Elizabeth Bowen Bowen, Elizabeth (Vol. 6) - Essay

Bowen, Elizabeth (Vol. 6)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Bowen, Elizabeth 1899–1973

Elizabeth Bowen was an Irish-born English novelist, short story writer, and essayist. A master of the traditional novel, Ms Bowen has received less general recognition than critics believe she deserves. The House in Paris, The Death of the Heart, The Little Girls, and Eva Trout are her finest novels, Ms Bowen was awarded the C.B.E. (Commander, Order of the British Empire) in 1948. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18; obituary, Vols. 41-44; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)

[Miss Bowen] did not intend ["Pictures and Conversations"] to be an autobiography in the accepted sense. (It got its title from "Alice in Wonderland.") It was not to follow a time sequence, and "it will be anything but all inclusive." Rather, "the underlying theme—to which the book will owe what it is necessary that a book should have, continuity—will be the relationship (so far as that can be traceable, and perhaps it is most interesting when it is apparently not traceable) between living and writing."

Instead of the "personal" (in the accepted sense) we were to be given the more revealing findings she herself could bring out of her life and her work, calling for the truer candor, the greater generosity—a work to do reader as well as writer honor….

She believed that what she had managed to set down in however small part would carry a strength to make known to her readers what was to have been the burden of the whole. Her fragment is all affirmation and she was right. Most of her readers will feel less pain in there being so little completed for the radiance of what is here: this is what would have filled the book we shall never see.

The book we do have fairly ripples with life….

One is made aware in these pages of the scattering of seeds due for later flowering into "The Death of the Heart," "The Little Girls," "Eva Trout" and other fiction. And well does one recognize this child. There is the same sense of expectation, the eagerness to join in, take part, that gives its special strength and delight to her writing. She was a prime responder to this world. It was almost as if she'd been invited here. Some great pleasure lay deep inside her great sophistication—and here she was, at the top of her form, arrived to do it honor: a romantic, of course—self-described. A romantic with a particularly penetrating power of observation, and a joyous sense of the absurd….

"I am not a 'regional' writer in the outright sense"—but she is in another: "Since I started writing, I have been welding together an inner landscape, assembled anything but at random." Not people and places in their own identities, but people and places that experience called up in her became her stories and novels. They represent her reactions to experience, her "beholding afresh." (p. 4)

"Pictures and Conversations" was important to Elizabeth Bowen. Published, it is important to her readers, for, fragment that it is, it is whole in its essence, which survives interruption to the page. That relationship between her life and her art—and here I use, for her, the word she forbore to use for herself—she has divined in its spontaneous and still mysterious source and has traced it part way at least toward its broadening stream. What is here holds a particular blessing for those who loved Elizabeth, for they will not be able to read any sentence of it without being brought the cadence of her voice and the glow of her company. (pp. 4, 20)

Eudora Welty, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 5, 1975.

["Pictures and Conversations," a] collection left behind by the late author,… is at once delightful, because it is so good, and saddening, because that's all there is. The book includes lovely memories of Miss Bowen's childhood transplantation from Ireland to England; the first chapter of a novel one badly wants the rest of; an acute and entertaining essay on one of Proust's characters, the writer Bergotte, which tells a lot about writers, about life versus art, and about Proust; and a Nativity play. The last must be among the very best of this difficult form: reverent, poetic, touching, and not a bit sugary. (p. 99)

The New Yorker (© 1975 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), January 20, 1975.

[Elizabeth Bowen's] visual sense was acutely developed, responsive to the look of persons, places, and things, in a way that is not always the case: there are writers (often of great distinction) who seem to live entirely unaware of the objective world surrounding them and their characters. Dialogue—as one would expect, given her declared interest in and willingness to listen to voices other than her own—plays a crucial and dual role in her fiction, being subtly pitched to reveal her characters the while they are projected forward in the action she has invented for them. Even in the nonfiction—the history of the Hotel Shelbourne in Dublin, for example—where a certain impersonality might seem inevitable, one has the sense of conversation, between author and reader perhaps, certainly between the various selves of the author—the thinking, feeling, watching, listening selves, constantly engaged. Out of the fusion of these elements, the aural and the visual, played upon by Miss Bowen's corrosive intelligence and finding expression in an unflagging mastery of language, comes the famous Bowen style.

Some people, using a phrase Miss Bowen herself almost certainly would not have used, are turned off by it—one has heard, will continue to hear, the usual objections: manner too idiosyncratic; matter too circumscribed. But what author of the first class has ever won (or wanted) universal approbation: there is an army still sniping at Hemingway; Faulkner continues to represent an ordeal to many an earnest collegian; and think of all those readers who have dutifully bought their multi-volumed Proust and never got beyond volume one. (p. 133)

Blessed with the essential equipment of your born novelist or spy—curiosity, an inexhaustible willingness to look at and listen to and remember pictures and conversations—she had also, from childhood, a sense of the irresistible comedy as well as the pathos of life….

Her school days, recalled … for a last time [in Pictures and Conversations, a posthumous collection of fragments], are as hilarious in autobiographical actuality as they were in the fiction of The Little Girls. The difference between Miss Bowen's recollection of her time at Harpesden Hall and, for example, George Orwell's of his at St. Cyprian's is so striking as to suggest that they were on different planets. Yet both writers were at school at virtually the same time, and their schools were very close, topographically and socially (south coast of England; upper-middle-class). One is tempted to generalize: can it be that schoolgirls enjoy themselves more?

Miss Bowen, I hasten to add, had no such wish to generalize, or to suggest that her experiences were "universal"; that they were peculiarly hers was a reason for undertaking the book….

[In] the long run, the novelist is most on the mark in her novels; accordingly one turns with particular interest (and some trepidation) to the opening chapter—all that she had written, or that was deemed publishable—of "the unfinished novel on which she was working when she died," which is included in Pictures and Conversations.

Here, once more, is the familiar Bowen mastery. She belonged, after all, to the generation, perhaps the last such, who believed in the novel and felt no need to apologize for it—the novel, from Emma to Howards End, as novel, not as put-down or send-up. And here, too, are the familiar elements of her fiction, to be rearranged this time in who could say what new, hypnotic pattern. (p. 134)

Miss Bowen's theme (one of them at least) was of accommodation to the world—a world in which the young are vulnerable (Portia in The Death of the Heart would be the classic example), and must play the game according to rules set by grownups—adults of a certain age, their hearts etiolated, who have themselves already made their respective accommodations. But in this final novel, what had seemed an inexorable law perhaps has begun to disintegrate. One can only surmise, of course; we have but the opening chapter…. It seems safe to say, however, that she would have been on the mark, describing the world as it is with a certain wit, candor, courage, poetry, and style, and with an admirable lack of illusion: a novel (never now to be written) by no one but Elizabeth Bowen. (p. 136)

William Abrahams, "Elizabeth Bowen: On the Mark," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1975 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), March, 1975, pp. 133-36.

"The day this book was begun I went for a walk." This is the first sentence of "Origins," which was to be the first chapter of an altogether different Pictures and Conversations, a book that was "not to be an autobiography," but a presentation of "recalls" that embodied the relationship "between living and writing." Bowen's walk took her along a road she had known sixty years before and slowly—more slowly than usual with a Bowen book—I found myself drawn into a chapter that was at once an evocation and an essay in aesthetics, found myself comfortable with a creation shared by the aging novelist and another of her selves, the Anglo-Irish child in an unfamiliar Kent…. By the time I reached the third chapter, chronology could not have mattered less. The human impulse to give the shape of fiction to life, to see reality through the expectations of the novel, was mixed with the novelist's desire to bring "the sobriety of history" back to her past, to penetrate both her memory and the fictional uses she had made of the people, places and things of her life. The book had begun to impose itself on me, and then, a few pages into the third chapter, an abrupt halt and the editor's "Here the ms. breaks off." I was not prepared. For all that I had come to the book to read a fragment, I did not want to let Elizabeth Bowen go in mid-thought if not in mid-sentence…. Facts, events, circumstances, these could be accurately recorded, Bowen says shortly before the manuscript stops, people are another matter: "Gone, they remain—elusive as ever."

The rewarding book within this disturbing one is an account of how fiction is made, both generally and specifically by Elizabeth Bowen…. Pictures and Conversations is an important book for anyone who wants to read Bowen's work seriously.

The other two items are less central to the concerns of the volume as a whole. "The Move-in," the opening chapter of a novel on which Bowen was working when she died, is immediately appealing, an arresting situation firmly set in a concrete landscape, peopled with characters who are already beginning to take shape. It is a novel I would have liked to read, but I am not affected by it as I am by the other fragmentary work; the novel is simply unfinished; the autobiography is incomplete.

The Nativity play, which Bowen wrote at the request of Limerick Cathedral, is uncharacteristic Bowen, relatively conventional Nativity. It is unusual only in its first act, in which the Three Kings "have come to a standstill," waiting for an event that will take them beyond the point where learning and magic have brought them, and in one image in the second, the scattered anemones which Joseph sees as "spilled blood," the promise of Easter in Christmas. For the rest—much of it in the words of Luke (King James Version)—the play is adoration rather than art, sentimentally so when the children are brought in to close the play. No Charles Williams, Bowen could not see the Nativity anew. I prefer her when she is seeing Kent anew, by seeing herself seeing it sixty years earlier. (pp. 282-83)

Gerald Weales, in Commonweal (copyright © 1975 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), July 18, 1975.