alike—so exquisitely that it seems to become itself a character, not a mere setting for human action…. The confrontation of innocence and experience in Elizabeth Bowen's best novels … is ultimately less memorable than the external world she delineates. This outer skin may symbolize the inner rind of human experience, but it always ends up as significant in itself.

Anthony Burgess, in his The Novel Now: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction (reprinted by permission of W.W. Norton & Co., Inc.; © 1967 by Anthony Burgess), Norton, 1967, pp. 120-21.

[For] all her virtues, Miss Bowen is an unfashionable writer at the moment. There are reasons. She has been pigeonholed as a writer of "sensibility"—a depictor of emotional states, with a special insight into the horrors of love. This misconception has its roots in The Death of the Heart, her most famous novel. Justly admired for the perfection of its form and style, it has been widely misread. It is not a sentimental novel but an ironic one, whose action turns and comments upon itself deliberately…. Moreover, The Death of the Heart is not merely a novel of "adolescence." Two contending forces wrestle in it for the possession of a soul: one is primitive and beneficial (Matchett, the Quaynes's housekeeper); the other is clever and malevolent (St. Quentin Miller, a writer)….

Over a long period of time, her work has been produced against the background of her individual conscience—unrecognized because it is not the same at all as a sense of guilt—a conscience that has not been devoured by the self. She writes as she pleases and suffers the consequences. None of her novels has been made into a movie; she has won no international literary prizes. Ignored by Los Angeles and Stockholm equally, she is one of the few writers who could make equal claims on both. Like Henry James, she is a storyteller in the most primitive sense and a writer in the most profound one.

Howard Moss, "The Heiress Is an Outsider" (© 1968 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), in New York Times Book Review, October 13, 1968, p. 1.