Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 791
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.
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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.
The early and painful tragedies of Bowen’s life are adroitly circumvented in her essays, short stories, and novels. Though Bowen planned a career in art, she soon decided she lacked enough talent and turned to writing short stories. “Breakfast,” the first story that she completed, is the opening story of her first publication, Encounters. Though a major theme in Bowen’s writing centers on the perceptions of and by children—for example, in the novels The Death of the Heart and The Little Girls—these attitudes are always transformed from the personal to the universal. In fact, the personal grounds her fiction. Like her own personality, her characters are extremely perceptive, very human, and full of fun, conversation, wit, sarcasm, and laughter. They are never moody, introspective, or gloomy; they like to attend parties and picnics. Bowen loved to travel and talk, and A Time in Rome and The Shelbourne reflect her unusual verbal ability to paint scenes of places and regions.
Bowen’s painterly perceptions dominate her style and descriptive passages in her fiction through her narrators and characters, who are astutely observant of rooms, landscapes, and social mores. Her recurrent preoccupation throughout her canon appears to be a sense of place, an interest in a child’s perception, and her insistence upon middle-class manners and behaviors. Early attitudes or social behavior and place permeate her consciousness and writings. Having an income large enough to support these values provided Bowen with ingenuity and determination, for Bowen’s Court, which she inherited in 1930, after her father’s death, cost a great deal to maintain. The proceeds of her writings were poured into that house. For years, she was a regular reviewer for The Observer, The Spectator, Horizon, and New Statesman. In 1923, Bowen married Alan Charles Cameron, who then managed her publishing affairs.
Critics proclaimed Bowen’s writing reached maturity with the publication of the highly acclaimed novel The House in Paris. Thereafter and through World War II, Bowen carefully ordered her life to include writing, publishing, speaking, and reviewing. During World War II, while living in London, besides being an air-raid warden and having her house in Regent’s Park bombed a number of times, she worked on or completed some of her most important stories (for example, “The Demon Lover” and “Ivy Gripped the Steps”) and the novels The Heat of the Day and A World of Love. Thereafter, Bowen traveled for the British Council, spoke and wrote for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), and continued to write until her death. Her posthumously published Pictures and Conversations includes autobiography and chapters of a novel. Bowen’s writing, from 1923 to 1973, reflects with consummate skill and perception an exploration of middle-class society in Ireland, England, France, Italy, and the United States. She reveals the contradictions, problems, and complexities of society with a rich intensity, verbally painted with extraordinary deftness.