Elizabeth Bowen

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

In this biography of Elizabeth Bowen one learns about the woman herself and why she wrote as she did. Author, Victoria Glendinning has documented her work thoroughly with quotations from living people, letters, radio addresses, acquaintances’ reminiscences, diaries, publishers’ comments, and reviews. There are more than a hundred people who have helped with this perceptive treatment of Elizabeth Bowen’s life and work, which is illustrated with sixteen pages of photographs of Elizabeth, her parents, her husband, her homes, and her friends. Elizabeth Bowen had a rich assortment of notable friends, among whom were T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Iris Murdoch, Rose Macaulay, Cyril Connoly, John Buchan (Lord Tweedsmuir), Lord David Cecil, A. E. Coppard, E. M. Forster, Graham Greene, L. P. Hartley, Rosamond Lehmann, Cecil Day Lewis, William Maxwell, Carson McCullers, William Plomer, May Sarton, Muriel Spark, Stephen Spender, Evelyn Waugh, Eudora Welty, Alfred and Blanche Knopf, Sean O’Faolain, and Lady Ottiline Morrell.

Elizabeth Bowen was Anglo-Irish. She was born in Dublin on June 7, 1899, and died in London on February 22, 1973. She was buried in the family graveyard in Ireland, near Bowen’s Court.

Her father, Henry Charles Cole Bowen, was the eldest of nine children, and her mother came from a family of ten; but Elizabeth was their only child. Her father inherited Bowen’s Court, given to his family by Oliver Cromwell, and here, during the summers, Bitha, as Elizabeth was called, lived her first seven years. Then her father suffered a nervous breakdown and went voluntarily to a mental hospital outside Dublin when she was seven. So began Bowen’s life in England, where she and her mother were taken over by a “network of Anglo-Irish relatives.”

Her vague and ethereal mother, Florence, was apprehensive of Bitha’s health and insisted that she drink plenty of milk, never become overtired, wear gloves in order not to get freckles on her hands, and not be allowed to read until she was seven. She felt that the Bowens were mentally overworked, and even after Bitha was in elementary school, her mother withdrew her from time to time so as not to “tire her brain.” Bitha started her “campaign of not noticing” when they left Bowen’s Court and continued this protective device after her mother died of cancer when Bitha was thirteen. She never allowed herself to overgrieve outwardly. Her cousin Audrey, who shared a room with her, heard her sobbing in the night; but she could never talk about her mother or her own sorrow. Audrey believed that she never got over losing her mother. Bowen was well aware of the stammer that afflicted her throughout her life, and which may have been brought on by the trauma she felt over her mother’s death. (The stammer was described as a pronounced hesitation—and a complete stalling on certain words, one of which was “mother.” Forty years later, after several successful lecture tours, an agent replied to inquiries: “Not at all disturbing, but if I may say so, ’endearing’ rather than distracting. She is a most successful lecturer,” he said, “with a most successful stammer.”) As a woman of forty, she wrote that her mother, when away from her, had “thought of me constantly and planned ways in which we could meet and be alone.”

Upon the death of her mother, her upbringing was taken over by a committee of aunts. She was sent to Harpenden Hall and then to Downe School in 1914. Downe School had as head mistress Olive Willis, who did not say “Don’t” but “Need You?” She told the girls that it did not matter if they were happy, so long as they were good. She also put much stress on conversation and chattiness, tact and resource. Elizabeth said that as a result “many of us have turned out to be good hostesses.” Another graduate of Downe wrote: “To this day, the briefest lull at a luncheon or a dinner party is instantly filled by me with remarks of an inanity which startles even my children.”

All this time her father had been gradually recovering from his mental illness, and when she left Downe House in the summer of 1917, at eighteen, she went to Bowen’s Court to live with him. She and her cousin Audrey Fiennes had a delightful social time, going to balls and even giving one at Bowen’s Court. But she was never the typical debutante, not being pretty enough, silly enough, or confident enough. She showed her unconventional side in the way she dressed, always with large earrings, necklaces of false pearls or great glass baubles, and other flashy fake jewelry that she wore with...

(The entire section is 1880 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Choice. XV, June, 1978, p. 544.

Critic. XXXVII, July 15, 1978, p. 6.

Sewanee Review. LXXXVI, July, 1978, p. R88.

Yale Review. LXVII, June, 1978, p. 615.