Elizabeth Bowen

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Daniel V. Fraustino (essay date fall 1980)

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SOURCE: Fraustino, Daniel V. “Elizabeth Bowen's ‘The Demon Lover’: Psychosis or Seduction.” Studies in Short Fiction 17, no. 4 (fall 1980): 483-87.

[In the following essay, Fraustino counters Douglas A. Hughes's assessment of “The Demon Lover” as a “psychological delusion,” maintaining that the story is intended to be read as a “mystery of high suspense.”]

In a major article [“Cracks in the Psyche: Elizabeth Bowen's ‘The Demon Lover’,” Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 10, 1973] on Elizabeth Bowen's “The Demon Lover,” Douglass A. Hughes dismisses the popular ghost-story interpretation and advances his own psychological one. The story, he says, is “a masterful dramatization of acute psychological delusion, of the culmination of paranoia in a time of war. … War, not a vengeful lover, is the demon that overwhelms this rueful woman.” To support his argument, Hughes maintains that “the narrator subtly but clearly indicates why the forty-four year-old woman suddenly loses her tenuous hold on reality … and succumbs to madness.” His argument rests on three major premises: that as a young girl Mrs. Drover suffered a “severe nervous breakdown” from which she never fully recovered; that her visit to her war-ravaged home occasions a “threshold experience that activates her dormant hysteria”; and finally, that the contents of the letter, the man's leaving the basement, and the demon lover as taxi driver are all “examples of hallucination,” figments of her weakening mind. Yet, however convincing on the surface, Hughes's argument rests not on his close reading of the text but on his interpolation of several key points; and a careful analysis of his argument not only discards his major points but also suggests an interpretation that avoids textual misrepresentation and presents this short, enigmatic story in its original intent: a well-wrought mystery of high suspense.

In examining Hughes's delusion-madness theory, we must first carefully consider the initial premise upon which he builds everything else: that the young Kathleen suffered a “severe nervous breakdown” subsequent to her fiancé's assumed death—a trauma, Hughes claims, her married life “shored up against” and assuaged. For, he claims, her visit to her war-damaged house ushers her into the buried and forgotten past, disinterring old “feelings of loss and guilt” that lead to her final hysteria. But Hughes's theory clearly interpolates a text that says nothing to suggest Mrs. Drover's emotional collapse after the loss of her fiancé. The narrator merely remarks that she suffered a “dislocation” (albeit “complete”) and that her thirteen years of anxiety (the text warrants no stronger word here), which Hughes insinuates to be part of her “breakdown,” came to pass as prospective lovers “failed to appear.” Hughes correctly observes that at the time of the story Mrs. Drover bears a facial tick (the remnant, the narrator tells us, of a former “quite serious illness”), but he mistakenly attributes it to the loss of her fiancé. The story clearly states that the illness attended “the birth of the third of her little boys.” Hence, we must conclude that the married years between the loss of her fiancé and the time of the story did not “shore up against” her original trauma (a trauma Hughes clearly exaggerates); rather, these years seem to have witnessed the causes of her present emotional difficulties.

Hughes correctly notes that the house is an “objective correlative of Mrs. Drover's psychological state,” but he fails to consider that it may also symbolize her life with William Drover, a man she married out of desperation after other suitors failed to appear. Thus, the house does not signify a fundamentally disturbed mentality, ravaged as it may be, issuing from...

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a buried trauma; it reflects her impoverished married life. And this conclusion seems more fitting: the house in the story is the one she “settled down in” as a married woman, not the one she grew up in during the Great War. The landmarks and objects Mrs. Drover encounters upon entering her home are not, as Hughes declares, significant in triggering her “dormant hysteria” for her lost fiancé; they are significant in presenting the “piled up” years of accumulated emptiness. Thus, images of age and death, of repetition and stagnation, proliferate in the description of the house. The street Mrs. Drover's house faces is an “unused channel,” and her “long former … life” with her family, a “habit.” The “yellow smoke-stain up the white marble mantlepiece,” “the ring left by a vase on the top of the escritoire,” “the bruise in the wallpaper where … the china handle had always hit the wall,” “the claw-marks” left on the parquet by the piano—all suggest the repetitious character of Mrs. Drover's “prosaic” life.

Finally, in examining Hughes's delusion-madness thesis we must search the text for evidence that Bowen intended the contents of the letter and the man leaving the basement to be understood as delusions, evidence of Mrs. Drover's relaxed grip on reality—assumptions Hughes himself finds “difficult to accept.” Indeed, if presenting delusions is Bowen's aim, she goes about it strangely, for she seems to emphasize her protagonist's lucidity, as when Mrs. Drover first sees the letter addressed to her on the hall table:

… then the caretaker must be back. All the same, who, seeing the house shuttered, would have dropped a letter in at the box? It was not a circular, it was not a bill. And the post office redirected, to the address in the country, everything for her that came through the post. The caretaker (even if he were back) did not know she was due in London today—her call here had been planned to be a surprise—so his negligence in the manner of this letter, leaving it to wait in the dusk and the dust, annoyed her.

Clearly, nothing in Mrs. Drover's thought processes indicates an incipient mania; nor do we sense “psychotic guilt” (as does Hughes) in her attempts to objectify matters by polishing a clear patch in a mirror and looking “at once urgently and stealthily in.” In fact, her attempts to “rally herself” by “shutting her eyes” and telling “herself that she had imagined the letter” render Hughes's theory even more unconvincing. Also, and importantly, the narrator characterizes Mrs. Drover as a woman whose “utter dependability was the keystone of her family life.”

In the preface to Ivy Gripped the Steps, and Other Stories Miss Bowen states that the stories in the volume contain “hallucinations”; she adds, however, that the “hallucinations in the stories are not a peril; nor are the stories studies of mental peril.” She further states that the stories form an organic whole; they do not appear in the “time-order in which they were first written,” but rather in a sequence that enhances their “cumulative and collective meaning.” Therefore, the position “The Demon Lover” occupies in this volume should in some way reflect the story's meaning. For example, the story's appearance exactly midway in the volume seems to rule out any extravagant interpretation like Hughes's madness theory; and the low-keyed story that follows it, “Careless Talk,” reinforces this reading approach. Also, if the volume contains a clue to the meaning of “The Demon Lover,” it probably lies in the story that immediately precedes: “Songs My Father Sang Me.” Set in post-World War I England, the story describes a young soldier's disaffection with peace-time, with civilian life, and with his insensitive, security-conscious wife. The story ends with his desertion from her and his infant daughter. “The Demon Lover” does not exactly duplicate this theme of desertion, but it does suggest a motive for infidelity and perhaps an unconscious reason for Mrs. Drover's wanting to escape: an unfulfilling marriage that was a mistake from the start. Hughes is correct: Mrs. Drover is not consciously or “in reality … a faithless woman,” but he ignores Mrs. Drover's deep and lingering dissatisfaction with her marriage and the “quite serious illness” after the birth of her third boy that may, like the soldier in “Songs My Father Sang Me,” signify her growing unconscious need to escape. Bowen's selection of the title for her story may in this regard be illuminating: the theme of the English ballad of the same title is desertion—an inconstant woman's marriage in the absence of her lover, and her final desertion from her husband and children upon her lover's return, a lover now ostensibly wealthy but in fact the devil himself.

In view of Bowen's allusion and her concern with the theme of desertion in the story that precedes “The Demon Lover,” is it not possible that Bowen at least suggests Mrs. Drover's unconscious desertion? Clearly, part of the answer lies in the identity of the taxi driver. Does Mrs. Drover hallucinate, as Hughes maintains, thereby mistaking the driver for her former fiancé? If so, why amidst her violent screams and beating hands does he accelerate “without mercy”? Here Miss Bowen's choice of words is significant, for they echo the description of the fiancé at the time he courted Kathleen. Described as “without feeling,” the soldier appears incapable of love in a normal sense. “He was never kind to me,” Mrs. Drover reminisces. “I don't remember him kind at all. Mother said he never considered me. He was set on me, that was what it was—not love. Not love, not meaning a person well.” During her mysterious romance, Kathleen was never kissed but rather “drawn away from and looked at.” And the “unnatural promise” isn't the only reminder she has of him, for she carries a “weal” on the palm which he “pressed, without very much kindness, and painfully, on to one of the breast buttons of his uniform.” Clearly, the soldier is a sadist of the most deranged kind. Not surprisingly then, he chooses to celebrate their anniversary, twenty-five years to the day, in the only way consistent with his destructive sense of love: with Mrs. Drover's homicide. As in the ballad, the fiancé has returned (importantly he was only “presumed dead”) to claim his lover-victim on their silver anniversary. In Bowen's story, however, he is a psychopath, not the devil. He left the note for her, and it's he Mrs. Drover hears leaving the basement.

This interpretation may not suggest the answer to every question the reader may have. How the taxi driver-lover knew that Mrs. Drover would be visiting her London house on that particular day, or how he managed to engineer events so cleverly that she would inevitably seek a taxi precisely on the hour of seven, can only be guessed. However, the story does not totally lack clues that rationally explain the events of that day—events that otherwise appear either totally unrelated (thus supporting Hughes's theory of Mrs. Drover's hysteria) or else supernaturally arranged. For instance, the text indicates that the taxi's arrival may have been prearranged, for Mrs. Drover states that she “will ring up the taxi now; the taxi cannot come too soon” (my emphasis). Also, her visit to London on the day of her silver anniversary may be related to the “unnatural promise” she made, the exact nature of which the reader is not told. As a young girl Kathleen may not have taken seriously or fully understood her “sinister troth,” but in her unfulfilled, care-worn middle age she may have all too easily, though unconsciously, fulfilled it. We can only speculate on these possibilities, however; the story's brevity and lack of detail give little information on which to reconstruct a completely rational, satisfying interpretation of all events. Moreover, the story's thrilling suspense seems almost to depend on the reader's own sense of dislocation, on the interruption of logical cause and effect—which is why the ghost story interpretation will always remain a popular and viable one.

Elizabeth Bowen's “The Demon Lover,” then, has greater similarity to the ballad of the same title than critics have so far noted. That a basic story outline is common to both works seems reasonable: an absent lover, an intervening marriage, and a desertion from that marriage upon the lover's return. Moreover, by accepting the story as literally presenting a kidnapping and probable homicide, we need make no unwarranted suppositions about a twenty-five-year-old nervous condition, about Mrs. Drover's “psychotic guilt,” or about the hallucinations concerning the letter and the man's leaving the basement. Nor need we assume without the least bit of evidence a fluctuating narrative point of view—one moment an objective third person, the next the centered consciousness of an hysteric. When the narrator states that a “draught … emanated from the basement where a door or window was being opened by someone who chose this moment to leave the house,” we have no reason whatsoever to assume hallucination. Finally, while the psychological interpretation has its own special kind of appeal, this view of the story as a murder mystery of high drama will attract those students who believe that the best reading interpolates the least.


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Elizabeth Bowen 1899–-1973

(Full name Elizabeth Dorothea Cole Bowen) Irish novelist, short story writer, essayist, memoirist, and critic.

The following entry provides criticism on Bowen's work from 1980 through 2000. See also The Demon Lover Criticism, Elizabeth Bowen Literary Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 3, 6, 15, 22, 118.

Noted for her subtle, evocative novels and short stories, Bowen is compared with such novelists of sensibility as Jane Austen, Henry James, and Virginia Woolf. She is perhaps best known for her novel The Death of the Heart (1938), and critics point to that phrase as an apt summation of Bowen's recurrent theme: the inevitable disillusionment inherent in human relationships, particularly as innocent characters make the painful passage to experience. Critics praise Bowen for her descriptive, finely pitched style, and they often compare her with Katherine Mansfield for her extreme sensitivity to perceptions of light, atmosphere, color, and sound. Like Mansfield, Bowen is considered expert at presenting the emotional dynamics of a situation and then swiftly illuminating their significance, particularly within the prescribed bounds of the short story.

Biographical Information

Bowen was born on June 7, 1899, in Dublin, Ireland. She was descended from aristocratic, wealthy Anglo-Irish stock and as a child divided her time between a Dublin townhouse and the family estate, Bowen's Court, in County Cork, Ireland. After her father was hospitalized with mental illness and her mother died from cancer in 1912, she was sent to boarding school in Kent, England, and later to the London Council School of Art, which she left after two terms in 1919. It was during this period, when she was living on her own in London, that Bowen began to write seriously. Her first short story collection, Encounters, was published in 1923. By 1929 she had published two more volumes of short stories and two novels, establishing a rate of production she maintained much of her life. During the 1930s Bowen began to associate with Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury circle in London. Her experiences living and working as an air-raid warden in the besieged city during World War II inspired what many critics consider her finest short story collection, The Demon Lover (1945), which explores war's insidious effects on the human psyche. In 1952 Bowen moved to Bowen's Court, which she had inherited in 1930. She sold the family estate in 1959 and returned to England, where, apart from frequent worldwide travel and reading tours, she remained until her death from lung cancer in 1973.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Critics note that Bowen is most often concerned with the theme of innocence versus experience in her fiction. In stories such as “The Good Girl,” a typical Bowen protagonist—young, female, and inexperienced—has her naiveté shattered by an unscrupulous man in an ill-fated romance. While Bowen's victims of experience are most often young adults, in such stories as “The Tommy Crans” and “Tears, Idle Tears,” she focused on children who are disillusioned by the adult world. In other stories, she explored the effects of war and social upheaval on individuals. In “Summer Night,” for instance, Aunt Fran becomes convinced that the pernicious morals of a war-torn society have encroached upon her own family. A similar unease and loss of identity is suffered by Mrs. Watson in “Attractive Modern Homes,” who becomes alienated and detached after moving to a modern housing development, and by the protagonist of “Foothold,” who conjures up a ghost to assuage her sense of loneliness in her marriage.

Bowen's stories written during World War II are considered her finest. In her collection The Demon Lover, she introduced to her short fiction a hallucinatory tone and supernatural themes in order to convey war's effect on the human mind. In “The Mysterious Kôr,” which is often cited among Bowen's greatest stories, wartime London becomes a mysterious, terrifying place. In “The Demon Lover,” a woman becomes dislocated in time, slipping from World War II back to World War I, where she waits feverishly for the arrival of her long-dead fiancé. In this, as in other pieces in The Demon Lover, Bowen employs a disturbing ambiguity, preventing the reader from knowing whether stories depict supernatural states or illusions created by the characters' neurotic and overburdened psyches.

Critical Reception

While acclaimed in her lifetime for both her short stories and novels, Bowen has since her death slipped somewhat from critical attention. Some critics suggest that her romanticism, wit, and sensitivity to both language and feeling have gone out of style; others assert that her writing is flawed by a too-facile style and narrow range of characters. Nonetheless, Bowen is revered by many for the radiance of style and subtlety of expression evidenced in her short stories. In the minds of many readers and critics, they take their place among the most distinguished works of short fiction of the twentieth century.

Brad Hooper (essay date spring 1984)

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SOURCE: Hooper, Brad. “Elizabeth Bowen's ‘The Happy Autumn Fields’: A Dream or Not?” Studies in Short Fiction 21, no. 2 (spring 1984): 151-53.

[In the following essay, Hooper offers an alternate interpretation of the dreamlike action of “The Happy Autumn Fields.”]

Elizabeth Bowen states in the Preface to Ivy Gripped the Steps, and Other Stories that in “The Happy Autumn Fields,” “a woman is projected from flying-bombed London, with its day-and-night eeriness, into the key emotional crisis of a Victorian girlhood,”1 indicating the woman is dreaming or hallucinating, that the Victorian girlhood into which she is thrown is strictly unreal. Indeed, that had been the standard critical interpretation of “The Happy Autumn Fields.” Such an interpretation, however, constitutes a misreading of what Bowen actually produced in the story.

It opens with a family, at a time when “skirts [were] gathered up and carried clear of the ground,”2 out for a walk in a recently harvested grain field, on the day before the return of three of the brothers to school. Sarah and her sister Henrietta, walking together, bring up the group's rear. Sarah is in love with Eugene, a friend of her brother's from the neighboring estate. Eugene and the brother, Fitzgeorge, are not among the group walking, but soon they catch up on horseback, Eugene then dismounting to walk with Sarah and Henrietta, who have fallen far behind the others on foot. Suddenly, the action ceases in what is clearly not the termination of a dream. With the following passage we see Bowen as narrator freezing the frame and pulling Sarah from the scene:

We surmount the skyline: the family come into our view, we into theirs. They are halted, waiting, on the decline to the quarry. The handsome statufied group in strong yellow sunshine, aligned by Papa and crowned by Fitzgeorge, turn their judging eyes on the laggards, waiting to close their ranks round Henrietta and Sarah and Eugene. One more moment and it will be too late; no further communication will be possible. Stop oh stop Henrietta's heartbreaking singing! Embrace her close again! Speak the only possible word! Say—oh, say what? Oh, the word is lost!

(p. 675)

A break occurs at this point in the story. A woman—named Mary—screams “‘Henrietta …’” as she comes to awareness on a bed in a room of a house bomb-damaged and threatening to collapse. Travis, Mary's lover, is there with her. Mary at once has a deep sense of alienation from her surroundings. It is obvious that she is cognizant of the fact that she, herself, is also Sarah, of another time and place, to which she yearns to return. Travis observes on the floor beside Mary's bed a box containing letters, diaries, and photographs. Mary can not recollect where the material came from. The small photograph of two young women holding hands before a painted field (Sarah and Henrietta) that Travis removes is snatched away by Mary, who flings “herself over on the mattress, away from Travis, covering the two faces with her body” (p. 678). Travis goes to find a taxi to take Mary to a hotel, appropriating the box of paraphernalia, apparently leaving the photo behind with Mary.

Now, another break in the story occurs; we are back to the previous time period. Mary had desired to return to being Sarah, but if the Victorian family scene were simply a dream of Mary's, how could she return to it, have it back at will? What Bowen actually does is simply pluck her character—Mary at present—out of her bed, and deposit her again—Sarah now—in the former period.

The scene this time, though, is not the empty fields, but set within the family's dwelling, in the drawing room, at sunset. Sarah, as did Mary in her bedroom in her war-damaged London home, feels alienated from her surroundings; but unlike Mary, Sarah is not aware of her alter-self. Why? For no reason, as far as the reader can discern, but Bowen does make it clear that Sarah is aware of having been absent for a short period of time from home and family. In addition to this sense of having been away, she has a sense of foreboding, a feeling that tomorrow may not come, as if she were aware she might be re-transported from her family.

Then, Bowen breaks the story again; Sarah is once more removed to be re-installed as Mary, and as Mary, she realizes the house is getting closer to falling completely down around her. More of the ceiling plaster has loosened and dropped on her. “The one way back to the fields was barred by Mary's surviving the fall of ceiling,” Bowen states (p. 683). If Sarah were simply dreamed, and Mary was capable of summoning the dream at will, then why is the way barred now that Mary remains alive? Could not—would not—she turn over again and sleep, slipping back as Sarah to Sarah's family and her love, Eugene? Bowen gives an ambiguous answer to that question in the next sentence: “Sarah was right in doubting that there would be tomorrow: Eugene, Henrietta were lost in time to the woman weeping there on the bed, no longer reckoning who she was” (p. 683). With death, Mary would have remained permanently Sarah and she apparently realizes that. Mary will now stay Mary, since the reason for the juxtaposition of these two time periods has dawned on her. In a brief monologue, Mary verbalizes the point of the story, which is, as Bowen says in the Preface to Ivy Gripped the Steps, and Other Stories, that the “desiccation” (p. x) of Londoners' lives during World War II was deep and diffuse.

While Travis was away, he has had the opportunity to sort through the box of photos and papers he had removed from Mary's room. Once in the taxi, leaving her home for safety with Travis, she asks him, “I suppose, then, that I am descended from Sarah?” (p. 684) Now, are we to assume that Mary's question suggests a realization on her part that she was simply dreaming Sarah, not actually being her? On the contrary, she is expressing confusion over why she was in possession of this assortment of material, why it was the person of Sarah to whom she shifted when she departed on those occasions from her collapsing room, why this particular young woman in this particular family on this certain day. Answers are never supplied by Bowen.

“Till the proofs of Ivy Gripped the Steps came, I had not re-read these stories since they were, singly, written,” relates Bowen in the Preface. “Reading the stories straight through as a collection, I am most struck by what they have in common” (p. ix). Bowen, when proofing the collection and preparing prefatory remarks, strived to view a definite thread running through them—other than just life in wartime. It may have been dream or hallucination she decided “The Happy Autumn Fields”—in common with its companion stories—was about at a later date, and that may have been a more plausible mode of handling the time shift she worked with in this particular story, but evidence offered in this essay shows that regardless of intent when writing it or interpretation at a later date, Bowen did in fact create dual realities, with a shared character, not one reality on one hand and a “saving hallucination” (p. xi) on the other.


  1. Ivy Gripped the Steps, and Other Stories (New York: Knopf, 1946), p. xi.

  2. Elizabeth Bowen, The Collected Stories (New York: Knopf, 1981), p. 671. All references to the text of “The Happy Autumn Fields” are from this volume.

Principal Works

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Encounters 1923

Ann Lee's, and Other Stories 1928

Joining Charles, and Other Stories 1929

The Cat Jumps, and Other Stories 1934

Look at All Those Roses 1941

The Demon Lover, and Other Stories 1945; also published as Ivy Gripped the Steps, and Other Stories, 1946

Selected Stories 1946

Early Stories 1951

Stories 1959

A Day in the Dark, and Other Stories 1965

Elizabeth Bowen's Irish Stories 1978

The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen 1981

The Hotel (novel) 1927

The Last September (novel) 1929

Friends and Relations (novel) 1931

To the North (novel) 1932

The House in Paris (novel) 1935

The Death of the Heart (novel) 1938

Bowen's Court (memoir) 1942

Seven Winters (memoir) 1942; also published as Seven Winters: Memories of a Dublin Childhood, 1943

The Heat of the Day (novel) 1949

Collected Impressions (essays) 1950

The Shelbourne: A Centre of Dublin Life for More Than a Century (nonfiction); also published as The Shelbourne Hotel, 1951

A World of Love (novel) 1955

After-Thoughts: Pieces about Writing (criticism) 1962

The Little Girls (novel) 1963

Eva Trout; or, Changing Scenes (novel) 1968

Pictures and Conversations (essays and interviews) 1975

The Mulberry Tree: Writings of Elizabeth Bowen (essays, criticism, and interviews) 1986

Janet Egleson Dunleavy (essay date 1984)

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SOURCE: Dunleavy, Janet Egleson. “Mary Lavin, Elizabeth Bowen, and a New Generation: The Irish Short Story at Midcentury.” In The Irish Short Story: A Critical History, edited by James F. Kilroy, pp. 145-68. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984.

[In the following excerpt, Dunleavy provides an overview of Bowen's life and short fiction.]

By the end of World War II, the Irish short story had become an established subgenre of twentieth-century literature. Its form and content, pioneered before World War I by George Moore and James Joyce, had been redefined by Frank O'Connor and Sean O'Faolain (“the Romulus and Remus of Irish short fiction,” in the words of Mary Lavin, whose later achievement drew praise from them both). In Irish and in English, Liam O'Flaherty had extended the range of models against which writers who began publishing in the thirties and forties might measure their own work. Continued experimentation as well as imitation characterized the early work of these younger writers who, following the example of O'Connor, O'Faolain, and O'Flaherty, imposed their own individual style on the subgenre, further contributing to expansion of its potential. They introduced new concepts of literary craft; they attracted new readers in Ireland, England, and the United States; they projected new images in literature. By the mid-1940s, periodicals dedicated to introducing sophisticated readers to changing concepts in literature and art—for example, Atlantic Monthly, published in the United States, but widely read in England, and both the English and the American editions of Harper's Bazaar—had begun to include an Irish short story in almost every issue. Editors of fashionable magazines bid against one another to attract not only the “three O's,” as O'Connor, O'Faolain, and O'Flaherty came to be known in the trade, but also new Irish names that represented the best new work in the field. Little magazines of the period, sometimes called “shoestring” publications, also bid for their stories, offering smaller audiences and less money than their well-heeled rivals, but also a more enduring prestige, plus an opportunity to treat topics that did not, in the opinion of editors of more widely circulated magazines, appeal to the general reading public.

As the first half of the twentieth century drew to a close, O'Connor, O'Faolain, and O'Flaherty remained, among living writers, the acknowledged masters of the Irish short story (George Moore died in 1933, James Joyce in 1941). Recognized as writers of outstanding ability not only by critics but by the “three O's” themselves, however, were five newer voices in Irish short fiction: Mary Lavin, Elizabeth Bowen, Benedict Kiely, Bryan MacMahon, and Michael McLaverty. As these writers added to the body of their published fiction year by year, the validity of early opinions of their work was confirmed. Today they continue to be regarded as eminent literary artists. Indeed, as indicated in the following brief accounts of their careers, together these five have been awarded almost all the honors and literary prizes for which writers of short fiction in English are eligible. …

More than thirteen years her senior and a seasoned writer well before Mary Lavin began publishing fiction, Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973) is known less for her short stories than for her novels, especially The House in Paris (1935), The Death of the Heart (1938), and The Heat of the Day (1949).1 Although born in Dublin, Ireland, and distinctly Anglo-Irish by heritage, she is often discussed by literary critics as an English writer because so little of her fiction explicitly concerns Irish life. Of her eleven novels, only The Last September (1929) is set in Ireland; of the seventy-nine titles in The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen (1981), only ten focus clearly on Ireland or its people. Yet, as Victoria Glendinning points out in a biography published in 1977, Elizabeth Bowen's entire life was divided between Ireland, her native country, and England, where she was educated, a fact that is reflected in her fiction. Moreover, her achievement in the short story is at least as important as her achievement in the novel. For her, as for Mary Lavin, short fiction was a literary form different from the novel in its demands on the author and its impact on the reader.

Elizabeth Bowen was the daughter of Florence Colley of Mount Temple, Clontarf (a fashionable north Dublin suburb famed as the site of the battle in which Brian Boru defeated the Vikings in 1014) and Henry Charles Cole Bowen of Bowen's Court (a magnificent eight-hundred-acre estate in County Cork). On her mother's side she was related to Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo and served as prime minister of England from 1828 to 1830. Another Colley ancestor had been solicitor general and surveyor general of Ireland in the sixteenth century. On her father's side, she was descended from a Bowen who was an officer in Cromwell's army. The County Cork estate had been Cromwell's reward to this seventeenth-century ancestor for his part in Cromwell's Irish campaign.

By birth, therefore, Elizabeth Bowen was a member of the privileged class in Ireland; family circumstances confirmed her social standing, shielded her from that other distressful Ireland that existed beyond the world of Dublin Georgian houses and country estates, and determined her early associations. During the winter, the family lived on fashionable Herbert Place in Dublin, while Henry Bowen pursued a career in law, first privately and then as an official with the Land Commission. In the summer, father, mother, and daughter moved to Bowen's Court, where they entertained and were entertained by other Big House families. Winter and summer, young Elizabeth visited with an army of aunts, uncles, and cousins with whom she felt at home. An Anglo-Irish life, familiar in general outline as well as specific detail to such Big House predecessors of Elizabeth Bowen as Maria Edgeworth, George Moore, and Edith Somerville, it was interrupted abruptly when Elizabeth was seven. Her father, suffering from a deteriorating psychological condition, was hospitalized; with her mother she moved to Kent, on the west coast of England, near Colley relatives. Six years later, Henry Bowen had regained his health sufficiently for the family to be reunited in Ireland, but Florence Colley Bowen had contracted cancer. She died in Kent in 1912, when Elizabeth was thirteen years old. The extended family that had provided emotional support for herself and her mother during her father's illness rallied once more: it was decided that during the school term Elizabeth would continue living in England with her mother's unmarried sister and brother in Hertfordshire, where she could attend Harpenden Hall, a good day school; summers she would spend with her father and one of his sisters at Bowen's Court in Ireland.

From Harpenden Hall Elizabeth Bowen was enrolled at Downe House, a boarding school in Kent in which the headmistress, Olive Willis, believed that young ladies should be stimulated intellectually, encouraged to articulate their ideas, provided opportunities for artistic expression, and trained to handle all aspects of life with graciousness and aplomb. Elizabeth read voraciously (Jane Austen, the subject of Mary Lavin's M.A. thesis, was one of her favorite authors) and became an active member of the literary society. Like Mary Lavin, however, she did not at first perceive that her taste in literature, her talent for imaginative re-creation, and her way with words might suggest a writing career. Rather, upon completing the prescribed course at Downe, she thought first of studying art, for which she also had a flair. But her two terms at the London County Council School of Art were as disappointing for her as George Moore's similar experience in the ateliers of Paris had been for him; sensibly, like Moore, she looked elsewhere for the career that would save her from her worst fears, a “useless life.” As Victoria Glendinning has suggested, Elizabeth Bowen's conversations with the author Stephen Gwynn (brother of Mary Gwynn, who married Henry Charles Cole Bowen in 1918) might have helped awaken her interest in writing: she next took a course in journalism. Meanwhile, between finishing her last year of school in Kent and enrolling in her journalism class in London, Elizabeth Bowen had been much in Ireland, working as a volunteer among the war wounded in Dublin hospitals and dancing with British garrison officers (among them, one to whom she was briefly engaged) in Cork. These experiences, as well as those belonging to a winter spent in Italy with an aunt and several cousins, provided setting, situation, and character for the fiction she began to write in her early twenties. Her stories and novels were informed also by perceptions of the world and human relationships derived from the unique combination of personal, social, and historic events that was the matrix of her early life.

Despite the superficial serenity of her adolescence and early adulthood after the illness of her father and the death of her mother, Elizabeth Bowen's early life was not untroubled. A violent strike, its repercussions felt in England, disrupted Dublin in 1913. In 1914 World War I began: England declared war on Germany while Elizabeth was still on her summer holiday in Ireland. Less than two years later much of the Dublin she knew was riddled by bullets and set aflame in the Easter Rising of 1916. In its aftermath a relative, Captain John Bowen-Colthurst, was court-martialed for having ordered the execution of Francis Sheehy Skeffington, a pacifist writer sympathetic with the Republican cause; Sir Roger Casement was hanged. Joy following the armistice in 1918 was short-lived in England: on its heels came an influenza epidemic that took almost as many English lives as had the war. In Ireland it was followed by the bloodshed and violence of the Anglo-Irish war of 1919-21. The Treaty of 1921 ended the conflict; however, by establishing the Irish Free State in the twenty-six counties, it also ended the power of the Ascendancy. On the date on which the treaty was signed, Anglo-Ireland, as it was known to Elizabeth, her family, and her friends—the Ireland of her ancestors—vanished as a political and social reality. During the Anglo-Irish war many of the Big Houses in which she had attended dances had been burned; many of the Big House families with whom she had lunched and played tennis had fled to England. Still there was no peace: for two years more Ireland was ravaged by the Civil War, in which brother fought brother, both sides threatened the safety of the citizenry, and Bowen's Court was again at risk. Bowen's Court, however, survived the Troubles, and passed from father to daughter in 1930 to become, as Elizabeth Bowen's reputation as a writer increased, a literary landmark. (It was later razed, to her dismay, by the man to whom she sold the estate in 1959.) Elizabeth Bowen survived, too, but like other events of 1913-23, the wars that changed the face and character of Ireland were forever woven into the fabric of her existence.

Most critics discount the significance of historical events in Elizabeth Bowen's life, pointing as evidence to her own few remarks concerning their disruptive effects in her autobiographical writings. They cite instead the death of her mother (also little discussed by her) as the major traumatic event of her childhood. There is little doubt that her mother's death was indeed deeply disturbing, especially given the intimacy Florence Colley Bowen and Elizabeth Bowen shared (depicted in an early story, “Coming Home”) in the years of Henry Bowen's illness; other biographical sources have established that fact. But there is evidence also that the destruction of her Anglo-Irish world was deeply felt, too. For one thing, instability characterizes the lives of the men and women of her short fiction (most of them people of her own social class). Seldom are they depicted in a settled home. Some live in respectable rooming houses or flats (cf., “Breakfast,” “Daffodils”), or are just returning from or going somewhere (cf., “The Return,” “Joining Charles”), or are in the process of moving (cf., “The New House,” “Attractive Modern Homes,” “The Last Night in the Old House,” “The Disinherited”). Their emotional lives are also in flux. Some are trying to adjust to the death or departure of one with whom they had shared an intimate relationship (cf., “Requiescat,” “Making Arrangements”). Intimacy, when it is achieved, may be but a brief moment during a chance encounter, unlikely to be repeated (cf., “Lunch”). Isolation may be a pathological condition (cf., “Dead Mabelle,” “Telling”). Although their affluence enables them to travel, many Elizabeth Bowen characters are unable to cope successfully with a foreign environment (cf., “Contessina,” “Shoes: An International Episode”). Wherever they are, marriage is precarious (as in “A Love Story”); love is uncertain (as in “Look at All Those Roses”); and charity is suspect (as in “The Easter Egg Party”).

Elizabeth Bowen's first stories were returned by editors with the usual letters of rejection until she was taken up by her old headmistress from Downe House. Prompted by Olive Willis whom she had known at Oxford, Rose Macaulay, the critic and novelist, read Elizabeth Bowen's stories, encouraged her talent, and introduced her to Naomi Royde-Smith, editor of the Saturday Westminster, who first accepted one of her stories for publication. This in itself was a milestone, but the relationship produced another of equal significance. Rose Macaulay recommended Elizabeth Bowen's work to Frank Sidgwick of Sidgwick & Jackson, who published Encounters, her first volume of short stories, in 1923.

After Encounters, in addition to her novels, autobiographical and critical writings, and histories, Elizabeth Bowen published five more volumes of short fiction: Ann Lee's, and Other Stories (1926); Joining Charles, and Other Stories (1929); The Cat Jumps, and Other Stories (1934); Look at All Those Roses (1941); and The Demon Lover, and Other Stories (1945). In addition to depicting unsettled lives, these volumes are remarkable for their perceptive and sensitive portraits of children. In “Coming Home,” twelve-year-old Rosalind returns from school to relive with “Darlingest,” the mother that is “exclusively” her own, the excitement of having her essay read aloud by her teacher. Her joy crumbles like the macaroons she has brought for them to share when she finds that her mother is not at home. In “Charity” and “The Jungle,” Rachel seeks companionship as she struggles to cross the uncharted country between early and late adolescence. In “The Tommy Crans,” Herbert and Nancy, children who were never young, accommodate Mr. and Mrs. Crans, who have never grown up. In “Maria,” a fifteen-year-old girl expertly manipulates to her own advantage the adults who try to manipulate her. Howling, weeping, seven-year-old Frederick of “Tears, Idle Tears” embarrasses his elegant mother in Regent's Park—and grows up a little, unexpectedly, after a conversation with a stranger. Geraldine of “The Little Girl's Room” returns her grandmother's hypocrisy with her own. Critics, who prefer to comment on novels rather than on short fiction, have drawn attention to the remarkable characterizations of Leopold and Henrietta of The House in Paris and Portia of The Death of the Heart. The children of Elizabeth Bowen's short stories are drawn with the same fine understanding, the same awareness of the resilience of the young in the face of situations that most adults would find untenable.

Although all Elizabeth Bowen's fiction has a sense of place, an appropriateness of background detail, her short stories differ from her novels in that geographical setting is not always specific. Her characters speak and behave for the most part as one might expect upper-class English or Anglo-Irish characters to speak and behave (exceptions are the young woman on the park bench in “Tears, Idle Tears” and the distraught source of the monologue of “Oh, Madame”), but the reader is not always told whether their dining rooms, sitting rooms, and bedrooms are in England or in Ireland. Even when the setting is specifically English, so alike are the speech and behavior patterns of the Anglo-Irish educated in England and the native upper-class English, and so often do the Anglo-Irish move back and forth between Ireland and England, that the exact background of specific characters may not be determined. Nor does it really matter. In fact, the very sense that on the surface these well-behaved people maintain their composure and relate to one another in the predictable ways prescribed by social class, the very sameness of their manners and chit-chat, heightens the contrast between what they appear to be and what they are. It is in this contrast that the power of Elizabeth Bowen's short fiction may be found.

In eight stories, however, published in Elizabeth Bowen's Irish Stories (1978), setting is clearly and identifiably Irish. A ninth, “The Happy Autumn Fields,” is also included in this volume, despite the fact that its Irish setting is not identified, because (as Victoria Glendinning explains in her brief introduction) the author herself had written in her preface to The Demon Lover, and Other Stories that it was, for her, “unshakeably County Cork.” Given this flimsy basis for selection, a tenth title could have been included: the story-within-a-story of “The Back Drawing-Room” also has an Irish setting. In these ten tales, Elizabeth Bowen's descriptive passages are more vividly rendered, more painterly in style, more nostalgic in mood, than those usually found in her short fiction. None of the so-called Irish stories, however, is useful in analyzing Elizabeth Bowen's impressions of or attitudes toward Ireland. For these the reader must turn to other sources: her only Irish novel, The Last September; her two histories, Bowen's Court (1942) and The Shelbourne: A Centre of Dublin Life for More Than a Century (1951); her essays, reviews, and autobiographical writings.

Through Rose Macaulay and Naomi Royde-Smith, Elizabeth Bowen had been introduced, while still an unknown young writer, into a literary circle that included, among others, Edith Sitwell, Walter de la Mare, and Aldous Huxley. In 1923 (the year in which Encounters was published) she married Alan Cameron, an educational administrator. Two years later he was appointed secretary for education for the city of Oxford, they took a house in the village of Old Headington, and her circle was enlarged to include Lord David Cecil, Maurice Bowra, Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Powell, and a host of others. Elizabeth Bowen was first introduced to Virginia Woolf, whose work she admired, by an Oxford friend, Susan Buchan. Eventually she came to know others of the Bloomsbury group, too; theirs was an intellectual and artistic circle in which, when her own success enabled her to overcome her awe of them, she was comfortable. These were the men and women she often entertained at Bowen's Court between 1930 and 1970, together with well-known Irish and American writers of the period.

Elizabeth Bowen's work was widely read and well received by critics on both sides of the Atlantic. In England, where she took as one of her subjects daily life in the face of wartime death and destruction, she was made a Commander of the British Empire in 1948; Oxford University, whose academic circles also provided material for her short stories, conferred upon her the degree of Doctor of Letters (honoris causa) in 1957. In Ireland, where she chronicled with Chekhovian objectivity the last days of the Anglo-Irish and analyzed the ways in which individuals respond to uncertainty and change, she was elected in 1937 to the Irish Academy of Letters and received an honorary Doctor of Letters from Trinity College in 1949. Across the Atlantic, in the United States and Canada, readers were attracted by her narrative skill, her psychological insights, and what Angus Wilson has described as her “instinctive formal vision.”


  1. For biographical and critical information concerning the life and work of Elizabeth Bowen, I am indebted principally to studies by Alan E. Austin, Victoria Glendinning, William Heath, and Edwin J. Kenny (see Bibliography); I have drawn upon these works also for my essay on Elizabeth Bowen's novels in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. My critical evaluation of Elizabeth Bowen's short fiction has been based on my study of her Collected Stories.

Judith Bates (essay date spring 1987)

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SOURCE: Bates, Judith. “Undertones of Horror in Elizabeth Bowen's Look at All Those Roses and The Cat Jumps.Journal of the Short Story in English 8 (spring 1987): 81-91.

[In the following essay, Bates elucidates the role of horror in Bowen's “Look at All Those Roses” and “The Cat Jumps.”]

It is surely the heritage of horror indissociable from Ireland's past that has left its stamp on Irish writers, many of whom have themselves lived through atrocities and all aware of them through family annals or the history of their country.

As regards the background in which Elizabeth Bowen sets two stories pervaded by undertones of horror, “Look at All Those Roses” and “The Cat Jumps,” it should be remembered that she is a writer of Irish stock transplanted to a non-Celtic country at the age of seven, and, therefore influenced in different ways by heredity and environment. Such a writer occupies a privileged place as observer, who feels to some extent set apart from the surrounding culture, and can therefore write from the partially detached viewpoint conferred by that perspective.

The two stories to be examined in detail here are both placed in recognizable but widely differing English backgrounds. The first has for its setting the almost deserted countryside and quiet minor roads that a motorist has preferred to busier thoroughfares for his return to London with his girl-friend Lou, after a weekend away. The thinly populated country, probably based on Suffolk acts as a foil for the sudden and startling vision of beds of roses ablaze with colour, round an otherwise rather run-down house “set in a sheath of startling flowers.” (p. 97) The subsequent breakdown of the car, the discovery that the people in the house live three miles from the nearest village and without a telephone or any form of transport pinpoints the isolation of this rural area, although it is probably only an hour or two's drive from London. The second story deals with what seems a very different scene, centred on a young and very modern couple who have chosen to buy a house within commuting-distance of the City, situated in a much sought-after area overlooking the Thames valley, but bought for a most reasonable figure by its new owners as it had been the scene of a particularly atrocious case of wife-murder two years before.

Whereas the occupant of the Suffolk house is difficult to assign to any social category: “a lady or woman looked out, they were not sure which,” (p. 99) the young couple in the second story represent a very recognizable type of fashionable intellectuals; they pride themselves on being rational, unemotional and objective:

They believed that they disbelieved in most things but were unprejudiced; they enjoyed frank discussions.

(p. 32)

In this way, through a few significant details in each story the author evokes two contrasting backgrounds in England against which appropriate figures are seen, thus providing authenticity and realism as a setting through which incipient horror will gradually emerge.

Before proceeding to study the handling of horror, that strong and increasingly pervasive impression of something fearful either seen or thought, underlying both “Look at All Those Roses” and “The Cat Jumps,” we may briefly recall the main trends of this literary mode in some of its manifestations from the Gothic novel onwards. One of the main practitioners of the last, Mrs Radcliffe situated her plots in dark castles and convents, dungeons and passages, for the most part located on the Continent, generally in remote areas of the Alps. She and other specialists of the genre deemed it necessary to place their stories in foreign setting, and Edgar Allen Poe continued to propose a kind of horrific tourism with, for example The Murders in the Rue Morgue, or The Maelstrom set in northern seas.

At this point it may be suggested that, in contrast to the above writers it is specific to the Irish imagination, fostered perhaps by familiarity with atrocity throughout the history of Ireland, to see horror as intrinsic to the human condition, for writers such as Sheridan Le Fanu and more recently J. D. Donleavy show in homely, everyday settings the dark depths hidden below appearances whenever men and women live together. Elizabeth Bowen, too, demonstrates how horror may lie just below the surface of apparently harmless domestic settings.


First, only gradually emerging as a possibility and never clearly announced as a confirmed fact in “Look at All Those Roses,” but presented as a sensational event on the first page of “The Cat Jumps,” a horrific theme, the murder of a marriage partner, appears as a link between these short stories.

Just as the treatment in the two stories differs with regard to the evocation of the central fact, so undertones of horror felt to be present in both narratives are built up in different ways in order to create an atmosphere conductive to horror. Effects are attenuated in the first story, that contents itself with suggesting the final notion of unpleasant murder that will be presented as accomplished fact in “The Cat Jumps.” The Mathers' house is simply charged with a hint of menace: “The house looked like a trap baited with beauty, ready to spring.” (pp. 98-99) Attention is from the beginning centred on the roses, and what may lie beneath them is only momentarily conceived as a “fancy” by Lou, and even at the end is only indirectly alluded to:

Edward began to tell Lou what he had heard in the village about the abrupt disappearance of Mr Mather.

(p. 104)

By this horrific suggestion progressively conveyed the first story may be considered as a kind of prelude to the more complete orchestration of horror in the second.

Characteristically, horror may be considered as gravitating between the twin poles of revulsion and fascination, as Elizabeth Bowen shows in her presentation of husbands and wives viewing the property after the murder in “The Cat Jumps”:

“Oh, no, dear!” many wives had exclaimed, drawing their husbands hurriedly from the gate. “Come away!” they had urged crumpling the agent's order to view as though the house were advancing upon them. And husbands came away—with a backward glance at the garage. Funny to think a chap who was hanged had kept his car there.

(p. 31)

Here the women shrink in distaste and fear from the house with its awful associations, whereas the men are more fascinated by the garage, a reminder that the murderer had had an ordinary existence like their own, as driver and owner of a car, as well as the much more extraordinary destiny of being hanged for the butchery of his wife.

It is these two impulses of revulsion and fascination, sometimes working together, sometimes with one dominating the other that in fact constitute the appeal of horror in literature and in journalism, the latter skilfully shown by the allusion to the sensational headline that had first made the Bentley murder known to the public: “The Rose Hill Horror.” (p. 190)

Horror stems from what deviates from the normal, and in the first house, smothered in roses, there is something slightly monstrous, a child crippled, we are told, by her father. Her very presence, the odd intensity of her gaze, her room conveying an impression of having been “gutted” by a similar intensity of living prepare the ground for the emergence of a further possibility of horror, the murder of a husband by his wife. In Rose Hill, the house in the second story, the horrific nature of the events there two years before is openly discounted by the new occupants, the Wright couple priding themselves on an objectively scientific approach to all things:

They had light, bright, shadowless, thoroughly disinfected minds.

(p. 190)

They knew all crime to be pathological, and read their murders only in scientific books.

(p. 191)

Ironically, however these very people and their like-minded friends are caught up in a resurgence of that very monstrous element already associated with the house, and are made by its oppressive force bearing on their lives and personalities to re-enact the circumstances leading up the first horrible crime.

Somewhat surprisingly the rose, frequently seen as a symbol of perfection, often allied with feminine beauty and even mystic aspiration is integrated into the prevailing atmosphere of horror, and even conveys it in both the stories. It is by their omnipresence and their excessive colour: “overcharged with colour” (p. 99) that Mrs Mather's blooms achieve their effect. “Startling” in their brightness evoked in the first line of the story, they focus Lou's and the reader's attention. Later, however their very opulence comes to seem unnatural to the young woman: “she thought they looked like forced roses, magnetised into being.” (p. 100) Finally, when following Mrs Mather's suggestion that she cut some to take back to London, Lou's fascination turns to disgust, and she thinks: “I shall certainly never want to look at roses again.” (p. 103). Here Elizabeth Bowen never commits the error of openly stressing the obvious connection between red roses and blood, but this is conveyed by the allusion to damson jam, liberally spread on bread and butter and eater: “in a calmly voracious way” by Mrs Mather, the notation disquietingly hinted at in the first story reappear among the “dreadful associations” (p. 190) of the second house, with its “pergola cheerfully rose-encrusted” (ibid.) and even its name, Rose Hill.

The burning horror of Mrs Mather's roses prepares the reader for another symbol, the sun, always seen in its blazing force that has been at work in the crippled girl's room: “extinct paper and phantom cretonnes gave this a gutted air.” (p. 102). The same intrusive power is present, with less intensity, at work in Rose Hill, where:

the sun, looking more constantly, less fearfully in than sightseers' eyes through the naked windows, bleached the floral wallpapers.

(p. 190)

If in the creation of an atmosphere propitious to horror the symbols just seen are static although destructive, the author also and more traditionally uses animism to create menacing and unnatural effects in suggesting a climate in which the horrible growths of the imagination may take root. So we read:

an oppressive, almost visible moisture, up from the darkening river pressed on the panes like a presence and slid through the house.

(p. 193)

the light seemed to be losing quality, as though a film, smoke-like were creeping over the bulbs. The light, thinning, darkening, seemed to contract round each lamp into a blurred aura.

(p. 195)

As a result of this apparent weakening of the electric current the faces of the guests seem as though devoid of their usual life, or even of their identity, left “gutted” like the wall-paper in the other house:

on the intelligent sharp-featured faces all round the table something—perhaps simply a clearness—seemed to be lacking, as though these were wax faces for one fatal instant exposed to a furnace.


Probably the most powerful effect of horror permeating atmosphere and consciousness is that where Jocelyn Wright has taken refuge in her bedroom:

The house, fingered outwardly by the wind that dragged unceasingly past the walls, was, within, a solid silence: silence heavy as flesh. Jocelyn dropped her wrap to the floor, then watched how its feathered edges crept a little.

(p. 40)

Several words in this passage serve to render the horror almost palpable: “fingered,” “dragged” and “flesh,” for they recall the dreadful circumstances of the half-butchered Mrs Bentley's attempts to drag herself up to what is now Jocelyn Wright's bedroom, in a vain attempt to escape her murderer.

The insidious pervasiveness of horror working on the imagination has now taken hold of the woman lying in the bedroom of the previous victim, but as yet its sway is not complete; she still retains the power to move which distinguishes terror,1 together with the ability as yet to envisage definable forms of the fearful. For Elizabeth Bowen so describes her at this stage; menaced by her husband's arrival: “she leapt from the bed to the door”, and previously to that last desperate action the word “terror” is used to describe her agony of mind:

death (now at every turn and instant claiming her) was, in its every possible manifestation, violent death: ultimately, she was to be given up to terror.

(p. 198)

The final shock of utter horror for Jocelyn Wright is hearing her husband say as he enters the bedroom: “Here we are” (p. 199) These apparently innocuous words are heard by his wife as an echo of the last recorded utterance of the murderer, ghoulishly recalled by Muriel Barker:

He went upstairs after Mrs Bentley … He looked into room after room, whistling; then he said “Here we are,” and shut a door after him.

(p. 196)

The announcement “Here we are” had thus been the preface to the last stages of the murderer's dismemberment of his wife behind that closed door, and that appalingly sinister connotation had been subtly continued in the presentation of Harold Wright in a vampire-like attitude, and using the same words while offering one of his guests a drink:

“Here we are,” said Harold, showing his teeth, smiling, as he stood over Muriel with a syphon in one hand, glass in the other.

(p. 197)

So for Jocelyn Wright and the reader, the third time the words are spoken comes as the culmination of a frightful progression. Harold Wright's wife is caught up in the horror of nightmare, with its predictable and dreaded slow advance while the sleeper remains paralysingly unable to move.

Here we may leave nightmarish horror as endured by the central woman character of “The Cat Jumps” for a reference to another dream-state, this time not conducive to the powerlessness of horror endured to its climax. In “Look at All Those Roses” the sultry afternoon, the soporific countryside and the glare of the sky combine to leave the young woman visiting the house surrounded by roses, in a dream-like state, in which she achieves a moment of perception as regards herself and her hitherto frantic search for a meaning in her existence: “People who stay still generate power.” (p. 103) This insight, and the resulting serenity after waking, have already been prefaced by an intuitive vision, probably corresponding to reality but at that point quickly dismissed as fancy, of what might lie beneath the disquieting splendour of the roses:

Lou indulged for a minute the astounding fancy that Mr. Mather lay at the roses' roots. …

(p. 102)

In view of the taxi-driver's reaction at the end of the short story: “The taxi-driver sat staring at the roses.” Lou's dream-like intuition seems likely to be correct, but in any case the moments of perception attributed to her by the author here go beyond the monstrous and horrifying aspect of human experience; they touch rather the field of sacred awe, that divine horror alluded to by Rudolf Otto2 and Mircea Eliade.3 Such a state is rarely evoked in modern literature, and in a faithless age can only be obliquely suggested as Elizabeth Bowen does here.

In the same way the author's introduction of the supernatural, as adapted to a modern and sceptical audience is light and subtle. Reduced simply to the state of metaphor in “Look at All Those Roses,” the allusions to the ghostly are effective, and even startling:

The garden … stayed in their minds like an apparition,

(p. 97)

and later:

“phantom cretonnes.”

(p. 102)

In the second story the suggestion of impalpable presences is conveyed, without being laboured, by olfactive suggestions. The stuffiness that stubbornly persists despite weeks of airing cannot readily be explained by rationality or science. Nor can the sudden whiff of “Trèfle Incarnat” alluded to by Mrs Monkhouse and scornfully dismissed by her hostess as impossible in connection with any of the women present in that coolly enlightened gathering: “Now whoever would …”.

More compelling and more complex than these individual touches is the suggestion gradually set up, through an atmosphere little by little invading the house and the reader, that the same evil agency as that which had inspired the murderer might still be at work in the house. Not only do all the stages of Mrs Bentley's long-drawn-out dismemberment by her husband, stages recounted in morbidly loving detail by Muriel, serve to bring those events, two years before, close to present time, but by a very simple device the now-executed murderer is made to live again through his successor in the house, Jocelyn Wright's husband. For the latter bears the same Christian name as his predecessor, that is, Harold. This detail facilitates the suggestion that Harold Wright may be predestined, as it were to re-enact the sinister role of Harold Bentley in that setting. Further, the prominence given to the bath, evidently put to macabre use by the murderer, but insensitively appreciated as one of the assets of the place by Jocelyn Wright: “I've always wanted a built-in bath.” (p. 19) cannot but awaken echoes in the reader of a most notorious criminal affair; Harold Bentley had re-performed, if only once, the central act of the Brides in the Bath murder case.

Accordingly, for Jocelyn Wright, already visited in imagination by Mrs Bentley re-enacting her last minutes of desperate life, seeking to drag her partially disabled body to safety before her husband attacked her again, and for the reader, horror of a fearful repetition of the act is built up and focussed on the Harold now present in the bathroom behind the door. By insistent repetition of that Christian name common to the murderer and to his successor it is suggested that Harold Bentley is not only accompanied but inhabited, even possessed by his predecessor, until the reader and the waiting wife feel that there are two Harolds in that bathroom, the first one the murderer returned from the grave to press with all the force of horrific suggestion on the second in order to impel him to repeat the murder on his own wife:

The door opened on Harold …

The Harolds, superimposed on each other, stood searching the bedroom strangely. Taking a step forward, shutting the door behind them:

“Here we are,” said Harold.

Jocelyn went down heavily. Harold watched.

(p. 199)

What Elizabeth Bowen does here is to focus attention on the fact that the apparently docile and affectionate husband has for a moment been inhabited by the murderous instinct that Harold Bentley had obeyed when he butchered his wife by easy stages. Whereas the Wrights: “knew all crime to be pathological” (p. 191) that is, attributable to notably unbalanced people, the writer here depicts horror overcoming Jocelyn at the realization that murderous instincts may awaken in someone familiar to her and whom she considers normal. The reader now shares the characters' awareness, culminating in this demonstration that people subjected to strain such as that of co-habitation in this house heavy with its past, and in oppressive conditions caused by the night and the elements working on townspeople unused to lashing wind and rain and creeping mist, may well give way to abnormal and anti-social behaviour.

Elizabeth Bowen's achievement in presenting horror thus owes less to the psychic elements already mentioned as establishing atmosphere, than to the observation of psychological reactions in testing conditions and to their realistic portrayal here. The final emergence of horrible depths in Harold Wright is foreshadowed by the sudden appearance of brute instincts in the hitherto admirably behaved children whose faces are suddenly seen “dark with uninhibited passion” (p. 193), and the “outburst of sex-antagonism” (p. 194) in the pair of domestics usually remarkable for their “most intelligent discussions” (Ibid.). Jocelyn Wright's own realization of the dark underside of human personality is admirably shown in the glimpse she finally has of herself in a mirror, the intelligent, detached lucid being previously seen “laughing lightly” (p. 191) at the bath with its grisly associations, now: “faced the two eyes of an animal in extremity, eyes black, mindless.” (p. 198). The sick degeneration of personality behind pathological states is here metaphorically presented, and is horrifying to Jocelyn herself and the reader.

The presentation of horror in this short story is then completed by a third aspect, that may be termed metaphysical: Jocelyn Wright

then, within herself, heard this taken up: “But the death fear, that one is not there to relate! If the spirit, dismembered in agony, dies before the body! If the spirit, in the whole knowledge of its dissolution, drags from chamber to chamber, drops from plane to plane of awareness (as from knife to knife down an oubliette), shedding, receiving, agony! Till long afterwards, death, with its little pain, is established in the indifferent body.”

(p. 198)

This is another and deeper nightmare imagining of what Mrs Bentley had undergone, the nightmare of becoming a soul adrift with no lodging; since the sheltering body had been slowly dismembered while the state of sentience was still a reality, horror is the only thing left of total being, still obliged to subsist, but in a void. This representation of identity reduced to mere consciousness of non-being is a refinement of horror that may be called existential, situated in the field of metaphysics for man faced more than in preceding ages with the question of sudden and absolute physical dissolution through a nuclear holocaust. Horror has reached a new and specific dimension today, and Elizabeth Bowen has anticipated it in her short story, ironically portraying its emergence in what is first presented as an ideal house occupied by an advanced couple with their well-planned children, problem-free domestic staff and carefully chosen clear-thinking friends. This is her principal achievement in this short story, the gradual deepening of shuddering sensation until it reaches the metaphysical horror of modern man before his ultimate fate.

The effect is achieved by the relative detachment and vividly varied style, skilfully integrating the avid retailing of effects by Muriel, whose morbidity itself hinges on the pathological, highlighting the manner of Mrs Bentley's death by focussing on certain details with frightening matter-of-factness: “he put her heart in her hat-box. He said it belonged in there.” (p. 197) The grating humour that emerges from this hideous and grotesquely comic juxtaposition of recently living heart and inanimate hat-box is of the same kind as the contrast between the Wright parents' detached comment: “Other teeth won't grow at once you know” (p. 193) and the spectacle that provoked it, their generally model children rolling on the ground and savagely biting each other. Humour may thus accompany horror, and do nothing to attenuate it. Finally, behind the horror so amply developed for their reader there lies something else, an education in hideous experience for those presented at the beginning as thinking themselves “right” in attitude, to match their name, discovering that pathological deformity may be no farther from the Wrights than it was from the Bentleys who preceded them.

Returning briefly to “Look at All Those Roses” in order to conclude, we may underline that its evocation of horror is left at the level of implication and suggestion, never confirmed: the probable reality that the splendour of the roses comes from a macabre kind of compost is dismissed by Lou as a “fancy” that “Mr Mather lay at the roses' roots.” (p. 102) Horror is left literally underground, covered and out of sight in a parody of ritual interment where the bed of roses may well be Mr Mather's last resting-place. The reader is asked to envisage this possibility, never more, merely invited to “Look at All Those Roses,” at the beginning, throughout and at the end, finally left staring in fascinated horror over the taxi-driver's shoulder at those splendid blooms.

In contrast, more active participation is required of the reader in the case of “The Cat Jumps” where, as the title suggests, suspense is present throughout, culminating in the final discovery that Harold Bentley, like Harold Wright, felt frustratingly smothered by his wife; while the latter lay transfixed with horror as her husband waited behind the bathroom door, she was during that time visualized by her partner as:

densely, smotheringly there. She lay like a great cat, always over the mouth of his life.

(p. 199)

Despite that feeling of revolt, “Harold Wright was appalled” (ibid.) at his wife's fainting when he appeared and spoke, so the ending remains ambivalent and ironic. Nevertheless the wife who until then has seen herself and has been seen as a potential victim suddenly appears in the guise of an oppressive tormentor also, and therefore liable as Mrs Bentley had been to awaken the murderous instincts of her husband. So, to conditioning and an atmosphere of horror, provocation and temptation to murder are suddenly added as monstrously real in the present, as well as in the past. With this last effect of horrifying discovery only moments before “the cat jumps” we may conclude that in Elizabeth Bowen's story of growing, gathering and cumulative horror “the sting lies in the tail.”


  1. Maurice Lévy makes a useful distinction between horror, a state distinguished by paralysis of the physical faculties, and terror accompanied by the desire and the ability to run away. (see M. Lévy, Le Roman Gothique anglais, 1964-1824, Toulouse Association des publications de la Faculté des Lettres et Sciences Humaines, 1968).

  2. Rudolf Otto, Le Sacré. L'élément non rationnel dans l'idée du divin et sa relation avec le rationnel. Payot, 1969.

  3. Mircea Eliade, Le Sacré et le Profane, Gallimard, 1969.

Works Cited

The pages indicated after the passages quoted refer to the following editions:

Elizabeth Bowen, The Cat Jumps—The Penguin Book of Irish Short Stories, ed. Benedict Kiely, Penguin, 1981.

Elizabeth Bowen, Look at All Those Roses—Short Stories—Dorothy Parker & Frederick B. Shroyer, Charles Scribner' Sons, New York, 1965.

Further Reading

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Lassner, Phyllis. Elizabeth Bowen: A Study of the Short Fiction, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1991, 192 p.

Full-length study of Bowen's short fiction.

Additional coverage of Bowen's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: British Writers Supplement, Vol. 2; Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, Vol. 1945–1960; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17–18, 41–44; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 35, 105; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 3, 6, 11, 15, 22, 118; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 15, 162; DISCovering Authors: Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Exploring Short Stories; Feminist Writers; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Novels for Students, Vol 13; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost & Gothic Writers; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 5; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 3, 28; Supernatural Fiction Writers, Vol. 1; and Twayne's English Authors, Vol. 4.

Phyllis Lassner (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: Lassner, Phyllis. “‘The Ghostly Origins of Female Character’ and ‘Comedies of Sex and Manners’.” In Elizabeth Bowen: A Study of the Short Fiction, pp. 10-40. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1991.

[In the following essay, Lassner delineates the defining characteristics of Bowen's ghost stories as well as her “comedies of sex and manners.”]

Ghosts have grown up. Far behind lie their clanking and moaning days; they have laid aside their original bag of tricks—bleeding hands, luminous skulls. … Their manifestations are, like their personalities, oblique and subtle, perfectly calculated to get the modern person under the skin. … Ghosts exploit the horror latent behind reality.1

Bowen's ghost stories are marked by the influence of Anglo-Irish writers like Sheridan LeFanu and Maria Edgeworth, who used the myths and history of the Protestant Ascendancy to explore the oppressive hold it maintained over its heirs.2 In the work of these earlier writers, haunting presences provide a psychological and historic link to a turbulent past whose unresolved conflicts continually erupt in violence. Similarly, Bowen accounts for her use of ghosts as a way of representing this violent and enigmatic past in her chronicle of her ancestral history, Bowen's Court. She reports the transformation of this literary and cultural heritage into a creative fictional vision: “A scene burned itself into me, a building magnetized me, a mood or season of Nature's penetrated me, history suddenly appeared to me in some tiny act or a face had begun to haunt me before I glanced at it” (MT, [The Mulberry Tree: The Writings of Elizabeth Bowen] 129).

Ghosts are neither tricks nor figments of the imagination in Bowen's stories. Experienced as inexplicable presences, as sounds or changes in the atmosphere of a house, or as disembodied voices, they are the conduit to a past that reaches out as though asking to be reexperienced but that cannot even be understood by the haunted characters. This past is, of course, the continuous residue of human history, for no matter what their form, Bowen's ghosts project very human feelings.3 Terrifying because they conjure up the worst fears of the haunted, ghosts thus imply that even if they could be explained, the explanation would be too terrible to bear.

Of the didactic role played by her mysterious presences, Bowen wrote, “The past … discharges its load of feeling into the anaesthetized and bewildered present. It is the ‘I’ that is sought—and retrieved, at the cost of no little pain. And the ghosts … what part do they play? They are the certainties. … [T]hey fill the vacuum for the uncertain ‘I.’”4


“The Back Drawing-Room” is a framed tale that begins as a satire on the vagaries of pretentious, intellectualized talk about “fitness to survive” and “the visibility or … perceptibility of thought-forms.”5 But then a “little man,” clearly an outsider to the Sunday soiree, tells an Irish ghost story that provides a corrective, showing that the group has no concept by which to explain an enigma (200). The little man describes wandering into an unlocked Anglo-Irish house for shelter. No one comes, but a door at the back of the hall suddenly opens to reveal a woman standing there. He then follows her into a drawing room, where he finds her crying and looking as if she were “drowning” (208). More disturbed than distressed, he escapes, learning later that the house was burned two years earlier in the 1920-21 “Troubles” of Irish civil war.

The ghost of the weeping woman taunts the discussion group. She represents a history destined to remain unknowable to them as long as they deny her suffering. Moreover, in its emotional power, her tale attacks the group's hollow rationalizations. As the little man talks, he is constantly interrupted by their second-guessing, but the abstractions and literary allusions they deploy to dismiss the tale's effect only render it more elusive. The listeners offer metaphysical speculations about the existence of the soul, or “a sense of immanence … something coming up from the earth, down from the skies,” but the ghost is a palpable and unavoidable presence (205). It represents not a psychic puzzle but an experience in which the little man's empathy is the only key to understanding. No literary or philosophical frame of reference can explain the stubborn presence of a woman in the home she cannot save.

Historic realities doomed the Anglo-Irish and their self-proclaimed right to rule, which they called the Ascendancy. They simply failed to invest politically and economically in the welfare of the land and people they conquered. And yet we cannot understand Ireland without feeling the Ascendancy's powerful, indeed almost-supranatural tie to houses that the Anglo-Irish built in order to create a sense of purpose and identity for themselves. Bowen sees the woman's ghostly presence as expressing those “obsessions [which] stay in the air which knew them, as a corpse stays nailed down under a floor” (A, [After-Thoughts: Pieces about Writing] 103). The little man is thus told by his Irish cousin's wife that the women of the big house are still alive, and yet “how can one feel they're alive? How can they be, any more than plants one's pulled up? They've nothing to grow in, or hold on to” (210). These women have no life without their houses, and Bowen's stories preserve them only in their intense sense of loss. Thus loss is personified, embodied in the ghost of an inconsolable woman who represents a past that can never be undone.

Transmitting that sense of loss to the little man who has no stake in these houses but is rather the conduit of their tales is a cry to involve the outside world. Without him, the ghost's story remains self-enclosed, like a dirge mourning the ever-narrowing circle of a self-centered society. Although the ghost's story pokes fun at the romantic vision of the soiree's hostess, Mrs. Henneker, it also verifies that there is much to cry about in Ireland: “‘Ireland,’ said Mrs. Henneker, ‘unforgettably and almost terribly afflicted me. The contact was so intimate as to be almost intolerable. Those gulls about the piers of Kingstown, crying, crying: they are an overture to Ireland. One lives in a dream there, a dream oppressed and shifting, such as one dreams in a house with trees about it, on a sultry night’” (203). Crying is both the medium and the message, suggesting an experience of loss so profound that there is no recovery.

Deeply attached to her own ancestral home, Bowen understood the elation and anxiety of feeling so rooted and responsible for an Anglo-Irish estate whose purpose was for her always questionable. The anxiety of a haunting past and an uncertain tomorrow sets the atmosphere of “Foothold,” a story whose setting is never identified. Nevertheless, the obsession of its women with their home clearly suggests the venue is Anglo-Ireland. Nominally, the story is concerned with whether a ghostly woman haunts the Georgian house that Janet and Gerard have painstakingly restored. By the end of the story, we have our answer: Janet has established a secret relationship with the ghost, Clara.

The story works around two opposed experiences of knowing and understanding. Gerard and the friend who visits for the weekend, Thomas, are skeptical, even dismissive of the ghost. Even at the end, when they overhear Janet address Clara by name, Gerard still denies the ghost's reality and his wife's acceptance of her. If the men live and explore knowledge on a different plane than Janet, it is because for them home is a safe, comfortable retreat from an unstable world, a retreat guaranteed by the domestic presence of knowable, predictable women. The conventions of married life produce a kind of decorum in which all things have an easily recognizable place and purpose. What becomes intolerable for Thomas and Gerard is that Janet, through her relationship with Clara, reveals a “hypothetical faculty being used to exhaustion,” that is, an acutely private emotional and intellectual experience that is drawing her away from them and possibly destabilizing her (305).

This faculty, which turns out to be Janet's identification with Clara and the house, forms a triangular arrangement threatening the men's domestic model of stability. As Thomas reflects on the changes he senses in Janet, he is repelled by the possibility that a “peevish dead woman” might have succeeded with Janet “where we've failed. … [H]ow much less humiliating for [us] both it would have been if she'd taken a lover” (305).6 The men are humiliated because Janet's communion with Clara reflects an intimacy that transcends male desire and subverts male hegemony. This “disruptive” relationship undermines Janet's imperative to be “civilized … maternal and sensual” (305) and destabilizes the domestic harmony.

What exhausts Janet and drives her to seek the experience is the same phenomenon that makes Clara a haunting presence: the house. The pleasure Janet takes in restoring the late-Georgian structure is subsumed by the sense that it has a life of its own. That life overwhelms both her and Clara: “I do feel the house has grown since we've been in it. The rooms seem to take so much longer to get across” (299). It is as though this place that promises identity and purpose overwhelms any sense of self women have outside of being housewife and mother. Janet tries to explain to Thomas that she “lives two states of life … run [ning] parallel” (301). Although Thomas adds, “never meeting,” he assumes she is referring to a separation between Gerard and their children (302). He cannot see that one plane of experience is reserved for herself and the other is where she fulfills her domestic duties. It is on this first plane where she meets Clara. Joined together by a house that threatens to engulf them, the women experience their communion in a “sickening loneliness” neither can bear without the other (313).

Ghostly presence in this story testifies to the limitations of a female domestic life that offers no outlet for self-expression other than decorating and managing the family home. Like the ghostly women of the Anglo-Irish big house in Bowen's novel The Heat of the Day, women without other outlets are silenced. Ironically, in their very silence they rebel against an ongoing tradition of domestic oppression. Wherever they appear in Bowen's fiction, the silent enduring presence of women past and present forms a female community that violates the stability of home life.

In three other stories, one of which has an identified Irish setting, houses are haunting presences to the men who own or visit them and to the women who are tied to domestic space. In “Her Table Spread” and “Human Habitation” the women characters are so isolated in their homes that one appears deranged and the others live in a state of persistent fear and anxiety. The men who visit have designs on ownership, both of the property and, by implication, of the women who live there, designs that provide the source of the women's anxiety. In “The Shadowy Third” a house conveys ominous signs linking the fortunes of two women. As a pregnant young woman settles into her husband Martin's home, her future becomes determined by the shadowy fate of his first wife. Pussy's every move, whether the choice of a new cupboard or the use of an old thimble case, begins to replicate that of the first wife, whose disappearance under somewhat uncertain circumstances casts doubt on the suggestion that she died in childbirth. Feeling both that she can make the house hers and that it still belongs to her predecessor, Pussy expresses concerns to her husband that obliquely link the two women's destinies: “I was thinking it would be so terrible not to be happy. I was trying to imagine what I'd feel like if you didn't care” (82). Pussy, the pet second wife, finds communion with the unknown woman her husband thinks of as “Her” (81). Like the ghost Clara and the wife Janet in “Foothold,” these two women are bound to a house in which their fates are determined and yet kept hidden from them. The house, in turn, becomes an instrument of the wives' self-expression, absorbing and emitting the women's unsatisfied questions. Thus Martin feels “as though those windows were watching him; their gaze was hostile, full of comment and criticism” (80).

Here too the house inscribes an anxious tale of women losing their individuality and being subsumed by a relentless cycle of domestic life and male domination. Because family homes cannot exist without women, their absence is felt as an indelible presence, emanating from the very structure that consumed them. As in “Her Table Spread,” an Irish story, “The Shadowy Third,” makes clear that women become ghosts as a result of being sacrificed to the life and purpose of a house. Whether Martin is responsible for his first wife's death is less important than the pervasive sense emitted by his own home that, however much the women change the curtains and move the furniture, the basic forms of domestic life are designed by him for the purpose of providing order and stability. In their own desire for stability and purpose, the women in these ghost stories comply with a domestic ideology that celebrates their needed presence but leaves them no means to create a reality of their own. Indeed, part of what makes the women—both living and dead—ghostlike is that they lose their individuality as they keep duplicating each other, timeless presences in a timeless environment.

At one level “Her Table Spread” is a romantic comedy, its wacky juxtapositions recalling British and American film comedies of the thirties. Its Irish setting, however, turns romance into a scathing critique of the values that sacrifice men and women to the ongoing rituals of the Ascendancy's inglorious past. To be sure, there are no actual ghosts in this story, but the Anglo-Irish past lives on in the haunted consciousness of Valeria Cuffe, heiress to an Irish castle. Valeria's attention is divided between her stultifying aristocratic heritage and the equally ghostly but exciting presence of a naval destroyer anchored in the estuary leading to her demesne.7

“At twenty-five, of statuesque development, still detained in childhood,” Valeria roams her estate clearly in need of rescue from an Anglo-Irish heritage that is haunting her present and is likely to stall her future (418). But instead of a prince to liberate her, there is only Mr. Alban, whose “attitude to women was negative” and who plays the piano badly (418). With these two as the stars of a romance, the prospect of restoring order and vitality to the castle produces only farce. In Bowen's version of the sleeping beauty, the man assigned to woo Valeria is too unimaginative and enervated to appreciate or rescue the princess from her historical bind. The vision of Valeria dancing around the piano on which Mr. Alban plays his loud but inept waltz signals the story's shift from his perspective to hers and from romance to elegy. While dancing, she imagines inviting the personnel from the destroyer to her ornately ceremonial wedding.8 Her delightfully immodest vision suggests that, against all expectations, she may take charge of her own life, thus shifting this comedy from the conventional ground of the rescuing hero to a flight of fancy in which the heroine rescues herself.

But it is the image of the destroyer that sets the historic and political context of the story. The intrusion of a modern leviathan recalls the violent past that created Valeria's ancestral domain, for no matter how remote and insulated her castle might appear, it cannot escape the encroachment of political events. Ireland, for Bowen, is never neutral, despite its pronouncements to the contrary. Just as the landed families of the Ascendancy denied their responsibility in the civil wars of the 1920s, so they remain inured to the global conflict of World War II.9 Bowen's story shows how such indifference shapes the consciousness of a woman and renders the men it touches inert.

As the living ghost of her country's past, irrational as its history, Valeria haunts the lonely estate, waving her lantern at the destroyer, which ignores her. The violent past that her people take pride in as heroic literally burns itself out. Having survived the Irish Troubles, Valeria's castle is nonetheless a ruin. Like Bowen's own ancestral home, which survived Irish civil war intact, these houses seem fated to end as they began—a wish-fulfillment fantasy of power and purpose. Of Bowen's Court, the writer wrote, “If the Anglo-Irish live on and for a myth, for that myth they constantly shed their blood” (BC, [Bowen's Court] 436). In “Her Table Spread” Anglo-Ireland is already drained of its lifeblood.


A story Bowen wrote immediately after World War II resembles “Her Table Spread” in several ways while adding a further historical gloss. “The Good Earl” concerns the obsession of an extraordinarily wealthy aristocrat to improve his corner of Anglo-Ireland. Making up for the abuses of his dissolute forebears, he improves the farms of his reluctant tenants but, sacrificing the well-being of his daughter and other dependents, then squanders his energy and resources to build a hotel on the shore of his estate. To celebrate this monument to his noblesse, he plans a steamboat ride up the estuary for his guests. But like the destroyer in “Her Table Spread,” the steamer signifies a nightmare. It becomes a hearse, bringing the earl's body home and hence serving as a sign of the destructive solipsism of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy.

The dangerous consequences of myths of power and historic purpose underlie the ghostly presence in “Human Habitation.” Even more than in the other ghost stories, the unknowable history here is located in a no-man's-land between the worlds of women and men.10 Structurally, the story delineates the world of men as an unconquerable landscape, the world of women as a carefully ordered domestic space, with each area threatening the other. Lost in the rain-swept English countryside, two men, Jefferies and Jameson, are rescued by the hospitality of a young wife waiting for her husband to return. In contrast to the emptiness outside, her home is a “dazzling glory” (154). But emanating from the warmth of the house is also a feeling of dread, a fear of profound loss and dispossession.

The immediate cause of concern is that the woman's husband may have fallen into one of the canals that ring the area. But as the visitors relax and Jameson comfortably assumes the role of orator-instructor, the story develops another disturbance. Having made himself at home, Jameson paints a picture of “that new Earth which was to be a new Heaven for them which he, Jameson, and others were to be swift to bring about. He intimated that they even might participate in its creation” (157). The shape of this paradise is the family home, whose “rooms that were little guarded squares of light walled in carefully against the hungry darkness, the ultimately all-devouring darkness[,] … was the stage of every drama” (157). This “New Jerusalem” turns out to be a place where women are “the soul of hospitality,” keeping the home fires burning for the men, whose plan, like that of the good earl, fulfills an ultimately destructive myth of creation and order: “Jameson … beamed; his lips, slimy with excitement,” uncannily articulate the very design that imprisons women in “a great perfect machine … roar[ing] round in an ecstasy” (157, 154, 157). Like other myths of creation, this one eroticizes male power while harnessing women to run its machinery.11

As “The Good Earl” shows, translating such a creation myth into a utopian plan is dangerous. By ignoring history it may revive and perpetuate the brutal consequences of rounds of violent ecstasy from the past. The consequences of Jameson's plan are reflected in the threatening and unknown landscape no domestic order can offset. As the men leave the house for “the cave of darkness beyond the threshold” and the woman is anxiously bound to her home, the natural world is shown to reflect the anxieties of the hearth (159). Domestic space cannot be a haven from a violent and confused history if women lace their hospitality with their fears of isolation and loss.

Bowen's method in this and other stories of an anxious and unmanageable history incorporates a satiric edge. Jefferies's reflections cut through the smugness of Jameson's bombastic oration, and by implication, question the horrors of the unknown with a kind of cynical rationalism that doesn't supply answers but helps to allay the story's prescient malaise. When the unknown is a function of moral or emotional confusion, satire and horror are embedded in each other.

In “The Working Party” horror and satire intensify and yet deflate each other as Mrs. Fisk's terror of the inert cowherd on her backstairs overwhelms her zealous game of one-upmanship with the ladies at her working/tea party. The narrator's gently satiric observations of the working party merge with an ominous vision as Mrs. Fisk's responses to the cowherd and her guests begin to fuse. As her efforts to be the most elegant hostess escalate to near hysteria, Mrs. Fisk's callous treatment of her maid and disgust at the cowherd are shown to be less a function of her snobbery than a sign of her entrapment in domestic space.12 On the one hand, the narrator prompts us to scoff at Mrs. Fisk's “terror of dropping the urn” because it suggests social pretension; on the other hand, this scene of domestic purpose and order shows us that Mrs. Fisk is more victim than villain (295).

At the end of the story, when Mrs. Fisk runs out of the house and away from the man on the stairs, her disgust turns to pure fear. In images that are both comic and horrific—“tottering on her high heels” across fields that are “uncomforting, the very colour of silence”—Bowen once again shows how the anxieties of domestic life are intertwined with the equally threatening unknown world outside (296). The cowherd, dead or sick and barely alive, has brought the unknowable outside inside; his “earthy and sour” smell suggests death and decay without any hope that nature is inherently regenerative or can be tidied up by domestic order (296). As the expansive, unknowable world outside and the constricted, ordered one inside impinge on each other, they create a disturbing imbalance in each. It is as though the “great perfect machine” designed to build the “New Jerusalem” is flawed by its very purpose, that is, to separate the two worlds and tame them, for domestic order is threatened not only by the “cold shadow” of nature's silence but by the self-defeating myth that promised order in the first place. In this sense, the cowherd is only a more graphic image of the enervation plaguing so many of the men in these stories. A ghost of a living death, he appears defeated by his work outdoors and by domestic order. Although bustling with movement, the women in this story are shown to be useless if not used up, like the cowherd, because the only outlet for their creative and social energies is a kind of piecework. The quilting party thus becomes a metaphor for women's fragmented and elusive sense of purpose, which can only culminate in a grim, life-denying competition for lustrous tea tables and urns.

The ghosts of “Human Habitation” and “The Working Party” haunt the easement between houses and the unfathomable terrain outside. But ironically, the horror derives from a lack of boundaries between the two domains, a lack resulting in characters like Mrs. Fisk and the women in “Human Habitation” feeling the threat of one in the other: “With the dread of her home behind her [Mrs. Fisk] fled up the empty valley” (296). That a ghostly presence also emerges in the gaps between what people say and feel is nowhere more apparent than in the conventions governing relations among women. Mrs. Fisk runs away from her home because she is about to suffocate. Her fear of the cowherd is mirrored in being stifled by the conventions of women playing at work. As she dances around the tea table, waiting for compliments on her linen and service, her energy turns to anger as her individuality is subsumed by team competition, the result of which is a fear that, individually, she does not exist.


In “The Secession,” “Ann Lee's,” “Recent Photograph,” “A Queer Heart,” and “The Inherited Clock,” terror and ghostly presence emerge as signs of women's struggle against an assigned identity. “The Secession” concerns the “meticulously accurate” Miss Selby's long-awaited visit to Rome, heightened by the tense relationship she sets up between the gentleman friend whose marriage proposal she has put off and a “perfectly civilized” new woman friend (167,165). Miss Selby feels safe only when passion is repressed. Denied other outlets, her passion and energy are expressed as rage. When Miss Selby faces the consequences of her displaced passions, she disappears, but her violent emotion haunts her rival, Miss Phelps, and would-be lover, Mr. Carr, in her absence. The story builds to this climax through several contrasts. The tidy proprieties of the Pension Hebe are set against a backdrop of the ruins of pagan Rome, while Miss Selby's “strong intellectual appetites” vie with Miss Phelps's capacity to come “quickly and frothily to the boil” (161). And yet not all is what it seems, for as Miss Selby's friend Mr. Carr notices, “behind the gaudy silk she was like some palpitating wild thing, a bird half-seen,” but one whose emotion “left him numb” (163). A mood of intense jealousy and misgiving is created by the unacknowledged emotional signals transmitted among Miss Selby, Miss Phelps, and Mr. Carr. The brush of one shoulder on another, ambiguous pronouns, references to the Roman landscape—all convey repressed emotion about to burst in the spaces between feeling and failed expression.

Unrecognized by Mr. Carr and Miss Phelps, the seething, unsettled character of Miss Selby remains an unknowable ghost. When she disappears, all that is left of her are the terrible words her friends read in her diary: “I wonder … why I have not pushed [Miss Phelps] through the window. It was so much in my mind to do this, and I see now it could have been done more easily than I thought” (169). Passion expressed as rage is the final threat preventing Mr. Carr and Miss Phelps from yielding to their growing attraction. Miss Selby's presence is thus an indelible scar on a world clinging to decorum for stability. Like the haunting ruins of ancient Rome, she represents energy that cannot be understood from the restrained perspective of her friends' civilization. On a visit to Hadrian's Villa, Miss Phelps observes that “the very air of Rome” makes one feel “intensified,” but Mr. Carr reminds her that these are Miss Selby's words and do “not even make sense” (166). It is as though a woman's intensity is like the best-forgotten excesses of ancient Rome. They are both made to be mysterious by a language of interpretation that works as a distancing device. Thus Mr. Carr shies away from the feeling both women represent, while Miss Phelps declares the Roman Philosopher's Hall to be “beautiful … suggestive” (167). Like this relic of an unknowable history, Miss Selby triumphs over discretion. Her sense of herself remains hers alone, perplexing and haunting.

In her preface to the collection in which these stories first appeared, Bowen acknowledges that “the fate of the missing woman in ‘The Secession’ is not hinted at” (A, [Ann Lee's, and Other Stories] 94). Neither is the true nature of Ann Lee, the title character of a story written in the same period. Ann Lee's is the name of a hat shop, hidden away “in one of the dimmer and more silent streets” of London (103). Its owner remains unknowable, living “mysteriously” behind an “impenetrable” facade (103). That Bowen names the story for the hat shop warns us that though we may be intrigued and even disturbed by the owner, we will know only her art. Like Ann Lee's two customers and her male visitor, we are chilled by something far more ominous than the engulfing London fog, but whatever it is remains indefinable, even indescribable.

Bowen's method of repeating certain key details creates a portentous atmosphere out of the mundane. “Ann Lee's” has no ghosts, but its central character is so ineffable as to be ghostly, despite her clearly detailed presence. Part of what makes Ann Lee so mysterious is her classlessness. With the shop “not far from Sloan Street” but not easy to find, with her reputation of being “practically a lady [but] a queer creature,” her clients can't “place her” (103-4). One minute a “priestess,” another like “the mother—Niobe, Rachel,” she invites speculation about her character and yet puts us off (108). The two customers' concern about money, the issue that also seems to connect Ann Lee and her male visitor, only heightens the sense of a more threatening relationship. The shop owner's inscrutability focuses attention on the problem of even knowing how to know, as money turns out to be a canard as the two women customers and the male intruder scrutinize one another in their futile efforts to figure out Ann Lee. Ann Lee's power over her customers seems prosaic; it expresses itself as the “feeling … that if Ann Lee had wished, Lulu would have had that other hat, and then another and another” (110).13 But as Lulu and Letty leave the shop and the male visitor passes them by, we and “they [know] how terrible it had been—terrible” (111).

The unidentified distress of the man coincides with the indefinable character of Ann Lee. Breaking all her appointments with him, Ann Lee also shatters the expectation that she can be pinned down by any conventional categories of female character. Hiding her creative process behind her shop curtain, she implies that she cannot be understood as the sum of her place in society, her appearance, and her work. Bowen wrote about this story's unresolved conclusion in the preface to the collection Ann Lee's: “I cannot consider those trick endings; more, it seemed to me that from true predicaments there is no way out” (A, 94). The true predicament in the story is to define “the hazy queerness” Bowen felt about female character (A, 92). What is haunted about Ann Lee's is the secret space behind the curtain into which its owner disappears and then returns carrying her wares. Similarly, in the story “I Died of Love” the dressmaker's domain is the central location but is a “mystery factory.”14 We are never invited into this space. Its mystery points to the way a woman's character is hidden behind the social positions that shape her. Bound up with the proprieties on which the dressmaker's livelihood depends, “her humanity” disappears like “a whole cargo lost [:] … in its timelessness the establishment had no story” except the futile quest to discover it (“Died” [“I Died of Love”], 132, 130).

“Recent Photograph” concerns just such a futile quest. Hot on the trail of a story about a man who has murdered his wife, a newspaper reporter accepts the first explanation he is given. But his scoop is undermined by his attraction to a young woman, Verbena, who offers a different version. The real mystery in this story is to determine the character of the murdered wife and that of the young woman storyteller, for despite Verbena's questions, which point to the complexity and ambiguity of the wife's character and her own, the reporter understands women only though his stereotypical view.

In “A Queer Heart,” written many years later, Bowen is still concerned with the ghostly origins of female character, but here she splits her inquiry into two mystifying women, sisters who reflect aspects of but cannot understand each other. Now in their sixties, they compete for the affection and loyalty of Hilda's daughter, Lucille. The central question the story poses is whether Lucille will turn out to be more like her mother or her aunt, and what that tells us about the development of female character.

Trapped in jealous resemblance, the sisters are stalled in their development. By temperament, Hilda Cadman is lively, sensuous, and easygoing, but since the death of her husband, who had kept Rosa's “chill wind” at bay, the widow and her daughter have lived in a “state of cheerless meekness” (558, 556). Rosa, by contrast, is “joyless” and considers marriage “low” (558). Increasingly, Lucille becomes more like her aunt than her mother. What revelation there is about the origins of these women's characters is available in the form of psychological motivation; their differences are ascribed to sibling rivalry going back to early childhood. At the end, when Rosa calls Hilda to her bedside, it is to reveal the source of her bitterness: One Christmas, craving the beautiful blond angel crowning the tree, she watched helplessly as the younger Hilda enchanted everyone with her singing and was rewarded with the doll. Hilda now realizes that Rosa's vengeance is to win back the doll in the form of Lucille.

The story is too neatly packaged in its psychological and literary symmetry, but it leaves the question of female character intriguingly open. The sisters' revelations come not only too late but too little. Like Hilda, we understand their differences but not the force of Rosa's vindictiveness. The narrative design, however, provides a clue in connecting the sisters' characters to marriage and the family. Despite Hilda's recollections of marital bliss, the story questions the institution of marriage. The domain designed to protect and support women, Mr. Cadman's “rumbustious fortification,” is shattered with his death, leaving his widow defenseless against her sister's assault (558). It is only when the two women have no husband or father to deflect attention from their conflict that the illusory nature of domestic order and security becomes apparent. Rosa's actions mark a rebellion against the traditional family as she claims her birthright through the sister's child, who is becoming her replica. The likeness is presented both satirically and with horror. Like a ventriloquist's dummy, Lucille mouths Rosa's words, parodying them but also parroting them in a way that suggests the insidious power of the repressed as ghostly presence.

In an even later story, Bowen takes up the impact that inherited family order and the violence it conceals have on the formation of female character. Set during World War II, “The Inherited Clock” concerns Clara's amnesia about a childhood incident involving her, her cousin Paul, and a clock that she inherits but Paul wanted. Forgetting the incident is Clara's effort to ignore the way she relinquishes responsibility for her life. As her life ticks away with no change in sight, the ticking of the clock becomes horrible to her, a ghostly reminder of a past that augured much but delivered little.

For as long as she can remember, Clara has known about her cousin Rosanna's will and has hitched her prospects to its promise of “immense change. Not unreasonably, she expected everything to go better. She perceived that her nature was of the kind that is only able to flower in clement air” (630). But the cheery promises resonating from the past into her future are accompanied by a darker fatefulness: “Was it impossible that the past should be able to injure the future irreparably?” (631). Clara's goal is to wait; inertia defines her character. The story thus presents her life as a time bomb waiting to go off, set to the ticking of her inherited clock, but is anticlimactic: The clock continues to tick, Clara continues to wait, and thus fulfillment is thwarted.

Living as though there are no boundaries between past and present, obsessed with time and inheritance, Clara is doomed to replay the past. When Paul insists she put her finger in the clockworks, just as he forced her to do when they were children, the pain releases the meaning of her life's pattern: a relentless return of repressed desire, frustration, and rage. By insisting that Clara and Paul wait for their inheritance, Aunt Rosanna manipulates them into replaying her own frustrated wait for her uncle's money. But her plot also enacts her revenge against the uncle and her own frustrated passions. Clara's shock at repeating the childhood incident both removes and replaces boundaries between her memory, her consciousness, and the time that defines her life. Clara's finger stops the clockworks and ends her wait as the ticking stops. She must now face the implications of her suspended life and decide whether she can purge herself of the unresolved past and end a relationship with a married man that is doomed to noncommitment and endlessly frustrated waiting.

With its embedded tale of a woman's betrayed love avenged by shaping a younger woman's life, “The Inherited Clock” recalls Dickens's Great Expectations. Even the title resonates with literary memory. In Bowen's story the ghost is not so much a dead relic of the past as a presence haunting the relationships between women as they are shaped by an oppressive history. The story of female characters waiting for their predetermined fates to unfold seems interminable and intractable. From Dickens's Estella through Henry James's Catherine Slope, Bowen inherits the legacy of creating female characters who have no outlets to express passion. This legacy itself becomes a ghost haunting the creative imagination. While this literary history may be entirely knowable, its powerful effect on a writer's ability to question it and to imagine alternative plots for female character remains open-ended.

Whether they are felt as a kind of disembodied anguish or terror or whether they materialize as human beings, Bowen's ghostly women dramatize the dead end of substituting self-aggrandizing myths for a confrontation with the losses of a brutal past. Those who are the haunted in these stories still cling to myths of self-importance and domestic order. Martin in “The Shadowy Third,” the visitors in “Human Habitation,” Mr. Carr in “The Secession,” and Mrs. Fisk in “The Working Party” act as though repeating the past is a corrective to its violence. Thus Martin marries a replica of his first wife and is disturbed when her attempts at refurnishing fail to revise the fate built into domestic order. Only when characters empathize with the dispossessed is there a possibility for change. Both the “little man,” who tells the tale of the inconsolable woman in “The Back Drawing-Room,” and Janet, who forms a bond with the ghost in “Foothold,” represent a kind of recognition that is a first step toward reassessing the ideologies based on a desire for order. Their emotional response to haunting presences subverts order by embracing the irrational, destabilized experience offered by unrestrained feeling. In communion with past suffering, they encourage the presence of ghosts and open up the carefully ordered—even claustrophobic—home to a range of understanding that will allow the past and its women to become knowable.


Bowen's comedies of sex and manners depict the moment of uncertainty when upper-middle-class codes of conduct are challenged. Ranging widely from staid Edwardian homes to a world Blitzed into disarray by a second world war, these stories dramatize the exuberance and anxiety that accompany social upheaval in any age. Whatever their time and place, they often re-create the carefully ordered drawing rooms Henry James and Anton Chekhov used to portray stable worlds threatened by change. Bowen's self-conscious use of this technique shows how the despair paralyzing an earlier age lingers until it is overcome by personal unrest or political chaos. Her women and men are shaken out of their complacency and torpor and left to face each other, no longer able to hide behind traditional social and moral codes. The comedy arises when the characters' shock gives way to recognition that henceforth everything is changed, and the world filled with open-ended possibilities, but there are no instructions on which to rely.

Bowen accomplishes her comic revolution by developing a narrative point of view that initially seems Jamesian in its detachment but, like Chekhov's comedies, is actually a highly charged commentary. Bowen presents a delicately balanced view of the sexual dances concealed by the world of manners but at the same time exposes her characters' repressed desires and assesses them as absurd. The balance is achieved by juxtaposing the cryptic dialogue characterizing Jamesian reserve with images of intense feeling, even violence.


Bowen uses the inconclusive nature of the short story to suggest that female characters are indeterminate as they search for self-definition in a world that is not only highly conventional but also mutable.15 “The Confidante” takes one of Bowen's favorite themes—betrayal—and converts it to comedy through the partial revelations of a female character. Penelope, who serves as interlocutor and confidante to the reticent lovers Maurice and Veronica, manipulates their inability to face their own feelings. In a drawing room fashioned by discretion, Penelope breaks through the veneer of “allusions, insinuations, and double entendres,” the language with which the lovers conduct their liaisons (30). Dispensing with the propriety that keeps Veronica engaged to marry a man she does not love, Penelope “left a gap she knew to be unbridgeable for [Maurice and Veronica]. They were face to face with the hideous simplicity of life” (39). By asserting her own desires, Penelope openly acknowledges the lovers' “secret preoccupation” with each other, which heretofore had been “perceptible” only between the cracks of their polite apologies and through the narrator's ironic, often-caustic commentary (35). But Penelope's revelations neither legitimize the lovers' behavior nor reveal what lies hidden behind “the hideous simplicity of life.” She lets them know only that Veronica's exquisite manners and dutiful protestations conceal a narcissism that keeps her fiancé and lover dangling at the center of an unnecessarily painful quadrangle. The secret Bowen shares with us is that Penelope is only too happy to comfort Veronica's betrayed fiancé and leave the lovers to “gasp in [the] inclement air” now that they are left alone with each other (39).

Bowen's story reveals a crack much wider than the one Henry James intended in his geometric arrangement of two deceiving and self-deceived couples in The Golden Bowl. Compressing a similar arrangement into a short story and making one of the women both interlocutor and agent provocateur serve to upset several Jamesian applecarts, for Penelope's wise and wily ways result not in social ostracism and emotional isolation, as they would in James, but in a reordering of the sexual landscape. Her point of view emerges as a remodeling of James's Maggie Verver and Charlotte Stant; Penelope rearranges their primary qualities to fit her rebellious character. Like Maggie Verver, Penelope first decodes and then manipulates the manners of the drawing room to expose the sexual repression that inevitably leads to betrayal. She does so, moreover, while finessing center stage away from the femme fatale. But as an “other woman,” she also parodies Jamesian moral delicacies and then triumphantly transforms them into farce. The reason Veronica and Maurice are “dazzled by a flash of comprehension” at the end of “The Confidante” is that this new woman has “upset their bowl”—or, we could say, James's golden bowl—and in so doing has revealed that the crack has widened enough to let a new woman through to assert her own moral and sexual authority (39).

Penelope's sly rebellion reveals that Veronica's insidious behavior derives from a tradition of moral drama that traps women in the world of manners designed to protect them.16 Like James's Charlotte Stant, Veronica is defeated by upholding the very system that conditions her to think she must marry for property and convenience.17 The end, however, is ambiguous. The way is cleared for Veronica to have Maurice, but because of the couple's reticence we really don't know if that is what they wanted, and, of course, she has lost the man on whom she depended for order and security. When the story ends, Veronica, Maurice, and the reader are dazzled by Penelope's coup but puzzled by the remaining mysteries and the story's self-reflecting ironies.

Despite allusions to James, Bowen's work is not derivative; instead, it explores the tension between the moral irresolution of his plots and the social changes she observed in her lifetime. The result is female characters capable of reshaping those plots. In “The Confidante” Bowen asks us to consider the degree of Penelope's self-consciousness and the effect of reworking a traditional plot on the fate of female characters. Were Penelope not to intervene, she would most likely become a conventional spinster and all the characters would bask in the misery of moral and emotional uncertainty.18 Her machinations subvert that ending, however, and leave the characters in an even more open ending than James, for one, will allow.

It is this area of the unknown that provides a sense of mystery in all Bowen stories that John Bayley describes as central to the way the short story form resembles a poem but is so unlike the novel: “The fulfillment in inconclusiveness … is a speciality of the short story method” (23). Character, in this sense, “remains incomplete, seen in terms of hints and suggestions” (Bayley, 38). In Bowen's use of this method, Penelope represents author and character on the brink of discovery, for her plots shake the foundations of propriety and leave them unreconstructed.

The narrative method just described is evident in Bowen's early story “Breakfast,” in which the perspective resembles that of a comic strip. Like the father and reluctant lovers in Chekhov's “The Proposal,” these characters are drawn without gradations. Their “profiles … in silhouette” or “three-quarter faces” nevertheless sharply etch a comic war between the sexes (15). Nervous sexual energy is transmitted in the tension between the “silence of suspended munching” and the rapid-fire dialogue between the women at the boarding-house table and the blushing bachelor Mr. Rossiter (15).19 In high spirits, Bowen's provocative narrator leaves us to sort out “the coffee and the bacon and the hostility and the Christian forbearance [that] blew out before them into the chilly hall” (20).

This kind of summing up, which leaves the characters swathed in shadow despite the strong material details, is a hallmark of Bowen's short story form. As William Trevor points out, “[Bowen] was well aware that the short story is the art of the glimpse, that in craftily withholding information it tells as little as it dares.”20 Our glimpse of that final eruption in “The Breakfast” is accompanied by a comic shock that results from including an unexpected emotion—“hostility”—in a dance of sexual manners and “Christian forbearance.” This narrative move erases any expectation we might have of affectionate camaraderie among the teasing boarders.

But the narrator offers no explanation. Instead, readers are left to ponder the sense of mystery that informs all Bowen's work but is intensified in the compressed form of her short stories. Within the shadowy presence of the group there is always an onlooker, an embodiment of otherness. The group is bound together by something this outsider can never know, and this aspect creates the sense of mystery. Sometimes, as in “Breakfast,” the outsider is the narrator, the one who may upset the status quo with a withering glance but who lacks the authority of the traditional omniscient narrator. He or she stands for those of us outside the story, trying to know what those on the inside know. The mystery we are left with derives from the nature of the connections made in the story: the discordant emotional interchanges between characters or between the narrator and the characters; the clash between the atmosphere established through descriptive language and the characters' actions; and, finally, the complicated interaction between our responses as readers and all the aforementioned elements.

In an uncollected 1931 story, “Flavia,” the sense of mystery and ambiguity results from a split in the central character that makes her both an onlooker and an object under scrutiny. Flavia is the pen name of Caroline, who writes to Bernard after being attracted to the persona in his letter to the Athaenaeum. Bernard meets Caroline at a mutual friend's, and when they marry, he has not yet discovered that the dark and sophisticated Flavia and the fair, “nice and modest” Caroline are one and the same.21

Soon enough, Caroline's unpretentious intelligence drives Bernard to resume his correspondance with Flavia. The story's tension builds less from Caroline's deception of Bernard than from Bernard's self-deception and its effect on Caroline's character, for while she despairs the loss of his love, she knows her real character is trapped within his fantasy of Flavia. At the end, Caroline reveals Flavia's identity, only to face her husband's disbelief. Retreating on the heels of total rejection, she threatens to divorce him if he does not forgive her. In effect, she begs forgiveness for being herself and thus dissolves into his fantasy of Flavia, the woman she could become if given the chance.

Although Bernard is painted with a broad comic stroke, Caroline's triumph is not so funny. Her world offers no opportunities for her to combine both sides of her character and be a wife. It is clear that Bernard is attracted to Flavia because she remains unreal, untested, and unmarriageable, whereas he is drawn to Caroline only because she is suited for domestic service.

Bowen's stories dramatize the moments before and after epiphany, not the revelation itself. The reader is thus made to share the writer's process of testing the limits of what can be known and what can be imagined and constructed. Bayley calls this experience “the writer's secret” and argues that the story's meaning to the author “has itself become the justification of the tale, its subject, the reader's sense of fascination and curiosity” (39).

The inconclusiveness in “The Confidante” and “Flavia” comes from the interplay among the characters' responses to one another. Veronica's insidious ploys fulfill Penelope's self-effacing wishes, while Caroline's unselfconscious duplicity satisfies Bernard's self-deception. This web of manipulation points to a rupture between the world of Henry James and one still shaking from World Wars I and II. Beginning her career in the twenties, a time marked by all sorts of liberation for women, Bowen infused her short stories with an energizing spirit that stands in marked contrast to the loss and despair expressed by her male colleagues of this period. Unlike Hemingway or D. H. Lawrence, who depict the despair of war and its accompanying loss of innocence, Bowen celebrates that loss of innocence. This is not to say she denies war's waste; rather, her stories acknowledge progress while mourning the casualties.

This duality, often dramatized as a condition of unsettling social change that offers neither escape nor explanation, gives her comedies of sex and manners their underlying melancholy. If Italy seems a wondrous and fantasied escape from English manners and morals in “The Contessina,” it also encapsulates the repressions that make escape necessary. In stories that convey the anxieties of wartime, such as “Careless Talk” and “Oh, Madam,” there is always humor to relieve and express the anxiety originating in the characters' recognition that they have no one but themselves to blame for the loss of innocence that leads to an open-ended but insecure future.


In Bowen's drawing-room comedies, literary and historical changes are actual reversals of what was previously possible for female characters. In “The New House” and its sequel, “The Lover,” Bowen takes motifs of haunting and constraining homes and uses them to shape a woman's liberation. In “The New House” Cicely Pilkington escapes her assigned role as angel of her brother's hearth. Just as they are about to move from their childhood home, Cicely discovers she must “get away before this new house fastens on to me” (57). In her decision to marry and thus attempt to escape her bondage to family homes, another Jamesian parable of the spinster's doom is revised.

“The New House” recalls the claustrophobic house of Dr. Sloper in “Washington Square” while undercutting its representation of patriarchal power. The identity, prestige, and stability Herbert Pilkington associates with his new house are undercut by its being a suburban imitation manor that “sneer [s] at him” (56). This reversal supports Cicely's rebellion. In contrast to the solemn gloom with which Dr. Sloper and his house are presented, Cicely's brother and his house are ridiculed, and she is given a self-determining voice. In those stories in which houses fail the characters' need for security and stability, the result is often an elegy of despair and dispossession; this story, however, as a comedy, allows the heroine to free herself from the feeling of having “been tied up, fastened on to things and people” (57).

“The Lover” shows Cicely, now married, continuing to kick up her heels and speak out. She upsets her brother with her good looks and confident sexual energy. Despite her apparent happiness, the twin stories contain a disturbing note. One line in “The New House” questions Cicely's liberation and happiness: Following Herbert's plaint that he needs his sister because he “can't get used to another woman at my time of life,” the narrator describes Cicely as “suddenly superior, radiant and aloof; his no longer” but nevertheless “another man's possession” (58). This tag haunts the happiness in “The Lover” and gives us as much cause to worry about Cicely as about Herbert's fiancée, for while the honeymooners disdain Herbert's belief in women's “infinite sensibility” and “patience,” Richard too insists that woman “is infinitely adaptable” (67). As Cicely responds, the narrator provides a foreboding note: “She has to be, poor thing (this did not come well from Cicely)” (67).

As Herbert leaves the happy couple “to review his long perspective of upholstered happiness with Doris” and “Richard's arm [creeps] round Cicely's shoulders,” Bowen creates the ominous sense that marital happiness, like women's characters, depends on a traditional system of sexual manners and morals (69). Bowen's comic treatment of this theme questions whether progressive change is possible either within marriage and the family or through a literary critique of such structures. In an otherwise light comedy, “Shoes: An International Episode,” conventional expectations of happiness and harmony oppress a young couple who barely know each other. The mistaken exchange of Dillie's brogues for spike-heeled party shoes signals the couple's frustrated efforts to understand each other beyond the socially constructed persona each presents and expects from the other.

In “The New House” and “The Lover” Bowen unveils a more devious side of the relationship between social and literary conventions by changing the method of portraying women's jailer from James's Grand Guignol horror to farce, for as we are given to like Richard, to approve of Cicely's decision to marry him and escape her oppressive brother, we comply with literary manipulation. In true comic spirit, we share the narrative's approval of the heroine's happiness. As we are led into the intellectually and emotionally satisfying game of satire, it is easy to forget the gloomy condemnations of James's melodrama. But playing comedy against Gothic evil, Bowen creates a heroine caught between conventional, easily recognizable oppression and the struggle to recognize the coercion hidden in relationships, the seductive power of so-called happy endings.22 Along with Bowen's heroine, therefore, the reader enters unknown and perhaps precarious terrain. Bowen's comedies of sex and manners show us how the oppressive side of marriage and the family has its roots in the way our social codes control sexual expression in the literature we read.


In “The Man of the Family,” “Aunt Tatty,” “The Parrot,” and “The Cassowary” anachronistic sexual codes seem more powerful than ever. Although clearly set in the twenties when Bowen wrote them, these stories evoke the atmosphere of an earlier time. With this technique Bowen questions the sexual values of her own time as well as the past, once again using the register of Henry James's fiction to set the context.

In “The Man of the Family” the sexual codes of an old order clash with the pragmatic and freewheeling concerns of the new. Caught in the middle of this ironic commentary is William, an Oxford student whose education results more from his family's intrigues than from academic study. Those intrigues concern his titled but poor aunt, Lady Heloise Lambe; her adventurous daughter, Rachel; his untitled but wealthy Aunt Luella Peel; and her daughter, Patsey, “not modern at all” and finally engaged at 32 (441). Because Aunt Luella has often proclaimed him “the man of the family,” William takes his position seriously and tells her that Patsey's fiancé, Everard, known by intimates as Chummey, is a “nasty” gold digger. Like James's Strether, William and his fine sensibilities are tested by the more pragmatic concerns of women. Unlike the innocent American, however, William is not taken in, either by the dashing Rachel, who, like James's Mme de Vionnet, needs “a good home,” or by Aunt Luella's moral decrees.

The issue of power drives the characters and plot of “The Man of the Family.” It is clear that however “nasty” the ironically named Chummey might be, he is the crucial pawn in Aunt Luella's plan to marry Patsey off and sustain the family. William's rite of passage identifies the manners and morals of one era as the instruments of power in a later age.23 In the homes of Aunts Luella and Heloise, neither duplicity nor corruption can undermine family honor and duty; rather, they only point up the necessity of family stability. This morality—which places family stability above all else—does not change with time; as Rachel knows, it is infinitely malleable to suit any crisis in the old order. The failure to recognize such flexibility leads to a moral vacuum, as when Rachel recalls the time she agreed to run off with Chummey, who was then married: “I'm sorry, William, but morals are like clothes and I'd scrapped one lot and hadn't found others to suit me” (447).

Although the morality of the old order is designed to use people, its elaborate system of manners salvages some humanity from its pragmatic and cruel code of self-preservation. Rachel clarifies this idea for William and, in the process, articulates women's role in defending the system: “I honestly do believe that manners (or people not having them) undermine happiness far quicker than morals” (447). William's romantic notion about being heir apparent to a stable domestic order is thus called into question by the way good behavior is dependent on women's ability to find social and economic security.

Women are the avatars of sex and manners in another story, “Aunt Tatty,” in which passion is domesticated by family concerns. When Eleanor takes her beloved to meet her provincial mother, trouble erupts in translating her urban habits into country customs. Accused by Paul of being ashamed of their love, Eleanor responds, “It seems so unreal. It's got no background. It isn't what one could possibly build up one's life on” (266). True love here must pass the test of domestic order, that is, to be subdued by it. In the process, however, the purpose of sexual love is questioned as the lovers are asked to fit their needs into the “background” of family order.

In Bowen's fictional world, domestic codes represent a defense against passion's anarchic power. Whether passion is experienced, as in her stories about courtship, or fantasized, as in “The Parrot,” it is treated with comic irony. In this latter tale of a “magical interlude,” an exotically hued and caged parrot escapes from Mrs. Willesden's fastidious household into the sensuous garden of her mysterious neighbors, the Lennicotts (122). For Mrs. Willesden, the fact that Mr. Lennicott is a novelist confirms the rumor that he and the woman he lives with are unmarried and thus justifies her fear that the demimonde of art threatens the more respectable “house of shut-out sunshine and great furniture” (122). Even though Mrs. Willesden complains that she could not finish Mr. Lennicott's novel because “it was so very dull,” his “quizzical Spanish face” and disdain for those who “are full of moral indignation” menace his neighbor's cloister (119, 118). Ironically, the Lennicotts do not represent escape for Mrs. Willesden's parrot. A glimpse of the novelist's home reveals that both households are equally concerned with domestic propriety. The story is thus self-parodying: As a writer so concerned with the codes of domestic life, Bowen is as much as admitting the comic proportions of her own obsessions.

Passion is valued yet debunked as a threat in “The Cassowary,” in which two sisters love a missionary missing in Africa. The suppressed passion of Phyllis and Nathalie seethes as a force more powerful than it would be were it expressed. The intense emotion of the sisters is hidden by their obsession with decorum. Nathalie tells Margery, the outsider, “You see, things are so difficult—life in a family. We've never spoken of this among ourselves. … Love's so embarrassing, isn't it? … [I]t was the only solution, his not coming back. … Scenes are so dreadful; we've never had scenes in our family” (321).

In this comedy of domesticated sexual feeling, family decorum silences the women. Although she wrote this story in the twenties and its time setting is unspecified, Bowen, by portraying the sisters as relics from a Victorian parlor scene, shows that the silent woman is no anachronism: “The girls were elderly as girls, though young as spinsters; speaking socially, they were awkwardly placed in years. They were tall, ‘rousses,’ each with a high-up stare … through pince-nez. … To this … brilliantly blank look … they owed a slight air of vacuity, ‘artistic,’ sometimes fumbling, generally elegant. In resemblance they varied between a Burne Jones and one of those Gallic drawings of English tourists. Their way of speaking—rapid, slurred, imperious, was such that one had always difficulty in understanding them” (314).

Bowen expresses the tension between anachronistic sexual codes and women's desire for sexual expression through the figure of the outsider. Margery's entry at 19 into the Lampeter household is her rite of passage—“how to behave in a grown up world” (316). What she learns, however, is not that there will be a melodramatic or romantic conclusion to the lovers' estrangement but that once exposed, romantic love is tranquilized. After years apart, Nathalie and her missionary express themselves “decorously, like husband and wife for a week parted” (324). The darker, dangerous side of passion is left in darkest Africa, presented as a myth to be treated as a joke, and thus tamed. In this way, Margery's brother responds to the sisters' narrative “flippantly”:

I wish I were a cassowary …
On the plains of Timbuctoo,
I should eat a Missionary,
Coat and hat and hymn-book too.


The comic aggression in this limerick, typical of “Preparatory school humour,” defends against a more insidious male-authored text—the myth of a woman pining for love (319). While the “boys” romp in the wild, women are saved from their aggression by waiting voicelessly and selflessly for men to rescue them.

Of course, this strategy also protects men from being entirely domesticated themselves. In the language of jokes, “The Cassowary” both replicates a tale of betrayed passion and exposes it as a sham. Like any good joke, it plays on conventions of serious tales—here a remote, empty house suddenly occupied by people who seem to be living a secret story, possibly “under a cloud” (315). The story that shocks Margery is that the house cannot contain the aggressive woman. Nathalie escapes to rescue the man she desires, “freeing herself with a movement from some imaginary constraint” (322). The imaginary constraint, or “cloud,” turns out to be the sisters' dependence on the myth that they need to be rescued. With the story's conclusion, the joke is on the boys and men, whose search for adventure or a higher calling was an escape from women's passion and the domestic codes designed to contain it.


Other comedies of sex and manners dramatize the ironic relationship of men to those same domestic codes they need to contain their own aggression and use to control women. Bowen uses the desires and experiences of the young to convey the spontaneous feeling that calls for deeply imprinted codes of conduct: “I rely on immediacy and purity of sensations and indubitably the young are unspoiled instruments” (MT, 81). In “The Contessina” brutality results from the clash between men's sexual desire and the codes of conduct that constrain and protect both men and women. Evoking a Chekhovian seaside resort, with young ladies “all in white” and laconic tourists in the background, Bowen shows the grim side of male passion (137). Born outside the pale of English manners and morals, the Contessina is a target for the passion of Englishmen. Like Africa, Italy stirs the romanticism of the English just as it inspires their bad jokes; the Contessina, “fresh as a young petal, as brown as old, old ivory,” therefore represents the exotic “other” they desire to possess at no cost to themselves (142). Viewed by Mr. Barlow as “just the sort of little girl I like,” the Contessina is not subject to the sexual manners governing courtship at home (142).

In a scene recalling the pratfalls of farce, Bowen connects English boys' humor and the aggression behind the ideology of conquest. As the impeccably white-flanneled Mr. Barlow allows himself to be overwhelmed by the charms of the “peculiar [ly] delicious” young Italian woman, we witness a near rape (142). Though drawn entirely in comic moves, the story is also shocking. It points to a brutal morality: Exploiting women is legitimized by society's sexual rituals. In his most imperious manner, Barlow blames his victim for her fall from innocence. Dramatized as light comedy, a young woman tripping on a rocky beach becomes the center of a high moral drama: “The front of her dress was soiled irreparably cut right through at the knee and stained with blood” (145). The comedy is sustained, however, as two clashing sexual codes are shown to bolster yet undermine each other: They are each equally dangerous and absurd. The Contessina's incorrigible flirtatiousness, a by-product of sexual manners for women in her society, satirizes the romantic self-deception that brings Englishmen to Italy in the first place. At the end, she turns for protection to Barlow's friend Harrison, telling him, “You row like a god. … Do you like Italian girls?” (146).

The question is answered by another story set in Italy, “The Good Girl.” Here an English girl is prey to the double standard twice over as she is treated to the advances of an Italian suitor and the hypocrisies of her English friends. Monica is never given a chance to sort out her own feelings. Her friend Dagmar is afraid that her “rich uncle” will be offended by Monica's innocent late nights, but then Monica is rejected by her Italian suitor, who must marry a rich cousin in order to support his family. The cost of virtue for Monica and the Contessina is the suppression of any sense of themselves other than what they are expected to be.

Women in all Bowen's fiction are victimized by a sexual ideology that offers them two self-defeating options: to fulfill men's fantasies of their sexual destructiveness or to marry and yield desires for self-expression. “The Dancing Mistress” shows what happens to women's creative and sexual energy when even the dubious outlets of upper-middle-class domestic life are unavailable. The dancing mistress is an artist whose only possibility for creative expression is teaching young girls to sublimate their energies into fine manners. The story focuses on an afternoon dancing class in which Joyce James exhausts herself by leading the girls through “Marche Militaire” and on to the more demure waltz. The musical transition from an invocation to aggression to an invitation to seduction parallels Joyce James's emotional odyssey. As the music changes, her frustrated energies turn into hatred for one pupil, the “overdressed” and inept Margery Mannering (255). Joyce's intense attention to Margery becomes an act of displaced passion;24 it signifies the rage erupting at the disjunction between the rituals Joyce James teaches to celebrate privilege and her own sense of brutal deprivation.

The story traces Joyce's sadistic pleasure in torturing Margery to the aftermath of her exhaustion. Except for her rage at the girl, the story would be a parody of middle-class sex and manners. But as it stands, both sex and manners are displaced by the strange relationship between Joyce and the girl. Joyce's encounter in the taxi with the one man who represents her conventional sexual options, the “fervent” Lulu, is a sexual anticlimax; therefore, her outlet for expressing passion is her waltz with Margery. The dancing teacher's obsession with the girl is expressed in a sentence that allows no conjunction, only a semi-colon, which suggests an inseparable and insuperable connection: “She couldn't do without Margery Mannering; she wanted to kill her” (257). By the time Joyce leads Margery in a humiliating lesson in the waltz, with all the other girls and their mothers and maids watching, the scene takes on the qualities of rape. Bowen's imagery and rhetorical strategy represent a dialectical pattern of sexual aggression, failure, and brutal revenge.

Fighting off her fatigue through her command of the girls, Joyce rebuffs the intrusive Lulu, who plies her with his “Swiss-Romano” seductive talk: “You are so beautiful. I would give my soul, my body, all that I have” (258). The scene parodies middle-class sexuality, as Joyce has eyes only for the hated Margery, who is “bumping” disastrously through her waltz “with her partner all limp” (258). As failures of sexual and creative outlets meet, Joyce finds the perfect scapegoat. “I shall have to take you myself,” she proclaims to the girl, and what follows is a travesty of sexual conquest: “The thump of Margery's heart was like the swelling and bursting of great black bubbles inside her. … Her hot body sagged on Miss James's cold bare arm. Her eyes, stretched with physical fear like a rabbit's, stared through the clouding spectacles at the mild white hollow of Miss James's throat. … Miss James's hand like a cold shell gripped the hot hand tighter” (259). With few words from the antagonists, but through their body language, the narrative depicts the displaced sexual energy of one powerless woman asserting power over another.

In countering the heightened emotion and suggestion of melodrama, the dense realistic detail beings the story close to the reader. What makes it so suggestive is the unnamed but carefully mapped Dublin setting reminiscent of James Joyce's Dubliners. Seen in this context, Miss Joyce James is the artist worn-out and demonized by the constraining codes of a particular cultural and historical moment. But her position, like her name, is the reverse of that of Mr. James Joyce. A taxi ride to a train leading backward to a home without a future is a regressive version of James Joyce's journey to artistic fruition. James Joyce purges himself of the suffocating Dublin each time he restores it to view, giving the short story a new life. Joyce James finds she is stuck in “her own place,” which provides no outlets other than a casual affair with a parodic Latin lover and bitter triumph over the despised but compelling Margery Mannering, who represents the strict social codes of Dublin. Joyce James's dream of a “new life, the self's,” is aborted by her tedious realities but is transformed in another dream, one in which she dances with Margery Mannering to the beat of her rage: “‘I'll kill you, I'll kill you,’ she said like a knife. Something burst behind Margery's stretched eyes; she fainted. … Joyce smiled in her sleep” (262).

Like James Joyce, Elizabeth Bowen found in the cultural codes of Ireland a source of creative energy. Perhaps because Irish history, as she observed, is so violent, it sheds light on the more subtle yet equally restrictive manners and morals of English society. Whether the clash is between secular narcissism and the cloistered self-centeredness of the church, as in her story “All Saints,” or between bourgeois complacency and academic pretensions, as in “Sunday Evening,” the scene may be provincial England but its archaeology is Irish, that is, for Bowen, the contradictory sexual morality of Anglo-Ireland.

Using language to reveal as well as to mystify, as a system of exposure as well as of defense, was fully understood by Bowen as a strategy for survival in the genteel world of her native Ireland. She was raised in the culture of the big house, with its paradoxical combinations of geographic and social isolation and “intense centripetal life”; its lavish style of living was pursued in “greed, roughness and panic” (BC, 20; MT, 27). For her own survival, Bowen learned to read the spoken and unspoken languages that translated the “impersonality” and “hypnotic stare of the big house” into rules that, like the social codes in her stories, shaped her life but whose origins and rationale remained elusive (MT, 26). The rationale, of course, belonged to vigilant adults who allowed their children, like those in “The Dancing Mistress,” to grow up “farouches, haughty, quite ignorant of the outside world” (MT, 27). Like the young people in Bowen's novel The Last September or in her story “Sunday Afternoon,” Anglo-Irish children were raised to be insulated from the outside world so that they could replicate their elders' detached and oppressive rule.


Bowen's stories treat the effects of this mysterious language from various perspectives, ranging from tragic to comic. In the early stories “Lunch” and “Mrs. Windermere” conversation is used to express and disguise the narcissism of characters who prey on the neediness of others. The others are outsiders who look for reassurance that they are accepted by the fast-talkers but quickly discover they must defend themselves from language that threatens to reduce them to a momentary amusement. At the very beginning of “Lunch,” Marcia ensnares an innocent bystander with her language of familiarity and contempt: “After all … there are egoists and egoists. You are one sort of egoist, I am the other” (59). Leaving him in the lurch at the end, she justifies her exploitation of the outsider: “I was right; … there are two sorts of egoists, and I am both” (63). Revealing by turns her total self-absorption and her use of others, Marcia spins a web of self-justification and self-deception. Her talk, which is mostly about her talk, describes her rhetorical power: “You see, generally I talk in circles … and when the conversation has reached a climax of brilliancy I knock down my hammer, like an auctioneer, on somebody else's epigram, cap it with another, and … [b]y that time everybody is in a sort of glow, each believing that he or she has laid the largest and finest of the conversational eggs” (61). Regardless of content, talk is used by Bowen's characters to create a defensive space.

In three of her fine World War II stories—“Careless Talk,” “Oh, Madam …,” and “The Dolt's Tale”—Bowen connects self-deception and the dangers of political deception. In a time when neither words nor events reveal their meaning, conversation disguises the terror of the unknown, denying fear while revealing it. In “Careless Talk” two men and two women at a fashionable restaurant try to understand the war by exchanging names of people they assume one another knows. What the conversation reveals, however, is the “hope it didn't matter my having told you that,” conflicting with the anxiety that it does matter, both politically and personally (670).

“Oh, Madam …” is a monologue spoken by a maid to her employer about the condition of their recently bombed London house. Attempting to reassure her employer in nonstop talk, the maid reveals her own anxiety that her subservient position is the only thing that seems permanent and fixed amid the destruction of material reality. The maid's obsequious monologue is thus a kind of self-protection, the concern for Madam and the house concealing her own vulnerability. She is the invisible other, bearing the burden of responsibility for keeping England intact while Madam rushes off to more comfortable quarters, perhaps to meet friends for lunch, as in “Careless Talk,” “Oh, Madam …” owes its design to Katherine Mansfield's story “The Lady's Maid,” written 20 years earlier. Also a monologue, Mansfield's story reveals the emotional subjugation of a servant as she speaks of sacrificing her chance at marriage to her tie to her “lady.” In reassuring and controlling her employer, she, like Bowen's maid, also infantilizes herself, choosing her relationship with her lady over any adult sexual relationship.

“The Dolt's Tale” is also a comic monologue, but one that depicts the self-deception resulting from the narrator's assumption of social equality. The dolt is taken in by failing to recognize “any difference between our Income Tax johnnies and the Gestapo” (744). The melodrama of mysterious events is a metaphor for the dolt's relation to his mercurial hosts. He is implicated in their spy plot, not as an agent directing action but as a voyeur excluded by not having the master code to the images and language that dupe him and thus keep him in his place as powerless outsider. Like women and children in all Bowen's work, the dolt is kept powerless by social codes that seem easy to master but remain elusive and overpowering, because the invitation to join is really a discourse designed—like Marcia's conversation in “Lunch,” the jokes of adolescent boys, and Joyce James's dancing lessons—to maintain control over the ever-shifting terrain of the prevailing social and political order.


  1. Preface to The Second Ghost Book, in Afterthought (London: Longmans Green, 1952), 101-2. Writings from this volume are hereafter cited in the text as A.

  2. For Bowen's relationship to other Anglo-Irish writers, see Frank Tuohy, “Five Fierce Ladies,” in Irish Writers and Society at Large, 199-206.

  3. Mary Jarrett sees houses as ghostly incarnations of the “imprisonment” Bowen's characters feel consciously or unconsciously in their human relations (“Ambiguous Ghosts: The Short Stories of Elizabeth Bowen,” Journal of the Short Story in English 8 [Spring 1987]:71-79).

  4. Preface to The Demon Lover, in MT, 98.

  5. The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen (New York: Knopf, 1981), 200, 202; hereafter cited in the text by page numbers.

  6. Allen E. Austin notes that Janet's “suppressed desires produce the ghost of a woman, not a man” (Elizabeth Bowen [New York: Twayne, 1971], 100).

  7. Frank Tuohy sees the destroyer as a sign of Anglo-Ireland cutting itself off from history (204).

  8. Sean O'Faolain sees the comedy in this scene as Celtic high spirits (The Short Story [London: Collins, 1948]), while A. C. Partridge observes that Bowen's “wit chafes at the technical restrictions of her chosen form” (177).

  9. In “Eire” in The Mulberry Tree, Bowen sees Ireland's neutrality as part of its historic ambivalence toward England.

  10. Susan Gubar and Sandra Gilbert, in No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century, Vol. 1, The War of the Words (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988), and Volume 2: Sexchanges (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989), discuss a “war of the sexes” between men and women writers between World Wars I and II. Bowen's historical concerns are less universal than those of Gilbert and Gubar in that they are tied to social structures that define her characters by cultural and class markers.

  11. John Hildebidle sees the men suffering an intense sense of loss despite their intrusion on the women's world (Five Irish Writers: The Errand of Keeping Alive [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989], 89-90).

  12. Austin indicts Mrs. Fisk for her “essential inhumanity” (106).

  13. Marry Jarrett finds Ann Lee's power lethal, as “the mysterious enslaver” (73-74). Clare Hanson sees Ann Lee's “implacability of character” as protection (145). David Meredith argues that the story focuses on the struggle by a female artist for independence (“Authorial Detachment in Elizabeth Bowen's ‘Ann Lee's,’” Massachusetts Studies in English 8 [1982]): 10.

  14. “I Died of Love,” in Choice: Some New Stories and Prose, ed. William Sansom (London: Progress, 1946), 131; hereafter cited in the text as “Died.”

  15. Helena Michie argues that the “otherness” of female character disrupts traditional family models that stifle women's sense of themselves (“Not One of the Family: The Repression of the Other Woman in Feminist Theory,” in Discontented Discourses: Feminism/Textual Intervention/Psychoanalysis, ed. Maureen Barr and Richard Feldstein [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989], 15-28). Patricia Yaeger shows how women writers subvert and reverse traditional plot and character formulations through inventive use of language. See Honey-Mad Women: Emancipatory Strategies in Women's Writing (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988). Bowen's enigmatic female characters suggest that any definitive plotting or unambiguous use of language could tie her female characters to expectations that would be constraining.

  16. Nancy Armstrong traces this phenomenon to eighteenth-century conduct books (“The Rise of the Domestic Woman,” in The Ideology of Conduct, ed. Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse [New York: Methuen, 1987], 96-141).

  17. Eva Figes discusses the reality principle of economics and passion in Sex and Subterfuge: Women Writers to 1850 (New York: Persea, 1982).

  18. Nina Auerbach explores the literary transformation of the old maid in Woman and the Demon: Life of a Victorian Myth (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982). Bowen has too often been accused of “unexamined social assumptions” about her women characters' complicity in classbound traditions and expectations. See, for example, Rosalind Miles, The Female Form: Women Writers and the Conquest of the Novel (London and New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987), 30-31. I explore Bowen's critique of traditional plotting in Elizabeth Bowen (London: Macmillan, 1990). This critique places Bowen among the experimental, anticanonical writers discussed by Ellen G. Friedman in “‘Utterly Other Discourse’: The Anticanon of Experimental Women Writers from Dorothy Richardson to Christine Brooke-Rose,” Modern Fiction Studies 34 (Autumn 1988): 353-70.

  19. Janet Dunleavy discusses the aggression aimed at Mr. Rossiter in “The Subtle Satire of Elizabeth Bowen and Mary Lavin,” Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 2 (Spring 1983): 69-82.

  20. William Trevor, “Between Holyhead and Dun Laoghaire,” Times Literary Supplement, 6 February 1981, 131.

  21. “Flavia,” in The Fothergill Omnibus, ed. John Fothergill (London: Eyre and Spottiswood, 1931), 61.

  22. On the conventions of marriage plots, see Nancy K. Miller, “Emphasis Added: Plots and Plausibilities in Women's Fiction,” in Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature and Theory, ed. Elaine Showalter (New York: Pantheon, 1985), 339-60.

  23. Edward Mitchell sees William as replaceable in his family because “marriage and materialism are the penultimate values” (“Themes in Elizabeth Bowen's Short Stories,” Critique 8 [Spring-Summer 1966]:50.

  24. Mitchell reads Joyce James as “perverse” (198), while Austin sees her response to Margery as her only sign of feeling, 97-98.

Martin Bidney (essay date winter 1996)

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SOURCE: Bidney, Martin. “Nostalgic Narcissism in Comic and Tragic Perspectives: Elizabeth Bowen's Two Fictional Reworkings of a Tennyson Lyric.” Studies in Short Fiction 33, no. 1 (winter 1996): 59-69.

[In the following essay, Bidney views “Tears, Idle Tears” and “The Happy Autumn Fields” as Bowen's interpretation of an untitled Tennyson poems.]

“Tennis, anyone?” is the opening of Peter De Vries's delightful “Touch and Go (With a Low Bow to Elizabeth Bowen),” and its closing words arc “Tennyson, anyone?” (De Vries 30, 32). Surprisingly, “in conversation Miss Bowen said that she had not realized,” until she read this parody, “how often she relied on Victorian poetry for her titles (e.g., ‘Tears, Idle Tears,’ ‘The Happy Autumn Fields,’ etc.),” according to William Heath's report in 1961 (Heath 166n2). Bowen was not necessarily disingenuous: the creative process arises from deep levels of pre-verbal awareness; memory is unreliable; influences operate deviously (creating and overcoming anxieties as they do so). What is important is the way Tennysonian allusive structures shed light on the two stories Heath has named. The fact that “Tears, Idle Tears” and “The Happy Autumn Fields” are both rewritings of the same lyric is of special interest, for it shows us Bowen's ingenuity and breadth of resource as she considers alternative ways to rethink a celebrated poem—and a provocative one.

Tennyson's “Tears, Idle Tears,” a poem evoking the sense of strangeness, vivid freshness, and sudden melancholy brought on by memory, was lauded in an essay by Cleanth Brooks as rich in the ironic tensions beloved of New Criticism: “The days that arc no more arc deep and wild, buried but not dead—below the surface and unthought of, yet at the deepest core of being, secretly alive” (Brooks 174). Bowen's own “Tears, Idle Tears” has never been studied in detail, so far as I can find.1 “The Happy Autumn Fields,” with its title taken from line 4 of the same Tennyson lyric, has often been looked at, but never in a detailed Tennysonian context,2 and never in concert with its Tennysonian companion piece (as we may call it). Yet the two short stories belong together, and not only for their shared Victorian allusions.

The theme of both tales, I suggest, is nostalgic narcissism—presented from a comic perspective in “Tears, Idle Tears,” from a tragic one in “The Happy Autumn Fields.” The ostensible theme of the Tennyson lyric is, of course, nostalgia: “So sad, so fresh, the days that are no more” (15). But the nostalgia develops from melancholia to morbidity by the poem's conclusion: “O Death in Life, the days that are no more!” (20). Though psychoanalysis of the speaker of such a brief (if evocative) lyric might perhaps seem risky, in a previous investigation of lyrical masterworks of a nostalgic kind (Goethe's “Kennst du das Land,” Blake's “The Land of Dreams”) I found a pattern suggesting the presence of narcissism at the heart of all nostalgia (Bidney 86-92). So it is appropriate that Tennyson's concentrated distillation of extreme nostalgic melancholia should have stimulated, in the psychological imagination of Elizabeth Bowen, brilliant fictional studies of narcissism—its potential pathology and (more surprisingly, given the gloom of Tennyson's lyric dirge) its possible remediation.

Bowen, I am suggesting, radically re-imagines in these two stories a Victorian lyric of nostalgic melancholia, and she does so in order to show how this condition fosters, and is fostered by, a regressive, narcissistic mind-set. In contrast to traditional Freudian theory, recent psychological scrutiny of the origins of narcissism has focused not on the oedipal struggles of father and son but on the child's first (pre-oedipal) relation to the primary caregiver, traditionally the mother. As Barbara Schapiro explains in summing up the work of Otto Kernberg, “Due to the unavoidable shortcomings of maternal care, the relationship with the mother as our first love object is primarily characterized by ambivalence,” which also “results in a corresponding split in the ego” because the “child internalizes both the ‘good,’ loving mother and the ‘bad,’ frustrating one. If the relation with the mother imago is damaged” by some trauma such as “emotional rejection, the internal splitting becomes even more intense” (Schapiro ix-x).

Splitting the mother image emphatically into Good Mother and Bad Mother leads toward unreality because the child wants to deny the existence of Bad Mother, an unloving, disapproving, and cruel figure. The narcissistic ideal is to suppress Bad Mother by insisting on the all-loving Good Mother whose loving gaze guarantees the preservation of the child's (equally fictitious) idealized or “grandiose self”—a defense against the child's “real feelings of deprivation and rage” (Schapiro x). This idealization of both self and Good Mother doesn't work: Bad Mother refuses to stay repressed. The child's effort at shoring up the all-beloved “grandiose self” must be perpetually renewed, for it is perpetually frustrated. The only way to grow up (into reality) is by learning to form a mother image that includes both good and bad. The self image, too, can then be realistically ambivalent, not idealized or “grandiose.”

We will see that the source of seven-year-old Frederick's narcissism in Bowen's neo-Tennysonian “Tears, Idle Tears” is illuminated by this psychological pattern. Frederick has continually suffered emotional rejection: he is not so much cast aside as simply disregarded, and in the first part of the story we can hardly resist being deeply sympathetic—until finally it dawns on us that Frederick may be more than half responsible for ensuring his own continued misery. Tennyson writes: “Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean, / Tears from the depth of some divine despair / Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes” (1-3; italics added). Bowen elaborates the theme of mystery or not-knowing and also the deep despair that is felt as tears unexplainably rise from a similarly deep and hidden source and suddenly break out at the eyes: Frederick “never knew what happened … a red-hot bellwire jagged up through him from the pit of his frozen belly to the caves of his eyes. Then the hot gummy rush of tears”; “Despair howled round his inside like a wind” (482; italics added).

Even the artificial and “terrible square grin” that Frederick “felt his mouth take” and the “plate-glass windows of the lordly houses” that “looked at him” with “judges' eyes” are grotesque but appropriate variants of Tennyson's melancholic scenario where “unto dying eyes / the casement [window] slowly grows a glimmering square” (13-14; italics added). Tennyson concludes:

Dear as remembered kisses after death,
And sweet as those by hopeless fancy feigned
On lips that arc for others; deep as love,
Deep as first love, and wild with A regret;
O Death in Life, the days that arc no more.


We may easily see this as the key to Frederick's sorrows, for Frederick's very “first love,” his mother, has lips that are perhaps “for others” but certainly not for him. When Frederick's father dies in the war, his mother offers no solace. Instead, all her concentration goes into playing the role of noble, stoic widow. The only time she permits herself something like “convulsions” of frustrated grief is at her baby's bedside; it is terrifying for Frederick, but she simply and selfishly ignores his presence (484). Frederick is indeed “wild with all regret,” for the only kisses of which he may be aware are “remembered kisses after death”—kisses he may remember having received before the age of two, the time when his father died. For Frederick, the nostalgically remembered or idyllically imagined “days that are no more” lie very far back indeed—in infancy, largely in fancy.

But the Frederick I have been describing in Bowen's Tennysonian terms—Frederick as we see him before the liberating epiphany that will happen shortly—is no mere martyr, nothing so simple as that. When he starts a crying fit, “Frederick, knees trembling, butted towards his mother a crimson, convulsed face, as though he had the idea of burying himself in her” (481). His butting is aggressive, defying the Bad Mother who neglects him as she continually preens herself, continually entranced—herself a veritable female Narcissus—with the image of her own stately and comely deportment (“What a lovely mother to have,” she thinks [487]): “His mother seldom openly punished him, but often revenged herself on him in small ways. He could feel how just this was. His own incontinence in the matter of tears was as shocking to him” as “it could be to her” (482).

By insisting on the justice of Mrs. Dickinson's frequent little revenges, Frederick makes her into Good Mother: if she punishes him, he deserves it. If he admits he deserves it, he will continue to be Good Son. But this attempted self-abasement is unbearably frustrating—and so tomorrow, or next minute, he will uncontrollably (with motives unconscious to him) stage another aggressive crying fit. Frederick wants to be continually “burying himself in her,” merging his idealized self-image with the specular idealized image of his mother. Only the loving image of Good Mother will guarantee the stability of his own Grandiose Self, the sole focus of his daily concerns, of his despairing crying fits.

But Bowen does not simply rewrite Tennyson's lyric in a modern psychological context: she radically revises it to show how narcissistic melancholy may be cured. In a lakeside epiphany, the story shows that there is hope for Frederick, and that this hope lies in a change from seeking attention to lending attention—preferably by attending to something that will not even flatter the perceiver by looking back.

What turns pathos into quirky humor and enlightenment at the wonderful outing by the lake in the park is Frederick's acquisition of new ways of looking—different from the narcissistic ones. Frederick sees “with joy a quivering bough of willow” that “looked as pure and strong as something after the Flood”—a cooling draught of aesthetic vision after Frederick's flood of hot tears (484). A lady he meets at the park tells him about another world-class weeper named George (“Funny to meet two of you” [4861), and Frederick becomes genuinely interested. Best of all and most deeply memorable for Frederick is the duck in the lake: “When it rolled one eye open over a curve, something unseeing in its expression calmed him,” so that “Years later, Frederick could still remember, with ease, pleasure and with a sense of lonely shame being gone, that calm, white duck swimming off round the bank” (483, 487). Glimpsing the willow bough, Frederick learns to look at something else than his mother; the lady with her talk of George makes him think about somebody other than himself; the duck, most refreshingly of all, looks at neither son nor mother. The daily deadlock of intertwined mother-and-son glances, of intertwined narcissisms, has been broken, at least for a while.

And it is the new, momentarily liberated Frederick who has the story's last (cheerful) word—implicitly refuting the gloomy musings of the lady at the park, who indulges some exaggeratedly Tennysonian thoughts on “tears” that “rise” from a “depth” of despair and “gather to the eyes” (1-3): “The eyes of George and Frederick seemed to her to be wounds, in the world's surface, through which its inner, terrible unassuageable, necessary sorrow constantly bled away and as constantly welled up” (486). Such thoughts might well induce philosophic melancholia of the Sunt lacrimae rerum sort—tears rising out of a gloomy metaphysics. Bowen, however, through her story of the momentary freeing of Frederick, strongly hints that self-pitying tears may be—from another point of view or in another mood—fully as “idle” as the Tennysonian persona himself had at first suspected; that melodramatic ruminations on human grief may be largely a rationale for narcissistic fixation on a grandiose self.

One sees more clearly “after the Flood,” and what one sees may be reassuringly whimsical and comic. In fact, in a final stroke of telling humor, Bowen informs us that both the lady (with her pretentious elegiac philosophizing) and even “George's trouble” (the self-absorbed, perseverating melancholy that made George a narcissistic twin to the earlier lachrymose Frederick) fall quickly through a “cleft” in Frederick's memory and are “soon forgotten” (487). Only the wonderful, unseeing eye of the quirky duck remains.

In “The Happy Autumn Fields” the focus changes from the possible cure of regressive sadness to the deadly lure of nostalgia, its power to keep one's selfish will fixated on preserving an idealized mindset held over from childhood. We will see that the narcissism here, though less evident at first glance, is darkly pervasive, even tragic. A box of letters and photos, coming to the attention of Mary in blitzed-out London, serves as a departure-point for her dreams of a Victorian past, though her lover Travis, wanting to curb her melancholy fancies, eventually takes the letters away and reads them himself. Having dreamed herself into the life of mid-Victorian Sarah, Mary protests to Travis, “I cannot forget the climate of those hours. Or life at that pitch, eventful—not happy, no, but strung like a harp” (684).

The harp metaphor is double-valued: the story, true to its Tennysonian name, will play variations on a melody from the Victorian laureate's lyre, but the unendurable psychological tensions pervading it make the visionary episode “strung” in a far less soothing way—nervously tense and taut. Since Digby and Lucius and Robert must leave for school (Fitzgeorge is already away, serving in the army), the family is having a farewell outing. Yet, paradoxically, their leaving is not as fraught with imminent loss as is the prospective arrival of Eugene: he is in love with Sarah, and Henrietta is intensely, narcissistically jealous of her dear sister's love.

Appropriately, in this episode of problematic arrival and loss—a dawn of prospective arrival that is even more melancholy than a sunset of departure—Bowen focuses her allusive variations on the second stanza of Tennyson's lyric:

Fresh as the first beam glittering on a sail,
That brings our friends up from die underworld,
Sad as the last which reddens over one
That sinks with all we love below the verge,
So sad, so fresh, the days that are no more.

(6-10; italics added)

The sail, the sinking, the reddening of a sunset that offers a melancholy, darkly ironic comment on all seemingly happy dawns of arrival—these are the Tennysonian themes Bowen will elaborate in depicting Henrietta's bitter reaction to Eugene's unwished—for approach.

Thus, when Henrietta sees her sister's unwelcome suitor coming to disrupt her own comfortable ride with Sarah, “A resigned sigh, or perhaps the pretence of one, heaved up Henrietta's still narrow bosom. To delay matters for just a moment more she shaded her eyes with one hand, to search the distance like a sailor looking for a sail” (674; italics added). The “underworld” from which the Tennysonian “sail” rises may be simply the part of the ocean below the horizon, but for jealous Henrietta it is a dark place indeed. Ironically, she would like to blot out Eugene's image, like the night succeeding the last ray that “reddens” over “all we love” in Tennyson's poem, but no redness seems capable of spreading its shade over this detested rival: “The dark red shadows gathering in the drawing room as the trees drowned more and more of the sun would reach him last, perhaps never” (679; italics added). Instead, like a defiant mockery of Tennyson's image of sunset redness, “The wallpaper now flamed scarlet behind his shoulder” (679). Henrietta would like to return to that moment in her walk with Sarah when “The mansion and the home farm had sunk for ever below them in the expanse of woods” (673; italics added), but since Eugene has arrived it is clearer than ever that it is Sarah instead, the loved one, who in Henrietta's prophetic vision already “sinks … below the verge.”

Sarah and Henrietta are in fact entrapped in an alarming igoisme a deux. Tennyson writes of the vanished past, “Ah, sad and strange as in dark summer dawns / The earliest pipe of half-awakened birds / To dying cars” (11-13; italics added), and Bowen uses similar imagery to show us, in free indirect discourse, how intensely Sarah echoes Henrietta's inordinate love in her own narcissistic fantasizings: “She must never have to wake in the early morning except to the birdlike stirrings of Henrietta, or have her cheek brushed in the dark by the frill of another pillow in whose hollow did not repose Henrietta's cheek. Rather than they should cease to lie in the same bed she prayed they might lie in the same grave” (672; italics added). Evidently Sarah's own regressive love for Henrietta as mirror-image of a nostalgically idealized childhood (when they first began to “lie in the same bed”) is much deeper than her love for Eugene. Better than a prospective marriage to Eugene would be the fulfilling return of the two sisters to good Mother Earth.

Surely this is a vividly imagined “Death in Life”: Tennyson's phrase could hardly be more apposite. Moreover, when Sarah says to Henrietta, “You and I will stay as we are, … then nothing can touch one without touching the other” (672), she pictures a situation that could be much more readily envisioned if the two girls were not sisters but mother and baby, two beings habitually conjoined or juxtaposed in a literal, physical way because of the unremitting necessities of child care. Both the Tennysonian allusions to nostalgia, to “days that are no more,” and the odd imagery of constant bodily contact of a seemingly maternal type would suggest that the underlying motive of both Sarah and Henrietta in desperately envisioning their eternal life together is to preserve an intimacy remembered from memories or submerged fantasies of the ideal mother imago, the Good Mother.3 The actual mother in the Victorian dreamings of Mary is largely absent; she does not participate in the family's farewell walk. But at one point, when Eugene folds up his handkerchief in what oddly seems to be a “final act,” “Mamma instinctively murmured to Henrietta, ‘but you will be my child when Arthur is gone’” (682). Perhaps Arthur—and other males in the family—have had primacy so far in Mother's life, and the girls have felt left out.

One thing about this troubled family is clear—and it is clarified by the pre-oedipal narcissism theory outlined above. I refer to the essential unreality of the Good Mother figure, the idealized image of mother, displaced by both Sarah and Henrietta onto a sibling substitute, as it is used to guarantee or stabilize a “grandiose self” portrayal. The unreality of the idealized mother is based on its existence at the expense of the repressed Bad Mother, image of the child's resentments. Narcissistic behavior reveals a tension between the willed idealization of Good Mother and the involuntary response to the Bad Mother who will not stay repressed: thus, Frederick in “Tears, Idle Tears” tried to idealize Mrs. Dickinson's justice but also aggressively persevered (not consciously knowing why) in weeping incessantly so as to tarnish the noble, stately image of his mother as she liked to present it in public (“Such a lovely mother to have”). Similarly, in “The Happy Autumn Fields,” we should expect some powerful fantasy of aggression against the repressed Bad Maternal Figure—perhaps from the younger of the sisters.

That is what happens: Henrietta, the younger one, expresses a narcissistic resentment of Sarah that proves fatal in its effects. She begins by oddly reproaching Sarah, with very forced humor, for being older, for being born first: “But I cannot forget that you chose to be born without me; that you would not wait—” (672). This is the blatant expression of an infantile wish for ultimate primacy. And eventually, Henrietta shockingly says to Eugene, “Whatever tries to come between me and Sarah becomes nothing” (683). In some occult way reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe or the ghost stories of Henry James, Henrietta evidently has her wish, for (as we and Mary learn from Travis, who has read the Victorian letters), a certain “friend of their youth” was “thrown from his horse and killed, riding back after a visit to their home” (684-85). Folding up his handkerchief before departing was indeed Eugene's “final act.” Sarah was at least partly in love with Eugene; therefore, by wishing his death, Henrietta knows that her love for Sarah is also unconscious jealous hate. Narcissistic love for an idealized imago reveals its cruel underside.

“The Happy Autumn Fields” is the story of Henrietta and Sarah's attempt to bring back or somehow willfully preserve the “days that are no more,” a nostalgically idealized childhood-like state of “first love” for a close family member. Mary, too, in her Victorian dream has tried to bring back a happier time, for her current relationship with Travis displeases her: preferring to be the imagined Sarah, she thinks of the “grotesquerie of being saddled with Mary's body and lover”; and she notes distastefully the “possessive angry fondness” of Travis (677). Commenting on the wished-for death of Eugene, Phyllis Lassner suggests that “violence is a saving grace here because it forces the women to recognize the disorder hidden in their lives”—and only women “are capable of composing a new story out of disturbing old ones” as “Mary and Sarah together wrest their stories away from Travis and Papa to create an altogether-new kind of tale” (110).4

To this I would reply: insofar as the violence of “The Happy Autumn Fields” is in any way a “saving grace,” it is salvific only for Elizabeth Bowen, for she can consciously “recognize the disorder” in the narcissistic nostalgia of Mary and Sarah and Henrietta as none of these women themselves can. That is why, for the protagonists, the tale is a tragedy, its uncomprehended psychological problems and dangers repeating themselves in successive generations, just as in classical Greek drama. Sarah and Henrietta apparently both died young; in the story's ghostly mental dreamworld, Henrietta's ill wishes eliminate Eugene. And if the tale of these three Victorians also represents a fantasy of Mary's, what is being hinted about her covert wishes concerning Travis? The Victorian “days that are no more” become a frighteningly ironic “Death in Life,” disturbingly prophetic of Mary's present morbidity and apparent hostile resentment.

In “Tears, Idle Tears” and “The Happy Autumn Fields” Elizabeth Bowen seeks to deconstruct Tennysonian nostalgia by laying bare the narcissistic tensions that give it its melancholy life, or death in life. What I find refreshing about these paired meditations on Tennyson is that the deconstruction is carried out in two alternative modes, with two contrasting kinds of irony: tragic and comic. Playfully, Bowen shows how a seven-year-old child can enjoy a fine deconstructive epiphany as the oblivious “unseeing” gaze of a duck on a pond momentarily breaks a narcissistic mental deadlock of the kind that—magnified on the screen of history—can keep generations tragically in thrall.


  1. Lassner's remarks on the story are brief (45-46). She usefully notes how “the child overcomes his deep dependence on attachment,” but she does not observe the mother's narcissism. Lassner says, “If the narrator's casual tone mocks the mother's ‘courage’ and ‘new intractable virgin pride,’ it does so only to highlight the insensitivity of her friends, whom she alienates with her ‘so few demands on pity’” (46). But the narrator is actually mocking Mrs. Dickinson's cultivation of an exaggeratedly virtuous self-image, her incessant (and truly quite “intractable”) preoccupation with that self-image.

  2. Heath notes that “As in the Tennyson poem to which the title alludes … the past in the story is at first idyllic, finally destructive” (Heath 128). Lee says, “The title's reference to Tennyson is … doubly justified: the story evokes a vanished epoch as well as lamenting, as Tennyson's poem does, for a vanished youth” (Lee 163). The approach I use here, focusing on the analysis of narcissism, has not been attempted elsewhere in the secondary literature.

  3. Substitution of a sibling for the mother imago in narcissistic fantasizings may be noted in another Victorian vision, offered by Christina Rossetti in “Goblin Market.” Laura and Lizzie are quite analogous, in their quasi-incestuous mutual attachment, to Sarah and Henrietta. In both scenarios any man at all whose sexual interest in either sister would threaten their union takes on the role of a feared and hated “goblin.” As Henrietta wants to save Sarah from Eugene, so Lizzie wants to save Laura from goblin men in general, and she does so by a remarkable rescue procedure in which Laura is obliged to lick fruit juice from Lizzie's face: “Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices / Squeezed from goblin fruits for you” (“Goblin Market” 468-69, in Rossetti, Complete Poems 1: 23). The powerful emphasis on liquid oral nourishment bespeaks a displaced mother-image.

  4. Brad Hooper's note agrees with this equating of Mary and Sarah as both storymakers, as codreamers; he points out certain incongruous phrasings that seem to make the two stories coequal in reality-status rather than clearly Mary's dream of Sarah.

Works Cited

Bidney, Martin. Blake and Goethe: Psychology, Ontology, Imagination. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1988.

Bowen, Elizabeth. The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen. Intro. Angus Wilson. New York: Ecco, 1989.

———. “The Happy Autumn Fields.” Collected Stories 671-85.

———. “Tears, Idle Tears.” Collected Stories 481-87.

Brooks, Cleanth. The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry. New York: Harcourt, 1947.

———. “The Motivation of Tennyson's Weeper.” Well Wrought Urn 167-77. De Vries, Peter. “Touch and Go (With a Low Bow to Elizabeth Bowen).” New Yorker 26 Jan. 1952: 30-32.

Heath, William. Elizabeth Bowen: An Introduction to Her Novels. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1961.

Hooper, Brad. “Elizabeth Bowen's ‘The Happy Autumn Fields’: A Dream or Not?” Studies in Short Fiction 21 (1984): 151-53.

Lassner, Phyllis. Elizabeth Bowen: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1991.

Lee, Hermione. Elizabeth Bowen: An Estimation. London: Vision/Barnes, 1981.

Rossetti, Christina. The Complete Poems of Christina Rossetti. 3 vols. Variorum ed. Ed. R. W. Crump. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1979-1990.

———. “Goblin Market.” Complete Poems 1: 11-26.

Schapiro, Barbara. The Romantic Mother: Narcissistic Patterns in Romantic Poetry. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1983.

Tennyson, Alfred, Lord. The Poems of Tennyson. Ed. Christopher Ricks. New York: Longman/Norton, 1969.

———. “Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean.” Poems 784.

Deborah L. Parsons (essay date spring 1997)

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SOURCE: Parsons, Deborah L. “Souls Astray: Elizabeth Bowen's Landscape of War.” Women: A Cultural Review 8, no. 1 (spring 1997): 24-32.

[In the following essay, Parsons asserts that Bowen finds the setting of war-torn London “conducive to a new urban spirit, that of the female wanderer or flâneuse.]

Walking in the darkness of the nights of six years (darkness which transformed a capital city into a network of inscrutable canyons) one developed new bare alert senses, with their own savage warnings and notations.

—Bowen 1952:223.

Elizabeth Bowen's war-time London is at once a place and a non-place: a site of dislocation and displacement, inhabited by wanderers, people who have lost both homes and identities in the disruption of war. It is also a particularly female world, populated by working girls, widows and wives whose husbands have gone to the front. The few male figures that do appear are emasculated men, too young, old or incapacitated to fight. The landscape of London therefore seems to become a newly female-dominated place. Traditionally feminine private spaces are lost as homes are replaced by other people's houses, let as flats to those staying in the city and bombed out of their own buildings. The inhabitants of Bowen's London move between a series of public spaces; parks, cafés, bars and most notably the city streets. She seems to find in the city of the war years an environment and set of conditions conducive to a new urban spirit, that of the female wanderer or flâneuse.

Much has been written on the figure of the male flâneur, the voyeuristic stroller and observer of the city. As a symbolic figure for the modern artist, the concept of the flâneur was delineated by Walter Benjamin in his studies of the urban types portrayed in the poetry of Charles Baudelaire. More recently, feminists critics have drawn attention to the gender implications of the flâneur, arguing that there can be no female equivalent.1 These studies tend to concentrate on the observer of the nineteenth-century city, however, evoking the concept to describe the characteristics of the writer of the urban scene. Yet, although limited as a social phenomenon to a brief mid-nineteenth-century period, the image of the flâneur has continuing relevance as a metaphor for walking, observing and writing the city. Rachel Bowlby's essay, ‘Walking, Women and Writing: Virginia Woolf as Flâneuse’ (1992), for example, uses the leitmotif of flânerie to describe the teasingly capricious writing style of Virginia Woolf, positing that Woolf as a writer can be described as a mobile observer or flâneuse.

I shall move even further forward in time to argue that, for Elizabeth Bowen, war-time London becomes the province of the flâneuse rather than the flâneur. There are, however, tensions within the existence of the flâneur. Janet Wolff's Benjaminian flâneur is a powerful figure of surveillance on the Foucauldian model. Yet the Baudelairian flâneur is always a marginal, melancholic rootless figure, and his wandering in the city streets is a freedom that is yet accompanied by the modern urban experience of ‘spleen’. Postmodern and feminist critics tend to celebrate the nomadic existence of the urban wanderer, acclaiming the non-static perspective as an alternative to what they regard as fixed and limiting traditional and patriarchal standpoints. Using the trope of flânerie as a metaphor for the increased freedom of women in war-time urban life and for a consequent peripatetic aesthetic position does not negate the less positive aspects of enforced war-time nomadism. In the example of Virginia Woolf, the wandering spirit loses all sense of base and private identity. Unable to retain any sense of personal continuity, Woolf committed suicide in 1941. Elizabeth Bowen's collection of short stories, The Demon Lover, [The Demon Lover, and Other Stories] particularly the story ‘Mysterious Kôr’, and the retrospective essays and prefaces concerning her experiences of walking in and writing war-time London, indicate the characteristics and consequences of her own wandering aesthetic spirit and position as flâneuse.


It is profitable to continue the discussion of the flâneur into the period of the Second World War as it is at this time that the traditions of English culture essentially broke down and new perceptions arose. For, despite the claims of modernist writers and artists that the structure of English life changed with the end of the Edwardian era and the beginning of the First World War, it did not do so to the same degree as it did in the Second World War. The two wars were very different experiences and prompted different cultural reactions. In the 1914-18 war, although casualties at the front were horrifically high, the war was largely confined to battlefields on the Continent, relatively isolated from the English home. The Second World War intruded on civilian life far more drastically and obviously, and casualties from the successive bombing campaigns made up a high proportion of the war dead. At the same time, however, the global nature of the war meant a sense of disconnection from any understanding of the situation as a whole and any conception of its progress. Bowen writes in The Heat of the Day, for example, that ‘war's being global meant it ran off the edges of maps; it was uncontainable’ (Bowen 1987:308). The effect of this global war was the further disorientation of a society traditionally dominated by the mastering gaze of the male observing figure. The war broke into everyday life, fragmenting it both literally and spiritually, but it could not be grasped as a whole.

For men away at war, ‘London’ and ‘home’ could be sentimentalized as ideals, assuring an essential stability and security amidst the upheaval of war. However, back in England, the effects of the war were also felt. As buildings and traditional beliefs crumbled, the ideal of stability was shown to be erroneous, and confidence in personal identity and the social conventions that supported it was lost. In Bowen's fiction, male characters often frantically attempt to surround themselves with objects, traditions and houses that convey familiarity and continuity. Women, however, no longer fulfil the nurturing role. They have experienced the war in terms of disorientation from the conventions of English life, and therefore have no illusions about the ‘London/home’ ideal. Losing or giving up homes in the bombing, and gaining new economic and social freedoms due to the nation's need for women to be involved in war work, women were forced to grow increasingly accustomed to a nomadic rather than a settled lifestyle. The scale of women's increased presence in the public war-time city was limited at first, and in fact an immediate effect of the war was high female unemployment due to cutbacks in the tertiary sector in which women were largely employed. Yet by 1941, during a particularly dark period of the war, compulsory registration by women aged 19-40 for ‘essential work’ was instigated and large numbers of women were defined as ‘mobile’ for work.2 The traditional urban relationship of the male flâneur observing the objectified women is therefore disrupted in this war-time city landscape. Men cling to, or are entrapped by, symbols of the past and view the uprootedness of the war-time urban condition with nihilistic horror. Women, by contrast, adjust to the enforced displaced and ‘wandering’ lifestyle, and can come to experience a degree of emancipation. For Elizabeth Bowen, the city landscape was a site of physical and imaginative freedom.


The attachment to the street environment that is characteristic of the natural flâneur pervades Bowen's writing. Indeed, in her essay, ‘The Writer's Peculiar World’, she distinguishes between two types of writer, ‘the intellectual novelist, building upon a framework of ideas’ and ‘the aesthetic-intuitive, working mainly on memories and impressions’ (Lee 1986:61). This latter type, with which Bowen herself would seem to identify, is suggestive of a literary flâneur. Bowen describes this writer as possessing a ‘roving eye’ and ‘some faculty free to veer and wander’, thus associating the perspective of the writer with the urban walker. Amidst the flux of modern life, the writer perceives like a child, with no presuppositions and with ‘a perpetual, errant state of desire, wonder, and unexpected reflex’ (Lee 1986:63). Notably, it is with imagery from the city landscape that Bowen describes the writer's practice, stating that certain aspects of life stand out with vision-like significance: ‘the one face standing forward out of the crowd, the figure in the distance crossing the street, the glare or shade significant on a building, the episode playing out at the next table’ (Lee 1986:63).

The distinctions that Bowen notes between the generic forms of the novel and the short story can be seen to parallel those between the intellectual and the intuitive writer, and it is with the short story that the latter would seem to come into her own. In her preface to the collection Stories by Elizabeth Bowen, [ Stories] she comments that, whereas the novel form is ethically and socially based, the short story derives from the psyche and therefore ‘must be more concentrated, can be more visionary’, creating a constant ‘electrical-imaginative current’ (Lee 1986:128). The short story is thus particularly suited to the impressionistic writer who relies, like Bowen, on the ‘immediacy and purity of sensation’ (Lee 1986:130). Moreover, she argues in the ‘Postscript’ to her collection of war-time stories in The Demon Lover that the short story is the most appropriate literary form for expressing the experience of urban, war-time existence. For the war is a hallucinatory experience that can only be rendered in ‘disjected snapshots’ (Bowen 1952:223). Bowen asserts that ‘especially in London, in wartime many people had strange intense dreams’ (219), which she describes as best captured through the psychological emphasis of the short story. It is the representation of a dreamlike city that characterizes Bowen's writing, the imaginative perspective not only pervading her short stories but also her novels. This dream-London, like the utopian city in the story ‘Mysterious Kôr’, is a particularly female urban landscape, walked and imagined by the war-time flâneuse.

The experience of dislocation and loss of self is the continual subject of Bowen's war-time writings and reminiscences. Bowen herself directly experienced the homelessness and nomadism of London life during periods of bombing. She remained living in the city throughout the war, working as an ARP warden, and her house at 2, Clarence Terrace in Regent's Park suffered successive damage, although was never completely destroyed. Bowen's work as a warden involved a literal walking of the city amidst a terrain of bomb craters and desecrated buildings. The city she observed was a deserted night city, blacked out and lit only by moonlight and the rays of searchlights, or a morning city of the smoking, broken remains of streets and houses, about which the homeless wandered. Empathy with others is heightened in this tense atmosphere. In her essay of 1927, ‘Street Haunting’, Virginia Woolf describes her sense of losing the fixed shell of the self when she is outside her house, and of experiencing a loss of differentiation between herself and others in the city streets. She becomes no longer an ‘I’ but a bodiless, roving ‘enormous eye’ (Woolf 1967:156). Bowen too notes this identification with others in the city streets, the tendency of the flâneuse seeming to be not so much the careful detachment from the crowd practised by her male counterpart but rather a merging with it to the extent of loss of self.

Whereas Woolf's essay concentrates on the light and enjoyable superficiality of the dallying eye, however, Bowen's version is the direct result of conditions brought about by the war. Houses are destroyed in the war-time city, and their inhabitants forced into the streets without either a metaphorical or literal protective ‘shell’ for the self, all people therefore becoming the wandering ‘I/eye’. When Bowen walks the city streets in her capacity as warden, she therefore becomes one with a whole city of displaced wanderers. As she states in The Demon Lover:

during the war I lived, both as a civilian and as a writer, with every pore open; I lived so many lives, and, still more, lived among the packed repercussions of so many thousands of other lives, all under stress … It seems to me that during the war the overcharged subconsciousness of everybody overflowed and merged.

(Bowen 1952:217)

Emphasizing that her stories are of war-time rather than war, she goes on to state that what pervaded the war-time psyche was this experience of wandering in both city and identity. She repeats that, during the war, the

feeling of slight differentiation was suspended: I felt one with, and just like, everyone else. Sometimes I hardly knew where I stopped and somebody else began. The violent destruction of solid things, the explosion of the illusion that prestige, power and permanence attach to bulk and weight, left all of us, equally, heady and disembodied.

(Bowen 1952:217-18)

This is the experience of the flâneur, for whom the streets and social spaces of the city are the home and drawing-room, and the Woolfian flâneuse, for whom differentiation from the urban crowd breaks down. In Bowen's London, however, urban wandering is no frivolous flânerie but instead a restless and desperate search for self. The war-time city is populated by exiled foreigners and women (single, widowed, elderly), examples of the marginal flâneurs and flâneuses who return to their bombed homes and, like the Baudelairian rag-picker, go ‘to infinite lengths to assemble bits of themselves—broken ornaments, odd shoes, torn scraps of the curtains that hung in a room—from the wreckage’ (Bowen 1952:220).

It is in this respect that Woolf and Bowen can be contrasted as observers of the urban scene. Woolf, as a pre-war flâneuse of the 1920s and 1930s, could flit in and out of other identities and relish the surface spectacle of the city, yet still needed to retain a sense of self-continuity. In the preface to Stories Bowen also asserts that she might become imbalanced as a writer if it were not for the fact that half of her work ‘is under the steadying influence of the novel, with its calmer, stricter, more orthodox demands’ (Lee 1986:130). Woolf's novelistic style itself is lyrical and visionary, however, and she was frequently emotionally and mentally exhausted after writing difficult works. Her mobile consciousness, if taken to extremes, could end up fragmented and unable to piece itself together, and she frequently fought against mental breakdown. It is the mobile observer or ‘street-haunter’ that pervades her fiction, and it was from writing and the expression of this perspective that she was required to rest when recovering from bouts of mental illness. In particular, the loss of self experienced in the street that is a mark of freedom for the flâneuse of 1930 becomes an intensified and unrelenting condition in the war-time city. Houses now become places of security for Woolf, when they are yet threatened by destruction. In June 1940, for example, she notes in her diary that ‘the war … has taken away the outer wall of security. No echo comes back. I have no surroundings’ (Woolf 1984:299), a feeling repeated a month later when she writes that ‘all the walls, the protecting and reflecting walls, wear so terribly thin in this war’ (Woolf 1984:304). She fears that the war destroys the secure echo of identity: ‘the writing “I” has vanished. No audience, No echo’ (Woolf 1984:293). Having freely merged with the urban crowd in the pre-war years, she turns with horror from the war-time propaganda machine. Through propaganda people are coerced into a crowd of communal feeling. The impulse of the traditional flâneur, however, much as he likes to mingle amidst and even merge with the crowd, is ultimately to remain separate from it, however, and Adam Piette, in the brief but perceptive discussion of Woolf in his excellent Imagination at War, suggests that Woolf's rejection of public feeling in her diary entries of 1940 is the result of a desperate grasp to retain private, individual identity.3

Whereas for Virginia Woolf the psychological impact of the war impeded creativity, for Bowen the war-time city provided aesthetic inspiration. Indeed Bowen herself claimed that she ‘would not have missed being in London throughout the war for anything: it was the most interesting period of my life’ (cited Glendinning 1977:127). The Heat of the Day, being a novel, offers an extended depiction of the effects of war on the civilian psyche and the role of women in society, and combines passages of impressionistic urban representation with comment on the political and propagandist structure of war-time society. Bowen's writings from within the war period however, mainly in the form of short stories and essays, are necessarily more concentrated and imagistic. Within them she develops her own idiosyncratic London scene. For Bowen, the intuitive writer-observer holds in her mind an inner environment, an impressionistic rather than purely geographic space. In the autobiographical ‘Coming to London’, Bowen recalls her first impressions of the city as a child, asserting that ‘the magic of a city, as of a person, resides in its incapacity to be known, and the necessity therefore that it should be imagined’ (Lee 1986:86). The urban environment may influence and create the flâneur, but the latter in turn can be seen to create the urban environment through the subjectivity of his perceptions. Bowen's war-time London is the combination of an actual city and a mythical vision created by Bowen's imagination and the selective processes of her memory. She describes this vision through the metaphor of walking: ‘the search for indestructible landmarks in a destructible world led many down strange paths. The attachment to these when they had been found produced small world-within-worlds of hallucination—in most cases, saving hallucinations’ (Bowen 1987:220-21). Within Bowen's fiction, it is noticeably female characters who construct these hallucinatory worlds. She depicts war-time London from the perspective of the flâneuse, women who occupy new positions in the city as a result of the war and whose response to it differs from that of men.

In ‘Mysterious Kôr’, a young woman dreams of a utopian city within a London landscape that is itself depicted by Bowen as a surreal fantasy. It is a cratered world glistening in moonlight, deserted except for a few wanderers, including Pepita and her boyfriend Arthur, who ‘by their way of walking, [seem] to have no destination but each other and to be not quite certain even of that’ (Bowen 1952:197). Pepita compares this fragile city to Kôr, the desolate city of Rider Haggard's She, also ‘a completely forsaken city, as high as cliffs and as white as bones, with no history’, but that is yet ‘altogether different; it's very strong; there is not a crack in it anywhere … the corners of stones and the monuments might have been cut yesterday, and the stairs and arches are built to support themselves’ (198). Threatened London is accorded eternal strength in the female imagination, represented by the imagined city, Kôr.

Both Bowen's and Pepita's urban visions are essentially female perceptions, arising from the inadequacy of the language of male society to express the fantastic conditions of war. As Bowen states, these conditions were ‘out of all proportion to our faculties for knowing, thinking and checking up’ (Bowen 1952:219). In response Pepita and Bowen compensate by constructing ‘saving illusory worlds’ (221). Unable to express her perceptions through language Pepita turns instead to the visual image of her dream, an inner terrain that Bowen creates with her characteristic skill for evoking the psychological landscape. Her female view is contrasted to that of Arthur, for whom Kôr is unreal because it cannot be marked on a map. Arthur is representative of a common male type in Bowen's fiction, expressing a fatalistic view of society as a result of the loss of past traditions. He cannot imagine her new world without the order of calculated time or the idea of traditional relational structures such as the family. Yet such values are outmoded in the war-time landscape, and ultimately Arthur cannot provide the supporting illusions Pepita requires: ‘he was the password, but not the answer: it was to Kôr's finality that she turned’ (215).

Place is crucial in Bowen's work, and Pepita's strong identification with Kôr replicates that of Bowen with the London of the war years. Pepita seems a fictional equivalent of Bowen herself as urban writer portraying an atmospheric landscape, and for Bowen too ‘dreams by night, and the fantasies … with which formerly matter-of-fact people consoled themselves by day were compensations’ (Bowen 1952:219). Pepita's vision continues Bowen's assertion that the observer partially creates her environment; ‘this war shows we've by no means come to the end. If you can blow whole places out of existence, you can blow whole places into it. … By the time we've come to the end, Kôr may be the one city left: The abiding city’ (199).

Bowen herself finds, in the landscape of destruction that is war-time London, a vision of an abiding city. In ‘London, 1940’, for example, the deserted area of Regent's Park becomes her own world:

At nights, at my end of the terrace, I feel as though I were sleeping in one corner of a deserted palace. I had always placed this Park among the most civilized scenes on earth; the Nash pillars look as brittle as sugar—actually, which is wonderful, they have not cracked; … Illicitly, leading the existence of ghosts, we overlook the locked park.

(Lee 1986:24)

The moonlit Nash pillars stand as testimony to the fortitude of London and the tenacity of its nomadic inhabitants.

Elizabeth Bowen's war-time London is a personal terrain observed from walking in a city made strange by the effects of war. In terms of traditional, patriarchal society, it is an inexpressible non-place and, consequently, a site of utter disorientation for male characters. Her heroines, attempting to express their perceptions of this world through the masculine language system, do not really fit anywhere either, unable to correspond to the identity types available. There is an implicit connection between Bowen as writer-walker of the city and her female characters, however, with their sensitive, ‘childlike’ or ‘stereoscopic’ perceptions of the urban environment. Their female landscape is notably one that combines the imaginary and the real. As an ARP warden, Bowen walked at night and observed the visual impact of the play of moonlight and searchlights on the white houses and bomb-cratered streets around Regent's Park, as well as, by day, the effects of sunlight and smoke lingering around the broken glass and fallen walls of bombed buildings. As a writer she ‘followed the paths [she] saw or felt people treading, and depicted those little dear saving illusory worlds’ (Bowen 1987:221). Bowen's London is the result of the combination of this literal and imaginative flânerie, and of impressionistic and surrealistic perceptions. It is a twilight ‘theatre of war’ in which life is concentrated on the open stage of the street, houses are paper backdrops, and where all inhabitants are observers waiting in eerily deserted darkness for something to happen, occasionally highlighted by the focus of the searchlight.


  1. Janet Wolff's seminal essay, ‘The Invisible Flâneuse’ (1983), for example, concentrates on the socio-sexual divisions of the nineteenth century to describe the male domination of the city in which women appeared only as sexual objects for the male gaze, and several studies have followed, noting that the only female ‘streetwalker’ in the modern city was the prostitute.

  2. Between January 1941 and October 1943, registered female unemployment fell from 350,000 to 24,000; see Hooks 1944:16.

  3. That this distinction is not necessarily possible is the traumatizing experience of the narrator-observer in Edgar Allan Poe's classic flâneur story, ‘The Man in the Crowd’.

Works Cited

Bowen, Elizabeth (1952), The Demon Lover, and Other Stories [1945], London: Jonathan Cape.

———(1987) The Heat of the Day [1949], London: Penguin.

Bowlby, Rachel (1992), ‘Walking, Women and Writing: Virginia Woolf as Flâneuse’, in Isobel Armstrong (ed.), New Feminist Discourses, London: Routledge.

Braybon, Gail and Penny Summerfield (1987), Out of the Cage: Women's Experiences in Two World Wars, London: Pandora Press.

Glendinning, Victoria (1977), Elizabeth Bowen: Portrait of a Writer, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Hooks, J. (1944), British Policies and Methods of Employing Women in Wartime, Washington D. C.: US Government.

Lee, Hermione (1986), The Mulberry Tree: Writings of Elizabeth Bowen, London: Virago.

Piette, Adam (1995), Imagination at War: British Fiction and Poetry 1939-1945, London: Papermac.

Wolff, Janet (1983), ‘The Invisible Flâneuse: Women and the Literature of Modernity’, Theory, Culture and Society 2, 37-46.

Woolf, Virginia (1967), Collected Essays, vol. 4, ed. Leonard Woolf, London: Chatto and Windus.

———(1984), The Diary of Virginia Woolf, vol. 5: 1936-1941, ed. Anne Olivier Bell, London: Hogarth Press.

Barbara A. Suess (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: Suess, Barbara A. “When the Past Does Not Feed the Future: The ‘Idea of the Past’ in Three Bowen Stories.” Notes on Modern Irish Literature 9 (1997): 16-20.

[In the following essay, Suess explores Bowen's preoccupation with the past in “Her Table Spread,” “The Happy Autumn Fields,” and “Hand in Glove.”]

Elizabeth Bowen's Irish short stories, like her novels, commonly depict characters who perceive themselves as out-of-place. Feeling trapped by youth, in the country, as members of the degenerating Anglo-Irish gentry, Bowen's young women characters frequently express the desire, like Teresa in “A Love Story,” to go “away for ever” (53). However, these characters also aspire to be located in another time, as exhibited by their obsession with the “pasts” they encounter in stories, letters, and old trunks. More specifically, the stories “Her Table Spread,” “The Happy Autumn Fields,” and “Hand in Glove” portray characters whose unhappiness with the stagnant present leads them to seek salvation in what they see as an enchanted or, at least, less inert past—an action which necessarily leads to their disenchantment. These stories thus run counter to what Bowen refers to as the “traditionally restorative qualities of the past”; instead, in these stories, fear is counteracted by fear, and stress by stress (Preface to Ivy Gripped the Steps, and Other Stories xi). In their attempt to subsume a part of the more passionate past into the present, these characters only serve to lose their very selves: in self-delusion, spiritual disembodiment, and death.

In “Her Table Spread,” Valeria Cuffe, a 25-year-old Anglo-Irish but nevertheless high-spirited heiress, has literally spread her table for a dinner with friends; however, the real object of her beneficence is a suitor. Mr. Alban, a pompous English visitor and rather a dubious possibility for the role of suitor—the narrator notes twice that his “attitude to[ward] women was negative” (18)—is the embodiment of what Bowen felt were the negative characteristics of her Anglo-Irish contemporaries. A typical Bowen character, Alban has a blasé attitude towards life and especially love. Furthermore, his confession that he is incapable of love makes him a poor match for Valeria. Whereas Alban feels that “some spring had dried up at the root of the world” and that he is “fixed in the dark rain, by an indifferent shore” (21), Valeria—not one to claim indifference on any subject—“exclaims” both “urgently” and “passionately” (20). Similarly, she offends the social delicacy of the other more sedate (sedated?) characters when she thoughtlessly allows her “bust [to rest] almost on the table” (20).

Although regarded by other characters as childlike and even “abnormal” (18), Valeria is, in one way at least, a positive character: She represents the energy, desire, and passion which has, if not dried up completely, at least been choked back by the members of her social circle.1 The stress of having to survive both Civil and World Wars as a literal and symbolic neutrality pulled them in opposite emotional, social, and political directions; that, along with the strain of enduring the loss of power and prestige they had held for two centuries, made the Anglo-Irish gentry “indifferent”—a word used to describe every character in the story except Valeria. A telling situation in this regard can be seen in the various characters' reactions to the life-giving rain. Cautioning the women not to spot their dresses, Alban and the other men reluctantly—and only when completely protected by mackintoshes—go out to look for Valeria in the rain into which she has rushed not indifferently but ardently and fearlessly: She “disappeared again—wet satin skirts and all—into the bushes” (22). Her guests, “indignant” that she would even suggest “go[ing] for a row,” are afraid of what she will do (22). Specifically, they fear that she will attract the attention of the men in the destroyer which has docked for the night in the harbor below the Castle. Of course, that is exactly what Valeria hopes to do.

The image of Valeria, “‘racing past the window with a lantern’” (23), is that of a woman seeking to fulfill a romantic fantasy. Having spread her table and adorned herself to attract a suitor, she chooses to actively seek him rather than wait idly by, as she sees her cohorts do. On the negative side of this action, however, is the fact that the objects of Valeria's pursuits, her so-called suitors (alternately, Mr. Garrett and Mr. Graves) actually exist for her no more than do characters in a story: She does not know them, has never even seen them. Valeria has learned of these two men from the servants, who painted a romantic story of their chance visit to the Castle from their destroyer while Valeria had been away. Out of the bits and pieces of this story, Valeria creates a fantasy to which we are privy through an interior monologue in which she pictures herself a “princess” with admirers fighting over her, and in which she imagines that the “stocky, but very merry” Mr. Graves will take her to Naples and Paris and teach her to dance (24).

Valeria's fantasy clashes with reality, however, when she mistakes Alban, who has finally found her in the rainy darkness, for Mr. Garrett and emotionally throws herself at him: “As sure but not so noiseless as a cat in the dark, Valeria hurried to him,” and insisted he accompany her into the Castle (26). Decidedly flustered, Alban nevertheless experiences, at this moment, an epiphany: He obtains a brief respite from his habit of apathy, consequently regaining a temporary connection to humanity, feeling “[f]or a moment, not exiled” (26). Valeria, however, remains apparently self-deluded: At the end of the story, after having discovered her error, she “lay with her arms wide” (26-27), her table spread for another, most likely fantastical, suitor.

Mary, the protagonist of “The Happy Autumn Fields,” similarly loses her self in a story of the past—the story of Sarah, whose letters inspire Mary's dreams. In this story, Bowen alternately juxtaposes events in Sarah's life with those of Mary's. Mary, in a London flat during the Blitz, dreams of a Victorian family's walk through the autumn fields of the title on a particularly significant day for Sarah. On this day, Sarah comes to terms with being torn between her love for sister, Henrietta, and for her suitor, Eugene. In her parallel world, Mary is also tortured about dividing her attention between two objects: her own life as Mary and her much happier dream-connection with Sarah's world. For instance, when her lover, Travis, tries to get her to leave the flat for safety reasons, Mary views the action as part of a “conspiracy to keep her from the beloved two,” Sarah and Henrietta (103).

Mary has become so deeply involved in Sarah's story, in fact, that she comes to be virtually disembodied from Mary-the-body. In other words, she literally loses herself in the story and takes on Sarah's identity. As Sarah, Mary feels “weighed down” by the “irrelevant body of Mary” (103). Her body, representative of her life as Mary, is merely a drag on her during the moments she is able to become Sarah. As in “Her Table Spread,” this young woman character desires to escape the world and people which surround her, for they, too, have become mere shadows of the times past. Comparing Sarah's happier because more passionate existence to her own, Mary remarks to Travis, “‘the source, the sap must have dried up, or the pulse must have stopped, before you and I were conceived. So much has flowed through people; so little flows through us. All we can do is imitate love or sorrow’” (112).

At the end of “The Happy Autumn Fields,” Mary has, like Valeria, experienced a few moments of joy, of passion, of true emotions through the creation of a fantastical relationship between herself and individuals from a past time. However, Mary, too, is left ultimately unsatisfied, for her present reality comes quite literally crashing in on her dream of the past. After Mary is awakened by Travis a last time, the narrator notes, “The one way back to the fields was barred by Mary's surviving the fall of ceiling” (112). In other words, only through the death of Mary's body would Sarah have been allowed to live.

And, interestingly, the real Sarah undergoes a similar experience in her own life, an occurrence which implies that Mary has, indeed, somehow merged with Sarah. At the end of the day in which she recognizes Eugene's love for her, Sarah feels disembodied, not remembering anything since their earlier walk in the fields. The narrator tells us:

The obscurity and loneliness of [Sarah's] trouble was not to be borne. How could she put into words the feeling of dislocation, the formless dread that had been with her since she found herself in the drawing-room? The source of both had been what she must call her dream. How could she tell the others with what vehemence she tried to attach her being to each second, not because each was singular in itself, each a drop condensed from the mist of love in the room, but because she apprehended that the seconds were numbered?


Hearing of such a passionate attachment to each and every love-filled moment of life, one need not wonder what Mary sees in Sarah. The Victorian girl's story provides Mary with an antidote to her own world of imitation love and sorrow. However, the antidote was not to last. Like Sarah, who disappears after a certain date in the letters that describe her life, at the end of the story Mary is left without a sense of self, “no longer reckoning who she was” (112).

In “Hand in Glove,” the protagonist's loss of self as a result of reaching into the past is by far the most haunting, most literal version of this theme. Orphaned Ethel and Elsie Trevor live the lives of young, popular socialites at Jasmine Lodge in the south of Ireland. Lacking funds to cover their enormous wardrobe budget, including keeping up a supply of white gloves, they frequently and secretly raid the trunks of their ailing Aunt Elysia, whom they keep virtually locked up. When Ethel becomes desperate to get her hands on her aunt's allegedly voluminous supply of white gloves in order to impress her beau, she attempts to ingratiate herself—or becomes, in her sister's terms, “hand-in-glove”—with Auntie who, already bitter about her solitary confinement, becomes even more suspicious about her nieces' appropriation of her clothing.

On the night of the big ball, Ethel discovers that her aunt is, at last, dead. However, not wanting to ruin her evening, she pretends not to notice that her aunt is dead and, per nightly custom, locks her aunt in the room—but only after she has stolen the key to that last trunk that the girls have not been able to break open. Ethel proceeds to the attic where, before she even has a chance to unlock the trunk, it bursts open by itself, revealing miles of snow-white gloves. Although frightened by the supernatural occurrence, Ethel cannot withhold her desire for the gloves. Reaching into the trunk, she is first pulled by her hair into the trunk, then sent flying across the room, where Aunt Elysia's “hand in glove” strangles her to death.

Impatient to move beyond what she had come to perceive as the dull position of debutante, and knowing her own present circumstances alone were not capable of propelling her into the future she desired as a “Mrs.,” Ethel endeavors to obtain help from her aunt's past. The “seven large trunks crammed with recent finery” (114) represent, for Aunt Elysia, the only lasting good to come out of her initially triumphant, then later disastrous marriage to the captain of a cavalry regiment in India. Elsie's and especially Ethel's greedy appropriation of the trunk's contents, therefore, essentially robs their aunt of her past. Indeed, one day, fueled by a “lucid accumulation of years of hate” (120-21) and, no doubt, by jealousy of her nieces' youth and gaiety and their bragging about beaus, Elysia calls for her trunks in order to show-up Ethel's attempts to “trap a man” (121). She cries out, “Could you learn [to trap a man], if it was from Venus herself? Wait till I show you beauty” (121). It is obvious from this statement that Aunt Elysia equates the contents of her trunks with her “early triumphs” (114), her much happier past. Knowing that her niece will not stop until the last bit of this past has been appropriated, Aunt Elysia (or rather, her ghost), perhaps, sees no other alternative to murder.

But Ethel, it must be admitted, plays a large part in her own death. The narrator makes it clear that Aunt Elysia, right before she dies, clearheadedly and “unblinkingly studie[s] Ethel” (120), apparently recognizing the selfish motivation for and hypocrisy of her niece's recent tête-a-tête with her. In moments such as this, it seems that we, as readers, are also meant to recognize Ethel's greed and to connect it with her downfall. Because she only feigns interest in her aunt's past and symbolically steals it from her, Ethel's hand-in-glove treatment of her aunt, it seems, is destined to turn on her, metaphorically and literally. Thus, Ethel is yet another character whose attempt to use the past to augment her own present life leads to a loss of self—in this case a loss of self to death.

Because Bowen wrote these stories during times of intense social and political unrest in Ireland and in Europe, her characters' illusions about the enchanted and pure nature of the past as heard in stories, read in letters, and found in old trunks are understandable. In “The Bend Back,” Bowen treats this idea as an historical one, noting that especially after World War II, although people sought to obtain some form of brightness in their lives, they felt it could not be found anywhere in the present, but only in the relatively more innocent past: Only a connection with the past could provide one with the necessary “life illusion,” with the idea that life is worth living (55).

However, none of these characters' forays into or use of the past seem to provide them with this life illusion—or at least not for long. In place of gaining a new perspective on life or a new life, Valeria and Mary remain, respectively, deluded and spiritually disembodied—and Ethel actually loses her life. Drawn in not so much by “the past but the idea of the past” (“Bend Back” 58, emphasis added), these characters find that although they have gained momentary insight from the past, they regretfully cannot retain in their present lives “life at that pitch, eventful—not happy, no, but strung like a harp” (“Happy” 112). Instead, the idea of the past is shown to be merely a false ideal, much like the story of the visit from the destroyer's soldiers, Sarah's letters, and Aunt Elysia's gloves: When uncovered, the past only strangles the small bit of enthusiasm that had existed for these characters who attempt to retrieve from the past a more passionate present.


  1. This has been noted previously by Alexander G. Gonzalez in his article, “Elizabeth Bowen's ‘Her Table Spread’: A Joycean Irish Story,” in which he compares Valeria Cuffe to other similarly passionate, fictional Irish women. However, I believe that Gonzalez's focus on the epiphany of Mr. Alban—and not the failed epiphany of Valeria—leads us away from the real focus of the story, Valeria.

Works Cited

Bowen, Elizabeth. “The Bend Back.” The Mulberry Tree: Writings of Elizabeth Bowen. Ed. Hermione Lee. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1986. 54-59.

———. “Hand in Glove.” Elizabeth Bowen's Irish Stories. Intro. Victoria Glendinning. Dublin: Poolbeg, 1978. 114-25.

———. “The Happy Autumn Fields.” Bowen, Irish Stories 95-113.

———. “Her Table Spread.” Bowen, Irish Stories 18-27

———. “A Love Story.” Bowen, Irish Stories 36-54.

———. Preface. Ivy Gripped the Steps, and Other Stories. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1936.

Gonzalez, Alexander G. “Elizabeth Bowen's ‘Her Table Spread’: A Joycean Irish Story.” Studies in Short Fiction 30.3 (Summer 1993): 343-48.

Jeanette Shumaker (essay date fall 1999)

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SOURCE: Shumaker, Jeanette. “Bruised Boys and ‘Fallen’ Women: The Need for Rescue in Short Stories by Elizabeth Bowen.” The South Carolina Review 32, no. 1 (fall 1999): 88-98.

[In the following essay, Shumaker considers the role of disillusionment and alienation in “The Return,” “Summer Night,” and “Ivy Gripped the Steps.”]

John Halperin writes of the Anglo-Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen that “Like James, she often took as her subject something only half glimpsed or understood, and thus suggestive” (45). Along similar lines, Richard Tillinghast states that “Not uncommonly in Bowen's work, something that is never mentioned—or that is alluded to ten pages later—may be the most important thing that is going on” (27). In short stories such as “The Return” (1923), “Summer Night” (1941), and “Ivy Gripped the Steps” (1945), Bowen shows characters under the influence of illusions of which they are only partially aware. “The Return” and “Summer Night” concern adulteresses who cherish the illusion that romance will rescue them from banality. “Ivy Gripped the Steps” deals with a child's similar belief, but also depicts the lasting damage that childhood disillusionment causes. Many critics see Bowen's novels “as psychological studies that universalize the terror of modern alienation” (Lassner 3). Such alienation may stem from peer pressure, from unmet emotional needs, from fixations upon figures from the past, and especially from disappointed romantic illusions; alienation remains as relevant a theme as it was during Bowen's lifetime. Whereas Bowen's reputation as a novelist is secure, few critics have analyzed her short fiction (Lassner xi).

“The Return” features an affluent former adulteress who loses her illusions about love. Childless and in her early forties, Mrs. Tottenham receives a letter from the lover who had dominated her twenties, when she had recently married a philanderer. In those early years Mrs. Tottenham had delighted in her ability to eclipse other women in the eyes of attractive men like her former lover. Having left his wife and brought his children with him, her lover from long ago now hopes to rekindle his affair with Mrs. Tottenham. The story is narrated by Mrs. Tottenham's disapproving, unmarried servant, Lydia Broadbent. Mrs. Tottenham's long frustration with her marriage helps to account for her habitual irascibility with servants like Lydia, and also for Mrs. Tottenham's interest in entertaining guests who might distract her. Although the couple's sordid past is common knowledge, they are now regarded as generous, respectable hosts. Mr. Tottenham's young nephew and heir follows his guardians' example, living as dissolutely as they once did.

Mrs. Tottenham confides her worries about her lover's return to Lydia: “I've got so ugly! … It's been so real to me, I couldn't bear to lose him. … How can I have the heart to care when I couldn't keep him caring?” (34). Mrs. Tottenham realizes that her only value to her lover was as a pleasing sight. Aging has therefore made her worthless. In her classic work about women in films, Laura Mulvey describes the power of the male gaze to define women; Mrs. Tottenham once gazed at herself with a masculine, evaluative eye, but now realizes that she was mistaken. She finally sees that love should not depend upon looks.

Mrs. Tottenham's realization that she has lived on memories of a lover who never really cared for her causes her to burn his photograph. The photograph had let her play the game of gazing at her phantom lover while she imagined that he returned her approving look. Without his photograph, Mrs. Tottenham will no longer be able to fantasize about her lover rescuing her from her unhappy marriage.

Her new awareness of her illusions about her lover leads to a painful realization about the hollowness of her marriage. She tells Lydia that “My husband's been a bad man, too, but here we are, smirking and grinning at each other, just to keep hold of something we neither of us want” (34). Mrs. Tottenham is left with neither adultery nor marriage to hold onto, and with a sense of her beauty's decline. She has not built loyalty in a man who would cherish her for her personality, regardless of her looks; even her husband mocks her about the loss of her loveliness. Believing in the power of her beauty, Mrs. Tottenham neglected to make herself into a loving and lovable human being.

Mrs. Tottenham's burning of her lover's photograph earns her the narrator's respect at the story's end, if not Lydia's: “For all her frizzled hair and jingling ornaments and smudgy tentative cosmetics she was suddenly elemental and heroic. … The place was vibrant with the humanity of Mrs. Tottenham. It was as though a child had been born in the house” (34). The child is Mrs. Tottenham's integrity, which she had aborted seventeen years ago when her lover left. Instead of the Celtic goddess Medb's transformation from old hag into young beauty, Mrs. Tottenham experiences the opposite, with a similar holy effect. Rather than lauding youth and beauty, Bowen lauds the wisdom of middle age. “The Return” comes to mean not the return of her lover, but of Mrs. Tottenham's dignity.

In reaction to Mrs. Tottenham's misery, Lydia has her own galling epiphany: “She felt suddenly hard and priggish and immature” (34). That hardness keeps Lydia from feeling more than dismay at Mrs. Tottenham's grief. Bowen allows the “fallen” woman to become more praiseworthy than the respectable servant. Lydia lacks sympathy with the scandalous Mrs. Tottenham. Not only that, but Lydia also lacks tenderness for herself. Lydia views herself as split into two women—the obsequious paid companion and the idealist who feels contempt for the insincerity of the servile self. Yet Lydia's idealist side feels only fear of Mrs. Tottenham even though her mistress finally deserves respect. Like Mrs. Tottenham, then, Lydia has been living a lie, pretending to believe in “fine big truths” that she withdraws from when tested (32). Lydia becomes painfully aware of her own conventionality and narrowness.

Since the story ends with Mrs. Tottenham and Lydia facing their illusions about themselves, the reader gets not so much a sense of the two women's sterility as of their potential for growth. Mrs. Tottenham squarely faces her mistake of seeking a powerful lover to save her. Bowen argues that even uneducated women like Mrs. Tottenham can learn to avoid wasting their lives through indulging in fantasies of a romantic rescuer. Mrs. Tottenham's epiphany goes against the shallow lessons of her upbringing, for her mother had put her energies into enhancing her daughter's looks to prepare her for the marriage market. “The Return” is one of many of Bowen's stories and novels such as The Death of the Heart (1936) that criticize what Ann Owens Weekes calls “the culture and education that prepares them [young girls] only for love” (Unveiling 47). Whereas most of Bowen's treatments of this theme portray innocent, sensitive girls, “The Return” dramatizes what happens to such a girl after a mercenary marriage leaves her unfulfilled.

Like Mrs. Tottenham, Emma, the adulteress in Bowen's “Summer Night,” feels disappointed in love. Emma's punishment for adultery is to have her illusions about passion shattered. For Emma finds out that she is “being settled down to as calmly as he [her lover] might have settled down to a meal” (328). Carol Gilligan's notion that most women develop themselves through relationships suggests why Emma looks for meaning in her affair. She is married to a man who is too ill—mentally—to fully respond emotionally or sexually. Like Emma Bovary, her namesake, Bowen's twentieth-century Irish adulteress seeks a fairytale fulfillment through romance that neither her war-traumatized husband nor her experienced lover can provide (“Summer Night” 330). Emma may be seen as fitting the “Cinderella Complex” described by Colette Dowling in that Emma wants a powerful lover to save her from the despair and ennui of her marriage to a war-shattered major. Although she discovers that her lover can't or won't rescue her, she takes no steps to save herself.1

Emma's long drive to her lover Robinson's house is described in terms of her car's freedom, which stands for the driver's: without a family to carry, the car can move much faster, as “emptiness seemed to levitate it” (297); similarly, Emma's mood rises while she speeds along. Di, Emma's daughter, notes that her mother, unlike their Aunt Fran, “likes things to happen” (316). Emma is not willing to merely imitate the Madonna by nurturing her children and her emotionally damaged husband. She also wants to live for herself.

Emma's other daughter, Vivie, echoes her mother's desire for freedom when she uses colored chalk to tattoo her body with snakes. Dressed only in chalk tattoos like a Celt from eons past, Vivie bounces on her absent mother's bed until her elderly great-aunt Fran wraps her in a comforter: “only the prisoner's dark eyes, so like her mother's, were left free to move wildly” (320). The Major's Aunt Fran then abases herself for Vivie's sins, as well as for Emma's, her own, and those of humanity in general. Meanwhile, Vivie's mother, similarly constrained by shame over her lawless behavior, “sat crouching in her crouching car” in front of her lover's house, until his friends, Queenie and Justin, leave (326).

As Aunt Fran had disapproved of Vivie's nakedness, so Aunt Fran was shocked that Emma left their house without wearing stockings. Emma's bare legs, like Vivie's naked, decorated body, stand for a desire to be free of the shame over the female body that keeps women like Aunt Fran kneeling in constant humiliation. Marina Warner describes the primary effect of the Madonna myth on women such as Aunt Fran: “By setting up an impossible ideal the cult of the Virgin does drive the adherent into a position of acknowledged and hopeless yearning and inferiority” (337). Guilt-ridden Irish Catholicism, represented by Aunt Fran, contrasts with the joyous primitivism of the Celts; Celtic culture abounded with colorfully decorated bodies like Vivie's and powerful, promiscuous goddesses whom Emma unsuccessfully emulates. Emma is unsuccessful in part because she is contaminated by Aunt Fran's Christian ideology of feminine self-denial. Emma's urge to forget herself ties in with her desire for a potent being to whom to dedicate herself—a desire Aunt Fran tries to fulfill through prayer, and Emma, through adultery.

Emma regrets that her selfish tendencies make her seem “not good” to her children, who were raised on Aunt Fran's notions about ideally selfless women (330). Emma laments her children's disapproval of her, telling Robinson that it is one reason for their affair. It is ironic that the children's rejection of Emma makes her into the rebel that they dimly sense she may be. In her children's disapproval of Emma are the seeds of rejection of the “other” woman that Julia Kristeva argues means rejection of the mother. For if the daughter sees herself as uniquely important like the Virgin, her mother must fall short; the cycle of female rivalry begins. The daughter who prohibits her mother's jouissance, is, to Kristeva, a modern Electra standing up for the father's restrictions upon the mother (“About Chinese Women”). Emma not only violates her husband's authority, but also her daughters', who are his allies. Like Kristeva, Luce Irigaray longs to overcome daughters' typical denial of their mothers' right to jouissance: “We must give her [the mother] the right to pleasure, to jouissance, to passion, restore her to speech, and sometimes, to cries and anger” (“Bodily Encounter” 43). Emma is searching for all of these, against her daughters', husband's, and Aunt Fran's wishes. Unfortunately, Kristeva's jouissance of the lover eludes the too demanding Emma, as the jouissance of the mystic eludes the too needy Aunt Fran.

As Aunt Fran rejects Emma as immoral—“other”—Emma rejects Aunt Fran as too old, as “other” in a different sense. Believing that her need to escape Aunt Fran is another reason for her affair, Emma feels frustrated with the conventionality that the elderly woman tries to teach Emma's daughters in her effort to overcome their likeness to their rebellious mother. Emma utilizes Kristeva's superior woman myth against Aunt Fran just as the old lady uses it to turn Emma's daughters against their mother by appealing to their self-righteous vanity.

The Major's preoccupation with the war seems the primary reason for Emma's affair, although Emma pretends that other reasons are more important. In this way Emma denies the extreme painfulness of her husband's distance from her. According to Carol Gilligan, separation from loved ones is women's biggest fear. The Major long ago separated from Emma emotionally. But because the Major suffers from war-induced trauma and not a willed absence from intimacy, Emma cannot blame him for his distance. Leaving the Major would seem cruel given his circumstances and the ages of the children, yet Emma's emotional and sexual needs are not being met. Emma faces the kind of moral dilemma that Gilligan describes: Emma could give up her needs like Aunt Fran does in traditional feminine fashion, but instead Emma tries to balance her own needs with those of her family. Gilligan writes that when interdependence rather than dependence becomes the goal “the notion of care expands from the paralyzing injunction not to hurt others to an injunction to act responsively toward self and others and thus to sustain connection” (149). Such balancing of needs necessitates the contextual thinking that Gilligan says women tend to use, rather than judging by absolutes. Adultery, which is immoral when considered as an absolute, is less so when looked at as the alternative to a marital breakup in Emma's situation.

Contextual thinking leads Emma to her liaison, then to a realization that adultery is not the answer to her problems, for illicit passion is not love. Yet having gone so far with her liaison, Emma persists; that persistence creates her brief, strange martyrdom to her impossible desires. Emma is thus not as free from the compulsion towards feminine sacrifice as she might wish. Bowen suggests that rebels like Emma can easily make the mistake of copying what they are rejecting—in this case, the self-denial embodied by Aunt Fran.

Emma is paralyzed by her realization that her lover will not rescue her. Justin is also paralyzed by a similar disappointment in Robinson, but for different reasons. Like Joyce's Stephen Dedalus, Justin regards his too-restricted lifestyle as part of a general cultural paralysis. Paralysis makes the reader think of the Major, Emma's husband, who is nearly immobilized due to the pain of his memories. Justin tells Robinson that hopefully the war will awaken their culture into “a new form of thinking and feeling” (307). But the Major awakened from battle terror into paralysis. And the war awakened Emma into a questionable new feeling, an adulterous passion for Robinson that ultimately paralyzes her as well. Aunt Fran, too, may be seen as paralyzed—by self-loathing caused by her religion's view of women as lowly. The story provides glimpses of diverse forms of cultural paralysis that afflict adults during a single Irish summer night. Bowen implies that Justin's view of his culture as paralyzed is correct, but that the paralysis will not be cured by the war, as Justin hopes. As Phyllis Lassner observes, the story “personifies a world that is as ambivalent about trusting order as it is about seeking change” (102); from such ambivalence, cultural paralysis grows.

Justin, resembling Emma, yearns for more than a monkish life. Similar to Emma and Aunt Fran, Justin restlessly seeks an ideal passionate attachment that would give meaning to his life by making him forget himself. Whereas Aunt Fran turns to God, Justin and Emma turn to Robinson as their love object. Like Emma, Justin is attracted by Robinson's open-mindedness and ease, though ultimately disappointed by his imperviousness. For unlike Justin and Emma, Robinson is no seeker. Justin writes to Robinson of his rendezvous with Emma that “Tomorrow … you will feel fine, but you will not know any more about love” (333). Perhaps Robinson already knows too much about passion; Emma suspects that as a practiced seducer, he can no longer truly feel. That makes Robinson yet another example of emotional paralysis. The story leaves it open as to whether Aunt Fran will be able to get more satisfaction from an absent God than Emma can from a spiritually absent lover and Justin can from a shallow friend.

Oddly, it is the sexually naive Queenie, Justin's deaf sister, who knows more about love than Robinson, Emma, Aunt Fran, and Justin do. She has made “the nothing or everything” of her one date as a young girl into “an everything” (335); that date continues to be the source of her romantic fantasies as a middle-aged woman. By contrast, Emma betrays her husband even though she suspects that adultery will not satisfy her yearnings for intimacy and passion. Emma is making the supposed “everything” of marital fidelity into the “nothing” of empty adultery. Only Queenie is able to preserve her romantic dreams through fantasizing about Emma's lover, Robinson. That may be because Queenie doesn't expect that her fantasies will ever come true.

Queenie's querulous brother Justin notes that Queenie's deafness insulates her in her own “solitary and almost fairylike world” (303). Queenie does not want to be rescued from that world, whereas Emma's need for a savior destroys her romantic illusions. The irony is that Queenie is much happier than Emma, even though she lacks Emma's experiences of marriage, motherhood, and adultery. Unlike Aunt Fran, Queenie is not the traditional, bitter “old maid.” Queenie is described as “almost without an ‘I’,” with a self-forgetfulness that is not the self-abnegation of Aunt Fran, but rather, freedom from egotism (334). The story ends with Queenie's innocent fantasies of love; this is the only possible happy ending for the story given the personalities of the other adult characters. Perhaps it is Queenie's passionate nature that gives the story its intensity.2 “Contemplative, wishless” Queenie escapes the stereotypical doom of women who either emulate the Virgin, like Aunt Fran, or rebel against her, like Emma (334). But the irony is that Queenie gains her freedom through a kind of arrested development caused by her deafness. Queenie's deafness is both a disability and an advantage, since it narrows her life choices but emancipates her mind. Deafness keeps Queenie immune from being socialized into the demand for a rescuer that pressures Emma, the energetic mother, and her tired helper, the old aunt, just as it does Justin, the lonely scholar. Bowen suggests that the paths of adultery, piety, and study may likewise lead to disappointment, if taking them stems from wishing for a savior. Although Emma's epiphany about the meaninglessness of adultery should keep her from making the same mistake again, Emma's need for a savior may next lead her to guiltily abase herself before God, cultivating a new romantic illusion in the style of Aunt Fran.

Bowen wrote the more optimistic story about the lessons of adultery, “The Return,” earlier in her life. “Summer Night” suggests that one's need for rescue can motivate not only illicit passion, but religious fervor: Emma and Aunt Fran are two sides of the same coin. Nonetheless, in both “The Return” and “Summer Night” the heroines learn that their affairs stemmed from marital problems that they might have at least partially resolved had they not expected their lovers to rescue them. As an upper-class Protestant concentrating upon affluent Catholics and Protestants, Bowen does not depict the severe social pressure on “fallen” women that Irish Catholic writers such as Edna O'Brien and Mary Lavin do in stories about working-class women such as “A Scandalous Woman” and “Sarah.”

On the surface, “Summer Night” criticizes constricting Irish mores like Aunt Fran's, and dramatizes the damaging effects of war on men like the Major. Paralysis is the story's overarching theme. However, looking at the story through the lens of feminist thought, we see that Bowen highlights a particular cause of paralysis—the need for a rescuer to whom women can entrust their passion, be it sexual or religious. Bowen earlier handled that theme less complexly through focusing exclusively on adultery in “The Return.” Both stories portray disappointed female passion and broken romantic illusions with exemplary candor. They also fit what Thomas Dukes says of Bowen's novels: “Bowen creates marriages that gloss over nothing” (12). The marriages in “The Return” and “Summer Night” are damaged by the romantic illusions that each wife holds, as well as by inadequate husbands.

Not only women are subject to unrealistic dreams of a romantic savior who will rescue them from their unsatisfactory circumstances. Whereas Justin, the bitterly disappointed romantic, is a minor character in “Summer Night,” Bowen focuses upon a boy's dreams of rescue in “Ivy Gripped the Steps.” The story depicts the growth of that dreaming boy into an isolated man who is obsessed with a widow who died during his childhood. Widowed Mrs. Nicholson's friendship with the young Gavin is dramatized through the memories of the adult Gavin. He visits her deserted house during WWII, nearly thirty years after her death in 1912. Gavin's memories of glamorous Lilian Nicholson are poignantly described in what Angus Wilson calls Bowen's “finest story” (10). From the age of eight, Gavin Doddington is sent to visit Mrs. Nicholson, his mother's school friend, so that the sea air can benefit his fragile health. Wealthy Mrs. Nicholson exposes the boy to luxury for the first time. However, Gavin is troubled by Mrs. Nicholson's passionate flirtation with a married admiral. Mrs. Nicholson dies of an illness when Gavin is ten, taking her place “among the stigmata of his extreme youth” (688).

Through hindsight that grants knowledge of the widow's early death, the reader sees that Mrs. Nicholson's “preoccupation” with the married Admiral Concannon wasted the few years that she had left. As Thomas Dukes states of the heroines of Bowen's novels, “women are less victims of circumstances than of their own needs and desires” (22); this is true of Mrs. Nicholson. Rather gratuitously, the Admiral advises Mrs. Nicholson to be “happy” in their friendship when he contends that adultery is a vile enterprise that he would never undertake (707). Apparently, Mrs. Nicholson had fantasized that the Admiral's sickly wife might die, leaving him free to remarry. Ironically, the hardy Mrs. Nicholson is the one who dies, with her hopes of being rescued from widowhood destroyed.

As Mrs. Nicholson squanders her passion on an impossible, forbidden love, so does Gavin. With the adult Gavin visualizing Mrs. Nicholson during his own early middle age, the reader falls under the illusion of regarding them as contemporaries. Gavin might have courted the widow if fate had matched their generations. Instead, little Gavin resents the tall Admiral, whose age is appropriate but marital status is not—the reverse of Gavin's own predicament. “Ivy” portrays Gavin's courtly love for the indifferent Mrs. Nicholson as a destructive passion. The courtly love movement began through worship of the Virgin during the Middle Ages, according to Marina Warner and Julia Kristeva, who have written separate, influential works on Madonna myth.3 For Gavin, Mrs. Nicholson is as distant and perfect as the Madonna herself. Lilian's beautiful clothes, leisurely days, and richly cushioned rooms create a glamorous image that contrasts with that of Gavin's threadbare, hard-working parents and chilly, ill-furnished house. Of course, Lilian and all she represents transfix the boy, making him realize the squalor of his own life. Visits to her rescue him from that squalor; he longs never to return home. Like a pilgrim, he goes to Lilian to escape the mundane by worshipping the grace and loveliness conjured by her name.

Unfortunately, the longterm effect of Gavin's obsession with Mrs. Nicholson is to cripple his emotional development; courtly love poisons him metaphorically while it literally kills the widow. Mrs. Nicholson and the Admiral portray a kind of courtly love in retaining the honor of chaste lovers of old; but the story asks, for what purpose? Rather unwillingly, Mrs. Nicholson keeps herself unstained like Rapunzel in a tower until the widow becomes a dead relic. Gavin worships her from an even greater distance than that existing between her and the Admiral, and continues his worship long after both Lilian and the Admiral have died. His living death complements the actual death of the other two.

Bowen's flashback technique highlights Mrs. Nicholson's lifelong effect on Gavin; for though few of the people in Lilian's neighborhood in 1940 have heard of the elegant widow, Gavin continues to be taken with his memory of her. A girl whom Gavin meets at the story's end guesses that emotional damage has been done to Gavin, seeing him as “a whole stopped mechanism for feeling” (711). Of course, the girl does not know that the cause of Gavin's paralysis is his absorption with the woman who had regarded him as a substitute for a pet dog. Overhearing Mrs. Nicholson say that she saw him so had broken the boy's heart; the adult Gavin's heart remains torn.

As an adult, Gavin pursues many brief affairs instead of anything substantial, much as Mrs. Nicholson did when flirting with the Admiral. The girl at the story's end recognizes something “wolfish” in Gavin's face, but notes that “preyers are preyed upon” (711). This suggests another parallel between Gavin and Mrs. Nicholson. Mrs. Nicholson's exploitative attitude towards young persons like Gavin is amplified by Gavin the adult, who, at the story's end, regards the girl “with calculation” (711). Gavin wishes to pick up the girl to use her for his entertainment; he is sexually exploitative of women today because he was “preyed upon” emotionally by one long ago.4

The flashback technique serves an additional function of juxtaposing the two painful World War periods with the tranquil pre-war era. Before World War I, Gavin spent idyllic weeks with Mrs. Nicholson in prosperous Seastone. However, the Admiral marred their days with his dour predictions of impending war. The widow angrily denied the possibility of war, partly out of loyalty to Germany, where she and Gavin's mother attended finishing school. Neither did Mrs. Nicholson know that she would die before WWI, nor that WWII would come after it—two tragic disputes with her beloved Germany. Dying in 1912, Mrs. Nicholson becomes, through Bowen's flashback technique, an emblem of a lost world that believed in civility between people and nations. Nevertheless, in Mrs. Nicholson's case, civility was a veneer over selfishness; perhaps that could be so for her class in general, whose economic interests both wars defended at the cost of innumerable lives.5 The Admiral becomes the emblem of pre-war values too, specifically of the renunciation of improper desires. Yet he, like Mrs. Nicholson, is not as admirable as he first appears. He leads Mrs. Nicholson on for many months before dismissing her when she confesses her feelings for him. What has changed between the Admiral's prime and Gavin's is that postures of nobility are no longer required. Consequently, Gavin boldly follows the girl at the end of the story.

The “ivy” of the title suggests the abandonment of past customs by Gavin's generation, along with England's economic decline under war expenses that has turned Seastone from a well-kept resort town into a seedy army billet. Heather Bryant Jordan believes that the ivy stands for the strangling effect of the two wars upon Seastone, and perhaps upon Britain as a whole (146). The profusion of the ivy also suggests Gavin's overgrown obsession with the past—his dwelling upon the hurt inflicted upon him by Mrs. Nicholson at the cost of his present life. He projects his sense of being smothered by his memories of Mrs. Nicholson into a belief that her house is being strangled by ivy.

Gavin regards the widow's house with a skepticism that resembles Bowen's attitude towards the English, according to the contemporary Irish novelist, William Trevor: “She came to know England well, but always wrote about the English from an angle which suggests a stranger on the edge of a circle of friends” (171). Like Gavin, Bowen observes changing English society from an outsider's critical perspective. Bowen's disillusionment with and alienation from English culture stems from her Anglo-Irish identity. However, Gary Davenport observes that “To the casual reader, one of the least conspicuous things about the late Elizabeth Bowen is her Irish nationality” (27).6 Not surprisingly then, “Summer Night” is the only story of the three treated here that focuses upon Irish characters and society.

Despite the attention placed upon Bowen's English traits, critics have discussed the influence of Bowen's Irish background upon all of her novels and stories, even those not set in Ireland. For example, Howard Moss sees the adults exploitation of children in such stories as “Ivy” as mirroring the colonial relationship between the English and the Irish (128). In addition, even when Bowen's stories are set in England, they reflect the complexity of perception that Anglo-Irishness encourages. As Richard Tillinghast explains, “How complicated questions of identity were for the Anglo-Irish, who thought of themselves as Irish, while to their tenants they were ‘the English’” (27). Bowen's questioning of English values is characteristically Irish, but she depicts such values with authenticity because she lived in England among the English. The converse is true when she depicts Irish values with some skepticism along with deep knowledge. In other words, Bowen writes from both the insider's and the outsider's positions when she portrays England and Ireland.

From the point of view of theorists such as Emily Hicks and Gloria Anzaldua, Bowen could be considered a border writer because of her dual identity—both Irish and English. Hicks says that border writing is characterized by “the ability to see not just from one side of a border, but from the other side as well” (xxiii). Bowen's double perspective allows her to illuminate characters' disillusionment when seeking an impossible rescue from a rapidly changing society that alienates them.

Although Anzaldua specifically analyzes the Chicana who is caught between Anglo, Mexican, and Native American traditions, Bowen can be seen to be in a comparable, if less vexed and impoverished, position. Bowen's double perspective resembles that of the “mestiza” described by Anzaldua: “Straddling … cultures and their value systems, la mestiza undergoes a struggle of flesh, a struggle of borders, an inner war … cultural collision” (78). Such a cultural collision reflects “a larger creative process: cultural shifts” (74) that engender “mental and emotional states of perplexity. The mestiza's dual or multiple personality is plagued by psychic restlessness” (78). Like Bowen, her protagonists suffer “psychic restlessness” that stems from the “cultural shifts” produced by capitalistic industrialism plus two world wars, and, in “Summer Night,” by the collision between Irish Catholic puritanism, Celtic primitivism, and English decadence.

When the mestiza comes to terms with her restlessness, she can achieve “a more whole perspective, one that includes rather than excludes” (Anzaldua 79). Mrs. Tottenham and Queenie achieve that wholeness of viewpoint to a certain extent, though Gavin and Emma do not. Bowen's stories tend to end on a defeated note of pain rather than on one of triumphant psychological integration. Bowen's pessimism resembles that of other modern Irish fiction writers such as Joyce, Sean and Julia O'Faolain, Jennifer Johnston, William Trevor, Brian Moore, Bernard Mac Laverty, and Mary Lavin.

The pessimism of modern Irish stories is consistent with the views of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guaitari, who consider Irish literature to be one of the “minor” literatures created by colonized peoples. Deleuze and Guitari write that “A minor literature doesn't come from a minor language; it is rather that which a minority constructs within a major language” (16). Bowen does not exhibit the overt political agenda that some writers of minor literature do, but she does often write from the disillusioned, alienated perspective about England as a “major” colonial nation that characterizes the author of minor literature.

As well as Bowen's Anglo-Irishness, another source for her understanding of disillusionment and consequent alienation is her traumatic childhood. Mary Jarrett writes that “Elizabeth Bowen suffered feelings of dislocation and betrayal as a child from the lies told to her about her father's mental breakdown and her mother's cancer” (71). Tragedies were compounded by lies that adults chose to tell the young Bowen. Ghosts haunt Gavin as symbols of the childhood betrayals he cannot forget. His disillusionment occurred while he was a child, too young to cope with it; it has left him stunted as an adult. Bowen shows that painful epiphanies can dignify middle-aged women like Mrs. Tottenham, but they can overwhelm children like Gavin who are not yet ready to face the truth.7

Bowen chronicled the psychological issues of her war-torn era, according to Heather Bryant Jordan. Angus Wilson calls Bowen one of the two writers who best dramatized London during the blitz of World War II (7). Bowen's stories of disillusionment and alienation transcend the individual's experience to portray the conflicts of her time—not only of a shaken England, but of a changing Ireland and a divided Europe that continue to struggle with alienation and the tyranny of illusions.


  1. Mary Jarrett notes that forms of imprisonment are Bowen's central concern (73). For example, Emma is imprisoned by her husband's tragic situation, but also by her high expectations of what illicit romance should mean.

  2. According to Heather Bryant Jordan, “Summer Night's” intensity about sexuality and emotion recalls fiction by D. H. Lawrence (144).

  3. Both Julia Kristeva's “Stabat Mater” and Marina Warner's Alone of All Her Sex examine the myth of the Virgin Mary from a feminist perspective, meditating upon its significance during different historical periods, including the Middle Ages.

  4. A. C. Partridge wrote that “In her use of the short story, Elizabeth Bowen indicates most economically how Edwardian wealth could strangle human values” (180). That is what happens to Gavin under the influence of Mrs. Nicholson's calculating charms.

  5. Phyllis Lassner observes that “this story is ringed by two world wars, but the characters' dispossession and losses place them in a wider historical process” (91). She sees Mrs. Nicholson's society “as a metaphor for Anglo-Ireland, not just English gentility” (92). Lassner's interpretation of “Ivy” is in keeping with her view of Bowen's short fiction as centrally concerned with the conflicts between her own Irish and English heritages.

  6. Gearoid Cronin reports that Bowen has been “identified with the almost constitutionally English tradition of the comedy of manners and social satire” (144). “The Return,” “Summer Night,” and “Ivy” do contain a few satirical elements but are too dark to be called comedies of manners. Swift, the great satirist, was Anglo-Irish like Bowen, and like her, has been accused of misanthropy.

  7. The sources for Bowen's depiction of disillusionment and alienation include modernism, psychology, and impressionism. As has been noted by many critics, Bowen's dense, elliptical style recalls that of Henry James. Lassner, for example, contends that Bowen's ambiguous language and her view that the short story should be suggestive and impressionistic come from James (119). See John Bayley's study of the interconnections between writers of the short story such as Bowen, Joyce, James, Kipling, and Hardy. Her occasional use of the stream of consciousness technique has roots in modern psychology and echoes Joyce, Lawrence, and especially Virginia Woolf. Her impressionistic style not only comes from literary influences, but that of painting

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Bayley, John. The Short Story: Henry James to Elizabeth Bowen. Brighton: Harvester, 1988.

Bowen, Elizabeth. “Ivy Gripped the Steps.” The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen. New York: Knopf, 1981. 686-711.

———. “The Return.” 1923. The Collected Stories. 28-34.

———. “Summer Night,” 1941. O'Connor, Frank, ed. Classic Irish Short Stories. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1989. 297-335.

Cronin, Gearoid. “The Big House and the Irish Landscape in the Work of Elizabeth Bowen.” The Big House in Ireland. Ed. Jacqueline Genet. Savage MD: Barnes and Noble, 1991. 143-62.

Davenport, Gary T. “Elizabeth Bowen and the Big House.” Southern Humanities Review 8 (1974): 27-34.

Deleuze, Gilles and Guaitari, Felix. “What is a Minor Literature?” Kafka. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1986. 16-27.

Dowling, Colette. The Cinderella Complex. New York: Summit, 1981.

Dukes, Thomas. “The Unorthodox Plots of Elizabeth Bowen.” Studies in the Humanities 16.1 (1989): 10-23.

Gilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1982.

Halperin, John. “Elizabeth Bowen and Henry James.” Henry James Review 7.1 (1985): 45-7.

Hicks, Emily. Border Writing: The Multidimensional Text. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1991.

Hildebidle, John. Five Irish Writers. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1989.

Hoogland, Renee C. Elizabeth Bowen: A Reputation in Writing. New York: New York University Press, 1994.

Irigaray, Luce. “The Bodily Encounter with the Mother.” Trans. David Macey. Ed. Margaret Whitford. The Irigaray Reader. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991. 34-46.

Jarrett, Mary. “Ambiguous Ghosts: the Short Stories of Elizabeth Bowen.” The Journal of the Short Story in English 8 (1987): 71-79.

Jordan, Heather Bryant. How Will the Heart Endure: Elizabeth Bowen and the Landscape of War. Ann Arbor: U Michigan P, 1992.

Kristeva, Julia. “About Chinese Women.” 1974. Trans. Sean Hand. Ed. Toril Moi. The Kristeva Reader. New York: Columbia UP, 1986. 138-59.

———. “Stabat Mater.” 1977. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. The Kristeva Reader.

Lassner, Phyllis. Elizabeth Bowen: A Study of the Shorter Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1991.

Lee, Hermione. Elizabeth Bowen: An Estimation. London: Vision and Barnes and Noble, 1980.

Mulvey, Laura. Visual and Other Pleasures. London: Macmillan, 1989.

Moss, Howard. “Interior Children.” New Yorker 5 February 1979, 121-28.

Partridge, A.C. “Language and Identity in the Shorter Fiction of Elizabeth Bowen.” Irish Writers and Society at Large. Ed. Masaru Sekine. Totowa NJ: Barnes and Noble, 1985. 169-80.

Tillinghast, Richard. “Elizabeth Bowen: the House, the Hotel, and the Child.” The New Criterion 13.4 (1994): 24-33.

Warner, Marina. Alone of All Her Sex: the Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary. New York: Vintage, 1976.

Weekes, Ann Owens. Irish Women Writers. Lexington: U P of Kentucky, 1990.

———. Unveiling Treasures. Dublin: Attic P, 1993.

Wilson, Angus. Introduction. The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen. 7-11.

John Coates (essay date summer 2000)

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SOURCE: Coates, John. “The Moral Argument of Elizabeth Bowen's Ghost Stories.” Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature 52, no. 4 (summer 2000): 293.

[In the following essay, Coates maintains that Bowen's ghost stories “offer some of the most concentrated examples of her moral vision.”]

By common consent, Elizabeth Bowen was a distinguished writer of ghost stories. While fully capable of giving her readers all the usual and anticipated satisfactions of such tales, she made, and fulfilled, other, larger claims for the form. As she remarked in 1947 in a preface to Le Fanu's Uncle Silas, “Our ancestors may have had an agreeable-dreadful reflex from the idea of the Devil or a skull-headed revenant, popping in and out through a closed door: we need, to make us shiver the effluence from a damned soul” (Mulberry Tree 112). Tales of terror may always have contained an element of “moral dread” but its “refinement” in literature has been “modern.” She aimed to build on this post-Jamesian “refinement” to explore moral evil as well as, but much more than, the spooky or uncanny. Far from being marginal, if accomplished, diversions, Bowen's ghost stories offer some of the most concentrated examples of her moral vision. It is possible to explore the ghost stories, or that vision in general, in purely humanist terms. In such terms, the tales discussed in this [essay] deal with the consequences of failures of imagination or of sympathetic understanding. Although such readings may be sensible enough as far as they go, there is a loss in restricting oneself to a humanist frame of reference. Refusal to discuss the bearing of Bowen's strong religious beliefs and of her “feeling of the thinness of the barrier between the living and the dead” (Glendinning 236) on her writing is a “black hole” in recent accounts of her fiction. Bowen's ghost stories grow from, and yield their fullest satisfactions in terms of a spiritual vision, a sense of the utter reality of good and evil, of strange dimensions and unlooked-for consequences which lie beyond what “realism” may describe or contain. As Elizabeth Bowen uses it, the ghost story form touches a nerve of wonder, defamiliarizing English upper-middle class household scenes. It forces readers to see moral issues in far deeper and more spiritual terms, with the veils of habit and familiarity removed. Angus Wilson, a novelist nothing if not resolutely humanist, recognized the significance of Bowen's “apparent total acceptance of ghosts, of the occult” as part of her perception of life, and of her art. For her “ghosts make sense of life, not nonsense” (Collected Stories [The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen] 10).

Complex and multi-faceted as Bowen's moral vision was, at its heart lay a concern with social, spiritual and emotional disintegration. The loss of order and rootedness, of agreed codes of manners and behavior, is a central concern in her novels. “Rootedness” had never been without its own pain or problems (as Stella reflects on her visit to Mount Morris in The Heat of the Day [174]) but the contemporary destruction or refusal of roots and order inflicted a deep damage on the individual and on society. Readers of Bowen will readily recall cases of psychological and emotional disturbance consequent on the loss of an agreed upon moral order; febrile, inward-turned relationships like that of Thomas and Anna in The Death of the Heart (40), dysfunctional, brittle, emotionally impaired families such as the Holme Dene menage in The Heat of the Day (107-24) or the Michaelis household in The House in Paris (126-33). Lack of the secure basis, of the ease accepted moral or social codes bring, produces a malaise whose various symptoms Bowen's novels chart; morbid self-consciousness, and a restless search for a “brilliant personality” like that of Eddie in The Death of the Heart (62-67); people (like Anna and Thomas in the same novel) who cannot receive a casual visitor (87-90) or make a young girl dependent on them welcome in their home; individuals, such as Markie in To the North, unable to eat a meal in quiet with a woman he is supposed to love (202), enraged at the mere thought of repose or content.

Deracinated, egotistical and ill-at-ease, many of Bowen's characters are also casually cruel and treacherous. They are betrayers of innocent young victims like Portia in The Death of the Heart and the children in The House in Paris or of love, as Markie betrays Emmeline in To the North. Very often, the “facts” of these acts of cruelty or treachery, the bare outlines of what is said or done, are unsensational, even mundane. Portia sees Eddie holding hands with someone else. Leopold's mother in The House in Paris breaks her promise to come and collect him from a house where he is being looked after. Emmeline's lover Markie turns up dishevelled and hung-over at a breakfast she wished to share with him. Bowen's intention, and her achievement, are to make us feel the emotional force, the devastating results, above all the spiritual dimension of such seemingly trivial acts.

A crucial point about Elizabeth Bowen's ghost stories is that their moral effect is cognate with that of her other fiction. They draw their power from the same imaginative impulse to render the ordinary as strange, to show what we take to be the way of the world in its true (and sometimes terrible) light. Indeed a sharp division between Bowen's ghost stories and her fiction in general is somewhat artificial. Two of her novels, The Heat of the Day and A World of Love are affected at crucial moments by incidents which border on the supernatural, Louie's intimations in the former novel that she was sought out by Stella to save her (248) and Guy's manifestation in the latter (68). Allowing for borderline cases and some inevitable imprecision in defining the term, ghost stories form about a tenth of Bowen's short fiction. More significantly, they include several of her acknowledged masterpieces in the short story, such as “The Cat Jumps,” “The Happy Autumn Fields” and two stories discussed here, “The Apple Tree” and “The Demon Lover.” This [essay] will examine the themes and technique of moral exploration in three of the ghost stories, a sequence marking Elizabeth Bowen's progress to mature achievement in this form.

“The Shadowy Third” (1923) deals with the widower Martin's attempt to make a fresh start in a second marriage and the way in which his first wife returns as a “shadowy third,” an unlaid ghost or unresolved guilt, to blight this new life. The story is less subtle than Bowen's later treatments of such themes as rejection of the past, the betrayal of love and the self-enclosed relationship built on lying or a denial of whatever world surrounds the lovers. Yet, this early tale is interesting for the very clarity with which it enunciates these subjects and because it places them on the margins of the supernatural. From the outset, Bowen's major preoccupations and her concern with the supernatural were inextricably linked. “The Shadowy Third” swiftly locates its characters in economic, social and emotional contexts. The first paragraph links the physically unprepossessing Martin's puzzling hold over women with his destructive effect on them. He has been loved by two wives, one now dead; by a mother whose “inarticulate devotion he resented”; and by “a pale sister, also dead” (CS [The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen] 75). This opening association of love with death is not a common romantic cliche. Refusal of love, not love itself, is what kills. For Martin, being loved by women means having the opportunity to manipulate and, eventually, to reject them. He operates by a low-key but adroit emotional blackmail. Although, for example, he could have gone home “easily and luxuriously” on the half-empty 6:05 p.m. train, he catches the crowded 5:20 p.m. one to be with his young wife a little earlier in the evening. Whatever he currently pretends, however, his motive for this is not love but the power his “sacrifice” gives him over his wife. It is “[t]he consciousness of this, and of many other things, which made her so speechless when they met” (CS 75). He relishes her gratitude for his love, her awe of him and the way he can play on her feelings. Baby-talk forms the language of their relationship: (“She is such a pussy” [CS 78]). The atmosphere of their home is ostensibly one of domestic warmth. However, the underlying reality is control, the taming of the “little woman.” When he discovers she has put some “drooping plants” in their garden (CS 75), he painstakingly points out that they are in the wrong place. In a burst of enthusiasm, she suggests going to a gardening exhibition (“We could learn a lot” [CS 76]) but he responds like the parent of an importunate child: “Well, we'll see.” The baby they expect offers him a further means to control and regulate her: “Why, she would have other things besides sundials to think of then. What a funny little woman she was!” (CS 77). Too much physical movement by his wife irritates him: (“But he was still dissatisfied. Something was making her restless; she was out in the garden too much”). “Pussy” ought to be sitting quietly near the fire, sewing.

Martin and his wife live in a house “among the first two or three on a new estate” (CS 75), overlooking the “rolling country” on the west and the “house backs on new roads” (CS 75) on the east. It is an instance of that urbanization, the ribbon-development of the 1920s and 1930s which features in so many of Bowen's settings. Such descriptive passages link change in the landscape of southern England with altered social and class patterns, but, more significantly, with the changing nature of emotional expectation and response. The symbolism of these landscapes is rarely, if ever, a mere threnody for a vanished past. (Consider, for instance, the ambivalence, the balanced judicious effect of that simile in To the North (1932) where Cecilia's bereavement is compared to the destruction of a great house by fire and the building of a modern suburb in its place. (99-100). In “The Shadowy Third” the house has been “built for” Martin four years earlier (CS 75), during his first wife's life. The plaster on the walls is still not dry enough for papering. This building of a house to order, and to his own design, was a way of escaping the past. Martin finds the idea of connection, of being in any kind of pattern, irritating and threatening whether the pattern is one formed by previous events and past relationships or is simply that of a neighborhood where people have known him or are aware of him. He feels the windows of nearby houses “watching him; their gaze … hostile, full of comment and criticism.” This morbid English obsession with privacy is a current running through Bowen's later work, appearing in major scenes like Brutt's unwanted visit in The Death of the Heart or Stella Rodney's treatment at Holmdene in The Heat of the Day. Like many later Bowen characters, Martin is offended by rootedness or habitual associations. He finds something disgusting in having “lived in the same place all one's life” and in the people around him “being the same” (CS 80).

Rejecting the past in general, Martin rejects his own past, and his previous marriage with particular vehemence. Yet, there are odd features in his act of rejecting. He is continually aware of the way the house was furnished in his dead wife's lifetime, brushing aside the “musty velvet folds” of a non-existent hall-curtain (CS 78), or listening on the stairs “where the grandfather clock used to be” (CS 78). The curious point about Martin's unhappy first marriage and his current “happy” matrimonial attempt is that the emotional and domestic details of the second echo those of the first. Looking at “Pussy” sewing baby-clothes, he remembers “her making baby clothes” and holding them up for him to see. His first wife would “rattle her workbox maddeningly.” His second wife opens the oak-chest “rattling things about in it” as if she were after a mouse (CS 78). His second wife's exploration of the east room and her attempt to open the white chest of drawers recall the first wife's “opening and shutting” those drawers in the months before her death (CS 81).

Martin tries to disrupt this recurring pattern, and to break the thread of recollections by acts of will. Seeing “Pussy” using a thimble-case she has had since she was a little girl, but which he thinks belonged to his first wife, he “fiercely” asked where she got it (CS 81). In spite of her reply, he “confiscated it and brought her a morocco one next day, with a new thimble in it that did not fit” (CS 81). He changes his own habits, giving up the “passion for self-education his first wife could never understand” and which he had used to exclude her from his life (CS 78). “Sometimes he had barely raised his eyes from his book” (CS 78). Now “he never read these evenings” since “books, after all, were musty things, and all the book learning in the world didn't make him more valuable to Pussy.”

Obviously, “The Shadowy Third” deals with a buried past, with cruelty and emotional violation in a former relationship. These return to blight what is intended to be a fresh beginning. Almost as obviously, the story is a variant of the Bluebeard theme; the new wife exploring the haunted home, the room which must not be entered, the repeated denials, the hidden victim of a (virtual) murder. However, the tale's most salient feature is its English middle-class location and what this implies. The recently built home (“It's funny to be living in such a new house” [CS 77]), with its excellent railway connections, owners for whom Gardening Exhibitions are available, and who get rid of Victorian furnishings (Grandfather clocks and Portieres) in favor of an uncluttered modern look belongs to the world of Betjeman's “The Metropolitan Railway,” celebrating the burgeoning suburbs of the 1920s and 1930s. The years between the Wars, rightly remembered for Depression blackspots like Jarrow, were pleasant enough for middle-class people with secure incomes. Almost non-existent inflation, and affordable, agreeable housing in leafy suburbs opened up by the train are the context for Martin's new home and his new attempt at happiness with “Pussy.”

In creating his love-nest, Martin suppresses his treatment of the “shadowy third,” his first wife. Rejecting her love for him, her constant pleading for his attention, he set up a situation in which there was no pleasing him, where everything about her, and everything she did, was bound to be wrong: “Of course she ought to have worn glasses; he hated women in glasses and she knew it, but her short-sightedness annoyed him and he had frequently said so” (CS 79). “The Shadowy Third” effectively renders the second wife's mounting fear and her husband's desperate denial (“‘Nothing can touch us’, he reiterated” [CS 82]). Clearly, it is an uncanny account of the inability of the living to protect themselves from the intrusive dead. More than this is involved however. The weight of the narrative falls on those psychological factors and emotional choices which ensure that Martin's second marriage will be as unhappy as his first, and unhappy in similar ways. His character is what makes him a haunted man and what summons the Shadowy Third.

“The second wife's intimations of a sinister presence (“We're not safe land I don't believe we're even good” [CS 82]) go far beyond the sense of something creepy in the house, beyond even a feeling that there are unanswered questions about Martin's previous marriage. Essentially, the issue is one of emotional violation. The hungry ghost who was “done out” of her life is “brought back by the injustice” (CS 82). That injustice is rooted in Martin's attitude to women generally, his cold will to dominate masked (for the present) by domestic coziness and 1920s suburban comfort. The story's post-Jamesian rejection of Mrs. Radcliffe and her Italian castle involves more than a change of setting, a substitution of the suburban detached house for the Gothic mansion. Admittedly somewhat sketchy and not fully realized, “The Shadowy Third” begins to explore the quality (and defects) of certain kinds of middle-class culture and ideals of coziness, privacy, genteel evasiveness and the will to deny inconvenient emotional facts.

“The Apple Tree” (1934) tells of the haunting of a young wife, whose marriage is being wrecked as a result, by the tree from which a rejected school-fellow hanged herself. The spectre of the tree is exorcised by a worldly older woman. The story owes its greater success partly to the fact that the supernatural eruption it records has a far more thoroughly established social and moral context. The lines sketched in “The Shadowy Third” are more firmly drawn. With his friends' help, Simon is engaged in establishing himself and his new wife in a niche within the social structure. Having “entered with gusto into his new role of squire” (CS 461), he asserts his position as benevolent superior and benefactor. Unfortunately, the village hall he has endowed is a “raftered, charmless and icy building” (CS 461) and the Saturday concert in which the villagers give displays of “recitation, pianoforte duet and part song” for their patron is clearly a boring ordeal. Such social customs and implied attitudes are Victorian and might well have seemed natural in, say, 1870. By 1934, readers would have recognized in Simon and his friends a somewhat archaistic role-playing similar to that of Tony Last in Waugh's A Handful of Dust published in the same year. As in Tony's case, church attendance in “The Apple Tree” is a means of maintaining the status and role supposedly expected of leading figures in the local community. This social (rather than religious) gesture is as empty as the vigorous applause with which Simon and his party greet the amateur turns in the Village Hall. Simon, “satisfied with his friends” (CS 461), beams at them after their efforts: “He said it would please the village.” Lancelot, one friend, suspects this was why they were invited. “And for church tomorrow” replies another friend, Mrs. Bettersley.

In only a few lines “The Apple Tree” has suggested a context of forms and conventions from which life has departed but which are being sedulously maintained. There are further clues in the decor of Simon's house. His “feeling for home” has been “made concrete” in “deep leather chairs, padded fenders and sectional bookshelves, ‘domes of silence’ on yielding carpets, an unaspiring, comfortable sobriety” (CS 462). This is furniture of an anonymous good taste, found in catalogues or Sunday papers and aimed at middle-class readers who can quickly furnish their houses in an approved “unaspiring” fashion. The quoted phrase “domes of silence” hints at the mild, tasteful snobbery to which they are intended to appeal. The phrase “feeling for home” has an ironic note. This is not the expression in a home of those individual or idiosyncratic wishes, instincts or allegiances which Elizabeth Bowen valued, and, in a notable passage in The Death of the Heart (207), treated as an index of personal or cultural health. Instead, Simon's furniture, like his church-going and his village-hall, is a means of adapting to a ready-made recognized pattern; a model in which no particular interest or conviction is (or need be) invested but which camouflages the candidate for acceptance in a protective “comfortable sobriety.”

Particular cultural connotations surround “friendship” as well as “home” in this world. Simon's friends are “all so much knit up with each other, so much knit up around old Simon” (CS 465). The affectionate (if slightly contemptuous) “old Simon” suggests what other hints confirm. Simon needs his friends to help sustain his social postures. They need him to fulfil their avid appetite for vicarious experience, for annexing and battening on others' emotions or “problems.” “The Apple Tree” opens with two contrasts. The “nerve-racking combination of wind and moonlight” and the “eerie cold sky” (CS 461) are juxtaposed with the “honorably substantial” (CS 462) bulk of the house. This contrast is deliberately misleading. The “eerie” sky is harmless. The horrors are within the warm protective domestic interior. The second contrast, between the “great ruddy man” (CS 461) who “expanded and glowed” at the success of the part he had been playing and the urgent, gossipy voices of his friends, is more disturbing. The simple wholesome Englishman with his comfortable home and acknowledged standing (an ideal if not an actuality) is contrasted with the febrile dramatizing, the queer sideways glances and portentous hints Mrs. Bettersley offers Lancelot: (“He still did not know what she meant, and did not think she knew either” [CS 461]). In the brief interval of their return to his house, Simon's friends “fell into a discourse of Simon (his marriage, his menage, his whole aspect) marked by entire unrestraint” (CS 461). Although as “old friendly enemies,” the two speakers do not care for each other very much, they share an interest in picking over Simon's life together. While doing this, they can forget their mutual antipathy, “as though between the two some shadow had dissipated” (CS 461). (“[A]s though” suggests the excitement is temporary and their fundamental dislike will soon surface again.) They are excited by the confidences they exchange: (“Don't you know? Don't you know?”). The suspicion of illicit secrets leaves Lancelot “stuttering with excitement.” Both he and his companion find it “unbearable” (CS 462) when their feverish little huddle has to cease.

“The Apple Tree”'s opening raises several questions about friendship, communication, acceptance and rejection, the included and excluded. The motives for friendship in the social world of the story are cloudy at best. It is a way of gaining acceptance, a back-up mechanism to help sustain one's role and position. In return, one can give one's “friends” secondhand experiences or excitements drawn from one's own life. It is symbolically appropriate (if hardly surprising) that the sleepless Lancelot should “read one page of Our Mutual Friend with distaste” (CS 463). The mechanics of communication, the vigorous applause, “beaming smiles,” angled questions (“You weren't too bored?”) and appropriate reactions (“They could not fail to respond” [CS 462]), the “cordial” replies to absurdly enthusiastic statements (“Young Dickinson ought to go on the stage”) seem like an elaborate game or complicated ritual with no obvious point. When, with his friends' support, Simon seems to have recovered his spirits at the Saturday Concert, his change of mood is described as “a recognition so instantaneous, poignant and cheerful it was like a handshake, a first greeting” (CS 461). The word “poignant” is striking. Pathos underlies all the mannered arabesques of this social tribe.

Simon's friends' reaction to his young wife elaborates on this group psychology in a paragraph which contains some interesting shifts of feeling and emphasis. There are conflicting movements in the passage. The friends are prepared “with philosophy” (CS 463), implying that this does need forethought and conscious reflection to be “nice” to “young Mrs. Wing” because she is “barely nineteen” and inexperienced. At the same time they instinctively find something in her youth disgusting. The “flat little voice” of this “mannerless, sexless child,” this “something between a mouse and an undine” disturbs and repels them. It is her very vulnerability that offends; the fact that she does not have their elaborate social defenses and conversational strategies. Her “long silver sheath of a dress” makes her look older than she is; “so” (and that “so” is significant) they are prepared to make allowances for her. They recognize that someone so young cannot “be expected to put up anything of ‘a manner’” when she meets them. A “manner” is something one “puts up,” an odd phrase implying a defence rather than a way of making life easy and pleasant. The last sentence of the paragraph sums up what is wrong with Simon's wife in his friends' eyes: “By her very passivity she attacked them when they were least prepared” (CS 463). They are “unprepared” because vulnerability is exactly what their social strategies are intended to exclude and they are worried and tongue-tied when they meet it.

Lancelot's reaction to Simon, when he encounters his host at night in the library, is even more telling. Going down to get a detective novel because he cannot sleep, he discovers Simon fuddled with drink and “frightful in fear” (CS 464). His uncouth gestures (“moving bulkily” and bumping “against the furniture”) before pushing Lancelot out of the room are in sharp contrast with the mannered social exchanges, compliments and shows of enthusiasm of a little earlier. Simon's disintegration forces Lancelot to see something about human life, and, potentially, about his own existence that he has spent his time denying. Simon “gave off fear like some disagreeable animal smell, making Lancelot dislike and revolt at his own manhood subject to such decay” (CS 464).

Simon's unhappy state arouses Lancelot's fear, not of a threat from his friend, but of the fragility of his own identity. His response raises questions of how that identity has been constructed and why it should be vulnerable in this way. The clue has already been given in the social life we have witnessed; a life which has perfected techniques of evasion and dishonesty. When salient emotional facts escape the carefully woven net, they shock, intimidate and threaten disintegration.

In “The Apple Tree,” the supernatural is solid, palpable and physically “there,” rather than being some disquieting glimpse, unfocussed malaise or twilight intimation. It is not archaic, primitive or marginalized. (Mrs. Bettersley's comment “Naturally I didn't mean to suggest that she was a werewolf!” alludes to this familiar and vaguely comforting English ghost story frisson, found in Saki's “Gabriel-Ernest” and dozens of other Edwardian examples.) What Lancelot inadvertently discovers in the library is impossible to circumvent or to place within the tradition of the cozy shudder. Mrs. Bettersley's first attempt to deal with it encounters a rigid resistance. She cannot physically get past the apple tree. After briefly attempting to cajole Myra, the older woman leaves the library rubbing her hands together “as though she had hurt them” (CS 466). The physicality of the supernatural in “The Apple Tree,” its obstinacy as a fact “one can't get past,” stands in deliberate contrast to the cult of appearances, the adroit finessing around any awkwardness which defines social life in the story. Here is an intrusion no smooth conversational formulae can cover over.

The details of Lancelot's encounter with this manifestation are interesting. The film-like movement of his eye, as camera, over details of the disarranged scene, “a dog-collar lying unstrapped, ash trodden into a rug, a girl's gloves” (CS 465) recalls Elizabeth Bowen's own sense of the “affinities” between the modern short story and the cinema (Collected Impressions 38). The disorientation Lancelot's glance suggests is incomplete. He kneels at the library door “aware the whole time of his position's absurdity” (CS 465). We are given both a sense of the strange experience's force and of his own resistance to it. His self-consciousness and social training are not easily overthrown but overthrown they are. Significantly with his ear and not his eye to the key-hole, he envisions (or imagines) what is going on inside the library. This is a suggestion of the disorientation of his consciousness all the more telling for almost slipping past the reader's eye and being registered belatedly. The unusual syntax in the second half of this paragraph functions in various ways. It enforces attention since it has to be read slowly or read twice. By its very sound and structure it enacts Lancelot's gestures of investigation and growing fear. A long complex sentence is framed between the repeated word “silence,” a word evoking Lancelot's sharpening attention. He “sees” all the more disturbingly with the mind's rather than the physical eye: “Silence. In there she must still stand in contemplation—horrified, horrifying—of something high up that from the not quite fixity of her gaze had seemed unfixed, pendent, perhaps swaying a little. Silence” (CS 465).

The horror consists in the forcing together of incompatibles, the “idea of apples,” an innocent pastoral image made into something menacing, “seen black through a dark transparency.” The breaking of physical categories is worse than the disruption of imaginative associations. The linking of “pastoral” and “dark” is bad enough. The “idea of fruit” falling from a “leafy height” in a “stale, shut up room” is even more disorienting. This collapse of appropriate separations of association and occasion symbolizes the invasion (or return) of everything the defensive social manoeuvres of “The Apple Tree” had refused to accommodate. What has been denied is now utterly solid and present. (The “thud-thud-thud” of the apples contrasts with the convoluted dawning of understanding in the previous sentence [CS 465]). Lancelot's view of life momentarily disintegrates: “He thought he was going mad” (CS 465).

Mrs. Bettersley wrings from Myra an account of the Apple Tree's origins. The key phrase in the story the young woman tells is her repeated comment on the school she attended: “We began to feel that this was the world. … When I was twelve, I felt that if this was the world I could not bear it” (CS 468). The point is that the school does resemble the “world” “The Apple Tree” has already shown us. Behind the horror of Doria's suicide and the guilt Myra feels for having rejected someone who needed her lies the mystery of acceptance. Why do some people fit in when others are rejected? Myra can offer no real explanation: “I don't think they were unkind to us. … Everything seemed to go wrong … Doria and I were always in trouble” (CS 468). The children at Myra's school share with Simon and his friends the need to be part of a group which endorses their identities. The children are willing to pay the price in betrayal or cruelty to the outcast, that their elders will pay in endowing Village Halls or in Sunday morning church attendance.

Myra's account of her schooldays suggests other obvious connections between the childhood and adult worlds of “The Apple Tree.” Like the adults who “applauded vigorously” (CS 461) a concert they loathed, Myra and Doria at Crampton Park “never spoke” of their unhappiness and “used to pretend they were all right.” Like Simon's appropriate “unaspiring” furniture intended to give the right signals and no hostages, the school is “full of pictures to make it look homely” (CS 468). The worlds of both children and adults are based upon exclusions, denials, camouflage, and ultimately upon lies.

It is worth considering the nature of Myra's emotional violation. The relationship she shared with her fellow misfit, Doria, was not really one of affection, not a friendship in the ordinary sense: (“We were sometimes ashamed to meet each other: sometimes we did not like to be together” [CS 468]). What they had was something more powerful than an ordinary school companionship. It was a shared imaginative world. In their isolation and rejection by their fellow pupils, the “only happy part” of their lives had been “the games we played and the stories we told” near the “beautiful old apple tree” (CS 469). The “something of their own” which made them feel “happy and dignified” was an intense inner world; the imaginative play of children which is the matrix of creative energy and, perhaps, of much of the emotional health of later life. Myra's attack of measles and isolation with another girl signals the beginning of the outcast's acceptance into the group. In the sick-bay she meets a “very pretty and clever” new friend who represents a dreamed-of norm: “She had a home of her own; she was very happy and gay; to know her and to hear about her life was like heaven” (CS 469). To achieve this putative “norm,” Myra must sacrifice the apple-tree and all it represents, the inner life, fantasy, the idiosyncratic, “something of our own.” Accompanying Doria to the tree out of pity, she is suddenly overcome with fear at losing her newly gained acceptance into the school world, “of being lost again.” She says “terrible things” to her former companion, wishing her dead. Shortly after, Doria kills herself.

The power of “The Apple Tree” grows from the force and resonance of its central symbol, the tree and the sound of its dropping apples. This vision is a prime example of what Elizabeth Bowen, discussing her stories in 1959, called the “intensified all but spell-bound beholding” (Mulberry Tree 112) of a scene which, for her, preceded the dramatis personae of the fiction. The tree is the image of natural good, of organic life, of nature itself, perhaps. “Planted” in the library, it suggests displacement from a right order, violation and guilt. The strange solidity of the apparition, the presence “one can't get past” embodies the sense of a need that cannot be dismissed or ignored; an awkward and intractable fact. The apple tree is eerie because of its inherent strangeness but, even more, because of the wrecking of life it symbolizes.

In the tale, that violation is not cured or reversed, but glossed over and tidied up by an act of will. Mrs. Bettersley is one of Elizabeth Bowen's ironic tributes, from her Anglo-Irish perspective, to the efficiency of the English middle-class. The term “conformism,” or the concept of maintaining the status-quo, might carry associations of a lack of energy or a limp going with the current. In Bowen's perception, such an association misreads English middle-class culture completely. In fact, that culture is full of vitality and even ruthlessness. Mrs. Bettersley's “frankly wolfish” (CS 463) appetite for sandwiches is matched by a wolfish appetite for information and the power that comes with it. When she realizes that something strange is happening in the library, her face is “sharpened” with curiosity (CS 465). Pursuing her ends, she can bide her time, leaning back “impassive, watchful” (CS 465) until the chance to intervene comes. She then takes control with that “expectant half-smile” (CS 465). Grasping the situation, she appears “punctually for breakfast, beaming and impassible” (CS 466), forcefully rejects the idea of church and drags the secret of the apple tree out of the terrified Myra: (“We've got three-quarters of an hour alone. … You've got to tell me” [CS 467]). Having broken the secret, and “determined to vindicate herself’ (CS 470), the matron takes the “haunted girl” away for some weeks and sorts her out. Her motive is not altruistic but her manoeuvres are effective enough: “The passion of vanity has its own depths in the spirit, and is powerfully militant” (CS 470). Her “cynical vigilance” exorcises the apple tree and, untroubled now by imagination or inner life, Mrs. Wing rejoins her husband. The couple thereupon “disappeared into happiness: a sublime nonentity” (CS 470). The culture Mrs. Bettersley embodies is nothing if not confident, energetic and masterful. “The Apple Tree” is as much about the brutal vigor of the English middle-class and its capacity to strangle what it finds it awkward to admit, as it is about the poignant claims and terrifying, but momentary, resurgence of the inner life.

“The Demon Lover” (1941) describes how the middle-aged Mrs. Drover returns to her London house, shut up during the Blitz, and is forced to keep a promise to join her long-dead fiance. A useful starting point in considering this, arguably Elizabeth Bowen's most powerful ghost story, would be to recall the old Border Ballad on which she bases her tale. The ballad's presence beneath Bowen's story is significant for several reasons. Firstly, it develops and clarifies her response (recorded in this story and elsewhere) to the Second World War and to the Blitz in London. In the striking preface to “The Demon Lover” collection she speaks of having “opened a door” behind which the pressure “must have been very great” (Mulberry Tree 94). Her wartime stories belonged to a specific phase in her sensibility (and that of others) when “the overcharged subconsciousness of everybody overflowed and merged.” The “destruction of solid things,” of the “prestige, power and permanence” attached to buildings and institutions created a feeling of “lucid abnormality” (Mulberry Tree 95). The “strange deep intense dreams” many experienced at that time compensated them for the desiccation and deprivation of “preposterous” daytime life (Mulberry Tree 96).

Born out of a specific historical situation, this moment in her imaginative life fused the concerns of earlier stories like “The Shadowy Third” and “The Apple Tree” with new apprehensions available to Bowen. The return of a buried past and the inept or cruel responses of a particular social group at a particular time are still there, but they are overlaid and enriched by the enigmatic potency of an old ballad. The dreams of the “overcharged consciousness” take the form of a half-remembered folk-art. The result is more gnomic and disturbing than the earlier stories.

It has been said that the “feeling which compels and animates” the great ballads “is that of the High Tudor time, equally discernible in the great poetic drama of our delayed Renaissance” (BB [The Penguin Book of Ballads] 12). The ballads share the Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists' concerns: “love, incest, transgression of the divisions of class and rank, violence, bloodshed, revenge.” In Bowen's story, the middle-class world of the 1920s and 1930s, now crumbling in the Blitz, reveals affinities with darker, older types of betrayal and revenge; with the clearer outlines, and bleak exigencies of folk art and myth and with spiritual truths which clipped accents and understatement can no longer disguise.

In “James Harris or The Demon Lover,” the lover returns “to seek my former loves / ye granted me before” (BB 209). He is rejected by his “long, long love” who has settled for a comfortable life. She cares nothing for the quality of love he offered or the sacrifices, including marriage to a King's daughter, that he made for her. When he realizes how mean her nature is, “the tear blinded his eye.” His revenge as the demon lover, cajoling her onto his ship, follows the revelation of her treachery or, at least, of her emotional inadequacy. Promising to show her “how the lilies grow / on the banks of Italy” he points to “the hills of heaven” where “she will never win” and to the “mountain of hell / where you and I will go” (BB 210). The ballad ends with his breaking the ship and sinking them both in the sea.

Reference to this old ballad points to breach of faith, in some sense, as the defining factor in Bowen's “The Demon Lover.” Without adhering to all its details, the story follows the main thrust of the ballad. The key point is that in both ballad and story supernatural intrusion is not simply, or even essentially, the invasion by an evil presence of normal life. That presence is perceived as, or converted into, evil by the nature of the world to which it returns and by the response it evokes there. Interestingly, Bowen herself questions whether the “ruthless young soldier” of “The Demon Lover,” is intrinsically hostile. “Hostile or not,” such ghosts “fill the vacuum for the uncertain ‘I’” (Mulberry Tree 98). Statements of authorial intention may not be decisive evidence in exploring a piece of writing, but they are invariably interesting when they point to a reading which differs from the common response. For most of those who have read it, “The Demon Lover” is one of the very few really frightening ghost stories, “flamboyantly ghoulish” (141) in Hermione Lee's phrase. Bowen's own comments invite a reading which looks less at the menace of the “ruthless young soldier” and more at Mrs. Drover's “uncertain ‘I’”; at the quality of her life that makes her vulnerable to invasion.

The chilling details of “The Demon Lover” are obvious enough (though masterly) and have often been remarked on; the quietness of the Kensington streets to which Mrs. Drover returns during a lull in the Blitz to collect some belongings; the comment that “no human eye” is watching her (CS 661); the silence of the closed house; the unstamped letter on the mat which should not be there since all Mrs. Drover's mail is being redirected to her country address; the sudden darkening when clouds cover the sun. However, more is at work in “The Demon Lover” than a skilful placing of details to create a mounting alarm.

Uncanny as it must be to have a dead loved one return, one can imagine that love might conquer fear. There would remain the poignancy of beings brought together, out of due time, by love or longing; the mood and theme, among the ballads, of “The Wife of Usher's Well” rather than of “The Demon Lover.” Such love or longing are conspicuously absent in Mrs. Drover's case. The letter she receives is not in itself menacing. It simply refers to an unchanging love, “our anniversary,” “the day we said,” to the fact “nothing has changed” (CS 662). Mrs. Drover's immediate reaction is significant: “She felt so much change in her own face she went to the mirror” and looked at herself “urgently and stealthily” (CS 662). One among several possible responses (and not the most obvious one), this gesture goes to the root of Mrs. Drover's life. At some cost, she has been keeping up appearances or maintaining a persona. Her “most normal expression” is one of “sustained worry, but of assent” (CS 661). Nevertheless she “could always sustain” an “energetic and calm manner,” in spite of a tell-tale “intermittent flicker” to the side of her mouth (CS 663). The sheer effort she has put into playing a role might well make an observer wonder if it was all worthwhile. We are told little, and nothing that is damaging, about the “prosaic” Mrs. Drover's marriage (CS 661). (The placing, early on, of that single adjective is itself suggestive.) The Drovers' life has been dull, or at least unremarkable. Mrs. Drover was “relieved” at “being courted” (CS 664), by William after the death of her fiance in 1916. Once married, they settled in “arboreal” Kensington, a good address, where “the years piled up, her children were born” (CS 664). No information is supplied about what Mrs. Drover thinks or feels concerning husband or children beyond one cryptic phrase: “Her movements as Mrs. Drover were circumscribed” (CS 664). “Mrs. Drover” seems to be a role she has consciously adopted. The self and “Mrs. Drover” are separated in her own mind. Although she is “circumscribed” she is aware of the limitations of the role she has taken up and, presumably, accepts them. It is interesting to compare the minimalist treatment of her emotional life with the disorientation she feels at the removal of her furniture from its accustomed places. She is “more perplexed than she knew” by the yellow smoke stain revealed on the mantelpiece (CS 660), the now-visible bruise on the wallpaper, or the “claw-marks” on the carpet where the piano had been.

With unobtrusive skill, “The Demon Lover” sketches an emotional climate where a lover would appear as a demon. The description of Mrs. Drover's parting from her soldier sweetheart in August 1916 suggests the disparate nature of the emotion each brings to this last encounter. “Not seeing him at this intense moment” (CS 663) is as though she “had never seen him at all.” In later years “under no conditions could she remember his face” (CS 665). Being unremembered of course heightens the fearfulness of his return but, even more, it emphasizes the unequal quality of their love. After he goes missing, she “behaved well” and “felt just a little grief” (CS 664). It is not his death which disorientates her but what she feels is the “unnatural promise” (CS 663), the “sinister troth” (CS 664) she has plighted. The actual moment of their parting is suggestive. The lovers are on different levels playing from different scripts. Kathleen is eager to run back to her mother and sister, producing an appropriate “romantic” line: “What shall I do? What shall I do? He has gone.” She is embarrassed or nonplussed by the depth and urgency of his feeling for her, perhaps by the reality of love itself. The “unnatural promise” (that they will always be together whatever happens?) is not so unusual, is perhaps the stuff of lovers' vows. In her panic at receiving the mysterious letter promising her fiance's return she lurches from falsification of their relationship to a willed amnesia: “He was never kind to me, not really. I don't remember him kind at all. Mother said he never considered me at all. He was set on me, that was what it was—not love. Not love, not meaning a person well” (CS 665).

By general consent disturbing, “The Demon Lover” is also deeply ironic. The ominous hints and signals in the tale reflect Mrs. Drover's own consciousness of what is happening to her. Along with these signals there are, simultaneously, invitations to stand apart from her fear and to judge it. Juxtaposing English middle-class mores and emotional constrictions of the day with the full-blown passions of the old ballads, with ways of experiencing love current not merely in the “High Tudor time” but in many other times and places underlines the particular kind of emotional failure which is the tale's context.

Elizabeth Bowen's ghost stories offer an oblique but effective critique of English middle-class emotional failure in a particular phase, from the 1920s to the Second World War. Essentially, though not exclusively, these stories chart the revenge of rejected feelings; of sympathetic understanding for another's need; of the inner life of the imagination; of the possibility of intense love. The ghosts haunt a world dominated by the pursuit of fraudulent domestic coziness, social exclusiveness, “unaspiring comfort,” falsity masquerading as friendship, emotional poverty which sees love as a threat. Without a firm and generally accepted moral code to guide and enrich personal conduct or a reverence for the emotional life, whether one's own or another's, people in these stories are vulnerable. The eerie events they experience suggest that failure of imagination or sympathetic understanding are too easily dismissed as ordinary personal misdemeanors. In some cases, we may feel such behavior does have about it the “effluence of a damned soul.”

The three tales show Elizabeth Bowen's technique sharpening over twenty years of her career and her moral focus becoming clearer. “The Shadowy Third” shows the bankruptcy of that pursuit of normality or mediocrity which, at the date of the story, had a political dimension. A war-weary public were ready for Martin's ideal under the guidance of politicians like Bonar-Law and Baldwin (the equivalent of President Harding and his “normalcy” in the United States). “The Apple Tree” takes these partly muffled hints and develops them in writing that is far more confident. The terrors are far more palpable, the betrayal more sharply defined, the “cure” deeply ironic. In “The Demon Lover” ironic and terrifying are combined throughout. The ghost of the First World War soldier in a bomb-damaged Kensington mansion links private terror to public ruin (or perhaps nemesis, since the dead of 1914-1918 have been betrayed on several levels). Clearly, in Elizabeth Bowen's view, the coming of the Second World War cannot be separated from the self-deception and the failure of imagination and sympathetic understanding, consequent upon the loss of an authentic moral and emotional order, that her ghost stories explore.

Works Cited

Bowen, Elizabeth. Collected Impressions. London: Longmans, 1950.

———. The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen. Ed. Angus Wilson. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983. Cited in the text as CS.

———. The Death of the Heart. 1938. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1962.

———. The Heat of the Day. 1947. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1962.

———. The House in Paris. 1935. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976.

———. The Mulberry Tree: Writings of Elizabeth Bowen. Ed. Hermione Lee. London: Virago, 1986.

———. To the North. 1932. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984.

———. A World of Love. 1955. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983.

Glendinning, Victoria. Elizabeth Bowen: Portrait of a Writer. London: Phoenix, 1993.

Lee, Hermione. Elizabeth Bowen: An Estimation. London: Vision, 1981.

The Penguin Book of Ballads. Ed. Geoffrey Grigson. 1975. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982. Cited in the text as BB.


Elizabeth Bowen World Literature Analysis


Bowen, Elizabeth (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)