Elizabeth Bowen

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Bowen, Elizabeth (Vol. 1)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Bowen, Elizabeth 1899–

Anglo-Irish novelist and short story writer, Miss Bowen is best known for her novel The Death of the Heart. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18.)

Elizabeth Bowen has often been called a novelist of 'sensibility', a term which, if it means anything at all, is apt too often to imply the exploitation of the writer's own particular temperament at the expense of those other qualities which go to the making of a good novelist. To apply this designation to Miss Bowen is to underestimate, by implication, the breadth of her talent…. Miss Bowen uses her sensibility (which is without question exquisite) as an instrument, merely, for producing the particular effects at which she is aiming in her novels and stories. (p. 5)

Apart … from the visual approach, what other aspects of her work remain most clearly in one's memory? Plot? Decidedly no: Miss Bowen's plots are, for the most part, of an extreme simplicity; indeed, her novels can hardly (with the possible exception of The Heat of the Day) be said to have 'plots' at all. Character? Again (though less decidedly) no: for Miss Bowen, though an adept at presenting and analysing her characters, is seldom, one feels, passionately concerned with them merelv as characters; and, though one remembers many of the people in her books, she cannot be said to have created any 'great' characters such as those of Dostoievsky, Proust or Dickens…. [But] with the consideration of character we do approach nearer to what I feel to be the connecting link between almost all her novels and stories, and the mainspring of her creative achievement. This I would describe as a preoccupation with the relationship between the individual and his environment. (p. 8)

[It] is, I think [Jane] Austen, among distinguished novelists of the past, with whom Miss Bowen has most in common. Like Miss Austen she knows her own limitations; but, within the acknowledged boundaries of her talent and her temperament, she has created a small and perfect universe which, though wholly her own, can be compared not unfavourably with the world of Pride and Prejudice. (p. 30)

Jocelyn Brooke, in her Elizabeth Bowen, Longman Group Ltd., for the British Council, 1952.

Elizabeth Bowen is one of the most talented of the novelists working in what might very loosely be called the tradition of sensibility (though she herself has reservations about the use of the term with reference to her novels). Her best, though not her most ambitious, novels are probably The House in Paris and The Death of the Heart. In the former there is an adroit use of the technique of revealing bit by bit the history of human passion which lies behind the puzzling situation with which the reader is at first confronted…. Miss Bowen has not only a gift for rendering states of mind with quiet precision; she is also concerned with local atmosphere, with place and with weather, and her novels contain many memorable scenes in which mood, region and climate effectively interpenetrate and interpret each other. The Death of the Heart brings into the open a theme which is implicit in much of her writing, both novels and short stories: all the main characters are portrayed as victims of each other, of the conventions they live by, of compulsions whose origins they do not understand, of the adult's fear of living fully and the child's fear of not living fully. The moral, which is never stated but only more delicately suggested, seems to be that in order to be livable, life has to be suppressed, to be emptied. It is only by the death of the heart that we can survive at all. No such view is, of course, being advocated by the author; but we can say that this deeply tragic insight (antithetical to the Lawrentian insight) is her comment on life in a certain phase of our civilization, or perhaps of any civilization.

David Daiches, in his The Present Age in British Literature, Indiana University Press, 1958, pp. 115-16.

Even the possibility of being a hero or committing heroic acts...

(The entire section is 1,830 words.)