Elizabeth Bowen

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Elizabeth Bowen Long Fiction Analysis

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Elizabeth Bowen had a special talent for writing the conversations of children around the age of nine, as is evident in The House in Paris. Somewhat corresponding to her personal experience, her novels often present a homeless child (usually a girl), orphaned and shunted from one residence to another, or a child with one parent who dies and leaves the adolescent in the power of outwardly concerned but mainly selfish adults. Frequently, management by others prolongs theprotagonist’s state of innocence into the woman’s twenties, when she must begin to assert herself and learn to manage her own affairs. (At age twenty-four, for example, Eva Trout does not know how to boil water for tea.) On the other side of the relationship, the controlling adult is often a perfectly mannered woman of guile, wealthy enough to be idle and to fill the idleness with discreet exercise of power over others. The typical Bowen characters, then, are the child, the unwanted adolescent, the woman in her twenties in a prolonged state of adolescence, and the “terrible woman” of society. Young people, educated haphazardly but expensively, are culturally mature but aimless. Genteel adults, on the other hand, administer their own selfish standards of what constitutes impertinence in other persons; these judgments disguise Bowen’s subtle criticism of the correct English.

Typical Bowen themes include those of loss of innocence, acceptance of the past, and expanding consciousness. The pain and helplessness attendant on these themes and the disguise of plentiful money make them unusual. Although Bowen writes about the privileged class, three of her four common character types do not feel privileged. To handle her themes, Bowen frequently orders time and space by dividing the novels into three parts, with one part set ten years in the past and with a juxtaposition of at least two locations. The ten-year lapse provides a measure of the maturity gained, and the second location, by contrast, jars the consciousness into reevaluation of the earlier experience.

The Hotel

The fact that the Bowen women often have nothing to do is very obvious in The Hotel, set in Bordighera on the Italian Riviera, but of greater interest is the fact that, like Ireland, Bordighera is another place of British occupancy. The hotel guests’ activities are confined to walking, talking, taking tea, and playing tennis. Mrs. Kerr is the managing wealthy woman who feeds on the attentions of her protégé, Sydney Warren, and then abandons Sydney when her son arrives. At age twenty-two, Sydney, for lack of better purpose, studies for a doctorate at home in England. Back in Italy, she becomes engaged to a clergyman as a means of achieving an identity and popularity, but her better sense forces reconsideration, and she cancels the engagement and asserts her independence.

The Last September

The Last September, set in 1920, when the hated British soldiers (the Black and Tans) were stationed in Ireland to quell rebellion, shows Sir Richard and Lady Myra Naylor entertaining with tennis parties at their big house. Like Bowen, who wrote in Afterthought that this novel was “nearest my heart,” Lois Farquar is a summer visitor, aged nineteen, orphaned, asking herself what she should do. An older woman tells her that her art lacks talent. Almost engaged to a British soldier, Gerald Lesworth, she might have a career in marriage, but Lady Naylor, in the role of graceful-terrible woman, destroys the engagement in a brilliant heart-to-heart talk in which she points out to Lois that Gerald has no prospects.

As September closes the social season, Gerald is killed in ambush, and as Lois—much more aware...

(This entire section contains 2562 words.)

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now and less innocent—prepares to depart for France, her home, Danielstown, is burned down; this loss signals her separation from the protected past.

To the North

After Friends and Relations, Bowen entered the most fruitful part of her career. Her next four novels are generally considered to be her best work. To the North has rather obvious symbolism in a protagonist named Emmeline Summers, whose lack of feeling makes her “icy.” She runs a successful travel agency with the motto “Travel Dangerously” (altering “Live Dangerously” and “Travel Safe”); the motto reflects both her ability to understand intellectually the feelings of others through their experience and her orphan state in homelessness. Emmeline tries to compensate for her weaknesses by imposing dramatic opposites: Without a home of her own, she overvalues her home with her widowed sister-in-law, Cecilia Summers; frequently called an angel, she has a fatal attraction to the devil-like character Markie Linkwater. When Cecilia plans to remarry (breaking up the home), when Markie (bored with Emmeline) returns to his former mistress, and when Emmeline’s travel business begins to fail rapidly because of her preoccupation with Markie, she smashes her car while driving Markie north; “traveling dangerously” at high speeds, she becomes the angel of death.

The cold of the North suggested by the novel’s title also touches other characters. Lady Waters, who offers Emmeline weekends on her estate as a kind of second home, feeds mercilessly on the unhappiness of failed loves and gossip. Lady Waters tells Cecilia to speak to Emmeline about her affair with Markie and thereby initiates the fateful dinner party that leads to the accident. Pauline, the niece of Cecilia’s fiancé, is the orphaned adolescent character on the verge of becoming aware of and embarrassed by sex. Bowen describes Emmeline as the “stepchild of her uneasy century,” a century in which planes and trains have damaged the stability and book knowledge of sexual research (indicated by the reading of Havelock Ellis), thereby freeing relationships but failing to engage the heart. The travel and the lack of warmth make the title a metaphor for the new century’s existence. With her tenuous hold on home, love, and career, Emmeline commits suicide.

The House in Paris

The House in Paris is set in three locations that reflect different aspects of the protagonist, Karen Michaelis: England, the land of perfect society; Ireland, the land of awareness; and France, the land of passion and the dark past. Parts 1 and 3 take place in a single day in Paris; part 2 occurs ten years earlier, during four months when Karen was age twenty-three. The evils of the house in Paris become apparent in the flashback and can be appreciated only through recognition of the terrible woman who runs it, Mme Fisher, and the rootlessness of the foreign students who stay there. Among other students, Mme Fisher has had in her power Karen and her friend Naomi Fisher (Mme Fisher’s daughter), and the young Max Ebhart, a Jew with no background. Ten years later, when Max wants to break his engagement with Naomi to marry another, Mme Fisher interferes, and he commits suicide.

The book begins and ends in a train station in Paris. In part 1, Leopold (age nine and the illegitimate child of Karen and Max Ebhart) and Henrietta Mountjoy (age eleven and the granddaughter of a friend of Mme Fisher) arrive on separate trains—Henrietta from England in the process of being shuttled to another relative, and Leopold from his adoptive parents in Italy to await a first acquaintance with his real mother. Leopold and Henrietta, meeting in the house in Paris, become symbolic of the possibility that, with Mme Fisher bedridden for ten years (since Max’s suicide) and now dying, the future will be free of the mistakes of the past. Mme Fisher, in an interview with Leopold, tells him that the possibility of finding himself “like a young tree inside a tomb is to discover the power to crack the tomb and grow up to any height,” something Max had failed to do.

Dark, egotistic, self-centered, and passionate like his father, Leopold constructs imaginatively a role for his unknown mother to play and then breaks into uncontrollable weeping when a telegram arrives canceling her visit. The mature and implacable Henrietta, orphaned like Leopold but accustomed to the vicissitudes of adult life, shows him how to crack out of the tomb of childhood. In part 3, quite unexpectedly, Ray Forrestier, who had given up diplomacy and taken up business to marry Karen in spite of her illegitimate child, urges a reunion with her son Leopold, takes matters into his own hands, and brings Leopold to Karen.

The Death of the Heart

The three-part structure of Bowen’s novels is most fully realized in The Death of the Heart. The parts of this novel are labeled “The World,” “The Flesh,” and “The Devil,” and they follow the seasons of winter, spring, and summer. The world of Windsor Terrace, the Quaynes’ residence in London, is advanced and sterile. Portia enters into this world at age fifteen, an orphan and stepsister to the present Thomas Quayne. Thomas’s wife, Anna, who has miscarried twice and is childless, secretly reads Portia’s diary and is indignant at the construction Portia puts on events in the household. Portia sees much “dissimulation” at Windsor Terrace, where doing the “right” thing does not mean making a moral choice. As one of Bowen’s radical innocents who has spent her youth in hotels and temporary locations, Portia says no one in this house knows why she was born. She has only one friend in this, her first home: Matchett, the head servant, who gives Portia some religious training. Of the three male friends who wait upon AnnA&Mdash;St. Quentin Martin, Eddie, and Major Brutt—Portia fastens on the affections of Eddie.

Spring, in part 2, brings a much-needed vacation for the Quaynes. Thomas and Anna sail for Capri, and Portia goes to stay with Anna’s former governess at Seale-on-Sea. At the governess’s home, dubbed Waikiki, Portia is nearly drowned in sensuality—the sights, smells, sounds, and feelings of a vulgar and mannerless household. Portia invites Eddie to spend a weekend with her at Seale-on-Sea, which further educates her in the ways of the flesh.

On her return to London in part 3, Portia’s more open nature is immediately apparent to Matchett, who says she had been “too quiet.” The Devil’s works are represented both obviously and subtly in this section, and they take many identities. St. Quentin, Anna, Eddie, even the unloving atmosphere of Windsor Terrace make up the Devil’s advocacy. St. Quentin, a novelist, tells Portia that Anna has been reading Portia’s diary, a disloyalty and an invasion of privacy with which, after some contemplation, Portia decides she cannot live. Herein lies the death of her teenage heart, what Bowen calls a betrayal of her innocence, or a “mysterious landscape” that has perished.

Summer at Windsor Terrace brings maturity to Portia as well as to others: Anna must confront her own culpability, even her jealousy of Portia; St. Quentin, his betrayal of Anna’s reading of the diary; Thomas, his neglect of his father and his father’s memory. Even Matchett takes a terrified ride in the unfamiliar cab, setting out in the night to an unknown location to pick up Portia. They all share in the summer’s maturation that Portia has brought to fruition.

William Shakespeare’s Portia prefers mercy to justice, paralleling the Portia in this novel. Bowen’s Portia observes everything with a “political seriousness.” The scaffolding of this novel supports much allusion, metaphor, and dramA&Mdash;all artfully structured. The world, the flesh, and the Devil as medieval threats to saintliness are reinterpreted in this context; they become the locations of the heart that has been thrust outside Eden and comprise a necessary trinity, not of holiness but of wholeness. This novel earns critics’ accord as Bowen’s best.

The Heat of the Day

In The Death of the Heart, ranked by many critics as a close second in quality to The Heat of the Day, Bowen uses World War II to purge the wasteland conditions that existed before and during the years from 1940 through 1945. Middle-class Robert Kelway has returned from the Battle of Dunkirk (1940) with a limp that comes and goes according to the state of his emotions. At the individual level, it reflects the psychological crippling of his youth; at the national level, it is the culmination of the condition expressed by the person who says, “Dunkirk was waiting there in us.”

Upper-class Stella Rodney has retreated from the privileges of her past into a rented apartment and a war job. Having grown impassive with the century, divorced, with a son (Roderick) in the army, she has taken Robert as her lover. She has become so impassive, in fact, that in 1942, a sinister and mysterious government spy named Harrison tells her that Robert has been passing information to the enemy, and she says and does nothing.

Critics have commented frequently on this novel’s analogies to William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601), an obvious example being Holme Dene (Dane home), Robert Kelway’s country home. Psychologically weak, Robert is ruled by his destructive mother, who also had stifled his father and planted the seeds of Robert’s defection from English ways. While Stella visits Holme Dene and learns to understand Robert, her son visits a cousin who tells him that Stella did not divorce her husband, as was commonly thought, but rather was divorced by him while he was having an affair, although he died soon after the divorce. Roderick, however, has managed to survive Stella’s homelessness with a positive and manly outlook; when he inherits an estate in Ireland, he finds that it will give him the foundation for a future.

Eva Trout

In Eva Trout, the various autobiographical elements of Bowen’s work come to life: Bowen’s stammer in Eva’s reticence, the tragic deaths of both parents, the transience and sporadic education, the delayed adolescence, the settings of hotels and train stations. Eva Trout lives with a former teacher, Iseult Arbles, and Iseult’s husband, Eric, while she waits for an inheritance. She turns twenty-four and receives the inheritance, which enables her to leave their home, where the marriage is unstable, and buy a home of her own filled with used furniture. She also escapes the clutches of Constantine, her guardian, who had been her father’s male lover.

Eva discovers that a woman with money is suddenly pursued by “admirers,” and Eric visits her in her new home. Eva subsequently lets Iseult think that Eric has fathered her child, Jeremy, whom she adopts in the United States. After eight years in American cities, where Eva seeks help for the deaf-mute Jeremy, Eva and Jeremy return to England. From England, they flee to Paris, where a doctor and his wife begin successful training of Jeremy. Back in England, Eva attempts the next phase of reaching security and a normal life. She seeks a husband and persuades the son of Iseult’s vicar to stage a wedding departure with her at Victoria Station. All her acquaintances are on hand to see the couple off, but Jeremy—brought from Paris for the occasion—playfully points a gun (which he thinks is a toy) at Eva and shoots her. In the midst of revelry, on the eve of her happiness, Eva drops dead beside the train.

Eva Trout makes a poignant and haunting last heroine for the Bowen sequence. This novel offers Bowen’s final bitter statement on the elusiveness of security and happiness.


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