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.
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.
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.