Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 251

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Although she was a contemporary of Virginia Woolf, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Graham Greene, and Evelyn Waugh, Elizabeth Bowen has been largely neglected by the majority of readers and scholars alike. Yet her very considerable body of work is still read and much admired, and her best fiction merits placement beside the works of her better-known contemporaries; her short stories, particularly those set in Ireland or in wartime England, are fine enough to deserve more critical attention and a wider readership.

What critical opinion there is—primarily in the form of reviews, brief mentions in larger works, or master’s theses and doctoral dissertations—is divided. Bowen’s detractors accuse her of an overly poetic prose style, of too much nostalgic conservatism; her equally vocal champions praise the atmosphere of her books, her “small and perfect universe,” her effectiveness as “historian of the crisis in a civilization.” What few commentators have remarked on—and Sean O’Faolain and Hermione Lee are among that perceptive minority—is Bowen’s stance between, and borrowing from, two traditions: Anglo-Irish literature and the European modernism that grew out of Gustave Flaubert’s work. As an author, Elizabeth Bowen fuses new techniques with old modes, modern attitudes with traditional beliefs, contemporary problems with age-old solutions. Characters in her fiction confront twentieth century chaos and alienation with a very sturdy determination to carry on, an attitude that can be traced to the grand idea’s dictum that life must be lived as though living were no trouble at all.