Analysis

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1212

Bowen’s Court is significant for several reasons. First, it is a well-written memoir that should appeal to general readers and students of literature alike. More than that, however, it offers a key to Elizabeth Bowen’s fiction. In its account of the decline of an Anglo-Irish family and of the gradual shrinking of their demesne, Bowen’s Court also chronicles the erosion of the aristocratic grand idea that motivated the lives of the Irish country gentry; it is this loss of a way of life that informs Elizabeth Bowen’s fiction, that explains the alienation of her characters from a modern world that they do not understand. Finally, Bowen’s Court has in common with other Anglo-Irish literature “the romantic, endemic feeling for ruin” that forms part of the appeal of that body of writing, that has captured the imagination of so many readers.

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At the center of Bowen’s Court is what Elizabeth Bowen calls “the grand idea,” the attitude, long held by the Anglo-Irish gentry, that life should be lived in a certain way, to be exemplified in proper social behavior and in “a house that should be certain to elevate.” For the Bowen family, Welsh by origin and Irish through Cromwell’s gift of County Cork lands to Henry I in the seventeenth century, the grand idea found its concrete manifestation in Bowen’s Court, the “high bare Italianate house” built by Henry III in 1775. More than any other Bowen, Henry III, “the first Irish Bowen to come to full bloom,” lived the grand idea in his manner and ambitions, in his pursuits and activities, in his sense of his own consequence as the head of the Bowen family and the ruler of his demesne. His attitude informed the house he built for his family. “His sense of what was august in humanity made him make his house an ideal mould for life. He was more than building a home, he was setting a pattern.”

Although the way of life that most nearly exemplified that grand idea reached its peak and began its decline in the late eighteenth century, generations of Anglo-Irish county families continued to conduct their affairs, to live their lives as though the world had not changed. This way of life was aided, even enhanced, by the relative isolation of so many large estates. Bowen’s Court, for example—seven miles from the closest small village and thirteen miles from the nearest town of any size— was almost an enclosed world, a self-validating, self-centered kingdom suspended in the eighteenth century of its greatest consequence. Bowen points out that often the Big House family did not leave its demesne for days at a time, but rather simply went about the affairs of the estate and the family, went about the business of living the grand idea, confident and secure in their own world and not in the least disturbed by their geographical and cultural isolation.

For the family and for the neighboring villages and towns, Bowen’s Court stood as a symbol of power, of a largeness not of size but of style. Pointing out that Bowen’s Court had no small rooms, Elizabeth Bowen remarks, “Steady behaviour of some sort, even formality, is enjoined by every line of the house.” Generations of Bowens grew to adulthood well-tutored in the belief that life must be lived a certain way—not extravagant, not hedonistic, not flamboyant, but grandly conceived, compelling, calm. Along with the rest of the Anglo-Irish gentry, they lived “as though living gave them no trouble.”

Forming the basis of the Big House way of life was property, for the grand idea was formed by a sense of belonging, of rootedness and permanence. Like all others of their class and their time, the Bowens subscribed to a kind of benevolent imperialism that gave them the wherewithal to exercise the limited power they had. Still dominant in their minds was the eighteenth century idea that property was morally beneficial, that the maintenance of proper landlord-tenant relations required the proper decorum, the right attitudes, the appropriate wielding of power. Elizabeth Bowen describes without irony the power, economic and social, that motivated her ancestors’ behavior. Moreover, as she is careful to point out, they did not abuse the privileges of their class; rather “they honored, if they did not justify, their own class, its traditions, its rule of life. If they formed a too-grand idea of themselves, they did at least exert themselves to live up to this. . . .”

The isolation that nurtured the grand idea finally proved to be its downfall. As the world changed and moved into the twentieth century, life in the Big House continued, serene and calm, dominated still by the idea that the gentry held power and its attendant privileges. Bowen’s Court is ultimately the story of the fate of a minority class that lost its rationale for existence, that lost its sense of function and responsibility and thereby its confidence in a way of life. The twentieth century, which Elizabeth Bowen labels “the dire period of Personal Life,” proved disastrous to the “healthy abstract” idea which created a stylish, impersonal, dignified way of living. Thus the grand idea went into decline, anachronistically isolated in the stately country house, whose upkeep was proved in many instances to be an impossible burden to its twentieth century owners. Many like Bowen herself—still imbued with a sense of tradition, still possessed of an affinity for the dignified way of life—struggled for a time to keep the ancestral homes alive, to retain some vestige of gracious living, to maintain the relationship between grand architecture and decorous behavior. Like Elizabeth Bowen, many of the descendants of a class outmoded by the changing world were in the end forced to part with their last physical links with the grand idea. Some examples of the Big House still stand; others, like Bowen’s Court, are no more, torn down in the name of progress or efficiency or cost-cutting, replaced by the architectural dreams of others.

As a biography of one Anglo-Irish family, as a history of the loss of a way of life that flourished for over a century, Bowen’s Court provides an important key to Elizabeth Bowen’s writing, both to her themes and her style. Here is the source of her impressionistic descriptions, of her strong sense of place, of her independent characters, of her emphasis on the practice of “humane manners.” Here, too, are her wit and humor, her carefully crafted prose with its characteristic nervous syntax, her benevolent and discriminating narrator persona. Here as well are Elizabeth Bowen’s major themes: the misunderstanding and unkindness that divide generations, the psychological pressures created by conflict between past and present, dislocation and confusion caused by change, nostalgia for a way of life, the betrayal of innocence.

Elizabeth Bowen is not a writer for everyone. Her work requires the mature reader who reads and rereads, who savors artfully crafted prose and intellectually demanding ideas. Her audience will more than likely always remain small and discriminating. Even so, she is an important writer—as artist and prose stylist, as ironic and detached commentator on the world as she knew it, and as perceptive analyst of human behavior.

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