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.
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...
(The entire section is 1,212 words.)