Elizabeth Bowen

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Elizabeth Bowen Long Fiction Analysis

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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 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...

(The entire section is 2,562 words.)