Elizabeth Bowen

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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...

(The entire section is 2,363 words.)