Form and Content
Significant for its insights into the concerns of Elizabeth Bowen’s fiction, Bowen’s Court, written during the war years between 1939 and 1941, is that rare book in which an author successfully weaves the saga of a family into the fabric of the history of a culture and a country. In the book Elizabeth Bowen portrays the generations of the Bowen family against the tragic tapestry of Irish history, creating in the process an elegy for a way of life that could not survive the encroachments of progress and industrialization.
One of the two books Bowen has written about her ancestral home (the other is The Last September, 1929), Bowen’s Court is divided into ten chapters. The first two chapters, “Bowen’s Court” and “Colonel Bowen and the Hawk,” provide a description of Bowen’s Court and the surrounding countryside, and a chronicle of the establishment of the Bowen family over three centuries. The next eight chapters derive their titles from successive Bowen patriarchs from John I to Henry VI. Any resemblance of the names to those of kings is not accidental; to Elizabeth Bowen, “each man’s life is a reign, a reign over his own powers.” Each Bowen, as the lord of the Big House, dominated the affairs of his family and community; each chapter is the story of a whole generation and the man whose personality provided its distinctive character.
Although there are few illustrations, they are particularly useful. A map of the northeast corner of County Cork, a photograph of Bowen’s Court, other photographs or portraits of Bowen ancestors and of Elizabeth’s twentieth century guests—all provide another descriptive layer for a text already rich in evocative detail and information. The portraits in particular, along with Bowen’s often wry commentary on the habits and foibles of her ancestors, provide the reader with valuable insight into the character of an entire socioethnic group that produced some of Great Britain’s best writers.
Both a history of Ireland during and after the Cromwellian settlement and the story of one Anglo-Irish family in County Cork, Bowen’s Court also deals— sometimes peripherally and obliquely, sometimes directly—with the history and temperament of the Anglo-Irish, that strange aristocratic class whose roots lay in England while its character gradually became more and more Irish. The history of the family begins more or less with Morgan ap Owen of Swansea, who purchased Court House and Maur House in 1441, thus founding the Court House branch of the Bowen family in Wales; through Henry I, who left Wales for Ireland to join Oliver Cromwell’s army and later settled in County Cork on the lands bestowed on him by the Protectorate for his service; to Henry III, who built Bowen’s Court; to Henry IV, who was forced to begin the dissolution of the Bowen demesne by selling the Killbolane lands; and finally to Elizabeth, the only woman to inherit the ancestral lands, the descendant who finally had to sell Bowen’s Court out of the family.
The book’s chief distinguishing characteristic is its strong sense of place, its powerful evocation of an era and a landscape. Although Bowen’s Court spans several centuries, its primary focus is on a bygone time which valued the sheltered gracious life, the life of the great country house. Clearly Elizabeth Bowen is the twentieth century voice of generations of Anglo-Irish landowners who strongly believed in tradition, in the moral effects of private ownership and property, in a kind of benevolent imperialism—indeed, in his demesne (as the Anglo-Irish referred to their landholdings), each Bowen was a monarch of all that he surveyed, was employer and ruler, social arbiter and friend, bestower of favors and punishments alike. Despite its plangent tone, however, Bowen’s Court never lapses into mawkish sentimentality; rather, the book is a complex blend of retrospection and irony, nostalgia and satirical coolness, regret and humor. Along with her rational account of Irish politics over the centuries, Elizabeth Bowen evokes the very personal ambience of a country house and the eccentricities and traits of its inhabitants.
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