Elizabeth Bowen Bowen, Elizabeth (Vol. 3) - Essay

Bowen, Elizabeth (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Bowen, Elizabeth 1899–1973

An Irish-born English novelist and short story writer, Ms. Bowen wrote brilliant and firmly traditional novels of human relationships. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18.)

In Miss Bowen there is a great deal of poetry: it is what lightens her involutions, and if it sometimes drops to mere fancy (the French clock 'busy … on the chimneypiece, amid idling china'), that is appropriate—it serves her concern with 'atmosphere'. Where James articulates a whole culture, Miss Bowen conserves a particular place at a particular time; this is a feminine gift. The theme of The Death of the Heart is the massacre of innocence, but what we remember best is the scenery through which young, betrayed Portia passes—frosty Regent's Park, dingy hotel furniture. The House in Paris is really about its eponym; A World of Love, in which the real protagonist is the sensibility of the author, seems to be nearly all 'atmosphere'.

It is the 'atmosphere' of war-time London, encapsulated so miraculously in The Heat of the Day, that survives the strange story of Stella Rodney and her lover. I've always found him hard to take—the man who, discharged wounded from the services, becomes a traitor; Stella can't swallow the treason either, but her incredulity is of a different order from the reader's. There's a parallelism in The Heat of the Day which is perhaps typical of all Miss Bowen's work—a world of intense and highly credible detail which conjures one's own sensuous and emotional memories, though so heightened that it feels like a re-living …; a world of people who are never quite real and often unmemorable. A miracle makes the parallels meet: while the weaving of atmosphere and the accumulation of detail proceed, the illusion of solid existence holds. But, behind the whirl of phenomena, there doesn't seem to be much of a thing-in-itself.

The Little Girls is Miss Bowen's first novel for nine years. She hasn't, apparently, been using those nine years to plot new departures, though her observation of the contemporary world is, as we expect, very sharp: 'atmosphere' is still her business. But the contemporary world is only part of it. Three women of sixty—Dinah, Clare and Sheila—were schoolgirls together in 1914…. Dinah, an ageless beauty, summons her friends from the past by means of newspaper advertisements. A great burier-for-posterity, she wants to know what's happened to a box the three of them buried at St Agatha's all those years ago….

[The] story is, in fact, an easy morality: 'Gently dip, but not too deep.' The intensities of a childhood relationship are invoked in middle age at one's own peril. Never choose to call back past time: choice, anyway, is dangerous….

Confronted by so much technical brilliance, even when not awed by reputation, the reader may well blame himself for being, as he thinks, insufficiently moved. But what Miss Bowen has achieved is less the peopling of time and place with entities which, like Emma Bovary or Charlus or Bloom, have a human validity which bursts their literary bonds, than the furnishing of time and place with the conditions which might enable such beings to exist—and this means not only 'atmosphere' but the texture of skin and hair and bags under the eyes. There are times when, seduced by the miraculously caught cadences of feminine speech, one wakes to the shock of thinking it all a contrivance—a device for moving spheres (if one may use the old metaphysical imagery) which in themselves have no intelligence. Perhaps all this is going too far: the book is, after all, a comedy, a pleasant warning against the dangers of nostalgia, a demonstration of the allure which informs a sensuous world uncoloured by nostalgia. It is a wonderful artefact, a triumphant Female Novel by one whose gifts release her from the more male duty of being just among the Just, among the Filthy filthy too, and of suffering dully all the wrongs of Man.

Anthony Burgess, "Treasures and Fetters," in his Urgent Copy: Literary Studies (reprinted by permission of W. W. Norton & Co., Inc.; copyright © 1968 by Anthony Burgess), Norton, 1968, pp. 149-53.

Elizabeth Bowen casts a warm cold eye…. [She] comes down to us with a reputation already frozen: a conservative fallen among avant-gardists, another Jamesian, a British Edith Wharton. Even the honor she gets as a stylist is suspect. It suggests good housekeeping—picking up and arranging the pieces scattered by more headlong predecessors.

In actuality Miss Bowen is one of the few radical explorers in the recent novel. The part of her work that looks conservative really shows her recognition of change. By the time she found herself, in the middle thirties, the revolutionary positions of the previous age were no longer revolutionary. Yet because they still seemed so to many, an elite could adopt them as guides for living—and signs of an intellectual aristocracy….

Elizabeth Bowen is a born consolidator. She wants no less than a smooth mixture of all the best ingredients available. She feels the need not for new alternatives, but for harmonized ones. Virginia Woolf's heroines have soul, but can barely manage a dinner party; Elizabeth Bowen's assume that they have soul, but would not like living in the scatterbrained fashion of Mrs. Ramsay. They value competence and control too…. [This] intense wish for depth, liveliness, and safety meets within Miss Bowen a clarity about all the obstacles to its fulfillment—and the conflict makes her a novelist….

She speaks for those adaptable aristocrats who moved the old furniture into the town house and got rich in the advertising business. And she knows what made them leave the farm. Over and over she shows the purposelessness, ineffectiveness, eccentricity, and insanity remaining in the less adaptable. Her heroines want to maintain or even construct continuity, but they do not foresee giving up London for a return to agriculture. (The author's part-time return to Ireland in later life may say something different.) Miss Bowen's best novels show imaginative energy so confined as to express only a small part of itself and ask, is this enough? They show, too, a resentment at situation so great as to make looking for new worlds—or old ones—impossible. But the sensitive will operates in contemporary circumstances by choice. To eliminate the taste for Regent's Park or even the rented flat would be to eliminate reality. Miss Bowen's heroines want to stay and complain.

The force behind this scene of an enlarged continuity comes from superimposing upon it a revolutionary scene—the twentieth-century shift in women's aspirations. Two of Miss Bowen's best novels express dissatisfaction with the role of wife and mother; her heroines find themselves inadequate to it and it inadequate to them. Her third important novel tests the possibility of free woman, man's comrade but not dependent. The books are not about this problem; they use it as a given condition for restlessness. And Miss Bowen pictures society's part in the conflict not as rules, but as feelings bred in by people whom the heroine respects, likes, and wants to please….

Miss Bowen lays out the elements for a stand-off. Since desirable choices have opened out, compromise among them seems the mature possibility. Yet real compromise cannot occur. In the novels the heart is what it is. It cannot give without ceasing to be heart and becoming policy. It chooses to break first, but—Miss Bowen's stern test—its breaking does not bring time to a stop. The desire to make feelings omnipotent in a world of clashing wills does not go away, but creates new disappointments in new outlets….

The House in Paris comes in at this point. Expanding new faiths do not need a metaphysics; maturing ones do. So Miss Bowen, unable to assume what her predecessors had assumed, begins to provide a secular theology for instinctive loyalties. The peculiar carefulness of the novel comes from its will to build the argument from the ground up. Miss Bowen's view about evolution in manners and morals, about discontinuity between the structured life represented by the country and the catch-as-catch-can experience of the city follows a diagnosis already made familiar by Forster, Lawrence, and others. Her originality comes in feeling strongly the new demand—that a morally valuable innerness be reconcilable with a harsh will to self-assertion, that ideals of personal fulfilment somehow work in the world…. The House in Paris raises a basic question: are sensitive perception and intensity compatible goals in the world its characters choose to live in and with even more inclusive assertions of the will arising? Is it possible to conserve and consolidate first-generation values with the more comfortable inheritances?…

The House in Paris takes hold by fits and starts. The Death of the Heart, which has a claim to greatness, sustains its vision of adult wishes challenged by the standard of adolescent ones. Only an exceptional reader, however, can resist the powerful sympathy with the young girl and its pull to make the novel into a melodrama, with the defensive and self-absorbed adults the villains. Anyone who did so would in fact miss the force of the book. A critic can add little to Miss Bowen's accomplishment there but can hope to increase respect for the total meaning—to define what happens while we are sympathizing with the supersensitive heroine.

Few readers have taken seriously Miss Bowen's word that she was writing about grown-ups and drew in the adolescent for contrast. Yet there is no reason not to. The Death of the Heart develops, not as an opposition between youth and middle age, but as a double action. The adults' story envelops the adolescent's and the two interweave, Portia to cause an attack of conscience and the adults to make her feel unsupported in a trying time. On a sheer statistical basis, the girl's consciousness dominates only about half the book. She seems to prevail more thoroughly because she is single-minded and because we are often being made aware of her when we are not being made aware through her. She incarnates the adult problem of sensibility become conscience—and appears almost solely as this through the first of the three sections. What the "innocence" she seems so "ruthless" in behalf of amounts to is a crucial question, but Miss Bowen does not hurry to tell us. Instead she shows its effects….

The Death of the Heart is a monument, one of a kind. Miss Bowen has not been able to reproduce its effect, nor has anyone else. It shows the dominant hope of half a century greatly diminished. Miss Bowen works through to a painful certainty that had to be achieved before new possibilities could be taken up. If a writer so careful, definitive, and committed to the value can come up honestly with no more than she does, it must have become very vulnerable. For her the old equation works poorly. She feels both sides of the contradiction: every exaggeration in the claims of sensitivity increases the pressure which no conceivable world can satisfy. Her significant gesture in splitting the character of wife and novelist denies the faith that esthetic awareness can override the negatives in living—gives it a role only as consoler. Bereft of that out, every added reliance on inner light exposes the hopeful to shock, and threatens the security he cannot, in real life, abandon. Theoretically, adolescence ought to provide guides for the future; making its prejudices into realities ought to be the aim of a lifetime. But the concept of adolescent sensitivity which Miss Bowen inherited and could not change simply would not serve that purpose. She established a radical discontinuity between youthful hopes for omnipotence and any possible adult living, while at the same time intensifying the reproach for "failure."

James Hall, "The Giant Located: Elizabeth Bowen," in his The Lunatic Giant in the Drawing Room: The British and American Novel Since 1930, Indiana University Press, 1968, pp. 17-55.

The combination of a wit so accurate and a warmth so pervasive [in Elizabeth Bowen] led to mistaken impressions. It was hard to believe that these usually incompatible forces were held in such arresting suspension. She was wrongly thought of—as recently as two years ago in London—as "a woman's writer," all hearthrob and fuzz. If they'd read her, Congreve would have been shocked at the opinion and so would have Henry James. She belongs to the great tradition of English moral comedy going back to Jane Austen, stopping off at Henry James, with some of the aromas of Proust, a writer she greatly admired. She was incapable of dishonesty, though she may have written too many blurbs for unknown writers. She was more generous than can be imagined and had no sense of the "strategy" of literary careers or the dark scrimmage of "reputations." She had so much intrinsic power that I don't think the idea of acquiring any ever crossed her mind. In all, the matter of semblances never came up, so strikingly positive was her impression, so absolutely steady the aura around her, and so precise what she thought and what she had to say….

The real thing, the important thing is the work. Just how important remains to be seen. I think she was one of the natural masters of English prose. I hope "Collected Impressions" will be reprinted, and in paperback. Anyone interested in writing should have it close by—the essay on Flaubert is worth the price of admission. A "Collected Stories" is long overdue—"Her Table Spread" might be used in every short story class to advantage. It does in 12 pages what a lot of writers never get around to doing at all. An early novel, "Friends and Relations," since it's practically unknown, should be made available, and I think "To the North," a small marvel, is still strangely unappreciated. That's true, too, of "A World of Love," the fifth chapter of which I would recommend to anyone writing a novel. There will be a reassessment, naturally. It's high time.

Howard Moss, "Elizabeth Bowen, 1899–1973," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 8, 1973, pp. 2-3.