While Bowen’s short stories are in the tradition of Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) and Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923), they came from her personal experience; they were her autobiography transformed into art. Her stories are written in the third person; no “I” or all-knowing ego is present in her tales. For Bowen, literature provided the lens through which to see life. Her use of imagery and metaphors lets the reader know that the story is an artistic creation of the literary imagination. The stories are realistic in detail, but they often express a strong supernatural element of awe and wonder at the end.
Her stories contain strong naturalistic details with vivid description of places. Depending on when she wrote a particular story, the setting might be the English countryside, isolated and beautiful, or wartime London. Both locations are realistically described, but the general impression has a supernatural element in its presentation to the reader. Many of them are nearly ghost stories, but their shock value is generally understated. While her stories demand a close reading and attention to detail, the chill of psychological horror remains. Her stories are also suggestive of some of the short fiction of Henry James (1843-1916) in their sublime and ambivalent qualities and conclusions.
Although her work compares in technique and subject matter to other great writers, Bowen’s art is not derivative or second-rate. It grew directly out of her life experiences. These events taught her artistic sensibilities that, on closer examination, the concrete is not always as certain as it seems. External physical details of apparent solidity have a way of turning into internal feelings of a sense of betrayal and isolation. The biographical fact that Elizabeth Bowen was the first member of her family to live in England from childhood added to her identity problem as an Anglo-Irish writer. The issue was an ambivalence toward all things English, despite the fact that during her lifetime she became a highly praised writer in England and moved with ease in literary circles.
The Anglo-Irish ambivalence is historical, as well, and contributed to Bowen’s chronic uneasiness. It matched her particular experience of a mentally ill father and a mother who died at a critical time, when Bowen was nearing puberty. This close relationship of biography and literature was not accidental. Her art allowed her to take the places she knew and the moods she felt and combine them into her artistic creation. Her stories, therefore, often deal with children or young adults coming of age in an isolated situation. Memory and desire, often of a sexual nature, direct her narrative, but the reader has to recognize the clues. Bowen’s text is never far from the ambivalence that formed her life.
This quotation from her short story “Human Habitation,” written in the 1920’s, indicates how she used rooms, houses, and apartments as the background to the psychological transformations that her characters would reveal in many of her future stories.After all, it all came back to this—individual outlook; the emotional factors of environment; houses that...
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