Elizabeth Dorothea Cole Bowen (BOH-uhn), born in Dublin, Ireland, on June 7, 1899, the only child of a landed Protestant attorney, Henry Charles Cole Bowen, and his wife, Florence Colley Bowen, was a distinguished Anglo-Irish writer. Her introverted and shy parents responded to their only child with emotional vagueness and hired nurses and governesses to supervise her schedule. Though stories were read to her, she was not permitted to learn to read before she was seven years old, for fear it would stress her mind. During these early years, which Bowen articulates in her first autobiography, Seven Winters, she spent the winter months of each year in Dublin and the rest of the year at Bowen’s Court, the eighteenth century estate deeded to her ancestor Colonel Bowen, a professional soldier who was a lieutenant colonel in Oliver Cromwell’s army in 1653.
Throughout her life, Bowen was not only reticent about discussing personal experiences but also elusive when asked overt questions. Much of her childhood was buried within her until she began to write. This emotional diffidence resulted from the traumas which occurred between her seventh and thirteenth years. Her father had a mental breakdown when she was seven years old, and her mother died of cancer when Bowen was thirteen. After her father’s hospitalization, the doctor recommended that Bowen and her mother leave Ireland and go to England to live. There, they settled near her mother’s cousins on the Kent coast. After the death of her mother, Bowen became afflicted with a significant but well-controlled stammer. One word that she could never say without stammering was “mother.” After her mother’s death, Bowen attended Downe House, a girls’ boarding school in Kent, and during the first year, insisted upon wearing a black armband. She loved Downe House and remained in school from 1914 to 1917, leaving to go to art school in London.
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Elizabeth Dorothea Cole Bowen received her formal education at Downe House in Kent and at the London County Council School of Art. In 1923 she married Alan Charles Cameron and lived with him in Northampton and Old Headington, Oxford. In 1935 she and her husband moved to Regent’s Park, London, where Bowen became a member of the Bloomsbury group. During World War II she stayed in London, where she worked for the Ministry of Information and as an air-raid warden. In 1948 she was made a Commander of the British Empire. She was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters by Trinity College, Dublin, in 1949. After the death of her husband in 1952, Bowen returned to live at Bowen’s Court in Ireland, her family estate. In 1957 she was...
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Although born in Ireland, Elizabeth Dorothea Cole Bowen came from a pro-British family who received land in county Cork as an award for fighting with Oliver Cromwell in 1649. The family built Bowen’s Court in 1776—what the Irish call a “big house”—as a Protestant stronghold against the mainly Catholic Irish and lived there as part of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy. Bowen was educated in England and spent some summers at Bowen’s Court. Not until after the Easter Rising in 1916 did she come to realize the causes of the Irish struggle for independence, and in writing Bowen’s Court she admitted that her family “got their position and drew their power from a situation that shows an inherent wrong.”
Her barrister father, when he was nineteen, had disobeyed forewarnings and carried home smallpox, which eventually killed his mother and rendered his father mad. Preoccupied with the desire for a son, Bowen’s father nearly lost his wife in the attempt to have one in 1904, and, burdened with the debts of Bowen’s Court, he suffered severe mental breakdowns in 1905 and 1906 and again in 1928. He was the cause of Elizabeth’s removal to England, where, as an Irish outcast, her defense was to become excessively British. Living in a series of locations with her mother, she was kept uninformed of family circumstances; as an adult, her novels provided for her an outlet for her sense of guilt, the result of her feeling responsible for the...
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