The Decline of the Big Houses
After civil war broke out in Ireland in 1921, ancestral homes known as Big Houses went into decline. They were owned by the Anglo-Irish, British Protestants who made up the occupation governing class in Ireland and who had taken the land away from the Irish Catholics. During the war, many of these homes, like Bowen’s Court, Elizabeth Bowen’s family estate, were either taken over by soldiers or destroyed by anti-British mobs who regarded them as symbols of social and economic oppression.
Richard Tillinghast, in his article on Bowen, writes that she “was born into a Protestant ascendancy that rose to power and distinction in the eighteenth century and went into decline by the late nineteenth.” Tillinghast reveals the influence this movement had on her when he concludes, “The alienation of the Anglo-Irish landowner, set above and isolated from the ‘native’ population, is a vantage point to which Bowen refers often when writing of Ireland.”
In 1903 the Wyndham Act was passed in Ireland, which helped displaced Catholics buy back their lands from the Anglo-Irish. By the second decade of the twentieth century, landlords who had sold off their farms were left with not much more than their big houses. The wealth they had accumulated from the sale of their lands left them with little to occupy their time in a place where they felt a growing sense of isolation.
Girls and Sexuality in Ireland
A celebrated 2003 film The Magdalene Sisters depicts the harrowing consequences for Irish girls who experimented with sex during the first half of the twentieth century. Girls who became pregnant or engaged in sexual activities were often handed over to the Catholic Church by their families. Some of them ended up in convents that turned them literally into slaves, working in laundries or other money-making operations. The film paints a bleak picture of convent life, in which it claims the girls were brutalized.
Sexuality in the 1950s
Traditional attitudes about sex began to change during this era. Still heavily influenced by the church, the Irish tried to encourage the young to refrain from sexual experimentation. But new attitudes in America began to filter into the Irish culture. Alfred Kinsey’s reports on the sexual behavior of men and women (1948, 1953) helped bring discussions of this subject out in the open in the United States and overseas. Although many Irish clung to oppressive Catholic ideas about sexuality, they could not suppress questions that began to be raised about what constituted normal or abnormal sexual behavior.
Movie stars such as Marilyn Monroe and Brigitte Bardot, who openly flaunted their sexuality, intrigued the public on both sides of the Atlantic and magazines like Playboy, begun in 1953, gained a wide audience. In the 1960s relaxed moral standards resulted in an age of sexual freedom in Europe and the United States. Yet, most Irish in the 1950s retained conservative attitudes toward sexuality: they did not openly discuss sexual behavior, and promiscuity, especially for women, was not tolerated.
Point of View
In his review of A Day in the Dark , Edwin Morgan writes, “in this rich selection of her short stories the communication is often an ambiguity or a mystery which the imagination of the reader must try to unravel or complete.” One way Bowen accomplishes this is by relating the plot through the narrator’s limited point of view. Barbie tells the story as an adult but refuses to add any details that she did not observe or conclusions she did not make during that afternoon. At one point, she claims that memory has failed her and that she has lost half of her conversation with Miss Banderry. This truncated version forces readers to think about omitted parts of the experience and ambiguous parts of the story, like Barbie’s sense of danger and dread. Yet this narrative technique provides a truer portrait of Barbie’s experience, that of a young girl confronted with disturbing realities...
(The entire section is 1,677 words.)