Elizabeth Bowen Essay - Bowen, Elizabeth (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Bowen, Elizabeth (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Elizabeth Bowen 1899-1973

Irish-born English novelist, short story writer, essayist, critic, nonfiction writer, travel essayist, playwright, and memoirist.

The following entry provides criticism on Bowen's works from 1979 through 2001. See also Elizabeth Bowen Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 3, 6, 15, 22, 118.

Bowen was a renowned Anglo-Irish novelist and short story writer whose prolific writing career encompassed more than fifty years. Her later novels articulated the precarious position of the individual in the modern, postwar world and anticipated postmodernism in their use of new, experimental literary forms.

Biographical Information

An only child, Elizabeth Dorothea Cole Bowen was born in Dublin, Ireland, on June 7, 1899, to Florence Colley and Henry Cole Bowen, both of Anglo-Irish descent. Her father was an attorney in Dublin where the family lived in the winter, but they spent every summer at Bowen's Court, the family home in County Cork. The house itself was built in 1775, although the 800-acre estate had been granted to the Bowen family in 1653. In 1906, Bowen's father was hospitalized with nervous depression, a condition that apparently ran throughout the family, and Bowen and her mother went to stay with relatives in England. Missing both her father and her home in Ireland, Bowen developed a stammer that she never outgrew. Although her father's health improved and the family was reunited in Ireland in the summer of 1912, her mother's death soon afterwards proved another devastating blow to the young girl's precarious sense of stability. Her aunts assumed responsibility for her care and she was sent to live with her mother's unmarried sister in Hertfordshire where she attended day school. Two years later, she was enrolled in Downe House, a boarding school in Kent, where she remained for the next three years, splitting her school vacations between her maternal relatives in England and her father's home in Ireland. During her time in school, Bowen remained relatively isolated from the events of the outside world—the beginning of World War I and the Easter Rising of 1916. However, when she left school in 1917, she volunteered as a nurse in a Dublin hospital where she cared for shell-shocked soldiers. Bowen traveled extensively after the war, briefly studied art at the London County Council School of Art, and then turned to journalism as a possible career, discovering her talent for fiction-writing along the way. Her brief engagement to a British army officer during this time was undone by the disapproval of her maternal aunts.

In 1923 Bowen published her first book of short stories, the favorably-received Encounters, and that same year she married Alan Cameron, an Oxford graduate and former soldier who held a minor government post in Kingsthorpe, Northampton, where the young couple took up residence. Two years later, Cameron accepted a position in Oxford where Bowen soon became a part of the local intellectual community; there she made the acquaintance of Rose Macaulay who provided her with invaluable introductions to important people in the publishing business. Between 1926 and 1929, Bowen published her first two novels and two additional short story collections. In 1930, when Bowen's father died, she inherited the family estate in Ireland; she and her husband began spending holidays there, although they still lived in England. She continued writing and publishing, and by 1935 she had produced a total of five novels and four collections of stories. Meanwhile, she was expanding her circle of literary friends and acquaintances and soon counted Virginia Woolf among her close associates. When Cameron took a position with the BBC, the couple moved to London and Bowen began writing literary reviews for the Tatler. She produced several more novels, among them the highly acclaimed The Death of the Heart (1938) and The Heat of the Day (1949). When Cameron's health began to fail, the couple moved to Bowen's Court, where he died in 1952. She resided there alone for the next several years and finally decided to sell the family estate in 1959. She returned briefly to Old Headington in Oxford and then moved to Kent, where she and her mother had lived for a time during her childhood. Meanwhile, she continued to write and to travel extensively, visiting America—where she lectured and served as writer-in-residence at various universities—every year from 1950 until her own declining health prevented her from traveling. Bowen produced her last novel in 1969 and died on February 22, 1973, of lung cancer.

Major Works

Bowen's first two volumes of short stories, Encounters and Ann Lee's and Other Stories (1926), along with her first two novels, The Hotel (1927) and The Last September (1929) all deal with innocent young women who gain experience and self-awareness over the course of the narrative. The Last September is set on a large estate in Ireland and features a central character who very much resembles Bowen herself, although the author denied that the novel was autobiographical even as she acknowledged that the setting was inspired by Bowen's Court. Succeeding novels and stories did not measure up to the success of The Last September until the publication of what is often considered her masterpiece, The Death of the Heart in 1938. The story of a young girl sent to live with her half-brother and his wife after her parents die, The Death of the Heart features events viewed through multiple perspectives and dialogue that not only signal communication or lack thereof, but also provide for character and plot exposition as well.

In the following decade, Bowen abandoned the novel form and published, in addition to two new short story collections, stage and radio plays, and two volumes of memoirs: Bowen's Court (1942), a history of the family estate in County Cork, and Seven Winters (1942), the story of her early life at Bowen's Court. Her most popular short story, the frequently anthologized “The Demon Lover” was written in the early 1940s and published in the collection The Demon Lover and Other Stories (1945).

World War II figured prominently in Bowen's fiction both during the war and afterwards, most notably in her 1949 novel, The Heat of the Day, a story of intrigue, espionage, and blackmail in which historical events coexist with the standard elements of a love story against the backdrop of London during the blitz. In 1955 Bowen published A World of Love, the story of several women involved in one way or another with the same man, an Irishman who joins the British army and dies in France. His memory continues to exert a powerful influence over the lives of the women long after his death. The Little Girls (1964) also features women who share a common bond, in this case, their friendship as schoolgirls. Reuniting fifty years later, the women dig up a small chest containing various personal objects that they buried as children, an activity that forces them to confront the events of their individual and collective pasts. Bowen's final novel, Eva Trout (1968) is her most experimental in both form and content. The title character is a young heiress who is more devoted to her lavish home than her young adopted son, a deaf mute. She sends the boy to France to be educated by a specialist and the boy returns just as Eva is about to marry a childhood friend. The boy shoots his mother, either deliberately or accidentally, and Eva is killed instantly. The exact nature of the novel's conclusion continues to be debated by critics who find the work puzzling.

Critical Reception

Bowen's reputation during her lifetime was solid; by 1935, her books were being widely and favorably reviewed, and her work was compared to the writings of Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, and Henry James. But in the years since her death Bowen's place in the twentieth-century literary canon has been less secure, particularly with regard to her later novels. Most critics consider The Death of the Heart her best work, and dismiss her post-war writing as the product of a writer in decline. More recently, however, Bowen's work has been reevaluated by postmodernists and feminist scholars who view her last four novels with new appreciation.

Of her final four novels, The Heat of the Day was most favorably received by critics. Set in London during the years 1942-44, the novel treats World War II as “a mirrored replay of the war being fought within man, of the nothingness within himself against his own humanness,” according to Barbara Brothers, who suggests that during this period Bowen was concerned with the same issues that occupied Yeats and Eliot after World War I. Hermione Lee believes that the central concerns in Bowen's late writing appeared in her earlier work, but after the war, her narratives dealt “more than ever with the failure of feeling and certainty in modern civilization, and with the need for consolatory retreats into memory and fantasy.” For Lee, Bowen's last three novels in particular are about “displacement, alienation, and the search for consolation,” often found by revisiting the past. John Coates, though, in his analysis of A World of Love, refutes the notion that the attempt to recover the past amounts to mere nostalgia on the personal level. According to Coates, the novel is “concerned through a self-conscious and at times ironic reworking of myth, to examine some of the most significant ‘public’ themes of the twentieth century.” Allan E. Austin, however, feels that A World of Love, while interesting on a variety of levels, “is an experiment that was not successful and is, consequently, one of Bowen's least satisfactory books.”

Anne M. Wyatt-Brown has studied The Little Girls and Eva Trout, both categorized as upper-class comedies of manners, a genre denounced by most modern critics. However, she believes the two works are noteworthy because they “move the novel in the direction of postmodern experimentation.” For Wyatt-Brown, the uncertainty running through these novels, denigrated by many critics, should be recognized as a sign of Bowen's courage in risking her substantial literary reputation by abandoning the formula that had made her famous and experimenting with new literary possibilities instead. John Coates, like Wyatt-Brown, takes on earlier scholars who consider Eva Trout a failure, Bowen's “botched and belated attempt to remake herself in changing times.” Coates sides with more recent feminist critics who believe Bowen's last novel represents “a radical criticism of gender stereotypes.” Austin considers Bowen's late work to be “in many ways her most interesting; for it shows the author working with a new sense of adventure.” While the last four novels may not “quite match the perfection of The Death of the Heart, they reflect the touch of a poised and knowing craftsman.”

Principal Works

Encounters: Stories (short stories) 1923

Ann Lee's and Other Stories (short stories) 1926

The Hotel (novel) 1927

Joining Charles and Other Stories (short stories) 1929

The Last September (novel) 1929

Friends and Relations: A Novel (novel) 1931

To the North (novel) 1932

The Cat Jumps and Other Stories (short stories) 1934

The House in Paris (novel) 1935

The Death of the Heart (novel) 1938

Look at All Those Roses: Short Stories (short stories) 1941


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Barbara Brothers (essay date spring 1979)

SOURCE: Brothers, Barbara. “Pattern and Void: Bowen's Irish Landscapes and The Heat of the Day.Mosaic 12, no. 3 (spring 1979): 129-38.

[In the following essay, Brothers explores Bowen's use of Irish settings in her post World War II writing, particularly her autobiographical work and the 1949 novel The Heat of the Day.]

The Last September was the only one of Elizabeth Bowen's works, fiction or non-fiction, written prior to World War II that extensively drew on or reflected the life Bowen had known in Ireland.1 The preface in which she relates the importance of that life to her as a person and as a writer, however, was not written until...

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Martha McGowan (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: McGowan, Martha. “The Enclosed Garden in Elizabeth Bowen's A World of Love.Éire-Ireland 16, no. 1 (1981): 55-70.

[In the following essay, McGowan discusses Bowen's use of the garden scene in A World of Love as a way of achieving ironic contrast between innocent idealism and harsh reality.]

Several of Elizabeth Bowen's novels express in various ways the theme of the dangers of innocence. Typically, a garden scene points an ironic discrepancy between the Edenic dreams of an innocent heroine and the reality of the fallen world she must inhabit.1 The garden scene in A World of Love has received little attention, however,...

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Hermione Lee (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: Lee, Hermione. “The Bend Back: A World of Love (1955), The Little Girls (1964) and Eva Trout (1968).” In Elizabeth Bowen: An Estimation, pp. 189-212. London: Vision Press, 1981.

[In the following excerpt, Lee examines Bowen's final series of novels—A World of Love, The Little Girls, and Eva Trout—maintaining that all three deal with the sense of uncertainty and detachment from emotional life that Bowen finds characteristic in post-World War II society.]

What fails in the air of our present-day that we cannot breathe it?

The ‘awful illumination’ of war...

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John Coates (essay date summer 1988)

SOURCE: Coates, John. “The Recovery of the Past in A World of Love.Renascence 40, no. 4 (summer 1988): 226-46.

[In the following essay, Coates disputes critics who characterize A World of Love as a “lovely” novel with little substance, contending that the work deals with some of the most significant concerns of twentieth-century life.]

It has often been suggested, quite correctly, that A World of Love (1955) recapitulates themes familiar from Elizabeth Bowen's earlier novels such as the nature and power of innocence and the awakening of an inexperienced girl to worldly knowledge or possibly to worldly corruption. There is also agreement...

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Allan E. Austin (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Austin, Allan E. “The Power of the Past.” In Elizabeth Bowen: Revised Edition, pp. 48-69. Boston, Mass.: Twayne, 1989.

[In the following excerpt, Austin discusses Bowen's last four novels—The Heat of the Day, A World of Love, The Little Girls, and Eva Trout—which reveal the writer's renewed sense of adventure and willingness to address fresh challenges.]

Remember that all our failures
are ultimately failures in love.

—Iris Murdoch, The Bell

Elizabeth Bowen's third group and final four novels disclose her readiness to set herself new and challenging problems. In part, of course, she had to move on...

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Heather Bryant Jordan (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Jordan, Heather Bryant. “Fictional Silences.” In How Will the Heart Endure: Elizabeth Bowen and the Landscape of War, pp. 153-68. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press, 1992.

[In the following excerpt, Jordan explores Bowen's treatment of the psychological trauma of life during wartime in her postwar novel The Heat of the Day.]

War, if you come to think of it, hasn't started anything that wasn't already there.

—Elizabeth Bowen, The Heat of the Day

The novel that emerged from Bowen's immersion in the Second World War epitomized “a state of living in which events...

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Robert L. Caserio (essay date June 1993)

SOURCE: Caserio, Robert L. “The Heat of the Day: Modernism and Narrative in Paul de Man and Elizabeth Bowen.” Modern Language Quarterly 54, no. 2 (June 1993): 263-84.

[In the following essay, Caserio compares the writing styles of Paul de Man and Bowen, concluding that Bowen's works—particularly The Heat of the Day—more properly belong to the modernist movement rather than the postmodernist movement.]

The last chapter of Fredric Jameson's Postmodernism has an attractively odd and expressive shape. Entitled “Secondary Elaborations,” it meanders for 123 pages—more than a quarter of the volume's length. Instead of concluding, therefore,...

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Anne M. Wyatt-Brown (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Wyatt-Brown, Anne M. “The Liberation of Mourning in Elizabeth Bowen's The Little Girls and Eva Trout.” In Aging and Gender in Literature: Studies in Creativity, edited by Anne M. Wyatt-Brown and Janice Rossen, pp. 164-86. Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1993.

[In the following excerpt, Wyatt-Brown contends that The Little Girls and Eva Trout, often dismissed by critics due to Bowen's conservative views, are actually nontraditional works of fiction that anticipate the conventions of postmodernism.]

Since her death in 1973, Elizabeth Bowen's formidable novels have not received much attention from theoretically...

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Patricia Coughlan (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Coughlan, Patricia. “Women and Desire in the Work of Elizabeth Bowen.” In Sex, Nation and Dissent in Irish Writing, edited by Éibhear Walshe, pp. 103-34. Cork, Ireland: Cork University Press, 1997.

[In the following excerpt, Coughlan traces the representation of women's mutual attraction in Bowen's later novels.]

‘She abandoned me. She betrayed me.’

‘Had you a sapphic relationship?’


‘Did you exchange embraces of any kind?’


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John Coates (essay date January 1998)

SOURCE: Coates, John. “The Misfortunes of Eva Trout.” Essays in Criticism 48, no. 1 (January 1998): 59-79.

[In the following essay, Coates finds that the usual interpretation of the ending of Eva Trout is a misreading of the work's explicit textual clues.]

The respectful reviews given to Eva Trout on its appearance in 1969 were not endorsed by subsequent critics of Elizabeth Bowen's fiction. ‘Elizabeth ended by parodying herself’, letting ‘her mannered manner run away with her’1 was Patricia Craig's view, while for Hermione Lee the book was ‘an illustration of Elizabeth Bowen's late malaise’ and ‘an unfocussed and bizarre...

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Jane Miller (essay date summer 2000)

SOURCE: Miller, Jane. “Re-reading Elizabeth Bowen.” Raritan 20, no. 1 (summer 2000): 17-31.

[In the following essay, Miller praises Bowen's detailed representations of women and the wide range of settings and moral concerns she treated in her novels.]

The centenary of Elizabeth Bowen's birth fell neatly into the last year of the twentieth century and was celebrated with a reissuing of almost all her work in an ugly paperback edition, which is better than nothing. The books come with rather haphazardly chosen introductions, all flattering, though few of them quite avoid the sort of condescension she must have grown used to from even her most admiring critics. The...

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Clare Hanson (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Hanson, Clare. “Little Girls and Large Women: Representations of the Female Body in Elizabeth Bowen's Later Fiction.” In Body Matters: Feminism, Textuality, Corporeality, edited by Avril Horner and Angela Keane, pp. 185-98. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 2000.

[In the following excerpt, Hanson reassesses Bowen's oeuvre, particularly her representations of young girls and older women, using the theories of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari to provide a new understanding of Bowen's work.]

Elizabeth Bowen's fate has been typical of that of ‘the woman writer’. Her books were both popular and critically acclaimed in their day, but after...

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Lis Christensen (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Christensen, Lis. “Identity.” In Elizabeth Bowen: The Later Fiction, pp. 43-65. Copenhagen, Denmark: Museum Tusculanum Press, University of Copenhagen, 2001.

[In the following excerpt, Christensen discusses the ways Bowen establishes her characters' individual and group identities.]

‘What a slippery fish is identity,’ reflects Eva Trout; ‘and what is it besides a slippery fish?’ (ET [Eva Trout] 193). Bowen's texts give no answer; but they do refer, in many different words and phrases, to those features that characterize or define a person as being different from anyone else: persona, personality, being oneself, deeper...

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Lis Christensen (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Christensen, Lis. “Communication.” In Elizabeth Bowen: The Later Fiction, pp. 66-83. Copenhagen, Denmark: Museum Tusculanum Press, University of Copenhagen, 2001.

[In the following excerpt, Christensen explores Bowen's use of various means of communication, both spoken and written, in her last four novels.]

In looking at how Bowen lets her characters convey their meaning to one another, I use ‘communication’ to embrace all exchanges that may establish or reflect a relationship between people, ranging from the serious interchange of ideas to the most casual snippets of conversation, and including also the deliberate absence of verbal expression: the...

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Further Reading


Bowen, Elizabeth. “Notes on Writing a Novel.” In Collected Impressions, pp. 249-63. New York, N.Y.: Alfred A. Knopf, 1950.

Bowen provides her insights on producing successful plots, characters, settings, and dialogue.

Chessman, Harriet S. “Women and Language in the Fiction of Elizabeth Bowen.” Twentieth-Century Literature 29, no. 1 (spring 1983): 69-85.

Maintains that Bowen's writing displays an ambivalent attitude toward the position of female writers within male discourse.

Hopkins, Chris. “Elizabeth Bowen.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 21, no. 2 (summer 2001):...

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