The Mulberry Tree

For some fifty years Elizabeth Bowen was near the center of literary life in England. At the time of her death (in 1973), she left behind more than a dozen critically acclaimed books: novels, collections of short stories, and literary criticism. Her friends included such notable figures as Katharine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf, Graham Greene, Cyril Connolly, and the American short-story writer Eudora Welty. Descended from an old Anglo-Irish family, Elizabeth Bowen was born in Dublin and spent her earliest years in Bowen’s Court, the family home in County Cork, and at the villas of various relatives in Kent.

All of her writing is marked by an uncannily keen sense of place, and readers of THE MULBERRY TREE should begin with the unfinished “Autobiography” which forms the last section of the book. There one discovers the awesome power of her memory and her talent for evocative descriptions of Irish stone mansions, scrubbed servants, English churches, and haunting seascapes. To read her is to rediscover the hard-edged precision of good British (as opposed to American) English.

For example, in the masterful title essay, “The Mulberry Tree,” she recalls the wonderful years she spent at Downe House, a boarding school for girls: “We girls were for ever masticating some foreign substance, leaves of any kind, grass from the playing fields, paper, india rubber, splinters from pencil-ends or the hems of handkerchiefs.” Equally impressive is her graphic description of the urban devastation wrought by the German Blitz in “London, 1940.” The letters and reviews are also illuminating, especially those concerned with the life and work of Virginia Woolf. Anyone interested in the literary life and culture of England during the first half of this century--or in the graceful execution of good English prose--will not want to miss THE MULBERRY TREE.