Elizabeth Bowen

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Barbara Brothers (essay date spring 1979)

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SOURCE: Brothers, Barbara. “Pattern and Void: Bowen's Irish Landscapes and The Heat of the Day.Mosaic 12, no. 3 (spring 1979): 129-38.

[In the following essay, Brothers explores Bowen's use of Irish settings in her post World War II writing, particularly her autobiographical work and the 1949 novel The Heat of the Day.]

The Last September was the only one of Elizabeth Bowen's works, fiction or non-fiction, written prior to World War II that extensively drew on or reflected the life Bowen had known in Ireland.1 The preface in which she relates the importance of that life to her as a person and as a writer, however, was not written until 1952. Why is it then that after World War II Bowen felt the need to make explicit her claims to that life, claims that are reiterated in her autobiographical reminiscences—Bowen's Court (1942), Seven Winters (1942), The Shelbourne (1951), and Afterthought (1962)? The Heat of the Day, her first post-war novel, is significantly not only a picture of life in England during the war but a novel divided in its setting between England and Ireland. As reflected in both autobiographical statements and in fictive constructions, it was Bowen's experience of the Second World War that led to her questioning of what was lacking in the culture and life of those persons who were both its victims and its perpetrators. Bowen now struggled with the questions that Yeats and T. S. Eliot had struggled with earlier: how in an age without belief or tradition can the individual live with purpose? how can the individual be kept from a solipsistic working of his selfish will upon the rest of mankind? where is to be found a standard for value judgment other than the pure numbers of the mob? since man's reason does not curb his cruelties, how foster his sympathetic identification with his fellow man?

The similarity in the landscapes which Bowen makes explicit in her autobiographical writings seems to have suggested the importance of the life she had known and loved as a child. The landscape which Bowen emphasizes for that heredity—the ruins surrounding the homes of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy—prefigures the landscape of Bowen's environment, the crumbling world of Europe after two world wars. Thus she began her self-conscious immersion in that world through extensive reading in Ireland's histories and imaginative writings. As if aware of the tenuousness of her claims to that world (Bowen lived in Ireland only as a sojourner after the age of eight), she carefully supports them: she repeatedly cites Proust on the importance and vividness of early memories in determining the art and life of the individual.2 Such extensive explorations and explicit apologies can be understood only if that life has assumed the larger significance of a symbolic value, and we can understand that symbolic value only by examining the context of the Irish landscape which Bowen saw as making her experience of import for her contemporaries.

For Bowen Ireland is not a place to escape to, to “ignore life and death” as William Heath suggests,3 but a place in which those realities are embodied in the landscape. It is a landscape whose “inherent emptiness”4 forced those who built there to recognize that they were creating a “pattern” (BC [Bowen's Court], p. 21) upon the “anonymous countryside”:

The land around Bowen's Court, even under its windows, has an unhumanized air the house does nothing to change. Here are, even, no natural features, view or valley, to which the house may be felt to relate itself. …...

(This entire section contains 5215 words.)

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Like Flaubert's ideal book about nothing it sustains itself on itself by the inner force of style.

The central significance of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy's way of life for her was its self-consciousness and discipline, which limited the freedom of the individual and gave him a “sense of community”5 in the face of the void. It rooted him in an order outside himself but of himself as well. The isolated life that the demesne dwellers lived encouraged the virtues of hardiness, independence and courage. In this essay, written for Sean O'Faolain's The Bell in 1942, she metaphorically likened the existences of the inhabitants of the big houses—servants and family—to that of people on a “ship out at sea.” While T. S. Eliot's experience of the wasteland led him to the established church to find a timeless order in which man could identify with his fellows through a God which transcended them all, Bowen's experience of it led her to the Anglo-Irish tradition of a circumscribed family life within the history of which a social order was preserved that transcended the individual's experience of time. Through man's commitment to his participation in that order, he became free to love and be. That order was identified by her in terms of its physical expression, the way the houses and the city of Dublin defined their spaces. A home for Bowen, however, was not just the physical expression of a tradition; it was the dwelling place of the tradition's active essence. The relationship between architecture and landscape and the human spirit was integral to Bowen. Only through man's experience of place could he become a part of the transcendent reality it embodied.

In the first chapter of Bowen's Court, Bowen recreates in detail the landscape upon which the house and its life were erected. “This is a country for wet weather: the steady sough of rain in demesne trees induces by day a timeless and rather soothing melancholy, by night an obliterating, exhaustive sleep” (p. 19). The wet weather along with the “alteration of sun and damp” quickly produces a “weathered bloom” upon the interiors and exteriors of the homes. As the weather challenges the illusion of the permanency of man's artifacts, the “dips and creases” (p. 5), the “high hedges, sunk rivers,” and the “sheltering trees” (p. 4) make his existence seem only illusory.

It is not only the natural landscapes but also the ruins, reminders of his “error or failure” (p. 17), that make man feel how extrinsic his existence is. Ireland, for Bowen, is

a country of ruins. Lordly or humble, military or domestic, standing up with furious gauntness, like Kilcolman, or shelving weakly into the soil, ruins feature the landscape … and make a ghostly extra quarter to towns. They give clearings in woods, reaches of mountain or sudden turns of a road a meaning and preinhabited air. Ivy grapples them; trees grow inside their doors; enduring ruins, where they emerge from ivy, are the limestone whitegrey and look like rocks. … Some ruins show gashes of violence, others simply the dull slant of decline.

(p. 15)

Bowen reminds us that not

all these ruins are ruins of wars: where there has not been violence there has been abandonment. Mansions, town houses, farmhouses, cottages have often been left to die—and very few people know the story of the bitter necessity. That air of waste and nonchalance about Irish ruins is an irritant to the present-day English mind.

(p. 16)

Thus Bowen calls attention to the Irish landscape's dramatization of the forces in life which challenge the permanence of man's constructions and notes the English lack of comprehension that man may be limited in his ability to erect physical edifices to withstand the onslaught of time.

Within this macrocosm of desolation and mutability, the Anglo-Irish created their island-worlds of conscious living.

Each member of each of these isolated households is bound up not only in the sensation and business of living but in the exact sensation of living here. The upkeep of the place takes its tax not only of physical energy but of psychic energies people hardly know that they give. Each of these houses, with its intense, centripetal life, is isolated by something very much more lasting than the physical fact of space: the isolation is innate; it is an affair of origin.

(pp. 19, 20)

Here “the present seems to be there forever,” and the past “pervadingly felt.” And thus it is for Bowen that character “is printed on every hour, as on the houses and demesne features themselves.” In the Irish big-house tradition, encapsulating an interaction of character and place, man's spirit finds a focus and commitment to a numinous reality. That reality and the awareness of his minuteness and fragility in the large world of time and space pattern his relationships with others.

While in Bowen's Court, Bowen reconstructs the life of her ancestors as it shapes and is shaped by their country home in County Cork, in her autobiographical essays in Seven Winters and Afterthought, it is the city of Dublin whose scenes her memory retraces, revealing their imaginative imprint. Bowen was born in Dublin and lived there from late October to spring each year until her father's illness forced the departure of her and her mother for England. “I never looked up Sackville Street without pleasure, for I was told it was the widest street in the world. Just as Phoenix Park, grey-green distance beyond the Zoo, was the largest park in the world.”6 For Bowen, South Dublin, like the country big houses, boldly and broadly defined its spaces.

Her family life, like the city into which it merged, was spacious and ordered with daily walks to Upper Baggot Street to buy small treasures in shops “where white cotton coats were worn … chalky clean, and sweet dry sawdust covered victuallers' floors … kind smiles came over the high counters … and almost everyone knew … [her] name” (p. 22). Or on other occasions there were walks to the Royal Dublin Society's empty grandstands to view from the top tiers an imagined performance of the August horse show, for which the family never returned to Dublin. Like the brass name plates viewed on the walks to Merrion Square, all “here stood for stability” (p. 34). The family worshipped at St. Stephen's Church in an “august and rational” (p. 48) service dominated by the “organ's controlled swell.” The dancing lessons, visits to her mother's family at Mount Temple, the family friends from Trinity College, the Bar, and the Church of Ireland, the independence and quiet temperament of her parents—all enclosed her in an existence that reflected her father's “philosophic feeling for observance and form” (p. 49).

The mysterious, the threatening, existed only in the periphery, like the Dublin slums and Catholic religion about which she said she had an “almost sexual shyness” (p. 50). “In fact,” she records, “the climactic moodiness of South Dublin (a bold Italinate town-plan in tricky Celtic light) must have existed only in my eye” (p. 34). The reader recalls her recording a few pages earlier that a piece of grit was blown into her eye on a walk with her governess; those feelings of “a malign temper at work” (p. 32), of a “definite threat,” might be dismissed now but were to be felt later in her personal life as well as in the social life she shared with her contemporaries. As a child, the pattern of her life, as directly perceived, was the well-ordered, structured one of her family, but like the landscape surrounding the big houses, the landscape of Dublin just beyond her purview, which fleetingly touched her senses, reflected the forces of unreason, instability and neglect.

The Shelbourne Hotel, as she recreates its history in a book written in 1951, becomes another center of “style and well-conductedness”7 within a country known for its “distress, miscarried projects, envanescent dreams and romantic gloom.” For Bowen, “both its character and its place in the human pattern are important”: “It stands for grandeur—which, in Ireland, we have not yet become ashamed to like. It stands for a certain social idea of life.” Bowen explicitly connects the historical landscape of the Shelbourne during the Easter Uprising with that of post WWI Europe:

At that time, 1916, be it recalled, battles were associated with battlefields, not yet cities. To that extent, in spite of the great War, the Edwardian concept of civilization still stood unshaken, firm. It was held still that things would know where to stop—and also where not to begin. Barricades and street fighting belonged back in the past; future civilian-bombing—though there had been Zeppelin raids on England—still seemed hardly more than a nightmare fantasy. There was that about the aspect of modern cities, with their daylit normality, smooth-running thoroughfares, polished plateglass, which outfaced the idea of violence, made it anachronistic—out of the picture. They not only looked but felt inherently safe.

(p. 153)

The Shelbourne Hotel, in spite of threats against the employees who continued to work during the fighting, shells that pierced its drawing-rooms where Easter tea was being taken, attempts by insurgents to storm the hotel as the battle continued, preserved itself and its guests by the tradition of duty and concern that had marked it since its beginnings under Martin Burke in 1824. Its isolation, too, was “innate”—an “affair of origin.”

Bowen, observer and participant in the rootless twentieth century, whose inhabitants are whirled about as if “Dancing to a frenzied drum,” shares William Butler Yeats' pessimism about man's ability to live other than at his fellow man's expense when his will is unrestrained or unchannelled by identification with place, tradition and a social idea. She found “dominant in the Bowens … subjection to fantasy and infatuation with the idea of power” (BC, pp. 454, 455) which, however, had remained circumscribed within safe limits by their way of life that for the most part directed these energies constructively. These are the same factors Bowen holds responsible for the world wars: “the private cruelty and the world war both have their start in the heated brain.” She fictively portrays the relationship of this individual phenomenon to the social world and the physical space which is both creator and creature of its expression in The Heat of the Day, which spans the years 1942-44 in London.

Stella, a year or so younger than the century, lives in a rented flat amidst the furnishings of the owner. Not even the ashtrays are her own. Her only contributions are two photographs, “not framed yet,”8 one of her twenty-year-old son Roderick and one of her lover Robert Kelway. The “unreality” (p. 57) of the room immerses Stella and Roderick, spending a leave-evening with his mother, in a great void. They sit on the sofa, which Roderick has fancied as their boat, “surrounded by what was lacking,” in a vacuum that is greater, comments the narrator, than if they had been in a boat “suspended in nothing but light, air, water. … Though this particular sofa backed on a wall and stood on a carpet, it was without environment; it might have been some derelict piece of furniture exposed on a pavement after an air raid or washed up by a flood on some unknown shore.”

The room, like the war, contributes to the restraint of their feelings by disassociating them from a sense of the continuity of time: “Inside it the senses were cut off from hour and season; nothing spoke but the clock” (p. 59). All is as artificial as the electric heater whose “vertical hot set lips, grinned away at the empty end of the room” (p. 58); there is nothing, not even a “flutter” like that which a fire burning might have stirred, to suggest a “mysterious” something beyond their physical presences, which are locked in this “sealed up” (p. 59) room. Their meeting, lacking a context in which to express their love, becomes like the room and the sterile modern cities in which the war is waged—“exaggerated and cerebral.”

While the lack in Stella's apartment of any familiar object to which they could relate (even Roderick's pajamas were not to be found and he wears the dressing gown of Robert, the man he has never met) inhibits the expression of love between mother and son, the vacuousness of war-charred London encloses Stella and Robert in a “hermetic world” (p. 97). Divorced from time and space the lovers are each other's habitat. Fragile, but intense and real their love blooms in the 1940 fall “sunny emptiness” (p. 98), like the “outsize dahlias, velvet and wine” which make the parks “suddenly closed because of time-bombs … mirages of repose”: “For Stella, her early knowing of Robert was associated with the icelike tinkle of broken glass being swept up among the crisping leaves, and with the charred freshness of every morning” (pp. 100-101). Stella and Robert are part of the world of “campers in rooms of draughty dismantled houses” (p. 102) that form a “new society” of those who, having given themselves over to the “climate of danger,” lived how they liked. It was a society of “unmarriedness” in which it seemed that everyone was in love. Their particular generation was one that “had come loose from … [its] moorings” (p. 125). Its members could find comfort only in the romantic love of the “‘time being’ which war had made the very being of time” (p. 109). Thus love's intimacy lay in the awareness of personal mental or physical attributes, like Stella's perception that Robert's limp manifests itself only when he feels “like a wounded man” (p. 97)—his knee was damaged at dundirk It is not, however, until Stella visits Holme Dene, Robert's home, that Stella perceives that Robert is an emotional cripple as well. His psychic wound was inflicted by his family and is part of the personal illness that has inflicted the social illness of war upon the world.

Holme Dene, the present dwelling place of Robert's family, in its artificiality and impermanence, denies any transcendent reality. Since it was never to be more than a temporary habitation to be lived in until it could be sold for more money than it had been purchased for, the war made it possible for his family to save face by providing a reason for their make-shift arrangements in the house: “We always have lived uncomfortably in this house; now it is possible for us to make a point of doing so” (p. 133). When Stella queries how anyone can live “in a place that has for years been asking to be brought to an end?” Robert replies that it is not so difficult since their belongings “can be shifted, lock, stock and barrel. After all, everything was brought here from somewhere else, with the intention of being moved again—like touring scenery from theatre to theatre. Reassemble it anywhere: you get the same illusion.”

This illusion that is Holme Dene is projected by the ego of Mrs. Kelway:

she had all she needed: the self-contained mystery of herself. Her lack of wish for communication showed in her contemptuous use of words. The lounge became what it was from being the repository of her nature; it was the indoors she selected, she consecrated—indeed, she had no reason to go out. By sitting here where she sat, and by sometimes looking, by sometimes even not looking, across the furnished lawn, she projected Holme Dene: this was a bewitched wood. If her power came to an end at the white gate, so did the world.

(p. 120)

Like the physical positions she selects so carefully, she is mentally committed only to the projection of herself.

Stella, who is made uneasy by both Mrs. Kelway's and Robert's sister Ernestine's self-possession that seems to question her presence and actions, feels that she had made a bad impression. However, Robert assures her that she is “making no impression at all” (p. 127). He also corrects her feeling that his room full of photographs of himself—“depicted at every age” (p. 127)—is a sign of how much feeling his mother and Ernestine have for him: “No, they expect me to be fond of myself” (p. 128). Having existed only as another object in his mother's life, Robert has no spirit to draw on to breathe life into his existence, at least until Stella provides that spirit for him. The photographs are therefore “lies,” as he says, preserving “imitation” moments. He has only “gone through motions ever since … [he] was born”; real living has not been possible. His life, unsupported by the ties of love, has ticked out its days in a sterile, coffin-like, “dustless” room (pp. 128-9). Mrs. Kelway, detached and rootless, bound within the unfeeling human ego, loves no one and no place. That life which she manufactures is both “brittle” and “ephemeral,” words Bowen uses in a review to describe the life of the twentieth century and the writing it produces.9

Bowen's depiction of Holme Dene contrasts sharply both with her depiction Bowen's Court and Mount Morris, the fictive Anglo-Irish estate that Stella's son inherits from her cousin, Francis. Mount Morris' rooms are filled by a sense of the presence of those who have lived there in the past: “no, it has not been possible to feel lonely among those feeling things” (p. 216). Stella is also struck on her visit there by the evidence of concern for the future. Her cousin left cards with directions tucked around the frame of a picture for taking care of everything from clocks to puppies. Direction, continuity, the pervading sense of a story unfolding are conveyed by Mount Morris. Holme Dene, on the contrary, frustrates a sense of direction with its “swastika-arms of passage leading to nothing” (p. 289). In spite of its “many twists of … passages” (p. 287), it provides no place to hide and its inhabitants must always give the appearance of having nothing to conceal. They become victims of the overdeveloped moral sense that emanates from Mrs. Kelway's ego, a moral sense which has replaced human compassion, feeling with judgment. Like those who inhabit it, Holme Dene is too cerebral; it offers only “an existence amongst tables and chairs, without rapture or mystery, grace or danger. Never a heartbeat: never the light disregarding act, the random word or spontaneous kiss; never laughter; … anger always in a smoulder, never in a flame” (p. 295). Its inhabitants live and reflect the “demeaning poverty” (p. 296) of their unfeeling, physical, material existence.

Holme Dene, the antithesis of Mount Morris, embodies no transcendent reality and provides no link between its inhabitants and the real world of other people. It is both the product and producer of solipsistic ratiocination. Through Robert it becomes a destructive agent. Robert, as he informs Stella, cannot identify with his country and has no feeling for those he moves among. Unable to exist without something beyond himself to give his life meaning, however, he commits himself to the abstract ideas of a new world through the revolution led by Nazi Germany. His circuitous, self-contained logic is apparent in the reasons that he gives Stella for his traitorous actions and reveals the same pattern that characterized the physical passages of Holme Dene.

Bowen suggests that in Ireland the landscape, which reflected the omnipresence of the void, made it imperative that man define his space to sustain himself. He was undeluded by the structure of the modern city and homes that seem to dominate the landscape and feed his ideas of self-sufficiency and control. Made intuitively aware of his personal inadequacies and failures, thereby of his need for self-conscious discipline and compassion, he took refuge from his horror of his own nothingness in creating a place through which he identified with his fellow man's past and future embodied and implied in that place. Without this tradition man becomes an abstraction like Robert, taking his identity from an idea, or an apparitional parasite like Harrison, spying on the lives of others to give himself a life.

Harrison, the government agent who tries to use his knowledge of Robert's activities to possess Stella, is the epitome of a lack of faith or trust in one's fellow man that Stella acknowledges lurks within all men: “Below one level, everybody's horribly alike. You succeed in making a spy of me” (p. 152). When Stella asks Harrison where he lives, he replies, “There are always two or three places where I can turn in” (p. 155). His clothes, too, seem to exist outside of time or space: “the uninterestingly right state of what he wore seemed less to argue care—brushing, pressing, changes of linen—than a physical going into abeyance, just as he was, with everything he had on him, between appearances.” He was a “ghost or actor” who appeared out of the “vacuum.” The only dwelling place with which Harrison is identified is the Underground café-Hell where he takes Stella to learn if she will deny her love for Robert to prevent Harrison from turning him in. Stella is almost overcome by the “overpowering heat” (p. 252) and the lighting in which “there survived … not one shadow.” Her remark to Harrison—“What a lie-detecting place this is” (p. 253)—echoes the narrator's description of Holme Dene, as the other sensations of heat and noonday sun echo the metaphorical descriptions of the felt effects of the war. The café's inhabitants are dehumanized and appear as synthetic as the food and as artificial as the furniture: “A zip fastener all the way down one back made one woman seem to have a tin spine” (p. 252). Yet some feature of each of the inhabitants makes Stella aware that these are humans gathered here.

Both Harrison and the café have shadowy, uncertain existences: Harrison seems to have no “place in the human scene. By the rules of fiction, with which life to be credible must comply, he was a character ‘impossible’—each time they met, for instance, he showed no shred or trace of having been continuous since they last met” (p. 155). The café has neither name nor street identification, marked only by a sign that says “Open.” Stella is at a loss to know where she is. The vagueness and power of Harrison and the café make their existence indefinite but real, symbolic actors in the drama. The curtain having been raised, they are the concretization of that nothingness in man that has unleashed itself upon the world. The narrator makes this clear in describing Stella's thoughts during a meeting with Harrison in her room:

To her, tonight, ‘outside’ meant the harmless world: the mischief was in her own and in other rooms. The grind and scream of battles, mechanised advances excoriating flesh and country, tearing through nerves and tearing up trees, were indoor-plotted; this was a war of dry cerebration inside windowless walls. No act was not part of some calculation; spontaneity was in tatters; from the point of view of nothing more than the heart any action was enemy action now. …

(p. 157)

Bowen's description makes it clear that the war being fought outdoors is a mirrored replay of the war being fought within man, of the nothingness within himself against his own humanness. It is a war of the ego and its subtle contrivances upon the imagination and its broad sympathies.

Harriet Blodgett, in her study of Bowen's novels in Patterns of Reality, also perceives that in The Heat of the Day both an “interior and an exterior war” is being fought, a “testing war … of dry cerebration treacherously enacted against human feeling.”10 However, rather than finding, as I have, Bowen's “still point of the turning world” in a place of rootedness, she interprets Bowen's transcendent reality as having its source in God and religion. But Blodgett admits that there are few explicit religious references in this novel. I prefer, then, to accept what is explicitly expressed as Bowen's conception of a transcendent reality. Bowen's myth is a humanistic one that makes a place, which changes but preserves within it a spirit that cares for both what came before and what is to come, the source of man's emotional and imaginative identification with his fellow man. It is through man's involvement with place that he becomes part of what the narrator calls the “unfinished symphony of love” (p. 197).

When Stella visits Mount Morris for her son after he has inherited the estate, she becomes aware that moments here merge into the “immortality of the house” (p. 185). Though “her own life should be a chapter missing from this book,” she realizes that this “need not mean the story was at an end” (p. 194). She muses about Roderick's wife, whom she can not envision but whom she can see pushing “old things … into a new position … to pick up the theme of a new song” (p. 195). Her son Roderick “had been fitted into a destiny; better, it seemed to her, than freedom in nothing” (p. 194). In visiting Mount Morris, Stella becomes aware intuitively of a transcendent reality, like the sensuous apprehension of time and being experienced by the Londoners at the musical concert on which the novel opens.

As Roderick lies down his first night at Mount Morris, he, too, experiences the life of the place:

Forms, having made themselves known through no particular sense, forms whose existence he was not to doubt again, loomed and dwelled within him. … The place had concentrated upon Roderick its being: this was the hour of the never-before—gone were virgin dreams with anything they had had of himself in them. … He was left possessed, oppressed and in awe. … The antipatheticness to him of any abstract thought sent him away from that to his three fathers … there was a confluence in him, at the moment, of the unequal three.

(pp. 351-2)

From his night encounter with the past, he awakes to formulate his plans to make Mount Morris into an estate that will yield his living. Robert's life as human life was meant to be for Bowen, will be a shadowed existence of the past preserved but made new in a place.

Thus “the big-house” tradition for Bowen was the embodiment of an authority or tradition outside the self which provided the self a refuge and which also acted as a curb upon the intense power of the ego. Like Yeats and Eliot Bowen wished to preserve the spirit of the individual, as opposed to that of mass man; at the same time she instinctively rejected the abusiveness of the will unleashed upon the world with no control outside itself. The big-house tradition set in the Irish landscape was her image for the answer to twentieth-century man's predicament. We may reject her answer as glossing the abuse of the human spirit in that tradition. But Bowen was suggesting not so much that we return to it, as that we take from it a model of what is needed to provide a pattern for man to withstand the void.


  1. Gary Davenport, “Elizabeth Bowen and the Big House,” Southern Humanities Review, 8 (1974), 27-34, discusses Bowen's presentation of the big-house tradition in that novel and its importance to her as a source of “spiritual fulfillment.”

  2. See, in particular, preface to The Last September (1929; rpt. etc. New York, 1952).

  3. Elizabeth Bowen: An Introduction to Her Novels (Madison, 1961), p. 131.

  4. Bowen's Court, 2nd edition (New York, 1964), p. 5. Hereafter cited in parenthetical documentation as BC.

  5. Bowen, Collected Impressions (London, 1950), p. 198.

  6. Seven Winters (1942; rpt. New York, 1962), p. 13. Hereafter cited in parenthetical documentation as SW.

  7. The Shelbourne: A Centre in Dublin Life for More than a Century (London, 1951), p. 16.

  8. The Heat of the Day (New York, 1949), p. 23. All further references are cited in the text.

  9. Review of Lord Dunsany's My Ireland, rpt. in Collected Impressions, p. 172.

  10. Patterns of Reality: Elizabeth Bowen's Novels, Indiana Univ. Series Practica, 84 (The Hague, 1975), p. 154. Chapter five discusses the novel in relation to Bowen's religious sensibility, her Christianity, which Blodgett sees at the center of all her novels.


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Elizabeth Bowen 1899-1973

Irish-born English novelist, short story writer, essayist, critic, nonfiction writer, travel essayist, playwright, and memoirist.

The following entry provides criticism on Bowen's works from 1979 through 2001. See also Elizabeth Bowen Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 3, 6, 15, 22, 118.

Bowen was a renowned Anglo-Irish novelist and short story writer whose prolific writing career encompassed more than fifty years. Her later novels articulated the precarious position of the individual in the modern, postwar world and anticipated postmodernism in their use of new, experimental literary forms.

Biographical Information

An only child, Elizabeth Dorothea Cole Bowen was born in Dublin, Ireland, on June 7, 1899, to Florence Colley and Henry Cole Bowen, both of Anglo-Irish descent. Her father was an attorney in Dublin where the family lived in the winter, but they spent every summer at Bowen's Court, the family home in County Cork. The house itself was built in 1775, although the 800-acre estate had been granted to the Bowen family in 1653. In 1906, Bowen's father was hospitalized with nervous depression, a condition that apparently ran throughout the family, and Bowen and her mother went to stay with relatives in England. Missing both her father and her home in Ireland, Bowen developed a stammer that she never outgrew. Although her father's health improved and the family was reunited in Ireland in the summer of 1912, her mother's death soon afterwards proved another devastating blow to the young girl's precarious sense of stability. Her aunts assumed responsibility for her care and she was sent to live with her mother's unmarried sister in Hertfordshire where she attended day school. Two years later, she was enrolled in Downe House, a boarding school in Kent, where she remained for the next three years, splitting her school vacations between her maternal relatives in England and her father's home in Ireland. During her time in school, Bowen remained relatively isolated from the events of the outside world—the beginning of World War I and the Easter Rising of 1916. However, when she left school in 1917, she volunteered as a nurse in a Dublin hospital where she cared for shell-shocked soldiers. Bowen traveled extensively after the war, briefly studied art at the London County Council School of Art, and then turned to journalism as a possible career, discovering her talent for fiction-writing along the way. Her brief engagement to a British army officer during this time was undone by the disapproval of her maternal aunts.

In 1923 Bowen published her first book of short stories, the favorably-received Encounters, and that same year she married Alan Cameron, an Oxford graduate and former soldier who held a minor government post in Kingsthorpe, Northampton, where the young couple took up residence. Two years later, Cameron accepted a position in Oxford where Bowen soon became a part of the local intellectual community; there she made the acquaintance of Rose Macaulay who provided her with invaluable introductions to important people in the publishing business. Between 1926 and 1929, Bowen published her first two novels and two additional short story collections. In 1930, when Bowen's father died, she inherited the family estate in Ireland; she and her husband began spending holidays there, although they still lived in England. She continued writing and publishing, and by 1935 she had produced a total of five novels and four collections of stories. Meanwhile, she was expanding her circle of literary friends and acquaintances and soon counted Virginia Woolf among her close associates. When Cameron took a position with the BBC, the couple moved to London and Bowen began writing literary reviews for the Tatler. She produced several more novels, among them the highly acclaimed The Death of the Heart (1938) and The Heat of the Day (1949). When Cameron's health began to fail, the couple moved to Bowen's Court, where he died in 1952. She resided there alone for the next several years and finally decided to sell the family estate in 1959. She returned briefly to Old Headington in Oxford and then moved to Kent, where she and her mother had lived for a time during her childhood. Meanwhile, she continued to write and to travel extensively, visiting America—where she lectured and served as writer-in-residence at various universities—every year from 1950 until her own declining health prevented her from traveling. Bowen produced her last novel in 1969 and died on February 22, 1973, of lung cancer.

Major Works

Bowen's first two volumes of short stories, Encounters and Ann Lee's and Other Stories (1926), along with her first two novels, The Hotel (1927) and The Last September (1929) all deal with innocent young women who gain experience and self-awareness over the course of the narrative. The Last September is set on a large estate in Ireland and features a central character who very much resembles Bowen herself, although the author denied that the novel was autobiographical even as she acknowledged that the setting was inspired by Bowen's Court. Succeeding novels and stories did not measure up to the success of The Last September until the publication of what is often considered her masterpiece, The Death of the Heart in 1938. The story of a young girl sent to live with her half-brother and his wife after her parents die, The Death of the Heart features events viewed through multiple perspectives and dialogue that not only signal communication or lack thereof, but also provide for character and plot exposition as well.

In the following decade, Bowen abandoned the novel form and published, in addition to two new short story collections, stage and radio plays, and two volumes of memoirs: Bowen's Court (1942), a history of the family estate in County Cork, and Seven Winters (1942), the story of her early life at Bowen's Court. Her most popular short story, the frequently anthologized “The Demon Lover” was written in the early 1940s and published in the collection The Demon Lover and Other Stories (1945).

World War II figured prominently in Bowen's fiction both during the war and afterwards, most notably in her 1949 novel, The Heat of the Day, a story of intrigue, espionage, and blackmail in which historical events coexist with the standard elements of a love story against the backdrop of London during the blitz. In 1955 Bowen published A World of Love, the story of several women involved in one way or another with the same man, an Irishman who joins the British army and dies in France. His memory continues to exert a powerful influence over the lives of the women long after his death. The Little Girls (1964) also features women who share a common bond, in this case, their friendship as schoolgirls. Reuniting fifty years later, the women dig up a small chest containing various personal objects that they buried as children, an activity that forces them to confront the events of their individual and collective pasts. Bowen's final novel, Eva Trout (1968) is her most experimental in both form and content. The title character is a young heiress who is more devoted to her lavish home than her young adopted son, a deaf mute. She sends the boy to France to be educated by a specialist and the boy returns just as Eva is about to marry a childhood friend. The boy shoots his mother, either deliberately or accidentally, and Eva is killed instantly. The exact nature of the novel's conclusion continues to be debated by critics who find the work puzzling.

Critical Reception

Bowen's reputation during her lifetime was solid; by 1935, her books were being widely and favorably reviewed, and her work was compared to the writings of Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, and Henry James. But in the years since her death Bowen's place in the twentieth-century literary canon has been less secure, particularly with regard to her later novels. Most critics consider The Death of the Heart her best work, and dismiss her post-war writing as the product of a writer in decline. More recently, however, Bowen's work has been reevaluated by postmodernists and feminist scholars who view her last four novels with new appreciation.

Of her final four novels, The Heat of the Day was most favorably received by critics. Set in London during the years 1942-44, the novel treats World War II as “a mirrored replay of the war being fought within man, of the nothingness within himself against his own humanness,” according to Barbara Brothers, who suggests that during this period Bowen was concerned with the same issues that occupied Yeats and Eliot after World War I. Hermione Lee believes that the central concerns in Bowen's late writing appeared in her earlier work, but after the war, her narratives dealt “more than ever with the failure of feeling and certainty in modern civilization, and with the need for consolatory retreats into memory and fantasy.” For Lee, Bowen's last three novels in particular are about “displacement, alienation, and the search for consolation,” often found by revisiting the past. John Coates, though, in his analysis of A World of Love, refutes the notion that the attempt to recover the past amounts to mere nostalgia on the personal level. According to Coates, the novel is “concerned through a self-conscious and at times ironic reworking of myth, to examine some of the most significant ‘public’ themes of the twentieth century.” Allan E. Austin, however, feels that A World of Love, while interesting on a variety of levels, “is an experiment that was not successful and is, consequently, one of Bowen's least satisfactory books.”

Anne M. Wyatt-Brown has studied The Little Girls and Eva Trout, both categorized as upper-class comedies of manners, a genre denounced by most modern critics. However, she believes the two works are noteworthy because they “move the novel in the direction of postmodern experimentation.” For Wyatt-Brown, the uncertainty running through these novels, denigrated by many critics, should be recognized as a sign of Bowen's courage in risking her substantial literary reputation by abandoning the formula that had made her famous and experimenting with new literary possibilities instead. John Coates, like Wyatt-Brown, takes on earlier scholars who consider Eva Trout a failure, Bowen's “botched and belated attempt to remake herself in changing times.” Coates sides with more recent feminist critics who believe Bowen's last novel represents “a radical criticism of gender stereotypes.” Austin considers Bowen's late work to be “in many ways her most interesting; for it shows the author working with a new sense of adventure.” While the last four novels may not “quite match the perfection of The Death of the Heart, they reflect the touch of a poised and knowing craftsman.”

Martha McGowan (essay date 1981)

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SOURCE: McGowan, Martha. “The Enclosed Garden in Elizabeth Bowen's A World of Love.Éire-Ireland 16, no. 1 (1981): 55-70.

[In the following essay, McGowan discusses Bowen's use of the garden scene in A World of Love as a way of achieving ironic contrast between innocent idealism and harsh reality.]

Several of Elizabeth Bowen's novels express in various ways the theme of the dangers of innocence. Typically, a garden scene points an ironic discrepancy between the Edenic dreams of an innocent heroine and the reality of the fallen world she must inhabit.1 The garden scene in A World of Love has received little attention, however, despite its abundant detail and its climactic position in this, Bowen's eighth novel. When Lilia Danby sits in the walled garden at Montefort, the third “appearance” of Guy, her long-dead fiancé, occurs, capping the chain of reactions that makes up the plot. The effects of Jane Danby's discovery of Guy's love letters have reached in Lilia the most vulnerable, apparently, of the three main female characters. Lilia retains more than a trace of the romantic innocence of her youth beneath the sad mask of middle age. The tensions and estrangements usual in her household have not helped her to cope with life. But, all told, the events of the preceding 24 hours have done more to threaten her state of being than as many years previous. Even the heat wave and drought, making the Irish countryside strange, appear to have joined forces to help demolish the “poor snow-woman.”

In broad outline, the situation recalls that in Bowen's wartime story “The Demon Lover,” wherein a similarly middle-aged protagonist experiences the “return” of her fiancé, killed like Guy Danby in battle in 1914.2 Unnerved by the bombing of London thirty years later, the woman discovers that more than mortar and bricks may fail to withstand the onslaught. For that persistent remembrance may breed strange kinds of disorder. As she knows, life works to dispossess or dislodge the dead. Her immediate reaction to Jane's discovery of the letters comes as a reversal, therefore, of attitudes constructed carefully over many years. Significantly, Antonia thinks, “So there is more to happen.”3 She suddenly expects the further event that her outward bravery, recognition of necessity, and contemptuousness of Lilia for decades, and of Jane for a morning, have all dismissed as impossible. Like her sarcasm with Jane, Antonia's flight to the sea indicates inner struggle perhaps more than policy. At the shore, her struggle against what she fears as illusion makes her attempt to suppress a belief that Guy, unseen, has joined her.

Later, Antonia's remaining defenses prove ineffectual as she stands by an open door, breathes the Irish night air, and again feels Guy there with her. The anxiety of the day, and the boredom and pain of years, lift and dissipate. In these moments Antonia is more than ever the antithesis of most Bowen heroines, since she recaptures what may best be called innocence. Feeling a “tingling sweet shock,” she believes that all she and Guy once touched still remains to them. She inhabits a fresh world wherein death is cancelled, grief is past, and, inexplicably, life has restored all. Excited, she feels that the night itself, “ridden by pure excitement,” is now “seized by hope.” Abruptly, it appears that “all round Montefort there was a going forward, an entering back into possession.” Of Guy and herself, Antonia knows that “their tide had turned and was racing in again; here was the universe filling up—all there had been to be … at the full came flooding to this doorstep.” Her certitude permits no doubt that this is a time long past; “it was now or nothing.” She remains aware of the future, while she awaits, as in her, suddenly, the barriers between the dead and the living appear to have crumbled. Her terror at the results for herself suggests that psychological aberration, under the unbearable stress of the present, has claimed her. The response of most readers must be to dismiss any other explanation—particularly what the woman believes has occurred—as impossible.

In Lilia Danby's case, the return of Guy gains something like plausibility from the earlier, parallel experiences of Jane and the unimpressionable Antonia Danby. Their belief that Guy has returned to them makes Lilia's moment appear to be other than a private delusion or, perhaps, heat induced hallucination. The fact that Lilia, like the others, suffers not even a passing fear at this moment helps to distinguish her experience further from that of the terrified woman in the short story. An additional difference between them lies in the effects the return has upon each woman. Unlike the earlier protagonist, Lilia, though dazed by her moment, suffers no harm from it. Indeed, her subsequent actions and attitudes suggest she has undergone a change that appeared desirable heretofore, but beyond her power.

Lilia's altered mood parallels changes likewise in Jane and Antonia that have helped prepare for the garden scene. None of the three changes because of shame over her experience or by rejecting it. Moreover, none of the three is really the self-delusive, wholly exposed sort of heroine Bowen creates elsewhere: in Lois Farquahar, Portia Quayne, or Eva Trout, for example. At twenty, Jane Danby recalls these in age, lack of experience, and, at the outset, a seeming talent for creating situations that threaten her own and the others' well-being. Her romantic daydream of Guy does make her oblivious of all else for a short while. If she persisted in it longer, she would merit the distaste even Antonia begins to feel for her protégée. But the redoubtable Maud, most dreadful of Bowen's terrible children, knowingly punctures the fantasy. Jane's true character asserts itself in the chagrin she feels over her lack of regard for her family. Recognizing the humanity she has ignored, she indicts herself as a being “without norm or nature” (WL [A World of Love] 82). Her resolve to return to London, in order to spare the others her ineptitude, implies her wish also to assume the responsibilities of adulthood. London appears to her as the proper source of such knowledge of life as she realizes she requires.

Jane thinks she has been in danger, perhaps is lost, and must seek a path “back.” Her subsequent experience at the Latterly party is not regressive, nevertheless, but a further step toward finding the real world she has thus glimpsed. As she enters the Latterly castle, Jane has the desire for experience that her appearance, “perfectly ready to be that of a woman,” indicates outwardly. She notes the theatrical décor, surveys the other guests, and recognizes Vesta Latterly's reasons for inviting her. Jane's realization that only counterfeit notions of reality are to be found here is shrewd enough. There is no immediate reason for her to shed self-admitted habits of temporizing, being attractive, and finding amusement in those she considers less real than herself. Her first hard liquor only heightens her sense that this adult scene is a “foreign dimension.” She means merely to outbrave it, before her grip on events loosens and she comes to believe that Guy, himself once a guest at the castle, has joined them. Withdrawn and bemused, Jane knows all the while that the faces, voices, and gestures of the invited male guests contribute to her sense of the face, voices, and gestures she almost sees. But for her, Guy is more real, or the image she composes in her mind more desirable, than the “poor ghosts” surrounding her. As a result, Jane rejects a mode of adulthood that, with its high gloss and only surface relationships, she might find anywhere. At the same time, she moves further from the attendant role to which, long before Lady Latterly's invitation, Antonia's patronage has accustomed her.

Antonia's anger at the girl, on their drive home, stems from her own loss of command; Jane's drunkenness is a side issue. In fact, Antonia has begun a process of change also, though she seeks first to retain the manner of life to which she believes herself reconciled. That Jane and not she has been invited to the Latterly party is in no way surprising. Usually sober of mind, wary, toughened by experience, Antonia would jar badly with Lady Latterly's world of pretense and self-flattery. Antonia, who has made a career away from Ireland, indulges mainly in Montefort. The indulgence has given her little pleasure, though her attachment continues strong to the “gone-down” estate that her cousin Guy, dying, left to her. Over the years, her high-handedness has derived from an ingrained, once nearly desperate sense of responsibility, especially for Lilia. This has not prevented Antonia's monopolization of Jane, nor her refusal to see what it has cost both Lilia and Fred Danby. Antonia's yearly returns to Ireland are made under the guise of boredom, exasperation, and worldliness. Except as the usually absentee landlord of Montefort, she prefers to believe herself uninvolved with the life she has helped shape.

At the start of the novel, her profound weariness, her sickness “suddenly of everything,” and her drinking through “grave lonely” nights place her near, if not in, crisis. Now as ever, Antonia dreads self-exposure; her defenses against it have become nearly instinctual. She has shaped her life so that its central fact, the death of her childhood playfellow and lost love, has receded even from her view. She feels it “unlike” Guy to be dead, but knows childhood play, “the signal to go on again.” She waits to see from which it is to come, from Guy or herself, “for not come it could not and never did” (WL 121-23).

The air itself pauses—poised, “half-laughing”—with Antonia. Like that of unrestrained childhood play, her exhilaration contains no confusion over what has occurred to her. She denies her experience no more than Jane has hers, although Antonia's remains private. Its effects appear as early as next morning in her proposal, meant to be kind, that Lilia take a long-overdue holiday. Feeling fortunate, Antonia wishes to give the other woman something like the relief she herself has received freely. Subdued this morning, Jane also is more aware than before of how Lilia is suffering. Lilia's misery, rooted deep in the past, has grown acute over the last two days. Seen from the others' perspective, up to this point she has seemed clearly the weakest, the most prone to passive suffering, of the three women. But Lilia is engaged in a mortal struggle within herself, despite her apparently continued passivity. Lilia has only seemed hopeless, being without hope. In the past her sense of defeat has led her to accept Antonia's bullying, her domination of Jane, and, worst, having her own marriage fail, despite its two brief bursts of passion. Yet from the start of the heat wave, and especially since the discovery of the letters, Lilia has begun to face squarely what might be devastating truths.

Lilia has lost her Eden, the world of innocence, in losing Guy even before his death over thirty years earlier. Beginning to face this truth makes of the present a “burning glass” for her. Lilia feels threatened by its glare, knows panic, and starts to come apart. Her trip to the village thus parallels Antonia's drive to the shore in being a brief flight from Montefort. Yet Lilia is moving also toward what she accepts as an inevitable, long forestalled trial. The poor Englishwoman suffers the worst of it as she feels herself to be nowhere, incidental to the village scene that appears “deadly glazed,” like a postcard from Hell. Amidst her errands, accompanied by her daughters, her response is to fight back; she intends to survive this. Her admission to Jane, that she and Guy “had no destiny, in reality,” is a decisive one (WL 146). She speaks to Jane's innocence, but also to her own youth and dream of love that she sees reflected here. Lilia's realization that Fred has transferred his deepest feelings from herself to Jane gives her a slight edge in the battle that, as she knows, includes others. Her further comment that, besides Guy, after all Fred has “happened” to her, that “there he still is, your father,” represents a small victory (WL 151).

The return to Montefort becomes, as a result, more auspicious a prospect. On her return, Lilia's new haircut and the sewing she takes up signal the change begun in her since morning. She is prepared to endure pain as she seats herself in the walled garden, where earlier she hoped for serenity. Here, cruelly at first, “Truth goes on to eat through the weakened fabric” of her being (WL 152). In the village she has begun reliving her last meeting with Guy, en route to the Front, at the Charing Cross Station. Now she finds herself back there, again feeling superfluous. She tried to secede from life then: she wished to become snow or marble, to put from her mind all questions of who and what she was, to avoid suffering. Lilia knows now, as then, that her romance was most likely a pastime for Guy, who perhaps loved Antonia. The full force of the truth that Lilia's life has denied brings her close once more to despair, for she wonders, “if not the Beloved—what was Lilia?” Her dread that she is nothing, that “nothing was left to be,” echoes other Bowen heroines at moments like that she is reliving (WL 155). In analogous circumstances, for example, Emmeline Summers in To the North or Portia Quayne in The Death of the Heart can imagine no future which their betrayal by love will permit them. But Lilia's situation is, happily, more like Antonia's by now than those of the young, newly betrayed innocents. The years she has gone on living amidst her loss have exacted from Lilia her own kind of bravery. Some recognition of her capacity for it has come to her in the past hours. At least, she has come to see herself and her life as not wholly wasted. Her question, “Are you leaving me nothing, O Guy, then,” contains pathos, but also the courage of a hard-won personal rhetoric (WL 155). Lilia expects nothing, no answer. She faces what she believes is the emptiness her own failures, more than her loss of Guy, have created.

She is mistaken, nevertheless, since the “entrance” of Guy into the garden occurs just at this point. Remaining calm, Lilia is aware only that someone else, unseen, has entered. Her ordeal is over; but she attempts to go on facing the truth of her past and her own and the others' present predicament. Her realization of the disordered relations at Montefort leads her to think, with some irony, that Guy scattered round him more promises than any man could have hoped to honor in one lifetime. There may be irony also at first in her thought that he has bound them over the years more by expectation than memory. Those left at Montefort have remained “constant,” in dread of declining from what they were as he saw them. However wry, the realization shifts Lilia's mood to a lightened one of discovery. She does not lose sight for an instant of who she is or what her surroundings are. Indeed, her awareness of her surroundings grows increasingly intense and perceptive during this long moment. An assumption she makes, that the walled garden was Guy's particular handiwork, provides a strong motive for her interest. Thoughtful and alert, her look sweeps the old garden. Almost forgetting the other presence, she sees clearly the garden's decayed state: its crumbling walls, roses running to briar, and general decline from a still discernible past order.

Lilia has no illusions about Eden; she does not, nor does she hope to inhabit it. Apart from her own, such irony as occurs in the scene does so therefore neither at her expense nor in the way irony surrounds other Bowen protagonists. This garden scene is ironic, in fact, mainly in enhancing Lilia by her unknowing participation in its symbolic significance. The imagery of the Montefort garden is hardly Edenic but recalls instead the hortus conclusus, or the enclosed garden of Christian iconographic and related literary traditions. Recognition of this imagery requires only a basic knowledge of the centuries-old lore associated with the enclosed garden.4 But such knowledge is essential, since the position of the garden scene makes it a focus for meaning in the whole context of A World of Love. Moreover, awareness of the traditional imagery helps clarify the relations between this Bowen novel and the others that do feature Edenic settings. For the moment it is enough to note that these relations must include both echoes and deep contrasts owing to the typological thought from which the tradition of the enclosed garden arises. The Christian typologist considers the setting for the Fall to have been the type or foreshadowing of the enclosed garden, established through Christ's incarnation and suffering. Thus, the enclosed garden includes while it transcends the image of Eden, once the redemption of fallen humanity has become possible.

The enclosed garden has, no more than Eden, an actual locus in space nor historic period to which faith may assign it. An elaborate symbol, the garden comprises multiple images that have themselves distinct and often multiple symbolic referents. For instance, the intervention of Christ into worldly time has as its symbol the wall that creates by containing the enclosed garden. On another level, the wall represents the divine grace that may intervene in the life of a single soul that requires it. Of course, the postlapsarian will always does require such grace to counteract its weak and depraved tendencies. This will finds its appropriate symbolic image in the degenerate state into which the garden, symbolizing the soul, appears to have fallen. The most common signs of the soul's need for grace are weeds, or briar like that Lilia notes in the walled garden. As at Montefort, the traditional imagery of neglect and decay also includes that of the garden wall, itself broken in some places. The disrepair is lamentable, but it indicates in no way that divine grace may not suffice for the world or the soul standing in need of aid. Commentaries upon the garden distinguish between the seemingly impaired efficacy of the wall and its real state, that of perfection, when viewed from eternity. From that perspective, the wall has been and will remain wholly intact throughout the time governed by Christ's promise.

By the same token divine love woos continually and without change the human soul still bound in earthly time. The soul remains totally free to accept or reject the gifts that divine love bestows on her. In pictorial representations of the garden, frequently a lover proffers his beloved a gift of apples, thus symbolizing the relation of the divine to the human soul. Typologically, the apples suggest the reversal of the event that destroyed Eden. The apples recall also the comforting fruit of the Song of Solomon, believed to figure the courtship of the soul, the Beloved, by the divine bridegroom. It should be recalled here that Lilia sits in thought beneath a gnarled apple tree in the walled garden at Montefort. Her thoughts echo the Song of Solomon as she wonders, “if not the Beloved,” who or what then is Lilia? She cannot know that, in the seemingly derelict walled garden, she has become a central symbolic image within the enclosed garden. Indeed, the Beloved, symbol for the soul, she implies the hope gained through Christ's suffering.

Her very name suggests that, amidst the briars, she is the “lily among thorns” that the Song of Solomon celebrates (Cant. 2:2). Even Lilia's white-and-gold coloring, emphasized from the start, recalls the regal Lily, symbol of the Virgin and of the Annunciation. Traditionally, the lily is a common and integral part of the enclosed garden iconography. The image of the flower appears as pledge that the garden, existing now, will persist for humanity. For more than one reason Lilia functions within this scene, thus, as a symbol of joyous hope. The possible irony of this fact disappears as Lilia herself gains hope while she sits in the walled garden. For all her symbolic function, she has remained Lilia Danby, vexed this afternoon with her thoughts and her sewing box. Part of a picture unseen by her, she has thought only of her story. During her look round the garden, her sense of discovery has forestalled what will become her sense of a mystery. Suddenly she believes that Guy has returned, is here in the garden, and will answer her. Undaunted, Lilia prepares to advance down the path toward what she believes life has sent now to meet her. She rises, head high, advancing to meet although never quite seeing Guy. Like Jane earlier, she believes she sees his face composed in the air in the same instant he vanishes.

Lilia half-sees his face here and there on a vine round a door opened, bafflingly, into the walled garden. “Dementing” and “drowning” her sight, the vine halts Lilia's steps in her utter amazement. The moment serves to extend Lilia's function as a symbol. A fitting proximity appears between the Lily, emblem of the Annunciation, and the vine, emblem of the Passion throughout Christian iconography. More basically, the vine is, of course, the symbol for Christ as the “true vine” of his own saying (John 15:1). Christ is also the “rod out of the stem of Jesse,” pictured as spreading vine alternatively with the Jesse Tree (Isa. 11:1).5 Clinging to the wall, in effect the vine brings the Savior more emphatically within the enclosed garden. But the Savior might well appear here in his human form, since he is the lover of the gardens, or the gardener, along with being the divine Bridegroom.

The lore of the garden includes the risen Christ's appearance as a gardener, on the first Easter, to a lonely woman mourning and seeking him. Neither the Savior nor Guy appears to Lilia, however. Dazed, she only thinks she sees Guy, while she remains stopped in her tracks in a place wherein time has ceased, briefly. In the same moment Lilia is a breathless girl and an advancing woman. She is at once the innocent fiancée at the Charing Cross Station and the experienced wife and mother in the Montefort walled garden. The brief transcendence of time she experiences brings her within that realm where the enclosed garden is most easily accessible. The underlying design of the garden remains visible even as Lilia sees Fred, who—to her great surprise—has come seeking her. Lilia's disorientation is responsible for her telling him she believes she has seen Guy before; in her relief, she totters in her high heels to her husband. Pitying her in her confusion, Fred leads her then from the old garden. But outside its walls, they remain, nevertheless, in the enclosed garden.

More precisely, imagery associated with the sacred garden ensures its reach by extending beyond the walled garden scene and, in fact, throughout all of A World of Love. Imagery traditionally juxtaposed with that of the garden has appeared from the opening description of the heat wave around Montefort. In the iconography of the enclosed garden a blazing, relentless sun represents the assault of Nature upon the soul lacking divine grace. Beyond the garden's protective walls, the human condition becomes the terror of complete spiritual desolation. The soul venturing into the glare risks disfigurement since, without grace, the individual may be seared to the core by his own conscience. In short, the heat is upon the soul that has lost or not sought God. So at Montefort, in more ways than one the heat has been on the Danbys, as they have all realized. The prolonged heat wave and drought have held them as in a trance, an unreal time. The strange weather has confronted them with the need for such change as the three Danby women in turn have experienced.

Each in her turn has been in the enclosed garden. Neither Jane nor Antonia has seen further than Lilia where her own first short steps have brought her. The three have been duped, in a sense—or guyed. Almost blindly, they have been drawn into a state wherein they can begin to live as they must, if they wish to go on living. In the garden they have moved willingly beyond world bounded by self to achieve a new state of being. An old distinction between operative and cooperative grace is pertinent to the situations of all three women. In some way each has prepared herself, facing the truth of her relation to Guy before “seeing” him. As a result, each has received the grace to continue her regulation of will or the change of heart needed to live fully. The start of the process in each case, like its end, is beyond sight. The process by which they have acted mutually upon one another shows likewise no sign of ending. In the garden, Lilia has thought rightly that they have not yet finished with themselves or one another. Finding nothing perfect, they have as yet brought nothing in their world to perfection. They have only felt new love, having become more aware of the other claims to love round them.

Bowen's epigraph from Traherne's Centuries of Meditations expresses their new state.6 They have begun to move toward “a world of Love.” Though drawn by expectation and desire of something, none of the three has any clear idea what in this world that may be. For the moment it is enough that Lilia moves toward Fred, and he towards her, as they rest together under the dense green gloom of a chestnut tree. Unknowingly, Fred continues here the courtship of the Beloved in the enclosed garden. The shade to which he has brought Lilia contrasts as symbolic image to that of the scorching sun. In the iconographic tradition a deep shade, implying the opposing fierceness of sun, distinguishes what the fallen world merits from what God freely gives to it. For the individual soul the shade is a cure for past suffering. It also prevents the harm that would have befallen the soul if the Bridegroom had not appeared. Pictorial representations of the enclosed garden frequently show the Bridegroom courting the soul, his Bride, in a tree's shade in a deeply intimate moment. The shadow symbolizes the rapturous marriage-bed of the Song of Solomon, figuring the soul's accedence to the divine will. A deep greenness of shade reflects the soul's joyous reception of love, though at first this may appear doubtful. Some trace of pathos may appear in the Bridegroom's approach to the Beloved because of the distance between the two. The Bridegroom courts the Beloved, as she responds to him, with some effort.

With distressing difficulty, accordingly, Lilia and Fred begin to discuss what they have felt and how they now see their marriage. An accumulation of dullness, shame, waste, and loss weighs heavily upon them both. From a mundane viewpoint, their best hope may be survival, but now that seems more possible. Speaking truly to one another at last has been an “act of love.” Having worked at understanding, they rest “instinctively … almost apart, under the saturating chestnut, with what they knew at work in them slowly” (WL 169). Their obliviousness to all else includes the packet of Guy's letters that Fred has brought Lilia. Her disregard of them, as they drop from her lap, marks the beginning of Lilia's recession with Fred into the ordinary, if revitalized marriage she has seen as desirable. The letters' further downward course, as they pass from hand to hand and finally are burnt, counterpoints Lilia's growing pleasure. Simultaneously, the other Danby women take further steps towards their own futures.

These are less clear than Lilia's, since neither Antonia nor Jane has the advantage of seeing close at hand what she most desires and needs. Both need a reminder, therefore, that entrance into the enclosed garden brings them only so far; they must continue to meet its terms. In short, they must work out their salvation in the world and in that unknown time allotted them. Though beyond time, the enclosed garden requires of each soul time's prudent and fruitful use. Operative in the garden, divine justice requires this. Punishment must befall those who receive its warnings unheedingly; so these occur always with the unmistakable force and clarity appropriate to divine justice. In the traditional imagery of the garden, a timepiece of some sort appears often, strategically placed, in or near the paths of those strolling within the walls. Most frequently sundials remind those in the garden of their human mortality. With austere pointing fingers, the dials cry their messages: perhaps “Ut hora, sic vita” or “Finis itineris sepulchrum.” Occasionally, instead of the dials, another walker, an agent of time, utters a like warning.

Thus the dial in the Montefort garden yields its role wisely to Maud Danby. Neglected and misprised generally, furious over Fred's recent treatment of her, Maud acts nevertheless from her sense of due order. She has decided to give the others fair warning and then wreak retribution. The terrible ten-year-old, with her “select air of having been through hell,” becomes the voice and outstretched arm of the God she believes has directed her. Maud's recitation of Biblical maledictions, with her pacing that has “the monotony of a pendulum's” under Antonia's window, suggests the “cosmic standpoint” from which she now regards her whole family. With some distaste, Antonia thinks that Maud's unmistakable content is moral force. Antonia recognizes wryly that the entirely un-innocent child is “Judgment, to which we must all be brought” (WL 186). Shortly afterward, Maud's descent upon her and Jane in the dining room is predictably merciless. The two women feel becalmed, left behind by Lilia's and Fred's mutual absorption. Motionless, they watch as Maud moves to her wireless. Strong from a new battery, its explosion of “blood-up laughter, which … blasted its way round and round the room,” nearly shatters them (WL 206).

Rallying to the challenge, both women ponder the future and what has lately occurred to them. They breathe air from the walled garden—a window opens upon it—and gain a reprieve without knowing it. Jane does know that she has not yet been so happy as she has imagined. Her admission that she has been fooled and looked foolish leads to her perplexed question, “when shall I be so happy?” With the faith their reprieve justifies, Antonia answers “drily and out of solitude.” “Any day—tomorrow” implies present opportunity and the allowance of time enough for human enterprise (WL 209). Despite their continued portentousness, for today and tomorrow Maud's warnings become less threatening. Her warning that “it is going to be Nine O'Clock,” as the strokes of Big Ben (“Him,” to Maud) hit the room still sounds dire enough. Antonia and Jane feel themselves on a “struck ship,” hear “the sound of Time, inexorably coming … absolute and fatal.” They know that they are harkening to a “reminder,” an “ultimatum.” They realize that “now came Now—the imperative, the dividing moment, the spell-breaker,” that “all else was thrown behind, disappeared from reality, was over.” For them, Time has “swooped as it struck,” although at nine o'clock, clearly, it might be much later (WL 210-11).

Their sense that Guy has been with them again bears them up, although they believe him now “gone for good.” There is no question now, as there was little before, of their being romantic fantasists. The presence of Maud and Big Ben have militated against their indulging in even a moment of fantasy. Maud subsides, however, when Fred and Lilia return with their news of impending rain. Maud's subsidence, signifying justice deferred, means that the grace of divine mercy has intervened in the enclosed garden. Fittingly, in the traditional imagery mercy appears as dew or rain, falling in showers that refresh the soul and allay its fears of the desert of self that may bring death. Generally there is no toying with the advantages of a prolonged hot stretch, as by rights there should not be at Montefort. Only the lingering foolishness here explains why Lilia voices regret for what she calls “this golden spell.” Or, the new order among them casts its glow upon that hard test through which she and the others have succeeded in muddling. The semblance of action among the Danby women the next morning disguises their sense that something has acted upon them all vitally. They feel they have “so far no more than passed or been sent on out of one deep dream into another—more oppressive, more lucid, more near perhaps to the waking hour” (WL 215-16).

A change in weather, the gentle rain from heaven, will not bring that hour. In the world of this novel, it matters, simply, that Antonia has found the act of rising this morning a prospect “less trying than usual.” Her thought that “the future was now the bore … which was to say that the future was now the thing” marks her progress, as yet hesitant (WL 221). Antonia reflects that to have been loved means “a little less” than to recall how it felt to love; but she is uncertain as to her next step. As she contemplates remaining in Ireland, at Montefort, she has reached a point where she may require mercy unceasingly. To her credit, Antonia may enjoy as a joke what the past days have done to her. But she would not be more apt on this account to join in the laughter that conveys the sense of a larger joke throughout the novel. She and Jane quail before the explosive laughter from the wireless, until their sense of Guy makes them feel they are not fools. Antonia fails also to join in the stupendous, convulsive laughter that seizes the maidservant, Kathie, as the latter “sees daylight” over what she believes has been tormenting the Danbys. Bent over, she sobs with laughter, “There could still be some terrible joke on us” (WL 201).

Jane broods over the possibility that the joke is on her, although she has fewer years at stake than Antonia has. Jane's confusion over whose “game” she has been playing, her own or Guy's, makes her wonder if the world may not start laughing behind its hand. Yet, not even the example of Maud, with her familiar, Gay David, convinces Jane that she may not perhaps be a medium. She has seen earlier with equanimity the clown face Guy himself remarked on a cliff over the river, before Maud's intrusion there routed her. The Montefort household, its immediate surroundings, and the Irish countryside beyond these, all bear traces of the comic that Jane may see, though now she sees also that her future may be here. She does not see Eden around her; she knows she may be deceived. She cannot know that she is the dupe, blessed and attended, of the supremely serious trickery of the enclosed garden.

The reader has the advantage over Jane in being aware of the ruse elaborately sustained by the narrative. Bowen's self-conscious, at times nearly absurd-seeming style helps give it resonance. Deliberately artificial in some places, baffling in others, the style serves a narrative texture that is—as other critics have recognized—highly lyric in nature.7 Like the joke quality, the lyric quality expresses the sense of affirmation and joy found in A World of Love when read on its own terms. These include the inversion of Bowen's familiar thematic concerns that, as Paul Parrish recognized a few years ago, have theological undertones. On its surface and on its deepest levels A World of Love complements as it contrasts the fictional worlds of the better known and often more appreciated Bowen novels. Like their protagonists, the Danbys exist in a fallen world. But in the enclosed garden of A World of Love salvation is possible.

Each of the Danby women, in her own way, proves that loss or defeat need not be final nor deadening. Yet, Jane Danby's story offers the boldest contrast to those of the other less fortunate though equally innocent Bowen heroines. The “blind bridal rush” with which Jane leaves Montefort to meet Richard Priam at Shannon implies her vulnerability, without forecasting disaster. Jane's new eagerness for the future, her resumed disregard for the past, let alone her candy-striped blazer, make her appear to Lilia and Antonia almost as great a monster as she seemed two mornings previously. Her apparent uncaringness sets her apart from the older women, now quietly assessing their new relationship. Forgetfulness concerning the past two days will claim them soon; but they see it in Jane as evidence that she would sacrifice possibly saving illusions in her rush towards the new day. Unlike other youthful Bowen protagonists, nonetheless, Jane goes accompanied by divine justice and will receive mercy, when the Latterly van brings her and Maud, along for the ride, to the airport. Jane's wait there, making her feel once again at a “dead standstill,” recalls her mother to her, as Lilia once stood at Charing Cross. Despite her youth, Jane understands loss of hope. She also muses over patterns of experience, though she feels with relief that her own time is yet to be. The far apart drops, “each too individually momentous to be rain,” begin as she watches the plane land from America. Jane's recognition of Priam owes much to her vision of Guy at the Latterly party. Priam's recognition of her owes as much to romantic convention. Bowen borrows a line from As You Like It—“they no sooner looked but they loved”—to underline how fragile, yet how miraculous this love at first sight may prove to be. For Jane, also, the future is now the thing, but she may greet it happily. Essentially Christian in vision, A World of Love celebrates even romantic love, seen here as a gift of grace, as potentially redemptive.


  1. For the most focused discussion of such scenes, see Paul A. Parrish, “The Loss of Eden: Four Novels of Elizabeth Bowen,” Critique, 15, 1 (1973), 86-100.

  2. The story appears in Bowen's The Demon Lover (London: Jonathan Cape, 1952).

  3. A World of Love (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1955), p. 65. All further references to the novel appear parenthetically in the text.

  4. The best general introduction to this tradition, and my own indispensable source for the following discussion, is Stanley Stewart, The Enclosed Garden: The Tradition and the Image in Seventeenth-Century Poetry (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1966). Stewart traces the development of the garden imagery in pictorial art and poetry from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance as a background for his particular concerns, especially with Marvell's “The Garden.”

  5. It bears noting that Bowen uses the Jesse Tree as a central symbolic image in her earlier novel Friends and Relations (1931) in which, however, the reference to the image, related to but simpler than that of the enclosed garden, is explicit. See the collected edition of the novel (London: Jonathan Cape, 1951), p. 148.

  6. “There is in us a world of Love to somewhat, though we know not what in the world that should be. … Do you not feel yourself drawn by the expectation and desire of some Great Thing?”

  7. Unfortunately, the lyricism of the novel has been largely responsible for some critics' dismissal of it as an ill-considered literary sport. For example, see Geoffrey Wagner, “Elizabeth Bowen and the Artificial Novel,” Essays in Criticism, 13, 2 (1963), 155-163.

Principal Works

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Encounters: Stories (short stories) 1923

Ann Lee's and Other Stories (short stories) 1926

The Hotel (novel) 1927

Joining Charles and Other Stories (short stories) 1929

The Last September (novel) 1929

Friends and Relations: A Novel (novel) 1931

To the North (novel) 1932

The Cat Jumps and Other Stories (short stories) 1934

The House in Paris (novel) 1935

The Death of the Heart (novel) 1938

Look at All Those Roses: Short Stories (short stories) 1941

Bowen's Court (memoir) 1942

English Novelists (criticism) 1942

Seven Winters (memoir) 1942

The Demon Lover and Other Stories (short stories) 1945

Anthony Trollope: A New Judgement (criticism) 1946

Selected Stories (short stories) 1946

Why Do I Write? An Exchange of Views between Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene, and V. S. Pritchett (nonfiction) 1948

The Heat of the Day (novel) 1949

Collected Impressions (essays) 1950

The Shelbourne: A Centre in Dublin Life for More than a Century (autobiographical essay) 1951

A World of Love (novel) 1955

Stories by Elizabeth Bowen (short stories) 1959

A Time in Rome (travel essay) 1960

Afterthought: Pieces about Writing (essays) 1962

The Little Girls (novel) 1964

A Day in the Dark and Other Stories (short stories) 1965

Eva Trout; or, Changing Scenes (novel) 1968

Nativity Play (play) 1974

Pictures and Conversations (essays and unfinished novel) 1975

Elizabeth Bowen's Irish Stories (short stories) 1978

The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen (short stories) 1981

The Mulberry Tree: Writings of Elizabeth Bowen (essays) 1986

Hermione Lee (essay date 1981)

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SOURCE: Lee, Hermione. “The Bend Back: A World of Love (1955), The Little Girls (1964) and Eva Trout (1968).” In Elizabeth Bowen: An Estimation, pp. 189-212. London: Vision Press, 1981.

[In the following excerpt, Lee examines Bowen's final series of novels—A World of Love, The Little Girls, and Eva Trout—maintaining that all three deal with the sense of uncertainty and detachment from emotional life that Bowen finds characteristic in post-World War II society.]

What fails in the air of our present-day that we cannot breathe it?

The ‘awful illumination’ of war confirmed, on a vast scale, Elizabeth Bowen's personal vision of a denatured and dispossessed civilisation. ‘There's been a stop in our senses and in our faculties that's made everything around us so much dead matter.’ ‘How are we to live without natures? … So much flowed through people; so little flows through us … All we can do is imitate love or sorrow.’ These characteristic utterances (from ‘Summer Night’ and ‘The Happy Autumn Fields’) are spoken out of limbo, by people disinherited from a past rich in emotions and certainties, and prisoners to a future which requires ‘genius’ to be lived in at all. The paradigmatic voice of her war-time writing might be that of the young soldier in her radio play of 1946 about Trollope, who dreams on a railway journey, that he is speaking to Trollope and explaining to him his love of the novels:

We're homesick for anything right-and-tight … The whole way of life that is quite, apparently, gone … I think your novels are a support against the sort of hopelessness we're inclined to feel … It's essential for us, these days, to believe in people, and in their power to live … we long for what's ordinary.1

Elizabeth Bowen's post-war writing deals more than ever with the failure of feeling and certainty in modern civilization, and with the need for consolatory retreats into memory and fantasy. The last three novels reiterate a distaste for contemporaneity: ‘Her time, called hers because she was required to live in it and had no other, was in bad odour, and no wonder … too much had been going on for too long.’2 ‘Nothing's real any more … There's a tremendous market for prefabricated feelings.’3 ‘What becomes of anyone's nature?’4 In her writing about contemporary fiction she finds ‘an increasing discrepancy between facts, or circumstances, and feeling, or the romantic will’5, an increasing compulsion to retreat from the nullity of modern life into ‘the better days’:

Now, after a second war, with its excoriations, grinding impersonality, obliteration of so many tracks and landmarks, heart and imagination once more demand to be satisfied … Can this demand be met only by recourse to life in the past? It at present seems so.

… What fails in the air of our present-day that we cannot breathe it? Why cannot the confidence in living, the engagement with living, the prepossession with living be re-won?6

Just as the war answered to Elizabeth Bowen's conception of her civilization, so the conditions of the post-war life in the West seemed to her to confirm her diagnosis. The three novels she wrote in the Fifties and Sixties are about displacement, alienation and the search for consolation. They ‘bend back’—into her own past, in that they return to pre-war Ireland and to schooldays in Kent, and into the characters' past, in that two of the three novels describe attempts to summon up lost time. The last novel is set in the present, but its characters are at a loss in an alien world.

In their emphasis on dislocation, on the discrepancy between ‘fact, or circumstances, and feeling, or the romantic will’, the last novels confirm her lifelong attitudes to existence. More privately, they arise from the rather unhappy circumstances of Elizabeth Bowen's old age. A World of Love was begun in Ireland after the death of Alan Cameron, and the shabbiness of its Irish house reflects, as Victoria Glendinning suggests, her ‘own predicament at Bowen's Court’7. After the sale and demolition of Bowen's Court she continued to go to Ireland, most often as the guest of the Vernons at Kinsale, and since the early Fifties she had been spending a good deal of time in America, and in Rome (visits which resulted in a fanciful and indulgent travelbook, A Time in Rome). But she had no home. Her attempts to settle down in England took the form of journeys back into her past. She first took a flat in Headington, in a house belonging to Isaiah Berlin, and then, in 1965, bought a house in Hythe. In her sixties she developed lung cancer.

The biography insists that Elizabeth Bowen put a brave face on her circumstances and was active, busy and sociable until the last possible moment. The last two novels, however, communicate a painful sense of uncertainty, even of disequilibrium. Evidently there were personal reasons for this, but the unsatisfactoriness of the later work also has literary grounds. Elizabeth Bowen's fiction in the 1930s and '40s resulted from a fruitful conjunction between her historical attitudes, her literary manner and her sense of a society. After the war her attitudes to that society seemed to be confirmed, but her literary manner was losing its usefulness. The last two novels in particular express unease not merely in their subject-matter but also in an uncertainty of tone. And though A World of Love, her only novel of the Fifties, is more like the earlier books and has some attractive atmospheric qualities, it works an outworn vein. With Friends and Relations, it is the most mannered of her novels, and, unlike The Death of the Heart or The House in Paris, it is sentimental about youthful innocence.

After A World of Love she felt the need to turn herself into a different kind of novelist. I am reminded of Virginia Woolf's reaction against The Waves, and her attempt to find a method which would make The Years into an appropriate fictional document for the Thirties. Elizabeth Bowen, likewise, wanted to come to terms with the Sixties. There's an illuminating reference in the biography to the influence of Iris Murdoch and Muriel Spark on The Little Girls, particularly for their interest in ‘nightmare and fantasy’8, and to Elizabeth Bowen's plan to write this novel ‘externally’, without revealing her characters' thoughts and feelings.9 These are symptoms of a predicament. She was a novelist who had begun to write under the shadow of Forster and Virginia Woolf, whose affinities, in manner and subject, were with L. P. Hartley, Henry Green, Rosamond Lehmann and early Greene, and who found herself in the Sixties at odds with her own methods. As her interest in the unconscious and the abnormal increased (the last two novels are concerned with involuntary recall, nonverbal communication, retardation, infantilism and fantasy life), so the controlled Jamesian analysis of motive and emotion began to seem inappropriate. As her environment became increasingly inimical to her, so the intense, nostalgic evocation of place at which she excelled, was put at risk. The last two novels are trying for a new kind of fictional language and method, but they succeed only in conveying qualms about the novel form itself. In the context of English fiction of the Sixties they lack the solidity of the realists, and the wit and density of the ‘fabulists’ who most influenced her.

All three of the late novels are preoccupied with time and recollection. They make similar references to déjà vu and to the overlap between memory and fantasy: ‘Were there not those who said that everything has already happened, and that one's lookings-forward are really memories?’10 ‘They say—don't they?—one never is doing anything for the first time.’11 ‘Imagining oneself to be remembering, more often than not one is imagining: Proust say so. (Or is it, imagining oneself to be imagining, one is remembering?)’12 In the last two books retrospection is confused: there's some uncertainty as to what actually has happened. A World of Love, however, is poignant and idyllic in its pursuit of the past. As the extravagant title implies (taken from Traherne's ‘There is in us a world of Love to somewhat, though we know not what in the world that should be’), it is a romance of feelings and personal relations, in retreat from the wider political reverberations of The Heat of the Day. It is also as close to being a ghost story as her novels were ever allowed to come—and might, perhaps, have worked better as a long short story in the manner of ‘The Happy Autumn Fields’, with which it has affinities.

From the start of the novel—County Cork, the sun rising (‘on the heat of the day before’) for an exceptionally hot June day, an ‘expectant, empty, intense’ landscape, a dilapidated house, Montefort, ‘somewhat surprisingly’ fronted by an obelisk, a beautiful girl of twenty in a ‘trailing Edwardian muslin dress’ coming out to read a letter—the atmosphere is so characteristic as to be almost self-parodic. Like ‘The Happy Autumn Fields’, the novel initially gives the impression of being set in the past. And, like that story, it cuts roughly and abruptly to the squalid modern litter of a bedroom inside the house: ‘a packet of Gold Flake, a Bible, a glass with dregs, matches, sunglasses, sleeping pills, a nail file and a candlestick caked with wax into which the finished wick had subsided.’ Evidently Montefort's hand-to-mouth condition in the Fifties is to be contrasted with the past and the rapt romanticism of the girl reading the letter is to be matched against the disabused toughness of the woman asleep in the bedroom. Characters, setting and plot are thoroughly Bowenesque. For all its flaws, A World of Love is a touching novel, in being, as it transpired, a farewell to the Irish subject and to many of her familiar materials.

Like Henrietta and Leopold uncovering the past of the house in Paris, Jane Danby's find of a bundle of letters in the trunk with the dress unlocks the past of Montefort. As with the two children in the earlier novel, her chance discovery not only raises ghosts but liberates her into her own future. The story of the sleeping princess, as in other works, is invoked, but in this case the heroine is not awakened for a tragic shock or disillusionment, like Lois, Emmeline, or Portia. A World of Love is the most benign of the novels.

But, like The House in Paris, it does contain an unhappy past, which has produced the uneasy circumstances of the life at Montefort. Antonia, the woman in the bedroom, has been the owner of the house since her cousin, Guy, (the writer of the letters) died in the war in 1918. At his death, Guy was engaged to an English girl, Lilia, then a beautiful and bewildered seventeen-year-old. Antonia took charge of Lilia's life, to the extent of marrying her off at thirty to another cousin, the ‘wild’, illegitimate Fred Danby, and of installing the couple at Montefort. There, the marriage worked itself out through stages of passion and coldness, two children were born, Jane and her eccentric younger sister, Maud, and the Danbys' ill-defined status as ‘caretakers’, farmers and hosts to Antonia continued for twenty-one years, due to the reluctance to ‘sitting down and having anything out’. Lilia's brooding dislike of Montefort and of Antonia, Fred's dotage on his elder daughter, the estrangement of husband and wife, and Antonia's nerve-racked impatience with the whole set-up are ignited by Jane's discovery of Guy's letters. Thirty or more years on, he seems to return, as the letters fall into the hands of every member of the household. Jane falls in love with her idea of him; the emotion translates her from a girl to a woman. Spotted as a rising beauty by the neighbouring châtelaine, ‘Lady Latterly’, at the local fête, she goes to a dinner-party at the castle—a comic setting which the ghostly presence of Guy (who must often have dined there with the past owners) transforms into a bridal feast. Jane moves into Lady Latterly's orbit, and is driven by the castle chauffeur to Shannon airport, to meet one of Lady Latterly's guests—and cast-off boyfriends—Richard Priam. The time is right, the letters have prepared the ground: ‘They no sooner looked but they loved.’

This romantic movement is counterpointed, with characteristic wryness, by the antic ‘possession’ of Maud, struggling with her ‘familiar’, laying curses on her family, and racing to the radio to listen to the strokes of Big Ben, and by the disconcerting effect of the letters on the older generation, now (like Elizabeth Bowen) in their fifties. Antonia's painful love of Guy, Fred and Lilia's jealousy and bitterness are re-enacted; all are haunted by the writer of the letters, who, it transpires, has been unfaithful to both women. But, unlike The House in Paris and To the North, and like The Death of the Heart, this is a novel of compromise, not of tragedy. Lilia and Fred move towards a more companionable relationship, Antonia belatedly accepts Guy's love for Lilia and her own necessary bond with her. Though ‘one was never quite quit of what one has done’, by the end of the novel the ghost has been exorcised, and ‘the future was the thing’.

If A World of Love is arrived at after the earlier works, its ghostliness can be seen to arise partly from the self-referential echoes. These don't merely consist of general resemblances—to the structure of the past breaking in on the present, as in The House in Paris or ‘The Happy Autumn Fields’, to the pattern of relationships in The Death of the Heart (Antonia and Jane mildly re-enact the hostilities between Anna and Portia), or to the subject of The Last September, a young girl waiting for something to happen in an Irish house. There are more specific allusions. Maud is a compound of Elizabeth Bowen's most horrible small girls. Lilia remembering her farewell to Guy at the railway station, where she overheard him speaking intimately to Antonia, calls up a scene very like the embrace between Karen and Max on the train at Victoria. What Lilia hears Guy saying is ‘You'll never see the last of me!’ The words recall the parting of the soldier in ‘The Demon Lover’: ‘I shall be with you,’ he said, ‘sooner or later. You won't forget that. You need do nothing but wait.’13 Jane's visit to Lady Latterly's castle is like Marianne's excursion with Davina in ‘The Disinherited’. Like Marianne, Jane moves in a rapt, ethereal trance through the ‘void, stale, trite and denying drawing-room’; like the Thirties socialites in ‘The Disinherited’, Lady Latterly's English guests are ghostlike: there was ‘something phantasmagoric about this circle of the displaced rich’. A World of Love is haunted by its author's past creations, and most of all by the earlier books and stories about Anglo-Ireland.

When A World of Love is set against the Anglo-Irish novel of 1929, its shadowiness is apparent. Although The Last September was set back in the time of the Troubles, and although the courtship of Lois and Gerald was romantically treated, the early novel was much more full-blooded than A World of Love. Lois was, after all, in love with a real soldier, and not the ghost of one. Anglo-Irish society, though diminished, was still felt to possess energy and decorum; and the individual lives were inextricably related to the political situation. In A World of Love the girl is in love with a phantom, there is no Anglo-Irish society, and the lives at Montefort and at the castle, lives of demeaning poverty or demeaning wealth, exist in a vacuum. For all that the novel describes a dreamy prelude to adult love, its real subject is loss. This is the last, faint, spectral chapter in the history of Anglo-Ireland.

Thus the novel's successes are not the romantic set-pieces—Jane sensing Guy's presence opposite her at the castle dinner-party, Antonia and Lilia pursuing their memories of Guy—but its wry accounts of what has become of the Anglo-Irish and their homes. The English Lady Latterly, of dubious past, who's bought up ‘an unusually banal Irish castle, long empty owing to disrepair’ is part of an influx of nouveau riche moving in on a landscape once ‘vigilant’ against newcomers, and scattered with ‘eyeless towers and time-stunted castles’. To one old Irish guest, who remembers County Cork, as it used to be, she and her friends are no substitute for the real society they have replaced: ‘You can buy up a lot; you can't buy the past … these days, one goes where the money is—with all due respect to this charming lady. Those days, we went where the people were.’

The castle's money is good enough for the local shopkeepers, however, who have been known to stop Montefort's credit. Again, a comparison between this depressing town, and the liveliness of Mrs Fogarty's Clonmore drawing-room in The Last September, shows the decline:

There on the kerb outside Lonergan's, Lilia braced her shoulders as though facing reality—looking up then down the Clonmore straight wide main street at the alternately dun and painted houses, cars parked askew, straying ass-carts and fallen bicycles. Dung baked on the pavements since yesterday morning's fair; shop after shop had insanely similar doorways, strung with boots and kettles and stacked with calicoes—in eternal windows goods faded out. Many and sour were the pubs. Over-exposed, the town was shadeless—never a tree, never an awning. Ice cream on sale, but never a café. Clonmore not only provided no place to be, it provided no reason to be, at all.


Montefort (based on a deserted farmhouse near Bowen's Court but with much of the atmosphere of Bowen's Court itself14) has, like a house in a Somerville and Ross novel, ‘the air of having gone down’. The obelisk was built by a typical Anglo-Irish landlord:

Married the cook … went queer in the head from drinking and thinking about himself, left no children—anyway, no legits. So this place went to his first cousin.


Now it is isolated (‘no calls to the telephone for there was not a telephone, no vans delivering, seldom a passer-by, no neighbours to speak of’) and decrepit:

The green of the ivy over the window-bars and the persisting humidity of the stone-flagged floors made the kitchen look cool without being so. This was the room in Montefort which had changed least: routine abode in its air like an old spell. Generations of odours of baking and basting, stewing and skimming, had been absorbed into the lime-washed walls, leaving wood ash, raked cinders, tea leaves, wrung-out cloths and lamp oil freshly predominant. The massive table, on which jigs had been danced at the harvest homes, was probably stronger than, now, the frame of the house … The great and ravenous range, of which no one now knew how to quell the roaring, was built back into a blackened cave of its own—on its top, a perpetual kettle sent out a havering thread of steam, tea stewed in a pot all day, and the lid heaved, sank on one or another of the jostling pots, saucepans and cauldrons. Mush for the chickens, if nothing else, was never not in the course of cooking … The sink's one tap connected with a rain-water tank which had run dry—since then, a donkey cart with a barrel rattled its way daily down to the river pool … On the dresser, from one of the hooks for cups, hung a still handsome calendar for the year before; and shreds of another, previous to that, remained tacked to the shutter over the sink. These, with the disregarded dawdling and often stopping of the cheap scarlet clock wedged in somewhere between the bowls and dishes, spoke of the almost total irrelevance of Time, in the abstract, to this ceaseless kitchen.


The passage illustrates what is excellent in the novel—this is a fully realized room—and what is exasperating. ‘Mush for the chickens was never not in the course of cooking’ is a ludicrous piece of self-derived mannerism. The paragraph is full of similar affectations: the obtrusive placing of commas and of words like ‘now’, the coy adjectival phrases like the ‘perpetual’ kettle and the ‘ceaseless’ kitchen, the obligatory inversions, qualifications, and double negatives. In its striving for a heightened poetical mood the novel relies heavily on these familiar tricks of style: ‘All round Montefort there was going forward an entering back again into possession’; ‘Decay … was apparent—out it stood! Nothing now against it maintained the place.’

The manner blurs events and relationships. Fred's absorption with Jane, Antonia's brutal treatment of Lilia, Jane's attraction to Vesta Latterly, all promising studies of influence, are hazily rendered, especially if compared with, say, Thomas and Anna Quayne's marriage, or Leopold's encounter with Mme. Fisher. Maud, venomously Protestant and covered in boils, a horrid embodiment of ‘moral force’, is an exception, but she works as a parody of the haunted adults, and, in her obsession with Big Ben, as a convenient reminder of ‘the absolute and fatal’ stroke of time. By contrast, the characterization of Jane is particularly soft and conventional: ‘Her brows were wide, her eyes an unshadowed blue, her mouth more inclined to smile than in any other way to say very much—it was a face perfectly ready to be a woman's, but not yet so, even in its transcendancy this morning.’

Yet the novel does deal in ideas about time and memory which relate it to her better work. Jane's resistance to ‘the time she was required to live in’, her aversion to the past's ‘queeringness’—‘this continuous tedious business of received grievances, not-to-be-settled old scores’—is set ironically against the older generation's inability to free itself from the dead. The character most like the narrator, Antonia, is made to contemplate poignantly the effect of the wars on our response to death, and the post-war sense of unreality. This central passage explains and to some extent justifies the novel's shadowy, precious attenuations:

Life works to dispossess the dead, to dislodge and oust them. Their places fill themselves up; later people come in; all the room is wanted … Their being left behind in their own time caused estrangement between them and us, who must live in ours.

But the recognition of death may remain uncertain, and while that is so nothing is signed and sealed. Our sense of finality is less hard-and-fast; two wars have raised their query to it. Something has challenged the law of nature: it is hard, for instance, to see a young death in battle as in any way the fruition of a destiny, hard not to sense the continuation of the apparently cut-off life, hard not to ask, but was dissolution possible so abruptly, unmeaningly and soon? … These years she went on living belonged to him, his lease upon them not having run out yet. The living were living in his lifetime … They were incomplete.


Almost ten years elapsed before the next novel. The only intervening work, written at a very low point in Elizabeth Bowen's life, was A Time in Rome (1960), too personal and erratic to be a successful guide book, too impressionistic for a historical study. It contains, however, some characteristic remarks about time and memory which point towards the last novels:

It is in nature (at least in mine) to make for the concrete and particular, to ‘choose’ a time and reconstitute, if one can, one or another of its moments … In Rome I wondered how to break down the barrier between myself and happenings outside my memory. I was looking for splinters of actuality in a shifting mass of experience other than my own. Time is one kind of space; it creates distance. My chafing geographical confusion was in a way a symptom of inner trouble—my mind could not be called a blank, for it tingled with avidity and anxieties: I was feeling the giddiness of unfocused vision. There came no help from reason, so I was passive … To talk of ‘entering’ the past is nonsense, but one can be entered by it, to a degree.15

The idea of being passively entered into by the past is derived from Proust, who has always interested Elizabeth Bowen. She quotes him at the start of The Last September, the first novel of time recalled. He is invoked in ‘The Mulberry Tree’, her 1934 account of her third English school, Downe House, which is (partly) the school in The Little Girls: ‘Memory is, as Proust has it, so oblique and selective that no doubt I see my schooldays through a subjective haze.’16 Eva Trout refers to Proust's idea of the overlap between imagination and memory; and in the last collection, Pictures and Conversations, there is a long, careful and penetrating essay on Proust's novelist-character, Bergotte. The Little Girls is the most ‘Proustian’ of her novels: it describes an involuntary recall of the past, and the breakdown set in motion by that recall. The novel not only contains a Proustian experience, it produced one: when she began her draft of an autobiography in the Seventies, she said that she had ‘completely forgotten’ one of her schoolgirl experiences ‘till it was returned to me by The Little Girls’.17

In one way, then, The Little Girls marks the culmination of a central preoccupation, the uncontrollable activity of memory and the disabling legacy of the past. She has, of course, set stories in the past before (The Last September) or re-entered the past in the middle of a novel or story, as in The House in Paris (which has the same structure as The Little Girls), ‘The Happy Autumn Fields’, A World of Love, and ‘Ivy Gripped the Steps’, a story rather like this novel. The central section of The Little Girls, which describes schooldays at ‘St Agatha's, Southstone’, invokes the factual account of her schools in ‘The Mulberry Tree’, and the many characterizations of schoolgirls, like Theodora Hirdman at Mellyfield in Friends and Relations, or Pauline and her friend Dorothea in the ‘Going to School’ chapter of To the North, or the girl haunted by ‘the Crampton Park School Tragedy’ in ‘The Apple Tree’. She says in ‘Pictures and Conversations’ that ‘St Agatha's is imaginary, in that it has no physical origin.’18 But she admits that it runs together features from her three English schools, Lindum House, her Folkestone day-school; Harpenden Hall, a Hertfordshire boarding school (where, as one of a series of ‘crazes’, ‘a smallish biscuit tin, sealed, containing some cryptic writings and accompanied by two or three broken knick-knacks, was immured in the hollow base of a rough stone wall dividing the kitchen garden’19), and Downe House, her wartime Kentish boarding school, where the girls cultivated ‘foibles and mannerisms’ in the interests of social success, and ‘personality came out in patches, like damp through a wall.’20

On either side of the novel's central section, the flashback to the three girl friends at school in 1914, are the two parts set in the Sixties. ‘Dinah Delacroix’ is a well-preserved, eccentric widow living in a Somerset villa, its garden lush with flowers and vegetables, in the company of her vain, temperamental, nosy house-boy, Francis (a faint reworking of Eddie) who waits (and spies) on Dinah while deciding what to do with his future, and her loyal simple old friend Frank Wilkins (a faint reworking of Major Brutt, and drawn, presumably, from Alan Cameron). The novel opens with Dinah embarked on her latest ‘craze’: burying evidence for posterity in a cave.

Clues to reconstruct us from. Expressive objects. What really expresses people? The things, I'm sure, that they have obsessions about …


As she and Frank haphazardly go about this whimsical task, a neighbour's question (‘Who's going to seal it up?’) and the sight of a crooked swing in the garden suddenly ignites Dinah's memory:

I've been having the most extraordinary sensation! Yes, and I still am, it's still going on! Because, to remember something all in a flash, so completely that it's not “then” but “now”, surely is a sensation, isn't it? I do know it's far, far more than a mere memory! One's right back into it again, right in the middle … They say—don't they?—one never is doing anything for the first time.


Fifty or so years before, she and two other ‘little girls’—‘Dicey’, ‘Mumbo’, and ‘Sheikie’—also buried evidence for posterity in a coffer in the school garden. Ignoring Frank's sensible warning (‘Can't you see, they're not there any more!’) Dinah is fired with the desire to summon her two friends and to dig up the treasure: ‘We are posterity, now.’ Her obsession sets in motion a comedy of reappearances and recognitions. ‘Sheikie’, ‘Southstone's wonder, the child exhibition dancer’ has become the respectable Mrs Sheila Artworth, wife of a Southstone estate agent, once a much-bullied little boy whom Dinah last remembers as stuck inside a drainpipe at a picnic. ‘Mumbo’, the clumsy, clever child of an unhappy marriage, is now Clare Burkin-Jones, owner of ‘MOPSIE PYE chain of speciality giftshops’, operating ‘throughout the better-class London suburbs and outward into the Home Counties’.

The first part, in which ‘Dicey’ brings about the reunion, is farcical, full of little fragmentary surprises and revelations, ending with ‘Sheikie's’ news that St Agatha's no longer exists: it was bombed in the Second War. The flashback of the second part to 1914 has a softening, mellowing effect on the novel. The suppressed romantic feeling between Dicey's beautiful, unworldly mother (whose husband killed himself before Dicey was born) and Mumbo's father, the sad, handsome Major, is tenderly touched upon, and the schoolgirl comedy (poetry recitations, swimming lessons, the visit of a suffragette aunt, shopping for a chain to go round the coffer in Southstone's picturesque old High Street, the end-of-term picnic) is nostalgically idealized, very much in the manner of the pre-war South Coast scenes in ‘Ivy Gripped the Steps’ (where Mrs Nicholson's relationship with the Admiral, and her refusal to believe in the coming war, anticipate this part of The Little Girls):

Summer evening concerts began in the Pier Pavilion, which like a lit-up musical box admired itself in the glass of the darkening mauve sea; above, the chains of lamps along the Promenade etherealized strollers in evening dress, from the big hotels, bright-ghostly baskets of pink geraniums and the fretwork balconies they were slung from.


The partings on the beach at the picnic between Dicey's mother and the Major, and between Dicey and Mumbo, just before the outbreak of war, are poignantly done. This, and the chilling account of the Major's home-life (his wife, another Mrs Kelway, ‘successfully cauterized her loved ones’), are much the best things in the novel, and have the haunting quality of a good short story. Elizabeth Bowen's potent memories of her childhood in England alone with her mother are once again put to good use here.

The jerky, comical tone associated with the present day is resumed in the third part, for the farcical night-time scene in which the three women dig up the coffer from what is now the back garden of a typical Bowenesque villa, ‘Blue Grotto’. The coffer is empty. After this discovery, Dinah breaks down; ‘Nothing's real any more.’ The last part of the book, in which Sheila and Clare, Frank and Dinah's grown-up sons, (with little girls of their own) look after the invalid, becomes increasingly sombre. The unhappiness of the two other women is revealed: Sheila, her dancing come to nothing, had, before her marriage, a clandestine affair with a sick man whom she left on his deathbed; Clare, whose marriage was ‘a mess’, has never quite recovered from her childhood passion for Dinah's mother—but will not answer the question, ‘Are you a Lesbian?’ Behind their conventionally unhappy stories lies the even more clichéd fate of the romantic, undeclared lovers of the last generation: Clare's father fell at Mons, Dinah's mother died in the outbreak of Spanish 'flu at the end of the war. Until now, Dinah is the only person in the novel who has avoided pain. The others accuse her of cheating:

All your life, I should think, you have run for cover. ‘There's Mother!’ ‘Here's my nice white gate!’ Some of us have no cover, nothing to run to. Some of us more than think we feel.


Dinah is made to pay for her self-protective infantilism by the sense of nullity which now comes upon her. In the last part of the book she becomes a kind of visionary commentator on the hollowness of contemporary life:

There's a tremendous market for prefabricated feelings. … And I'll tell you one great centre of the prefabricated feeling racket, and that is, anything to do with anything between two people: love, or even sex … So many of these fanciful ways people have of keeping themselves going, at such endless expense of time and money, seem not only unnecessary but dated.


Her breakdown is an interesting attempt at a study of alienation, which reveals Elizabeth Bowen's own current unease as a novelist. Dinah's disorientation impels her to raise the question of the value of art: if the past has gone, any attempt to recapture it, like her own pursuit of the coffer, must be a lie. A bad water-colour of the old Southstone High Street, which has itself long since disappeared, provokes this outburst:

Something has given the man the slip, so in place of what's given him the slip he's put something else in … It might be better to have no picture of places which are gone. Let them go completely.

(192, 195)

The statement points to the vacuum at the centre of The Little Girls.

The novel has used as its donnée the Proustian plot of the past being given back through the action of involuntary memory working through association. And other perceptible acknowledgments of À La Recherche accompany this central idea. Elizabeth Bowen tries for Marcel's sense that he lives ‘surrounded by symbols’21 by introducing, not very tactfully, symbolic props: the objects placed in the original coffer, which include a revolver (to be used more melodramatically in Eva Trout); a butterknife with a gnarled thumb-shaped handle bought by Dinah from ‘MOPSIE PYE’; three grotesque masks made by a local craftswoman; and the china objects which used to clutter Dinah's mother's cottage and which are, for Clare, ‘a fragile representation of a world of honour, which is to say unfailingness’.

The failure of that world reflects Proust's dictum that ‘the true paradises are the paradises that we have lost’.22 The novel also pursues Proust's interest in what goes on in the mind in sleep, and in the self-forgetfulness necessary for refinding oneself. And the abortive re-encounters between the three women—particularly the adult confrontation between ‘Dicey’ and ‘Mumbo’—conform to the pattern of disenchanting confrontations in Proust's novel, one of which Elizabeth Bowen describes in her essay on Bergotte: ‘A relationship … anticlimactic, patchy, uninspirational—a relationship haunted by what it should have been.’23

But, as she points out, ‘a magnified Bergotte exists on another plane.’24 The disappointments of social intercourse, the inevitable failure of love (since we love only what we don't possess or have lost) are redeemed, in À La Recherche, by what Elizabeth Bowen describes as ‘The notion of purgation, of self-redemption, of brought-back virtue being possible for the artist by means of art.’25 This concept of redemption through art—which is the whole point of Proust's novel—is entirely lacking from The Little Girls. In Elizabeth Bowen's novel art is seen as a lessening of experience rather than its justification: there is no route out of disappointment and dispossession. Her negation of Proust's idea is reflected in the difference of style: The Little Girls is not at all Proustian in the way it is written. Roger Shattuck says well of Proust's method that ‘As his novel tenaciously aims at assimilating the whole meaning of life, so each sentence strives to digest its whole subject.’26 Exactly the opposite effect is produced by the style of The Little Girls. The ‘whole meaning of life’ is held at arm's length; such ‘meaning’ as there is appears in fragmentary and diffused form and is presented in a manner which is without depth or resonance. Not only does the novel record an unlikely and whimsical situation, which is dressed up with awkward attempts at comedy, uneasy ventures into symbolism and contrived literary allusions (mostly to Macbeth, in order that the three ‘revenants’ should seem like the three witches—‘Sheikie’ even had a sixth toe at birth), but it also feels dubious and illusive.

Elizabeth Bowen has decided, at this point, to forgo the controlled, elaborate commentary and the sharp, minute, inward presentation of character which her earlier novels displayed. This narrative has, from the start, a provisional, indeterminate air, as my italics in this passage suggest. A man and a woman are carrying objects into a space in the ground:

This was, if anything, on the large and deep side … Across the uneven rock floor, facing the steps, was either a shallow cave or a deep recess—or, possibly, unadorned grotto? … A woman, intent on what she was doing to the point of a trance, could be seen in back-view … She may not have heard the man, who was wearing espadrilles—she did not, at any rate, look round.


The dialogue these two embark on is brusque, jerky, and flatly colloquial: ‘Oh, bother you,’ she grumbled, ‘do put your specs on!’—and the commentary on it is casually banal: ‘This was Frank's cue for another repeat-remark.’ Though a few familiar baroque mannerisms linger on (‘To pot it would all be going, before long’) the first chapter establishes a deliberately diminished and vapid level of prose. Although the flashback allows for a more lyrical, alluring manner to insinuate itself (‘From across the shrinking watery miles came an expiring sigh—not like the sound of wind, a sigh in itself’), all three sections are characterized by cumbersome techniques, which suggest an insecure search for a new method. There is the naming of people by their activities, as in ‘said the willing learner’, or ‘the maker-free then threw open the window’ or ‘sang out the homecomer’. There's the equivocal commentary, as in ‘Yet she faltered, if for less than an instant, or just barely—how rarely?—overrode a misgiving.’ And there's the preponderance of thin, banal dialogue:

‘I wondered whether you'd telephone.’

‘Well, I didn't.’

‘No.—Last night, when I rang up, you sounded so cross.’

‘You made me jump, suddenly coming through like that.’

‘That's the worst of telephones. What were you doing?’

‘Well, I was in my flat.’

‘Of course you were, else you couldn't have answered. What were you doing?’

‘Thinking about you,’ said Clare crossly.


These late techniques are not, I think, merely failures of assurance—though they are those. They suggest that she was becoming increasingly concerned with the concept of a breakdown in language. That Elizabeth Bowen's highly charged, contrived and controlled style should have been reduced to the clumsy procedures of The Little Girls can be attributed to more than obvious reasons of old age and a dissatisfaction with out-dated formulae. The last two novels incorporate the idea of a future without any verbal ‘style’ at all. When the three schoolgirls bury their most precious possessions in the coffer with a proclamation written in Mumbo's invented ‘Unknown Language’, they ask each other whether it matters that posterity won't understand them:

And it may all be the same, by then? They may have no language.


The idea of a future without language is even more pronounced in the last novel, Eva Trout, which, though of interest as an illustration of Elizabeth Bowen's late malaise, provides an unfocused and bizarre conclusion to her opus. The heroine, who is twenty-four at the start of the novel, is a recognisable type of ‘displaced person’: she recalls Annabelle in ‘The Last Night in the Old Home’ (‘Inside the big, bustling form of a woman she was a girl of ten’27) and Valeria Cuffe, the demented heiress in ‘Her Table Spread’, ‘abnormal—at twenty-five, of statuesque development, still detained in childhood’.28 Like those unmanageable innocents, Eva Trout, an orphaned heiress, has peculiar habits. She stammers, is incapable of weeping, cannot behave with normal indifference or self-protectiveness, takes obsessional delight in certain objects (her car, her audio-visual machines), is large and ungainly, and has ‘a passion for the fictitious for its own sake’. Her distraction is matched, as with all Elizabeth Bowen's most unworldly characters, by ‘the patient, abiding encircling will of a monster, a will set on the idea of belonging and of being loved.’ ‘I remain gone. Where am I? I do not know—I was cast out from where I believed I was,’ Eva complains. Her need to compensate for these feelings makes her dangerous: ‘You plunge peoples’ ideas into deep confusion … You roll round like some blind indestructible planet.’

Though she first appears in rural, homely circumstances—driving the vicar's wife and children in her Jaguar to look at a castle which used to be her school—it becomes apparent that she is out of touch with reality and attracts violence. Her family history is squalid and dramatic. Her father was a ‘popular’ businessman who ‘deviated’, running off with the ‘wicked’ ‘Constantine Ormeau’. Her mother was killed in a plane crash with her lover, just after Eva's birth. Twenty-three years later, her father committed suicide. Eva, left on Constantine's hands, considers that he has murdered both her parents.

Her oddness is mainly attributed to this macabre history, but also to her disjointed education. For a time she attended the dubious experimental school at the castle (a ‘Bavarian fantasy’ on the Welsh border) bought by her father as a means of getting rid of Constantine's other ‘friend’, Kenneth, whose authority over the school's rich little delinquents (wittily sketched) came to an abrupt end. At this school Eva has a passion for a wraith-like child called ‘Elsinore’. After being dumped at various temporary international homes, Eva asked to go to an ‘ordinary’ girl's school, where she fell in love with the brilliant young English teacher, ‘Iseult Smith’. At the start of the novel Eva is living with Iseult and her husband Eric Arble, whose shaky marriage, which has involved the end of her career and the compromise of his (from fruit farming to a garage) is weakening under Eva's demanding presence.

The random history of Eva's temporary homes and thwarted affections emerges patchily, not through Eva's thoughts but through information provided by other characters, and through an equivocal narrative which seems as much intent on obscuring characters and events as on establishing them. The fragmentary effect is sustained by a plot which jumps with deliberate waywardness through a series of unlikely journeys and settings: the novel's subtitle is ‘Changing Scenes’. Feeling betrayed by Iseult, Eva moves away from the Arbles and the neighbouring vicarage to a huge, gloomy, baroque villa (‘Cathay’) on the South Coast at Broadstairs. (Both the vicar's family and the villa return Elizabeth Bowen, for the last time, to her Kentish childhood.) Eric visits her, and Eva leads Iseult to suspect them of an affair. Then Eva suddenly disappears to America (where she accidentally encounters Elsinore). Her journey there is recorded in the letter of a comical American professor who becomes infatuated with her on the plane, but never reappears. Eight years later she returns to England with an adopted eight-year-old deaf mute, Jeremy, to find that the Arbles have separated, one of the vicarage daughters, Louise, has died, Constantine is as bland and shady as ever, and the vicar's son Henry has grown up into an elegant Cambridge undergraduate, who becomes the last of Eva's grand, impractical passions. Her time is erratically divided between stays in London hotels, outings to Cambridge and the castle with Henry, and a journey to France in search of a cure for Jeremy, whom she leaves with the Bonnards, two married ‘environmentalist’ doctors at Fontainebleau.

The preposterously haphazard ‘plot’ culminates in a farcical melodrama on Victoria Station. Eva and Henry are embarking on a ‘mock’ wedding journey (a scene staged, at her request, in payment for all her ‘longing in vain’ for him), witnessed by all the novel's protagonists, when Jeremy comes running up with a revolver he's found in Eva's luggage (which in fact—it's a very clumsy piece of plotting—belongs to the Arbles) and shoots his ‘mother’ dead. The violent ending has been anticipated not only by Eva's family history but also by a succession of drastic events—Louise's death; the abduction of Jeremy in London, from a sinister sculptress who is supposed to be minding him, by a ‘mystery’ woman who turns out to be Iseult; a reckless car drive with Henry (reminiscent of the ‘last ride together’ in To the North) and Jeremy's occasional fits of temper.

There is no radical departure here: these dramatic incidents arise from Elizabeth Bowen's permanent interest in the havoc wreaked by innocence. Eva's, and Jeremy's, destructive influence is a grotesque version of the violent extremism of Emmeline or Portia. That these unworldly girls, desperately intent on having their affections returned, are as dangerous to the adult world as it is to them, is a recurrent idea which is caricatured in the double personality of Eva and her son. The nature of the enemy is also familiar, though Elizabeth Bowen is now, as in The Little Girls, more outspoken about her characters' sexuality: St Quentin was not described as a homosexual, but he shares Constantine's qualities of aesthetic curiosity and unscrupulousness. Again, there's the conflict between the innocent girl and the disabused older woman, though Eva and Iseult, unlike Portia and Anna, are close enough in age for their relationship (like that of Dinah and Clare) to bear the suggestion of a potential or thwarted love-affair. (Though Elizabeth Bowen deals very unsympathetically with homosexuals in Eva Trout, there's a clear expression of understanding for lesbian feelings in the last two novels.) The women's names suggest their roles: Eva, ‘cast out from where I believed I was’ (the first section is called ‘Genesis’), Iseult the temptress, who ‘betrayed’ Eva's hopes, ‘having led them on’. As well as being victim and seductress, however, they present two versions of the same malaise. Eva, who cannot weep and would prefer not to be able to speak (‘What is the object? What is the good?’) asks the question: ‘What becomes of anyone's nature?’ The more articulate and literary Iseult speaks of her deadened feelings (‘I've undergone an emotional hysterotomy’) and describes life as an ‘anti-Novel’: no importance, no sensation, attaches to events. She herself has been trying to write a novel which was ‘still-born’ and she arranges to meet Eva in Dickens's house at Broadstairs, a scene which provides an excuse for her to meditate enviously on his rich literature of ‘longing’. The idea of dispossession, particularly in contrast with the Victorians, is again central.

A development from the usual methods, however, is felt in the haphazardness of the novel's plot and the sketchiness of its relationships. There are patchy attempts at depth of character: Henry's sardonic combativeness with his father, and Iseult's matching up to Constantine have potential. But, clearly, this isn't what now interests her. Eva Trout is the most schematic, as well as being the most disorganized, of her novels. Her liking for Forsterian ‘guardians’ (like Mr Emerson and Mr Beebe in A Room with a View) has already been displayed in The Death of the Heart. In her last novel the interplay between good and evil angels is no longer suppressed beneath a realistic level: Eva Trout unabashedly presents itself as a fairy tale, with Eva as its spellbound princess. Its settings (the castle, ‘Cathay’), its names (Eva, Iseult), and its arrangement of characters, all suggest this, quite apart from Eva's propensity for strange journeys, sudden appearances and fantastical inventions. The novel is full of guardians. At the start there's a contest of wills over Eva between Iseult and Constantine; towards the end there's a struggle for authority over Jeremy between Eva, Iseult, the sinister sculptress, and the wise Bonnards. There are even two men of God, Henry's father, stern but incapacitated by hay fever, and Constantine's latest friend, a suspect Anglican East End priest who ‘specialized in iniquity’.

Of all these figures of authority, the French doctors, who reject ‘the horrible doctrine of Predestination’ and speak wisely for happiness (‘a matter of genius’) and for love (‘We are at its mercy, but not altogether’) are the most convincing. But their belief in choice and self-improvement in the end has no bearing on the fated outcome of the relationship between Eva and Jeremy. This final act is presumably meant to be, to an extent, triumphant: Jeremy, the only character with the true authority, that of pure innocence, liberates Eva through his violent act from the world to which she is so ill-adapted. The novel doesn't make this point clearly, but certainly the wordless relationship between Eva and Jeremy is its most powerful subject.

Eva's alienation is a form of instability. Her inability to articulate, her fantasies, her dislocated sense of her own past (‘Time, inside Eva's mind, lay about like various pieces of a fragmented picture’) handicap her to the point of insanity. But the deaf-mute child, whose physical condition provides an image of Eva's alienation, seems, obscurely, to compensate for her abnormality, to make her seem normal. Like Eva, Jeremy doesn't want to speak; but unlike her, he feels no lack: ‘He would like to stay happy the way he is.’ Jeremy's inward contentment provides a queer, mirror-image of Eva's desolation.

The effect was not so much of more intelligence as of a somehow unearthly perspicacity. The boy, handicapped, one was at pains to remember, imposed on others a sense that they were, that it was they who were lacking in some faculty.


When Jeremy and Eva are alone together in America they inhabit an ‘Eden’ which is entirely innocent of words. Her attempts to have him cured are a betrayal of that state (analogous to Iseult's seduction of Eva through education). Jeremy's shooting of Eva is partly felt to be an involuntary revenge for the betrayal of what are earlier described as ‘the inaudible years’:

His and her cinematographic existence, with no sound-track, in successive American cities made still more similar by their continuous manner of being in them, had had a sufficiency which was perfect. Sublimated monotony had cocooned the two of them, making them as near as twins in a womb. Their repetitive doings became rites … They had lorded it in a visual universe. They came to distinguish little between what went on inside and what went on outside the diurnal movies, or what was or was not contained in the television flickering them to sleep. From large or small screens, illusion overspilled on to all beheld. Society revolved at a distance from them like a ferris wheel dangling buckets of people. They were their own. Wasted, civilization extended round them as might acres of cannibalized cars. Only they moved. They were within a story to which they imparted the only sense.


The references to the cinema recur at the end of the novel, which is made to seem like a scene in a film, with Jeremy as the ‘child star’. Clearly, this is felt to be the art form of a posterity without language. As long as Jeremy and Eva are undivided, they have found the perfect means of entering the still innocent, still inheritable, speechless future. It's thus no accident, though the change of scene might look gratuitous, that this is the only one of her novels to be set partly in America, where the conditions of the future, such as the ascendancy of film over the novel, can be more immediately ascertained. The prospect of an entirely ‘visual universe’ is not offered as entirely consolatory. But our present conditions, the novel suggests, can no longer be mastered or even registered by our language:

Feel?—I refuse to; that would be the last straw! There's too much of everything, yet nothing. Is it the world, or what? Everything's hanging over one. The expectations one's bound to disappoint. The dread of misfiring. The knowing there's something one can't stave off. The Bomb is the least. Look what's got to happen to us if we do live, look at the results! Living is brutalizing: just look at everybody!


This last novel, as much in its unhappy struggle with its own language and structure as in its account of alienation, describes an almost unbearable present, with which the traditional novel of order and feeling can no longer deal.


  1. Anthony Trollope, A New Judgement (London & New York, O.U.P., 1946). CI [Collected Impressions], pp. 241-42.

  2. WL [A World of Love], p. 48.

  3. LG [The Little Girls], p. 193.

  4. ET [Eva Trout; or, Changing Scenes], p. 86.

  5. ‘Books in General’, New Statesman XLII (20 October 1951), pp. 438-39.

  6. ‘The Bend Back.’

  7. Glendinning, p. 200.

  8. Glendinning, p. 218.

  9. Spencer Curtis Brown, Foreword, PC [Pictures and Conversations] xxxviii, suggests Waugh as an influence on this change of style.

  10. WL, p. 221.

  11. LG, p. 19.

  12. ET, pp. 108-9.

  13. ‘The Demon Lover’, DL [The Demon Lover and Other Stories].

  14. Glendinning, p. 197.

  15. A Time in Rome (1960), p. 6.

  16. ‘The Mulberry Tree’, in The Old School: Essays by Divers Hands ed. Graham Greene (Jonathan Cape, 1934), pp. 45-9. CI (dated 1935), p. 196.

  17. ‘Pictures and Conversations’, PC, p. 57.

  18. ‘Pictures and Conversations’, PC, p. 46.

  19. Ibid, p. 57.

  20. ‘The Mulberry Tree’, CI, p. 186.

  21. Proust, À La Recherche du Temps Perdu, tr. Andreas Mayor, Time Regained, (Chatto & Windus, 1970), Vol. XII, p. 265.

  22. Ibid, XII, p. 228.

  23. ‘The Art of Bergotte’, Marcel Proust, ed. Peter Quenell (Weidenfeld, 1971). PC, p. 81.

  24. Ibid, p. 82.

  25. Ibid, p. 99.

  26. Roger Shattuck, Proust's Binoculars (Chatto & Windus, 1964), p. 122.

  27. ‘The Last Night in the Old Home’, CJ [The Cat Jumps and Other Stories].

  28. ‘Her Table Spread’, CJ.

Title quotation: ‘The Bend Back’. Cornhill No. CLXV (Summer 1951), 221-27.

A Note on References

Page references to the novels are to the Cape Uniform Edition. In the chapters on individual novels, bracketed page references follow the inset quotations. In the chapters on short stories, the title and volume of the story follows each inset quotation. A full contents guide to the volumes of short stories is found in the bibliography. All other references are given in the footnotes at the end of each chapter.

The following abbreviations have been used in the references:

A: Afterthought: Pieces about Writing (Longmans, 1962).

AL: Ann Lee's and Other Stories (Sidgwick and Jackson, 1926)

BC: Bowen's Court (Longmans, 1942).

CI: Collected Impressions (Longmans, 1950).

CJ: The Cat Jumps and Other Stories (Victor Gollancz, 1934; Cape, 1949).

DD: A Day in the Dark and Other Stories (Cape, 1965).

DH: The Death of the Heart (Victor Gollancz, 1938; Cape, 1948)

DL: The Demon Lover and Other Stories (Cape, 1945, 1952).

E: Encounters (Sidgwick and Jackson, 1923).

ET: Eva Trout; or, Changing Scenes (Knopf, New York, 1968; Cape, 1969).

FR: Friends and Relations (Constable, 1931; Cape, 1951).

H: The Hotel (Constable, 1927; Cape, 1950).

HD: The Heat of the Day (Cape, 1949, 1954).

HP: The House in Paris (Cape, 1935, 1949).

JC: Joining Charles and Other Stories (Constable, 1929; Cape 1952).

LAR: Look at All Those Roses (Victor Gollancz, 1941; Cape, 1951).

LG: The Little Girls (Knopf, New York, 1964; Cape, 1964).

LS: The Last September (Constable, 1929; Cape, 1948).

PC: Pictures and Conversations (Allen Lane, 1975).

TN: To the North (Gollancz, 1932; Cape, 1950).

WL: A World of Love (Knopf, New York, 1955; Cape 1955).

Glendinning: Elizabeth Bowen: Portrait of a Writer by Victoria Glendinning (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1977).

John Coates (essay date summer 1988)

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SOURCE: Coates, John. “The Recovery of the Past in A World of Love.Renascence 40, no. 4 (summer 1988): 226-46.

[In the following essay, Coates disputes critics who characterize A World of Love as a “lovely” novel with little substance, contending that the work deals with some of the most significant concerns of twentieth-century life.]

It has often been suggested, quite correctly, that A World of Love (1955) recapitulates themes familiar from Elizabeth Bowen's earlier novels such as the nature and power of innocence and the awakening of an inexperienced girl to worldly knowledge or possibly to worldly corruption. There is also agreement on a second and much more disputable point. One of the book's first reviewers, Rose Macaulay, talked of its “feathery and oblique feminine portraiture” and denied that it had a topic or a theme since its author was “far more tentative than that” (132). Patricia Craig's recent study echoes this view; “All mood and no plot, you could say … All very lovely and effulgent however” (130). One would not need to be a professed feminist to find such a tradition of comment patronising and dismissive.

A World of Love is, rather, concerned through a self-conscious and at times ironic re-working of myth, to examine some of the most significant “public” themes of the twentieth century. These themes include the nature and the consequences of an immense social and cultural fracture, a loss of the past as the result of historical cataclysm rather than of slow change or inevitable decay. Guy's death in the First World War is not an incidental detail of the plot or the fate of a single individual, however romantic or significant in the private lives of a number of survivors. What Rose Macaulay describes as a “fine long passage on death as distinct from deadness” (132) is, in fact, much more than that. It is a meditation on a familiar yet inexhaustible subject, the social and psychological effect of the gutting of a generation of moral and intellectual talent. Reflecting on her cousin's death, Antonia concludes that the “two wars” have raised their query “to our sense of finality” (44). What seemed a “law of nature” has been challenged since it is no longer possible to young life cut off in battle as “the fruition of a destiny.” Guy had taken the idea of being killed “lightly” (45) with the debonair courage of his age and background. He had not envisaged “deadness” as a state. As a result, his “lease” on the ensuing years did not run out. The living were “incomplete” without him.

The importance of this passage lies not only in what it says of the effect of Guy's death on his immediate family but, even more, in its careful emphasis on the representative nature of that death. Guy's fate was typical. The emotional damage such death caused and the questions they raised set the tone of a whole period. The Second World War completed the psychological fracture and “peopled the world with another generation of the not-dead” (45) troubling the minds of the living with a sense of “unlived lives.” Antonia, tormented, enigmatic and very much an individual, is, at the same time, firmly located within a general historical frame of reference. She “and others younger” (45) are creatures of an “impossible time” breathing a “wronged air” which is either “too empty or too full.” Almost equally important is the definition offered in this same passage of the “innocence” of Lilia's daughter Jane. Here again, the text emphasizes the historical and cultural explanation. Since she “had come late” Jane is at “no known disadvantage.” She has grown up far enough away from the wrecked past and from the sense of aborted possibilities not to be damaged by them. Rather she seems an “alien” (45) to Antonia, on the other side of a great divide of thought and sensibility.

One of the most interesting features of A World of Love is a tension, almost a contradiction, between a thread of imagery which implies the archetypal or the inevitable, and a carefully defined historical and psychological context which insists on individual choice and denies historical inevitability. The novel is dominated by images which enforce a sense of decay, the traditional emblems of a landowner's decline, the felling of trees, the door that “no longer knew hospitality” (9), the overgrown avenue, the sealed up window, the broken wall of the garden. These are the well-worn, but residually effective metaphors of fairy-tale or legend. Montfort has something of Sleeping Beauty's crumbling castle or a mythic Waste Land whose fertility has been blighted by a “young god's” death. However, the train of association of such images is raised only to be scrutinised and challenged. It is a natural, but too easy a way of viewing the characters' predicament. Deliberately the novel sets the reflections of Lilia, Guy's fiancee, in the overgrown garden. The flower-beds run to seed and the crumbling walls might have reflected simply the perennial theme of time's dissipation of all orders, hierarchies, values, distinctions, knowledge and power. Yet this is not the case. The mood is not the one the imagery impels us towards, one of elegy. Rather it is shaped by Lilia's own thoughts, being tormented and bewildered. It refuses to accommodate itself to a ready-made pattern of acceptance.

Montfort is haunted not by memories but by “expectations” (97). As in Antonia's earlier reflections on Guy's death and the deaths of the twentieth century, the point is made that a range of possibility was ended, a story broken off. What might have happened? What would have been the end of that personal story and, by implication, that political and social history?

In Lilia's view it was only with the loss of Guy's “master touch of levity, nerve or infatuation” (97) that the garden and Montfort itself began “undeniably” to decay. The hesitation between the two possibilities, the two futures, inherent in “nerve” or “infatuation” is highly significant. Guy's sudden and violent death left unanswered the great question of “whether he could consolidate” (97) Montfort's threatened identity or traditions and carry them on into changing times. Moreover, his very panache, his promise of a quality of life, a “dreamed of extreme of being” (97) stirred up too much in others. Since those who survive “dread to decline” from the particular quality he once saw in them, they cannot grow, change, adapt, or what is synonymous with these, live. The bitter and bickering relationship of Antonia and Lilia is built on the “unfinished story” (51) of Guy. Virtually nothing else of significance “had happened to them since their two girlhoods.”

A World of Love suggests a second pattern of explanation or mode of feeling about its characters and, again, challenges it. The novel provides ample evidence of a specific historical and economic process, the decline of a former ruling class, the Anglo-Irish “Ascendancy” as if inviting the reader to consider how much this process explains the characters' sufferings. Along with a loss of the Ascendancy's wealth and prestige, there is a second loss, subsidiary and concomitant, of belief in its own codes, traditions and totems. The inscription on the obelisk has been obliterated (10), its presumably heroic meaning erased. More significantly, the detritus on the bedside of Antonia, Montfort's owner, includes a packet of Gold Flake, a Bible, a glass with dregs, matches, sunglasses, sleeping pills (10). The Protestantism which gave Anglo-Irish rule its justification in its own eyes and its coherence, even in the eyes of those who hated it, has visibly crumbled. The “priceless treasure of God's Word” joins the means of escape from boredom, perhaps from life. To reinforce the point, the novel later emphasizes the devalued status of the Bible. Maud, Lilia's younger daughter, leafs “through the Psalms” (105) for maledictions to pour out on her father. These curses are, apparently, apt enough comments on the fate of a former ruling class (“let another take his office” or “let the stranger spoil his labour”). Maud's motive for her sinister scriptural ceremony is far more significant, however. She required “life to be patriarchal” (111) and “could not forgive” (112) her father for his human weakness, his burst of emotion over Guy's letters, and his inability, both temperamental and economic, to sustain the role of Protestant landowner and ruler in “his own house” (110). Maud seems mirrored in a minor, partly comic fashion, the contradictions and self-hatred in her elders' situations. Interestingly, she “confines her attacks to her co-religionists” (110) in the Protestant school bus, sowing dissension among the children of her own faith, while never attacking a Catholic child.

However, like the images which invite surrender into a mood of elegy, the notion of a general socio-economic “explanation” is made to seem simplistic. It is offered only to be questioned. The situation of the Anglo-Irish, intruders in an alien land, is not in itself unnatural. Rather, Antonia reflects, it is a paradigm of the condition of man. Not since Montfort was built “had there ceased to be vigilant measures against the nightcomer” (79). This “hostile watch” may have been directed against a potentially rebellious population, yet, after all, “everywhere is a frontier” where the “outpost few,” the “living,” must never be off their guard. One recalls Elizabeth Bowen's comment in “The Big House,” an essay of some years earlier, that the struggles of the owners of great Irish houses to maintain themselves were part of a struggle which goes on everywhere and that “may be said, in fact, to be life itself.” (5)

The dissonant signals in the text of A World of Love serve several purposes. They are repudiations of a facile assimilation of particular experience to generalised patterns, whether those patterns are elegiac myth or those of some historical “inevitability.” Such explanations are alluded to, but the point is deliberately made that they do not cover all the facts. The contradictions are also a device to secure an increased attention to particular experience. They impel the reader to unravel an economic, historical and emotional web, rather than simply snatching at one thread from it.

The novel first carefully establishes the curious financial relationship Antonia has with Fred and Lilia Danby, who manage Montfort. The Danbys' status “never secure, never defined” (13) originated in an act of patronage the narrative explicitly condemns as “fatal,” (15) by which Antonia almost adopted her dead cousin Guy's fiancée, “girl of virtually her own age” (15). Guy's courtship had already whirled Lilia “out of her natural sphere.” This last phrase has an awkward uncompromising ring about it, the air of a deliberate challenge to some readers' assumptions. Its meaning is best seen in economic terms. Antonia's “adoption” of her means that Lilia is not “disposed to try” (15) to work for her living. If she had been left to her own devices, life might have forced her “on to her own feet.” Besides, Antonia's help does not take any regular or dependable form. It is sufficient only to produce “apathy” and “profound mistrust” in her dependent.

Antonia's mixed motives in the affair are made very clear. Her initial and, at least consciously, sincere feeling that it was “unfair” that Guy had accidentally failed to provide for Lilia was combined later, in ways she appears never to have examined, with her own need for financial expedients to retain Montfort. Her decision that the only answer to Lilia's “incurably negative destiny” (15) is to “marry her off” to Fred, Antonia's illegitimate cousin, sets up a thoroughly unfair and exploitative situation. Lilia and Fred live at and manage Montfort without either security as tenants or regular wages as housekeepers. Their position combines the worst of pre-industrial and of modern societies. It involves slip-shod, almost eighteenth-century use of the “lower orders” without the sense of a natural social hierarchy which made such behaviour seem inevitable in its day. Antonia, with a cool archaistic insolence, informs Fred that “a woman went with the land” (16). Yet, of course, it must be said that the Danbys fall in with the arrangement Antonia proposes and, having done so, show a curious inability to get away from Montfort. Both Fred's (15-16) and Lilia's (92-93) breaks for freedom prove abortive, Fred drifting back without plans, Lilia being “reclaimed” from London like so much lost property. While it is possible to see this in emotional terms, it has an economic and social dimension. The Danbys are the victims but also the beneficiaries of an anachronistic view of property and family which, in spite of its manifest faults, offers them a context or a role which the atomised contemporary world does not. In a sense, Lilia and Fred provide Antonia with the traditional remedy of the poverty-stricken landowner, the employment for low or no wages of the “extended family.” Fred had, even as a boy, been taken away from school because of his “usefulness about the place” (15).

However, Antonia's “crisis of worry” (16) about Montfort has certain special, not merely traditional features. At first sight, her complaint about the “fecklessness or ill will of the grazing tenants” (16) seems to reflect the perennial problems of the alien landowner unable to establish a satisfactory relationship with an originally conquered tenantry. Nevertheless, the novel makes clear, Antonia's problems stem at least as much from inconsistencies within her own attitude to her role as Montfort's owner as from any general “post-colonial” factors. Her “overweening sentiment” (14) for the estate is combined with the lack of either will or ability to remain on it. Her visits are sudden and generally “far-apart” (14).

Antonia's disintegration at the Hunt Fête throws more light on her complex combination of economic and emotional dilemmas. This annual Fête has a special importance for the Anglo-Irish landowning community. Almost all groups, societies or classes have rituals, ceremonies, gatherings which reinforce their identity and their sense of themselves. For the Anglo-Irish it is “our gaiety” (36) which drew “the entire county.” For the inhabitants of Montfort it is the one festivity of the lonely year. Yet it “requires nerve” from all of them. At first Antonia throws herself into the occasion in a brittle tour-de-force performance. In an overwrought effort of will she strikes attitudes, “hatless, bejewelled, flashing her black glasses, spotting friends, capping sentiments, barking greetings.” This disturbing scene underlines a point which lies at the heart of Antonia's situation. Her role-playing, which does indeed impress the crowd at the Fête, is not that of the owner of Montfort. Rather, it is that of “her part of fame,” the reputation acquired early in life as an “artist-photographer.” She has pursued this career, retained her “name” and is reputed to “still be making money.” Away from Montfort Antonia has enjoyed a real, perhaps an outstanding, success. The rumour or suggestion of some source of income, other than from the land, is what interests the circle of those “who still knew her.” This is natural enough, since, we are to assume, it is this income, together with her utilizing of Lilia's and Fred's labour, that has (just) kept Montfort going (28-9).

The scene illustrates, above all, the destructive contradiction inherent in Antonia's roles. She will not live permanently in her Irish country house, spending her talent and energy in making the best of the estate. Yet neither can she cut her emotional and financial losses by giving Montfort up and devoting herself wholeheartedly to a life away from it. One of the oddest minor features of the narrative is the haphazard information given towards the end of the novel that Antonia had once had a brief “out of character try at marriage” (135) as she had “tried most things.” Something, some failure of steadiness or inner repose prevents her “tries” from being more than forays into experience. She will not or cannot persist or work at them.

Antonia's dilemma is epitomised by her collapse in the middle of all her hysterical brilliance at the Fête. She trips over a tentpeg, jars “the lense in her brain” and, “sick” of everything demands to be taken home. The phrase is peculiarly suggestive. Antonia's social manner is not a means of communication but a method of presentation which draws on the studied perfectionism she has learned in her photographic work.

Antonia's consciousness is, in fact, that modern one, which as has been noted was defined in Elizabeth Bowen's essay “Manners” (1937). Beyond the age of manners there is “no guide”; the “so-called free, or intelligent society imposes a constant tax on all the powers” (6). The owner of Montfort shares with Thomas and Anna in The Death of the Heart a lack of ease and amplitude, of “family custom” and that pleasurable awareness of the past which gives a casual grace and confidence to social relations. The paradox is that Antonia is living not in a heartless hygenic London house but in an Irish manor such as the one Roderick had seen as his salvation and an alternative to contemporary emptiness in The Heat of the Day.

Both Antonia and Lilia are condemned to haunt the place where a life different from that of the present once existed. Although her brittle self-consciousness is a denial of everything its life was, or could have been, Antonia hangs on to Montfort, partly because the embittered assertion of fragments and memories remains the most positive choice open to her in the contemporary world. It is made clear throughout the novel that this world revolves, quite simply, around money and the display of money. When Antonia collapses and deserts her at the Fête which “one paid money to enter,” Lilia can only resort “to spending money” on a succession of trashy, unwanted purchases in a kind of parody of the ethic of material consumption practiced by her rich neighbour Lady Latterly. Perhaps she feels it is the only way to make any kind of impression since, as she bitterly remarks later, the local inhabitants “do nothing but nose out our money” (88). After the Fête, the Montfort party speculates on what their neighbours takings were and whether, since the country's rotten with money, they could have a Fête themselves. The grotesque Lady Latterly, “chatelaine” of an “unusually banal Irish castle” in the vicinity, epitomizes this new, naked dominance of wealth and display. Complimented on the speed with which the Fête was cleared up, she replies that she pays “all these men; why should they not work” (55). The relationship is as simple as that. Her “reputed fortune” (57) and the saga of her useless, disaster-prone expenditure on house-parties, herbaceous borders, swimming-baths, servants and lovers, all imported into the Irish countryside, naturally interests her neighbours. As Mr. Lonergan, the Clonmore grocer, remarks in awe, she may soon be “moving among the crowned heads” (58). She herself enjoys retailing accounts of “delays, non-deliveries, breakages, leakages” (57) out of “vauntingness.” After all, they prove what her resources are equal to, which is the essential point. She may be “a nouveau riche” but, as Antonia remarks with a mixture of sarcasm and obvious envy, “better late than never” (57).

Lady Latterly carries to its most extreme point the modern misanthropy, noted elsewhere in the novel; a combination of the lack of any real social ease or pleasure with the need to stage occasional tour-de force performances. She dreads the arrival of her guests, “these bastards” (57). “Loathing the beginning of a party” (59), she needs some “device” to aid her “showmanship,” itself a more successful variant of Antonia's performance at the Fête because it rests on a firmer economic foundation. Part of the effect and presumably of the reason for the portrayal of Lady Latterly is to suggest that the urge to display and the money-consciousness which form a part of Antonia's complex character are not some personal idiosyncrasy. Instead they are an enforced and in some ways an unwilling and embittering tribute to what she, correctly, recognizes as the ethos of the time. A World of Love insists on the parallels between the social malaise at Montfort and the social malaise elsewhere.

The index of sickness in A World of Love is the same one, homely yet effective, used in earlier novels of Elizabeth Bowen. The attitude of individuals to the furniture and decor of their homes is a measure of their attitude to the material world and of their power to create and enjoy. The instinct that, in a rudimentary form, arranges ornaments in a complex form builds civilizations. Like Stella's flat in The Heat of the Day or Eddie's room in The Death of the Heart, the interiors of Montfort reflect a lack of order or joy in those who live in them. A striking passage describes how Lilia, unable to impose her own style or ideas on the Montfort drawing room, turns in a spirit of “negative vengeance” (31) against “what she found there.” Ornaments, some of considerable value, (Bohemian goblets and Dresden cupids) are no longer shown casually for the pleasure they give. Since Lilia thinks they “collect dust,” she banishes them to cabinets where they “dolefully disappear” as museum objects instead of remaining as part of a living social world or culture. More significantly, Lilia has pushed apart the “chattery circle” of chairs in a “condemnatory spirit”—a rejection of an intimacy based on a confidence nobody in the present possesses. Yet, Lady Lattery, who certainly has none of Lilia's or Antonia's financial worries, displays the same uncaring, almost destructive attitude to the objects and atmosphere of her home. She leaves the chairs in her room in an “open yet closed half-circle” (62) oriented towards a cold fireplace. Here her guests disappear “almost supine.” Yet there is one significant difference between her rich home and Montfort. Lady Latterly “would have done well to rearrange her room but had not thought of it” (62). At Montfort “the tide might turn” (31). Jane, Lilia's and Fred's elder daughter, has restored “a pair of pink cornucopias” in the drawing room. “Some other hand” has placed “a large and lovely unframed photograph,” one of Antonia's studies of Jane herself, on the mantlepiece. Even Lilia, after the latest of her annual defeats at the Fête, feels she might in her own way restore its lost atmosphere. Lilia pictures her amber bowl on the mantlepiece, but unable to remember where it is, “lost heart.” Yet, one feels, the decision might just have gone the other way.

Montfort is half-living or living under a curse. It is not, like Lady Latterly's castle with its pastiche decor, dead and scoured clean of the past. Fragments of memory, the persistent feeling of the loss of some better way of living, accounts for the pain of Montfort. But its pain is the proof of its life and, possibly, the promise of some kind of restoration. Behind the Waste Land images of seeded grass “between the cobbles” of slime “greenly caked” in the empty troughs of dryness and dessication, is the feeling of a missing but real significance. Its very lack is, like the absence of a Deus Absconditus, a paradoxical proof of its existence. Jane senses that “above her something other than the clouds was missing from the uninhabited sky.” The limits of knowledge have not been reached in this blighted house. “One was on the verge, however, possibly, of more” (43).

In the portrait of Antonia the novel makes one of its firmest assertions that the suffering of Montfort is the proof of continued life. This awkward, unhappy, at time unbearable woman has a distinction which cannot be denied. Her face, despite its show of indolence, has “something energetic” about it; its tensions and shadows are “speaking ones.” The contrarieties and strains in her nature are tokens that she has not forgotten and will not surrender the substance of certain experiences, responses and expectations about living, even if these seem irrelevant to a present grinding them down. She may be unhappy, or even at times cruel, but “what was in her stayed unresigned, untaught” (38). There are continuously placed hints in her behaviour of another half-submerged code or style. In contrast, for example, to the constant querulousness, the complaints about inadequate service which are the corollary of Lady Latterly's contemporary “money values,” Antonia is “gentlemanly” (56) or “rational” in her attitude to small failures or minor inefficiencies. She may be “destructive” (36) but she is not petty. She cannot “be bothered taking it out on anyone … in smaller ways.” She feels, besides, that her “aristocratic” values, although imperative, are incommunicable to others. When Lilia asks “Why should I not,” in response to her suggestion that she “shouldn't brood” (42), Antonia replies in an off-hand tone, “I could hardly tell you.” There is no rational justification for dignity or stoicism. It is simply good form to practice them.

However, the act of recovering the lost past, or at least that part of it which can serve the life of the present, does not fall to Antonia, who preserves a conscious connection with it. It falls instead to Jane, who has no such connection. A World of Love insists on the unexpected, the unpredictable. The Waste Land imagery, the mournful, slightly theatrical evocations, seem to announce inevitable decay; yet, inevitability is explicitly repudiated. The use of Jane as the vehicle of the effect of Guy's letters, and the recipient of a message from the past is, again, a deliberate challenge to expectation. Fred's elder daughter is a living embodiment of the historical divide, of cultural amnesia and the loss of inherited values. An important passage defines Jane's consciousness, or rather lack of consciousness, of the past. She has an “instinctive aversion from the past” as an oppressive fiction, a “pompous imposter.” The thought of the “majority of people who are no longer there is inimical to the sense of being” she enjoys. Her revulsion is caused, mainly, by her feeling of the falsehood of what is offered as memory or tradition. The “falsifying piety” or the “bitterness” of the witnesses destroys any claim the past may make to value or objectivity. Instead, it dissolves into a “tedious business of received grievances” and “not to be settled old scores.” This is an individual response, coloured, no doubt, by the acrimonies of Jane's own family life where “too much had been going on for too long.” However, it is clear, Jane is also meant to be typical of her own post-cataclysmic generation. Significantly, she is made to feel that everyone treats the past with a lying reverence or with bitterness “apart from her own contemporaries” (34-5).

The paradox on which A World of Love turns is that only a mind like Jane's can have an authentic reaction to the past, can recover it as a living thing. The fact that the past is no longer a seemingly coherent tradition connected to the present does not mean it cannot speak to individual modern minds. In fact, it may speak more clearly since such minds are not held in a set pattern of responses or attitudes. Jane's feeling that she is free to “raid, despoil, rifle, balk or cheat” the past in “any possible way” may be the necessary prelude to any real seeing or experiencing of it, any making of it her own (35).

The crucial scene of her finding of Guy's letters in the attic emphasizes the anomalies and oddities of Jane's relationship with the Montfort inheritance. The lumber “stacked up and left to rot” embodies her perception of the past, both historical and familial as “so much ignoring, perhaps infamy.” Time has reduced all its qualities to chaos and made its experiences fragmentary and unmeaning like the juxtaposition of “cobwebby antlers” with the “broken splendid legs of a chair.” The characteristically later Bowen inverted word order (“shocking was it to her”) enhances the reader's sense of Jane's refusal to see any connection between herself and this past in which “everything was derelict, done for, done with” (27).

There is an obvious disparity between Jane's revulsion, consistent with her character as described elsewhere, and the fact that, although oppressed by the lumber in the attic, she feels herself, in some way, summoned to be there. Rose Macaulay refused to classify Jane's experience with “Miss Bowen's earlier experiments with the occult” (132) since A World of Love is not primarily a ghost story and the phantom of Guy never in fact appears. In some ways her caution is justified. “Supernatural” may be a label which excuses the reader any further examination of the uncompromisingly strange event recounted in A World of Love.

Some preliminary points are worth noticing. Jane's “summons” to the attic, the point where “somewhere out behind Montfort” she “imagined she heard a call,” follows immediately upon a short, almost lyrical passage describing her bicycle ride home after leaving the Fête “on an impulse.” The note is one of an abandonment of conscious thought, the soft dust rising wraithlike, the honeysuckle sweetening the deepening hedges, the light refusing to fade, the distances “cool with hay.” Jane's lack of edginess and her elders' obsession with the past creates an ease and freedom which is the precondition of her receptivity. As Jane rides through the evening it is clear that, in some curious way, she is at one with the landscape, despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that she does not consciously seek to be so. The air is “tense” with suspended dew; but also, more significantly, Jane is united in mood and feeling with this unexplained, unarticulated, air of expectation. “Her own beautiful restlessness was everywhere” (26-7).

Jane's consciousness is utterly free from the “deep down tightening” of animosity which traps her mother and Antonia in a bond of “bickerings, jibings, needlings, recriminations, sulks, traps set, points scored” (51). Economically, too (and this point is important), Jane has escaped from the financial trap in which her mother and father are caught. Trained at Antonia's expense for secretarial work, she “could be held to be qualified for her first post” (14). Jane, “so removed by her school education,” can make her way in the competitive urban present. A World of Love is careful not to sentimentalize her innocence. There is nothing soft about her. She has Lilia's “coldness” and has been “rendered colder” by Antonia. Her attitude to the quarrels and entanglements of yesteryear is callous and indifferent. She approaches them without involvement and “with the foreignness of this supplanting new time” (51). Growing up amid “extreme situations and frantic statements” (34) she has learned out of her “feeling for equilibrium” how to protect herself by ignoring the atmosphere around her. The text makes it clear that Jane's toughness, her “conquering, violating” quality is what makes her “ready, empty, apt—the inheritor” of what the past can really say to the present and ready to “hear the call” as she rides on her bicycle through the evening (51).

This thorough account of the social, cultural and economic background which enables Jane, specifically, to receive the message takes the whole encounter out of the realm of arbitrary “occult phenomena.” The events which form the core of A World of Loveare mysterious. They are, at the same time, grounded in a psychological credibility to which a mass of information has contributed and the emphasis is on the grounding rather than on the mystery. At the heart of the novel there lies, not a frisson, but an affirmation. The past is not “done with or done for” since the very completeness of the cataclysm which divides the contemporary world from it means the possibility for some, at least, of the inhabitants of that world of new, unbiased, exciting, personal connections with it. Jane's experience with Guy's long lost letters is given another context by the existence of her sister Maud's imaginary playmate, “Gay David.” Jane's vivid encounter with a presence from the past is echoed clearly in a comic tone by Maud's violent tussles with her “elemental” or “familiar.” Yet, the comic echo is also a serious comment. It is a reminder to take Jane's encounter with Guy naturally and easily, as something analogous to the fantasy her sister shares with many, perhaps most, children. It would be clumsy and pointless to ask how “real” Gay David is. He has the reality of the imagination used naturally and in a fashion more significant than the reality of everyday events. Jane's perceptions, so strange viewed from one angle, are not an intrusion into the normal order of experience, acceptable only as a fictional device. They are part of that order of experience but a part under-rated, dismissed or not understood.

Jane, then, reacts to the letters not only with a reserve of as yet uncalled on emotion but also with the peculiar attention unstaled by the habit or repetition of a longstanding involvement. The novel stresses that it is “their remoteness from her” which allows her in “honour” to “make free” of the letters to use them, or accommodate them to her emotional needs (33). Above all, A World of Love is “about” the way in which a piece of the past becomes alive for an individual, supplying needs and creating an atmosphere or a way of perceiving that the present does not offer.

The letters are part of the “long settled dust.” Yet, while the rubber band which holds them has rotted, the ink “had not faded” but remains sharp in the candlelight. They are at once ancient and immediate. Jane feels another personality speaking directly to her, all the more because there is no evidence of when or to whom the letters were written. Her experience is more immediate because there is no web of tradition between her and their author. Yet, paradoxically, one of the letters' effects on her is to make her realize that spots in the landscape around Montfort were “pre-inhabited” (48). One, for example, had been the scene of “an ardent hour of summer.” What the author of the letters said he saw “was stamped on the scene again” and those details become “part of the story” for the gazing Jane.

Nevertheless, it is clear that Jane has had to make the discovery of this significance for herself. Antonia reflects that when Jane retires to read the letters she will be in a place soaked with past associations bearing, although the girl “might not know it” (46), tokens of “its infestation by many childhoods.” The individual can recapture this past, or at least such of it as he or she can use, but the knowledge cannot be transferred. It must be won again. However, the central affirmation of A World of Love (and it is a vital one) is that it can be won and can become a living reality.

Jane's contact with the letters does not, of course, remain at the level of a romance “with a dusty trunk” (39), so bewildering to Antonia considering the “chances” the girl has had. In the most important scene of A World of Love, that of Jane's first visit to Lady Latterly's and of Guy's “appearance,” the intimations, dreams, and private emotional discoveries she may have had, or made, as a result of reading the letters, receive an external validation. More important, they, and Guy, acquire the explicit dimensions of a social touchstone, a means by which the present is judged. There is a complex and subtle juxtaposition of elements in this scene—a playing off of nuance against nuance, a constant effect of surprise, contrast and the unexpected which demands that the reader be alert. It is easy to misread this crucial episode.

Among the most important elements is a theatricality which Jane herself recognizes and enjoys. Jane sees in the lavish furnishings an indication of Lady Latterly's lack of originality and her nervous self-consciousness. Most important, perhaps, is the ingenue's interest in worldliness, specifically in the emotional and sexual experience of Lady Latterly's guests.

However, there is one significant factor which modifies the reader's understanding of this whole episode. It is clearly a misreading of Jane's visit to see it as innocence introduced to sophistication and awed, frightened, or endangered by it. Nor is it, in spite of the frequently suggested influence of Henry James on Elizabeth Bowen, a study of the mysterious power of innocence in the manner of What Maisie Knew. There is a real danger of adopting such preconceived formulae precisely because they do seem to fit some of the facts. It is important to be aware that while Jane may be “innocent” and missing some things, there are other, more salient, matters of which she is fully aware. She appreciates, above all, the way in which the scene to which she is introduced reflects and depends on wealth and conspicuous consumption (“Everything cost, nothing was for nothing”). She sees an essential falsity and triviality in the company and in the occasion (“You're nothing … but a pack of cards”). At the same time she grasps her own uneasy position (“The cards were stacked against her”). She knows she was to “pay” for her entertainment by “being the lovely nobody,” by providing her high-strung hostess with a conversation piece for the guests whom, on the whole, Lady Latterly dislikes and mistrusts. She grasps the fact that she will need more than innocence, “radiant foolhardiness,” if she is going to succeed with these people. At the same time, she is amused and “on the whole stimulated” by her awareness of the scene and the role she is asked to play (61). Jane's problem is that, although she can guess at a certain worldly knowledge, at power and influence perhaps, at a range of sexual and emotional knowledge, she does not know what lies behind the “anonymous masks.” She takes the guests to be “men of the world,” but “what world might be left to be of, she did not ask herself” (58-9).

Jane obtains an access to understanding, both emotional and historical, with the “appearance” of Guy in the following scene. It is vital, however, to notice that before Guy can “appear,” he must be validated; his meaning and significance must be confirmed from an external source. Guy cannot remain simply a creature of Jane's fantasies and reveries if his personality is to influence her life, and through her, those of the other inhabitants of Montfort.

Lady Latterly's atypical guest, the Irishman “Old Terence,” the only “native” present apart from Jane herself, is a reluctant witness whose testimony is, therefore, all the more impressive. His false position as a kind of invited performer who remembers the “gay days” before 1914 produces a mixture of “vanity, guilt and sentimentality” in the old man. He is getting “sick to death” of the reminiscences which have been his chief social asset. “Now don't you start having me on too” he protests as Jane asks him about the past. His reaction implies a touch of self-disgust at his role of professional entertainer and nostalgia-monger “worked upon by the aliens.” Deeper than this, however, is the doubt which A World of Love as a whole tries to answer; that the past, in certain historical situations, can have any meaning whatever for the present. After such cultural fracture, outright amnesia might be more dignified than “rotten old romancing and story-telling.” Terence is weary of that falsification of the past Jane has already noticed in her elders' talk (“You make half of it up and who's the wiser?”). The connection was broken “too many years ago” and the living quality of the former experience becomes sentimental fabrication provided for those moneyed intruders who falsely imagine they can “buy the past.” Jane declares that she “does not buy” since she lives at Montfort which, to Terence's evident surprise, “has not gone.” As soon as Terence realizes that Jane is, like himself, “a fish out of water” at Lady Latterly's party, he provides her with the one essential piece of corroborative evidence for all her intimations and guesses. Refusing to be bound by exact dates (“I'm my own calendar”), since such a general awareness cannot be tested historically, he asserts that there has been an unmistakeable change in society:

These days one goes where the money is—with all due respect to this charming lady. Those days we went where the people were.

Terence's tentative and almost grudging statement, given after his deliberate repudiation of nostalgia, is a vital connection, like the missing part of an old fresco, with the emotional world of the past. As if to anticipate and dismiss any reduction comment, this information is followed immediately by an admission that Jane has been drinking a strong cocktail. (“These are powerful, you know, or perhaps you didn't know”). If a drink, as well as the testimony of a surviving witness, changes the play of her fancy to a true vision of the past, why should that disprove what she feels? It is, after all, only, in the phrase of Traherne omitted from the epigraph, “a means of conveyance” by which the “Great Thing” reaches her (62-4).

What follows is an extraordinary shrivelling up of the feeble, inadequate present by contrast with the re-awakened past. When “Guy is among them” there is a “visible recoil” of Lady Latterly and her guests who are like “poor ghosts” after sunrise or cock-crow. She seems to fade visibly as, in a superb phrase, “dissolution flowed through the chiffon” of her dress. A curious, spontaneous set of rituals which follows marks the “odd bridal ascendancy” Jane establishes over the dinner party. Mamie, one of Lady Latterly's guests, playing Ophelia or Lady Macbeth, as the others sardonically comment, drops a rose between the knife and fork of an empty place at the table. This brittle woman's affected gesture becomes part of the awakening of some primaeval dimension of experience as Terence, his “eyes consulting Jane's,” pinches to death a moth which lands on the rose. (It is a suggestion of the sacrifice to the dead which, in Homer and elsewhere, aids their communication with the living.) The writing in this crucial passage measures up to the difficulty of Elizabeth Bowen's enterprise. The strange intimations are presented obliquely and never allowed to become explicit or portentous. Also, the context of the experience is very carefully defined, especially the paradox that it is the very rootlessness of these “displaced rich,” their very lack of imagination, their “barbarian nerves” out of touch with past culture and values, which is the means by which the reality embodied in Guy can assert itself. They are nothing and have nothing which can offer an obstruction to it (65-7).

Most important, however, is the effect of Guy's manifestation. It is to redeem, rather than shame, the present. “Something more peremptory” than the imagination changes the whole tone of the dinner table. (This is an explicit, but characteristically casual, admission that some supernatural event does occur, that “there had been an entrance.”) Guy, or the quality of life he embodies or which his name evokes, is glimpsed in the stray expressions, casual words or gestures of this unlikely group. The present and the past are no longer utterly severed from each other. Rather, the past can be seen or surmised in fragments, isolated traits, turns of phrase, even glances as talk at the table “took a heroic turn—a recollection of action as it could be.” This last phrase makes the essential point. Nostalgia for a vanished world, the rediscovery for oneself of a lost way of feeling or living, even the proof, from external evidence that it had existed are all much less important than the certainty that it “could be” again. With the “appearance” of Guy at Lady Latterly's dinner-party, the elegy and desolation of A World of Love begin to give place to a renewed belief in human potentiality. Guy's letters, like Arthur Hallam's in In Memorian (XCV) became the means by which the continuation of a past life in the present is affirmed (68).

The remainder of A World of Love is concerned with the complex effect of that continued life, the lifting of the curse on Montfort and on its two women, Antonia and Lilia. It is here that the novel's relationship to mythic prototypes is most subtle, oblique, self-conscious and “modern.” In spite of the Waste Land imagery with which A World of Love is coloured, the redemption traced in its later pages is not a simple affair of restoration and recovery. If the “dead god” revives to connect Jane with a lost past, he comes to free Antonia and Lilia from their connections with it, connections of a diseased and damaging kind. Jane bears witness to each woman that Guy has, in some sense, been resurrected.

Antonia seems to shrug off the girl's testimony that “it was Guy who was there tonight”: “He always had a rotten taste in company.” Later, as she sits in the dark on the stairs in the “watching and waiting” attitude of her adolescence, the true effect of Jane's statement emerges. The prose in this passage catches Antonia's nervous strain, her “unspent senses” in an accumulation of jarring, clashing words—“crack,” “shot,” “spurting,” “stuttering”—as the sights and sounds around her are “magnified and distorted.” More important, however, is the division in her perceptions which mirrors the division in herself. At the heart of her tragedy, it is now made clear, was a thwarting of her emotional and sexual development. “In one half of the self” she broods on a memory of her recent bath. There had been no other swimmer, “none in reality.” She had, that is, been accompanied by a fantasy or a memory of Guy, her constant companion on such occasions in her youth. “For the other half of her” there is the sexual fantasy, constantly recurring, never fulfilled, of becoming the lover of Lilia's husband Fred whom she watches with Jane in the hall below. In this sterile division, between desire and the memory which blights its natural growth and development, she has for years been caught (74-6).

Jane's testimony reawakens in Antonia the exact recollection of the nature of her and Guy's relationship. There is an “entering back into possession” (77), as the sense of her and Guy's youth rushes back “from every direction.” It is difficult not to recall, in the description of the kind of love they had, the relationship of Heathcliff and Cathy in Wuthering Heights. There is almost an echo in “endless rushing or rushing endlessness” (78) of the two children, their “unpitying roughness” with each other, the sense of “always,” the conviction of “going on and on,” of timelessness, in a landscape possessed by both. It is unnecessary to become involved in the question, over-discussed, but seemingly insoluble, of whether Emily Bronte intended Cathy's and Heathcliff's love to be “pre-pubertal,” “mystical” or simply a particularly intense sexual and romantic attachment. The point is that Elizabeth Bowen probably echoes it in the description of the young Guy and Antonia because she felt that childhood attachment was something different from sexual love. The evidence for this lies in the incident which immediately follows Antonia's rediscovery of her relationship with Guy. In an unmistakable consequence of that discovery and a part of the chain reaction set off by Jane's testimony, Antonia, finally, brings into the open the possibility of an affair between herself and Fred. He responds by suggesting that they “let sleeping dogs lie” (80). There had once been the possibility of such love between them but Antonia herself “mucked everything up” (82). By falling in love with Guy, she enacted or initiated a “Fall,” a loss of the curious timeless world of permanence and power they had possessed as children. That loss was real enough since, Fred says, “the way you two were, you could have run the world” (82). Worse still, Antonia's obsession with the dead Guy, originating in her confusion of two kinds of love, has destroyed the possibility of a relationship between Fred and herself. He has married Lilia and, in spite of Antonia's scorn, insists that originally he loved his wife and that his marriage, though unhappy, is not meaningless.

The novel is especially interesting here for what it does not say. It makes no glib or trite statement about “maturity.” Yet there are inferences to be drawn about the disastrous nature of Antonia's quest for the wrong kind of love, her long rear-guard battle of possessiveness over Guy, with Lilia as pawn. To understand the past is, for Antonia, the prelude to being free from it. The corollary to her understanding that she and Guy are living in an eternally present “now or nothing” (77) is the need to accept an inevitable transitoriness. She does this, listening to the strokes of passionless “Big Ben” (129) which prelude the radio news bulletin. As she and Jane sit, “bracing the sound,” Antonia hears in it a “spell-breaker” (129), freeing her from the “rubbed weary passions” which had had their say. Significantly too, “it was after Guy had gone that he was most clearly to be seen” (130).

This theme of a paradoxical combination of a recapturing of the past with a liberation from it lies at the centre of A World of Love. It has, and is meant to have, political and social reverberations. Although to paraphrase is to violate, it is suggested that the ideals, codes, atmospheres of worlds which time has “thrown behind” can only have life as they have it for Jane. They offer a means of imaginative and emotional awakening, providing the image of a possibility the present has not shown and a means of judging that present. (The quality of Guy's nature and emotional life, for example, enable Jane to judge the vapid and flashy Peregrine, another of Lady Latterly's guests, who tries to seduce her. She finds his kiss “too empty to resent” (118-119). In this way, the past can renew life for the living and, in a manner, can itself live again. But the former social structure and one's own notion of what the emotional life of the past might have been if it had continued cannot be retained. The effort to do so merely stifles and embitters the present.

Antonia obtains her liberation at a price. She must accept a lost or suppressed fact, “the needle in the haystack,” (135) that like it or not, “Guy did love Lilia.” This was true in spite of the affair in which she and her cousin were involved shortly before his final departure for France. For Lilia, a true vision of the past and freedom from it are easier to find than they are in Antonia's case. Although exploited and probably undervalued, Lilia is not self-deceiving. When Jane asks her about Guy in the hair-dressing salon at Clonmore, Lilia's replies are significant. Through her trite and understated account it is apparent that she was not hopelessly grieving for the lost Guy. She and he had “no destiny” (91) since, although Guy was “in love” with her, their love was brief. The experience was not the definitive one of her life since “more has happened to me than that” (92); specifically, she tells Jane, “your father.” The blight on Lilia's life was not her absorption in the past but the inability of a somewhat dull, spiritless and untalented woman to resist Antonia's myth-making and the emotional and economic force which sustained it. As she tells Antonia, it was not Guy who wasted her life, but Antonia herself (125).

Jane's testimony of Guy's “return” enables her mother to re-live, to understand and to be finished with the humiliation which has coloured her life and, largely, sapped her confidence. After she had seen Guy off for the last time, she overheard him and Antonia, “jibing at one another to the end,” refer to another face he might possibly “see again.” Perhaps he was having yet another affair, possibly with the recipient of the letters Jane finds. Worse than this is the sense of his emotional unity and complicity with his cousin, so much more significant than “this girl you're marrying” in Antonia's dismissive phrase. The wound this inflicts “was not to be thought of, so it never was.” It remains for years, diminishing Lilia's self-respect and weakening her resistance to Antonia: “If not the Beloved, what was Lilia? Nothing” (96).

The scene in the garden (95-98) offers one essential clue to Lilia's recovery. She gains the knowledge of what her and Guy's past had been by an act of courage. She goes to meet it, literally and metaphorically. The image which describes this act recalls the shrivelling away of the briars in Sleeping Beauty, a folk-tale analogue to what is happening here, the restoration of the natural flow of time after its uncanny suspension:

Not an enemy briar dared cross her way now Lilia was not treating but advancing.


She glimpses herself and Guy when young. “Both were deep in love.” The suspicion she had cherished since their parting had been without foundation. With the revaluation of herself there follows the beginning of a reconciliation with her husband. It might appear that Lilia's escape from her long subjection to the past is handled in a sketchy, even perfunctory, manner. Elizabeth Bowen suggests, however, the arbitrary and unnecessary nature of that subjection. The answer really was simple, to see and love the past for what it had been, to have confidence in what it might have been, and, bidding farewell to it, to take what the present continues to offer.

There is something deliberately self-conscious, even slightly tongue-in-cheek about the “mythic” echoes of the end of the novel. As Jane journeys to Shannon airport, the Waste Land is refreshed. The obelisk drops from view leaving the sky-line “to be one continuous flowing change” (142), reminding us again that the flow of time has been restored. As in Eliot's poem, the rain, so long desired, is first promised (144) and then finally begins to fall. However, Jane is there at Lady Latterly's request to pick up one of the “chatelaine's” young cast-off lovers, Richard Priam, who had decided to appear. Jane and Richard meet and, like Oliver and Celia in As You Like It “they no sooner looked but they loved” (149).

In isolation, this last episode might seem a cynical denial of the novel's supposed theme of rebirth and redemption. It is, rather, the sophisticated combination of the mythic with an ironic probing which checks but does not destroy, a mode which Thomas Mann called “mythos plus psychology” (Von Gromick, 46) and in which the monumental and statuesque outlines of legend are combined with a sharp naturalistic psychological analysis. The result strengthens rather than weakens them. Elizabeth Bowen evokes the beauty and perfect consummation of a mythic prototype while refusing to be bound to anything so formulaic and restrictive. Life may suggest archetypes. It is too complex to be fully explained by them.

A World of Love represents a triumphant answer to the question raised by Jocelyn Brooke about Elizabeth Bowen's direction. Where would she go now that the society she had described and, he might have added, the values she had upheld were no longer tenable? Her best known and her greatest novels, The Death of the Heart and The Heat of the Day, had essentially been studies of the effects of cultural and spiritual deracination affirming that, in the words of the old housekeeper Matchett in the former novel, “those without memories don't know what is what” (80). Perhaps the process of deracination or social change Brooke referred to had proceeded too far for her to go on making, in however qualified a fashion, a defence of ancient springs. However illegitimate biographical information may be in critical discussion, it is impossible not to notice her own increasing financial difficulties in her attempt to keep her “roots” at Bowen's Court, which ended a few years later when the house was sold. She may have seen more practical problems in her previous insistence on the need to locate oneself physically and economically within a cultural tradition. A World of Love is not a renunciation of this earlier moral framework. Instead, it proposes a subtle modification of it. The past is not abolished or erased. It is re-enacted and its power and beauty fertilize and elevate the present. Yet the re-enactment is also a release allowing time to flow on in its natural progression, since “but for the future we'd have nothing left” (141). Like the traces of Guy's face and the scrambled hints of his conversation one sees and hears in the faces and voices of today, the nobler, heightened “aristocratic” life can never now be more than fragments. However, since it corresponds to something the mind naturally desires and gravitates toward, some “Great Thing” for which it yearns, even the fragments remain potent.

Works Cited

Bowen, Elizabeth. A World of Love. 1955; rpt. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1983.

———. “Manners.” 1937; rpt. in Collected Impressions. London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1950.

———. “The Big House.” 1942; rpt. in Collected Impressions. London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1950.

———. The Death of the Heart. 1938; rpt. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1962.

Craig, Patricia. Elizabeth Bowen. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1983.

Macaulay, Rose. “An Irish Summer.” Times Literary Supplement 4 March 1955.

Von Gromick, Andre. “Myth Plus Psychology: A Stylistic Analysis of Death in Venice.” 1956; rpt. in Thomas Mann: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Henry Hatfield. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1964.

Further Reading

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Bowen, Elizabeth. “Notes on Writing a Novel.” In Collected Impressions, pp. 249-63. New York, N.Y.: Alfred A. Knopf, 1950.

Bowen provides her insights on producing successful plots, characters, settings, and dialogue.

Chessman, Harriet S. “Women and Language in the Fiction of Elizabeth Bowen.” Twentieth-Century Literature 29, no. 1 (spring 1983): 69-85.

Maintains that Bowen's writing displays an ambivalent attitude toward the position of female writers within male discourse.

Hopkins, Chris. “Elizabeth Bowen.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 21, no. 2 (summer 2001): 114-51.

Contends that Bowen's work is difficult to categorize since it encompasses an extensive variety of literary influences and a wide range of innovative forms.

Johnson, Toni O'Brien. “Light and Enlightenment in Elizabeth Bowen's Irish Novels.” Ariel: A Review of English Literature 18, no. 2 (April 1987): 47-62.

Examination of Bowen's use of light and dark imagery in her Irish novels.

Kemp, Sandra. “But One Isn't Murdered: Elizabeth Bowen's The Little Girls.” In Twentieth-Century Suspense: The Thriller Comes of Age, edited by Clive Bloom, pp. 130-42. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire, England: Macmillan, 1990.

Argues that The Little Girls utilizes all the standard conventions of the murder mystery although the novel contains no murder and no solution to the mystery.

Lee, Hermione. Introduction to The Mulberry Tree: Writings of Elizabeth Bowen, pp. 11-13. London: Virago Press, 1986.

Explanation of how the origins of Bowen's fictional characters are apparent in her essays.

McCormack, W. J. “Elizabeth Bowen and The Heat of the Day.” In Dissolute Characters: Irish Literary History through Balzac, Sheridan Le Fanu, Yeats, and Bowen, pp. 207-40. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1993.

Discussion of Bowen's treatment, in The Heat of the Day, of the individual's identity crisis in relation to the post-war social world.

O'Toole, Bridget. “Three Writers of the Big House: Elizabeth Bowen, Molly Keane, and Jennifer Johnston.” In Across a Roaring Hill: The Protestant Imagination in Modern Ireland, edited by Gerald Dawe and Edna Longley, pp. 124-38. Belfast, Northern Ireland: The Blackstaff Press, 1985.

Comparison of the “big house” novels of Bowen, Molly Keane, and Jennifer Johnston and their respective treatment of declining patriarchal authority and the social upheaval that accompanies it.

Randall, Phyllis R. “Pinter and Bowen: The Heat of the Day.” In Pinter at Sixty, edited by Katherine H. Burkman and John L. Kundert-Gibbs, pp. 173-82. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1993.

Comparison of Bowen's novel The Heat of the Day with Harold Pinter's 1990 adaptation of the work for a two-hour PBS television drama.

Wagner, Geoffrey. “Elizabeth Bowen and The Artificial Novel.” Essays in Criticism 13, no. 1 (January 1963): 155-63.

Claims that Bowen's experimental novels are her least successful, while those devoted to social and moral problems are her best.

Wilson, Angus. Introduction to The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen, pp. 7-11. New York, N.Y.: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981.

Contends that The Heat of the Day and several of Bowen's short stories are unparalleled in their ability to convey with accuracy what life was like during the London blitz.

Additional coverage of Bowen's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: British Writers Supplement, Vol. 2; Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1945-1960; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18, 41-44R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 35, 105; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 3, 6, 11, 15, 22, 118; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 15, 162; DISCovering Authors Modules: Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Exploring Short Stories; Feminist Writers; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Novels for Students, Vol. 13; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost & Gothic Writers; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 5; Short Story Criticism, Vols. 3, 28, 66; Supernatural Fiction Writers, Vol. 1; Twayne's English Authors; and World Literature and Its Times, Ed. 4.

Allan E. Austin (essay date 1989)

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SOURCE: Austin, Allan E. “The Power of the Past.” In Elizabeth Bowen: Revised Edition, pp. 48-69. Boston, Mass.: Twayne, 1989.

[In the following excerpt, Austin discusses Bowen's last four novels—The Heat of the Day, A World of Love, The Little Girls, and Eva Trout—which reveal the writer's renewed sense of adventure and willingness to address fresh challenges.]

Remember that all our failures
are ultimately failures in love.

—Iris Murdoch, The Bell

Elizabeth Bowen's third group and final four novels disclose her readiness to set herself new and challenging problems. In part, of course, she had to move on from The Death of the Heart, which carried her earlier material to a finely realized logical conclusion. Aside from this novel, her last work is in many ways her most interesting; for it shows the author working with a new sense of adventure. And, if none of these novels quite match the perfection of The Death of the Heart, they reflect the touch of a poised and knowing craftsman. The Heat of the Day (1949) is the most ambitious of her novels; A World of Love (1955) and The Little Girls (1964), her most intellectually intricate; and Eva Trout (1969), the most bizarre.

The Heat of the Day, so chiefly in wartime London, aims to make a major statement about the conditions preceding and fomenting World War II. In addition to being a professed “big” novel, it is Bowen's most daring one. As such, it has vulnerable aspects some critics have readily noted. In this novel, as in no other, the characters function symbolically; they stand for classes of people and social tendencies as Bowen saw them function between the wars and fulfill themselves in the Holocaust. In outline, the central love triangle, composed of a woman who has abdicated the aristocratic responsibilities of her class and two men who are a spy and a counterspy, appears improbable and melodramatic. But, if the threesome is viewed as moving through the dense wartime milieu with its pervasive sense of exaggeration and unexpectedness, the improbability is lessened. The heroine, in spite of the significance she must bear, is possibly the best realized one in the author's gallery.

A World of Love is the one instance in which Bowen's style assumes a disproportionate importance. The verbal preciousness is distracting, if not finally destructive, since it creates difficulties of comprehension that are out of all proportion to the weight of the subject matter. Like To the North,Friends and Relations, and The House in Paris, this novel is a work with parts rather than a whole piece. Considered in conjunction with The Last September and The Death of the Heart, however, A World of Love affords an interesting combination and a reworking of previous material toward a new realization. It shares with The Last September an Irish setting and insights into the Irish character; like The Death of the Heart, it employs more than one heroine. As a literary performance, A World of Love is clever, but to make an additional claim for it is difficult.

The Little Girls, like The Heat of the Day, is symbolic, but it differs in the degree of ambivalence attached to its symbols. Consequently, this novel is Bowen's most challenging book; this fact is all the more surprising in the light of its taut and racy style. We might conceivably be reminded of Wallace Steven's poetry with its pure, crystalline exterior and its metaphysical interior. In this novel, the author presents what must constitute the ultimate variation upon her innocent heroine character by creating one who is sixty-one years old.

By virtue of their emphasis on the past as it impinges upon the present, these three novels constitute a group. The topic has always interested Bowen, but it is one she had not previously dealt with so pervasively or so radically. Compared with her other books, these three quite simply encompass more time since most of the principal characters are older: those in The Heat of the Day are around forty; those in A World of Love, over fifty; the women in The Little Girls, in their sixties.

These books emphasize that the quality of an individual's life is significantly influenced by his attitude to his accrued memories and experiences. Characters in each of the stories are shown in the midst of life as acting upon distorted and delimiting recollections, and they are forced by circumstances to confront this fact. Thus they are afforded an opportunity for reassessment and readjustment toward a more vital existence.

Eva Trout is somewhat apart in arriving at a negative conclusion. It too shares a concern for the past, but the heroine, rendered permanently inept by a careless upbringing and burdened with inherited wealth, is unable to gain self-knowledge or an achieved life. The author's last novel is both grotesque and dark.


Elizabeth Bowen's one attempt at the big novel, The Heat of the Day, is her most powerful one, but it is not so perfectly realized as The Death of the Heart. Nonetheless, these remain as the twin peaks of her work. Described as both a war novel and a love story, the novel is either only in a limited sense. The impact of the war, particularly the bombing of the civilian population of London in 1942, is tellingly rendered. But Bowen is not interested in the war per se; rather, it is presented as the logical culmination of the between-the-wars wasteland. The war, then, while vividly real, an undeniable actuality, moves imagistically beyond actual history.

Prewar conditions, conveyed through the lives of a handful of characters, are analogous with the social situation in any other Bowen novel—situations that, as previously noted, have their own counterforce built into them. As one character observes, “Dunkirk was waiting there in us …” (263). With a situation so radical as a war, it is not feasible to postulate recovery for the generation for whom the landscape of blitz is an inevitable inheritance; with the war comes an exhilarating release from the torpidity of the wasteland, but the forces of shock, having to be extreme, are largely self-destructive. In a book, however, which regards the war as a social watershed, it is appropriate that there be the subsidiary theme of the fresh start and that it be expressed through members of the new generation who will inherit a world cleansed by the massive convulsion.

No Bowen novel suffers more from story summary than this one; indeed, some of its melodrama is bound to sound incredible. But, as we have observed, the heightened wartime atmosphere helps absorb the unusual incidents. Few readers would deny the author gains a “willing suspension of disbelief.” The central story revolves around Stella Rodney, a handsome woman in her forties; her lover Robert Kelway; and her would-be lover, Harrison, a skulking counterspy. Stella is a relatively normal character, but the two men are aberrations. Stella and Robert, both engaged in secret government work, have been in love for two years. Harrison, a man Stella has met only once previously, contacts for claiming urgent business and comes to her flat. He has two pieces of information and a proposition to make her: first, Robert Kelway is passing information to the enemy; second, only he, Harrison, knows this fact. His proposition is quite to the point: if Stella will become his mistress he will not report Robert. Clearly, his situation has all the makings of a Graham Greene novel with its usual atmosphere of seediness, but Bowen's treatment is quite different. The reader is surprised that Stella's reaction to Harrison is not considerably sharper than it is. But not until near the end of the novel will the reader come to understand the calmness of her response. Quite obviously the book begins with very strong appeals to the reader's curiosity. The odd nature of Harrison, the truth of his accusations, and Stella's reaction are all to be wondered at.

Early commentators recognized the relationship of The Heat of the Day to E. M. Forster's Howards End. In his novel, Forster draws into contact representatives of the three broad classes of English society: Margaret Schlegel, middle class; Henry Wilcox, upper class; and Leonard Bast, lower class. Bowen offers Stella and her son Roderick as representatives of the upper class; Harrison and Robert of the middle; and, the principal character of an important subplot, Louie Lewis, of the lower. In a comparison of the two novels, William Heath makes this most useful observation: “the distance between their final attitudes can suggest a great deal about the forty-year period that separates [them].”1

For Forster, the Schlegels represent the hope of a healthy society, the responsible balance between the “prose” of public demands (the overly abstract Henry) and the “poetry” of private need (the overly subjective Leonard). Dealing with a situation that is fait accompli, Bowen places the responsibility for chaos upon the middle class, represented by the Kelway family. Her treatment of the Rodneys is dualistic; Stella must share in the blame for war because she largely abdicated the responsibilities of her class, but Roderick, in planning to modernize the estate he inherits in Ireland, carries hope into the future. And Louie, too, with her new baby and her own form of courage and integrity, is to be a source of strength in the new order.

The one piece of literature, however, permeating the book is Hamlet. Bowen could hardly have selected allusions to another work to underline more readily the heavy, black atmosphere that hangs over much of The Heat of the Day. There is much to remind one of the drama: Stella, long involved in self-debate; Harrison, on his first appearance, looming up from amid tombstones; parents guilty by virtue of selfishness; a mad woman speaking sense; a trip across water leading to action; Roderick ready, at the close, to take command. It is obvious there is something “rotten in the state,” and there are allusions to the times being out of joint.

Several weeks pass before Stella confronts Robert with her information. Robert denies it. Shortly thereafter, Harrison tells Stella he knows she has spoken to Robert, and he rather convincingly pinpoints the very night because Robert has altered the pattern of his behavior just as Harrison predicted he would when he became aware he was being watched. In the penultimate chapter Robert admits the truth of Harrison's claim and seeks to justify his actions to Stella before he either slips or falls to his death from the roof of her apartment house. Previous to this admission of guilt, he has taken Stella to his home, Holme Delme, and, through her contact with his mother and his sister, Ernestine, she acquires a context for his final disclosures. The Holme Delme sequence contains the most castigating satire of the Bowen oeuvre.

Among Mrs. Kelway's antecedents are the father in Katherine Mansfield's “The Daughters of the Late Colonel,” and, perhaps even more directly, the loathsome “Grannie” of D. H. Lawrence's The Virgin and the Gypsy. Such descriptive phrases as “diamond-like” and “ice-blue” have a particularly Lawrencean ring. Mrs. Kelway has dominated her home, has crushed her husband, and has sought to mold her children to her dehumanized sense of life. The sign at the entrance to the Holme Delme driveway is, “Caution Hidden Drive.” Mr. Kelway, now dead, clearly was never taken seriously or permitted any self-expression; he was “only nominally allowed the fiction of being” the master.

Within her living room, Mrs. Kelway sits knitting (the fate of the nation?), and she is protected or withdrawn behind a series of screens. She is a version of the stereotyped Queen Victoria loftily stating “we are not amused.” Stella quickly discovers the impossibility of conversation with her, for Mrs. Kelway is conscious only of what she herself says. Willful and inhuman, she is characterized by the imagery of the hunt and war: “decoy,” “strategic,” “command.” To Stella, she is “wicked,” and what is most frightening is the indication that she is not unique but simply representative of a whole race of women. She is the solidification of a type that is life-denying and power conscious. The whole niggling, self-righteous, self-asserting approach to existence is captured in the great fuss over three pennies for Stella in order for her to mail a letter for Mrs. Kelway when she returns to London. Stella is appalled.

It is supremely ironic that this woman who spouts such comments as, “I have never thought of what I wanted,” and “It is not a question of happiness,” should be known as “Muttikins” (250). Suffering a self-conceived martyrdom, Mrs. Kelway is determined that hell shall be everyone's fate—and achieves her wish with the war. Robert, dispirited at his deepest level, says, “I was born wounded; my father's son” (263). In his room, Stella find the walls lined with dozens of photographs of Robert at all ages and in all of the appropriate poses: with the great black dog, smiling in white flannels, standing next to a bright, attractive young woman, and so forth. He has not created a life; he has simply stepped into the prearranged poses. Robert tells Stella, “Each time I come back again into it I'm hit in the face by the feeling that I don't exist …” (112). He is one of the “ruined boys” W. H. Auden speaks of in “Consider.” The only communication in his home is in a “dead language” that gives rise to “repression, doubts, fears, subterfuges, and fibs” (247).

A fine touch is the fact that Mrs. Kelway and her daughter provide wartime sanctuary for two children. Mrs. Kelway likes to remind her son that she has taken the children “when it was not convenient …” (241). The situation is forcefully poignant viewed through the eyes of the girl Anne: “Never a heartbeat; never the light disregarding act, the random word or spontaneous kiss; never laughter … anger always in a smoulder. … Though she did not know it, she had never seen anyone being happy …” (254).

Robert has achieved a profound insight into the force of the middle-class power: “What else but an illusion could have such power?” (116). It is the nature of reality to reveal flaws, sooner or later, but these can be circumvented by the make-believe of self-importance and appropriateness. Lies, because they are total abstractions, are always true. But, whatever he has become, Robert has escaped being another Ernestine who, “rather like a dog,” enjoys greater pleasure with a dog than with another human being, and whose face contains an “absense of human awareness” that is to Stella “quite startling” (102).

By revolting, Robert has avoided her fate, but the great danger in reaction is always overreaction. Bowen characterizes Robert's siding with dictatorial powers as “romanticism fired once too often” (268). The final straw for Robert, so far as his society is concerned, was Dunkirk, where he was wounded. Apparently, he had gone to war seeing it as a sign of new hope, but after watching the “army of freedom queuing up to be taken off by pleasure boats,” he was finished with England (263). One of the book's sad paradoxes is that his assertion of individuality rewarded him with a rich love affair this very assertion foredoomed.

Bowen is careful to present Robert as a revolutionary rather than as a Nazi sympathizer, for, if he is anti-England, he is not pro-German. The reader, along with Stella, sees Robert before his death not so much as a traitor but as a corrupt human who seized upon an unfortunate doctrine. He is a man who has chosen to rise above or to ignore nationalism: “there are no more countries left,” he says, though telling Stella she is his country (258). What he seeks is change and the elimination of “the muddled, mediocre, damned” (259). Like his card-carrying fellow travelers pursued by McCarthyism in America a decade later, Robert has given up on democracy where people are “kidded along from cradel to grave” (259). The Nazis are, for him, in the position most likely to accomplish the ends he desires; they are destroyers, if not builders. Muddle has left him desiring the clear and simple, and in Nazism he sees order. Stella can sympathize up to a point with Robert, but she can see that he has a greatly oversimplified worldview and that he has lost sight of humanity in his own negative drive. There is reason to believe Bowen sees Hitler as simply a manifestation of the Kelway way of life, and she believes that he rose to power on the backs of Germany's counterparts to the Kelways. At one point she characterizes the twists and turns of life in the upstairs of Holme Delme as “swastika-arms” (249). And there are also suggestions that Harrison's work is not unlike that of the Gestapo, implying that both combatants are alike. Thus, the novel is disclosing not simply the nature of England but the troubles underlying all of Europe or the Western world.

To turn to Harrison is not, surprisingly, to move away from Robert. Near the end of the novel, Harrison tells Stella his Christian name is Robert. Robert and Harrison are thus mirror images—the one postulates the other. If the one has had too much home, the other has had too little. If Robert has yielded too much of himself to the private will, Harrison has dehumanized himself through submission to the public will. Throughout, Bowen has hinted at the links between the men. Before he leaves her flat to die, Robert hears Stella explain that Harrison has him “at heart” (274). Only Robert justifies and provides Harrison with an identity. Privately, Harrison admits liking the war because it gives him a stature he otherwise lacks.

Little of Harrison's past is disclosed, but this lack indicates the point: he is rootless man. Stella appeals to him not as a source of passion but as a gracious woman with the ability to create a warm home; he seems happier with her flat than with her, and he is never more pleased than when she asks him to bring her a glass of milk from the kitchen. Indeed, he rather pathetically tells her that, for him, her flat is home. Since Robert can give Stella his heart but not his mind, it follows that Harrison's attachment to Stella is essentially in his mind; he cannot give her his heart, for, indeed, he may not have one to give. After Robert's death, he comes to visit Stella in her new flat. She rejects him, and he accepts this rejection “with relief” (311).

By this time, Stella has succumbed to exhaustion, all feeling spent. As she and Harrison sit talking, while an air raid is in progress, she tells him she may marry. When he tells her she owes it to her future husband to seek shelter, she denies it matters—love or death, she will take her chances. She accepts her role as a child of her times, and she knows she shares in the corruption of her generation. When, years ago, her husband, ironically named Victor, had returned wounded from World War I, he shocked her by claiming she did not love him and had departed to live with the nurse who had cared for him. He no sooner had gained a divorce when he died.

At that time, her whole sorry travail of dislocation and doomed love had begun. Victor's family believes that Stella had provoked the divorce, and she has said nothing to deny it, preferring, as she tells Harrison, to appear a monster rather than a fool. Roderick, reared believing this of his mother, had learned the truth from Cousin Nettie, and had confronted his mother with it. Admitting the truth, she had asserted that its revelation came too late: “Whatever has been buried, surely, corrupts …” (220). She admits to Harrison, finally, that “there's an underside to me that I've hated, that you almost make me like …” (219). In the simplest terms, then, the main story of The Heat of the Day is the failure on a grand scale of feeling.

This being so, it is proper to discover in the characters Roderick and Louie a new purity and honesty of feeling. Roderick surprises his mother with his interest in his ailing Cousin Nettie and in hopes and plans he makes for his land in Ireland. The brief Irish passage appears as a momentary picture of sanity in an otherwise blighted world, and it is there that word of Montgomery's victory comes. Roderick, apparently, will find his roots in the remote rather than the recent past, and, in so doing, he will attach himself to a tradition of stability.

Louie, for her part, suggests the human capacity to endure, to withstand confusion, distortion, and disaster without losing her desire for basic domestic values. Left a war widow with a baby son, she is determined he will have a happy home, and her hard-won achievement of wisdom seems to assure it. Hers is the final vision of the future, the enduring grace and beauty of the three swans.

The Heat of the Day is a prime illustration of a novel whose parts, being greater than the whole, are sufficient to make a work distinguished in spite of evident weaknesses. Some of its scenes are among the author's most memorable—the opening one in Regent's Park, Stella at Cousin Francis's funeral, Stella visiting Mount Morris, Roderick visiting Nettie, Louie with her friend Connie, and the meal in the underground restaurant. And the chief glories, of course, are the vivid descriptions of London under the blitz. No other novel gave the author more trouble than this one. We may intuit why this was so while acknowledging its justification.


After her wartime fiction and The Demon Lover (1945) story collection in particular, Elizabeth Bowen could hardly have been expected to return untouched by the increased sense of psychic aberration the blitz and the buzz bombs gave to her more normal concerns—to such typical themes as hurt feelings and young love in a family situation—as she does in A World of Love. The connection between this novel and The Heat of the Day is rather explicit since Bowen's opening sentence represents something of an in-joke, “The sun rose on a landscape still pale with the heat of the day before.”2 Though this novel is an experiment that was not successful and is, consequently, one of Bowen's least satisfactory books, it is interesting for several reasons. Among the foremost of these is its similarity to her earliest novels, The Hotel and The Last September. Like them, it has a beautiful girl in a relatively confined world whose instinctual quest for womanhood transmits shock waves that generally enlarge to the circumference of her sphere, but these narrative basics become transmuted into a fascinating variation through both the configurative and the verbal creations of the author's increasingly metaphysical approach. In A World of Love, Jane Danby, twenty, with “a face perfectly ready to be a woman's but not yet so,” and her sister Maud, twelve, whose “unmistakable content was more force,” become the instruments that harrow their home (11, 171). Jane has just returned from completing an English education paid for by her Aunt Antonia, who has accompanied her home on one of her frequent sojourns. Home is Montefort, owned by Antonia, a small, Irish country manor, and it is presided over by Lilia Danby and farmed by her husband Fred, Antonia's illegitimate cousin.

Not unexpectedly, the book opens with Montefort in a moribund state. It is “half-sleep,” and “The door no longer knew hospitality …” (9). Conditions have actually been thus for twenty years, and at the root of the trouble is the former owner, Guy. Details from the past that account for the unsatisfactory lives and relationships of the elder Danby's are released throughout the novel. Antonia, her cousin Guy, and Fred, the “by-blow,” have grown up at Montefort. Gifted with tremendous vitality, Antonia and Guy have lived something of a Wuthering Heights existence. Fred recalls, “You and he were something out of the common. … The way you two were, you could have run the world” (120).

By the time World War I began and Guy had joined the army, Antonia had fallen in love with him, but, during the course of one of his leaves, he had become engaged to an English girl, Lilia, then seventeen. By the time Guy had departed for the last time to France in 1918, he had acquired another woman, a fact known by both Antonia and Lilia, who have yet to meet. Not until the end of the novel do the two women bring this information into the open. As the narrator eventually observes, Guy “had stirred up too much; he had scattered round him more promises as to some dreamed-of extreme of being than one man could have hoped to live to honour” (145).

After Guy's death in battle, Antonia inherits Montefort and decides to do something for Lilia. This decision, in retrospect, appears unfortunate, for “never had intervention proved more fatal” (18); the narrator suggests that Lilia would have been better left alone. At any rate, when, after ten years, Lilia remains unwed, Antonia feels justified in taking matters into her own hands. She tells Fred, who has been drifting about, that she will turn Montefort over to him for a share in the profits if he will marry Lilia. An obvious admirer of Guy, Fred agrees that “Guy's girl” is worth a look. The wedding takes place, though not until Antonia has threatened Lilia with the withdrawal of additional assistance if she refuses.

When Jane is seven, her mother bolts for London and announces she will not return. Once more Antonia threatens her; and, after softening her, Antonia dispatches Fred to bring her home. Fred's wooing succeeds, they return, and the reunion is marked by the conception of Maud. Since all of these events precede the story proper, it should be evident that A World of Love is burdened with more exposition than any other Bowen novel. However, while all of this information helps explain why Montefort is not a happy home, it does not fully account for the present states of the adults. These states are implied as the present action—the reactive action for which Montefort is more than due—unfolds.

While rummaging around in the attic, Jane finds, or, as the narrator views it, is found by, a bundle of love letters. The letters were written by Guy while he was at Montefort to an unknown person. A ready recipient for romance, Jane becomes enamored of them. When Guy writes, “I wish you were,” Jane can cry, “I am!” Not unexpectedly the letters have considerable impact on the whole house, revivifying thoughts of Guy especially for Antonia and Lilia. The letters create tensions for three emotionally intense days (the country-side, meanwhile, is suffering prostrating heat), at the end of which they are burned by a wiser Jane, symbolically releasing the omnipresent Guy, and conditions at Montefort have altered obviously for the better.

What gradually emerges is the extent of Guy's impact upon these people. Having been dazzled by his tremendous energy, they have never truly comprehended his death, which explains why the narrator sees him as a presence rather than as a ghost. It might be assumed he has remained as a force in their memories, but this is not the case: “not memories was it but expectations which haunted Montefort. His immortality was in their longings, while each year mocked the vanishing garden” (145). Guy's contemporaries are never unaware that “The living [are] living in his life-time. … They were incomplete” (65). Living in these terms consists in enduring a timeless limbo.

Perhaps Lilia's waiting is the most strained of all, for her whole existence as Guy's intended (“if not the Beloved, what was Lilia?”) is frozen in a state of suspension. Like Stella in The Heat of the Day, Lilia has lived a lie—as if she preferred, like Stella, to be a monster rather than a fool in her own eyes, although this cognition implies more self-awareness on her part than the text allows. It is more accurate to say she has never really permitted herself to confront the truth, for, once a true reassessment of Guy begins to take place, she can admit to herself that “not till today had she wholly taken account. Guy was dead, and only today at dinner had she sorrowed for him” (72).

For her part, Antonia has acted as if it were necessary to keep everything going, to keep Guy's world intact until his return. Her relationship with Lilia appears as almost the only noteworthy event of her life, or of their lives: “Thrown together, they had adhered: virtually, nothing more than this had happened to them since their two girlhoods” (74). Much of her time literally consists of putting in time, sleeping late, drinking alone, napping, lying on the beach. Antonia's sharpness and bossiness are those of a person bored and expecting to stay so (interestingly, she calls the vital Jane “a bore”).

Fred, the man caught in the middle, is aware that he is Guy's substitute and that, as such, he has hardly been fairly regarded for himself. He, of course, knows nothing of yet another woman. Of the three, he is the only one who has sought to remain somewhat vital—if the rumors of Irish lasses down the lane are true. Denied the proper role of man of the family, as Maud takes occasion to indicate to Antonia, he has channeled himself into hard work.

Jane, Lilia, and Antonia all experience the same doubts when they begin to emerge from their respective states of illusion; they cannot be certain of their immediate direction. Lilia thinks, “What had now happened must either kill her or, still worse, force her to live …” (72). The ludicrous situation of seeing the beautiful Jane having her first love affair with a packet of letters brings both Lilia and Jane up short. Officially, the fiction that the letters rightfully belong to Lilia persists to the close, but she and Antonia know otherwise and, in the end, so too does Jane. Lilia's first active response to the sense of change in the air is to have her hair cut in the recent style, which represents a return to an earlier day when bobbling and shingling were fashionable.

But this symbolic attempt to retrieve time results in an unexpected confrontation. While Lilia is sitting alone in the Montefort garden, she suddenly senses the approach of someone—she is certain that it is Guy—when in walks Fred. He, it appears, was and is her destiny. He has brought her the letters, which he has taken from Maud who had taken them from under the rock where they had been hidden (abandoned?) by Jane, in the belief that they are hers. Lilia is touched by his act, and the next thing Montefort witnesses is their driving off together for a spin in the old Danby Ford. When Lilia later admits to Antonia that she knew of Guy's other woman, her settlement with the past is complete, and her emergence as a “new woman” seems assured.

It is Maud who starts Jane on her road to awareness and who provides the finishing touches to Antonia's emergence as a more sympathetic being. Traversing the thigh-high bracken along the river, enfolded in a romantic mood, Jane is suddenly accosted by Maud, who yells, first, “What are you playing?” and, then, “What are you pretending about that tree?” (70-71). These questions are sufficient to make Jane feel foolish and recognize the silliness of her affair with Guy. She is now ready for a second test, and this comes in the form of a real letter from the nouveau riche English woman who has recently purchased the local castle. Vesta Latterly, having earlier spotted Jane and thinking the girl's beauty would be an adornment at her table, invites her to a dinner party. While A World of Love largely concerns itself with the dangers of past events, it also presents a counterstatement about the poise and sense of responsibility a past can bestow—a lesson Jane learns at the castle. And a lesson she needs to learn, since, daughter of Montefort, she has “an instinctive aversion from the past … a sort of pompous imposture …” (48).

The Latterly world proves phantasmagoric. Vesta's circle is comprised of hulks who have surrendered their soul to Mamon—as Jane recognizes. An older Irishman comparing the past and present tells her, “These days, one goes where the money is—with all due respect to this charming lady. Those days, we went where the people were” (94). Jane knows Guy often frequented the castle, and, when there is an empty place at the table, she imagines him present, not now as her lover, but as her ancestor from a nobler time. Though tipsy with her first martini, she can see that Guy is more real than those present, for, as old Terrance has told her, “You can't buy the past” (93). Jane's acceptance of Montefort and its heritage is akin to Lois Farquar's discovery of the reality of Danielstown in The Last September.

Rather ironically, through the dissolute Vesta Jane meets the man who may prove to be a real lover. Unable to meet the son of an acquaintance who is flying in from Colorado, Vesta sends Jane with her chauffeur to Shannon to meet him. He proves a tall, handsome young man, and, as they confront each other. “They no sooner looked but they loved” (224). Out of context, this sudden love may appear as unduly sentimental, even for a highly poetic novel. Coming as it does, however, in a novel troubled by subjectivism, it serves as a judgment on the willingness of one who has demonstrated her capacity to distinguish reality and fantasy to avail herself of the creative “chance” of life.

Antonia's initial response to Guy's resurrection through the letters verges on the pantheistic. She feels the old force of Guy upon her emanating from the darkness of the night: “She was met at once like a wind-like rushing toward her out of the dark—her youth and Guy's from every direction. … All round Montefort there was going forward an entering back again into possession: the two, now one again, were again here …” (113). Antonia feels as if “Doom was lifted from her” and that “time again was into the clutch of herself and Guy” (113-14). Her near mystical experience is like the final intensity of light, the orgasmic sputter, before the bulb dims.

But, in the dawn of the day after, Antonia is confronted by too much evidence that the static Montefort world she has expended her energy and effort to sustain is breaking up, and that, far from living in a timeless world, the years have taken their toll of her. Lilia and Fred seem bound now to have at this late date, if not love, a relationship truly their own. Lilia's admission of Guy's other woman and her refusal to accept the packet of letters in effect earn her release from the past. Jane's entry into the Latterly world, if only as a passing observer, informs Antonia that the girl is moving beyond her grasp and into a life of her own. Angered over Jane's first contact with the castle, Antonia is mild and interested as Jane departs into Vesta's sphere again at the close.

It is Maud, however, who administers, unintentionally, the final blows to Antonia's hardened mold. Like an emerging spirit, she comes spouting forth “maledictions” from the Psalms. When Maud expresses her views about her father's role, or about what his role should be in the family, Antonia must confess, “Maud as a character had to be reassessed …” (166). Antonia, like Jane before her, is forced to assess her conduct from the cold light of Maud's viewpoint, and the experience is discomfiting: Antonia flees her own bedroom, leaving “the field to Maud” (171). Maud's final impact results from her devotion to Big Ben, whose confirmation of nine o'clock on the radio she eagerly awaits each evening. Sitting in the dining room hearing “passionless Big Ben,” Antonia flinches before “The sound of time, inexorably coming as it did, at once … absolute and fatal” (193). At the same time Jane, studying her aunt, thinks: “And I shall never see Antonia again. … Something has happened. Somehow she's gone,—She's old” (194).

Throughout, the narrator indirectly comments on Guy through Maud's imaginary companion, Gay David. Quite like the living members of her family, Gay is subjected to rough handling from Maud. And, if Guy's contemporaries have given him debilitating obeisance, Gay receives an unceasing flow of punches and kicks. Maud's most obvious predecessor in the novels is Theodora Thirdman of Friends and Relations. The narrator, along with Antonia, may well ask of Maud, “what might the future not have to fear from her?” But in a world where the temptation to effortless ennui is so great, such people are shown to be valuable.

A World of Love may be the author's covert criticism of Ireland with Guy representing the debilitating hold of the Irish past on the present and the impressionistic dreamlike style parodying the sense of unreality disarming everyday life. Whether the novel is related specifically to Ireland or not, it is a cautionary tale. The need to open windows of closed entities to the fresh air of actuality is recurringly necessary. The concluding sentence is richly ambiguous in the best Bowen manner—“They no sooner looked but they loved”—since love is both the great reality and the potent illusion.


The Little Girls is Elizabeth Bowen's most intricate and subtle novel: intricate in the relationship of its components and subtle in its psychology. Allusiveness is carried to a tantalizing edge where one more step would plunge everything into an incomprehensible state. Yet the surface almost belies this allusiveness; the author has never sustained sprightlier pacing or more rapid dialogue. This engaging surface and a clever unfolding of character psychology save this novel from the fate of A World of Love. Though lacking in the power of her best work, The Little Girls is among the most impressive of Bowen's novels.

Initially asking what the consequences might be if a person rekindled relationships that have been dormant for fifty years, the novel provides one highly imaginative answer. Dinah Delacroix, still an attractive, active woman at sixty-one, decides to contact the two women with whom she was most intimate when they were all eleven and in their last term together at Saint Agatha's in the summer of 1914. By the end of part 1, Dinah (known as Dicey) has entertained at her country home Clare Burkin-Jones (Mumbo), divorcee and successful businesswoman, and Sheila Artworth (Sheikie), wife of a man whose family has long been prominent in Southstone, home of the now-vanished Saint Agatha's.

Part 2 moves back in time to deal with the closing weeks spent together by the threesome at school. The central activity follows the girls' decision to bury secretly in the school garden a coffer containing a note written in blood in a private code and various objects including a contribution by each girl known only to herself. Not until late in the novel is the nature of these contributions revealed. The section culminates with a term-end picnic and farewells, which endure until Dinah's notices in the personal columns of the Times and other English papers effect the reunion.

The action of part 3 follows from that of the opening sequence; Dinah talks her reluctant partners into digging up the coffer even though, as Sheila is in a position to point out, it now lies in the garden of a private home. The coffer is found empty, a discovery upsetting to Dinah. And more surprising is the collapse Dinah suffers two weeks later after being scolded by sturdy, no-nonsense Clare. The closing portion of the book revolves about the bed in which Dinah is prostrate. Sheila is on hand and in command of Dinah's two married sons; her handsome widower neighbor, Major Frank Wilkins; her youthful Maltese houseboy, Francis; and the now hangdog and troubled Clare.

Even this bare outline should reveal how the novel appears to shift in intent at the opening of the coffer. Seeming concern for the retrieval of both chest and friendship is displaced by the psychological mystery of Dinah's behavior and, retroactively, by the motivation underlying the apparent spontaneity of her decision to contact the past. The shift is, of course, seeming rather than real. Basically, the book is constructed on a cunning switch. Of the three women, Dinah appears to be the only one living a satisfying life. Why Clare and Sheila are reluctant to expose themselves to a woman whose advertisements bespeak an adventurousness they no longer possess is understandable. Yet events lead to a reversal in which Dinah emerges as the most troubled of the trio. Only gradually do we come to fathom, as Clare most evidently does, Dinah's problem and to comprehend what she means when she puzzles the others by saying such things as, “Can't you see what's happened? This us three. This going back, I mean. This began as a game, began as a game. Now—you see?—it's got me.”3 The reader can take some consolation initially that neither Clare nor Sheila “sees” either.

Dinah, it becomes apparent, has had an easy life, and she has become, as Clare points out to her, “in many ways very wonderful.” But, in summoning her old friends, she has encountered fears and doubts about the reality of her existence and the quality of its feeling. Though it is not crucial, it is not clear whether Dinah's doubts rose before or following the re-encounter. Dinah says, though after the fact, that she recalled her friends for hundreds of reasons (all of the facts of her life?), but Clare believes Dinah “chanced, not chose, to want Sheila and herself again” (276).

Quite appropriately, Dinah's crisis invokes for her memories of Macbeth and unstated echoes of life's “signifying nothing.” The whole affair of the coffer suddenly becomes a symbolic testing ground for her. When illumination finally comes to Clare, she says, over the slumbering body of Dinah, “There being nothing was what you were frightened of all the time, eh? Yes. Yes, it was terrible looking down into that empty box” (277). And Frank reported earlier that, when he and Francis had lifted the distraught woman into bed, she had cried, “It's all gone, was it ever there? No, never there. Nothing. No, no, no …” (258). Again it is not really clear whether Dinah is referring to her own life or to life in general, but from her point of view, the distinction hardly matters.

The first indication that Dinah is cracking occurs when the women return for drinks after their digging expedition to Artworths. Having hardly arrived, Dinah announces that she must leave. When Sheila tells her that her home “won't run away,” Dinah answers, “That's what it has done. … Everything has. Now it has, you see. Nothing's real any more …” (188). We may recollect with interest that, upon her introduction, Dinah is characterized as “a woman, intent on what she was doing to the point of trance …” (3). If, in the first stage of her awakening, Dinah must question the nature of her own reality, in the second stage, her personal being is called to an accounting. Taking umbrage at one of Dinah's remarks, Clare gives her an objective characterization of herself; she calls Dinah “Circe” and “a cheat. A player-about. Never once have you played fair, all along the line”; then she adds, “Some of us more than think we feel” (230).

This announcement amplifies earlier statements Clare and Sheila have made about Dinah. When Dinah's notices first came to their attention, and Clare and Sheila met to decide whether or not to answer her, they most readily recall Dinah as “too self-centered” (40). Throughout the book they refer to her as “Young Lochinvar” and “Ba-lamb.” And, after seeing the present-day Dinah, Sheila can still say she has “never yet outgrown being a selfish child” (201). When she becomes quite worked up over Dinah, she says, “What makes me so mad is the way things are showered on to her that she hasn't the sense to value or understand. Showered” (201). Moreover, the whole world built about Dinah attests to its unreality and its accommodation of her. Francis, with his Walter Mitty—like projections of secret-service adventure, is a fitting occupant of a demi-paradise in which his mistress has at her beck and call a handsome gentleman who helps her with tending a garden where innocence clearly prevails. The grotto with its fanciful collection of mementos pried loose from people, though they are items “which they couldn't have normally borne to part with,” and a place destined to confound future people is the perfect activity for an individual who enjoys, even if she does not comprehend, life.

In addition to the other names she calls Dinah, Clare claims she is an “enchantress's child,” and this term provides a clue for a reading of the wonderfully realized 1914 scenes. Dinah and her mother, Mrs. Piggott (pig it?),4 live in the cozy little Feverel Cottage (can we doubt the author's intent that we remember the raising of Richard in George Meredith's The Ordeal of Richard Feverel?). Here, supported by a wealthy cousin, Mrs. Piggott indulges her two loves, fine china and books (later there is repeated reference to the books in Dinah's bedroom); here, “Mrs. Piggott and [Dinah] had … spun round themselves a tangible web, through whose transparency, layers deep, one glimpsed some fixed, perhaps haunted, other dimension” (85).

Though there are passing references to the visits of Major Birkin-Jones to Feverel Cottage, it is not until the end of part 2 that it is possible to comprehend his love for Dinah's mother. On the verge of reporting for active duty, for war is imminent, he appears at the picnic late to say farewell to Mrs. Piggott. She has been willing to take, if not to give; when she folds her arms and presses “them against herself” he says, “You're cold” (151). Later it is disclosed that Dinah's father threw himself under a train before her birth, and, although no explanation for his action is proffered, none seems needed. When Mrs. Piggott is sick in bed, Dinah wishes to quote a line from Macbeth and chooses, suggestively. “Was my father a traitor, mother?” (244). This question implies her recognition of what the loss of a father may have cost her life.

Technically, the novel's middle section is a tour de force in maintaining our attention on the surface action and implanting hints about Major Birkin-Jones in such a way that the disclosure of his love comes at once as surprise to us—and all the more so for having taken place under our very eyes.

Dinah's illness proves double-edged: for her it is purgative; for her circle of acquaintances it is rejuvenative. Frank is stunned. A selfish man himself, as Sheila observes, it is ironic that he is not aware that Dinah has fobbed him off, literally and figuratively, with a mask. But he does come to bury his head in her pillow. Sheila, hitherto somewhat ineffectual, finds a true outlet for her desire to be useful. Tending Dinah gives her an opportunity to repay her one-time exit from the deathroom of her lover, which has haunted her. By way of reward, she inherits, as it were in Dinah's offspring, the sons she has longed to have. For her part, Clare realizes how she has permitted business to dehumanize her and deny the feelings of others, for, standing over the prostrate Dinah, she says to herself: “I did not comfort you. Never have I comforted you. Forgive me” (277).

Clare's final admission of responsibility toward others is analogous with the change Dinah experiences. Fittingly, the book ends with Dinah waking from a long sleep. The brief exchange between herself and Clare reveals, for all its terseness, that Dinah has shed her childlike attitude to life, along with her terrifying sense of meaninglessness, and has assumed her proper role in the present. Upon awakening Dinah queries: “Who's there?” “Mumbo.” “Not Mumbo, Clare. Clare, where have you been?” (277). It is a paradox worthy of life that the innocence that came to trouble Dinah is the kind that made possible not only her own salvation but also the resurrection of her closest friends. This paradox recurs consistently in the author's fiction.

When we at last learn what items the girls placed in the coffer, it can be seen that each buried something really requisite to her life. If not in actuality, then metaphysically, events allow the women to repossess what was secretly hidden. Dinah's contribution was a gun, symbol of violence, without which, according to other Bowen novels, life is incomplete. The results of violence, if not the act itself, appear in the novel in the form of the bruise on Dinah's forehead, discovered when she is found by Francis slumped over. And, along with the late disclosure of Mr. Piggott's violent death, come several hints of contemplated suicide on Dinah's part.

Clare buried a copy of Shelley's poetry, believing herself through with it. Her failed marriage and her protective brittleness readily enough indicate her loss of a sense of poetry in life and her indifference to the humanitarianism Shelley advocated. Not so readily translatable as the gun and the book is Sheila's contribution to the casket of an extra toe she has had removed. But, when she mentions how embarrassed she was over the toe, it may be surmised that, in being unwilling to accept her fate or situation, her unwillingness to acknowledge the silver of flesh has remained as her inability to accept the events of her life, one that accounts for her tensions and hypersensitivity.


A World of Love and The Little Girls seek to justify the image of hope and promise that survive the Holocaust of The Heat of the Day. Both novels find rehabilitation possible in the modern world, but Elizabeth Bowen's tenth novel, Eva Trout; or, Changing Scenes, discloses that the scene has indeed changed; the honeymoon is over. The world of Eva Trout is askew and romantically bloated; it is studded with heavy operatic names like Iseult, Eric, and Constantine. Fittingly a heroine with the sturdy, fundamental name of Eva Trout desires normalcy, but she, as the novel implies, is asking too much of our times. Long denied a sane, stable existence, Eva, on the verge of reaping her desires and of achieving respectable communication with the world, is struck down in a melodramatically bizarre and ludicrously contrived manner. Eva Trout is Bowen's contribution to the black humor of the 1960s. What makes this report tolerable is, typically enough with Bowen, the romping delight of the narrative voice that delights in the inexhaustibleness of the human condition, whatever its manifestations.

Mrs. Iseult Arbles, on her way to visit Eva, pauses in Broadstairs to visit the Charles Dickens's room in Bleak House. This room gives the narrator an opportunity to observe, “It took Dickens not to be eclipsed by Eva.”5 Eva, a “she-Cossack,” is the largest of the author's heroines, both literally and figuratively. But she shares with her predecessors an abnormal rearing that renders her conduct of relationships highly unnatural. A combination of miseducation or noneducation has made Eva a conversational misfit; as a result, drama follows from her encounters with communication. When is Eva to be believed, and to what extent? Conversely, how will she interpret or misinterpret the signals she receives from the abnormal or nervous human being surrounding her? A trout out of water in a neurotic world, Eva wants a husband and a child. But how to acquire them?

The book begins when Eva is boarding with Eric and Iseult Arbles who live on a fruit farm in Worcestershire. She is almost twenty-four, and when she has her birthday she is to come into a fortune. Chiefly she occupies herself with the local rectory children of Mr. and Mrs. Dancey. Her favorite is Henry, twelve, perhaps because “she [can] not boss him and he [can] mortify her …” (15). Quite evidently Eva is bored with her situation; and, like Bowen heroines before her, she is eager to begin her own life. The principal action of part 1 involves Eva's sudden and secretive departure for the Broadstairs area where she purchases a large furnished home near the sea. Life, presumably, begins with a home, preferably an older one that boasts a past bespeaking settlement. When she becomes wealthy, Eva fills this home with the latest in electrical equipment. The electric typewriter, stereo, movie projector, tape recorder, and computer (on order) are to place her abreast of her time and, perhaps, represent a reflexive determination to modernize her capacity to communicate.

After the house is to come what is more readily purchasable by Eva than a husband—a child. But Eva's nature does not permit her simply to fly to the United States where she intends to make this transaction; she must prepare the way. During a visit with Eva, Iseult proposes that Eva spend Christmas with the Arbles. Eva refuses on the grounds that she will, at that time, be having a baby. Unhindered by Eva, Iseult, realizing a time lapse of nine months between an earlier visit to Eva by Eric at Christmas, assumes the obvious.

Eva's announcement is her way of settling a grudge held against Iseult that dates from the days when Iseult was Miss Smith, teacher in a private girls' school, and Eva was one of her pupils. Eva arrived at the school after she had wearied of trailing about the world with her father and his male lover, Constantine, and had insisted that she be allowed to settle into a more natural life. Having passed through the hands of a series of indifferent governesses who served in place of her mother long since killed in a plane crash, Eva is elated to be recognized as existing by Miss Smith, and she experiences the first passion of her life: “Till Iseult came, no human being had ever turned upon Eva their full attention—an attention which could seem to be love. Eva knew nothing of love but that it existed—that, she should know, having looked on at it. Her existence had gone by under a shadow: the shadow of Willy Trout's total attachment to Constantine” (18). Like other Bowen characters who are charged with reciprocating the idealistic demands of other Bowen heroines, Iseult hedges in her response, and Eva conquers her caution as rejection. So the seed of antipathy comes to be planted.

When, a few years later, Willy Trout commits suicide and Constantine assumes the role of guardian, Eva decides she would like to board with the intellectual Iseult and her workingman husband on their fruit farm. The Arbles welcome Eva—but for financial reasons. Like Portia in The Death of the Heart, Eva enters a household where marriage is proving less than satisfactory: “the marriage was founded on a cerebral young woman's first physical passion” (19). Eric is disappointed because there are no children; Iseult, already chaffing at a restrictive life with a failed fruit farmer cum garage man, is troubled by his declining interest in her. Eric's eventual interest in Eva is not calculated to ease matters at all. Eva's pregnancy gambit proves to be the coup de grace to the marriage.

Not until eight years later does Eva learn that the Arble marriage failed to survive her implied relationship with Eric. However, this novel, and others by the author, shares an ambivalence toward violence wrought by the subjective innocent. There's no hint of loss, no sense of real pain over the Arbles' separation. Upon her return to England, Eva begins to pick up the ends of her earlier life. She finds Eric living contentedly with a common-law wife who has borne him two children. Iseult is located on the Continent but is easily enough lured back into Eva's orbit. Before long Iseult and Eric are back together again, and this time, seemingly, they are truly in love. No mention is made of the two children and their mother. Such is the modern world.

The baby boy Eva acquires surreptitiously in Chicago and christens Jeremy proves to be a deaf-mute, and, in the years of Eva's absence from England, she has lived in a series of American cities in an effort to find help for her son. When he is eight, she decides the time has come for them to return to her country and to locate, though such is never stated directly, a father for Jeremy. They settle in a London hotel, and, after Jeremy is set to sculpting with a private tutor, Eva leaves for Cambridge to seek Henry Dancey who is now a student.

The final sequence of absurdity has its beginning when Iseult, back from London, “borrows” Jeremy from his sculpting instructress in order to have a visit with him since she still assumes he has been fathered by Eric. When Jeremy fails to return to his mother at the hotel, she becomes distraught; her mind leaps immediately to the probability of kidnapping. Before she does anything drastic, however, Jeremy wanders in. He, of course, cannot explain matters to her. Unnerved, Eva decides to quit London for a time, and, leaving all of their possessions at the hotel, she and Jeremy make for Fontainebleau. While here, she fortuitously becomes acquainted with a doctor and his wife who have been working with deaf-mutes with considerable success. The couple agrees to accept Jeremy as long as he can live with them and Eva will absent herself. When Eva returns to England and Henry, she proposes marriage to the young man, who really is quite fond of her. He refuses. Then, as usual with Eva, who prefers to have the appearance of propriety if not the reality of it for the benefit of the Arbles and Constantine, she asks him to depart with her from Victoria Station as if he were going to marry her, and he agrees to her request.

Thus, the culminating scene takes place at Victoria. And indeed Iseult, Eric, and Constantine are on hand in a festive mood—as is Jeremy, who has been brought from France for the occasion. Before coming to the station, however, he has visited his old hotel to pick up some things left behind. He is delighted and surprised to find among the Trout goods a pistol, a real one, though he is not aware that it is. Bowen has earlier shown how the gun became so located. It belongs to Eric but turned up among Iseult's possessions when she went to the Continent. She has decided to bring it back to England in order to return it to him. Not wishing to carry the gun about with her, she is inspired, when she becomes aware of Eva's stored possessions in London, to deposit the gun temporarily with these.

There are two moments of drama at Victoria. First, Henry tells Eva that he has changed his mind; he really wishes to marry her. Second, Jeremy, rushing forward to greet his mother, playfully points the gun at her, pulls the trigger and the gun fires. Eva drops to the pavement dead, and the novel ends. Though the book invokes a Dickensian world as a context for Eva, it more fittingly reminds one of Thomas Hardy and of Jude the Obscure in particular. Eva, like Jude, has aspirations that both her limited awareness and her incessant misfortune abrogate.

The novel is very entertaining; Bowen is too much the professional for Eva Trout to be otherwise. But in retrospect, we wonder if it adds up to much. A residue of dissatisfaction seems almost inevitable. The author's work gives a sense of the untidiness and unpredictability of life, and her books realize her own insistence that major characters retain the capacity to unfold throughout a narrative. Eva Trout, conversely, is held too tightly in thrall by its basic narrative diagram. Eva, child of violence and seeker of a normal life, reverses the usual sequence of husband, child, house, and, when she is on the verge of attaining the husband, she comes full circle to her true inheritance of violence.

Eva Trout, in one sense an un-Bowen-like work, appears to be a send up of many of the author's recurring interests and fictional elements. This may account for the critical reservations it has prompted. Certainly it is a work asking to be read in its own grotesque terms as the numerous references to Dickens seemingly encourage. At bottom is the great Bowen theme of insecurity, and Eva Trout is either the final exorcising of a recurring nightmare or a bold attempt to laugh it out of court. Eva's lifelong handicapped pursuit of identity is by turns noble, ludicrous, and pathetic. As well, given the dislocations of the times, it is doomed. The fact remains that all human beings, even if fish out of water, must make their lives—if they are to live—by fashioning themselves. Elizabeth Bowen's last response to this, as Eva Trout demonstrates, is to somehow simultaneously laugh and cry.


  1. William Heath, Elizabeth Bowen: An Introduction to Her Novels (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1961), 120.

  2. A World of Love (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1955), 9; cited hereafter in the text by page number.

  3. The Little Girls (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964), 188, cited hereafter in the text by page number.

  4. This allusion may seem less fanciful when it is noted that later in the novel Dinah says “in the voice of one continuing aloud a train of thought: ‘You huffed and you puffed and you blew my house down’” 244.

  5. Eva Trout (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969), 133; cited hereafter in the text by page number.

Heather Bryant Jordan (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: Jordan, Heather Bryant. “Fictional Silences.” In How Will the Heart Endure: Elizabeth Bowen and the Landscape of War, pp. 153-68. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press, 1992.

[In the following excerpt, Jordan explores Bowen's treatment of the psychological trauma of life during wartime in her postwar novel The Heat of the Day.]

War, if you come to think of it, hasn't started anything that wasn't already there.

—Elizabeth Bowen, The Heat of the Day

The novel that emerged from Bowen's immersion in the Second World War epitomized “a state of living in which events assault the imagination.” In The Heat of the Day, Bowen depicts the psychological ramifications of the changed landscape of war, as she had in the short stories which were “unconscious sketches” for this novel.1 This fiction shows her tackling in a more sustained, and sometimes more agonized, manner the same questions she had addressed in her wartime short stories: the nature of betrayal, changing conceptions of class, the role of Ireland and the Anglo-Irish, and the ramifications of espionage work. Indeed, the novel reflects Bowen's ambition, as she announced it to Sir William Rothenstein after he congratulated her on The Death of the Heart, to “write that immense novel everyone wants to write” in accordance with her conviction “that themes, in novels especially, should be large.”2

Montgomery's victory in Egypt, the Battle of El Alamein, and D day coincide with the important private moments of the novel. By juxtaposing each emotional turning point with a public one, Bowen realized her desire to write a “present-day historical novel” as she turned with “relief” to the larger world in “revulsion against psychological intricacies for their own sake.”3 This technique recalls the counterpointing she experimented with in The Last September where outside events endanger the internal lives of the characters. A world at war, in this later novel, invades and poisons the love affair between the central figures, Robert Kelway and Stella Rodney. Here, Bowen makes explicit her contention that “the relation of a man to society is an integral part of the concept of any novel.”4 In an article entitled “The Next Book,” appearing in the autumn 1948 issue of Now and Then, she discussed this tension between “the individual self-absorption and the individual's awareness of the outside world. … But the trouble is, how am I to find a scene, characters, or plot which will be the ideal vehicle for my memory?” (“On Writing” [“On Writing The Heat of the Day”], 12).

Although Bowen recounted that writing the book had been an enormous struggle, when she looked back on it she called it her best novel to date.5 While she had counseled, in her response to Cyril Connolly's questionnaire entitled “The Cost of Letters,” that a writer's work should improve through contact with others, in composing The Heat of the Day she explained that “the diversion of energy is a danger.”6 Yet, her literary friends appreciated her efforts and praised her intention to present “the peculiar psychological climate” of wartime.7 The novelist Elizabeth Taylor wrote to Bowen: “you rake up the dead leaves in our hearts and say many things which we did not know how to say ourselves—which we only very faintly perceived before.”8 Prone to hyperbole in the compliments she paid to Bowen's work, Rosamond Lehmann reported that she cried endlessly during her reading of the novel because of her close identification with Stella; for her the novel was “the unbearable recreation of war and London & our private lives and loves.”9 Charles Ritchie especially appreciated her distillation of the “hypnotic intensity of life in London” during the war years. On reflection he attributes her range of language to her wartime experience: “certainly the tension of those times brought all feeling closer to the surface and that seems to me to make her writing in The Heat of the Day and in her wartime short stories so markedly different from her books before and after.”10

Bowen's novel also spoke to a wide circle beyond her own acquaintance; after its publication in February, 1949, it sold forty-five thousand copies almost immediately.11 Critics had expressed trepidation during the war that the novel, which “will create a picture which cannot be effaced by tomorrow's newspaper,” might not get written during time of war.12 But The Heat of the Day, appearing after the conflict, answered these doubts by telling a story of war that people wanted to read. The wider canvas of the novel unifies London, the home counties, the south coast, and Ireland.13 Bowen's compulsion to make these disparate elements cohere linguistically accounts for some of the weakness apparent in her technical constructions as she channeled the intensity of her short stories into the “calmer, stricter, more orthodox demands” of the novel.14 By not allowing herself recourse to the world of the hallucinatory, she encountered even more obstacles to representing the “breaking down of immunity” she experienced in wartime (HD [The Heat of the Day], 93).

While the novels Bowen wrote before the war such as The Death of the Heart and Friends and Relations signal betrayal as “the end of the inner life” with attendant hurt and disappointment, in The Heat of the Day disloyalty could mean the end of a life.15 Transformed though the lens of the war, scenes from prewar novels seemed to Bowen to fade into a lost past; as she wrote her wartime novel, she contemplated the wreckage of the once “gleaming terraces” reduced to “giant shells.”16 An indication of the stress placed on her by the additional burden of her divided loyalties during the war surfaced in an interview she gave the Bell in 1942, the year she began writing The Heat of the Day in earnest. Then, she described her own “strong feelings of nationality” as being “highly disturbing.”17

As a result of Bowen's travel to Ireland on behalf of the Ministry of Information, conversations with Charles Ritchie about MI6, the British intelligence service, and her friendship with figures such as Goronwy Rees, she became more concerned with unmasking the meaning of loyalty and betrayal during a time of war.18 Hovering on the edge of a wartime world of traitors and spies, she must have known how near she was to the edge of this shadowy land. Her friend Rosamond Lehmann, for example, was aware that their mutual friend, Goronwy Rees, had been invited by Guy Burgess to be a Soviet agent.19 The critic Frank Kermode has speculated that Goronwy Rees as a young man might have been the model for the character of Eddy in The Death of the Heart.20 Peter Quennell also believes Rees was the prototype for Eddy; apparently it was so successful a portrait that Rees threatened to sue Bowen after he read the book.21

Robert Kelway, whom Bowen referred to as “the problem character and the touchstone” of The Heat of the Day, spies on his own country and, thus, becomes its betrayer.22 Curiously, Bowen made him a fascist, and he is unconvincing in part because we hear so little from him directly. Troubled by the question of Robert's political allegiance, Lehmann wrote to Bowen to ask why she had not made him a “communist thus pro-Russia and an ally?”23 Robert shows himself to be a national traitor who is attracted to the orderliness of Hitler's Germany, because there he hopes to find an answer to the emptiness in his own life. Obviously cognizant of Robert's opaqueness, Bowen had supplied her indirect answer to Lehmann's query in her interview with the Bell: “The idea for a book usually comes to me in the shape of an abstract pattern. … Then the job is to construct characters to fit the situation. Characters have a way of growing of their own accord which means a great deal of re-writing.”24

The ambiguities of Robert's character center on Bowen's hesitation about the distinction between being a traitor and a spy. In the effort to separate these two concepts (a task of particular immediacy for her) she struggled to fashion Robert into an abstraction. By making him a construct rather than a personality, she violates her own advice and has him do what a character never should, that is, he says things “which fit into situations intellectually conceived beforehand.” As if to explain this irregularity, she declared after she had written The Heat of the Day that, in this book more than ever, the characters “took command” of her.25 Robert's unevenness as a character reflects her own unsteady grasp of him (and echoes the perplexity of her own position in the employ of the Ministry of Information). He grows directly out of her Burkean investigation in Bowen's Court of the meaning of possession and heritage; she holds Robert's cold and empty English middle-class origins responsible for what some critics have called his “inability to conceive of his country emotionally.” This, she argues, leads to his embrace of fascism.26

In Bowen's familiar blurring of the boundaries between politics and literature, Robert also suffers from his composite origins in fact and fiction. He is based, at least in part, on her lover Charles Ritchie, to whom she dedicated the novel.27 He noted in a diary entry of January 20, 1942, that Bowen had told him she “would like to put me in her next novel.”28 But, recognizing that it was difficult to place “real people” in fiction, she said in a letter to William Plomer, about his book Museum Pieces: “And you have accomplished what I had always taken to be impossible—the bringing of ‘real’ people into the dimension of fiction.”29 An inherent contradiction, then, underlies her attitude toward the character who is at once the most despicable figure in the novel and a shadow of her own lover during wartime. During the course of the story, his complexity increases when he becomes a “mirror image” of the man who turns him in, Robert Harrison; significantly, both men share the name of Bowen's paternal grandfather.30 Even near the end of her life Bowen was still trying to separate herself from this troubling character, Robert Kelway, with the untenable disclaimer that “no one of the characters in my novels has originated, as far as I know, in real life.”31

John Hayward describes the autumn of 1942, the year the novel begins, as a time when “spiritually we are going through a bad patch, having lived too long on hopes which have been frustrated and sick of words as a substitute for deeds.”32 “The glaring ordeal of that mid-war period” tests the characters of The Heat of the Day in their relationships to one another during the “lightless middle of the tunnel” that was the fall of 1942 (“On Writing,” 11).33 The novel begins at an open-air concert in London's Regent's Park where Louie, a young woman whose husband is on duty with the army, meets Robert Harrison, who strikes her as odd. This counterspy is immediately made to appear suspect because he has neither an address nor an ascertainable past. An unpleasant, lugubrious figure, he begins the undoing of the love affair between Stella, a middle aged-divorcée who does “secret, exacting, not unimportant work” for a governmental bureaucracy, the Y.X.D., and Robert.

Harrison offers her a bargain—that she become sexually involved with him in exchange for his promise to protect Robert. Irreparably torn, Stella embarks upon an evasive life of deception. Her response to his dark threats—“your ‘we’ is my ‘they,’”—signifies her membership in the culture described in the novel where everyone must take a side, however unwillingly (HD 40). Stella's ordeal begins that evening when Harrison's emotional blackmail forces her to consider whether she has misjudged Robert's character. Not coincidentally, Harrison approaches Stella at a time when war has made her vulnerable. Stella registers her shock on his first visit through the distortion of her syntax: “Up his sleeve he had something.” During this meeting with Stella, Harrison, in a melodramatic but telling gesture, turns Robert's photograph to the wall. To Stella, in time, his eyes will become to her “black-blue, anarchical, foreign,” as they come to reflect markers of his flawed soul. After her son, Roderick, arrives at Stella's flat, the memory of her meeting with Harrison becomes one of an “imperfect silence, mere resistance to sound” (HD 15, 198, 56).

Stella first responds to Harrison's allegations against Robert by scanning her memory for glimpses of the fall of 1940 when they had met: “Never had any season been more felt; one bought the poetic sense of it with the sense of death.” She and Robert had begun their affair when he had come to London to work in the War Office after recovering from being wounded at Dunkirk. His leg never entirely healed, and his limp distinguishes him as a maimed man. But memories of the heroic excitement of earlier in the war had sustained the lovers through the tedium of 1942 when the Blitz had seemed “apocryphal, more far away than peace.” They take sustenance from a different era when the soil of the city “seemed to generate more strength” and the dahlia leaves “against the sun blazoned out the idea of the finest hour” (HD 90, 92, 91). Each one of their meetings in that season had appeared to be a piece of unbelievably good luck against the high odds of the threat of sudden death. Their memories reflect some of Bowen's own experience of the Blitz, as remembered by Charles Ritchie: “what is extraordinary is her stamina and courage in going on with her writing—after hours of duty in the air raid wardens' shelter and after the bombings of her house.”34

As she absorbs Harrison's warnings, Stella decides to ground Robert in his personal history. Simultaneously hoping and fearing what she will discover in his past, she joins him on a dismal visit to the tasteless Gothic villa his family calls home. Harrison greets her on her return from the excursion, and he applauds her instincts: “Today you did exactly what I should have done in your place … went to look at the first place the rot could start.” Harrison has already guessed that Stella can never view Robert in the same light after the grim day she spends with his family, the Kelways. Appropriately, Holme Dene (meaning, literally, “Home of the Dane”) is hidden behind a prominently displayed sign reading Caution: Concealed Drive (HD 131, 105).35 Its inhabitants—Robert's mother, sister, niece, and nephew—seem as faceless and unwelcoming as the house itself. Bowen selects details that display the meanness of life at this house, where at tea each person greedily contemplates his or her measly butter ration. The ugly neo-Gothic structure, built around 1900, the year of Stella's birth, becomes immediately suspect in the Bowen terrain where such architecture represents all that is dark and evil in the world.36 Not only has “time clogged” the ticking of the grandfather clock, freezing the house's relationship to the past, but the very emotions that hang ineffably in the “blackly furnished” drawing room feel stagnant (HD 108, 107).

It becomes clear that Robert's family has long since ceased to care about conversing with one another. As Stella studies his mother (who goes by “Muttikins”), she realizes with horror that the woman's “lack of wish for communication showed in her contemptuous use of words.” Apparently, Robert has inherited his family's disregard for the currency of language. Like his mother who sits and stares out her windows at the “bewitched wood” surrounding her house, Robert has no conception of his own relationship to anyone or anything beyond himself, least of all his country. The Kelways give away their moral emptiness by speaking to one another “with difficulty, in the dead language” of a house filled with “repressions, doubts, fears, subterfuges, and fibs” (HD 109-10, 252, 256). Their words give only a small measure of the inadequacies implicit in their outlook on life. Robert's sister, Ernestine, remarks snidely, as Stella and Robert set out on their stroll, that “it took being shot in the leg to make Robert walk!” The children are not in any way immune to this vacancy; his niece and nephew are taught that England and Germany chiefly differ from one another because in Germany a guest would be forced to eat cake against his or her will. Stella, feeling “seedy” and “shady,” watches the awful assemblage as though she were looking down a “darkening telescope” (HD 107, 111).37

Instead of maturing into a responsible adult under his family's roof, Robert came of age in a “man-eating house” with passages shaped liked “swastika-arms.” Treason, he explains to Stella on his last night alive, had offered promise for him because it “bred my father out of me, gave me a new heredity.” By being “born wounded,” he had proved all the more susceptible to the falsity and betrayal embodied in his origins in “a class without a middle, a race without a country. Unwhole. Never earthed in” (HD 258, 257, 273, 272). The novelist's use of the word race to describe a class distinction conveys yet another instance of her belief in the breakdown of society along social and economic lines.

For Stella, Robert cannot be true to his word because a “man of faith has always a son somewhere” (HD 175). He appears the prototype of the failings of the English middle class, “suspended in the middle of nothing,” meeting his death at the novel's climax, overcome by the denial of freedom and an inescapably paralyzing guilt. His guilt was inextricably entangled in his class; Bowen had avowed in a conversation with Charles Ritchie in October, 1941, that she saw guilt to be “specifically a middle-class complaint.”38 Because the Kelways do not properly understand the obligations and rights of possession as Bowen (or Burke) set them out, they keep Holme Dene perpetually on the market. Robert justifies this curious state of affairs on the grounds that he can make a distinction between the desirable situation of having a house like Holme Dene for sale and the unseemly circumstance of trying to rent it (HD 121).

The rottenness of the Kelways is thus established as originating in their lack of ethical appreciation for the graceful responsibility of ownership.39 The “betrayed garden,” overstuffed with a pergola, sundial, rock garden, dovecote, gnomes, and rusticated seats, horrifies Stella. Inside, features that are intended to appear antique are on closer inspection not even remotely authentic. Stella could not imagine who would want to buy the place. When, to their amazement, the Kelways do receive an offer on the house, they divide themselves into bitter camps. Robert, who never has seemed “to be living anywhere in particular,” votes to sell immediately, while Ernestine refuses to part with this monument to her past, however crippling it might be (HD 121, 298).

During their visit to Holme Dene Robert takes Stella to see his “boyhood's den” in the attic that has been carefully arranged, as though he “were dead.” The “sixty or seventy” photographs of Robert on display fascinate her. She sees a gallery of images of him, in tennis flannels, with his one-time fiancée, Decima (who perhaps decimated him), at school, and on vacation. Explaining why what he calls his “criminal record,” or “his own lies,” still hangs on the wall, he notes that his family “expect[s] me to be very fond of myself.” Stella stares at the portraits intently, much as she often studies Robert's photograph in her flat, hoping that she can fashion a composite from the disconnected fragments of Robert's past. Frustrated in her attempts, she exclaims, “this room feels empty!” Robert confesses that when he returns to the room he also senses the vacuum of his identity. He feels uncomfortable with his pose: “What I think must have happened to him [his father] I cannot while we're in this house, say” (HD 117, 118). The tortured arrangement of his words indicates Robert's vehemence at being brought to face his damaged past.

Thrust into the claustrophobic atmosphere of Holme Dene, Stella longingly recalls her Anglo-Irish origins, which, like Bowen's, are those of the “hybrid.” While she has once fantasized that she and Robert share the distinction of having come “loose” from their “moorings,” after she sees his family she realizes that, while her past “dissolved behind her,” his “was not to be denied” (HD 114, 115).40 Only by summoning the memory of her heritage from “gentry till lately owning, still recollecting, land,” does Stella escape the “consecration of the inside” that so disturbs her at Holme Dene (HD 110, 115). She contrasts the “handsome derelict gateway” that leads to Mt. Morris, her family's Big House in Ireland, with the hidden drive of Holme Dene, which turns away strangers.41

The Heat of the Day recaptures Stella's birthright as an Anglo-Irish woman in its invocation of Mt. Morris as a place where the past can enlighten rather than defile the present. By establishing a moral hierarchy of ownership, as Bowen had in her autobiography, the novel arrives at a definition of the meaning and obligation of possession. The Big House again becomes a character in this book as its destiny becomes closely linked with that of Stella's son, Roderick, who is serving in the British army. Roderick, who was conceived at Mt. Morris while Stella was on her honeymoon with her then-husband Victor (who had been wounded in the First World War), literally owes his existence to the house. And, although the marriage has failed, it left its mark on Stella through Roderick: “The time of her marriage had been a time after war; her own desire to find herself in some embrace from life had been universal, at work in the world” (HD 133).42

When Roderick's cousin Francis dies, he leaves Mt. Morris to Roderick, the son the Anglo-Irishman always wished to have. Just as in Bowen's Court, the issue of who will inherit the estate has been problematical. Since cousin Francis had no children (a fact which led to his wife's collapse), he has fastened on a favorite young relative, Roderick.43 “Possessorship of Mount Morris affected Roderick strongly,” giving him “what might be called a historic future” so that the house becomes “the hub of his imaginary life” and the inheritance of Mt. Morris changes him inalterably (HD 50).

Bored by the routine of his service in the army, Roderick turns for imaginative and spiritual sustenance to Mt. Morris, where “by geographically standing outside war it appeared also to be standing outside the present” (HD 50).44 Roderick spends much time wondering about the estate; his letters to his mother ask: How many acres are under tillage? Is there a gun room? What are its contents? (HD 202). By showing himself to be trustworthy and optimistic, he makes real a dream of successfully perpetuating the tradition of the Big House. The characters align themselves morally by their ability to appreciate Roderick's Irish inheritance: Roderick and Stella welcome the bequest, while Harrison and Robert do not.

Roderick, eager to understand his inheritance, is puzzled by an ambiguous phrase in Cousin Francis's will: “in the hope … that he may care in his own way to carry on the old tradition.” Stella warns him of what she has already discovered: “one must not be too much influenced by a dead person! After all, one must live how one can … and that often must mean disappointing the dead” (HD 72, 88). Roderick decides to follow his instincts about his responsibilities to the past by venturing to visit cousin Francis's widow at Wisteria Lodge in the British countryside. She has lived in this rest home for many years since suffering a breakdown over her inability to satisfy her husband's desire for an heir. Removed from the present, unaware of the war, she appears dazed and startled by the arrival of a young man in uniform. The nurses at the lodge warn the soldier not to upset her by discussing the past or the war, but it is the future that he wants to settle. And, in further pursuit of that hope, he obtains leave from the army so that he can become familiar with the Irish estate that is his “future.” He becomes more enthusiastic on his acquaintance with the place; he then determines that “Mt. Morris has got to be my living,” and he vows to set about the project scientifically and rationally: “One can't just go fluffing along as an amateur” (HD 313).

At the same time that the novel presents the possibility of reconciliation, rebirth, and continuity after the war—through an English soldier's inheritance of an Irish estate—The Heat of the Day also investigates the isolation implicit in neutrality.45 Unlike the battered half-men who survive the First World War, Roderick can look to what lies ahead after his participation in this Second World War. Significantly, his prize rests outside the theater of war, in Ireland. Yet the characters have difficulty understanding the ramifications of war when they are in Ireland, a fact that is simultaneously positive and negative. Stella's fictional visit to Mt. Morris in November, 1942, coincides with the actual event of Field Marshal Montgomery's victory in Egypt when, as Harold Nicolson wrote, “the face of the war changed its entire expression.”46 Later Stella recalls that moment of joy when she glimpsed the “mirage of utter victory” and also the annoyance she encountered at the indifference of the Irish caretaker's daughter to the miraculous news (HD 178).

The Heat of the Day portrays what Bowen regarded as certain excesses and deficiencies in the Anglo-Irish position on the war. Cousin Francis took his loyalty to England and his consequent disappointment with Eire's neutrality to extreme measures, even hoping for a “German invasion.” Before his death in May, 1942, he had prepared for this eventuality by digging tank traps in the avenues leading to Mt. Morris. Stella, who lives in England, sometimes displays insensitivity to the Irish attitude toward war. Her excitement at “being outside war” at Mt. Morris leads her to burn the caretakers' “light supplies for months ahead.” They are too polite to tell her that, thanks to her thoughtlessness, they will go to bed in the dark for most of the winter months. By contrast, when Stella returns from Ireland she suffers Ernestine's British callousness toward the state of affairs in the neutral country. In Stella's eyes the stolid sister displays her moral bankruptcy by asking sarcastically: “And how was the Emerald Isle? Beef steak? Plenty of eggs and bacon? … Over there, I suppose, no one realized a war was on?” (HD 183). Ernestine's spiteful questioning displays one facet of what Bowen perceived as a common British attitude toward Ireland.

Stella's idyll in Ireland, and her renewed appreciation of her heritage (in contrast to her day at Holme Dene), gives her the strength to challenge Robert with the news of Harrison's accusations. Stella suddenly realizes on her return from Ireland that her time away has further separated her from Robert; when he asks her to marry him on that first night back in London she succumbs to a distant watchfulness. Robert bursts out in anger and frustration: “We have not then been really alone together for the last two months. You're two months gone with this.” By comparing Stella's suspicions to the state of a woman pregnant with an unwanted child, Robert suggests the abortive future of their relationship. In Stella's last scene with him she maintains the metaphor in a reference to the flawed condition of their time as that of “a false pregnancy” (HD 191, 281).

The evening they endure after her trip to Ireland signals the onset of the final phase of their poisoned relationship. With the renewed confidence she has gathered from steeping herself in her ancestry, Stella allows herself to credit some truth to Harrison's accusations. The silence between Stella and Robert that she first noticed during her researches at Holme Dene grows increasingly intolerable. Their relationship, like the one between Lois and Gerald in The Last September, comes to stand for the long history of misunderstanding between Ireland and England which intensified and lengthened during the war. The fictional love affair deteriorates to resemble the state of relations between the two countries in the pre-treaty years when, as Bowen wrote, “each turned to the other a closed, harsh, distorted face” (BC [Bowen's Court] 452).

In The Heat of the Day Bowen fashioned Stella and Robert into agents who might assist her in settling some of the ambiguities that continually plagued her consciousness. Stella turns upon Harrison as the serpent who has caused her to feel like a spy on herself: “Somehow you've distorted love. You may not feel what it feels like to be a spy; I do—ever since you came to me with that story.” Stella suffers from the pangs of self-mistrust when she realizes that she is judging the man she thought she loved with a cold, objective eye. After she unequivocally accepts the fact of Robert's treason he answers her misgivings by hiding behind what he has learned so well from his family: “Don't you understand that all that language is dead currency?” (HD 142, 268).

Wearily, Robert describes the state of the world as he understands it: “There are no more countries left; nothing but names. What country have you and I outside this room: Exhausted shadows, dragging themselves out again to fight.” He has lost his humanity because all capacity for communication is gone, and even words like treason and country signify nothing to him: “words, words like that, yes—what a terrific dust they can still raise in a mind, yours even. … What they once meant is gone” (HD 267, 268). Because Robert no longer subscribes to the power of language, he has become enamored of treason. Thus, he represents an intense manifestation of a declaration that Woolf had made earlier in Three Guineas: “a word without meaning is a dead word, a corrupt word.”47

Unable to arrange his motives in a framework that Stella can accept, Robert rails against the war as “just so much bloody quibbling about some thing that's predecided itself,” saying “I want the cackle cut.” He reminds Stella that, unlike the First World War, the second one is “not a troubadours' war.” When he looks at the “laughing photographs” of her handsome uniformed brothers who were killed at Flanders he remarks, “they took what they had with them: they were the finish.” After Robert has left Stella's flat by way of the roof the language builds suspense by mirroring the emotional sequence the reader follows: “In the street below, not so much a step as the semi-stumble of someone after long-standing shifting his position could be, for the first time by her, heard” (HD 282, 276, 290).48 After Stella's and Robert's charged conversation Robert jumps (or falls) to his death from the roof of Stella's flat in the same early morning hours of November [1942] that the Allies land in North Africa.49 While the church bells peal in national celebration, Stella mourns his loss; she is finally forced to accept the consequences of his treason and her role in his demise.50

The author's use of the passive voice in this scene typifies its obfuscating presence throughout the novel. Through such linguistic inversions Bowen re-created for her readers the torpor and convolutions of the war years when words strained to represent the significant connection between historical events and individual dramas.51 Daniel George, who read the novel for Cape, reported that the contorted language, the odd vocabulary, and the double negatives gave him trouble but he admired her efforts, saying that she had worked “miracles” by expressing “what's been ‘inexpressible.’”52

Continually, Bowen's words recreated the tension between truth and belief that challenged her characters. She “put language to what for [her] was a totally new use,” investigating the “actual pattern” of the cracked “surface” of civilization so evident in wartime (“On Writing,” 11). The design she represented in The Heat of the Day was “a smashed-up” one “with its fragments invecting on one another.”53 The language of the novel is alive with what is not said, what is inherently inexpressible in the human experience of war. The plot turns on omissions: first Robert's silences, followed by Harrison's, then Stella's. Paul Fussell associates this quality with the poets of the Second World War whose “silence ranging from the embarrassed to the sullen” runs throughout their verse.54 The most important moral decisions taken in The Heat of the Day hinge upon the choice between silence and speech. The crux of the plot follows from the silence that ensues when words have been betrayers and have thereby lost their ability to signify.

Harrison visits Stella in London for the first time since Robert's death during the little Blitz of February, 1944, when she is sitting in her flat, “reading, listening to the guns.” Because his connection to Robert has “haunted” Stella, she is startled and, surprisingly, slightly relieved to see him; she even gets up the nerve to accuse him of having “killed Robert.” Yet she repeats what she has once told Roderick—that “one never goes back. One never is where one was.” And she tells Harrison of her future plans to marry a distant Anglo-Irish cousin, thus making a private peace between the past and the present. Harrison, on the other hand, appears to have made no firm decisions, a lapse he excuses by telling her that he specializes in “plans” rather than events. Against the backdrop of what Harrison calls “this dirty night,” her sterile relationship with him fades away, just as “the guns, made fools of, died out again” (HD 315, 321, 319).

This figure of apparent evil, Harrison, provides the hinge figure in the secondary plot of the novel that tells the story of two lower-class women, Louie and Connie. By means of this parallel plot involving the stories of two women from different social strata, Bowen investigates many of the same dilemmas that Robert and Stella had encountered. Although Connie and Louie initially seem very different from Stella, it soon becomes apparent that they share certain problems born of wartime. Bowen conveys dramatically how ancient social and economic distinctions were shrunk by the war, a phenomenon she had witnessed firsthand. In her only sustained portrayal of working-class characters who are not servants, Louie and Connie, “two diverse cases of the spiritual effects of social dislocation,” represent the various stresses many women faced in wartime when they found themselves alone.55

While her husband, Tom, is abroad with the army Louie works in a factory. Although she dutifully lies to him in her letters, telling him that she looks at his picture every day, in her mind she sees the “face of a man already gone” (HD 158-59). Originally from the south coast, she has lost both her parents in a bomb blast early in the war. The more worldly-wise and cynical Connie, like Bowen, is an air raid warden. She befriends the guileless Louie and guides her through a newly found independence that daunts Louie. By giving a voice to characters outside her own province, Bowen lent authority, as she had in such stories as “In the Square,” to her abstract observation that “the war on Britain was undergone by all types.”56

Louie and Connie's language reflects a certain “livingness” that Bowen had admired, so much in contrast to the ghostly voice of the maid in “Oh, Madam …”57 Her declaration in her review of the 1936 Royal Academy show, that “art makes us sympathize with the lower orders by showing them in market places and pubs,” had been softened by a keener awareness of people, particularly women, beyond her usual circle.58 The awkward dialect Bowen had created for Matchett, the servant in The Death of the Heart, has been replaced in The Heat of the Day by the more plausible voices of Connie and Louie. Connie never hesitates, for example, to expostulate against the stupidity of the general public who resent the air raid wardens for drawing pay in slow times: “the minute they stopped being pasted they became fresh” (HD 148).

The competent Connie anchors Louie, who is less surefooted. With her husband fighting in Egypt, Louie has been promiscuous, and a baby is due in the summer. Practical Connie, who appears “tough, cross, kind,” with a “scissor-like stride in dark blue official slacks,” sees no glamor in Louie's situation: “What do you think this makes you?—You're only one of many.” Louie has been out on nights when the war “brought out something provocative in the step of most modest women,” and she shares her predicament with many other women during this war (HD 147, 323, 145). All over Britain, illegitimacy and adultery increased.59 This sexual pressure faced women of all classes; Stella has encountered her own ugly version of it from Harrison, but for many reasons she made different choices.

Because of Louie's friendship with Connie, the sheltered woman first begins to become a little more aware by reading the newspapers. She believes, as does Stella, that there is “much to be learned from the lessons of history,” so she diligently reads whatever she can find. Catchy phrases intended to keep the British fighting spirit alive are made for Louie, who takes considerable comfort from platitudes such as “war now made us one big family” (HD 155, 152). She also falls prey to the dangers of the same appeals by trying to mold herself into whatever role the newspaper advertises that day. In contrast, Connie, who before the war sold newspapers at a kiosk, reads newspapers like a “tiger for information.” She brusquely challenges the banalities Louie embraces but is wisely dubious about propagandist assertions that war could make anyone's character better.

Connie's differences with Louie about newspapers echo the larger conversation of the novel mourning the loss of the traditional linkage between the past and the future. Throughout the story Stella realizes that “the fateful course of her own fatalistic century seemed more and more her own.” The apprehension of this truth accounts for the urgency of the historical debate among the characters of The Heat of the Day (especially Stella and Robert), who “are undergoing the test of their middle years” in the “testing extremes of their noonday”—that of the century, and that of the war (HD 134; “On Writing,” 11). Stella, Connie, and Louie are all trying to apprehend their relevance to one another as well as to their ever-changing situations.

Initially, Connie's greater knowledge and competence overwhelm Louie. Over the course of their friendship, however, Louie's admiration “shift[ed] its ground: Decidedly Connie qualified by her nerve to be a saviour of the human race; at the same time she had a tongue like a file, so that you could not take her to be the race's lover” (HD 148). The novel displays Louie to be the more sympathetic character; Connie's misplaced moral zeal compels her to write a meddling missive to inform Tom of his wife's pregnancy. Before she can put the letter in the mail a telegram arrives, announcing Tom's death in action. Spared from confessing the truth, Louie decides to move back to the south coast with her newborn son. There, she will maintain the fiction of her son's paternity.60 Her choice is set against the backdrop of the opening of the war's second front, which seemed like “a hallucination—something like the second coming or The End of The World.”61 In returning to the south coast, Louie fulfills Bowen's dreamlike vision of it as a place where differing classes could meet and attain harmony. If not in life, then in art, she could resurrect the resolution that landscape had once brought.

Comforting his mother after Robert's death, Roderick invokes creation as “the only thing that can go on mattering once it has stopped hurting” (HD 300). The end of The Heat of the Day recalls the narrator in The Death of the Heart, who described art as the “emotion to which we remain faithful, after all” (DH [The Death of the Heart] 95). Bowen numbered herself among the creative writers, who were “the guardians and spokesmen of human values.” Embracing fidelity to language as the means to shared experience, she increasingly emphasized her view of loyalty as the quality “essential to survival.”62 Characters like Robert, who cannot believe in truth or the power of language to convey it, kill themselves.

Bowen returns to another familiar image from her prewar novel, The Death of the Heart, as she closes The Heat of the Day. Just before Portia Quayne departs for the south coast on a holiday, she sees Yeatsian swans on the lake in Regent's Park, “folded, dark-white cyphers on the white water in an immortal dream” (DH 130).63 The swans still suggest artistic expression in this later novel, but they have acquired a public and historical significance beyond that of the private symbol. As Louie walks her baby, the young Tom, in Seale-on-Sea, she looks up at the sky and sees swans flying overhead. At that moment her internal vision merges with that of the birds' flight westward, as they follow the “homecoming bombers” (HD 329).64

With this scene Bowen shows herself closer to a resolution about the war. Despite the expanse of the Second World War and its extinction of so much that mattered to Bowen, the paradox of her postwar novel about wartime lies in the hopeful moments she managed to interlace with its tragedies. In memorializing the psychological struggles of this conflict through art, Bowen remained somewhat optimistic. Presumably, Roderick will go on to refurbish Mt. Morris, Stella will contentedly marry a member of her race, and Louie will devote herself to bringing up a fine young son who may better the future.


  1. Elizabeth Bowen, quoted in V. S. Pritchett, “Elizabeth Bowen,” 350; “On Writing The Heat of the Day,Now and Then 77 (Autumn 1949): 11.

  2. Bowen to Sir William Rothenstein (June 27, 1939), Houghton Library, Harvard University.

  3. Elizabeth Bowen, “Material for Broadsheet” (n.d., but presumably published just after The Shelbourne Hotel), HRHRC. For an analysis of the connection between public and private in The Heat of the Day, see Edwin J. Kenney, Jr., Elizabeth Bowen (Lewisburg, Penn.: Bucknell University Press, 1975), 74.

  4. Elizabeth Bowen, English Novelists (Glasgow: William Collins, 1942), 14. See also Dominique Gauthier: “precarité de cet équilibre [between society and man] exacerbée par le climat de la guerre” (L'image du réel dans les romans d'Elizabeth Bowen [Paris: Dider Erudidian, 1985], 108).

  5. Bowen, “Miss Bowen on Miss Bowen,” 33.

  6. Elizabeth Bowen, “The Cost of Letters,” in Ideas and Places, ed. Cyril Connolly (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1953), 83.

  7. Bowen, “Autobiographical Note” (October 11, 1948), HRHRC.

  8. Elizabeth Taylor to Elizabeth Bowen (February 24, 1949), HRHRC. In “The Future of the Novel,” Rosamond Lehmann wrote that “the war proved that people's private lives do very much go on, with an inner intensity to match the external violence” (Britain Today 109 [June, 1946], 8).

  9. Rosamond Lehmann to Elizabeth Bowen (March 4, 1949), 1; (February 14, 1949), 4, HRHRC.

  10. Charles Ritchie to the author (April 18, 1988).

  11. Michael Howard, Jonathan Cape, Publisher (London: Jonathan Cape, 1971), 240. See J. B. Priestley, Literature and Modern Man (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1960), 370. For a further discussion of the relation between the war and the novel, see P. H. Newby, The Novel, 1945-1950 (London: Longmans, 1951). In The Novel Now (New York: W. W. Norton, 1967) Anthony Burgess argued that “comparatively few good novels” resulted from the Second World War because the war “only stimulated the desire to keep records” (48). See also Alan Munton, English Fiction of the Second World War (London: Faber and Faber, 1989).

  12. See “Why Not War Writers” (manifesto signed by Arthur Calder-Marshall, Cyril Connolly, Bonamy Dobrée, Tom Harrisson, Arthur Koestler, Alun Lewis, George Orwell, and Stephen Spender), Horizon 4 (October, 1941): 236-39.

  13. See Lee, Elizabeth Bowen, for an excellent discussion of The Heat of the Day. She notes that Bowen connects the personal and the historical through “loaded imagery, with which the novel is as tense as any short story” (181). See also Walter Allen's review of The Heat of the Day where he argues that Bowen exhibits “the unity of method and single-mindedness of purpose which hitherto she has maintained only in short stories” (New Statesman, February 26, 1949, 208).

  14. Bowen, “Stories by Elizabeth Bowen,” in Seven Winters, 181.

  15. Elizabeth Bowen, The Death of the Heart, 320. Lee sees the “idea of a civilization that has earned, and deserves, its own destruction” as central to The Heat of the Day (Elizabeth Bowen, 157).

  16. Elizabeth Bowen to William Plomer (Thursday [194-]), Durham University Library.

  17. Bowen, “Meet Elizabeth Bowen,” 425.

  18. See Glendinning, Elizabeth Bowen, 152.

  19. Andrew Boyle, The Climate of Treason: Five Who Spied for Russia (London: Hutchinson, 1979), 155. I disagree with Lee, who believes that The Heat of the Day portrays “a woman's view of the male ‘Intelligence’ world” (Elizabeth Bowen, 175).

  20. Frank Kermode, History and Value (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), 80.

  21. Peter Quennell, Customs and Characters: Contemporary Portraits, 9.

  22. Elizabeth Bowen to Charles Ritchie, quoted in Glendinning, Elizabeth Bowen, 149.

  23. Lehmann to Bowen (March 4, 1949), 2, HRHRC. Other critics have described a similar difficulty with him. P. H. Newby in The Novel, 1945-1950 writes, “It is hard to believe in him or the form which his treason takes” (20). In the words of L. P. Hartley, he is “a force rather than a human being.” He wondered if Bowen ever fully explained the important distinction between “passive and active disloyalty” (review of The Heat of the Day,Time and Tide 30 [March, 1949]: 230, 229). Elizabeth Hardwick in “Elizabeth Bowen's Fiction” questioned why Bowen had not made Robert anti-Semitic, concluding that she was “too cautious” to mention the topic. The book as a whole was disappointing to her: “as a political novel, or a commentary on the English middle class, or a character novel, except for the engaging treatment of Stella Rodney, it is too impalpable to be held in the mind” (Partisan Review 16 [November, 1949], 1118).

  24. Bowen, “Meet Elizabeth Bowen,” 423-24.

  25. Bowen, quoted in Charles Ritchie (March 3, 1942), Siren Years, 137; “Miss Bowen on Miss Bowen,” 33.

  26. Benedict Kiely, Modern Irish Fiction: A Critique (Dublin: Golden Eagle, 1950), 152-53. He identifies Robert's parallels with the character of Lois in The Last September, who can only appreciate her country on an intellectual basis.

  27. In her “Autobiographical Note,” Bowen wrote that at one point she thought of dedicating The Heat of the Day to her Irish housekeeper at Clarence Terrace, who played a crucial role in the completion of the book—“but for her it could never have been written” (5).

  28. Ritchie, Siren Years, 132.

  29. Bowen to Plomer (September 9, 1952), Durham University Library.

  30. Allan E. Austin, Elizabeth Bowen, rev. ed. (Boston: Twayne, 1989), 54.

  31. Elizabeth Bowen, “People,” in Pictures and Conversations, 58.

  32. John Hayward to Frank Morley (September 7, 1942), King's College Library, Cambridge.

  33. Bowen, Heat of the Day, 93, 26. Hereafter this edition will be referred to in the text as HD.

  34. Ritchie to the author (April 18, 1988).

  35. Harriet Blodgett, Patterns of Reality: Elizabeth Bowen's Novels (The Hague: Mouton, 1975), 160-63.

  36. See Lee, Elizabeth Bowen, for a further discussion of the Gothic style in Bowen's fiction (178-79). John Hildebilde also notes that in Bowen's work: “any house built after 1900 is more than likely not quite up to the mark” (Five Irish Writers, 108).

  37. Bowen's depiction of Robert has the vehemence of her “Yeatsian hatred of the middle class.” See F. S. L. Lyons, Culture and Anarchy in Ireland, 1890-1939, 78.

  38. Ritchie, Siren Years, 120.

  39. John Atkins attributes the divorce of house and owner in The Heat of the Day to the war (Six Novelists Look at Society [London: Calder, 1977], 50).

  40. Edward Stokes places the “ex-gentry” in The Heat of the Day on “the side of the angels” (“Elizabeth Bowen—Pre-Assumptions or Moral Angle?” Journal of Australasian Universities Language and Literature Association 11 [September, 1959]: 45).

  41. In Happy Rural Seat, Richard Gill discusses the “spiritual crisis” that Bowen develops between Holme Dene and Mt. Morris (187). He also argues that Bowen's understanding of the Big House as a “symbol of community” was strengthened by writing Bowen's Court and The Heat of the Day (57-58).

  42. See John Coates's discussion of Victor as a World War I veteran in “The Rewards and Problems of Rootedness in Elizabeth Bowen's The Heat of the Day” (Renascence 39 [Summer 1987]: 488- 90).

  43. Note that in To the North Bowen named a dog Roderick (169).

  44. William Heath identifies useful distinctions in the way in which Bowen presents war in The Last September and The Heat of the Day. He views Bowen's portrayal of the “war in Ireland, like the one outside Troy, as an apathetic, mythical one” in the earlier novel, whereas in The Heat of the Day World War II “threatens integrity and attacks the individual's heart” (Elizabeth Bowen: An Introduction to Her Novels [Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1961], 118).

  45. Antoinette Quinn discusses the “symbolic healing” that the plot of The Heat of the Day projects—that is, “that an English soldier can inherit the big house” (Elizabeth Bowen's Irish Stories, 320).

  46. Nicolson, Letters and Diaries, vol. 2, 252.

  47. Woolf, Three Guineas, 184.

  48. Jocelyn Brooke argues that the very “thinness” of the language gives “the effect of some neurotic impediment, a kind of stammer” (Elizabeth Bowen [London: Longmans, Green, for the British Council, 1952], 26). See also Barbara Bellow Watson, who observes that “Bowen has devised a form capable of enclosing grotesque aberration within an extraordinarily realistic narrative” (“Variations on an Enigma: Elizabeth Bowen's War Novel,” Elizabeth Bowen, ed. Harold Bloom [New York: Chelsea House, 1987], 82).

  49. For a discussion of Robert's death in the novel, see Angela G. Dorenkamp, “Fall or Leap: Bowen's The Heat of the Day,Critique 10 (1968): 13-21.

  50. For an analysis of Stella as Bowen's “most vivid character,” see Vida Marković, The Changing Face: Disintegration of Personality in the Twentieth-Century British Novel, 1900-1945 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1970), 113.

  51. Critics have both applauded and been disturbed by Bowen's unorthodox decisions, which startled particularly those readers who had come to expect quiet, domestic fiction from Bowen. John McCormick attacked the novel as one of the least successful novels of wartime by commenting that, “it is as though someone had moved a Jamesian interior into a windswept field” (Catastrophe and Imagination [London: Longmans, Green, 1957], 229). Walter Sullivan decided that the novel involved Bowen in what she was least suited for: “discussion of ideologies, questions of political right and wrong” (“A Sense of Place: Elizabeth Bowen and the Landscape of the Heart,” Sewanee Review 84 [1976]: 148). In his review of The Heat of the Day Brendan Gill wrote that Bowen “has taken a big, if unsteady, step forward … as an artist she is risking more than she has ever risked before”; her vision was “wider and deeper than it has ever been before” (New Yorker, February 19, 1949, 88-89). Lee determines that the novel is not Bowen's best; it is “highly strained, and there is evidence of a struggle” in the mannerisms of “double-negatives, inversions, the breaking up of the natural sentence order, [and] passive constructions” (Elizabeth Bowen, 164-65).

  52. Daniel George, Reader's report on The Heat of the Day, quoted in Howard, Jonathan Cape, 181.

  53. Elizabeth Bowen, “Elizabeth Bowen and Jocelyn Brooke,” BBC broadcast, (October 3, 1950), 11, 12, HRHRC.

  54. Paul Fussell, “Killing, in Verse and Prose,” in Thank God for the Atom Bomb, 131.

  55. Coates, “Rewards and Problems of Rootedness,” 484.

  56. Elizabeth Bowen, review of The People's War, by Angus Calder (1969), reprinted in The Mulberry Tree, 182. Penny Summerfield argues that “social mixing among women war workers … has been exaggerated” (“The Levelling of Class,” in War and Social Change, ed. Harold L. Smith, 194).

  57. Elizabeth Bowen, “Advice” (1960), reprinted in Seven Winters, 89.

  58. Elizabeth Bowen, review of “Royal Academy” (1936), reprinted in Collected Impressions, 210.

  59. In fact, “illegitimacy rose from 4.4 per cent of all live births in 1939 to 9.1 per cent in 1945, the main change being that fewer extramarital conceptions were legitimated by marriage than before, and there was a four-fold increase in the number of divorce petitions filed for adultery between 1939 and 1945.” See Penny Summerfield, “Women, War and Social Change: Women in Britain in World War I,” 111.

  60. The birth of her baby was not an isolated occurrence; in fact nearly 880,000 births were reported in the British Isles in 1944. See Longmate, How We Lived Then, 167.

  61. Ritchie, Siren Years, 166.

  62. Elizabeth Bowen, “Disloyalties” (1950), reprinted in Seven Winters, 64.

  63. Dorenkamp discusses the swans as a symbol of art in the context of Bowen's view of the Second World War as a “failure of art” (“Fall or Leap,” 20). See Coates, “Rewards and Problems of Rootedness,” on this recurrence (501).

  64. In ending her novel with the crescendo of D day, Bowen makes clear her belief in the haunting effects of the “apocalyptic” nature of the war and its indelible and recurring imprint on modern consciousness. See Watson, “Variations on Enigma,” 131-51.

Robert L. Caserio (essay date June 1993)

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SOURCE: Caserio, Robert L. “The Heat of the Day: Modernism and Narrative in Paul de Man and Elizabeth Bowen.” Modern Language Quarterly 54, no. 2 (June 1993): 263-84.

[In the following essay, Caserio compares the writing styles of Paul de Man and Bowen, concluding that Bowen's works—particularly The Heat of the Day—more properly belong to the modernist movement rather than the postmodernist movement.]

The last chapter of Fredric Jameson's Postmodernism has an attractively odd and expressive shape. Entitled “Secondary Elaborations,” it meanders for 123 pages—more than a quarter of the volume's length. Instead of concluding, therefore, the argument's main drift mainly drifts; conclusion itself becomes secondary. I take it that this dilation reinforces Jameson's admirable inconclusiveness throughout his book about whether postmodernism arises after modernism ends or is itself modernism's secondary elaboration. Even where and when Jameson can substantiate as well as hypothesize the divide between the isms, he also can see “the postmodern debate” as an open one still. He can say of Roussel, Stein, and Duchamp that “they are the … eyewitness exhibits … for the identity between modernism and postmodernism. … It is as though they constituted some opposition within” the opposition between modernism and whatever has come after.1 For the critic to assume opposition within opposition presupposes that modernism is identifiable and separable as such. And yet Jameson also supposes that modernism is no more identifiable and unitary than what succeeds it. The ideal critical and historical narrative of modernism and its sequel might well take the shape of Jameson's last chapter: a long-drawn wavering between different cultural eras, whose identities sometimes appear as definite and embodied, sometimes as indefinite and ghostly, in a way that posits the difference in cultural eras and uncannily erases it, too.

In the course of adumbrating such a narrative as the matrix for his arguments, Jameson newly intuits Paul de Man's place in literary history. Seeing that “a fully autonomous and self-justifying postmodernism seems finally impossible as an ideology,” Jameson suggests that de Man “offers the spectacle of an incompletely liquidated modernism” and is “a very old-fashioned figure indeed,” in whom the survival of “properly modernist values” is “peremptory and full-throated” (256). The rapid collapse of de Man's influence, under the pressure of intellectually unjustifiable political bashing, is thus regrettable because it blinds critics to what Jameson sees: our connection, even in our recent attachment to de Man, to the still-live presence of modernism. Is it not likely that throughout the century we have inhabited an era of what Jameson calls “various modernisms” (304)?

I propose that to simplify or deny the variety impairs our sense of the nature of narrative especially since the Second World War. I want to expound and add to Jameson's intuition about de Man for the sake of picking out from among the various modernisms in which we live two important competing pictures of narrative. One of them, de Man's, is an old-fashioned modernist one. I find a supreme example of the other in Elizabeth Bowen's novel The Heat of the Day. Published in 1949, and produced by the global conflict whose contribution to the continuity between modernism and its sequel has yet to be assessed adequately, The Heat of the Day encapsulates a theory and a practice of narrative that contrast with de Man's and yet do not add up to a purely innovative and identifiable postmodernism.2 Bowen's text is infused with modernist assumptions about narrative, but at the same time it is constructed out of a suspenseful debate with them. Postmodernism may be only a mistaken name for the suspense. It may be mistaken because its proponents want to claim under its banner an utterly new state of affairs.

Linda Hutcheon appears not to join their ranks when in her widely cited Poetics of Postmodernism she professes her “typically postmodernist” acceptance of the idea that postmodernism both does and doesn't continue modernism.3 But, very different from Jameson's, her acceptance is perfunctory; its effects on her argument last no more than a few pages. In the rest of the text, glib generalizations drive apart past and present. We read (typically indeed) of “the hermetic ahistoric formalism and aestheticism that characterized much of the art and theory of the … modernist period”; in contrast to the evasive “much,” and in contrast to an alleged modernist terror of history, postmodernism starkly “has chosen to face [history] straight on.” A symptom of Hutcheon's preference for distinct boundary drawing is that she can give herself up to concluding assertions like the following: “A set of problems and basic issues … have been created by … postmodernism, issues that were not particularly problematic before but certainly are now” (88, 224). But the issues referred to, especially the ones about art's relation to history, were as certainly perplexing to Victorians and modernists as to anyone else. Moreover, despite stressing the exclusively “problematic” concerns of postmodernism, Hutcheon reduces problems to mere slogans. What thinking or feeling feels like under their impact is anesthetized. That Hutcheon can speak of facing history straight on and that she can make her thought itself a matter of typically postmodernist choices project postmodernism as an unprecedented free resolve always to identify and to face up to difficulties. In its breezy intellectual freedom, this is a coarsely self-assured narrative of cultural change, after all. In contrast, there is nothing glib or confident in The Heat of the Day's way of instancing narrative and of picturing what it is like to face history. Unlike the critic, the novelist suggests that her readers, no less than her characters, are caught up inside a narrative motion that unsettles certainties—certainties about the differences that define cultural eras and above all (as we shall see) certainties about the ability and value of making free choices, especially where choices and gender conflicts bear on each other.

There are unsettling certainties as well as uncertainties in Bowen's narrative. But to come to terms with the full effects of either modernist or nonmodernist narrative in her, one needs to compare and contrast her with a purer modernist norm. De Man's peremptory, full-throated modernism provides us with an up-to-date measure. Jameson's intuition ties de Man to Rilke's modernist “reinstatement of the primacy of literary and poetic language” (255). However, it stops short of a link to narrative, which would have to address the modernist assumption that story and history—narrative in general—are stumbling blocks to awareness. This assumption consolidates and gives a newly central place to similar nineteenth-century doubts. In high modernism, because of its central distrust of narrative, a new artistic pride of place is accorded a shift from narrative as a unity of diverse components to narrative as—at best—a series of unresolvable incoherences and disjunctions. (We will see the shift operating in The Heat of the Day, especially where it is influenced by the pure modernism of Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway.) The “scandal” of de Man—of his work rather than his wartime life—repeats for us not only the general aesthetic, political, and moral shocks of modernism (and the possible collaboration between modernism and fascism that surfaces in Pound and Wyndham Lewis) but the specific modernist attacks on narrative as a trustworthy mode of experience and thought. Even de Man's revival of allegory, a patently narrative form, is, I propose, actually the most old-fashioned and the most vital recent episode in modernism's undermining of story and history.

De Man wanted his famous early essay “The Rhetoric of Temporality” to be an aggression against trust in the Romantic idea of the symbol. Since the unifying romantic symbol produces instantaneous revelations, it is antagonistic to the extensions of time and the divarications of meaning in narrative. Asserting that “time is the … constitutive category” of allegory, and that the allegorical sign can “consist only in the repetition … of a previous sign with which it can never coincide,” de Man emphasizes temporal sequence and extension as the essence of a story.4 Time, spacing out similar things and meanings, differentiates rather than joins them. Allegory, as de Man sees it, is a mark of an inevitable gap and difference between signs and meanings—a gap that can't be closed by either language or experience. In his later work de Man finds the absence of complementary coincidings in discourse or experience the result less of temporality than of an irreconcilable conflict between logic and language. But his emphasis on the absence of coinciding phenomena remains fixed. Hence he sees the essence of allegory—the noncoincidence of sign and meaning, of logic and language—everywhere, and so he sees narrative, of an allegorical kind, in whatever we say, think, and do.

It appears, then, that de Man restores narrative to a place of privilege modernism refuses to allow. But our first impression is wrong. Narrative, considered as allegory, is a sequence of disjunctions. Consequently, for de Man, wherever narrative represents sequence as continuity and unity, it lends itself to delusive imitations of the Romantic symbol. “The Rhetoric of Temporality” exclaims that novels are “caught with the truly perverse assignment” of bringing together temporal and structural elements, which de Man believes necessarily resist conjunction (Blindness, 226). De Man always opposes narrative's or history's claim to discover continuity and unity inhering in different and disjunct elements. After “The Rhetoric of Temporality,” de Man also subverts sequence: the chronological element on which stories depend. Sequence, he insists, is not a matter of before and after. Instead, it is a forced, tricky effect of metaphor. In the finale of “Pascal's Allegory of Persuasion,” de Man declares: “The (ironic) pseudo-knowledge of [the] impossibility [of homogeneous structural and logical continuities] pretends to order sequentially, in a narrative, what is actually the destruction of all sequence. [This] is what we call allegory.”5 No wonder the novel appears to de Man to have a perverse assignment. Narrative is what de Man designates as “truly perverse.” In this designation I locate a characteristically modernist antinarrative turn.

The sentence I have quoted (and tried to clarify with brackets) illustrates an essence of de Man's thought and style. De Man always insists that he is dealing with unqualified opposites: no sequence and all sequence, pretense and reality, impossibility and actuality, pseudo-knowledge and authentic knowledge. Abstract formal and semantic antonyms are a model for what de Man analyzes and how he analyzes it. In his treatment of disjunctions, he slides into representing them as oppositions. Whatever intellectual stimulus he provides comes from his making us think in terms of mutually exclusive logics and rhetorics. Novelistic narrative is to be understood either as symbol (an illusory understanding) or as allegory (the correct view). There is no in-between except as a perversion. The “lurid figures” Neil Hertz speaks of in de Man's prose (for example, de Man describes Shelley's metaphors as “violent” and “deadly”)6 are, I suggest, the surface elaborations of a deeper commitment to thinking in lurid oppositions. Curiously, we associate de Man with Derrida and with deconstruction, which suspends and subverts fixed binarisms and reminds us that oppositions, because they inhere in each other, are not purely opposite or disjunctive. But unlike Derrida, de Man makes us forget that the inherence matters. For him, and for us whenever we read in his light, narrative appears to be by its very nature a structure of lurid oppositions.

Following Elizabeth Bowen's lead, in contrast to de Man I propose that narrative may by its nature loosen the hold that oppositions and incompatibilities have on us. But de Man's version of narrative is part and parcel of modernism's program. Even formalist and structuralist narratologies show their modernist origin in the way they reduce stories to binary oppositions. Bowen already knows de Man's arguments, so to speak, because she inherits and incorporates modernism. Any reading of her narrative as an alternative to purely modernist practice must be prefaced by a response to the way The Heat of the Day embodies what it debates.

Undoubtedly the novel associates modernist narrative with separate parts disjunctively opposed to each other. Its story about life in London during the Second World War is divided between Stella, a War Office worker in love with Robert Kelway, a colleague who she does not know is a Nazi agent; and Louie, a young working-class woman whose husband is away in the army. The main characters and their stories intersect only once, in chapter 12, the novel's center. Because, under the impact of such disjunction, narrative becomes hard to follow, the significance of Stella and Louie's encounter is uncertain. Their chance meeting suggests that only the contingent binding of the text motivates the women's ties, that their stories do not otherwise cohere. Robert Harrison, an English spy who forces his attentions upon Stella by revealing her lover's treachery, and who also accidentally brings Louie into her path, is arguably like the author, because he interconnects the opposed narrative units by arbitrary, coercive means. And since the spy's attempt at forcibly connecting things ends in the breakup of Stella's love affair, the failure of his own erotic designs on her, and the irrelevance of Louie's intrusion, the disjoining function of the author figure is emphasized. One can see that this breakup of conjunctions, the mark of Bowen's antinarrative modernism, derives from Mrs. Dalloway, in which the stories of Clarissa and the insane ex-soldier Septimus Smith are bound together even though the two characters do not know each other and never meet. Woolf's text solicits the reader, like Clarissa herself (who by accident hears about Smith's suicide), to impose on their nonmeeting a meaning that the text's own disjunctiveness opposes.

Bowen's use of disjunction in form and content lends itself to the de Manian idea that narrative is only an illusion of continuity, essentially an allegory, a forced yoking together of disparate and opposite elements. In a crucial passage in chapter 10 Bowen's novel elucidates the “day” of its title and names the narrative we call history as both the novel's guide and as the lovers'. Stella and Kelway, sitting at dinner, apparently alone, are actually accompanied and directed by history, the third party to their affair. Both the passage's form—a sudden, striking intrusion by the authorial voice—and its content will be seen to correspond with de Manian ideas:

But they were not alone, nor had they been from the start, from the start of love. Their time sat in the third place at their table. They were the creatures of history, whose coming together was of a nature possible in no other day—the day was inherent in the nature. Which must have been always true of lovers, if it had taken till now to be seen. The relation of people to one another is subject to the relation of each to time, to what is happening. If this has not been always felt—and as to that who is to know?—it has begun to be felt, irrevocably. On from now, every moment, with more and more of what had been “now” behind it, would be going on adding itself to the larger story. Could these two have loved each other better at a better time? At no other would they have been themselves; what had carried their world to its hour was in their bloodstreams. The more imperative the love, the deeper its draft on beings, till it has taken up all that ever went to their making, and according to what it draws on its nature is. In dwelling upon the constant for our reassurance, we forget that the loves in history have been agonizingly modern loves in their day. War at present worked as a thinning of the membrane between the this and the that, it was a becoming apparent—but then what else is love?

[The narrator goes on to say that to love is to live “under a compulsion.” “Under what compulsion, what?” The answer is indirectly given in the final sentence of this two-paragraph interjection: “To have turned away from everything to one face is to find oneself face to face with everything.”]7

If we read in a de Manian light, we first notice that the narrator's voice, arriving out of nowhere and breaking the narrative sequence, imposes by violent fiat history's presence—the meaning of the scene. By forcing cognition upon text and reader via an assertive performance, by paradoxically declaring a revelation about what in life is claimed to be fundamental and inherent (why then does it need revelation?), the voice exemplifies the disjunction dear to de Man. Moreover, although the revelation purports to close gaps between appearances and their meanings, the narrator is actually severing it from truth. Coming after a scene in which Kelway has denied to Stella that he is a Nazi spy, the revelation now collaborates in his deception of the still-unwitting reader. The narrative discloses only that there is more here than meets the eye, not that the third place is occupied by an inescapable Nazi agency in specific, no less than by historical time in general. Because the narrative double-crosses the truth, it becomes itself double, with two opposite meanings. It allegorizes: its lying stands for the truth disjoined from it; its truth telling stands for the lie it hides. The narrative's facing of truth is, we can say, a “de-facing” (one of de Man's favorite lurid figures), because it is caught up antithetically—allegorically—in Kelway's lying. At such crucial moments, the texture that Bowen's modernism gives her narrative corroborates de Man.

But de Manian ideas and the pure de Manian modernism are not the whole story; The Heat of the Day also pursues “a thinning of the membrane between the this and the that.” Bowen's plot does not thicken simply by cultivating disjunctive opposites; we must also read the narrative as struggling against self-identification with allegory and disjunctive utterances. The narrator's acquaintance with history as a thing not opposed to intimate sensation means that history is not allegory, because it pervades us; it is inherent, not imposed. Even Bowen's characteristic ungainly phrasing—“on from now, every moment”—results from her habit of ruining or muting oppositions, even at the level of syntax. Moreover, the narrative voice's declarative agency collapses into fumbling stupidity: “Under what compulsion, what?” The voice's initial assertiveness may well be not opposed to but twinned, from the start, by dull passivity. The agencies of love and history work, it seems, in an absence of the distance and the difference between antithetical meanings. Lurid oppositions are only the chance configuration taken by things that are disturbingly alike.

The character who most typifies history and narrative in The Heat of the Day is Louie. She becomes the third party both to Stella and Robert Kelway and to Stella and Robert Harrison, the informer. The passage about how the lovers' historical era “sat in the third place at their table” prefigures another dinner date in the novel's great twelfth chapter, when the third place between Stella and Harrison is intrusively taken by Louie. Thus the later scene, which wears the membrane between Stella's and Louie's stories to the thinnest, seats Louie where the earlier passage situates the figure and the face of everything. Louie arrives there because she has lost her way looking for a blind date, but she also arrives by a deliberate (and silly) series of lies. Through her, Bowen suggests that we might expect history—our history, at least—and narrative, too, to act stupidly and blindly, calculatingly and deceptively, all at once, in a way that makes us recognize the disjunction and opposition among motives and actions, but doesn't solidify or reify their disjunction and opposition. De Man's modernism does reify them.

Of course, if we claim that Louie typifies or best describes history or narrative in the novel, we may be playing into de Manian hands. For de Man, typification suggests the triumph of allegory, and description suggests the illusion of attempts (such as the realist novel's and traditional history writing's) to fuse performative acts of language with descriptions of the world. He would be quick to “binarize,” to show as intractable, the oppositional and allegorical nature of these elements. But Bowen uses scenes like Louie's meeting with Stella to show how story and history break down our trusted oppositions. Thus she both owes a debt to and stands apart from Woolf, who in Mrs. Dalloway lays an essential modernist emphasis (the principal artistic and intellectual excitement of the novel) on the heterogeneity and contingency of narrative elements, but whose narrative, such as it is, solidifies their disjunction. All momentary unities—for example, Clarissa's sympathetic response when she hears of the ex-soldier's death—evaporate.

To be sure, Woolf's avowed intention was to show the interconnections of persons and things deep below the surface of gaping separations and “to criticize the social system” that might after all create the gaps.8 This avowal has been the sympathetic object of recent criticism. Alex Zwerdling knits the novel's elements together so that they unitedly picture the determining powers and blindnesses of England's postwar ruling class. Even Septimus's madness, for Zwerdling, only looks like an antithesis to the governing-class spirit; in fact, Zwerdling finds, Smith's mental distortions prove him a mirror match of ruling-class distortions of the world.9 Zwerdling asserts a tightly woven sociological thematics as the vehicle of the novel's unity. But his redaction of the narrative leaves out any understanding of Woolf's choice, pace her avowals, to wager the novel's originality on her disruption of formal unity through a mimesis of contingency. Zwerdling must finally confront this disruption in the character of Clarissa, who he admits is “made up of distinct layers that do not interpenetrate” (139). But there is little reason not to admit the same for the narrative itself.

The experiment of Mrs. Dalloway is intended, I submit, to inspire readers to resist how critical storytelling like Zwerdling's does not just retell the novel but positively forces Woolf's deliberately separated elements into one or another unified set of meanings. When “dominators and tyrants,” each “the giant figure at the end of the ride,” rise up from Woolf's text, the narrative does not always motivate their appearance by assigning them to text-unifying, character-bound focalizers; moreover, by their intrusive nature, such allegories—even when named Proportion, Conversion, Empire, Emigration, or Emancipation—deface sociological realism.10 But without allegory, the text suggests, there is neither realism nor reality. In disruptive allegorizing resides Woolf's own proto-de Manian understanding that narrative (so called) is the arbitrary forcing of an illusory meaning and coherence upon ineluctably disjoined and opposed elements. Like the allegorical figures, Septimus's inability to fit in or be “naturally” coherent keeps faith with modernism better than Zwerdling's criticism.

Zwerdling would find more support in Bowen than in Woolf for his intention to see narrative disjunctions become narrative and historical unities. A characteristic disjunction in Woolf's novel is the nonmeeting of Clarissa and Septimus's harried Italian war bride, Rezia. Bowen's Louie revises Rezia. The meeting that Bowen stages between Stella and Louie joins what Woolf keeps apart. Though the ties between the two women are the merest threads, there is also an unmistakable solidarity between them. In spite of the contingencies of history, their individual and class differences fuse into sudden similarity: they are creatures of a collective experience of world war that makes them startlingly alike. Writing before the Second World War brought the world back into uncanny union with the state in which it had existed during the First, Woolf newly envisioned history itself as the perennial disruption that facilitates allegory. Writing after modernism and the Great War and yet still abreast of both, Bowen newly envisions history and the Second World War as an uncanny union of opposite and disjunct things.

Unlike allegory, narrative for Bowen is a form of telling that allows us to feel the full impact of elemental contingency and heterogeneity and at the same time the solidarity among contingent and heterogeneous elements. In “Shelley Disfigured,” de Man says that when and where “we cannot tell the difference between sameness and difference,” we find ourselves in “an unbearable condition of indetermination which has to be repressed” (51). But just what is this unbearable condition? Certainly it is not the state constituted by lurid opposites. They, presumably, are bearable as well as determinate. De Man prefers the wars of his antitheses to the unbearable sameness between opposite or different entities. For Bowen, narrative and history comprise the odd condition in which we perceive difference and disjunction and yet cannot tell sameness from difference or continuity from rupture. It is narrative which de Man, on the other hand, thinks of as the unbearable condition that has to be repressed. The encounter between Louie and Stella, even Bowen's treatment of the setting, illustrates the combined differences and absence of differences that constitute story and history. “There survived in here not one shadow”; the narrator emphasizes “the seeing of everybody else by everybody else with … awful nearness and clearness” (232). Bowen makes even the minor actors stand out in the hot glare of the restaurant, as if to articulate their stark separateness and their power as agents of detection and description. Yet collectively they are also obscure and passive. Those who do the scrutinizing are themselves under scrutiny, as the impenetrable merged objects of their own detection. Like all the others, Louie is on both sides of the divide: she is a lone agent who manipulates Stella and Harrison and, without knowing them, even describes them to themselves; but she is also a faceless member of the chorus, an unintending, inarticulate, opaque blunderer on the scene. We cannot tell finally if her opposite traits are different things or the same thing. As narrative and history make their way through fields of oppositions, they have, Bowen suggests, the same mixed character and the same effect on us that Louie does. Narrative is the necessary third term standing among and beyond oppositional constructions.

The certain discovery of the historical third term everywhere is disturbing. Most importantly, it disturbs—and makes uncertain—our understanding of choice, which is an essential concern of de Man's modernism and which is intimately tied to his antinarrative idea of allegory. It is one of our cultural conventions to see the Second World War as an arena of necessary and free choice in which we still must take sides and be sure that we have not chosen to collaborate with or to love the wrong parties. De Man's case shows how fixed the convention is. No immediate American issue engages our ideology of free choice more intensely than the rise and fall of Nazism. Although after the war de Man was exonerated by the Belgians who punished collaborators, American critics have fallen into partisan furor about his guilt, probably because all us partisans—pro and con—subscribe to his luridly oppositional cast of mind. American commentators (conditioned to reenact the Second World War as a drama of absolute free choice) insist that de Man should be judged in a framework of violently antithetical alternatives. What side did he choose? Any narrative of his life, and of his actual exoneration by his postwar peers, is unacceptable unless it is an allegory (a de Manian allegory!) of radically free ethical agency.

There is an affinity between de Man's theory of ethics and the academic furor over the revelation that he, along with his countrymen, submitted to Belgium's Nazi conquerors. Before returning to The Heat of the Day, in which Bowen ties her sense of narrative not only to history but to the novel's picture of agency and ethical choice, we need to look at how the lurid oppositions of the latter-day modernist de Man involves his idea of narrative with his idea of ethics.

De Man's followers trace the ethics in his literary criticism to one of his founding lurid oppositions: logic or motivated meaning versus groundless arbitrariness.11 According to him, every performance of meaning—what we do with words, in contrast to what the words describe—is rooted in an absence of logical or naturally given motivation. Since de Man sees meaning and logic as unmotivated and therefore as violent impositions upon meaninglessness and illogic, he sees language itself as a violent positing agency. The violence of imposition—of sign upon sign, thought upon thought, event upon event—then creates the sequences, and the destruction of all sequences, consistent with allegory. “The positing power of language is both entirely arbitrary … and entirely inexorable,” de Man writes in “Shelley Disfigured” (62). Translated into ethical terms, this means that we have complete freedom of choice, because choice partakes of the violent freedom in language's impositional agency. We also have no choice but to be the free agents of language's violence. Moreover, since ethical power and language are based on the same arbitrariness, any choice (moral or linguistic) is paradoxically groundless. Independent of truth, fidelity, and principle, ethics is inevitably a clash of subjective assertions driven by an impositional force that has no external measure or reference point. Choice, then, is a kind of allegory: the ethical act can consist only in a violence of position with which signs of the act—and reasons for it—can never coincide.

Bowen gives us quite another narrative or picture of choice. Ironically, the Nazi Kelway, who cannot bear ethical dilemmas caused by the inability to distinguish sameness from difference, most nearly approaches the viewpoint of de Man and his judges. The dilemmas appear when The Heat of the Day exhibits the choosing as a process at once free and constrained, active and passive, because choices are determined by historical and cultural contexts and contingencies. Unable to cope with the mixture, frustrated by checks on his decisional violence (as a de Manian might say), Kelway betrays his country.

Stella is sadly amazed by how Kelway's pursuit of his own agency has separated him from his life with others. Bowen laments his denial of cultural and national historical dependence upon England: “Rolled round with rocks and stones and trees—what else is one?—was this not felt most strongly in the quietus of the embrace? … [Stella] could not believe [that she and her lover] had not … drawn on the virtue of what was around them” (274). Metonymy, which asserts a likeness between different and contiguous things, draws on—is influenced by—the virtue and the power of context. De Man treats metonymy as the sign of the contingency and arbitrariness of contiguous contexts, just as he treats ethical choice as the expression of arbitrariness or contingency of will. A de Manian ethics motivates Kelway's attitude toward his historical, national, and cultural environment. Considering himself an impositional force independent of any determining ground (of any national, collective history, of “the virtue peculiar to where they were” [Bowen, 275]), he combats what he takes to be the chance contiguity of national context and history with an equally arbitrary counterassertiveness. In contrast, although Stella thinks that she and Kelway have actively and freely drawn their volition and power from their cultural milieu, she also thinks their national culture has moved them inextricably into allegiance with it. Historical and cultural context has limited their freedom to be arbitrary and groundless. Bowen justifies Stella's inability to accept Kelway's version of the full-throated modernist's positing power, which sunders and dislocates itself from contexts to live out an allegory of freedom. (A version of this separation of freedom from the constraints of context appears in de Man's actual life, in his internationalist way of being at home anywhere and nowhere and in his erasure of his influential Belgian history.) Through Kelway, Bowen suggests, finally, that unqualified freedom of choice, far from being a bulwark against fascism, is actually on a continuum with it.

Bowen implies that it is impossible either to participate in or to know the narrative called history if we do not recognize that it somehow deprives us of free agency. History and choice express both volition and ethical and political constraint. As Paul Ricoeur says (following Marx), “We are only the agents of history inasmuch as we also suffer it.”12 This paradox inextricable from history and Bowen's version of narrative is poignantly unsettling because it affects the novel's judgments about Kelway's alliance with Nazism and about English women's power of choice between the two world wars. Where Kelway is concerned, Stella and the narrative shock American assumptions about how Nazis and their collaborators should be portrayed and judged. Kelway's revelation of his political treachery to Stella breaks their connection by hollowing out their intimacy; yet he “was right,” the narrative says, about one thing: that “it was not for … [her] to judge him” (277). His vaunted freedom of choice is also passivity. The narrative patiently corroborates Kelway's impatient hypothesis that the war has both an active and a passive side and that it can be seen as “just so much bloody quibbling about some thing that's predecided itself” (282). After his last meeting with Stella (we cannot tell if they decided to make it the last), Kelway dies. Is his death a suicide or an accident? The narrative refuses to decide for us; it chooses to make no choice. Are choice and no choice different things or the same thing? Here, we see, the narrative continues its life as a form of not telling the difference between sameness and difference.

Calling our dilemma unbearable, as de Man does, makes sense especially when it means not judging Nazi collaboration: if narrative can be this morally uncertain, it is no wonder that we want to oppose its hold on us and submit its form to logical and ethical rectification. Bowen's narrative is no more bearable in relation to gender issues. However much it debates pure modernism, it shocks our value systems in the same way as modernism proper. The Heat of the Day expresses perplexingly mixed attitudes to woman's volition. It shows that their withdrawal from choice has made life bleak for English women across thirty years of world war. Stella has lost her brothers and (in effect) her husband to the First World War; now she loses her lover to the Second, just as her son is about to be sent to the front. Louie, young enough to be Stella's daughter, is of the second generation of war-deprived women. Her parents have already been killed in an air raid; then the husband with whom she has barely settled in is called by the army to the Continent and also killed. Louie's son by a passing stranger will be almost as much an orphan as she herself is. Side by side, the two women represent a long nullification of female lives. Sufferers of history to the same extent as they are its agents, the women of The Heat of the Day suffer it indeed. In a contemporary American context, contemplation of their suffering is hard. Since my position on abortion is pro-choice, I find Bowen's depiction of the uncertainty of women's agency very troubling (and her not judging Kelway exceedingly so). Whether or not Bowen herself is troubled by what she shows, she ends the novel happily, on a note of calm cheer. Stella is to marry again, and Louie is a content unwed mother. The women weather their long day's extremity. Yet the renewal of their lives does not involve clear-cut will.

A history of socially determined gender differences goes a good way toward explaining Bowen's perplexing presentation, but it is not the full explanation. Free will is not an ethical ideal or natural right in Bowen but a historically changing construct, tainted by male interests and traditions. Women are caught in a viselike predicament. They pursue an ideology of freedom, a de Manian decisional violence more “natural” to male than to female history, which in effect belongs to the enemy both at home and abroad. A similar idea of the enemy's omnipresence occurs in Woolf's Three Guineas: “Behind us lies the patriarchal system; before us lies the public world. … Each is bad.” The solution, Woolf proposes, is an Outsider's Society, whose female members' conduct fuses choice with passivity, public initiative with “complete indifference” to male traditions of public activism. Seeing Bowen's presentation of choice as a variation of Woolf's “To be passive is to be active” helps clarify Bowen's depiction of women's ethical life.13 At the same time, it negates an appearance of misogyny in the text. Kelway's attraction to the ethics of fascist Germany, we are told, stems from shame inherited from his father over lost male freedom and decisiveness: the English male “has so lost caste” by “pleas[ing] and appeas[ing] middle-class ladies” (257). Since Stella is a middle-class lady, Bowen's tone is worrisome, especially when we couple it with her unattractive portrayal of Kelway's mother and sister. Of all the novel's women, the Kelways are the freest to choose and direct their lives, yet Bowen clearly doesn't like them. Is it possible that Bowen so closely identifies with Robert Kelway and with male caste against middle-class ladies that she not only is antifeminist but also can suspend her judgment of the Nazi collaborator? But another possibility is more plausible. The Kelway women need Robert's presence whenever they have a crucial decision to make, for example, to sell the family house. They are still dependent on their men, so their power of choice is illusory. But more authentic freedom of choice isn't the solution. Bowen's frostiness toward middle-class ladies comes from the perception that increased decisional power will not resolve gender conflict.

There is a muted, compromised version of free choice that seems to belong exclusively to women between the wars. At one point Stella recognizes that “her kind”—women—“knew no choices, made no decisions,” but her woeful insight is almost reversed, as if the narrative cannot make a forthright assertion even about the fact of women's deprivation. Stella's kind makes no choices about “meaning” and “knowledge”—but “knowledge was not to be kept from them; it … reached them by intimations—they suspected what they refused to prove. That had been their decision” (174). Women between the wars have a form of indefinite knowledge and choice. Their mode of decision mutes the antithesis between what is done and not done, what is known and not known. Suffering—and internalizing—the repression of agency, women have found a compensatory way to avoid seeing the world in the light of lurid oppositions. Kelway (and, presumably, the Nazis) have made the world a holocaust because they insist on seeing nationality, gender, race—all things—as lurid oppositions; because they refuse to suffer and internalize their awareness that agency is not the pure antithesis of patience.

We come here to the limit of explaining The Heat of the Day in terms of the history of gender and political oppositions. Harriet Chessman argues that both Louie and Bowen have difficulties with language because there is a female nature that resists a male-centered “power to represent and define.”14 I disagree, insofar as Chessman implies that narrative is a product of male coercive powers of representation and definition. Chessman would situate the reading of Bowen on a de Manian theoretical site where narrative is pitted against nonnarrative and male against female, without qualification. The story of Stella and Louie would be the story of purely will-less women victimized by men, the sole possessors of activity and choice.15

Bowen suggests instead that by virtue of being women her Stellas and Louies have led lives that make it hard to tell if activity and passivity, choice and no choice, are different or the same; but she also suggests that by virtue of being women her heroines represent what history and narrative are, in our century, for women and men alike. Chessman's reading accurately derives from the aspects of the narrative in which Bowen engages the gender antitheses (female silence versus male eloquence, for example) that belong to the convergence of feminism with modernism.16 But Bowen tests and subdues these antitheses also. The compromised version of free choice is revealed by women's experience but only appears to belong to them exclusively. Bowen shows Stella's son Roderick knowing and acting in the same muted way as his mother—and in the same inarticulate way as Louie. Roderick's decision to revive the Irish estate where he was conceived blends with his irresoluteness in interpreting the will of the cousin who has bequeathed it to him. The will never receives a preferred meaning, so early on (in chapter 4) the perplexing of choice is forecast as the historical matrix and the historical future of modern men and women alike. Roderick shapes his future by submitting his initiative about the inheritance to a latter-day madwoman in the attic, his cousin's widow. The plot suggests that a man can have a womb of his own if he conforms in conduct to a female example. Male or female, however, consciousness, decision, and conduct all conform to narrative's unsettling character.

Stella has long lived a lie about her role in the failure of her early marriage. She did not leave her husband after the First World War. The public story says otherwise, and Stella may have allowed it to persist because it assigns “her kind” an unqualified freedom to act and choose. But history is stranger than this fiction. At the end of the novel Roderick gropes toward a formulation of his mother's—and Bowen's—story:

If there's something that is to be said, won't it say itself? Or mayn't you come to imagine it has been said, even without your knowing what exactly it was? … Robert's dying of what he did will not always be there, won't last like a book or picture: by the time one is able to understand it will be gone, it just won't be there to be judged. Because, I suppose art is the only thing that can go on mattering once it has stopped hurting?


Roderick's vagueness appears almost idiotic, and the reticence and ambiguity of the very object of discussion are staggering, but they nonetheless express narrative's (and art's?) essential way of mattering precisely by confusing activity and passivity, determinacy and indeterminacy.

“We forget that the loves in history have been agonizingly modern loves in their day.” The distinction of Bowen's novel, its claim on critical attention, is its powerful demonstration that the careers of love are agonizing because they belong to history and therefore to narrative as Bowen instances it: they belong to the narrative network of distinctions and disjunctions that is simultaneously a network of likenesses and continuities; they belong to the sequence of choices and decisions that undoes both. In making palpable the difficulties that narrative raises for logical articulation and for morality and politics, The Heat of the Day embodies narrative as a problem which it perhaps is by nature. Modernism expresses recognition of the problem in its distaste for narrative.

But in assigning Bowen to modernism, I have suggested that she defies narrow (and peremptory) understandings of the term. If, as Hutcheon's Poetics of Postmodernism concludes, postmodernism “problematizes” everything in an unprecedented way, why could it not enlist Bowen's novel of 1949 for the emphatic presentation of narrative and history as problematic checks on awareness and action? Unconscious of the literary-historical irony of her argument, however, Hutcheon tends to assign pride of place to disjunction and opposition. Claiming Foucault as a central postmodernist muse, she strikes a note of certainty and celebration in response to his opposing one thing to another. In Foucault, Hutcheon writes approvingly, “contradictions displace totalities; discontinuities, gaps and ruptures are favored in opposition to continuity, development, evolution” (97). It sounds to me only like pure modernism—and de Man. It does not sound radically, uniformly postmodern, and it does not sound like Bowen, for it is only half of the story of Bowen's version of story.

Bowen's bizarre description of the effects of the 1940 blitz on London life emphasizes, and at the same time narrows, the lurid gap between the living and the dead. “Most of all the dead … made their anonymous presence—not as today's dead but as yesterday's living—felt through London. … They continued to move in shoals through the city day—for death cannot be so sudden as all that.” Indeed, “the wall between the living and the dead thinned” (91-92). The description is cryptic not just because of its content but because Bowen uses content to project narrative's and history's double natures, their distinction (in this case) between the quick and the dead and their simultaneous “thinning” of the distinction. Literary history always has to face and bear such an uncanny confluence. Yet the quick also want to oppose the dead. Hutcheon, unavowedly pursuing a modernist muse that she claims to have passed away, hides and buries the bodies that subvert the difference of historical eras she openly avows. She mentions Beckett and Nabokov only once, and just in passing—perhaps because Murphy (1938) and The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1939) have all the characteristics of fiction Hutcheon assigns exclusively to fiction of the last twenty-five years.17 Narratives that rely on lurid oppositions—and, in the end, Hutcheon's is one of them—continue to have a high prestige among us, but they also have their intellectual weaknesses and embarrassments. The sense of narrative that, like Bowen's, takes the oppositions in stride yet also involves them in their own demise admits the embarrassments as signs of the inevitable, hard-to-bear nature of narrative and history alike. Jameson's narrative of postmodernism is more trustworthy than Hutcheon's, because it is amenable to bearing more complexity than either a high modernist or a high postmodernist narrative form permits. It is also amenable to bearing the inability to choose between the alternatives. As such, Jameson's sense of narrative gratifyingly illustrates one of the not so full-throated “various modernisms,” of which Bowen is a remarkable instance.


  1. Jameson, Postmodernism; or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1992), 302.

  2. It is worth suggesting that Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, an exemplary candidate for any definition of postmodernism, derives partly from Bowen's works inspired by the Second World War, especially the “ghost” stories—“Mysterious Kôr,” “The Demon Lover,” “The Happy Autumn Fields”—which she produced at the same time as The Heat of the Day. Such a specific influence needs to be supplemented, however, by a sadly lacking general exploration of the impact of the Second World War on English and American narrative forms.

  3. Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction (New York: Routledge, 1988), 51-52.

  4. De Man, Blindness and Insight (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), 207.

  5. De Man, “Pascal's Allegory of Persuasion,” in Allegory and Representation, ed. Stephen J. Greenblatt (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981), 23.

  6. Hertz, “Lurid Figures,” in Reading de Man Reading, ed. Lindsay Waters and Wlad Godzich (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), 82; de Man, “Shelley Disfigured,” in Deconstruction and Criticism, by Harold Bloom et al. (New York: Seabury, 1979), 64.

  7. Bowen, The Heat of the Day (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1962), 194-95.

  8. The Diary of Virginia Woolf, ed. Anne Olivier Bell, with Andrew McNeillie, vol. 2 (London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977-84), 263, 248.

  9. Zwerdling, Virginia Woolf and the Real World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 132-33.

  10. Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1953), 17, 85, 151, 165, 275. Woolf determines her readers' response to the obvious allegorical figures in the novel in a way that demands general meditation on the shaping role of allegory in her realism, first by exhibiting Mrs. Dalloway's imagination of Miss Kilman as an allegory-like giant spectral form (16-17), and then by reinvoking such a form (85ff). The focalizer of the second form is an unknown “solitary traveller,” disjoined from the rest of the text. The traveler's bizarre appearance also has no immediate dramatic or psychological motive. Later, when named allegorical figures appear in the novel, the reader is recalled to pages 85ff. in order to think about how allegorical figures, and their constituent signifiers and signifieds, are themselves solitary, separate travelers. Allegorical signs and their referents are brought together only by a forceful imposition of conjunction and meaning. Mrs. Dalloway herself becomes a giant allegorical form, whose meaning at the end of her ride is more difficult to read than critics admit.

  11. See especially J. Hillis Miller, The Ethics of Reading: Kant, de Man, Eliot, Trollope, James, and Benjamin (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987), and essays by Miller (“‘Reading’ Part of a Paragraph in Allegories of Reading”) and by Werner Hamacher (“Lectio: De Man's Imperative”) in Reading de Man Reading. I have made another attempt to weigh de Man's narrative theory in relation to his followers' ideas about de Man's ethics in “‘A Pathos of Uncertain Agency’: Paul de Man and Narrative,” Journal of Narrative Technique 20 (1990): 195-209.

  12. Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, vol. 3 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 216.

  13. Woolf, Three Guineas (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1966), 74, 107, 119.

  14. Chessman, “Women and Language in the Fiction of Elizabeth Bowen,” in British Modernist Fiction, 1920 to 1945, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House, 1986), 302.

  15. In her excellent doctoral dissertation on Bowen, Renée C. Hoogland criticizes Phyllis Lassner's Elizabeth Bowen (London: Macmillan Education, 1990) for reading The Heat of the Day in a way that “reasserts and validates women's exclusion from symbolic power” (“From Marginality to Ex-centricity” [University of Amsterdam, 1991], 144 n. 22). Hoogland's comprehensive and delicate reading steers clear of the hazard. My account and hers diverge insofar as she emphasizes Stella's story as a process of “increased gender-consciousness” (124) and “potentially redemptive self-awareness” (142). I emphasize not Stella's character but the narrative's.

  16. See the highly debatable discussion of patrius sermo in Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century, vol. 1 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988), chap. 5.

  17. A proper list of the omissions that enable Hutcheon's arguments would be very long. It might well have to begin with Robert Louis Stevenson, whose work instances everything described in Hutcheon's chapter 8, “Intertextuality, Parody, and the Discourses of History.” There are no index entries in Hutcheon for Roussel, Stein, or Duchamp. Hutcheon's omission of Nathanael West, Flann O'Brien, and Aldous Huxley especially abet her exaggeration of the “certainly” new and “problematic” innovations of the 1960s and after.

Anne M. Wyatt-Brown (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: Wyatt-Brown, Anne M. “The Liberation of Mourning in Elizabeth Bowen's The Little Girls and Eva Trout.” In Aging and Gender in Literature: Studies in Creativity, edited by Anne M. Wyatt-Brown and Janice Rossen, pp. 164-86. Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1993.

[In the following excerpt, Wyatt-Brown contends that The Little Girls and Eva Trout, often dismissed by critics due to Bowen's conservative views, are actually nontraditional works of fiction that anticipate the conventions of postmodernism.]

Since her death in 1973, Elizabeth Bowen's formidable novels have not received much attention from theoretically inclined academics. As a result, no one has noted that her final two works, The Little Girls and Eva Trout, move the novel in the direction of postmodern experimentation. The innovations of the Anglo-Irish novelist have been ignored for several reasons. As Howard Moss explained in 1979, “The wrong reputation can be as deadly as none.” For some time the academy has denigrated works belonging in the tradition of the comedy of manners. Such efforts seem snobbish in our egalitarian and ethnically conscious society. Unless evidence of subversion or overtly feminist undertones appears among the social nuances, writers like Bowen are not taken seriously. Her generally conservative political and social attitudes, as John Hildebidle reports, can be inferred by “the frequency and judgmental force with which the word ‘vulgar’ enters into her fiction.” Moreover, those modern critics who do not object to her upper-class prejudices have little understanding of the effect of aging upon her choice of material and style. As a result, they find it difficult to interpret her least traditional fiction.1

Bowen's fiction resists superficial reading. In particular her final two experimental novels, The Little Girls and Eva Trout, which should have attracted the attention of theorists, are so complex that they bewilder even the wariest of readers. One often has the uneasy feeling of being an intruder into Bowen's private world, lost without a guide. Prior critics have attempted to sort out the confusing strains in Bowen's early fiction with some success but have generally have left the later works alone.2

Throughout Bowen's career, the dominant themes in her fiction involve the interaction of marriage and society, the subjects of the comedy of manners. Yet at no point is Bowen's fiction merely conservative or old-fashioned. For example, Hildebidle stresses the conservative, “unmistakable consistency” of her writing but also concludes quite accurately that the novelist's suffering caused her to convert the conventions of social comedy from a comedy of manners to a “modern tragedy of manners.” Bowen's fiction contains at least two contradictory strands: she juxtaposes the asocial and psychotic with the everyday and the ordinary. Like the American novelist Walker Percy, whose middle-class, highly educated characters are “lost in the cosmos”—to borrow the title of one of his books—most of Bowen's adolescents and sensitive adults feel the same way. Indeed, in common with most of the imaginative and innovative practitioners of social comedy in this century—E. M. Forster, Barbara Pym, Molly Keane, Anita Brookner, and Elizabeth Jolley—Bowen concentrates on revealing the fissures in society. Rather than seeking to uphold the status quo, she writes out of a profound sense of her own alienation, an estrangement which can be traced to the losses of her early childhood. Nicholas Royle goes so far as to insist that Bowen's novels are not social at all but “concern the asocial and psychotic.” Drawing on the psychoanalytic work of Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok, he argues that one can find traces of “refused or impossible mourning, unspeakable secrets, and transgenerational hauntings” in all her novels, even in the apparently lighthearted A World of Love.3 As she grew older, Bowen's sense of isolation increased. In consequence, the experimental features of her final novels seem to threaten the existence of social comedy altogether.

The first step toward understanding Bowen's contributions to narrative form is to recognize that particularly her last two novels represent a transitional genre, what Roger Salomon calls “desperate storytelling.” Like the writers in the mock-heroic tradition whose work he examines, Bowen also felt that she was “living beyond or ‘post’ any cultural period” appropriate for the conventions of her chosen genre, traditional social comedy. Yet, for personal reasons, she “still remained committed in some fashion to the values generated by such narrative.”4 Events in her later life encouraged her to transform the conservative conventions of comedy almost beyond recognition.

In view of the complexity of Bowen's work and the effect of aging upon her writing, an interdisciplinary approach is needed to illuminate the final novels. By linking a psychodynamic understanding of depression with the theoretical perspectives of biography and literary gerontology, one can interpret Bowen's experimental novels in a much more favorable light than do critics like Hermione Lee, without losing sight of the author's intricate texture. Although aging, ill health, and depression played an important role in shaping Bowen's later fiction, Lee misses the point when she claims these novels merely illustrate the novelist's “late malaise” and should be dismissed as “symptoms of a predicament,” the result of the “rather unhappy circumstances of Elizabeth Bowen's old age.”5

Instead, Amir Cohen-Shalev recently has suggested that the last works of aging artists (and by implication writers) often arouse inflated expectations in the viewer/critic. When these final works, he suggests, are “too elusive for unequivocal delivery in an established code,” they are often rejected as a symptom of decline. Moreover, Spencer Curtis Brown, Bowen's close friend and literary executor, testifies that in her last years the writer “deliberately sought new techniques and all the excitement of learning to express her own individual music on a new instrument.” She attempted to remove as much of the omniscient narrator as possible, allowing the characters to talk and act without her interpretation. He asserts that the challenge kept her writing vigorous and experimental. Although she wrote about a fallen world, one radically changed from her girlhood, he notes that “her sense of comedy … irradiated the later books even more than the earlier.” Psychiatrist George Vaillant puts the issue well when he says that “anxiety and depression, like blisters and fractures, become the price of a venturesome life.”6

Seen from this perspective, Eva Trout and The Little Girls represent a new direction in Bowen's fiction. They can rightly be seen as the development of a late style rather than as a symptom of malaise. In fact, we can read these final novels as part of Bowen's search for identity, a pursuit one scarcely would expect from a novelist writing in her early sixties. Nonetheless, this is a quest which the critic can share by attempting—as Norman Holland put it—to “develop continuities through both … life and … writing.” Such a reading suggests that Bowen's swan songs have much to teach us about courage near the end of life.7

In order to understand Bowen's accomplishments, one must reassess the very real problems that she faced at several critical points in her personal and professional life. From the beginning to the end, Bowen's experiences blended an unusual mixture of aristocratic privilege and emotional deprivation. When she was young, both her family and her country were besieged by events beyond their control. She descended from an Anglo-Irish family, which had built Bowen's Court in 1775 (BC [Bowen's Court], 161). Neither social prestige, however, nor family inheritance could save her from feeling unprotected as a child. During her youth Ireland itself was torn asunder in the conflict between the indigenous Roman Catholic inhabitants and their Protestant landholders. Bowen's Court survived the Troubles intact. Yet guerrilla tactics shook the confidence of the landed aristocracy, and the Bowens had many an uneasy moment (BC, 439-40).

Moreover, Bowen's personal family life was unmanageably precarious. Henry Bowen, her father, went mad when she was five (BC, 409) and eventually was institutionalized for some years. Her mother was so determinedly oblivious to his state that relatives had to warn her of her husband's increasingly demented condition. Things deteriorated to such an extreme that Bowen found it necessary at the age of six to pursue a “campaign of not noticing” troublesome events around her (BC, 416). Eventually, after two years of reacting to Henry Bowen's illness, Mrs. Bowen decided to move with her daughter to the coast of Kent, where they lived near the mother's “network” of relatives (EB, 24). Despite frequent moves from one “fantasy home” to another—much like the ones Eva Trout attempts to build for her adopted son Jeremy—Bowen and her mother were able to create what the novelist called “pavilions of love” (P&C [Pictures and Conversations], 29).

According to Bowen it was at Kent—the scene where the novel The Little Girls takes place—that she began to discover her sensitivity to and love of landscape (P&C, 7-9), an affection which eventually provided some compensation for the discomfort of the disruptions of her life. Furthermore, in time her father's mental health started to improve, allowing him to visit them. Then in 1912 when Bowen was thirteen, her mother developed cancer and died (BC, 424-25). The girl had no chance to bid her mother farewell. She had been farmed out to a neighbor, a decision that made the child feel superfluous. No doubt the elders thought they were protecting her from the ravages of grief, but the isolation meant that she could not mourn naturally. She cried the first night, but on the day of the funeral, which she was not allowed to attend, she “gave way to an excess of high spirits,” reported the friend with whom she was staying (EB, 27). Afterwards, for many years Bowen “could not remember her [mother], think of her, speak of her or suffer to hear her spoken of” (P&C, 48).

Bowen, Victoria Glendinning asserts, transcended rather than repressed those things that puzzled her.8 According to the biographer, by closing her eyes to the problems around her, she managed to survive her father's hospitalization, subsequent moves, and her mother's death without developing debilitating emotional scars. Indeed, Bowen herself believed that her early life taught her to love places and things more than people. The dreamlike atmosphere of her early life, she thought, explained why she had fewer early memories than most people, a characteristic she shares with her heroine Eva Trout as well. Glendinning claimed that Bowen's methods of managing her feelings were largely successful, agreeing with the novelist that a lifelong stammer remained her only significant disability (EB, 22-23; P&C, 12).

In contrast, I would argue that Bowen found the reality of her mother's death, in conjunction with her father's mental illness and the uprooting from her ancestral home, too much to face. Much later the writer discussed how at the age of eight she had refused to let herself think of her lost home, Bowen's Court, saying, “Perhaps children are sterner than grown-up people in their refusal to suffer, in their refusal, even, to feel at all” (BC, 418-19). George Pollock in “Mourning and Adaptation,” has argued that the loss of a parent inhibits a child's capacity to mature emotionally. In his judgment “a sudden unexpected death” is far more traumatic than “a chronic loss due to institutionalization.” Bowen experienced both kinds of losses at particularly vulnerable times in her childhood. As Pollock has demonstrated, the degree of suffering depends partly upon the age and the psychosexual stage of the survivor. Henry Bowen's illness began when his daughter was five and lasted until she was eleven (BC, 409). Thus, she had little opportunity to work through her oedipal feelings for him. Then Mrs. Bowen died when her daughter was thirteen and about to enter puberty, a time when girls tend to be especially dependent upon their mothers (BC, 425). No wonder Bowen, like one of George Pollock's patients, attempted to “defend herself against … feelings of ‘nothingness and emptiness.’”9 When one considers that Bowen's grief was blocked, it is not surprising that her entire oeuvre is full of references to orphans and bereavement—indicating how affected she was by that loss. Yet not until she began writing The Little Girls in her early sixties could she make use of the details of those final days in Kent.

It seems likely that the trauma of loss forced Bowen to employ what Abraham and Torok call “preservative repression,” in which the past is preserved in such a repressed form that no part of it can be undone or expiated for. Becoming an orphan made Bowen preternaturally aware of what Nicholas Rand calls “the gaps or ‘silences’ left within the living by the secrets of others.” Writing fiction, however, provided Bowen the opportunity to relive old hurts and name the unnameable. She never became an hysteric or a cryptophore—a person who is obsessed by dark secrets—but, as Royle has noted, her fiction contains many metaphors of secrets, crimes, accomplices, and tombs, all of which clearly had personal significance to her.10 As she grew older, Bowen gained considerable insight into madness. Indeed her later novels are dedicated to the principle that the line between sanity and madness is permeable; aberrant behavior has recognizable origins. Especially in later life, Bowen wrote fluently about individuals who threaten to cross the barrier between sane and insane, without losing sympathy for their situation.

Although Bowen's resilience and understanding of the etiology of madness are impressive, her behavior resembled her mother's habit of denial. For many years the novelist, like her mother, avoided facing uncomfortable truths, although she never carried the habit to the same pathological extent. Instead, her imagination compensated her for occasional parental neglect. Bowen recalled that her parents “ruled their private kingdoms of thought, and inside it, I, their first child, began to set up my own” (SW [Seven Winters], 9). By such means, Glendinning observes, Bowen effectively avoided psychic unhappiness, while leading a reasonably normal life and beginning a remarkable career as a novelist and short-story writer (EB, 22-23).

Bowen's method of repressing emotional dilemmas appeared to work effectively for some years. Art offered an arena for displacing personal conflict, a domain to explore her own feelings at a considerable remove without violating the kind of detachment she prized. In youth, some aspects of the disturbances that she had knowingly suppressed became the raw material of her fictional world. Bowen's orphaned state made her especially sensitive to the plight of vulnerable or unwanted progeny. Her early novels feature young people who are powerless to protect themselves against the vagaries and diffidence of their caretakers. In them Bowen re-created the conspiratorial atmosphere of her childhood. At times her characters react to the dishonesty of their elders. Her juveniles are rarely passive; thus, many of them become disruptive forces in their households. By the time she wrote her final novel, however, she realized that violence might be unleashed if successive generations disregarded the welfare of their offspring. In Eva Trout Eva's young son, the deaf and dumb Jeremy, appears to be indifferent to what his adopted mother Eva might be doing. In the end, though, he explodes destructively, shooting his mother with a revolver.

In novel after novel Bowen returned obsessively to the same themes, a repetition which suggests that art by itself is not an effective therapy. Instead, like most individuals for whom writing provides an outlet for powerful feelings, devising scenes of orphans and neglected children temporarily relieved Bowen's anguish but did not permanently resolve her deep sense of deprivation and loss. Her bereavement also had a powerful influence on the choices she made early in life, and those choices in turn continued to affect her selection of subject matter in fiction. Although the benign interest of her extended family spared her the worst effects of social isolation, nonetheless Bowen craved a more personal, familial, and romantic love. In 1921 at twenty, shortly after her father's remarriage in 1918 (EB, 38), she announced an engagement, but the whole matter ended so abruptly that in time it almost seemed to have been a dream. Glendinning describes Bowen's condition during that period as “heightened” and reports that from the start her aunt was “sceptical.” Glendinning dismisses the subject with the purely social observation that ultimately “nothing worked out. … It wouldn't have done” (EB, 40).

Yet the writer was haunted by recollections of that event, with its uncomfortable but absurd mixture of desire and social control. More than forty years later, on the first page of Eva Trout, the heroine refers to a newly broken engagement (ET [Eva Trout] 11). Of course Eva does not represent the novelist directly, nor can we infer Bowen's feelings from Eva's reactions. The heroine has no “sceptical” relatives to challenge her fantasy although privately her friends disparage her story. Also, unlike the novelist who years later could still recapture the confusion that surrounded her own failed engagement, Eva abandons her painful recollection more easily. Sometime later in the novel when the memory has faded, Eva readily admits that the whole matter was a hoax (ET, 89). But when one considers the sexual charades with which the novel abounds—a supposed pregnancy that is really an illegal adoption and the fake wedding journey that Eva tries to stage at the end with her beloved Henry—that broken engagement and its attendant commotion had clearly left its imprint on Bowen's imagination.

At twenty-four the aspiring young writer, who had just published her first volume of stories, married Alan Cameron, despite the warning signs that he might lack sexual interest in her. At thirty Cameron was living a comfortable bachelor's existence with his mother and a clergyman, who, years later, became the prototype of Father Tony Clavering-Haight in Eva Trout. Glendinning interprets Bowen's marriage to the older Cameron as happy but admittedly celibate. At the same time, the biographer suggests that Bowen became a compulsive writer partly to compensate for her lack of sexual satisfaction.11 In 1933, three years after her father's death (EB, 69), Bowen began to satisfy her emotional needs by taking a series of much younger men as lovers, the first of whom was an Oxford don, Humphrey House (EB, 86). He later told his wife that Bowen had been a virgin when their affair began (EB, 88). Far more important and long-lasting in Bowen's life than House, however, was Charles Ritchie, a Canadian. Yet in the end he was as elusive as her father Henry Bowen had been. Although Ritchie was unfailingly devoted, Bowen never had the satisfaction of marrying him, even when she was free to do so. In 1948, just four years before Cameron's death, Ritchie married his cousin, thereby effectively removing himself from the list of eligible bachelors (EB, 182).

Bowen's frustrated longing for the much younger Ritchie helps explain why her heroine, Eva Trout, suffers from unrequited love for Henry Dancey, who at the novel's beginning is only twelve years old. Several reasons point to Henry Dancey being a parodic version of Charles Ritchie. Ritchie, who was seven years younger than Bowen, was the great love of her life, just as Henry is, even though he is twelve years younger than Eva. Further, Henry assists Eva in her ill-fated attempt to sell her Jaguar and leave the Arbles without a trace. Bowen, who herself felt like an “outsider-insider” in England, thanks to her Anglo-Irish heritage, sensed that Canadian Ritchie shared her anomalous position in England, as well as her occasional moments of feeling like a spy (EB, 139). Both Henry and Ritchie also played the role of younger brother to an admired older sister. In view of Henry's and Eva's oedipal, indeed almost incestuous, devotion, Bowen chose to name young Dancey for her father Henry Bowen rather than for Ritchie, to whom she dedicated the novel.

At this point one must remember that Bowen was capable of salvaging situations that another less talented person might have found devastating. For example, odd though her sexless marriage seems in our hypersexual age, Alan Cameron apparently met her most important emotional needs, by providing a replacement for her parents.12 He managed their business affairs, selected her wardrobe, and provided a necessary stability to their lives. He conducted his affairs—whatever they were—so discreetly that Glendinning makes no mention of any liaison, making only a few references to a longtime married friend and colleague Eric Gillett. Most observers agree that Bowen loved Cameron, and ample evidence suggests that she was emotionally dependent upon him, but after he died signs of tension in their relationship appear in Eva Trout. In that novel Bowen wittily portrays the interaction of several homosexual and celibate men, Constantine Ormeau, Willy Trout, and Father Clavering-Haight. To some extent, the novelist sits in judgment. Eva has clearly been the victim of her father's neglect; all his attention went to his fickle lover, Constantine.

Still no matter how inadequate Cameron may have been as a lover, when he died, from alcoholism and heart and eye trouble, Bowen at fifty-three felt that her world had vanished. Her elaborate defenses collapsed. For some time she found it difficult to write at all. Circumstances made a mockery of her attempt to imitate her mother by “not noticing.” In the ensuing depression she found it impossible to manage her financial affairs and ended by selling Bowen's Court in 1959 to a man who promptly tore it down (BC, 459). Not only did Bowen feel the loss of her reliable guide and support, but Cameron's death rekindled the feelings of grief that she had repressed at her mother's untimely death. Studies of mourning indicate how complex that phenomenon can be. Early evidence suggested that in some cases a second bereavement in adulthood can trigger what John Bowlby calls “a belated reaction” to an earlier loss that was never mourned. In 1968 Felix Brown, an English psychiatrist, noted that as early as 1926 Mapother had pointed out that when individuals who are orphaned early in life lose a spouse later on, the depression they experience shows “a regression to events in early life tinged with the same emotion, suggesting that it is a kind of reactivation of some previous experience.” Brown also reports Anthony's 1940 findings that the death of a parent often arouses feelings of guilt in children between the ages of eight and twelve—Bowen was just thirteen. Bowlby's 1980 study of depression further confirms such findings, while George Pollock reported in 1981 that “empirical findings from individuals who lost parents or siblings in childhood” indicate that they are predisposed to “a severe reaction to a later life change or loss.”13

The upheavals of Bowen's fifties and sixties suggest that her husband's death set off a belated crisis of mourning for her long-dead mother. Fortunately, she had the means to overcome her difficulties. At first, however, the amount of work she produced diminished, as she restlessly moved about the United States taking up one writer-in-residence post after another (EB, 206). Her literary agent, Curtis Brown, reports that she had “a bad breakdown of health” after she sold Bowen's Court, exacerbated by “guilt that she had failed her ancestry by failing to pass on her inheritance.” Fortunately her novelistic gifts, he says, distracted her from her troubles and allowed her “to keep her life creatively and satisfyingly full.”14 Bowen managed to write only three novels in the twenty years after Cameron's death, whereas in the previous twenty she had written seven. Still, her last two novels eventually provided a battleground where she could struggle with her unruly emotions. They contain some of her most probing and powerful material; at long last she confronted more openly than before her suppressed feelings about her mother and her often mixed emotions about her husband.

The Little Girls, published when Bowen was sixty-four, provided the initial turning point in her later career. Its protagonist, Dinah Delacroix, battles her unacknowledged sense of loss by means of an unconventional life review, in which Bowen participated by proxy. In his landmark 1963 essay, “The Life Review,” Robert Butler describes four main aspects of that moment when an individual finds it necessary to survey his or her past. Looking backwards at some point in a conscious fashion and reviewing one's life, he notes, are universal traits. The elderly, whose futures are short, tend to reminisce more than the young. In some cases this scrutiny can contribute to the occurrence of “late-life disorders” such as depression, which it does in Dinah's case. Finally, those elderly whose life review has a positive outcome may develop “candor, serenity, and wisdom.” He also believes that individuals initiate a life review “as a general response to crisis of various types,” of which death is the most obvious example. Although Dinah is not in a state of crisis before she initiates the life review, Bowen certainly was.15

Thematically, as the Bowen critics have pointed out, the novel deals with the insatiable desire of those growing older to recapture the past. The main character Dinah is an exceptionally attractive woman in her late fifties; in fact, her youthful appearance suggests that life has not quite touched her. Yet she has been married and widowed and is now the mother of two sons, as well as a grandmother. She is prone to enthusiasms which make little sense to her friends. Most recently, she has been burying objects in a cave, so that future generations will be able to reconstruct her society from those remnants. Suddenly, she is sent into a fugue state by the juxtaposition of a chance question, “Who's going to seal it up?” and the sight of an uneven swing (LG [The Little Girls], 16, 20).16 Then, realizing that she is repeating an experience from her girlhood, she becomes obsessed with desire to find her long-lost schoolmates, whom she last saw in 1914. At age eleven they had all scattered when World War I broke out. Impulsively Dinah sends out nearly £100 worth of newspaper advertisements until the two women respond. The old friends feel that their settled lives are in jeopardy when they are summoned by this voice from the past. Clare, the woman for whom Dinah has the most elaborate feelings, is particularly uncomfortable with Dinah's intensity.

Bowen's new way of writing “externally” without interpreting her characters' thoughts and feelings makes this beginning read like a play with inadequate stage directions. Why should a crooked swing and an unsealed cave start Dinah upon her quest? Yet for Bowen the answer is simple; like the clinician Jean Baker Miller, she perceives the importance of relationships in women's lives, especially those developed in latency. As a result, Dinah comes to life as a character for the first time in the marvelously vital scenes of reunion with her friends. These encounters also demonstrate the truth of Carol Gilligan's observation that women feel bonded to the lives of their friends. Even though the three women have been separated for many years, they quickly recapture their old selves and interact with all their accustomed eccentricities, in what is almost a private code.17 The very ease with which they resume their more assertive and engaged girlhood behavior suggests that they had lost or left behind an important segment of themselves when they parted from their friends many years before. Thus, Bowen implies that adult behavior is a mask which can disintegrate when one is reunited with old friends.

The middle section consists of a flashback to 1914. It takes place largely at St. Agatha's, during the summer when Dinah and her friends were eleven, at the end of latency. The reconstruction not only captures the essence of this time in their lives but provides the information necessary to understand what is happening in the present. The little girls play like puppy dogs, sexual differences being irrelevant. The little boys who hang on the periphery of their world are treated like brothers or cousins. Parents are people whose commands must be slyly circumvented. Outward rebellion is not possible, but the girls are experts at obeying the letter rather than the spirit of the law. Their irreverent behavior reminds us that Bowen as a girl was accused of being “bumptious” (BC, 420) and participated enthusiastically in her cousin's rows (P&C, 17). The world Bowen describes is an Edenic one, captured just before the snake of self-consciousness enters the garden.

The three girls, Dinah, Clare, and Sheila—a.k.a. Dicey, Mumbo, and Sheikie—are best friends and partners in crime. Dinah and Clare, however, have a special bond that exceeds their emotional understanding.18 Dinah's mother and Clare's father are in love but are entirely too honorable to disrupt their families by having an affair. Mrs. Piggott, Dinah's mother, is a widow; her husband committed suicide before Dinah was born (LG, 193). The two eleven-year-olds are caught up in the world of adult emotions that they can only dimly fathom. In spite of the undercurrent of adult emotions, the girls are entirely childlike and convincing in their reactions.

Bowen is a master at evoking the comic atmosphere of the school life of girls. In a BBC interview of 1959, three years before she began The Little Girls, she described writing in language that echoes D. W. Winnicott's location of creativity in an intermediate space “between the dream and the reality, that which is called the cultural life.” Bowen declared that composing is “an extension … of the imaginative play thing a child has—that life isn't amusing enough, so you build it up with imagination of your own” (EB, 31). Thus, one incident from girlhood appeared in her novel. Shortly after her mother's death, Bowen instigated a “burying ritual” at her school, Harpenden Hall (P&C, 57). Glendinning, reflecting Bowen's view of the matter, emphasizes that the girls merely buried “a biscuit tin containing some cryptic writing” (EB, 29). She misses the point that Bowen was seeking a means to handle her anxieties about her mother's death and burial. Sensitive children who are not allowed to see the dead body sometimes worry that the corpse is not truly dead and will wake up later on in the grave. As a result, much attention in The Little Girls is given to whether the coffer the girls bury still contains the objects they had placed in it. Furthermore, much of this section is devoted to the details of purchasing accoutrements for the burial and making plans—exactly the stages from which Bowen had been excluded when her mother died. The attention devoted to the details of the burial suggests that the episode in some strange way compensated for that exclusion, by allowing the adult writer the opportunity to explore her early anxieties about death.19 Knowing something of Bowen's personal history explains why Dinah regresses when years later she discovers that the items have been removed from the coffer.

The middle section ends on July 23, 1914, with a picnic, the sort of ritual set piece found in Jane Austen and other writers of social comedy. But this picnic, like the one in E. M. Forster's A Passage to India (1924), marks the disruption of normal social intercourse, the unleashing of evil. It begins innocently enough as a celebration of one child's birthday and the end of summer term. It would have been a time of temporary leave-taking had not the war broken out early the next month. As it happened the goodbyes were to be unexpectedly permanent, just as Mrs. Bowen's death had been for her daughter. Frustration marks the farewells. Major Burkin-Jones is forced to speak to his lady love, Mrs. Piggott, in a sort of code, lest the attentive Dinah realize their intense attachment. Feeling excluded, Dinah runs to bid Clare farewell, but Clare refuses to greet her properly. She drives off triumphantly with her father, leaving Dinah screaming her name at the top of her lungs like an angry infant deprived of her mother.

As a result of the rupture, emotional moments continue to reverberate, much as the mysterious sound in the Marabar Caves echoes for Miss Quested and Mrs. Moore in Forster's A Passage to India. In contrast, however, Forster's characters cannot escape the resounding echo. They are forced to reevaluate their lives. But Bowen's characters, like their creator, adeptly bury their misery. Therefore, when Dinah sees Clare in adulthood, she has no idea why she is troubled by Clare's presence. The two women brief each other on their parents' deaths quite calmly, but very gradually a dim memory of that long-ago parting works its way to the surface of Dinah's mind, making her feel as if she had been recently bereaved.

The final section of the novel returns to the present. Dinah feels compelled to complete the unfinished business of the past. She instigates the digging up of the coffer, which turns out to be empty, indicating the impossibility of reconstructing the past as it once was. Feeling devastated by her discovery, she turns to Clare for comfort. Clare, however, is loath to respond; Dinah reminds her too much of Mrs. Piggott, whom Clare had loved years ago with a child's helpless intensity. In one key scene Dinah asks her if she is a lesbian (LG, 197). Clare refuses to answer, but clearly she is afraid of the feelings that Dinah arouses. As a result, Clare deserts Dinah one Sunday night, leaving her friend in a distracted state.

Dinah's accident and reaction are very like Miss Quested's hysterical adventure in the Marabar Caves in Forster's novel. She has a mysterious collapse, which Glendinning suggests has earmarks of the madness of Bowen's father (EB, 220). At this point Dinah's children and grandchildren close ranks. Dinah's sons display their resilience, as well as their comic obtuseness. They tell Sheila Artworth that their forceful mother is “as a rule … so very placid” (LG, 232). (Sheila feels compelled to divert herself from reacting by playing with her finger bowl.) Still Bowen is not as despairing about the survival of the family as is Forster. Dinah is a widow like her mother, but the two boys have had each other—and various cousins—for moral support. Clare and Dinah may suffer from “the non-sins of our fathers—and mothers” as Dinah suggests (LG, 186), yet Dinah's children are exempt from the curse. The family as a whole can survive the disintegration of one individual. Therefore Dinah's granddaughters sit complacently in the living room cutting pictures out of magazines, safe in their childish world while the adults agonize around them. Rumors of trouble have reached them but do not penetrate their defenses.

Moreover, friendship triumphs at last. Gradually the story is reconstructed, by combining all possible tellers with all available listeners. The psychoanalyst Winnicott understood the therapeutic value of such reconstructions and emphasized how important the empathic listener can be to the process of healing.20 Even the peripheral Sheila Artworth finds some comfort from the renewed friendship. She tells the story of her lost love to Clare (LG, 229-30) and, without stirring up any animosity or disgust, admits to Dinah's sons that she had deposited in the coffer her sixth toe, a congenital anomaly which had shamed her in girlhood. She had never told her friends about that toe. Her obsessive dancing, Bowen hints, with its exhibitionist elements compensated her for feeling deformed (LG, 234-35). In contrast, Clare and Dinah take longer to sort out their misunderstandings. Eventually Clare realizes that Dinah merely wants to be consoled for the losses of her childhood, rather than to take Mrs. Piggott's place as an unconscious temptress. Then, at last, she comforts the needy Dinah. In the very last scene, Clare finally remembers the picnic in 1914 when she failed to bid her distraught friend farewell. In recompense she says goodbye to Dinah “for now and for then.” Dinah wakes as if from a bad dream, saying, “Clare, Clare, where have you been?” (LG, 236-37), and the novel ends on the redemptive recognition of loss and the hope for some restitution in the future.

The message of the novel is mixed. Reconstructing the past is a disturbing experience, which may at least temporarily put the protagonist at risk. Hildebidle argues that such journeys into the past represent “death threats to the self.” Indeed, Bowen emphasizes that the journey of remembrance is full of risk; depression is the inevitable outcome if one expects to be able to bring back the past completely. Yet Dinah's story demonstrates that some recollection is absolutely necessary when events in the present have reawakened unacknowledged grief from the past. Bowen's narrative also makes the case for the importance of latency and the friendships of that period in the life of a woman. In fact, she hints that unless one reenters the past and recaptures at least a trace of one's old self, one may be doomed to sleepwalk through life. Therefore the novel ends on an affirmative note. Dinah and Clare are able to repair some of the damage that the uprooting had caused. Bowen herself experienced a cathartic effect from completing the novel, similar to the relief of insight that George Pollock's patients feel after regaining their memory of past events.21 After The Little Girls was published, Bowen bought a house in the town where her mother had died. As her biographer has commented, that action completed “her return journey” (EB, 221).

Although fiction offered Bowen an opportunity to view her sense of displacement at some remove, the actual drafting of the novel took its toll. She had difficulty concluding The Little Girls and needed more than the usual amount of help and moral support from her agent, Curtis Brown.22 The novel's conceptual problems resulted from its emotionally charged content. Not only was her heroine, Dinah Delacroix, attempting to reconstruct the severed strands of her past life experience and to understand her own emotions, but the author was engaged in the same task as well. As a result she could not be confident about the direction that the work should take. In its complicated plot, Bowen reconstructs the fragments of her early life with her mother, in those last days before Mrs. Bowen's untimely death. (Although Bowen had described those last years in Bowen's Court [1942], at that time she made no attempt to recapture her feelings for her beloved mother.) The abrupt ending to that happy interlude had made Bowen feel for many years that relationships with houses and with people were too fragile to be recaptured once they were ruptured, a point she later repeats in Eva Trout (ET, 163, 254). Finishing The Little Girls, however, temporarily released Bowen from that limiting belief in her personal life.

The lessons of insight, however, do not last forever. Eva Trout; or, Changing Scenes (1969), written in her late sixties, a few years before she died of lung cancer, continues Bowen's effort to probe her past and explore her vision of the future. Although critics like Hermione Lee have condemned it, this novel is intuitive, detached, and honest in its pessimism. Because Bowen better understood and accepted her own mixed feelings, she accurately captured the irrational strength of all of her characters' desires. Having successfully confronted the profound sense of loss caused by her mother's death in The Little Girls, Bowen could examine her own deeply submerged love for and disappointment in the men and the places in her life, past and present. Her recent loss aroused an old sense of being orphaned; thus she exhibited, as George Vaillant claims the “unloved” often do, “a special capacity to identify and to empathize with the pain and suffering in the world.”23 At the same time she exhibited considerable control by constructing a narrative of Olympian detachment in which to consider these painful feelings. The novel's disjointed structure—once again Bowen moves through time and space without providing any guides—challenges the reader to follow the abrupt shifts in time and place. The plot consists of a series of “changing scenes,” a pattern that Bowen reinforces by means of the novel's subtitle. Although several scenes of vicarage life—based on the author's girlhood recollections of having lessons with a nearby rector's family (P&C, 16-17)—appear in the early chapters, other elements undermine this familiar convention of social comedy. As the author herself hints in the text, the novel is a black comedy (ET, 239).

This time the aging writer creates what Glendinning calls an “eponymous heroine … an orphaned heiress, unloved, clumsy, ‘left unfinished’, innocent with that damaging innocence so deep-lodged in Elizabeth's mythology” (EB, 225). Eva's remarkable mix of complete vulnerability and mythic forcefulness represents some elements of the writer herself. Losing Bowen's Court had destroyed some of the writer's confidence, thereby creating a dilemma which she converts into a metaphor for Eva's predicament. One senses that Eva's unsettled childhood, during which she moved constantly following her father and his lover, Constantine, provides an objective correlative for Bowen's feelings of dislocation, which had been exacerbated by the author's violent reaction to losing her ancestral home. In the novel the ruined castle, which Eva and the Danceys visit first in chapter 1, represents Bowen's late, lamented family estate. The castle is no longer habitable. Seeing it awakens Eva's desperate need for love, but even she realizes that it is not a place to realize these dreams. This novel, however, is by no means completely autobiographical, despite the echoes from Bowen's life and the presence of some familiar people. Eva is an artistic creation.24 She is what Bowen thought she might have become had she been less fortunate or had less talent, and, of course, Eva's situation is far more dire than Bowen's ever was. In contrast to the author, Eva never learns to mourn her lost mother nor understands how damaged she has been by such a childhood.

The plot unfolds inexorably following the logic of a Greek tragedy. It abounds with many hints of impending doom, and its protagonist is as blind to their meaning as Oedipus is to Tiresias's warnings. This time, however, Bowen constructs her fatalism on psychological insight rather than on repression. She carefully describes the way in which well-meaning and successful families for generation after generation inadvertently damage their children until one of their offspring finally wreaks a terrible revenge. The plot's gyrations also parody the uprooted nature of contemporary life, by exaggerating the many moves Bowen herself had experienced. Eva, the heiress, is unleashed upon an unsuspecting world with too much money and too little sense of what it means to be a member of a family. Her answer to any frustration is to go into hiding somewhere else, thus frightening and hurting the feelings of those who feel responsible for her.25 The novel's disrupted chronology represents the difficulties of reconstructing the character of Eva's past.

Unlike Dinah Delacroix and her friends, Eva has no confidant, no one who has shared her life. Instead her story is pieced together by bit players, who have little empathy for her plight. Her shallow parents provide no example of mature love. Thus Eva can experience desire but does not develop any sense of responsibility for her beloved. Her mother dies in an airplane crash, while absconding with a young lover. Her father, a financier of world renown named Willy Trout, reserves his deepest affections for his lover, the perfidious Constantine, while he finds servants and schools willing to watch over the orphaned Eva. Willy never notices that his daughter can neither talk clearly nor cry. As a result Eva seems hardly human. Unlike Bowen, whose maternal aunts took charge of her, none of Eva's relatives fills the gap. At the novel's end, Eva is depressed and angered when family members who answer her invitation to see her off at Victoria Station fail even to recognize her. She complains to Constantine, “Those were my people; they should have known me” (ET, 264).

Eva's life consists of a series of melodramatic events, similar to those found in many soap operas, but which are transformed by Bowen's ability to combine a comic sensibility with real feelings drawn from her own past. The narrative shifts ground periodically, forcing the reader to struggle to assimilate a kaleidoscope of conflicting perspectives. For example, the disruptions of early childhood are followed by a marvelously comic episode at an experimental school. Housed in the famous castle, the school is financed by Willy Trout and stocked with renegade teachers and delinquent children, who are psychologically well-informed and old beyond their years. They set “an Oedipus-trap” for one of the teachers “by arranging an effigy of his mother in his bed” (ET, 51). The children's behavior is so outrageous that Mrs. Stote, a local cleaner, calls the institution “a Home for afflicted children” and ponders why Eva “had to be put away” when her only sin was being “a little dull” (ET, 53). The school closed its doors at the end of term when Eva's roommate, named Elsinore after Hamlet's castle, nearly dies from complications following a suicide attempt. Yet despite the absurd name, Elsinore awakens Eva's desire for love. Watching Elsinore be rescued by her mother encourages Eva to seek a substitute for her own dead one.

Thus, Eva insists on being transferred to a conventional boarding school, a more likely hunting ground. There she encounters a gifted teacher, Iseult Smith, who undertakes to humanize the girl. She, however, abruptly abandons Eva when the mother-hungry girl recites a Metaphysical poem, one which reveals her intense love for her teacher (ET, 65-66). Eva loves Iseult much as the child Clare loves Mrs. Piggott in The Little Girls. Like the grown-up Clare, Miss Smith rejects her pupil's overtures to avoid the temptation of succumbing to Eva's appeal. Motivated partly by a desire for revenge, some years later, after her father's suicide, Eva decides to move into her teacher's house—Miss Smith having in the meantime married Eric Arble. This time the monstrous young woman proceeds to destroy their marriage by enticing the susceptible Eric.

Meantime, the Danceys, the vicar's family in the Arbles' village, try to provide Eva with a taste of normal family life. This episode is based on one of Bowen's girlhood recollections. During the years when Bowen was living in exile with her mother, someone arranged for her to take lessons with the Salmons, the family of a nearby clergyman. Unfortunately, their intimate family life intensified the child's feelings of being an outsider (P&C, 14-19), and like Eva she asserted her supremacy whenever possible. Not surprisingly, the Danceys' intervention is equally doomed to failure. Instead of attaching herself to the parents, Eva singles out Henry, aged twelve, to be her savior. Henry attracts her for several reasons. He is the most intelligent and best-looking of his family, and instead of being afraid of Eva, he treats her “as he might an astray moose which when too overpowering could be shooed away” (ET, 14). Of course, he needs to grow up quickly if he is to play the required role of consort. Needless to say, he is entranced by the twenty-four-year-old young woman. She beguiles him with tales of a broken engagement, a view of the deserted castle where the honeymoon was to have taken place, and with what Iseult Arble calls “those consuming eyes and that shoving Jaguar” (ET, 92).

At this point, Eva increases the tension by running away and later hinting to Iseult that she was going to bear Eric Arble's child. She then departs to America where she buys a child, Jeremy, in an illegal adoption. For all her great wealth, however, she receives what Henry Dancey later calls “a pup” (ET, 152), damaged goods, for the child can neither hear nor talk.26 Henry mistakenly assumes that no one could love a child like that, but Eva, who for most of her life has felt far more defective, adores the boy. For a number of years Eva voluntarily stays in exile in America, re-creating Bowen's “pavilions of love” with her mother by excluding the outside world from her symbiotic relationship with Jeremy. When, however, the time comes for the boy to be educated, the basis of their connection disintegrates. Eva, whose desire for romantic love knows no bounds, returns to England where she once again visits Henry Dancey. She ends by turning her son over to the Bonnards, French doctors and educators, while she pursues Henry, who at twenty is almost old enough to marry.

Despite the twists and turns of the plot, Bowen's presentation of male characters and of grieving families represents new emotional dimensions in her work. Men play a minor role in The Little Girls but display a greater range of feeling in Eva Trout. For example, Constantine begins as a sly villain. He manipulates Eva and the Arbles, as he had once juggled lovers while keeping a firm grasp on the affections of Willy Trout. By the end of the novel, however, he seems dazzled by Eva, almost obsequious in his expressed desire to give her whatever aid she needs. Mr. Dancey, Henry's father, becomes increasingly important as the plot progresses. He was based partly on Bowen's recollection of Mr. Salmon, the clergyman father whom she had “continued to idolise” in girlhood, even when the lessons she was having with his daughters went badly (P&C, 18). Although Mr. Dancey's perpetual hay fever provides a leitmotiv for him, much as it does for Forster's Wilcoxes in Howards End (1910), Dancey, unlike the Wilcoxes, is capable of a full range of human emotion. He wrestles with complex feelings of love and concern for his unruly son, while he ministers impressively to his congregation. Moreover, he and his wife stoically bear witness to their grief after the death of their younger daughter, Louise. Unlike Eva's relatives, who do not even recognize her when they appear at the station, moments before her death, the Danceys provide an impressive example of deep feelings and love for a daughter. Surely Bowen could not have written such poignant and direct scenes in the years before she completed The Little Girls.

Surprisingly, Henry, cast in the heroic role far before his time, nearly lives up to Eva's emotional investment in him. Somehow he makes convincing rather than absurd the thirty-two-year-old Eva's love for him. Despite the incestuous dimension of their love—both of them are seeking to replace lost family members—almost by accident he teaches Eva to express her loving feelings. Yet Henry, unlike his parents, has great difficulty in telling anyone about Louise's death, for his sister was especially dear to him. In a moment of heightened emotion, he calls Eva “my love, my sister” (ET, 264), indicating that he hopes that Eva will take Louise's place in his heart. For her part, Eva hopes that Henry will compensate for all the missing relationships in her life, a tall order that is doomed to failure. Both of them are clearly replacing or “refinding” lost objects of desire. (According to Freud, all later love objects are replacements for the lost breast of infancy; “the finding of an object is in fact the refinding of it.”)27 Still, we cannot help but respond to the vision of Eva weeping. For the first time in her life she sheds what Henry calls “those extraordinary tears!” (ET, 267), when he promises to make her fake wedding journey a real one.

Eva's apotheosis turns out to be cruelly short, for she has ignored the Bonnards' dire warnings about Jeremy's feelings. In following her heart, she, like Willy Trout, has attempted to abandon her child, but the boy refuses to play the role of passive victim. True to his American origin and upbringing, Jeremy finds a gun, which has been hidden among Eva's household effects by Iseult Arble. He arrives at Victoria Station, the scene of the start of Eva's wedding journey. He looks so much like a “child star” that the other participants assume that they have accidentally wandered onto a set and try not to obstruct “the rigged-up cameras which … they took to be present and in action, or soon in action—for, how should there not be cameras?” (ET, 265). Jeremy, who fancies himself an avenger like Orestes, shoots his mother. All the participants are stunned by Eva's demise: “a woman bystander to whom nothing was anything” is the only person capable of action. When Jeremy cannot stop running, “she snatched him back before he could fall over the dead body” (ET, 268). The novel ends with these words as if to indicate the uselessness of any further comment.

The novel's shattering violence and its depiction of sexual confusion surely reflected the cultural climate of the 1960s, the time in which it was written. The period was one of radical social and political upheaval, in which normal family values were challenged on every front. It was a particularly difficult time to endure for a politically conservative older woman, who was also mourning the loss of her husband and her family house. Yet Bowen created grim comic drama out of instability and upheaval. Writing about the demise of the Trouts made it easier to accept that she had no child to continue her own family line. Instead of privately mourning the end of the house of Bowen, she created a fictional memorial in the fall of the house of Trout. Rather than clinging to outworn conventions, as the novelist Barbara Pym had done during the same period, Bowen redesigned her novel to fit the changing mood that she sensed.28

In these final works the novelist used her fiction to begin the task of re-creating her identity in old age. She constructed a discourse that moves toward the postmodern; she converted her disequilibrium into plots that quite literally mirror her sense of emptiness and fear of loss of control. Indeed, Bowen's final novels are remarkable testaments to the way in which art can transform unhappiness and abandonment into experimental forms. Although Bowen snatches tragedy out of the jaws of comedy in Eva Trout, nonetheless, her final novels are marked by the qualities of candor, serenity, and wisdom that Robert Butler sees as characteristic of most elderly individuals who successfully complete a life review, the serenity in Eva Trout being that of tragic catharsis. Bowen's art teaches us that these attributes in late life are neither static virtues nor cause for smugness. Indeed they assimilate pain, and at a cost. One senses that she learned to accept the uncertainty of her existence and almost to welcome the fluxes of her emotional life. Like the psychoanalyst Winnicott, who made no effort to cut short the “preliminary chaos” of the early days of treatment, for they were “the first phase of the creative process,” Bowen discovered that her creativity thrived on chaos. Although Anna Freud does not include writing comic fiction as one of the ways the ego defends itself in her famous The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence, Bowen's example demonstrates that the creative process offers some artists a way of making effective use of their depression, so that, as Kathleen Woodward has pointed out, their art creates a space between mourning and melancholia.29

These last two novels are an artistic and personal triumph for Bowen, but at the same time they make disturbing reading. They offer no easy compensation for the psychological losses the characters experience. Nonetheless, they represent a breakthrough in understanding the psychological forces that shape our lives. Throughout her literary career Elizabeth Bowen enjoyed enormous success with both literary critics and the general public. In fact, she had almost achieved the status of a literary icon by the time she wrote her last two novels. What we must recognize is that she risked this standing by making a bold departure from the well-established pattern that had brought her recognition. Rather than deplore, as Hermione Lee does, the uncertainty that permeates these novels, we should marvel that an acclaimed novelist chose to write so honestly and vulnerably about the insecurity that she experienced at the end of her life. Feeling confident in her own artistry, Bowen refused to offer easy conclusions. Unlike Constantine who even at the novel's end claims he has “nothing to declare” (ET, 264), Bowen was completely engaged in her world. By accepting her own agony and making the most of her hard-earned lessons she bequeathed us two stunning novels as a legacy.


  1. Howard Moss, “Elizabeth Bowen,” 224; John Hildebidle, Five Irish Writers, 124. According to the most recent listings in the Journal of Modern Literature, Annual Review nos. 9-16 (Dec. 1982-89), besides the items cited in this chapter, work on Bowen includes six articles, six chapters in books, three dissertations, and nine chapters of thematic dissertations. Very little of a theoretical nature has appeared. At the same time Bowen's reputation among writers still remains strong.

  2. Full-length studies of Bowen include: Victoria Glendinning's biography, EB; Hermione Lee, Elizabeth Bowen; Patricia Craig, Elizabeth Bowen; Phyllis Lassner, Elizabeth Bowen.

  3. Hildebidle, Irish Writers, 92, 128; Nicholas Royle, “Crypts in London.” An expanded and revised version of Royle's essay also will appear in Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle, Still Lives. R. B. Kershner, Jr., “Bowen's Oneiric House in Paris,” also reveals the dark side of Bowen's comedy.

  4. Roger B. Salomon, Desperate Storytelling, 3. Kathleen Woodward, “Late Theory, Late Style,” this volume, calls similar products of depression “love stories.”

  5. Lee, EB, 190-91, 206.

  6. Amir Cohen-Shalev, “Old Age Style,” 28; Spencer Curtis Brown, Foreword to PC, xxxvii-xxxviii; George E. Vaillant, Adaptation to Life, 370.

  7. Norman Holland, The Brain of Robert Frost, 40. Holland recommends that we learn to become “more comfortable in one's own skin” (41) but does not describe how aging writers like Bowen struggle to piece together the missing fragments of their identity late in life.

    Eva Trout is Bowen's last completed novel. “The Move-In” is the first chapter of her final fragment. It consists of the unexpected and unwanted arrival of three young people at a country house, which they mistakenly believe to be owned by the aunt of a young man they once met casually on a bus. It has a comically eerie quality but is too fragmentary to suggests what direction Bowen would have taken.

  8. Glendinning's biography now seems overly protective of the writer, for she accepts without question Bowen's interpretation of events. At the time of writing, Glendinning had to contend with Bowen's admirers, who were still under the spell of the novelist's powerful presence. Robert Liddell expressed his disapproval of Glendinning's biography, claiming that it was far too soon after Bowen's death for personal revelations or critical reevaluation of her work (Liddell to Barbara Pym, May 27, Oct. 1, 1978, Pym MS 154, fols. 123, 129). Still, Glendinning's rejection of psychological analysis kept her from showing Bowen triumphing over depression through the innovations of her art.

  9. George H. Pollock, “Mourning and Adaptation,” 349, 353-54.

  10. Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok, “The Topography of Reality,” 64-65; Nicholas Rand, “Psychoanalysis with Literature,” 60. Royle, “Crypts in London,” finds Abraham and Torok's theory of the crypt or phantom useful in analyzing Bowen's work but fears that applying such an analysis to her life would result in a “crypto-analysis.”

  11. Although Bowen had several affairs with men, according to May Sarton at least two were with women (Sarton, A World of Light, 195-97; Glendinning, EB, 192-93). Craig, EB, 128, says there is no evidence to support Sarton's allegation that she had a short “affair” with Bowen. Sarton wrote about the incident with considerable sensitivity, acknowledging that Bowen's behavior was uncharacteristic. Bowen certainly understood the feelings that generated lesbian relationships. Her mother's death left her with a sympathy for the intensity that women sometimes show each other, for at thirteen losing her mother had seemed catastrophic. Moss, “EB,” 229, comments that “the Bowen preoccupation (but not obsession)” with love begins with “the missing mother.”

  12. B. Bloom, Developing Talent in Young Children (New York: Ballantine, 1985), cited by Mihály Csikszentmihályi, “Society, Culture, and Person,” 338, has shown that gifted children require an “extensive support system” of parents and teachers if they are to reach their full potential. Alan Cameron clearly provided the kind of assistance that Bowen's parents had been unable to provide their daughter.

  13. John Bowlby, Attachment and Loss 3:159; E. Mapother and S. Anthony, cited by Felix Brown, “Bereavement and Lack of a Parent in Childhood,” 436; Pollock, “Aging,” 571. More recent studies, however, suggest that—depending on the abruptness of the death—the individual may or may not experience real distress in normal mourning. Those who are psychologically strong may “go through mourning relatively unshaken” (Daniel Goleman, “New Studies Find Many Myths about Mourning,” 17). Bowen clearly was affected by her loss; otherwise she would not have chosen the sort of husband that she did.

  14. Curtis Brown, Foreword, xxxvi. Craig, EB, 117-18, points out that The Heat of the Day, Bowen's wartime novel, also presented a literary challenge, but not primarily an emotional one.

  15. Robert N. Butler, “The Life Review,” 65, 67. Barbara Pym also created characters for whom she created a life review, rather than attempting to reexamine her own life (Anne M. Wyatt-Brown, Barbara Pym, 128-29).

  16. Dinah has much in common with Ursula Vernon, a neighbor at Bowen's Court and contemporary, who seemed agelessly beautiful to Bowen. Lady Ursula's childhood had been as disrupted as Bowen's. Lady Ursula was equally “haunted”; the two became conspirators and enjoyed “rioting around” together, Lady Ursula's husband being in a wheelchair. Bowen dedicated LG to her (EB, 195-96, 220).

    In Walker Percy's The Last Gentleman, 18, Will Barrett suffers from fugue states. Will periodically “wandered around … sunk in thought” when buried emotions from the past threaten to overpower him.

  17. Jean Baker Miller, Toward a New Psychology for Women, 83; Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice, 35. Hildebidle, Irish Writers, 99, n. 6, emphasizes the “theatrical” element in Bowen's work, her use of “clear stage-settings.” Miller theorizes that for many women even “the threat of disruption of connections is perceived not just a loss of a relationship but as something closer to a total loss of self” (83). LG also demonstrates the “intensely social and also moral nature of the young child's relation with others” (Carol Gilligan, “Adolescent Development Reconsidered,” ix). In that essay Gilligan cites John Mordecai Gottman's monograph (“How Children Become Friends,” Society for Research in Child Development Monograph 48, no. 3 [1983]) that demonstrates children have the ability to remember their friends even after long separations. Finally, Dinah's frantic pursuit also suggests the truth of Gilligan's observation (“Remapping the Moral Domain,” 11) that “attachments—located in time and arising from mutual engagement—are by definition irreplaceable.”

  18. Clare herself bears some resemblance to the author: she wore large costume jewelry, which was Bowen's trademark, and adored Mrs. Piggott, Dinah's mother, just as Bowen had worshiped her own mother.

  19. D. W. Winnicott, “Ego Distortion in Terms of True and False Self,” 150. For further discussion, see Winnicott, “Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena.” Nicholas Royle (pers. com., March 1, 1992) argues that the burial of a biscuit tin is equivalent to the packet of love letters in A World of Love (1955), but the burying ritual in LG refers directly to the death of Bowen's mother and the letters do not.

  20. D. W. Winnicott, “Child Department Consultations,” 82, points out that reconstructing the story of a child's emotional development provides part of the cure. He emphasizes the paradox that the story is only complete when the analyst's reaction offers “the true recognition that all the pieces do weld together into a whole.”

  21. Hildebidle, Irish Writers, 102; Pollock, “Aging,” 575.

  22. Curtis Brown, Foreword, xxxix, describes the ensuing difficulty that Bowen's technical experiment caused her in composition.

  23. Vaillant, Adaptation, 294.

  24. Glendinning, EB, 95, reports that “the physical model for Eva Trout was glimpsed at an airport.”

  25. Eva's early life has been as “rootless and declassé” as Portia's in The Death of the Heart (Ann Ashworth, “‘But Why Was She Called Portia?’” 160). Ashworth reports that when Portia is sent to live with her brother, she regards it as an exile, a place that offers the young girl no “means of attracting any but the most inappropriate matrimonial prospects.” Eva feels even more desperate at the Arbles; in Bowen's judgment her emotional deprivation is beyond repair.

  26. Eva's and Jeremy's problems with speech are symptomatic of their bereft situation. Bowen suggests that Eva's inept use of language is the result of parental neglect. At the time Bowen wrote the novel she probably had in mind her own stammer, or perhaps her occasionally tortured syntax, which may have been the written equivalent of a stutter. Ironically, a few years after she completed ET, Bowen lost her voice completely from cancer of the lungs (EB, 238).

  27. Sigmund Freud, “The Transformations of Puberty,” 88.

  28. See Wyatt-Brown, Pym, 106-7. George H. Pollock, “Mourning and Memorialization through Music,” 424, argues that when creative people suffer grievous losses, “the direction of musical creativity and creativity in general will be influenced by intrapsychic processes of mourning and memorialization.”

  29. Marion Milner, The Suppressed Madness of Sane Men, 247, describes Winnicott's behavior. Anna Freud, The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence; Woodward, Aging, chap. 6.

The phrase “liberation of mourning” is adapted from George H. Pollock, “Aging or Aged,” 570, who argues that “the mourning-liberation process … has a creative outcome.” Earlier versions of parts of this essay appear in “Life Review in the Novels of Molly Keane, Elizabeth Bowen, and Peter Taylor” and “Eva Trout and the Return of the Repressed.”

R. B. Kershner made helpful comments and suggestions about this chapter. Nicholas Royle not only gave trenchant but useful criticisms of my chapter but brought theoretical essays on the crypt by Rand and Abraham and Torok to my attention.

Patricia Coughlan (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: Coughlan, Patricia. “Women and Desire in the Work of Elizabeth Bowen.” In Sex, Nation and Dissent in Irish Writing, edited by Éibhear Walshe, pp. 103-34. Cork, Ireland: Cork University Press, 1997.

[In the following excerpt, Coughlan traces the representation of women's mutual attraction in Bowen's later novels.]

‘She abandoned me. She betrayed me.’

‘Had you a sapphic relationship?’


‘Did you exchange embraces of any kind?’

‘No. She always was in a hurry.’

Elizabeth Bowen, Eva Trout, p. 184

The array of analytic tools available today to anyone thinking about issues of homo/heterosexual definition is remarkably little enriched from that available to, say, Proust. … Most moderately to well-educated Western people in this century seem to share a similar understanding of homosexual definition, independent of whether they themselves are gay or straight, homophobic or antihomophobic. … That understanding is … organized around a radical and irreducible incoherence. … Enduringly since at least the turn of the century, there have presided two contradictory tropes of gender through which same-sex desire could be understood. On the one hand there was, and there persists, differently coded (in the homophobic folklore and science surrounding those ‘sissy boys’ and their mannish sisters, but also in the heart and guts of much living gay and lesbian culture), the trope of inversion, anima muliebris in corpore virili inclusa—‘a woman's soul trapped in a man's body’—and vice versa. … One vital impulse of this trope is the preservation of an essential heterosexuality within desire itself, through a particular reading of the homosexuality of persons: desire, in this view, by definition subsists in the current that runs between one male self and one female self, in whatever sex of bodies these selves may be manifested. … The persistence of the inversion trope has been yoked, however, to that of its contradictory counterpart, the trope of gender separatism. … Far from its being of the essence of desire to cross boundaries of gender, it is instead the most natural thing in the world that people of the same gender … should bond together … on the axis of sexual desire. As the substitution of the phrase ‘woman-identified’ for ‘lesbian’ suggests, as indeed does the concept of the continuum of male or female homosocial desire, this trope tends to reassimilate to one another identification and desire, where inversion models, by contrast, depend on their distinctness. Gender-separatist models would thus place the woman-loving woman and the man-loving man each at the ‘natural’ center of their own gender, in contrast to inversion models that locate gay people—whether biologically or culturally—at the threshold between genders.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick1


This essay is a discussion of Elizabeth Bowen's representations of woman-to-woman attachment in her work. I have chosen at the outset to place my appraisal within the context of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's views, as one of the most effective summary accounts of our current state of thinking about same-sex desire. Did Elizabeth Bowen hold one of the two positions outlined (according to the ‘two contradictory tropes of gender’) by Sedgwick? If so, which? At first glance, it seems to have been the former. Whenever she explicitly represents lesbians, she often adopts the ‘inversion’ model, using schemas of boyish or mannish appearance in narrative description; and she avails besides of other aspects of the Twenties stereotype of the emotional life of lesbians when she renders them as tempestuous and unstable. Yet one has not quite said everything even when one has, as I shall try to do, examined in more detail some of these explicit representations of alleged female ‘inversion.’ As I hope to show, the ‘lesbian continuum’ model is perhaps ultimately more useful as an approach to Bowen: that is, the concept, classically inaugurated by Adrienne Rich in 1980 but already developing during the 1970s, of a continuum of woman-to-woman interaction within which recognition may be given to virtual or symbolic mother-daughter feeling and all other kinds of attachment between women as ‘woman-identified’ and not different in kind from the lesbian.2

Women's mutual bonds, loving or obsessive, do not get much attention in the author's own general descriptions and judgements qua narrator in Bowen's fictions, or in her scant meta-commentary (reviews, the available passages from private letters, her published criticism) on these matters. Nevertheless, the fictions engage in a meditation so intense and piercing on female bonding, including symbolic and literal mother-daughter relations, that the topic cries out to be discussed.3 Power, mothering, sexuality and the successful or failed constitution of selfhood are bound up together in Bowen's writing with an exceptional and even dismaying intimacy; and tangles between ‘desire’ and ‘identification’ of women for and with one another (however much these two terms are clearly separate in Freud's psychology) certainly mark deeply her representations of social and psychological life.

On the other hand, there are still major disputes within lesbian theory about the legitimacy, or usefulness, of such a blurring of desire with identification in reflecting on women's interrelations. Is the ‘continuum model’ of lesbianism productive and enabling, or does it fatally risk the consigning of women's mutual love to the infantile, the pre-Oedipal and in some sense pre-sexual domain, and therefore blot out the possibility of adult same-sex desire, a focused lesbian erotics?4 Sedgwick has usefully insisted on the continuing coexistence of these two main models of same-sex relations, however contradictorily, in our minds. In the light of our increasingly focused understanding of the complexity of women's mutual relations, there is a more and more urgent need to conduct a broad investigation of Bowen's imaginative conceptions of relationships between women in all their various forms.

There are three topics contiguous to this investigation, which would also merit detailed study, and which I shall now briefly mention but not explore in detail. First, Bowen's references to gender itself are evidently relevant. By these I mean her interest in representing some equivocal quality in the usual social signals of ‘femininity’ or ‘masculinity’ in a character's self-presentation, counter to their apparent gender appartenance, or a quality of cross-gendering in their emotional life, whether or not this is primarily in the context of sexuality; or in the terms she herself tends to adopt, a ‘womanishness’ felt in male characters, and a ‘boylike’ or ‘boyish’ air in female ones. It would be useful to examine this blurring and occasional swapping over of some of the conventional markers of femininity and masculinity in the social world of the novels, and the relevance of this unsettling volatility of gendering to our thinking about the homoerotic.

The second relevant issue is that of the nature of desire itself, irrespective of gender. In Bowen, desire has a strikingly labile quality, seeming to be imagined as not always safely (or dangerously) vested in persons, but to be conceived as a force or form of energy in itself. It tends to be an aura (or perhaps a miasma), something which floats around a sexually attractive character and is experienced by others of either gender. It affects, for instance, the golden-haired girl Jane in A World of Love, whose outstanding beauty is felt by all the adults in the household and draws all to her, even, in a characteristic piece of uncanny plotting, the dead Guy. Sydney Warren in The Hotel is similarly afflicted, becoming, like Jane, a kind of unwitting conductor of emotions. Marda in The Last September also attracts others, without or largely without doing anything to produce this result, and moreover without self-engagement in the process: she does not flirt, and indeed finds herself affectively detached, to and beyond the point of ennui and existential isolation. This is another reason why it is difficult neatly to hive off woman-to-woman attraction, delimit and define it, and discuss it in isolation from the phenomenon of desire as a whole in Bowen's fictions. It is an aspect of Bowen's modernity that she so conceives desire, as what Sedgwick calls ‘an unpredictably powerful solvent of stable identities.’5 W. J. McCormack's discussion of The Heat of the Day, a novel in which the presence of desire in this sense is especially marked, shows how that novel's concern with the volatility and unknowability of personality as a whole is a function of its ideological and historical moment (or perhaps vice versa: history conceived as some kind of rationally apprehensible progress is decomposed by, among other things, the failure of stable selfhoods).6

The third and related question which requires attention is: to what extent does Bowen rewrite sex as power? This is Henry James territory, and Bowen has a striking kinship with James both in moral vision and literary form. Are her representations of sexuality itself Jamesian also? What is the role of Irish repression (or, as she says, ‘sublimat[ion]’ or sexless infantilism) in them? In the Irish Gothic writer J. S. Le Fanu, who influenced both herself and James before her, she names ‘another terror-ingredient, moral dread.’7 She differs from James in the degree to which she links this quality with specifically sexual manipulation; how are those links effected and sustained? And what, if anything, have these links—the conscious use of others' sexual attraction, passion or need for love to produce effects in the world—to do with gendering, especially ‘inverted’ gendering, so-called? (Commenting later on The House in Paris, Bowen herself saw the sickroom of Madame Fisher, that laboratory for practising the witch-like manipulation of others, as a ‘bois dormant,’ which makes Madame Fisher, widowed in youth, a Sleeping Beauty but loveless and unawakened by another, who has had to be her own Prince Charming—both genders in one, as it were.)8

This is a painful question. The manipulators in Bowen's fictions are usually women, and so are most, though not all, of those they work upon; what are we to make of this intense consciousness of female power, albeit darkly used? How may we distinguish it from the stereotype of the Destroying Mother or witch? In Bowen, mothers literal and symbolic may forsake their children, voluntarily or otherwise (see Portia's mother Irene, who dies, Edward's mother Elfrida, who ‘ruins’ herself, Leopold's mother Karen, who cannot acknowledge him, and Eva Trout's beloved teacher Iseult Smith, who shies away from a committed care for Eva). They may exact compliance in the social order (Mrs Michaelis from Karen, Aunt Myra from Lois), ruthlessly appropriate the young as puppets in their own drama (as Madame Fisher does with both her own daughter Naomi and Karen her charge), or do as Mrs Kerr does to Sydney Warren: coldly and cruelly engage her affections, then transfer her attention to someone else, purely, it seems, for the Sadeian pleasure of seeing her power in action. For Phyllis Lassner, it is male dread of women which looms large, along with constricting social forms, in Bowen's fictions; but though Lassner has by her robust recourse to psychoanalytic perspectives on male-female relations greatly helped to remove Bowen's work from the context of woman's-novel gentility to which it was for too long and quite inappropriately consigned, there remains a great deal more to be said about Bowen's staging of gender and sex, and in particular about her intense interest in inventing manipulative and/or evil mother-figures.9 Still, to return to the opening question of this paragraph, in Bowen desire is not so totally transformed into, and rewritten as, power as it is in James; therein lies some of the intense interest the matter holds for our purposes. We may imagine power and sex as each a different axis, which sometimes cuts across the other, just as the drive of characters to insist on a fuller subjectivity for themselves, to assert more agency and resist objectification, sometimes also intersects with one or both of the other axes.

These three topics are properly concerned in any investigation of sex and gender in Bowen; but I leave them aside now, in order to concentrate mainly on some of Bowen's explicit representations of woman-to-woman feeling.


Discussing the role of same-sex attachment in literary texts is, of course, always a delicate and complex business. It is never more so than when the author of those texts is concerned, as Elizabeth Bowen was, to distance herself from any overt interest in or attraction towards the lesbian. In his introduction to the present volume Éibhear Walshe has already cited one of her disclaimers of such interest, made in the 1930s, and has noted the equal or even greater concern of her biographer, Victoria Glendinning, to register Bowen's alleged rejection of lesbian relationships in her life.10 We must respect such surfaces, but may also notice where they may mask a nexus of anxiety, a need so to constitute and perform the self as to appear adequately, suitably, feminine (given the desexing nature of the prevailing lesbian ‘invert’ stereotype).

À propos of the alleged physical signs which assisted observers to apply this stereotype, many descriptions of Bowen's own appearance by her contemporaries stress her large frame and assertive physical presence. Phyllis Lassner summarizes these: ‘She was tall and large-boned, and gave an impression of having masculine qualities in her movements, strong face and forthright opinions.’11 Bowen's unusual social role, as the sole heir of a landed family, however impecunious it was by then, contributed also: her parents had expected a son, and even chosen the name ‘Robert’ (the first name, incidentally, Bowen gave to both Stella Rodney's lover and the man surveilling her in The Heat of the Day). We would, of course, ourselves be putting the mannish-lesbian stereotype into action if we drew conclusions about Bowen's own choice of sexual modes or acts; all this is more of a comment on the narrowness and regulatory character of prevailing prescriptions for femininity in the period from about 1900 till the very recent past.

A wide range of critics now refer openly to the fact that, whatever about the nature of her marital life with Alan Cameron, Bowen had sexual affairs with men. It is scarcely necessary to point out that this does not preclude attraction to or love of women on her part. As regards Glendinning, her work is intelligent, sensitive and rich in detail, and is indispensable to the study of Bowen. But, writing as she was in the mid-1970s, and no doubt hampered by the then stricter limits on what could be said about sexuality, her biographical style is discreet to what now seems an unnecessary degree. The biography tends to take on the tone of her subject's letters and of the social intercourse of the period so fully as sometimes to muffle its own analytic potential. Thus a careful reading of the passage where Glendinning directly addresses the matter of Bowen's possible sexual self-identification leaves a distinct impression of ambivalence and constraint. On the one hand, Glendinning says:

Enough lesbian sensibility has been discerned … in [Bowen's] manner for some people to have presumed that, however conventional her married life, it was towards women that her true inclinations lay.12

and on the other, she asserts that

For a heterosexual woman, a close friendship with another woman is precisely that, and no more. For a lesbian, nearly all relationships with women must be coloured by the possibility of love

(my emphasis)13

The development of consciousness about bisexuality, contrasexuality and gender as performance would lead us now to query such a crisply announced dichotomy between heterosexual and lesbian, which would preclude the very possibility of either a bisexual orientation or a gradual, sometimes almost lifelong, arrival at a dominant sexual preference—whether or not such a process culminates in any ‘coming out.’ All this is admittedly (as Sedgwick very well demonstrates) a mine-field; at times in the biography there seems a risk of implicitly accepting the inversion model prevalent in the earlier part of the twentieth century, and as a result of collapsing ‘lesbian’ into ‘masculine.’ Thus: ‘there was a good deal that was masculine both in Bowen's physical self and in her mentality’ (my emphasis). Glendinning also draws on a certain ‘worr[y] about herself as a woman’ perceived in her by ‘a few of her friends,’ reading Bowen's ‘fondness for cosmetics, her concern for her appearance’ as a kind of behaviour she calls ‘anxiously feminine.’14 She further instances Bowen's curt rejection of sexual overtures by particular lesbian friends, implying that this amounts to a dispelling of any likelihood of lesbian orientation in general. It is only fair to say that Glendinning has a consistent policy of delicacy and is, in heterosexual matters also, less ready to call a spade a spade than many of those who have discussed Bowen in the two decades or so since she wrote. She is far from explicit about Bowen's several affairs with men in the 1930s and 1940s, no doubt understandably, given the far larger numbers of Bowen's contemporaries living at the time she was writing. The now much greater freedom about the discussion and the understanding of all these categories—‘masculine,’ ‘feminine,’ ‘lesbian,’ ‘heterosexual’—should help us to acquire more subtle conceptions of the complexity of experience and of the self-performance of gender and sexuality in the real world and, still more, in the highly complex set of social and sexual representations in Bowen's work. The whole matter can hardly fail to be intriguing to anyone thinking about Bowen, but, while I do not propose a total severance, in the formalist manner defined by T. S. Eliot, between ‘the [wo]man who suffers and the artist who creates,’ and still less do I suppose an oppositional relation between the two, the ultimate raison d'être of this essay is Bowen's art, which is even more interesting than her life.

At the end of that life there is a discernible shift in her own writing about this subject. The way she discusses the possible lesbian relationship of Somerville and Ross in her 1970 review of Violet Powell's The Irish Cousins is illuminating:

When the cousins met … there occurred one of those fusions of personality which in one way or another can make history. Their from then on total attachment incurred no censure, and—still stranger, given the habitual jocularity of their relatives—seems to have drawn down no family mirth. Nor was its nature—as it might be in these days—speculated upon. Absolutely, the upper class, Anglo-Irish were (then) non-physical—far from keen participants, even, from what one hears of them, in the joys of marriage.

(MT [The Mulberry Tree: Writings of Elizabeth Bowen], p. 186)

At first glance, this might seem to play down the ‘total attachment’, especially when she goes on to mention the ‘Ladies of Llangollen’, citing Somerville and Ross's opinion that they were ‘extremely silly’, and then again when, in a lightly humorous but significant passage, she insists on the asexuality of Ascendancy culture:

This couple of gentlewomen from Ireland were encased, armoured, in the invincible heartiness of their extroverted tribe and specialized class. Round and upon them blew prevailing gales of clean fun, anaphrodisiac laughter. Anything ‘extreme’ was comic: that went for passion, that went for art. Dogs, jokes, were the accepted currency. Their initial literary endeavours, daylong disappearances, together, to the neglect of tennis, side-split brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts. Only when books ‘appeared’ did menace begin. The two now ceased to be amateurs: things looked serious. The actual crux, or crunch, was The Real Charlotte.

(MT, pp 186-7)

But when one examines these passages carefully, it becomes clear that what Bowen says is, first, not that they were not lesbians, but that if they were, they got by without censure in their milieu; and, second, that they were able to do so because of the formidable repressions of sexuality and the body which characterised that milieu. So, though Bowen certainly, and with entire prudence, avoids a direct judgement or naming of the undeniable mutual love of the cousins as a lesbian one, at the same time she discerns in that attachment a quality of opposition to their given community and its values, a quality which emerges clearly and incontrovertibly in the fruits of that attachment, their writings. In spite of the implicit assertion of a change since their time, when ‘the upper class, Anglo-Irish were (then) non-physical’, we may see an element of autobiographical reference in what she says about those other daughters of the Big House who grew up in rural Ireland a scant decade or so before she herself was born in 1899. (The tennis party in The Last September comes to mind.)

In this passage there is also an implicit equation being made between the realms of freed desire and of art as spaces where social constriction is to be overcome, or at least combated. Passion, art, power, desire are all linked. Usually this ‘desire’ (figured primarily as sexual and indeed as heterosexual in the plots of most of the novels) is antithetical, even fatal, to the presumptions of the social world which is the habitat of the characters. How antithetical may not Bowen's perhaps corresponding aesthetic ‘desire’ have been to her own social world? By aesthetic desire I mean the narrative force or urge to go beyond, which at the meta-level of the author drives plots towards their resolutions and, much more, proposes their ideological, their moral, meanings. The cataclysms in both cases are generally muffled by the effect of a devastating irony recalling that of such a radical sceptic as Laclos, which saves the appearances of civility but hollows out their moral being to a shell. In what she has to say about Somerville and Ross she makes no bones about naming their passion and their art in the one breath; she goes on to note how they ‘cut the cable’ in The Real Charlotte, making their own ‘a terrain of outrageousness, obliquity, unsavoury tragedy, sexual no less than ambitious passion’ (MT, p 187). There can be no doubt of Elizabeth Bowen's own taste, under the highly polished surfaces, for the monstrous, the perverse, the necessarily antithetical (an ‘antithetical’ perhaps in Blake's sense, borrowed subsequently by Yeats).15

In all except her late work any specifically lesbian manifestation of that resistance to norms is usually projected as marginal, kept sleekly in check or, sometimes, conceived as predatory; but an imaginative fascination inheres even, perhaps especially, in these instances of predation: what reader of The Hotel does not feel the real silken cord of the book drawing tight between Sydney Warren and Mrs Kerr? Mr Milton is a sideshow to it. And the, so to speak, daylight modes of female empowerment, such as Karen's in The House in Paris, tend to be upstaged by the dark destructive designs of Madame Fisher and her like (of whom Karen thinks ‘she is a woman who sells girls; she is a witch’ (HP [The House in Paris], p. 155)).16


We have seen how Elizabeth Bowen decisively disclaimed any attraction in her own life towards lesbian sexuality in general, and individual lesbian women in particular. When in her fictions she created explicit representations of adult lesbian characters, she tended, as I have said, to place them in the margins, and with a high degree of irony, distance, and even moral disapprobation—not, to be sure, specifically of their presumed sexual acts, but of a range of characteristics with which she chose to endow them, characteristics sometimes including over-emotionality, sometimes manipulativeness. There are several glancing mentions, often humorous and, I think, all distancing except in Eva Trout, of the ‘crushes’ of adolescent girls. In The Death of the Heart Portia's school companion, the ‘more than doubtful’ Lilian, has had to be taken away from an earlier school ‘because of falling in love with the cello mistress, which had made her quite unable to eat’ (DH [The Death of the Heart] p. 51).17 And when Mrs Kerr in The Hotel mentions Sydney's attachment to her in a tone of carefully calculated ruefulness, her son Ronald remarks: ‘I thought you couldn't tolerate schärmerei’ (sic; TH [The Hotel], p. 94).18 But strong attachments between adolescent girls, or between young adult and older women, receive a more complex treatment, which, as I have suggested above, tends to represent the older woman in question negatively, whether as more or less predatory or as distraite and therefore emotionally irresponsible. Much of this, viewed piecemeal, may seem to readers to distinguish itself only slightly from such earlier versions of the quintessentially designing woman—coded, if not stated, lesbian—as Dickens's wicked Miss Wade, who sets out to alienate the affections of Tattycoram in Little Dorrit. This impression is, however, I believe, radically misleading.

And in her very late work there is a decisive shift in these patterns: both The Little Girls (1964) and Eva Trout (1968) concentrate predominantly on female attachment, and both explicitly, if inchoately in the case of The Little Girls, explore lesbian desire.19 There is a poignant awkwardness about both these novels, which critics, I think rightly, put down to that radical distrust of language itself, not to speak of fictional form, which is such a marked and progressive development in Bowen's work even from The Heat of the Day (1949) onwards. It is also relevant however, that it was only in her sixties that Bowen, widowed, having finally lost or perhaps rid herself of her Irish family home, and trying to achieve a stable base in south-east England, the scene of the intense years spent à deux with her mother from the ages of seven to thirteen, found herself able more or less directly to address questions of women's mutual attraction. This too must lie beneath the tongue-tied, halting utterance not only of the characters but even sometimes of the narrator in these novels. Bowen addresses such attraction, and some of the larger implications about a woman's life as a whole which it has, very much more satisfactorily in Eva Trout than in The Little Girls. The narrative pace of this novel is less than compelling, and to read it is to have the sense of a flailing immobility recalling the ‘festination’—the repetitive embroilment in the same perpetually uncompleted actions—which in life besets people with certain neurological disorders. The only passage in which the ‘“l”-word’ is actually mentioned offers, perhaps not accidentally, a particularly vivid example of this effective mental and psychological arrest:

‘… And apart from that, also, I often bore him—nor, I may say, is he the first I've bored. But then, boredom is part of love.’

‘That I deny!’

‘Well, of affection.’

That I doubt.’

‘Then you've no affections.—Mumbo, are you a Lesbian?’

‘Anything else, would you like to know? …’

(TLG [The Little Girls] p. 197)

It is interesting that being a lesbian is apparently equated by Sheila with a denial of affections: that is, an unnatural state.

Eva Trout also has male homosexual characters, who are treated with a conspicuous hostility, as outstandingly manipulative and calculating, artists in scripting the suffering of others.20 Bowen seems not really to have been interested in giving much more than a thumbnail sketch of these characters, and by no stretch of the imagination could they—Constantine and the trendy cleric Clavering-Haight—be said to be positive, valorising versions of gayness; instead Bowen restates the stereotypical connection between scheming and homosexuality, presenting these characters as either parasitic (Constantine and the clergyman, named out of Trollope) or deluded (Trout senior).

The characterisation of bisexual Eva, however, is, as we shall see later, strikingly different. She is shown as capable of explicit desire for both men and women, and is nevertheless not marginalised, treated as a caricature or morally discredited, all fates which befall the lesbians who are limned in more-or-less thumbnail sketches in Bowen's earlier work.21 I shall discuss some of these earlier examples, and return later to Eva.


The early and excellent short story of Bowen's, ‘The Jungle’ (1929), is set in a girls' boarding-school and deals with how the heroine, Rachel, forms an intense and troubling relationship with a younger girl, Elise. The setting is significant: it seems to have been acceptable in the period to show same-sex attachment in this conventional context. This presumably allowed readers to make the equally conventional—and implicitly regulatory—assumption that such attractions are a function of immaturity, that girls grow out of them and into proper adult heterosexual relations, and even that they can be seen as practising the rhetoric and rhythms of an emotional attachment on one another in advance of the real thing, falling in love with a man. The friendship of Eva Trout with Miss Smith, which is being discussed in my first epigraph, took place at school; the coming into her own of Theodora Thirdman in Friends and Relations is also effected during her boarding-school time.

The title of ‘The Jungle’ refers to the tangled small wood that the solitary Rachel has discovered by breaking the school bounds. Without a special friend one term, she meets Elise Lamartine, who is in certain ways markedly different from Rachel (and from the norm in the school community). She has French ancestors (and, the reader sees, a poet's name), and is exceptionally talented at physical pursuits such as gym and lacrosse. She has ‘her hair cut short like a boy's’, and after the friendship is established she takes the upper hand, ordering Rachel around in spite of her own inferior school status. The character of Elise is thus heavily coded, indeed it is overdetermined according to the gender/sex semiotics of the period, which as Sedgwick points out remain very much with us today: she is not only somewhat French (are we to read amorously advanced and precociously developed, sophisticated, or just ‘other’?) but more than evidently tending towards the ‘inverted’ (over-given to physical prowess, tomboyish in tastes and appearance, masculinely authoritative). Bowen gives Rachel two foreboding dreams near the start of the story which quite directly make the relationship with Elise something uncanny and threatening to normality:

Rachel had one terrible dream about the Jungle and woke up shivering. It was something to do with a dead body, a girl's arm coming out from under the bushes. … A few nights afterwards she was back there again, this time with some shadowy person always a little behind her who turned out to be Elise. When they came to the bush which in the first dream had covered the arm she was trying to tell Elise about it, to make sure it had been a dream, then stopped, because she knew she had committed that murder herself. She wanted to run away, but Elise came up beside her and took her arm with a great deal of affection. Rachel woke up in a gush of feeling, one of those obstinate dream-taps that won't be turned off, that swamp one's whole morning, sometimes one's whole day.

(CS [Collected Stories], p. 232)

Later, on their first visit together to the Jungle, Rachel recalls her dream-experiences, a heady mixture of sexual feeling, dismemberment and self-condemnation (‘she knew she had committed that murder herself’):

Here was the place where the dead girl's arm, blue-white, had come out from under the bushes. Here was the place where Elise, in the later dream, had come up and touched her so queerly.

(CS, p. 235)

It is worth spelling out what is happening here. The arm appears where it should not (in accordance with Freud's classic definition of the uncanny)—and so does Rachel's desire for Elise. The self is lawless, a jungle. Elise takes her arm and thus releases her longing. At the climax of the story, after an estrangement between the two girls, Elise is discovered lying with one arm flung out on the ground, asleep, in the Jungle; it ends with her curling up on Rachel's lap and falling asleep once more: ‘The round cropped head like a boy's was resting on Rachel's knees. She felt all constrained and queer; comfort was out of the question’ (p. 241). Rachel, though a more senior girl, is as if bewitched by Elise's force of personality and by Elise's very capacity to show indifference to her. The dream has climaxed with an uncontrollable excitement, rendered in a metaphor with unmistakable sexual suggestiveness: ‘a gush of feeling,’ a tap that cannot be turned off.

This story is beautifully managed. The importance in the school society of peer interaction and conventional distinctions such as parity of age among friends is evident, and the Jungle aptly represents Rachel's unregulated inner, sexual and emotional, self, to which in some trepidation she admits Elise. The motif of Elise's sleepiness humorously suggests the fairytale analogue of the Sleeping Beauty, a favourite motif of Bowen's, which would make Rachel her prince—a suggestion lightly acknowledged by the narrator during the scene: ‘Rachel stood looking down—the only beautiful thing about Elise was the cleft in her chin.’

This protagonist, Rachel, appears in an earlier story, ‘Charity’ (1926), which also concerns a friendship with another girl, but while it deals with relations of power between the two and between the friend named Charity and Rachel's older sister, it only lightly touches on physical contact, and parodies rather than actually enacts erotic relations. The girls are twelve. Charity comes to stay with Rachel during the holidays, and while eating a late supper they play romantic roles:

They lit one candle, and Charity, who could be very funny, sat languishing in the light of it, fluttered her lashes and ate off the tip of her fork. Rachel was a Guardsman, very adoring, and kept offering her champagne and cocktails. … Rachel … jumped up, flung an arm round Charity's neck and kissed her violently. ‘Oh, be careful, Captain de Vere,’ squeaked Charity; ‘you are dripping champagne from your moustache.’

(CS, p. 195)

The distinction between the stories is that between a true, disturbing engagement of the self, and the consciously ludic playing of roles conceived as adult, which are themselves guyed in this performance. In ‘The Jungle,’ I would say, there is no doubting the strong lesbian feeling, and I detect no ironic or even distancing impulse in the narration or in the totality of the story. The focalisation through the naïve protagonist, in this case Rachel, is a technique in which Bowen, even in her earliest work, shows a skill connected with the thematic importance of innocence in her vision. In ‘The Jungle’ the innocence of Rachel may be read as signifying doubly: it is an innocence of the erotic, or an inability to name the experience of sexual desire as such, but it is also an innocence of psychological manipulation (for all her and her schoolmates' counting themselves sophisticates). She encounters the two in one, in her time with—and then, painfully, without—Elise.22 When Elise aims (as the reader discerns) to produce an effect, the effect of hopeless longing, in Rachel, she has ‘the most wonderfully natural way of not seeing one’ (p. 239). This is the avatar of Mrs Kerr's artlessness with the hapless Sydney in The Hotel (1927), Bowen's underrated first novel. In ‘The Jungle,’ then, Bowen is already exploring both desperate desire and manipulativeness in the context of emotional attachment between females as played out by romantic and erotic flirtation and invitation.


With the one exception of her involuntary gift for rich dreams, the Rachel of ‘The Jungle’ and ‘Charity’ does not show conspicuous talent at anything except perhaps the capacity to suffer. Sydney Warren, the heroine of The Hotel, is quite different. With her man's name and her unwillingness to suffer fools gladly, her striking, sometimes boyish good looks and her air of having a tempestuous inner life, Sydney stands out in the small, claustrophobic expatriate society of the English wintering on the Italian Riviera. The novel has a curious uncertainty of tone, wavering between social comedy and Bildungsroman effects. But it attends to women's interrelations more intensely than most of Bowen's later work. Indeed, Bowen opens and closes the novel with a pair of bit players, Miss Fitzgerald and Miss Pym, whom it is difficult not to read as a distant echo of the Ladies of Llangollen.23

At the beginning of the novel we join these two characters in mid-quarrel, or perhaps tantrum. High-souled, religious, given to sketching landscapes, and deeply mutually attached, this pair at first appear to be a fairly sharp satiric parody of intense romantic friendship between women, Edwardian-style. In the pattern of the novel Bowen uses them half as foil and half as analogue for the relations of Sydney and Mrs Kerr. Of course, Bowen's effects are delicate, though rarely precious in the negative sense, and it is always difficult to be sure what is ironic and what is not. Further obstacles to interpretation are the cataclysmic shifts in social life which have taken place since the 1920s, the volatility induced by modernity, of which the character Sydney Warren is herself a living instance, and the arcane quality of English upper-class culture. One may be misreading all kinds of signals; but for all Miss Fitzgerald's and Miss Pym's role as butts of the narrator's humour at the start of this text, I would argue that ultimately they are, as the Bible says, not mocked. Their attachment stays firm, and though they make each other intermittently wretched and entirely lack aesthetic grace, there is about their partnership an authenticity entirely foreign to the bewitching Mrs Kerr. In this they resemble foolish Major Brutt in The Death of the Heart (1938), who together with the wronged heroine Portia attracts the epithet ‘pure in heart.’

Mrs Kerr is Sydney's older, widowed friend, who has a witch-like power. The clergyman Milton, briefly Sydney's fiancé, is shown feeling that power in a very Jamesian passage with her. He has been summoned to sit with her, ostensibly to be congratulated on the engagement:

He reproached himself for a suspicion of being closed in on, and of their oasis of silence, light and solitude having become for him a rather remote and dangerous island. Her personality had a curious way of negativing her surroundings, so that unless one made instant resort to one's senses the background faded for one and one conjured up in one's half-consciousness another that expressed her better, that was half an exhalation from herself. … He felt again, through that window behind her, that dark garden distressed by the wind; around her those undisturbed shadows, that never-ebbing, mild light.

(TH, pp. 135-6)

The brittle surface of the social scene is here definitively breached by an effect which can only be called uncanny: Mrs Kerr here more suggests Purcell's Sorceress working to wreck Dido's romance than the poised, graceful woman who has attracted Sydney's admiration, even hero-worship, who has distinguished Sydney by her special friendship—perhaps the phrase is ‘made Sydney her pet.’ The novel is, it eventually becomes clear, one story inside another: not really in the end the narrative of Sydney's development, her Bildung in the usual sense—that is, her arrival at marriage or even vocation or, more vaguely, a state of ‘maturity’—the business of the text is rather the unmasking of Mrs Kerr. The book's true climax comes in the highly satisfying scene in the penultimate chapter, chapter 24, where Sydney actually gets to tell her erstwhile tormentor that she has understood the whole intrigue.

There is, of course, no gross proof that Mrs Kerr's designs upon Sydney are specifically lesbian designs, certainly in the mere physical sense; but it is hard to account for Mrs Kerr's power over Sydney in any other way than as an erotic plot-motif.24 Perhaps for her—as I have suggested earlier—the equivalent of sex is power, which too has its excitements, its arousals and climaxes. Mrs Kerr's physical attraction is nevertheless carefully emphasised. As a young adult her son Ronald, who is made the instrument of his mother's manipulation of Sydney, is still vividly conscious of this bewitching beauty, which, in keeping with the book's Italian setting, is represented in terms of cultural icons (Madonnas, the women in Pre-Raphaelite pictures):

… behind the mask of her face she perceptibly retreated from consciousness, in the attitude of the Beata Beatrix. Looking down at her he went back through his memory, past his admiration for Rossetti, to the day when at six years old he had called his mother ‘My Beautiful.’

(TH, p. 96)


In The Hotel Bowen makes Sydney both ingénue heroine and sexually ambiguous. In the slightly later Friends and Relations she divides these roles, assigning the former primarily to Janet Studdart, and the latter to Theodora Thirdman. Sydney Warren also combines self-will with these other roles and attributes: in Friends and Relations the problem of women's appropriate self-determination arises, however differently, in the case of both Janet, the ‘feminine’ heroine, and in that of Theodora, the—one would almost have said ‘butch’—lesbian. (Bowen complicates the issue by also having Theodora desire Janet.) Apart from, or as well as, her lesbian characterisation, Theodora is one of a type in Bowen; to this type belong all those awkward and inconveniently perceptive teenage girls dotted about the novels who, like Pauline in To the North, are being ‘brought up by a committee of relatives’, or, like Theodora herself as she first appears, ‘spectacled, large-boned … awkwardly anxious to make an impression’, and wearing a totally wrong hat (‘“What a terrible girl,” said Lady Elfrida’ (FR [Friends and Relations] pp 12-13)).

In Bowen's early and middle work, such characters glower from peripheral niches in the plots, while the protagonists gliding up the central aisle of the story generally have beauty, social poise, parents, the warmth of human regard, or some combination of three of those four which makes them adequate to life.25 Eva Trout's strengths are sympathetically registered, in the 1968 work, as it seems Theodora's cannot be, at least overtly, in the 1931 one. For all the rapier-sharp and comic perception of Theodora which Bowen is able to give the narrator—‘her personality was still too much for her, like a punt-pole’ (FR, p. 13)—one cannot say that Theodora is constructed with pity, or even with charity, as Eva is. But Theodora undeniably has agency: she is the author of many of her own most entertaining scripts. After early chagrin at her felt exclusion from the ranks of the acceptably feminine (‘she did not seem likely to have a figure at all,’ thinks her mother), she strikes back with growing enthusiasm and flair at those within, and learns to vary herself and then to perform that repertoire of selves superbly. She invents a parodic persona, ‘Lady Hunter Jervois’, and in her ‘mature, pleasant voice’ telephones members of high society in the guise of this alter ego. She does this not to conceal herself, in a self-closeting or socially self-protective way, but goes on the offensive and uses her talents to confound that society which has no room for her. The novel's most hilarious bits attend her. In the role of Don Juan at school, she creates a disruptive stir of attraction from the others and admiration for her simulacrum of masculinity:

‘How different you are with no spectacles,’ said Dona Anna, lingering by the bathroom door.

‘We've never had so much love in a play before,’ said Hester, joining them. ‘Generally, we just arrange for lovers to go off tenderly. I mean, I do think Theodora's extraordinary …’

‘I suppose I can't imagine feeling self-conscious,’ said Theodora, straddling a little.

(FR, p. 45)

(Theodora's virtuosity is, of course, reckoned transgressive: ‘But next week, Miss Byng rather strongly suggested they should dramatize folk-songs. She said she liked their programmes to vary’ (FR, p. 45).) Her talents consist in the reinvention of selfhood, in creatively breaking ranks: her mother ruefully realises Theodora's spiky difference from her own adolescence, sketched as the correct course followed by the kind of ‘dutiful daughter’ Adrienne Rich called the male-identified woman—‘herself, she had practised the piano a good deal, said, “Very well, Father,” when Father objected; her figure began, she braided her back hair’ (p. 29)—while Theodora, significantly, ‘improvised but did not practise.’ In this character Bowen has represented a figure far more complex than the stereotypical invert: Theodora seems both less and more than the ‘normal’ woman projected by her society: less feminine, less acquiescent, less pretty, but more intelligent, more steely, more active, and bigger. Viewing the girls' pet guinea-pigs at the progressive school where Theodora is to be sent to ‘finish’ her, her father says: ‘“She has a brain,” … staring into the cages (the brain his son would have had), but unsteady, variable’ (p. 29).26 At a crucial moment in the novel's main plot Theodora's strength shows itself negatively, when she sends the letter which brings about the emotional catastrophe of the main characters. She does this for emotional revenge, because Janet cannot return her regard, or even her attention; this kind of motive she has in common with Eva Trout, but the planned and willed quality of her act, and the pleasure she has in watching the effects of her actions, a motive one would call ‘Sadeian’ in relation to Mrs Kerr in the preceding novel, differentiate her sharply from Eva, whose actions are only incidentally destructive. Theodora is much funnier, but then a convention seems to be operating in the novel whereby she is understood as a kind of grotesque whom the reader is expected not to take seriously—until, that is, she maliciously brings down the house of cards about the ears of the others, the straight women and their families. Even then, the narrator does not give her the degree of interiority which belongs to the characterisation of the novel's heroine, Janet, unambiguously named as object of Theodora's desire. (Janet tolerates Theodora, classifying her as ‘odd.’) Theodora's sprezzatura and her flamboyant non-conformity have, however, their echoes in the novel at what one might think the other extreme: the flamboyant Lady Elfrida, mother of the tormentedly conventional and respectable Edward, who as a young wife has ‘ruined’ herself by her sexual liaison with the big-game hunter Constantine but remains flagrantly unrepentant.

One especially interesting scene in Friends and Relations sets up the domestic life of the now adult Theodora and her flatmate Marise, formerly her school friend. Focalised through Theodora's mother, Mrs Thirdman, this little episode has a Jamesian ficelle-type function in terms of the plot, but plays a more important role thematically in the novel's meditation on women's possible lives.27 The passage is curious in that its dry irony seems rather equivocal: it is not clear whether the bewildered, literalistic mother or the angular, eccentric younger women are the object of implicit censure. Perhaps this is because the ironic narrative voice—which Bowen must have learned very largely from Jane Austen and which announces a correct set of judgements on manners and morals—is predicated upon the existence of a set of incontrovertible social norms which attract the consent of a coherent social world, whereas such a consensus is no longer in being in the twentieth century.

Signalling its occupants' uncompromising modernity, the flat has ‘a varnished colour-scheme of almost menacing restraint’ in which ‘there were scimitar-curves and discs and soaring angles,’ there are ‘gramophone records, proofs and curious drawings,’ but few comforts as Willa Thirdman would understand them—only ‘very low’ seating (probably, she thinks, because Marise and Theodora ‘stood about so much’); and ‘dust from the tea-leaves rose in a light film’ when ‘the alarming girl’ Marise sets about offering hospitality (pp 124-5). Marise is a writer; a little later the manuscript of a novel she has written plays a background role in one of the climactic emotional scenes of this novel. Asked what it is ‘about,’ Janet says: ‘Oh … women's difficulties, difficulties about women: I don't remember. I didn't think it seemed very good’ (p. 137). The lives of these two women are an implicit rejection of everything which has been expected of them; they prefer to be telephoned in advance of any visits, ‘in view,’ says Theodora, ‘of everything.’ The narrator here adds:

The two had perfected a system of half-allusion—it is not difficult for women to live together—and rarely had to say anything more direct than ‘What are we out of?’ or ‘You are looking like death today.’

(p. 124)

Mrs Thirdman, leaving, feels an obscure disappointment:

An interesting life, she repeated. Yet twenty-six years ago she had borne Theodora—to what? For this? And an idea remained in her mind that the furniture in the flat was made of ground glass.

(p. 126)

A moment characteristically balanced between ironic humour and poignancy follows: ‘She wished she had a married daughter in London …’


In Bowen's later texts there are important representations of female fellowship, admiration and attention which, while not, like this, explicitly coded as lesbian, leap to the eye of a reader whose consciousness has been at all raised about woman-to-woman relationships. There is Louie's admiration for Stella in The Heat of the Day, for example, and her capacity, alone among the novel's characters, for intuiting Stella's despair. The words ‘a soul astray’ form unbidden in her mind as her perception of Stella. Inarticulate, humble and isolated, Louie is lost in the world and, in herself, seems to lack all capacity to be the author of her own life, but to her it is given to discern Stella's pain and disinterestedly to admire her.

In the part of the story dealing with Stella and Louie, Bowen seems, most obviously, to be using the structure, highly conventional in comedy, opera and novels of manners, of setting up two characters as alter egos, or partial versions of one another. Louie becomes, like Stella, the mother of a son. With her husband away at war, she seeks attachments outside marriage and thus steps outside normative feminine behaviour, or ‘virtue,’ as Stella has the reputation of having done (both in the past and again after Robert's mysterious death at what the newspapers call her ‘Mayfair’ flat (see p. 306)). Like Stella, she becomes oddly embroiled with Harrison, and so on. But it is important to distinguish between this structural function of the Louie-Stella parallel and the emotional content in their relation as characters. Accompanying the admiration she conceives for Stella, Louie also yearns for her. With renewed awareness she experiences her own permeability to the world, to whatever ‘the air was charged with, night and day.’ She feels herself to be so much ‘receiver, conductor, carrier’ that she cannot compose or discern herself as a separate entity; and it is in this context that, recalling Stella's warmth at their one meeting—‘But this is not goodbye, I hope?—she recognises what amounts to her passion for Stella: ‘Lying in Chilcombe Street … Louie dwelled on Stella with mistrust and addiction, dread and desire’ (p. 248). Her beauty, her class, her presumed wealth, certainly play a part in surrounding Stella with an aura of excitement for Louie, but beneath all these is a stratum of real and intense combined attraction and concern. This plot element in The Heat of the Day is a good example of what is a not infrequent phenomenon in the novels: the presence of a homoerotic motif or incident or feeling in the margins of the main action, slightly out of the direct glance of what the narrative theorist Todorov calls ‘the narrator-reader couple,’ but there all the same, and perhaps the more suggestive for being oblique. (Naomi Fisher's mute attention to Karen in The House in Paris is another striking example.) In this case Louie's undischarged care for Stella, her perhaps rather maternal inexpressible concern for her, is touching.

Making a slight shift of perspective, let us consider Stella, apotheosis of Bowen heroines, in the context of gender, sexuality and empowerment. Stella has the smoothest of polished surfaces: she is beautiful, fashionable, and capable. She is apparently star-like, as her name suggests. But in fact not only is she literally being watched (like the circumscribed court ladies who were so ambiguously celebrated by Renaissance sonneteers as cold, distant guiding stars); she is beset by men who are all more or less inadequately phallic (to use a harsh word). Until well into the novel there is no intimation of female fellowship; Stella is alone, even exaggeratedly or markedly so, and so is Louie, when she distractedly half-tries to pick up Harrison in the opening scene.28 On the other hand, the novel is full of instances of masculinity, but refracted and, glass-like, half-reflecting one another and split into shards or slivers. Bowen's verbal games with naming and with physical appearance as metaphor in this novel would not have disgraced a Freudian dream-text. Under surveillance by the shadowy Harrison, who literally looks crooked (his eyes are at different heights), Stella has a dead (and failed) husband named Victor Rodney and a scrupulously honourable but stiff and emotionally distant son, Roderick Rodney. In addition, she is in love with a wounded, limping man, whose unmanning at Dunkirk has coalesced with his oppression in childhood and his father's brokenness to bring about his secret treachery. This element of the plot, Robert's spying, scarcely or barely supports any attempt to give it motivation in realist terms, but functions strikingly as part of the novel's subtle and highly organised interrogation of masculinities, which is a motive on another level, namely the ideological and psychological. Robert's knee-wound, which, it is explained, is more disabling at some times than at others—he appears most physically wounded, limps worst, when he is feeling wounded—strongly recalls the displaced but recognisably phallic thigh- or buttock-wounds of medieval romance.29 Harrison watches, knows and loves but cannot gain Stella; Robert loves her but has lost himself. Her son Roderick too loves her but is abstracted, not merely by his obsession with his role as owner of his newly inherited Irish estate. ‘It had been clear’, says the narrator with startling briskness, ‘since Roderick was a child, that friendship with him would have to be one-sided’ (HD [The Heat of the Day], p. 60).30 Between them all Stella is a specially intense example of Bowen's consistent representation of heterosexual women as ‘other’ to their men and isolated among them; a more extreme case still is Emmeline in the earlier work To the North, who is destroyed by her desire for the caddish Markie.


Between The Hotel (1927) and Friends and Relations (1931) came The Last September (1929). This is almost as equivocal in its adherence to the Bildungsroman genre as The Hotel. Its setting during the Irish War of Independence and its adoption of ‘Big House novel’ conventions (then seen as inherited from Edgeworth, Trollope, Thackeray, and Somerville and Ross, now definitively exemplified for many by The Last September itself) combine to complicate the story of Lois Farquar's passage to adulthood. Less discussed than these, however, the novel has another aspect which may be experienced as at the very least a variation on Lois's ‘voyage out.’ At the opening of the novel she is self-consciousness in white muslin, desperate for an escape from the emptiness attending the life-path which she is expected to follow: a ‘suitable’ engagement, a marriage in due course which will be devoted to stoutly sustaining her class and its way of life, as her Aunt Myra does. Her cousin Laurence has at least Oxford to go back to, and though he shares her ennui, he is not above irritatedly imagining her as ‘a very pink bride.’ All this functionlessness is, of course, part of the book's stress on the façade, cardboard-like quality of the Anglo-Irish Big Houses in their fragility and quasi-unreality compared to the ‘wide, light, lovely unloving country’ described as ‘the unwilling bosom’ on which the great houses were set (TLS [The Last September] p. 66). But besides the historical aspects of the novel, both the narrower and the wider ones—an anatomy of Ascendancy uselessness, but also an intimation of international Twenties malaise in general—it queries the prescribed narratives of femininity as such. This interrogation centres on Marda, the ‘Miss Norton’ whose demure name is given, tongue-in-cheek, to the middle section, which recounts her visit to Danielstown.

Lois desires to desire. Her romance with Gerald, the English officer, is dreamy but asexual; she cannot quite bring herself really to inhabit it. But when Marda comes, Lois mutely admires her, wants to be with her, longs for her regard. One of Marda's other functions in the book's design is certainly as an older alter ego: ten years on from Lois and her friends who are experimenting both in London and in Co. Cork with their first exposure to adult social life, she has been there and done that. With a broken engagement or two behind her, a just-avoided scandal, Marda has had to capitulate to the script laid out for her and is about to marry. But her lack of affect in the whole matter is striking: she is so purely following the rules, and her interior dissent from them is so plain. Exquisitely poised and fashionable, Marda is a volatile element in the isolated world of Danielstown: not only Lois, but Laurence, and Hugo who is a whole generation older, all fall for her. So she attracts the desire of others, rather like Sydney Warren, but, also like Sydney, cannot herself become attached.

Turning to Lois's state of mind, it seems that Gerald fills a role which she needs to have filled as a kind of experiment, like her adventures in the stereotypical gaiety of youth such as dancing down the avenue to gramophone music. It is quite plain, even comically so, that Gerald's death is mostly a relief to Lois, whereas her attachment to Marda is what we might call emotionally in earnest. Marda in her turn attends to Lois in a way she is desperately in need of and which the likes of Aunt Myra or Francie do not.31 It is another example, on a larger scale than the one in The Heat of the Day, of a woman-to-woman attachment which takes place in the margins of the accepted social narrative and which has little or no allotted place in the scheme of things (and, I might add, in most of the published criticism of Bowen to date). Accounts of the book which glide over Marda are, I would argue, defective to the extent that they ignore something Bowen placed, in one sense, at the centre of her design.

We should recall that Marda is about to move to England to make her marriage, a prospect for which Lady Naylor, who has never been able to see the point of the Home Counties, extends sympathy to her; the reader observes the implicit irony whereby Lady Naylor herself is about to be deprived by the forces of history of her own Irish home. The immolation of Danielstown in the book's spectacular final scene is so imaginatively satisfying because in it Bowen effects a virtual destruction not only of the Big House but also of that whole claustrophobic world within which Lois is so stiflingly confined. It is implied that modernity must afford Lois, at least, a purpose in life, even if Marda, for all the restless unchannelled force of her personality, has been obliged to capitulate to appropriately feminine uselessness.

Marda is not one of Bowen's manipulators, but is perhaps a prefiguring of Stella Rodney in The Death of the Heart: a woman straying without direction in the upper-class social world which is her milieu but which offers her no meaning. And Marda, like Lois, has conductivity: they are together when, in the rather uncanny ruined mill, they meet the book's second IRA man, who accidentally fires the shot which wounds Marda in the hand. When Marda leaves for the boat train, a ghostly wind blows through her empty bedroom and flutters the pages of the book lent her by the hopeful Laurence, which she has left lying there. In her invention of this disruptive figure, focus of the central part of the book, Bowen seems to distil and concentrate the other characters' search for purpose, and to show the failure of that search. All in all, the Marda narrative in The Last September might seem well suited for that kind of mental rewriting by lesbian-feminist readers described by Bonnie Zimmerman when she suggested

that lesbian-feminist readers resist ‘heterotexts’ by privately rewriting and thus appropriating them as lesbian texts. There is a certain point in a plot or character development—the ‘what if’ moment—when a lesbian reader refuses to assent anymore to the heterosexual imperative and follows her own path.32

I have, however, grave doubts about this strategy. There are certainly cases where this specific application of the general ‘resisting reader’ policy originally defined by Judith Fetterley may prove fruitful, but the complex and subtle design and texture of Bowen's novels surely make them unsuitable objects for such simplifying upbeat readings. Given the paradoxical quality of Bowen's imagination and her multiple ironies, I feel one has one's hands full in attending to what is there, the endings that Bowen did actually write, however little purchase they may offer to perfectly understandable Utopian longings. I do not believe this judgement amounts to ‘heterosexism’ (after all, loving men scarcely gets the female characters of The Last September very far either); and my understanding of the novel is that, along with and among the other inheritances of traditional gentry society, the sex/gender system prevailing in it is being searchingly interrogated by Bowen in this as in other texts (and as we have seen it critiqued in her discussion of Somerville and Ross late in her life). Bowen's text characterises the relation of Lois to Marda with delicate impulses of yearning and attraction, but there are no false dawns: the light illuminating the book at the end is that of Danielstown burning down (‘the door standing open hospitably upon a furnace’).33


I have been noting the insistent, if understated, importance of woman-to-woman attachment in Bowen's works from the end of the 1920s onwards, and the various modes of that attachment: the explicitly ‘inverted’ bond between the ‘mannish’ Theodora and Marise, the yearning of Louie for Stella, and, one might add, of Naomi in The House in Paris for Karen (herself tragically embroiled in her doomed passion for Max). Also insistently present are versions of mother-daughter bonds; what light may these throw on Bowen's representation of women and desire?

In recent decades psychoanalysts have increasingly stressed the fundamental role of the mother-child dyad in constituting identity. Elizabeth Bowen's own childhood loss of her mother by death is a relevant biographical consideration here—a striking parallel with what happened to Virginia Woolf. Rich's concept of a ‘lesbian continuum’, with its use of motherhood as paradigm of woman-to-woman relationships, even contentious as that use is, also comes irresistibly to mind: does this to any degree displace in Bowen the ‘inversion model’ of such attachments?34 I have mentioned the merging of desire with identification in ‘woman-identified’ theories of feminine sexuality; at the end of this discussion we shall see a striking expression of lesbian love as identification in Eva Trout: ‘She is all I am …35

Certainly it is true that in Bowen's vision of relations between women a crucially important role is played by mothers literal and symbolic, and while there are both nurturing and destroying mother-figures, the destroying ones predominate imaginatively. Mrs. Kerr, Madame Fisher, and Mrs Kelway in The Heat of the Day are all good examples of the destroying kind (and so is Mrs Nicholson, another Jamesian manipulator, to the sad little boy in ‘Ivy Gripped the Steps’). But there are also important examples of the ‘original nurturing love’ of mother and daughter, and these examples do make a remarkable use of the trope of love as identification, as distinct from love as desire. These daughters' love is, as is perhaps true of all human loves, never more intensely felt than after its loss. The Bowen novel in which that love and loss are most memorably instanced is The Death of the Heart, in which Portia's beloved natural mother Irene (which in Greek means ‘peace’) dies. She finds herself in—or on—the hands of a cold unloving stepmother, her half-brother's wife Anna. The book luminously recalls the child Portia's and her mother's wanderings through inexpensive Swiss hotels (because of Irene's illicit liaison with Portia's father, they cannot come home, even after his death). In this passage early in the novel, as Portia looks vaguely at her half-brother Thomas with whom she now lives, he feels her abstraction:

Thomas felt the force of not being seen. … What she did see was the pension on the crag in Switzerland. … Precarious high-upness had been an element in their life up there, which had been the end of their life together. That night they came back from Lucerne on the late steamer, they had looked up, seen the village lights at star-level through the rain, and felt that that was their dear home. They went up, arm-in-arm in the dark, up the steep zigzag, pressing each others' elbows, hearing the night rain sough down through the pines: they were not frightened at all. … They would lie down covered with coats, leaving the window open, smelling the wet woodwork, hearing the gutters run.

(DH, p. 34)

Portia has a deep longing for maternal love and oblivion, which are strikingly merged in the scene where, overcome by the strain of Thomas and Anna's grand but chill house and beset by the manipulative Eddie (another vintage Bowen ‘bounder’) she falls asleep propped against the chimney-breast at afternoon tea.36 The housekeeper Matchett's awkward efforts to offer Portia some surrogate motherly affection make a poignant strand in the novel's design. Herself starchy, proper and standoffish where the other servants and her employers are concerned, Matchett is nevertheless driven by her concern for Portia's lostness and a sense of her overwhelming emotional isolation to reach out to her in an awkward maternal moment, frozen at source by bodily repression:

Matchett, reluctantly softening, inch by inch, unlocked her arms, leaned across the bed again, leaned right down—in the mysterious darkness over the pillow their faces approached, their eyes met but could not see. Something steadily stood between them: they never kissed—so that now there followed a pause at once pressing and null. Matchett … released herself and drew a judicial breath. … But Portia's hand, with its charge of nervous emotion, still crept on the firm broad back, the strong spine.

(DH, p. 83)

This isolation is exacerbated by the prescribed repressions of upper-class femininity, not least by its denials of the body. Vigilantly watched over in the classroom by a headmistress whose ‘rigid stillness quelled every young body, its nervous itches, its cooped-up pleasures in being itself, its awareness of the young body next door’ (p. 55), Portia is ticked off for reading her letter from Eddie under the desk. Acutely aware of being above all an encumbrance to Anna and Thomas and inwardly desperate for someone's loving regard, Portia replays her life with her mother as an experience of complete mutual recognition and merging. Though from the viewpoint of respectability what they had was a ‘shady … skidding about in an out-of-season nowhere’, her memory is of a warm emotional union marked by mutual recognition, truly this lost daughter's ‘original love’:

Untaught, they had walked arm-in-arm along city pavements, and at nights had pulled their beds closer together or slept in the same bed—overcoming, as far as might be, the separation of birth.

(DH, p. 56)

This reminds us of the child Hermione in Friends and Relations who wakes with a nightmare and clings to her mother, crying: ‘Oh, go on holding me tight, don't go; I wish we were the same person!’ (FR, p. 110).


From these examples of mother—daughter attachment figured very much as identification, I turn to Eva Trout (1968). In this novel the highly finished protagonists of Bowen's earlier social worlds are supplanted by the raw, unfinished Eva, the great gawky girl who is first more or less orphaned—conveyed, in luxury, around the world after her distracted father and his exploitative lover Constantine; then emotionally wronged by her Miss Smith at school, who gave her some attention and held her out a promise of regard, but left her in a kind of psychological inchoateness and isolation:

She desisted from teaching me. She abandoned my mind. She betrayed my hopes, having led them on. She pretended love, to make me show myself to her—then, thinking she saw all, she turned away.

(ET [Eva Trout] pp 184-5)

Becoming racked by ‘long-ago’ grief, she adds: ‘I had never been. I was beginning to be. … She sent me back … to be nothing. … I remain gone. Where am I? I do not know—I was cast out from where I believed I was.’ And later, Eva has come to see that Iseult hated her, ‘hated the work she had feared to finish’ (p. 185). Not at home in language, and unable to settle in any place, monster Eva is the ultimate avatar of all the too-strong but unfocused, ‘unfeminine’ women of the earlier fictions, of whom Theodora is the fullest exploration; her loves, all but one of which are for other women, are poignant, her fate early and violent death. Inheriting great wealth, she uses it to acquire a son by purchase, a deaf-mute with a prophet's name (Jeremy), an alter ego whose moment comes in the novel's intentionally weird climactic scene, just after Eva's own apotheosis when she appears dressed up for the pretend wedding she has planned in the gloom of Victoria Station. Jeremy accidentally (probably) and symmetrically shoots dead his virgin mother.

Eva is awkwardly large physically (and, we feel, psychically) and something of a poor fit as to social gender. A schoolfellow asks, ‘Trout, are you a hermaphrodite?’ and she replies: ‘I don't know.’ The possibility is not an entirely negative one: it comes supplied with potential, if odd (‘queer’?) glory: ‘Joan of Arc's supposed to have been’ (p. 51). Looking back, Iseult Smith says to Clavering-Haight: ‘… she belonged to some other category “Girl” never fitted Eva. Her so-called sex bored and mortified her. She dragged it about after her like a ball and chain’ (p. 243). Her capacity for intense, helpless love, as for her mentor Miss Smith, has the effect of revealing the limitations of its objects. She strongly recalls the monster in Frankenstein, abandoned by its maker, righteously angry, and at first totally innocent. Eva does eventually come to display the same quality of agency shown earlier by clever Theodora, that other gender misfit; but where Theodora, as we have seen, employs her powers to discomfit others, and manoeuvres in a more or less Sadeian way to make them her puppets, Eva devotes her attention to making herself a life and wrenching free of her minders. In so doing, she has destructive effects, but not out of frivolity or deliberate malice. The book is a kind of study of will at work, in which the social surface is scantily, even perfunctorily, wrought. Bowen's interest in the internal pattern of psychological forces at play against one another and in Eva's eccentric but purposive self-development consumes her attention, making the novel more or less completely careless of Barthes's ‘reality-effect.’

As to Eva's loves, her perception, registered with a flash of Bowen's earlier ironic poignancy, was that Iseult Smith was in too much of a hurry to ‘exchange embraces of any kind’ with her. There is, however, a touching scene in which Eva recites a passage of seventeenth-century poetry on the love of God, which evidently transfers to her own inexpressible love for her teacher:

But thou art Light, and darkness both together:
If that bee dark we can not see,
The sunn is darker than a Tree,
And thou more dark than either.
Yet Thou art not so dark, since I know this,
But that my darkness may touch thine
And hope, that may teach it to shine,
Since Light my Darkness is.
O lett my Soule, whose keyes I must deliver
Into the hands of senceless Dreames
Which know not thee, suck in thy beames
And wake with thee for ever.

Miss Smith's response (surely a tiny parody of 1950s ‘New Criticism’) is to talk about ‘how pure language can be,’ with ‘not more than two syllables—are there?—in any word’ (pp 65-6). But in spite of that, in this instance of Eva's love for Iseult, Bowen gives her protagonist a degree of direct and expressible emotional investment which contrasts with the intentional inarticulateness of Rachel's unawakened sensibility in ‘The Jungle’ (with its not dissimilar school setting) and which elsewhere in her work is, as we have seen, more usually masked or deflected.

Still more clearly, Eva has also quite unambiguously loved her school roommate Elsinore (can this, its Hamlet allusion a false trail, be a version of the ‘Elise’ loved by Rachel in the 1927 story?). This attachment is revealed in flashback, after their accidental meeting in America as adults. The adult Elsinore (now ‘Elsi-nora’) is described as still tiny, a suggestive complement to Eva's size: ‘She had hardly grown. Inside the haze of thistledown hair her waif beauty was as it had been, not child's or woman's.’ The accoutrements of her adult femininity seem like mere actress's props: ‘The silver fox cape smothering her shoulders, the brilliants studding her ears might have been borrowed from an acting box’ (p. 131). The contrast between the adult Eva's and Elsinora's appearance or self-presentation may seem to indicate what Sedgwick calls ‘the preservation of an essential heterosexuality within desire itself,’ with Eva cast as ‘man’, as it were, to Elsinora's ‘woman’; yet the trope of love as identification which is simultaneously present decisively displaces that of sexual difference. In this, the climactic passage, Elsinore, slight, fair-haired and ethereal, has attempted suicide by walking into the lake beside the school:

The hand on the blanket, the beseeching answering beating heart. The dark: the unseen distance, the known nearness. Love: the here and the now and the nothing-but. The step on the stairs. Don't take her away, DON'T take her away. She is all I am. We are all there is.

(p. 133; italics in original)

After a period of illness during which Eva is allowed to be with her and, as we are only later explicitly told, love her, Elsinore's mother, who had earlier simply off-loaded her at the school, suddenly turns up and takes her away. The passage above continues, in Eva's interior monologue:

Haven't you heard what is going to be? No. Not, but I know what was. A door opening, how is my darling? Right—then TAKE her away, take your dead bird. You wretch, you mother I never had. Elsinore, what happened? Nobody told me, nobody dared. Gone, gone, Nothing can alter that now, it's too late. Go away again.

(p. 133; italics in original)

It is difficult to read these passages in their context and think in quite the same way afterwards about almost any of the other woman-to-woman scenes and plot elements in Bowen.


In conclusion, how may we draw these strands together? I have a number of very simple propositions. First, mother-attachment is a major nexus of feeling in Bowen's work, and it is invariably attended by one or more of the three emotions of love, grief or anger, each very intense. Sometimes that anger is projected onto the mother-figure, making her a ‘destroying’ or ‘terrible’ mother. Sometimes, as in the very early story ‘Coming Home’, it is part of a fantasy of destructive power within the daughter's self.37 But, pace Adrienne Rich's view, in Bowen the mother-daughter bond is not, in my opinion, either felt or represented, nor can it usefully be conceived, as the source, origin or determinant of lesbian desire. Second, Bowen's fictions also show a sensitive awareness, remarkable for her time, of the shifting, sometimes evanescent, sometimes enduring interpenetration of desire and friendship in women's relationships, and she explores and represents such attachments across a spectrum from negative to positive. Third, her fiction shows a strong imaginative interest in the representation of specifically lesbian feeling and woman-to-woman relationships of desire, whether reciprocal or not. Finally, while in her work as a whole Bowen explores the desire for the other as other, whether between women and women or women and men, she attends with equal or greater intensity to desire as love of one's like, one's other self, in other words a desire which culminates in identification: ‘the hand on the blanket, the beseeching answering beating heart. The dark: the unseen distance, the known nearness. Love: the here and now and the nothing-but. … She is all I am. We are all there is.


  1. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet, London: Penguin, 1994, pp 85, 87-8.

  2. Adrienne Rich, ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence’ in Catherine Stimpson and Ethel Spector Person (eds.), Women, Sex and Sexuality, University of Chicago Press, 1980, pp. 62-91. See Sedgwick, op. cit., esp. pp 36-7 and 84-90, for a wide range of other relevant references to this argument.

  3. Examples of the literal relations I am primarily thinking of are those recalled by Portia in The Death of the Heart, with her now dead mother, those in The House in Paris between Karen Michaelis and her mother, that iron hand in a velvet glove, and those in the very early story ‘Coming Home’ (1923), which is a miniature study in the competing selfhoods of mother and daughter (CS, pp. 95-100).

  4. I have drawn here (and elsewhere in this essay) on the following: Judith Mayne, ‘A Parallax View of Lesbian Authorship’ in Diana Fuss (ed.), Inside/out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories, London: Routledge, 1991, pp. 173-85; Biddy Martin, ‘Lesbian Identity and Autobiographical Difference(s)’ in Anne C. Herrmann and Abigail J. Stewart (eds), Theorizing Feminism, Boulder and Oxford: Westview Press, 1994, pp. 316-38; Marilyn R. Farwell, ‘Towards a Definition of the Lesbian Literary Imagination’ in Susan Wolfe and Julia Penelope (eds), Sexual Practice and Textual Theory, Cambridge, Mass. & Oxford: Blackwell, 1993, pp. 66-84. Renee C. Hoagland's book Elizabeth Bowen: A Reputation in Writing, New York University Press, 1994 (in a series on Lesbian Life and Literature) has come to my attention just at the completion of this essay. It addresses Bowen in the combined perspectives of psychoanalysis, lesbian feminism, and the post-structuralist critique of traditional subjectivity. Hoagland's analysis of current thinking from these perspectives about the process of identification and its relation to desire is a useful one and bears on my own argument (see esp. p. 343 n. 32).

  5. Sedgwick, op. cit., p. 85.

  6. McCormack also insists, not incidentally, on the creative estrangement from realistic form which Bowen effects: ‘Lucid with detail from the street and on the dressing-table, reliable as to rationing and blackout regulations, it turns away from realism into romance. This is no evasion of reality. It is the romance of irony which releases character from the iron cage of identification with the self. W. J. McCormack, Dissolute Characters: Irish Literary History through Balzac, Sheridan Le Fanu, Yeats and Bowen, Manchester University Press, 1993, p. 240.

  7. In a well-known passage on Le Fanu's Uncle Silas, she wrote (as something specifically Irish) of the ‘sublimated infantilism’ of the Anglo-Irish milieu from which both she and Le Fanu originated, and added: ‘In the story, no force from any one of the main characters runs into the channel of sexual feeling’ (MT, p. 101). The remark about ‘moral dread’ is in MT, p. 112.

  8. ‘The room, felt by the child [Henrietta] as “so full and still”, is a case not of mere immobility but of immobilization. In a terrible way, it is a bois dormant’ (‘Pictures and Conversations’, MT, p. 285). Madame Fisher's daughter Naomi says ‘she is all mind and will, but she cannot make a tisane without flames running round the spirit stove’ (p. 188).

  9. See Phyllis Lassner, Elizabeth Bowen, London: Macmillan, 1990, esp. pp. 48-72.

  10. See Victoria Glendinning, Elizabeth Bowen: Portrait of a Writer, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1977, pp. 189-91.

  11. Lassner, op. cit., pp. 14, 5.

  12. Glendinning, op. cit., p. 189.

  13. Ibid., p. 140.

  14. Ibid.

  15. W. J. McCormack notes Bowen's employment of children and ghosts as conductors of one mode of such monstrosity, the uncanny (From Burke to Beckett: Ascendancy, Tradition and Betrayal in Literary History, Cork University Press, 1995, p. 409, drawing on the work of Giorgio Agamben).

  16. In this connection, R. F. Foster cites Bowen's own warm approval of Portia in The Death of the Heart as a deliberate wrecker of the status quo, and approved of this destruction. Bowen disliked the tendency of readers and critics to emphasis Portia's victim position (R. F. Foster, Paddy and Mr Punch, London: Penguin, 1993, p. 103).

  17. ‘More than doubtful’ here is the phrase of Miss Paullie the headmistress, and is meant, I believe, to be read as a comment simultaneously on class and on a behaviour which infringes the close boundaries of feminine ‘self-respect’, i.e. flirtation (see p. 57).

  18. Schwärmerei (Bowen, or the typesetter, incorrectly omits the ‘w’) in its usual twentieth-century sense means a rather irrational or excessive emotional attachment, and has often been used to name the attachments (or, more dismissively, ‘crushes’) of adolescent girls for each other or for older women, typically teachers or more senior girls, and especially in a boarding-school environment. Its older, more literary context was the special attention paid to the life of the emotions in the period of sensibility and Romanticism, between the late 1700s and the early 1800s. I am grateful to Beate Dreike for her elucidation of this word.

  19. McCormack notes that the topic of homosexuality ‘only breaks the surface’ in these works, but after that is silent on the matter (From Burke to Beckett, p. 409).

  20. Thus Eva Trout's dead father is presented in brief flashbacks as having been besotted by the silky Constantine, so mesmerized by his attraction as to be endlessly willing to be sponged off and, what is more to the point, to neglect and emotionally abandon the child Eva.

  21. As Hermione Lee puts it, ‘Though Elizabeth Bowen deals very unsympathetically with homosexuals in Eva Trout, there's a clear expression of understanding for lesbian feelings in the last two novels’ [i.e. The Little Girls and Eva Trout] (Elizabeth Bowen: An Estimation, London: Vision Press, 1981, pp 208-9).

  22. ‘She felt so sick for Elise that she prayed to be hit by a ball on the head every time she went out to Lacrosse’ (p. 239).

  23. Here, as very often, she plays games with names: for ‘Butler’ and ‘Ponsonby’, respectively Hiberno-Norman and quintessentially English-sounding, read ‘Fitzgerald’ and ‘Pym’, whose first name is even ‘Eleanor’ (like Butler's); in ‘Pym’ we might also hear an ‘r’ after the ‘P’.

  24. Diana Swanson's essay ‘Subverting Closure: Compulsory Heterosexuality and Compulsory Endings in Middle-Class British Women's Novels’ (in Wolfe and Penelope, op. cit., pp. 150-63), in a perceptive brief discussion of The Hotel, simply describes Sydney as ‘in love with Mrs Kerr’.

  25. Portia in The Death of the Heart, an exception, lacks at least three of these four, and to that extent prefigures Eva Trout.

  26. When her parents return to their London flat after this visit they find that Theodora—like those guinea-pigs—‘has more than ever her caged air’ (p. 30). On the ‘brain his son would have had’, compare the alleged expectation of Bowen's own parents about the gender of their child (see p. 108 above).

  27. James applies the term ficelle (i.e. ‘string’) to characters whom he uses as often unwitting carriers of bits of information crucial to the plot: the symbolically named Miss Stringham is an example.

  28. Louie's tough sidekick, the ARP warden Connie, who is introduced a bit later, is one of a gallery of confidantes who are worthy of a whole discussion to themselves: it would include Lois's two friends Olivia and Viola (with their names borrowed from Twelfth Night, in which one falls in love with the other, resourcefully cross-dressed), and solemn Portia's slightly ‘not-quite-quite’ adviser Lilian in The Death of the Heart.

  29. For an example in Malory see Catherine La Farge, ‘The Hand of the Huntress: Repetition in Malory's Morte D'arthur’ in Isobel Armstrong (ed), New Feminist Discourses, London: Routledge, 1992, p. 265.

  30. For this Stella tends to blame herself: a beautiful passage expresses her sense of having somehow been responsible for cutting him off fatally from the world in his childhood: ‘… when he was a baby she had amused him by opening and shutting a painted fan, and of that beau monde of figures, grouped and placed and linked by gestures or garlands, he never had, she suspected, lost interior sight. The fan on its fragile ivory spokes now remained closed: she felt him most happy when they could recreate its illusion in their talk’ (HD, p. 61).

  31. This recalls Marilyn R. Farwell's explanation of her own conception of the word ‘lesbian’: ‘What is called lesbian does not depend on women loving other women genitally but, rather, on the presence and attention of women to other women that is analogous to the act of loving sexually another like oneself. In fact, words like presence,attention, and sight are used more often to describe this metaphoric lesbian’ (‘Toward a Definition of the Lesbian Literary Imagination’, pp 73-4).

  32. See Bonnie Zimmerman, ‘Perverse Reading: The Lesbian Appropriation of Literature’, in Wolfe and Penelope, op. cit., pp 134-49; this quotation is on p. 139.

  33. One might also consider Marda as Lois's ego-ideal, in the Freudian vocabulary: one whom Lois can admire and look up to as a perfected version of oneself, a self in potentia.

  34. See Farwell, op, cit, pp 71-3, for some excellent caveats and useful expressions of justifiable suspicion about the motherhood metaphor.

  35. I owe this perception to Piaras Mac Éinrí, to whom I am grateful for this and other insights.

  36. A moving scene which, like that of Rachel's dream, cries out for Freudian exegesis, along the lines of the hearth as figure for the absent mother.

  37. This is according to a structure, illogical to the rational mind but perfectly coherent to the unconscious, familiar in psychoanalytic explanations of human behaviour—she's not there, so I'll make her disappear—which prompts one to wonder whether all Bowen's evil mother-figures are so constructed as a fantasy-revenge for their having gone. It would, of course, be reductive to read them as that and nothing else, but the thought is nevertheless not irrelevant.


CS: Collected Stories (1983)

DH: The Death of the Heart (1939)

ET: Eva Trout (1968)

FR: Friends and Relations (1931)

HD: The Heat of the Day (1949)

HP: The House in Paris (1935)

TH: The Hotel (1927)

TLG: The Little Girls (1964)

TLS: The Last September (1929)

Dates are the dates of first publication; references are to Penguin editions.

Quotations from Bowen's critical writings are from The Mulberry Tree: Writings of Elizabeth Bowen, selected and introduced by Hermione Lee, London: Virago, 1986, which is abbreviated as MT.

John Coates (essay date January 1998)

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SOURCE: Coates, John. “The Misfortunes of Eva Trout.” Essays in Criticism 48, no. 1 (January 1998): 59-79.

[In the following essay, Coates finds that the usual interpretation of the ending of Eva Trout is a misreading of the work's explicit textual clues.]

The respectful reviews given to Eva Trout on its appearance in 1969 were not endorsed by subsequent critics of Elizabeth Bowen's fiction. ‘Elizabeth ended by parodying herself’, letting ‘her mannered manner run away with her’1 was Patricia Craig's view, while for Hermione Lee the book was ‘an illustration of Elizabeth Bowen's late malaise’ and ‘an unfocussed and bizarre conclusion to her opus’.2 Such comments attribute the novel's aesthetic failure to a willed technical incompetence on the part of a distinguished writer engaged in a perverse experiment, a botched and belated attempt to remake herself in changing times. For Hermione Lee, Bowen's last novel's ‘unhappy struggle with its own language and structure’ records an ‘almost unbearable present’ with which the ‘traditional novel of order and feeling’3—the kind of writing Elizabeth Bowen excelled in—could no longer deal. Eva Trout's ‘haphazard’4 plot and its patchy characterisation are put down to a belief that present conditions ‘can no longer be mastered or even registered by our language’.5 According to Patricia Craig, this attempt to ‘turn her old images and ideas to topical uses’ and to ‘render a modern nerve-ridden society’,6 led Bowen even more astray than she went in The Little Girls (1964).

Recently, however, feminist accounts have seen Eva Trout more positively as a radical criticism of gender stereotypes. Its ‘attenuated narrative’ is an attempt to give a voice to a woman traditionally ‘silenced’, the woman who cannot or will not ‘be a mother and lover’.7 Eva's death at Victoria station, the result of her and her adopted son's ‘combined rage’, is ‘an emblem of the radical displacement and perhaps disgust Bowen feels about both domestic plots and romances as devices for forming female character. Clearly, for Bowen, domestic space has been no Eden for Eva or any other character’.8 Deconstructionists, too, have found that Eva Trout's supposed oddities of plot and characterisation may serve their desire to dissolve such tyrannical categories as theme, plot, recognisable personality and closure. In what is described as ‘a new kind of literary critical reading’9 we are offered an escape from ‘the suavities of paraphrase’10 which will capture ‘the strangeness and disturbing power of Bowen's writing’.11 For Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle, Eva Trout readily sustains a vision of disintegrating structures and unfounded and indefinable possibilities; they wish to recover Bowen's texts as ‘powerful, theoretically informed sites of cultural and ideological disruption’.12

Such feminist and deconstructionist accounts share with older readings of Eva Trout a general agreement that when Eva is killed she is ‘embarking on a “mock” wedding journey (a scene staged at her request)’,13 (Hermione Lee), or is ‘about to depart on a fake honeymoon’,14 (Phyllis Lassner). Bennett and Royle, while differing with earlier critics about much else, concur: Eva's and Henry's departure is a ‘hymeneal fiction’.15 All these comments resolutely ignore the crucial and determining point about Eva's death. Shortly before being shot by her adopted son Jeremy, Eva learns that her love for Henry Dancey is returned. Their departure as a couple about to be married—arranged by her as a pretence—becomes real when he tells her ‘I'm not going to get off this train … Did you really want me to?—did you imagine I would?’. When she learns that her love for Henry, in whom she has shown a steady interest since his boyhood, is reciprocated, Eva for the first time sheds tears of joy:

Something took place: a bewildering, brilliant, blurring filling up, swimming and brimming over … ‘Look what is happening to me!’ exulted Eva … ‘What a coronation day …’.

‘Are you happy?’ asked Henry awed.

‘A coronation being living, today’.

‘I wish, beloved’ he said, frowning, ‘we were in a compartment of our own, like people going away used to be’.16

Far from being killed in a state of ‘rage’ because she ‘cannot or will not be a lover’, Eva dies having at last discovered she can arouse love where she herself loves. It is hard to see how the text could be more explicit. This mistake, which is not unique’,17 raises the more general question of what it is about Elizabeth Bowen's work which has led some contemporary critics to re-write her books so drastically. Such determined misreadings of the end of Eva Trout partly stem from an antipathy to considering the structure of the text or even a refusal to accept the notion of structure at all. If Eva Trout is to be read as a succession of kaleidoscopic ‘convulsions’ or as a study of radical displacement and the disgusted renunciation of domestic plots, then key features of its climax must be wiped out of the record. Henry's words to Eva and her response suggest too many lines of narrative connection to be acceptable for critics with a heavy intellectual, or emotional, investment in notions of incoherence and disorder.

The physical lay-out of Eva Trout is an important preliminary to any reading, as is the novel's subtitle ‘Changing Scenes’. The allusion (likely enough in a church-goer like Bowen) to the well-known hymn ‘Through all the Changing Scenes of Life’ implies continuities of need and desire as well as movement and alteration. The fact that the text is divided into two parts—the first of twelve chapters entitled ‘Genesis’, the second of four chapters, headed ‘Eight Years Later’—means that concepts of causation and the passing of time are fundamental. Such old-fashioned apportioning and labelling might, even of itself, have been enough to recall Dickens's structural divisions: ‘Sowing’, ‘Reaping’, and ‘Garnering’, in Hard Times, ‘Poverty’ and ‘Wealth’ in Little Dorrit, the First, Second and Third ‘Stages’ of Great Expectations. Dickens and the nature of his work are evoked explicitly and in some detail in Chapter 10 of Bowen's novel. Eva's teacher, Iseult Arble, a would-be novelist, broods on the energy, fertility and mythic power of the Dickens universe:

All-in-all what a literature—of what? The lyricism of forgetfulness. The nightmare of frustrated passion. The jibbering self-mockery of the ‘comic’. The abasements of love.


‘Longing’, the first word Iseult picks to describe Dickens's vision, indicates Eva's yearning for home, her love first for Iseult, then for Henry and for her ‘child’ Jeremy. ‘Dickensian’ humours and grotesques like the servile and loquacious lawyer Mr Denge (the name an echo of ‘Conversation Kenge’), or a Vicar with a persistent headcold, are obvious incidental features, but there is a more important similarity between the central matter of Bowen's novel and the great works of Dickens's maturity. Like Dombey and Son,Little Dorrit and Great Expectations,Eva Trout is built on contrasts and disjunctions between dream-worlds of fantastic wealth and wish-fulfilment, and the tentative, difficult growth of love and relationships in the ‘ordinary’ world.

Critics have been surprisingly ready with over-ambitious, sweeping statements about the scope and effect of Eva Trout. It is an ‘account of alienation’18 in ‘a modern nerve-ridden society’.19 Eva's inheritance of vast wealth is too specific and particular to justify such universalising formulae. The novel's first scene juxtaposes two clearly defined types of experience. As heir to the Trout millions, Eva can stage visible embodiments of her myths and day-dreams. The ‘Bavarian fantasy’ castle (recalling the deranged King Ludwig and his palaces) is Eva's chosen scene for a honeymoon which never took place, presented to her car-load of ‘dumfounded’ passengers with ‘dramatic suddenness’ as part of her ‘design’. After rushing through ‘cold scenery’ (12) for two and a half hours, the hungry Dancey children would like to stop for tea. Instead, they must produce appropriate reactions for their ‘patroness’ (14).

The opening chapter establishes a sharp contrast between two modes of life. On the one hand there is a world where money can create or sustain ‘reality’, the world of Eva's heated Jaguar car, her fictional ‘memories’, her impulsive or eccentric journeys. The other mode of life is embodied in the Danceys, ‘a family all rendered to a degree intelligent by poverty, breeding and the need to get on’. For the Danceys, what money there is goes on necessities, such as ‘their bright gloves (Christmas presents)’ or the belted overcoats in which they are ‘clad alike irrespective of sex’. The twelve year old Henry Dancey is the only link between the two worlds. Noticed by the ‘giantess’, the boy already displays a ‘nascent’ charm, ‘perverse and a shade standoffish’. Even as a child he disconcerts Eva, questioning her statements and breaking the rhythm of her fantasies. ‘She could not boss him and he could mortify her—though unless unduly provoked he refrained from doing so’ (14). The fact that Henry interests Eva by challenging her is established from the beginning. Her relationship with him is unlike all her other relationships in that she knows him from childhood and in the context of his family, to which, as a whole, she is drawn.

The second and third chapters of Eva Trout contrast two very different kinds of domestic discomfort. Iseult Arble and her husband Eric live in a home whose uneasy decor, such as the ‘thought out’ (19) bookcases which nevertheless look ‘cramped and petty’ or the anglepoise lamp which transfixes Eric like ‘a searchlit building’ (20), is symptomatic of their brittle, distraught marriage. ‘A first rate mechanic’ (22) and a good-natured, if colourless man, Eric finds the highly-strung Iseult difficult on a day-to-day basis. In spite of ‘help’ five mornings a week, she exudes an air of unspoken grievance. He has come to the conclusion that ‘nothing makes sense’ (24) including himself and his wife, although Eva ‘makes as much sense as anyone else’.

This sketch of unhappiness and discomfort is not a testimony to a universalised modern chaos or some general contemporary failure of communication. It is a further example of the acute domestic unease so characteristic of Bowen's earlier novels. As in the Thirdman home in Friends and Relations (1931), the Michaelis establishment in The House in Paris (1935), Thomas's and Anna's menage in The Death of the Heart (1938) or Holmdene in The Heat of the Day (1949), the reasons for the lack of comfort or natural conversation are located in that English middle-class vanity, self-regard and self-delusion to which the Anglo-Irish novelist often returned. With Iseult, as with Anna and Thomas, part of the reason for the mundane unease is the isolation of passion from a necessary hinterland of secondary interests, friendships and routines. The failure to discuss, or to meet as people, is the keynote of the Arbles' life together. When she learns that Eva is unhappy and wants to leave them, Iseult blames her husband for never having told her; he replies that he tried to but she became ‘upset’, summing up the impasse in their relationship by saying ‘That's what comes of trying to talk. Can anybody wonder I keep my mouth shut?’ (34)

The contrast between this atmosphere and the domestic life of the Dancey family, to whose home Eva gravitates, seems impossible to miss. The physical absurdities of the ‘dreadful’ Vicarage with its ill-lit staircase are the result of economic factors over which its inhabitants have no control. The chapter's title ‘Clerical Life’, as opposed to that of its predecessor ‘Mr and Mrs Arble’, suggest a common predicament—the falling incomes of Church of England priests caught in properties there is no hope of selling—rather than the effects of individual choices. Accidental indignities plague the Danceys: ‘Chronic nasal affliction’ (28) wreaks havoc on the Vicar's life, fraying at his innate ‘vision, discernment and charity’. In their poverty-trap, the family get on each others' nerves, snapping, shouting and slamming doors. Yet, unlike the Arbles, they certainly communicate. Mr Dancey and the talented son he ‘so much loves’ but ‘doesn't like’ because they are ‘so like each other’ (154), engage in a running battle which threads the text. This is not a sentimental or idealised picture of family life, but, for all its rubs and frictions, the Dancey house was unmistakably one of those homes ‘there is no place like’ (70). Disfigured by almost every inconvenience apart from ‘occult manifestations’ (27), their dilapidated house, with its hard-used radio and ‘cascades of books’ (70), testifies to the ‘mental energy’ and ‘inexhaustible avidity’ of the Dancey children. Above all, the Dancey household is capable of the crucial act of hospitality, the giving of that warmth to others, the presence or absence of which is so crucial in Elizabeth Bowen's fiction. Mrs Dancey's ‘Remember, won't you, that we love you here and here is always a home’ (75) is in marked and obvious contrast to the treatment Eva gets from Iseult, the teacher she has idolised.

The opening episode of Eva Trout in which Eva gravitates from being a guest of Mr and Mrs Arble to being a constant visitor of the Danceys clearly suggests that she is not merely looking for love, but for domesticity, family, context, stability, habit and continuity. With the Danceys, Eva gets what she would get in a family and gets nowhere else—the breezy affectionate familiarity and gentle teasing from Henry and Catrina which are an antidote to the fantasies and heightened scenarios into which she typically casts her experience. The Arble/Dancey contrast is also a clue to the way in which Eva Trout is organised. There are two kinds of moral choices and of responses moving through the text, two different forces at work within it, between which Eva oscillates and by which, at different periods, she is affected. The novel's emphasis on the unfolding of events through time and the interlocking and contingent nature of its characters' actions make descriptions of Eva Trout in terms of large-scale convulsions, social discontinuity and the dissolution of modern life seem perverse. Eva Trout answers the question of ‘what caused the girl to express herself like a displaced person’ (17) and supplies the origins of Eva's psychological formation with great thoroughness. In spite of her looks and manner, Eva is not some ominous symbolic figure. Her ‘outlandish cement-like conversational style’, her introversion, fantasies and clumsiness in ordinary human dealings are demystified by being rooted in the specific upbringing her father's actions have dictated for her.

The view that Eva Trout ‘deals very unsympathetically with homosexuals’20 misses the crucial disparity between Eva's emotional attitude to Constantine, her father's lover and her own guardian after Willy Trout's suicide, and the mixed and changing signals about Constantine the text actually gives. Willy Trout's desertion of his wife for a homosexual relationship with Constantine is presented less in terms of its own personal and sexual aspects than for its consequences on the lives of others. It resembles Bowen's earlier studies of love as a ‘very high kind of overruling disorder’,21 like that which led Lady Elfrida to abandon husband and child in Friends and Relations. Passion or obsession may be genuine or deeply felt but it can never exist in a vacuum, and as before Bowen is concerned with its effect on the child or adolescent. Whatever Willy and Constantine thought, together or independently, about their affair, Eva, like Edward in Friends and Relations, was ‘defrauded’ (17) by her father's life-choice.

However much they be made to lend themselves to post-modernist interpretation, the pictures of Eva's consciousness clearly derive from the emotional rejection she has suffered. She remembers her past ‘like various pieces of a fragmented picture’ (46) because her aimless wanderings from one expensive hotel or rented home to another, with a father who has little interest in her, have left her with no faculty to make sense of her life. She is repeatedly shown trying to construct some order, place or routine. Suffering a bad cold she enjoys feeling ‘entrenched’ (46). ‘Used to but scanty attention’ even when ill, ‘any show of solicitude was heartwarming’. Frequently prey to ‘an enormous sadness that had no origin she knew of’ (47) she finds consolation in the physical comfort (such as it is) of an electric heater giving forth a ‘smell of scorched dust’ and in ‘her belongings’, a pathetic collection ranged near her bed, including a miniature model of a ship's compass, an eagle's claw mounted in silver, and an as yet unopened ‘Christmas casket’ of cosmetics.

An account of Eva's two schools provides additional reasons for her thwarted development. The first is a ‘Progressive’ establishment founded by Constantine ‘to install a friend of his as headmaster’ (48). Willy, her father, ‘whose, after all, was the cheque book’, agrees to provide financial support for the venture because it will keep his new rival for Constantine's affections—the prospective headmaster, Kenneth of the ‘Parthenon torso’ (48)—out of the way. Willy hurriedly promises to send Eva to the new school in order to placate Constantine in one of their tiffs: ‘So the girl went. Her goodbye to her father was stoic, as no doubt was Jepthah's daughter's’ (49). Like her Biblical analogue, Eva is a human sacrifice, offered through rash paternal commitments.

Surprisingly, this unpromising environment shows signs of turning out better for Eva than might have been expected. The quietness and relative order established (or at least at first) in the Castle, are a relief after ‘the perpetual changes of milieu’ Eva has previously experienced with her ‘distraught and high voltage father’ (50). She begins to develop that sense, familiar in Bowen's earlier novels, of the pleasure to be found in objects themselves, of the ritual, almost sacramental, quality of some unique place. Dawn in her room, making its way from ‘thing to thing’ (53), faintly begins the pattern and meaning her life has lacked; ‘Seeing is believing: again, after the night of loss and estrangement, after the malicious lying of her misleading dreams in which she was no one, nowhere, she knew herself to be here’ (53). In this, at first, relatively secure and predictable environment Eva's social interaction with others begins to grow less odd and dysfunctional: ‘She did not bring out the worst in the other children, who on the whole were nicer to her than nicer children probably might have been’ (51). The growth of order and continuity in Eva's life, is embodied in the cleaner Mrs Stote's promise that she will see the legendary castle daffodils with the coming of spring. It is a promise the adults who control Eva's life cancel.

‘But these you'd never believe in unless you saw them.’

‘But’, Eva discovered, ‘I do believe in them’.

Which was as well, for she never saw them.

The unexpected ‘discovered’ exactly expresses the tentative beginning of a healing process based on rhythm, habit and the reliability of recurring things. This process is abruptly smashed. Police investigation brings the self-serving experimental establishment to an end, wrecking Eva's incipient sense of a framework and breaking up the friendship with the girl ‘Elsinore’ whom she had grown to love. The text stresses the unthinking brutality with which her father and his lover in their world of money, mobility and wish-fulfilment override Eva's ordinary human needs:

From that instant, down came oblivion—asbestos curtain. Whether Elsinore died or lived no one told Eva. Not told, she became unable to ask. Nor did she ask what ended the school in the castle so suddenly, so silently and so totally.


After the debacle, Eva's father, pursuing his world-wide business, leaves her with a Baptist family in Hong Kong, next with some of his chiropodist's relatives in San Francisco, and then takes her to Hamburg where he suggests she might like to train as a kennel-maid. It is hard to see these specific excesses as evidence of some general failure of language or meaning in the modern world. In a more bizarre form, her father's behaviour recalls that parental irresponsibility which had been one of the roots of disorder in the earlier novels—the way in which Henrietta and Leopold are dumped at the opening of The House in Paris for instance, the treatment of Theodora Thirdman in Friends and Relations, or of Portia in The Death of the Heart. When Eva, now nearly sixteen, asks to go to a girls' boarding school in England, he mildly demurs, then remarks ‘“just as you like dear girl’ … with a sort of wistful, spectral irritation of the far more he would have liked to feel for her (and perhaps might have?)’. He ‘might have’, presumably, if he had been willing to. Among other matters, Eva Trout is concerned with the human cost exacted by autonomous individuals doing their own thing as of right, without reference to other norms than their own feelings or desires.

At Eva's second school, a respectable, orthodox establishment, her fellow students show no more hostility to her than their ‘disturbed’ predecessors at the Castle had done: ‘Not by them, for that reason, was it brought home to Eva, the monstrous heiress, that she was unable to speak—talk, be understood, converse’ (63). Her contemporaries' low-key response undermines critics' presentations of Eva as the symbol or embodiment of a modern malaise. Her strangeness is the result of, and is largely sustained as a notion by, the behaviour and perceptions of the small, idiosyncratic group most involved in her upbringing.

The phrase ‘not by them’ directs attention to another reason for Eva's isolation, her damaging encounter with the school teacher Iseult Smith. The novel is careful to locate the exact nature of the ‘supremacy’ of this ‘wonderful teacher’ (58). When she meets Eva, Iseult ‘was in a state of grace, of illumined innocence’ (61) in which her ‘awe and wonder’ at ‘the realisation of her own powers’ gave her ‘a kind of purity, such as one may see in a young artist’. Delicately and subtly, the text sketches the beginnings of tainted motives in Iseult's relationship with her pupil:

About Iseult Smith, up to the time she encountered Eva and, though discontinuously, for some time after, there was something of Nature before the Fall. There was not yet harm in Iseult Smith—what first implanted it? Of Eva she was to ponder, later: ‘She did not know what I was doing, but did I?’

Perhaps the most crucial incident in Eva's early encounter with Iseult is the moment when the girl tells her teacher that she has learned George Herbert's ‘Even-song’ by heart. The main point of the scene is that Eva's declaration of happiness with Iseult is greeted by the latter so coldly. Iseult's flustered reaction, beneath her air of coolness, belongs in the familiar Bowen territory of the emotional failures and inhibitions of English middle-class culture. If there is anything Iseult, like Mrs Michaelis in The House in Paris, would find more embarrassing than another's emotional directness or vulnerability, it is the mention of religion.

The girl's choice of this particular poem is noteworthy. The three verses quoted are a plea to God as ‘light, and darkness both together’ to illuminate the soul which must deliver its ‘keys’ into ‘the hands of senceless Dreames’ (66). The last phrase recalls the ‘malicious lying of her misleading dreams’ (53) from which the ‘redemption from darkness’ of the familiar bedroom at the Castle had, for a while, delivered Eva. Her choice of Herbert's ‘Even-song’ suggests a searching, at the most fundamental level, for the meaning in her life which has hitherto been denied her. It is to Eva's persistent, tragically thwarted, yet nearly successful urge to escape from her senseless dreams that we should look to understand the coherence of Eva Trout.

If one of the destructive forces which influence, though they do not determine, Eva's life is the world of Willy's ‘cheque-book’ and ‘castles in the air’ (43), another is more insidious. It is memorably embodied in the lunch during which Iseult and Constantine discuss Eva. The scene counterpoints their crude self-justification and children's party greed for the expensive food they are sharing with the mannered arabesques of their conversation. It is a superbly rendered comedy of egotism and of its corollary, intense self-consciousness. Scrutinising each other's clothes and manner, reading signals and assessing status, they are preoccupied by a wish to avoid looking unsophisticated, unworldly or vulnerable. Their gestures and body language are designed for effect: ‘Iseult took a sip at the cigarette, then rested it on the lip of the ashtray in order to draw off her right-hand glove. The gloves, fairly fine black suede, were not lost on Constantine: undoubtedly they were new’ (35). Constantine has arranged himself with a window at his back so that his head may be ‘aureoled’ (34). His expression, the ‘least mobile’ (36) one might see, is designed to concede nothing, to show no weakness. Such self-concealment hinders emotional development. Behind Constantine's mask there ‘lurked somewhere, youth's most dreadful residuum: youthful cruelty’ (37). As Constantine's character develops, as a result of his later choices, there are indications of what his mask has been hiding and what Eva herself has been partly unable and partly unwilling to see. These hints are summed up in Mrs Dancey's later view: ‘she looked on him kindly, thought him lonely’ (153).

Constantine's and Iseult's exchanges over the meal they share are so carefully qualified, ironised and self-conscious as to defeat any commerce between them. The cause of their behaviour are inordinate vanity and insistent self-regard. Constantine's letter is ‘balm’ (33) to Iseult not because it deals with Eva's needs and problems but because it gives the ‘expert in English’, something to analyse, its ambiguities being on the verge of Henry James country (33) and to feel knowing and superior about. For this reason, Iseult prefers Constantine's ‘mannered manner’ to her husband's attempts to discuss their relationship or Eva's needs. Constantine is equally self-absorbed, being mainly concerned to exculpate himself, to present his own version of his tangled affair with the girl's father.

The self-absorption of most of the principal characters in Eva Trout explains their human failure. Iseult's long, articulate but oddly empty reflections to which the whole of Chapter 8, ‘Midnight at Larkins’, is devoted typify this malaise. Her self-analysis demonstrates the ability of superficially clever people to tell themselves stories, to set out their own experience and others' characters in highly-coloured, plausible but fundamentally false forms. She commands a language of psychologically suspect aphorisms: ‘Attachment to prey I imagine must have about it some sort of equivalent of tenderness’ (92), or the even more inane ‘The horrible thing about intelligence is its uselessness’ (94). Yet she seems half-aware that her character analysis is mere phrase-making: ‘How do I know this—because I know it’ (92). Beneath the small change of her literary education she cannot escape from her self-preoccupation and self-dramatisation: ‘Come on, Iseult Smith—your gemlike flame’ (94).

It is significant at the turning point of the plot of Eva Trout when Eva is on her way to the USA to buy a child—having, as she thinks, failed to find love or relationship in any other way—that she should encounter the narcissism of another ‘educated’ mind. Her meeting with Professor Portman C. Holman of the Department of Philosophy, University of Wyana and its sequel, unnoticed by the novel's critics, is more than a piece of comedy to be enjoyed for itself. At a determining point in her fortunes, it focuses attention on the failure of communication through insistent self-regard. It is appropriate that, just when Eva has made her disastrous decision, she should encounter so extreme a representative of one of the two negative forces that have been brought to bear upon her. In Professor Holman the self-absorption Iseult and Constantine share reaches almost manic proportions. Throughout his long letter, forming the entire eleventh chapter of Eva Trout, he submits his own sensations at sitting next to her on the plane to convoluted, self-referring exegesis:

Have I been spared, or by-passed?—I fear the latter. Am I to atrophy, have I in part done so? Already do I enact what I fail to feel? Emotionally, am I parasitic? Could that have been otherwise, could it still? I have it in me to sorrow?—or have I not. Tell me.


Not surprisingly, this combination of unstoppable articulacy with emotional nullity breaks communication down completely: ‘This unclaimed letter was returned to the sender’ (129).

The two conflicting currents which flow through Eva Trout represent alternative possibilities, embodied in alternative plots and issuing in alternative endings. Exorbitant and selfish rootlessness, wish-fulfilment through wealth, and loquacious self-justifying egotism, form only one part of the novel's world. Eva Trout also offers a completely different scenario within the narrative in which characters are led to a happy ending. In fact, happy and tragic endings follow immediately one upon the other, with Henry Dancey's declaration of love and Eva's death. Hermione Lee has pointed that Eva Trout is ‘full of guardians’.22 It is also full of sharp, intelligent perceptions by individual characters, fragments of that answer Eva will not stay for, of choices she might make but does not or does not make in time, of botched or mistimed possibilities, of moral growth and development in personalities for which insufficient credit is given.

It is clear enough from the outset that, while Eva has been mistreated, her own choices of responses or action are crucial to the course of her life. The first and most significant of these lies in the way in which she determines to see, or, more accurately, to demonise Constantine. There is an obvious disparity between Eva's ‘cloak and dagger’ (30) theatricality about her guardian—‘He might never, never forgive me. I am so AFRAID’ (30)—and anything he is actually shown saying or doing to her. Constantine's own reaction to her announcement, in suspiciously inflated language, that ‘you'd prefer me dead … Silent forever, in my tomb’ (105) is to suggest she see a doctor or a psychiatrist. In spite of his affected mannerisms and his overwrought relationship with her father, Constantine is not the monster of Eva's imaginings. When he tries to point out to her that she is suppressing much of what happened in their past—

It's a pity … that things are going so badly between us, Eva. They need not have—we are unnecessarily lonely. There was a time when they did not … More has been buried than you know. Try not to malign me entirely … There might have been something to be said for me


—Eva registers no reaction: ‘“Yes”, she said—inattentively’.

Eight years later, after her return from the USA, Eva does start to reassess Constantine and his role in her and her father's life. She begins to recognise that ‘the history—or was it the legend’ (167) of Constantine's cruelties was rendered credible by his looks and gestures, ‘his physical smooth collectedness, imperviousness’ (167), more than by the facts of the case. Far from faultless, Constantine had never meant her any harm, had in fact shown more care for her than her own father. Her guardians' sudden declaration ‘“I am very fond of you”’ (172) is part of a ‘touch of the genuine he was showing’ (167). The comment that Constantine is thus making ‘A plea, almost? A plea not to be too late?’ (167) is a reminder that in the emotional life chances may be missed, opportunities lost. The same chance had been offered Eva eight years earlier, before her journey to America and her purchase of the boy Jeremy. In addition to her craving for love, part of her reason for buying a child, in a new version of her father's world of cheque-book fantasies, was to offer a decisive riposte to Constantine's ‘conspiracies’ and to assert her freedom of action against him. It is disturbing that she might have seen Constantine differently, had she chose to do so, and so avoided the step which led, eventually, to her accidental death.

This is not the only overture from others that Eva refuses. Mrs Dancey's expression of regret that Eva is going away meets the same blank response as Constantine's plea, and with less excuse: ‘With a shy suddenness, the mother said to the orphan: “You won't be lonely, where you are going to?” The orphan went rigid all over. Mrs Dancey withdrew’ (74). The ‘mother’ and the ‘orphan’ here imply that Eva is refusing what is almost a motherly interest. She is partly an orphan by choice. When Iseult, irritating and emotionally sterile as she may be, tries to make an overture to Eva, it is the nearest thing she can manage to asking for forgiveness. Recognising that her brittle and unfriendly attitude has driver away Eva who wanted to be the guest of a teacher she admired and loved, Iseult attempts a reconciliation:

I did ask you, Can't we begin again? Can't we? You have no notion how Eric misses you. For instance—couldn't you possibly come to us for Christmas?


(Iseult is distressed at Eric's desire for children and her own childlessness, aware of her husband's fondness for Eva, innocent as it is, and already suspicious that Constantine should have surprised them together at Eva's run-down mansion ‘Cathay’. Her jumping to the conclusion that Eva is pregnant by her husband precipitates the breakdown of her marriage.) The interview between the two women which precedes Eva's disastrous announcements about her coming ‘little child’ contrasts Iseult's effusive literary and emotional babbling with Eva's glum and deflationary sarcasms. Eva's evident dislike of Iseult and her care in pointing out that it will be nine months since Eric has seen her, if they meet at Christmas, both confirm that Eva detonates her bombshell about the baby quite deliberately. Her hostility ensures that Iseult's attempts at reconciliation meet with a devastating response.

Another rejected overture precedes Eva's purchase of Jeremy. Accidentally meeting ‘Elsinore’, the girl to whom she had been so close at the Castle, in Chicago, Eva discovers her former friend locked in a dismal marriage and deeply unhappy: ‘“I'm alone mostly. Ed's back between-times. Telly gives me migraine—I look out of the window”’ (134). Embarrassing as her friend's pleas for help must be, Eva shows no sympathy or compassion: ‘“You came back too late, Elsinore. I cannot. You came at the wrong time”’ (143).

After these rejections—of Constantine, Mrs Dancey, Iseult and ‘Elsinore’—Eva turns to the ‘traffic in snatched babies’ (140), and to an imitation of her father's fantasies and self-gratifications. For eight years she lives isolated in America with her purchased child. She returns to England altered, to encounter characters from her past who have themselves changed. In the world of Eva Trout change is the product of free-will, not entropy. Eva's visit to the National Portrait Gallery (194-6) has been interpreted by Bennett and Royle as suggesting a general denial of the stability of life and personality. The visit makes more sense, in its specific context in the novel, as the moment when Eva realises the mystery of individual human character and choice. Eva has just seen Constantine again, now far from the sinister figure of her reveries. His ‘values have been reorganized’ (174) as ‘the result of a friendship’ (platonic) with ‘Tony Clavering-Haight, a young East End priest. Anglican, naturally’. Eva's telephone conversation with Iseult, in whom there ‘had been a vivacity not there formerly’, also suggests changes in her sufficient to raise the question ‘had this been Miss Smith’ (192). What Eva begins to realise is that her own fixed ideas of others do not allow for the fact that those others are themselves freely choosing centres of their own consciousness: ‘There is no hope of keeping a check on people; you cannot know what they do, or why they do it’ (196). The mysterious freedom of others produces not the disintegration of identity but the sense of a pattern one cannot grasp, ‘as though a game continued while you were away from the board or had left the table’ (196).

In the last chapters of Eva Trout, the two currents within the narrative move to its double climax: Eva's finding of love with Henry and her death at Jeremy's hands. Her perception of the world around her gradually improves. (The process is interrupted by Iseult's temporary theft of Jeremy, presumably to see if he looks like Eric, and the consequent brief renewal of Eva's conspiracy fantasies). Eva's growth of knowledge both of herself and others is signalised by a striking exchange with Henry at the Castle, the site of her first school (230-234). This late scene clearly balances and contrasts with the opening of Eva Trout where Eva is fantasising in the same castle setting, now revealed as a ‘stained sham’; the novel's first words—‘This is where we were to have spent the honeymoon’—form the title of the novel's last chapter. Such symmetry in the text, ignored by many critics, invites reflection on Eva's changes and development between one scene and another. When Eva and Henry explore the past and other's characters, he reveals his ‘apprehensions, indecisions, mortifications’ (232) and she her shyness (‘It amazed her he should not know’).

Simultaneously with this movement, there is a counter-current embodied in Eva's relation to her adopted son. Because Jeremy has experienced the same rootless, wealthy wanderings Eva had lived through with her father, he has ‘so far been denied a home’ (190). Refusing contact with her father's family after his death because they had disapproved of him, Eva has ‘forfeited her birthright of cricket matches and flower-beds’ (191). It is the lack of security and order, the ‘unkept promise’ (205) of ‘some domesticity for Jeremy’ (recalling the unkept promise of the daffodils Eva never saw) which leads to the child's wild exhibitionist behaviour with the pistol he has stolen ‘waving his weapon in salute’ (268) in the last scene. The Bonnards, the French doctors Eva has consulted about Jeremy, provide a plausible, intelligent account of Eva's own motives and Jeremy's needs, character and development (221-222). Eva does not reject their advice and shows every sign of being willing to act on it. Nor does she reject Jeremy himself: she dies holding out her arms to him ‘unable to take in anything but that this was Jeremy' (268). She dies by accident, but it is an accident linked to her own earlier choices and to behaviour which she has not yet sufficiently modified. Other possibilities existed when she made the choice of fantasy and wish-fulfilment through the purchased child. Those possibilities ripen later, reaching fruition in the tears of joy a few moments before her death.

The refusal to discuss Eva Trout in individual moral terms is an instance of what Freadman and Miller have singled out as one of recent theorists' ‘most disturbing and regrettable achievements’: the elimination of ‘central ethical concerns and discourses’23 from the examination of literature. Whatever general issues this refusal to discuss literature in terms of ‘how ought a human life to be lived’ may raise, it directs attention, in the case of Eva Trout, towards remote and vague explanations and away from those which are proximate and specific. Critical approaches which assume that one's main (if not sole) task is to unmask oppression cannot do justice to what is most challenging about this novel. The problem is that the generalised anti-authoritarianism of critics opposed to ‘truth claims’ or hierarchies of value as much as to characters or to plots, is itself a moral impulse, that of resistance to oppression. This moral impulse remains a simple one, however valid in specific cases. Critics motivated by it, or by other large-scale cultural enquiries, will miss much of what Bowen has to offer in the far wider and more complex field of choice, response and action to which she brings an acuteness and a tenacity which rival those shown in late James.

In her last complete novel Bowen, perhaps in the spirit of accepting a challenge, set out to ignore the advice Virginia Woolf had given her long before, to avoid the influence of Henry James (‘She foresaw him as a danger to me’24). Iseult's recognition that with Constantine's manner ‘one was at least on the verge of Henry James country’ (33) points to a calculated re-working of Jamesian themes, incidents and characters. Eva, the ‘monstrous heiress’ is an analogue of those Jamesian heiresses, especially Milly Theale in The Wings of the Dove, who are ‘conscious of a great capacity for life but early stricken and doomed’.25 Like James, Bowen is concerned with the fabulously rich ‘innocent’ young woman's striving for a sense of order, and with the alliances and combinations that others form about her. However, while evoking James, she continually revises the material she borrows. Instead of the malleable ‘dove’ Milly with her yielding softness, Bowen offers Eva the ‘giantess’ with her monolithic will-power. One example may typify Bowen's procedures. In the well-known scene at the National Gallery in The Wings of the Dove Milly, trying to escape the ‘personal question’,26 turns from the pictures, as from too rich a diet, to look with pitying envy at the humble lives of the lady copyists. In the National Portrait Gallery scene of Eva Trout, recalling this Jamesian original, Bowen has her heiress finally facing up to the fact of human freedom, including her own, rather than deciding that her case like Milly's had to be one ‘of escape, of living under water’.27

James's defence of his stylistic elaborations in the Preface to The Wings of the Dove has a bearing on the often-noted stylistic idiosyncrasies of Eva Trout. In James's view, enjoyment of a work of art, ‘our highest experience of “luxury”’ demands ‘attention of perusal’.28 The surface of the writing ‘like the thick ice of a skater's pond’ must bear ‘the strongest pressure we throw on it’.29 In James, that pressure lies in following the small inward adjustments of sensibility, the minute alterations of sympathy and viewpoint between Milly Theale, Merton Densher and Kate Croy. Elizabeth Bowen's stylistic elaboration, demanding a similar ‘attention of perusal’, bears the pressure of the shifting complexities of a disturbing moral problem, that of the injuries done by the injured, and the complicity of the ‘innocent’ in their own destruction.


  1. Patricia Craig, Elizabeth Bowen, (Harmondsworth, 1986), p. 135.

  2. Hermione Lee, Elizabeth Bowen: An Estimation, (New York and London, 1981), p. 206.

  3. Lee, p. 211.

  4. Lee, p. 209.

  5. Lee, p. 211.

  6. Craig, p. 135.

  7. Phyllis Lassner, Elizabeth Bowen, (1990), p. 163.

  8. Lassner, pp. 162-3.

  9. Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle, Elizabeth Bowen and the Dissolution of the Novel, (1995), p. xiv.

  10. Ann Wordsworth in Bennett and Royle, p. vii.

  11. Bennett and Royle, p. 158.

  12. Bennett and Royle, p. xiv.

  13. Lee, p. 208.

  14. Lassner, p. 162.

  15. Bennett and Royle, p. 155.

  16. Eva Trout, (Harmondsworth, 1982), p. 267. Subsequent references to Eva Trout in parenthesis are to pages in this edition.

  17. Phyllis Lassner, in a vigorous reading of The House in Paris, asserts that the failure of the little Leopold's mother to come, which causes the child agonising grief, is ‘an abandonment and dispossession necessary to leave childhood dependence behind’ in order to provide ‘an alternative model for the development of the male character’ (Lassner, p. 93). Whatever the merits of this psychological theory, the reader turning from Lassner's description to The House in Paris will discover with surprise a lengthy and affecting description of Henrietta putting her arms around Leopold until his sobs subside. See The House in Paris, (1935; rpt. Harmondsworth 1976), p. 197.

  18. Lee, p. 211.

  19. Craig, p. 135.

  20. Lee, p. 208-9.

  21. Elizabeth Bowen, Friends and Relations, (1931; rpt. Harmondsworth, 1984), p. 104.

  22. Lee, p. 209.

  23. Richard Freadman and Seumas Miller, Re-Thinking Theory: A Critique of Contemporary Literary Theory and an Alternative Account, (Cambridge, 1992), p. 51.

  24. Victoria Glendinning, Elizabeth Bowen, (1977; rpt. Harmondsworth, 1984), p. 104.

  25. Henry James, Preface to The Wings of the Dove, (1902; rpt. New York, 1907-9), 24 Vols, Vol. 19, p. v.

  26. The Novels and Tales of Henry James, Vol. 19, p. 288.

  27. The Novels and Tales of Henry James, Vol. 19, p. 288.

  28. The Novels and Tales of Henry James, Vol. 19, p. xx.

  29. The Novels and Tales of Henry James, Vol. 19, p. xxi.

Jane Miller (essay date summer 2000)

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SOURCE: Miller, Jane. “Re-reading Elizabeth Bowen.” Raritan 20, no. 1 (summer 2000): 17-31.

[In the following essay, Miller praises Bowen's detailed representations of women and the wide range of settings and moral concerns she treated in her novels.]

The centenary of Elizabeth Bowen's birth fell neatly into the last year of the twentieth century and was celebrated with a reissuing of almost all her work in an ugly paperback edition, which is better than nothing. The books come with rather haphazardly chosen introductions, all flattering, though few of them quite avoid the sort of condescension she must have grown used to from even her most admiring critics. The current availability of so much of her writing—ten novels, a selection of essays, letters, and reviews, a collection of all the short stories that were published in seven separate volumes during her lifetime, her history of her family and of the house they inhabited for nearly 200 years in southern Ireland—does a good deal to counter the prevailing sense of her as a minor, romantic novelist. In this account, she wrote intelligently and elegantly out of a privileged woman's narrow experience, made more so by her upbringing in a family of the Anglo-Irish Protestant ascendancy, living in the “Big House” and sustained by servants and indeed a whole class which figure only tangentially in her fiction.

She is not read much by the young, and though she is remembered with affection by many readers over sixty, she is often relegated to the category of what we read when we were young and callow (albeit with pleasure), and she is mildly tainted by this. Since her death in 1973 there has been more than one attempt to reassess her work and make sure that most of it is in print. There have been good biographies, by Victoria Glendinning in 1977 and Hermione Lee in 1981; and her friendships, with Virginia Woolf and Iris Murdoch, among others, have been registered as important ones for those writers. John Bayley, in recalling Bowen's long friendship with Murdoch, was surprised and touched that the two women went in for what he calls “heart-to-hearts,” given Bowen's “powerful presence” and the “almost masculine reserve” of both women. Bayley had read all of Bowen's novels and stories “with immense pleasure, almost with passion” well before he met her.

Bowen has also been savaged, usually for being a woman writer of one kind or another. Elizabeth Hardwick (who “re-read” her in 1949) excoriated Bowen for her “oppressive tidiness of values,” her conservatism (and implied snobbery), which was no more in the end than “the moral intransigence of the interior decorator,” and her obsessive treatment of what Hardwick calls “the tragedy of the Fine Girl and the Impossible Man.” Hardwick admits that “the very equanimity of her work makes criticism difficult,” though this does not prevent her from concluding disparagingly that “these are obviously women's books,” lacking both irony and common sense. Bowen would have recognized this, I suspect, as the bruiser style of the Partisan Review at that time, written from a declared position of sympathy with “the underside of life” by a woman writer permitting herself and other women writers no special pleading. The piece has entailed some drummed up and tendentious reading, however. Raymond Williams, at the end of The Long Revolution (1961), used Bowen's The Heat of the Day as a striking example of what he actually defined as “the fiction of special pleading”:

The persons exist primarily as elements in the central character's emotional landscape, and are never seen or valued in any other terms, though there is no first-person narrative, and there is even some careful descriptive realism, to make the special pleading less stark. As it is now developing, the personal novel ends by denying the majority of persons. The reality of society is excluded, and this leads, inevitably, in the end, to the exclusion of all but a very few individual people.

In his later work Williams went on to perfect that sleight of hand which first excludes women's experience from the social realm and then castigates women for writing out of that exclusion. Williams, the excluder of women, complains that Bowen excludes most of the human race.

Both Anthony Burgess and Angus Wilson (who was to repent in his introduction to the first edition of her collected stories and was himself given something of a drubbing by Bowen for his first book, The Wrong Set) wrote of her as a typically “female novelist,” and Burgess complained especially that there was a lack of strong characters in her novels and that “the real protagonist is the sensibility of the author.” Nor has Bowen been rescued by feminist critics, beyond appearing on several lists of women writers who have not been given their due.

Returning to Bowen now (as some of those introducing her books have done), re-reading the best-known and, I still think, the best novels she wrote, between 1929 and 1949, but also reading some of her other work for the first time, I realize that I have condescended to her too. Perhaps that was a function of reading her while she was still writing. I had forgotten how different her novels are from each other and how ambitious; the range of their settings and preoccupations; how delicately she deals with moral dilemmas without the help of any of her contemporaries' big guns: political or religious conviction of the kind that could be taken on trust by contemporary readers, a reliance on sin or doom or revolutionary hope or disillusion, or even faith in new kinds of sensibility and the need for new forms of language and literature to match them. Her last three novels, A World of Love (1955) and, in the 1960s, The Little Girls and Eva Trout, are uncharacteristically awkward and playful attempts to find new themes and a more fractured, indeterminate way of writing, inspired, it has been said, by reading the younger writers Iris Murdoch and Muriel Spark and wishing to emulate their “passion for the fictitious for its own sake.” It is a passion bestowed on the central women characters of all three novels, works which have been noticed by a number of contemporary critics for their early traces of postmodern developments in fiction. She might have been surprised by this. I find these novels disappointing, but there have been compensations in reading them. There is her wit and her gift for comedy, which survive the altogether baggier character of the later novels. There are her narrative gifts and her acute sense of history. She is a literary writer in the sense that she uses and transforms creatively what she takes from her favorites, Jane Austen, Henry James, and Proust, offering in the process clues to new readings of all of them. Her language is exact, supple, and rhythmical as it moves with swooping assurance from dialogue to commentary to description. She has a unique gift for the insides and outsides of houses and their light and landscapes (but not their decor, as it happens), and a sure hold on time in both its past (or even period) specificities and its terrifying capacity to transform lives and thought and feeling far into the future, and usually for the worse.

My re-reading has necessarily been forestalled by other people's. A. S. Byatt, for instance, records in her introduction to The House in Paris countless readings of the novel from the age of ten. Where I remember feeling out of sympathy with those articulate and unchildish children, waiting patiently if exasperatedly all day in the salon of that lugubrious house while we discover the story behind their being there, Byatt took them as vindication of “the private analyses I made to myself of things” and as exemplarily intelligent children among whom she felt at home. She even recalls her virtually adult, if not final, evaluation of the novel, when her own wider reading, particularly of Murdoch and F. R. Leavis, made her wonder for a time whether Bowen's novel was not “too much a work of ‘fine-drawn sensibility.’ It seemed too much the novel-as-object, inexorably shaped and limited by its own internal laws.”

I'm afraid I responded more tetchily in general than Byatt does to other aspects of the Bowen world, though these unnerve me now a good deal less than they once did. I used to wonder crossly about the life below stairs when asked to focus on an overwrought heroine picking at her breakfast tray. The servants in her novels are noticed in some cases and do become recognizable characters, though Bowen's efforts at working-class dialogue—a matter of being too literal with the use and meaning of clichés—are not successful. I worried too that her demon lovers were either half Jewish or just rather likely to be Jewish. And her novels (her short stories less so) are mostly about love (though they are also about betrayal) and especially about girls growing up in the English and Irish upper classes.

More important than all that, though, I realize that it was and is possible to read the best of Bowen's novels as if they were easy and no less silkily urbane than she sometimes makes them seem to be, and as uncritical of the world they inhabit as her characters can be. Her lightness of touch was always deceptive, and I was deceived. Women and children may be dealt the heaviest of blows, but they are so lightly, almost imperceptibly. These disastrous moments are swiftly enacted and in some cases completed well before the novel begins, and it is the residual damage from such events and the nature of the recovery from them which interest Bowen. In that sense she is not a dramatic novelist. Loss of parents, especially, but also treacheries in love and war, the subtly or even brutally inescapable manipulations of the older generation: it is these that cause enduring pain. The focus is on how this is borne, not on blame or retaliation or reversals.

There are, in fact, very few of the “weighty generalizations” abhorred by Elizabeth Hardwick and no “moral intransigence” that I can detect, though it is true that the author's persistent narrative voice in all the novels does determine the perspectives available to the reader, despite its somewhat laconic interventions. There is, of course, an intense focus on the individual's failure of heart, nerve, intelligence. It is possible to feel reproved by this, and the individual is more likely to be female than male. Bowen also took from Henry James and, especially, from Jane Austen the need to expend the same kind of loving attention on the “bad” characters as on the “good.”

After their first meeting, Virginia Woolf described Bowen as “stammering, shy, conventional,” and there is no question that reticence becomes more than a matter of style in her writing. It stands for habits of stoicism, but also for a difficulty women may have in voicing both their adherence to and divergence from prevalent male versions and values. Reticence can seem formidable or no more than the tactic of a stutterer; a tactic that may have been strengthened for Bowen by her mother's not letting her read or write until she was seven, a frustration that she remembered vividly. Such reticence is in any case worlds away from Angus Wilson's inept and gabbling parody of a composite Bowen/Woolf/Angela Thirkell text. Bowen's reticence extends to a holding back from judgment, so that we are usually expected to detect the gimcrack and the meretricious for ourselves. Moral imperatives are heard or refused with high-toned rationality and clipped eloquence, to become at times dangerously akin to a matter of good taste. Yet there are also occasions when characters are so wounded by treachery—their own or another's—that they choose to die.

Byatt recognized that these were complex and difficult novels when she was ten. I didn't and can only plead delayed development in this respect as in much else. In recognizing them now as demanding, I still see how easy it was to skate across their surfaces, assuming the acquiescence of the author in the cool elegance of some of her characters and their worlds. I should have been alerted by her comic scenes and clownish characters: the Oxford graduate too good for the job of secretary, Miss Tripp in To the North (neither Bowen nor Woolf had much time for girl graduates); the absurd letter Leopold's foster parents send to Paris with him (“We do not consider him ripe for direct sex-instruction yet, though my husband is working towards this through botany and mythology”); or the ebullient Daphne in The Death of the Heart who “slept voraciously” after a hard day's work at Smoot's circulating library:

It was clear that Daphne added, and knew that she added, cachet to Smoot's by her air of barely condoning the traffic that went on there. Her palpable wish never to read placed at a disadvantage those who had become dependent on this habit.

I could sometimes feel priggishly offended by one kind of Bowen heroine: that seemingly impassive woman, folded into her fur coat, a bunch of wilting violets pinned to her collar, constantly donning or removing hat and gloves as she wrestles with emotions in which I was quite ready to believe but which she was far too grand to justify or articulate, even to herself. Yet that same reticence enhanced the imperatives of sexual love, making such feeling almost tangible and certainly hard to gainsay. As it happens, the eighteen-year-old heroine of The Last September expresses a discomfort similar to mine as she secretly tries on an older woman's fur coat and glimpses for a moment its implications for her future. Bowen's girls and young women do not look forward to maturity—perhaps with good reason—and I didn't either.

I was fond of The House in Paris, though I liked To the North and The Death of the Heart even better. I remember finding the flashback, secret love affair at the center of the Paris novel especially erotic, and the lovers' meetings in Boulogne and then Hythe have stayed with me vividly enough to render the cross-channel ferry, with its laborious train journeys on either side, a means of transport which still provides somewhat improbable sexual promise. Unlike Byatt, however, I am conscious of misremembering important things about that novel. I had forgotten that there are two terrifying mothers in the book, one monstrous and melodramatic in her manipulation of her daughter's life and love; the other, however, just as malevolent an influence in her pursed-lip distaste for her daughter's Jewish lover, so subtly patrician and downplayed, too grand even to speak her disapproval. To deliver through your own death rather than commonplace admonition the coup de grace to any future your daughter might recover for herself is evidence enough of overbearing ill will.

Elizabeth Bowen lived through both world wars, through the Irish “troubles” and the Anglo-Irish War between 1919 and 1921, and her novels and stories are embedded in these and other historical specificities. In a short memoir of her English boarding school she wrote,

The war having well outlasted my schooldays, I cannot imagine a girl's school without a war. The moral stress was appalling. We grew up under the intolerable obligation of being fought for, and could not fall short in character without recollecting that men were dying for us.

“The war dwarfed us,” she wrote, “and made us morally uncomfortable.” The girls never discussed the war or men for fear of causing each other pain or embarrassment. Such memories may contain the seeds of her writing about war and also of her moral aspirations for women. So long as “the past does certainly seem to belong to men,” women's participation in the patrician values of rationality, courage, honesty, and discretion was necessarily bound to develop in relation to a world organized around men's actions and decisions. She disliked and distrusted feminism and referred to Woolf's feminism as “a bleak quality, an aggressive streak, which can but irritate, disconcert, the adorer of Virginia Woolf the artist.” This was in part a hatred of platforms or of anything smacking of the partisan. Her novels are, of course, centrally about women and how they manage to live their lives among the men they love or like, who are all too apt to let them down. This is not allowed as an excuse for self-pity, but it is pivotal to her plots and characters. She was as hostile to any special pleading for women as were Elizabeth Hardwick and Raymond Williams.

In The Heat of the Day, Stella has to discover what she is to say and do about her lover's spying for the enemy in the Second World War. The narrator's eye is not on why Robert has decided to spy (indeed, the explanation for this is a bit perfunctory) but on whether Stella should trust the man she loves or the sinister man who tells her that he is a spy. Like her lover, she has lied to people: pretending that she left her husband, when in fact he left her. Her secret is that she has no confidence in herself as a woman, both because her husband did not love her and because her ordeal entails admitting to second-rate or parasitic deceptions, the more humiliating for being about saving face, avoiding embarrassment: and all arising from her relations with men. Her anxieties and uncertainties spring from “the ambiguities of her tie with Robert. … She, like he, had come loose from her moorings; but while what she had left behind her dissolved behind her, what he had left behind him was not to be denied.” Class, family history, and educated intelligence constitute some of the “moorings” that have been disrupted and unsettled by war, and women live a particular version of this disruption. Stella believes that her class is all she has ever had going for her. Precisely because of their dependence on men women have a greater need to think for themselves, a situation seen by Bowen's women characters as simultaneously diminishing and demanding. The ambiguity of their position makes women particularly vulnerable to the blandishments of a “worldliness beginning so deep down that it seems to be the heart.” Courage has to be defined by each woman left at home on her own during the war. Stella, Connie, Louie in The Heat of the Day have in common their relation to men, but their dilemmas are different.

Women's hearts may get broken by men, and they either learn to live with this or they wither as human beings, even die. Bowen's ambition for women is that they will achieve balance: they will learn control and worldly understanding, while continuing to feel, trust, love, and respond, though it is hardly ever possible to do both. Emmeline dies with her lover in To the North, more or less deliberately crashing her car on the A10 because she cannot see a way through his betrayal and her pain. Until she falls in love with Markie, she has been absorbed by her work in an eccentric travel agency and gently intrigued by her friends. She has kept her balance, but has risked nothing. She is destroyed by what she perceives as the grotesque discontinuity between her cool public persona and her confused inner life, but also by her own reticence, her inability to voice the dilemma of loving a man she disapproves of and who has betrayed her exactly as they both knew he would. The mistake has been hers, not his. He came clean to her, with his “If I shot anyone, I am the sort of man I should shoot.” Emmeline's elegance and charm, and her particular accommodations to worldliness, trap her into silence and solitude.

Where women survive—and most of them do—they learn from their elders about compromise. Bowen novels thrive on the presence of her older women, who are comic, silly, or morally coarse, or all three at once, but who have their feet on the ground and are in a position to offer warnings to their daughters, nieces, and orphan wards. Though they are disregarded for the most part as a clamorous chorus, they are usually implicated in what goes wrong for the younger generation. In The Death of the Heart, for instance, the question is how the simple and ignorant sixteen-year-old Portia, brought up by incompetent and foolish parents, is to learn to think and feel in a world where adults are bound to fail her. She is bequeathed as an orphan to a much older half brother living with his wife, Anna, in a beautifully ordered house in Regent's Park. Portia disturbs this glossy life and is hurt by it. Anna is “already half way through a woman's checked, puzzled life, a life to which the intelligence only gives a further distorted pattern.” Portia is by no means “a fine girl” indulged by the author, but then neither is Anna, who is, in fact, a finely understood egotist, whose depredations are disconcertingly airy, weightless, almost imperceptible, and extremely hard to combat.

It is not that the men in the novel live fuller, more satisfying lives, but that their accommodations with destiny can be predicted and taken for granted in a way that women's cannot. Morally, women are on their own. Anna has cultivated forgetfulness—of love, doubt, pain—in order to maintain the surface of her present life. It is a seductive choice for a woman, but it entails injustice to her younger self and to Portia. The novel puts Portia through hilarious as well as agonizing trials, which she commits to her diary and which Anna disastrously reads. Portia records without comment the items of a belated education: daily lessons on “hygiene” and “We were to have had a lecture on the Appreciation of Mozart, but because of the fog we had a Debate on Consistency being the Hobgoblin of Small Minds. We also wrote essays on Metternich's policy.” Anna skims these entries to alight on Portia's admission that she is in love with Eddie, a brilliantly slippery creature already teasingly in love with Anna. He is usually read as a portrait of Goronwy Rees, friend of the spies Burgess and Maclean and briefly, it seems, Bowen's lover. The novel is a wonderful evocation of the effects of worldliness on both the worldly and the innocent, and it manages, probably more than any of the other novels, to explore the relation between the two, recalling moments and characters from Mansfield Park and, perhaps, The Wings of the Dove, while setting its characters firmly in a prewar 1938 London which becomes transformed, in The Heat of the Day, to London in wartime.

Elizabeth Bowen was born into the landed gentry. Her family, originally from Wales, had lived in County Cork since a Colonel Bowen accompanied Cromwell to the south of Ireland in the middle of the seventeenth century and was rewarded with lands in the northeastern part of the county. In her history of her family house, Bowen's Court, she makes much of the fact that the “severely classical” house was built in 1775, the year “George Washington faced George III of England, when Henry Cole Bowen watched the date cut and saw the last slate set in Bowen's Court roof, Anglo Ireland knew her power and felt her spirit move”; though, as she puts it, “the small town of Alexandria in Virginia is now a neat noble shrine, and Mallow in County Cork is now a decayed spa.” Her insistence on these connections and on the deflating differences signals the hope (however imperialist) for a new world, but also the long-term repercussions for England of the two defections, the one in Ireland dangerously mimicking the one in Virginia. The grandeur she invokes for the family's history and for the house is always ambiguous. Her family were settlers, bosses, and outsiders in a country they loved and came to regard as their home. They were insulated from the Catholic Irish, while thinking of themselves, nonetheless, as entirely Irish. Their Englishness was a great deal more problematic to them. Yet the physical rootedness of this inheritance was always also something of a mirage. Especially so for Bowen herself, who, after her father's breakdown when she was seven and her mother's death when she was thirteen, became the kind of homeless orphan she wrote about. She went to school in England and lived there both as a child and as an adult for much of her life. But she inherited Bowen's Court and worked to maintain it as a home until 1959. Memories and photographs abound in books about her friends and in her own of the holidays and weekends she managed to provide for them. Virginia Woolf recalled her only visit there in 1934 in characteristically contemptuous detail:

There is no architecture of any kind: all the villages are hideous; built entirely of slate in the year 1850: so Elizabeth's home was merely a great stone box, but full of Italian masterpieces and decayed 18th century furniture, and carpets all in holes—however they insisted upon keeping up a ramshackle kind of state, dressing for dinner and so on.

Within a year of Bowen's selling the house in 1959 its new owner had demolished it.

Bowen's Court is a history of the Anglo-Irish presence in southern Ireland. It is marked by what has been thought of as a Burkean conservatism, a buoyant delight in survival and continuity, and it is also informative about the Irishness of these families and the peculiarities of their complex and changing identities during their 300 years in Ireland. Bowen starts her history from its unique landscape and past, and the book comes alive as she populates the house and then the land and hills and surrounding towns and villages, imagining the lives and characters of her ancestors as always impinged on by their surroundings and changing over time. Her best wartime short stories have this same sense of houses and rooms which are redolent of the world they hold at bay and contain: spaces that explain their inhabitants and propel their stories.

During the Second World War, Elizabeth Bowen was officially employed by the British Government to report on the mood and attitudes of the Irish. In his Modern Ireland, 1600-1972, Roy Foster quotes from one of her reports:

I find a great readiness, in talkers of all classes, to stress the “spirituality” of … Éire's attitude towards world affairs. At the root, this is not bogus: that this country is religious in temperament and disposition as well as practice is, I take it, an accepted fact. Unhappily, religion is used to cover or bolster up a number of bad practices. I … still see a threat of Catholic-Fascism. And officially the Irish R.C. Church is opposed to progress, as not good for the people.

The most disagreeable aspect of this official “spirituality” is its smugness, even phariseeism. I have heard it said (and have heard it constantly being said) that “the bombing is a punishment on England for her materialism.” … And there is still admiration for Franco's Spain. … The effect of religious opinion in this country (Protestant as well as Catholic) seems still to be, a heavy trend to the Right.

From the conversations she had in Ireland she derived an analysis which is recognizable, subtle and fair-minded. The Heat of the Day and the stories published in 1945 as The Demon Lover are often bracketed with Graham Greene's writing about the war and with something like surprise that a woman writer should be thought of in such company. She was a friend of his and would have winced, I suspect, at comparison. It is impossible not to feel, however, how wonderfully strong and unheroic her picture is of living in London during the worst of the bombing and afterwards, and how persuasive her treatment of treachery, from grand treason to the smallest disloyalties, as she writes not of grandiose tussles with God and conscience, or even with sex and drink, but of the effects of war on families and friendships and on individuals. She is surely a finer writer on war, as she is on love, than Graham Greene was. Her fiction enacts disparities, tensions, and, as a consequence, the hopeless inevitability of treacheries, just as Greene's does. But where he needs original sin to enliven sex and even to explain war, and priests to provide a commentary, Bowen sets her characters within the history and the landscape that produced them and still expects them to take responsibility for who they are.

Bowen's favorite of all her novels—and probably mine too—was an early one, her second, published in 1929. The Last September contrasts the gathering “troubles” of Ireland in 1920 with the seemingly aimless late summer days of a group of friends and family staying in a house very like the one Bowen herself grew up in. Sir Richard and Lady Naylor welcome their old friends the Montmorencys, an ill-suited couple with no home, who do a lot of visiting. Lois, an eighteen-year-old niece, and Laurence, her “very intellectual” cousin, stay with the Naylors during school and university holidays. Lois is an orphan, rather vaguely destined for art school, as Bowen was, and this is to be thought of as her last summer holiday before the beginning of adult life. There is an edginess to the party; the bedrooms have thin walls and conversations are overheard. Mrs. Montmorency is older than her handsome husband and she remembers being snubbed by Lois's mother in the past.

The young English subalterns garrisoned in Bowen's fictional Clonmore provide dancing partners and potential fiancés for Lois and her friends and are reminders of the attractions Meryton provides in Pride and Prejudice for Lydia and Catherine after the arrival there of a militia regiment, resting from, but also destined for, the Napoleonic Wars. Indeed, the effect of reading about Cork in the early 1920s is to return for a moment to Lydia's fate in Austen's novel and to recognize it as appalling, even if she deserved it. In Bowen's novel there are patrols and shootings. Several local Catholics known to the inhabitants of the big house have gone into hiding and are wanted men. Sir Richard and Lady Naylor object to their niece flirting with Gerald, one of the English officers. Snobbery vies with anti-English feeling as motive for their objections. They have sympathy with their Irish Catholic neighbors, even if they occupy a different world. No love is lost between Lady Naylor and the English army wives, who are sure the Naylors are going down in the world—as sure, indeed, as Woolf was to be that Bowen's Court had already done so. But that doesn't dent Lady Naylor's urbanity, which ordains that there be no ugly rejections or uncivilized quarrels, though she is entirely determined to get her way.

No, he of course is charming, but he seems to have no relations. One cannot trace him. His mother, he says, lives in Surrey, and of course you do know, don't you, what Surrey is? It says nothing, absolutely; part of it is opposite the Thames Embankment. Practically nobody who lives in Surrey ever seems to have been heard of, and if one does hear of them they have never heard of anybody else who lives in Surrey. Really altogether, I think all English people very difficult to trace.

She is suspicious of his class, his lowly rank in the Army, his lack of money. But her deeper suspicions are of his Englishness and of what the army is up to in Ireland. She treats him with lethal civility, and in warning him against any thought of marrying Lois, breaks his heart. He is almost instantly shot and killed in an ambush, and the novel ends with the burning down of three big houses in the area. The Naylors' house is one of them. Like most of Bowen's novels, this is finally tragic, though so much of its material has been light, mannered, comic. The end of youth, of innocence, of peace, even of ignorance is a sad business for Bowen. We are not asked to weep, but to understand. This novel, indeed all Bowen's fiction, is unsentimental and free of bombast and inflated emotion.

My recent return to Elizabeth Bowen's writing was prompted by a chance (first) reading of Friends and Relations, published in 1931 and usually thought of as one of her slighter works. Short and spare as it is, it has, nonetheless, a bizarrely strong kick to it. Woven into the egregiously trivial social lives of two sisters from a county family, now married and with children, is the revelation that one of them, Janet, has always been in love with her sister Laurel's husband, Edward, and he, though less enthusiastically, with her. In the midst of the gentlemanly pursuit of jobs and pleasures, while the women shop and lunch, Janet and Edward admit their love for each other and renounce it. Janet spends a discreet day or two in bed getting over it all. In the background are a chorus of beady adolescents and an older couple, now just friends, whose adulterous affair once tore into the lives of their children, one of whom was Edward. Tragedy is averted in this generation and passionate love is domesticated and contained. The effect of the novel is to demonstrate how such feeling and such containment of feeling change people's lives. The pressure on the couple to turn their backs on love has come not from a moralistic author but from their own possibly unreliable sense of the exigencies of family life and of Edward's terror of doing to his children what was done to him.

Virginia Woolf, who was Elizabeth Bowen's friend, if not always her most generous reader, wrote to her about The House in Paris, “I had the feeling that your world imposed itself on my world, while I read, which only happens when one is being taken in hand by a work.” Bowen deserves that sort of testimonial. She wrote about women among men and with men, and in most of her writing women speak and are spoken for in more depth and detail than men are. It is hard to see why this should make her less of a writer than her male contemporaries.

Clare Hanson (essay date 2000)

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SOURCE: Hanson, Clare. “Little Girls and Large Women: Representations of the Female Body in Elizabeth Bowen's Later Fiction.” In Body Matters: Feminism, Textuality, Corporeality, edited by Avril Horner and Angela Keane, pp. 185-98. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 2000.

[In the following excerpt, Hanson reassesses Bowen's oeuvre, particularly her representations of young girls and older women, using the theories of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari to provide a new understanding of Bowen's work.]

Elizabeth Bowen's fate has been typical of that of ‘the woman writer’. Her books were both popular and critically acclaimed in their day, but after her death in 1973, her reputation suffered a decline. Her status became that of a ‘minor’ writer, haunting about the margins of the literary canon, and her later work, in particular, was disparaged. Hermione Lee, for example, had this to say of The Little Girls (1964) in her study Elizabeth Bowen: An Estimation (1981):

Such ‘meaning’ as there is appears in fragmentary and diffused form and is presented in a manner which is without depth or resonance. Not only does the novel record an unlikely and whimsical situation, which is dressed up with awkward attempts at comedy, uneasy ventures into symbolism and contrived literary allusions … but it also feels dubious and illusive.

(Lee 1981: 204)

While this is a fair comment on its own terms, what it none the less suggests is how far terms have changed since 1981. It seems that it is only now, in the light of literary theory and the changes which have taken place in our understanding of literary texts, that we have caught up with Bowen and are able to read and understand her experimental later work.

Bowen's fiction is structured repeatedly around an oscillation between the perspective of a young girl and that of an older woman. Her concern with the figure of the girl can be read alongside that of Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, and the thought of Deleuze and Guattari, I shall argue, is helpful for unlocking many aspects of Bowen's work. Deleuze and Guattari's understanding of the body as exceeding its assigned (Oedipal) subjectivity and its assigned identity as a functional organism is particularly relevant to Bowen's fiction. For Deleuze and Guattari the ‘Body without Organs’ (BwO) is the limit towards which all bodies aspire, a body before and in excess of the ‘coalescence of its intensities and their sedimentation into meaningful, functional, organised, transcendent totalities’ (Grosz 1994: 201). It is the encounters between such ‘excessive’ bodies which constitute what Deleuze and Guattari call ‘becomings’. A becoming occurs through the conjunction of bodies in a state of openness, unconstrained by pre-established ideas of what a given body is or what it is capable of. The example which they give throughout their work (and in A Thousand Plateaus), is of the conjunction or ‘nuptials’ of the wasp and the orchid. The orchid reproduces by incorporating the wasp into its sexual functioning, and the wasp feeds as it fertilises the orchid. There occurs an imaginative suspension of the separable, habitual status of the bodies involved: instead they participate in what John Hughes calls ‘a kind of creative symbiosis’ (Hughes 1997: 45). A related idea which Deleuze and Guattari develop in A Thousand Plateaus is that of the ‘haecceity’, an arrangement or ensemble of bodies produced by the movement of desire on the plane of immanence. Deleuze and Guattari define a haecceity in this way:

There is a mode of individuation very different from that of a person, subject, thing or substance. We reserve the name haecceity for it. A season, a winter, a summer, an hour, a date have a perfect individuality lacking nothing, even though this individuality is different from that of a thing or a subject. They are haecceities in the sense that they consist entirely of relations of movement and rest between molecules or particles, capacities to affect and be affected. A degree of heat can combine with an intensity of white, as in certain white skies of a hot summer.

(Deleuze and Guattari [1980] 1988: 261)

Like Deleuze and Guattari, Bowen explores the potential of the body on the plane of immanence, explores ‘excessive’ encounters between bodies (as in the instabilities of the dinner-party scene in A World of Love), and also focuses intensively on seasons and hours and on their ‘perfect individuality’ (as in the opening scene of A World of Love, in which heterogeneous bodies are brought together to form a new ensemble, connecting rocks, fields, the implied human subject, heat, stillness and light).

As I have suggested, in representing the female body, Bowen focuses on the little girl and the large, solid (in every sense) woman. For Deleuze and Guattari, the girl is a privileged figure, linked with openness, possibility and ‘becoming’. They write that the girl is ‘defined by a relation of movement and rest, speed and slowness, by a combination of atoms, an emission of particles: haecceity. She never ceases to roam upon a body without organs. She is an abstract line, or a line of flight’ (Deleuze and Guattari [1980] 1988: 276-7). ‘The girl’ is, of course, a metaphor: ‘she’ can appear at any stage of life—‘girls do not belong to an age group, sex, order or kingdom: they slip in everywhere, between orders, acts, ages, sexes: they produce n molecular sexes’ (Deleuze and Guattari [1980] 1988: 277). None the less, as we shall see, the state of the (actual, historical) girl is more likely to produce that activity and energy which Deleuze and Guattari associate with ‘becoming’.

Deleuze and Guattari's use of the term ‘molecular’ refers to the distinction they make between dispersed libidinal energies (‘molecular’ energies) and those which strive to aggregate into totalities (‘molar’ energies). Molar energies attempt to form and stabilise identities through divisions of classes, sexes and races, whereas molecular energies, in the words of Elizabeth Grosz, ‘traverse, create a path, destabilise, enable energy seepage within and through these molar unities’ (Grosz 1994: 203). Molar energies are linked with ‘majoritarian’ consciousness, which Deleuze defines as follows:

The majority does not designate a larger quantity, but in the first place, a standard in relation to which the other quantities, whatever they are, will be said to be smaller. For instance, women and children, Blacks and Indians, and so on, will be minorities in comparison to the standard constituted by any American, or European white-Christian-male-adult-city-dweller of today.

(Deleuze, ‘Un manifeste de moins’, quoted in Braidotti 1991: 115)

Molecular energies, by contrast, are linked with ‘minoritarian’ consciousness which tends towards the undoing of molar identities and which opens the way for revolutionary transformations.

Returning to A World of Love, Deleuze and Guattari's distinction between molar and molecular energies illuminates the marked contrast in this novel between the unassimilable little girl, Maud, who roves restlessly between the other characters, holds to no gender identity, ‘knock[s] other people about’ and yet has ‘a high look of candour’, and her mother, Lilia, presented in terms of a sedimented ‘molar’ femininity, ‘woman as defined by her form, endowed with organs and functions and assigned as a subject’, as Deleuze and Guattari put it (Deleuze and Guattari [1980] 1988: 275). However, I want to go on to suggest that for the purposes of reading Bowen's fiction, we might wish to reconceive Deleuze and Guattari's ‘molar’ identities as Oedipal identities. In the volume which preceded A Thousand Plateaus, that is, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia ([1972] 1984), Deleuze and Guattari took issue with the way in which psychoanalysis, as they saw it, functioned as a repressive instrument of the capitalist system, imposing an Oedipal, heterosexual sex/gender identity as the only acceptable sex/gender identity. They argued, too, that while psychoanalysis privileged the subject whose desire was founded on lack, desire in fact does not lack anything: it is rather the subject which is missing in desire—the illusion of a fixed subject only comes about through the repressive law of Oedipus. Deleuze and Guattari suggest, accordingly, that we should dismantle the whole cultural edifice of Oedipus, focusing instead on the impersonal but generative and productive force of (positive) desire. Bearing this in mind, I shall argue that the work of Elizabeth Bowen stages an opposition between anti-Oedipal (in Deleuze and Guattari's terms) and Oedipal structures of feeling. Her fiction is founded on a powerful conflict between anti-Oedipal/asocial and Oedipal/social structures and desires, and it is this conflict which I shall go on to explore in her last three novels.

As I have suggested, in A World of Love (1955), twelve-year-old Maud is the representative of ‘the girl’: disorganised and unassimilated, discountenancing all the other characters in the novel. She is linked with unsettling and subversive forces, following the tradition of the subversive woman's being associated with witchcraft. The narrator tells us that Maud has her ‘familiar’, defined by the OED as a ‘demon attending and obeying a witch’. She scuffles and spars with this familiar, who is called Gay David and has his own ‘small low cave’: she also partakes in ‘rites’ with him. Repeatedly, Maud is connected with hell—for Antonia at one point, for example, she wears ‘a select air of having been through hell’ (Bowen 1955: 158). Afflicted by hives (an inflammation of the skin), Maud is a tormented and tormenting figure, scornful of her sister's romantic preoccupations yet, as it turns out towards the end of the novel, unhappy because of her father's inability to fulfil his role as patriarch. She is, then, an ambiguous and unsettling figure.

Her twenty-year-old sister, Jane, is further along the Oedipal line: she has ‘a face perfectly ready to be a woman's, but not yet so’ (Bowen 1955: 11). The novel documents her entry into the Oedipal structure of patriarchy, an entry which is overdetermined because of the complex relationships between the adults in the story. Lilia, Jane's mother, was years ago engaged to Guy, the owner of the small estate, Montefort, where the novel is set. Guy was killed in World War I. His cousin, Antonia (also in love with Guy), feeling the need to ‘do something’ for Lilia after Guy's death, arranges a marriage between Lilia and her illegitimate cousin Fred. Jane and Maud are the results of this (mis)marriage. The story turns on Jane's discovery of a packet of old letters, from Guy, to whom is unclear—no name is apparent. Lilia clings to the belief that the letters were to her, a belief in which she is supported by Antonia, although in fact this is not the case. Jane, in this unprecedentedly hot Irish summer, falls in love with the letters, as Antonia remarks—she describes Jane as ‘[f]alling in love with a love letter’ (Bowen 1955: 55). The point Bowen makes is that the letters can seduce anyone: the Oedipal/romance script far exceeds any of the individual characters (the name Guy underlines this—the letters are from any man (guy) to any woman). The Oedipal structure of heterosexual romance is stressed: Jane is devoted to her father, and at one point Antonia cries out (in front of Fred) that Jane ‘should have been (Guy's) daughter’ (Bowen 1955: 117). Jane has, then, fallen in love with her (ideal) father, having repudiated and displaced her mother. Jane's absorption in this Oedipal plot leads directly to the romantic denouement of the novel, whereby Guy is replaced in Jane's affections by a cast-off lover of Lady Latterly, the local chatelâine. Jane is sent to meet him at Shannon airport, and as their eyes meet, ‘They no sooner looked but they loved’ (Bowen 1955: 224). These are the last words of the novel, ambivalently poised between belief and scepticism. However, the fact that the love is promoted by Vesta Latterly (a belated but certainly not virginal figure) suggests that we should view it with misgiving.

I want indeed to suggest that in this novel, Bowen presents two ‘worlds of love’. The first, associated with the script of romantic love, is viewed negatively, for it involves a diminishment of possibility, an acceptance of a restricted and restrictive identity. In A World of Love, this identity is an Oedipal identity, and there is no representation of an alternative, pre-Oedipal bond between mother and daughter. Indeed, I would argue that in this fiction, the Oedipal is challenged not by the pre-Oedipal (which would in this respect be an equally restrictive category), but by molecular, anti-Oedipal energies which work through and beyond the characters. Such energies are associated above all with the landscape, and it is this which constitutes the second ‘world of love’ in Bowen's novel, which could be called a world of desire, in the Deleuzian sense. Repeatedly, the text turns away from the characters qua characters, and concerns itself with a mood, an atmosphere, which derives in part from familiar human responses but which moves beyond them in the construction of a new ‘assemblage’ or haecceity. We might take this passage as an example:

The chestnut, darkening into summer, canopied them over; over their heads were its expired candles of blossom, brown—desiccated stamens were in the dust. Over everything under the tree lay the dusk of nature. Only the car-tracks spoke of ever again going or coming; all else had part in the majestic pause, into which words were petering out. This was not so much a solution as a dissolution, a thinning-away of the accumulated hardness of many seasons, estrangement, dulledness, shame at the waste and loss. A little redemption, even only a little, of loss was felt. The alteration in feeling, during the minutes in which the two had been here, was an event, though followed by a deep vagueness as to what they should in consequence do or say.

(Bowen 1955: 155-6)

This alteration in feeling between Lilia and Fred, involving not a denial of past dissonance but a new communication despite it, is inextricably bound up with the external world—the heat, the stillness, the redemptive dissolution of dusk. And it is noteworthy that in this dissolution Lilia, the ‘big’ woman who has seemed the exemplar of molar femininity, is de-massified, becomes open, like a girl—confirming the fact that, as Deleuze and Guattari suggest, ‘girls do not belong to an age group—they slip in everywhere’.

The Little Girls (1964) explores this idea in detail. The novel is divided into three parts: the first representing the reunion of three sixty-year-old women who were at school together in the years before World War I; the second exploring their relationship in childhood; the third returning to the present day and examining the ways in which they re-establish their friendship. Unsurprisingly, the novel draws a sharp contrast between the ‘little girls’ and the women they have become, and its radical suggestion is that the bond between the little girls, and their life before they were separated at the age of twelve, is by far the most important element in their lives, the basis to which they must return as they begin to contemplate the end of life. At one point in the opening section, Dinah remembers the girls—nicknamed Sheikie (Sheila), Dicey (Dinah) and Mumbo (Clare)—playing on a swing:

Sheikie a firework in daylight. Dicey upside down, hooked on by the knees, slapping not kicking at the earth as it flew under. Mumbo face down, stomach across the seat, flailing all four limbs. Pure from the pleasures of the air, any of them could have shot into Kingdom Come. But they had not.

Most strikingly, she then continues:

Those were the days before love. These are the days after. Nothing has gone for nothing but the days between.

(Bowen [1964] 1966: 60)

What this—heretically—suggests is that love, Oedipalised heterosexuality and the lives which the women have lived under its rule, have all ‘gone for nothing’, that these things are of far less significance, in the end, than the freedom of movement of the little girls, signified by the game on the swing.

In the first section of the novel, Bowen considers in detail what each woman has become, the impression which she makes. Dinah, who has two sons and five grandchildren, has the habit and force of beauty—‘Her beauty, having been up to now an indeterminate presence about the room, grew formidable and stepped forward’ (Bowen [1964] 1966: 63). Clare has become an extremely successful businesswoman who, despite her childhood slenderness, is now a ‘massive’ and imposing woman—‘A big woman wearing a tight black turban, and on the lapel of her dark suit a striking brooch’ (Bowen [1964] 1966: 32). Sheila, in Dinah's opinion, has become more encrusted with the sediment of years of conventional living—she is ‘More barnacled over. Far, far more barnacled over than you [Clare] or I are. Wouldn't you say? She's certainly thickly covered with some deposit. Thanks to which, she is tremendously “the thing”—almost never not, doesn't one notice?’ (Bowen [1964] 1966: 157)

Against these molarised, Oedipalised feminine identities, Bowen sets the lives of the little girls. As Sheila remarks, ‘Little girls don't make sense’ (Bowen [1964] 1966, 33). Anarchic, rough, kicking and scuffling with each other, they have not acquired the niceties of feminine gender identity. They band together like nomads or wolves, both metaphors used by Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus to describe the coming together of bodies in loose groups as lines of energies or force coincide. Deleuze and Guattari use these metaphors to help us to ‘think identity otherwise’, in Christine Battersby's words (Battersby 1998: 193). As Battersby points out, Deleuze and Guattari also use the metaphor of music to:

represent an alternative mode of ‘belonging together’ that is secured materially, and not just by the ‘syntheses’ of the imagination. Repeated musical phrases can order the ‘chaos’ of sensations in ways that do not involve representing identities as closed ‘unities’ that are ‘formed’ by the imposition of linear space-time grids onto a material world.

(Battersby 1998: 185)

Music, in other words, is made up not of ‘things’ but of actions and energies constituting a ‘becoming’ in which ‘everything happens at once’ (Deleuze and Guattari [1980] 1988: 297).

In a key scene in the central section of The Little Girls, Bowen describes a birthday picnic just before the onset of war. The children (rather like Maud in A World of Love) are lawless and ‘demonic’, and at one point, as they are resisting the adults' attempts to force them into organised games, Bowen brings together the motifs of the wolf pack and of music, suggesting the ways in which the children's energies exceed and circumvent any arrangements which the adults wish to impose on them:

Too late. The children were singing. It was a terrible wolf-like ululation, with a spectre of tune in it. Some, heads back, simply droned aloud to the sky. Any true voice, so far as it ever led, was once more drowned. Singers astray in a verse for a line or two boomed back again into the chorus with the greater vigour. Liked, the song seemed on the whole known.

(Bowen [1964] 1966: 134-5)

Still more tellingly, in the same scene, Bowen sets the image of Sheikie dancing against the threat of war. Dicey asks:

‘Who did kill that Australian duke?’

Confounded the minute she had spoken, the fool child hung for a minute longer upside down, as she was, in shame. Then she righted herself and got off the breakwater. Had the skies fallen? Every one of the children was staring her way.—No, though, not at her but beyond Mumbo at Sheikie, who was executing a tightrope two-step. This was going on farther up the breakwater, where the structure heightened as it approached the wall. To and fro, backward then forward along the wood-bone, bone-dry, dry-slippery edge of the topmost board jaunted the airily-balanced dancer—going away, returning, turning each turn into a nonchalant pirouette. She danced her music.

(Bowen [1964] 1966: 139)

Sheikie's dancing—a talent which defines her existence as a little girl—is a manifestation of bodily flows and energies which precede and resist social organisation. Dancing, she represents a ‘line of flight’, to borrow Deleuze and Guattari's phrase, which can only be opposed to the organised games like the ‘tug of war’ proposed by one of the fathers at the picnic, and which can only be opposed, too, to the gathering forces of war.

In this central section of the book, the three girls bury a coffer full of precious objects meant ‘for posterity’. Among the items which they discuss burying are a pistol and jewels—classic Freudian symbols of male and female sexuality. It is not too much to suppose that Bowen was aware of this—as Dinah later remarks, apropos of Clare's ‘knick-knack’ shops, ‘everything is a symbol’. Bowen plays with the idea of such interpretation—and of the coffer, then, as the place of repression of the knowledge of adult sexuality. Each of the girls also buries a secret item, later revealed to be in Dicey's case her mother's revolver, in Sheikie's case her sixth toe (both with clear sexual implications), in Mumbo's case the works of Shelley (signalling her poetic and imaginative aspirations).

In the third part of the novel, the three women locate and dig up the box, only to find that it is empty: this precipitates a crisis for Dinah, in particular. After the excavation, she begs Clare to come and live with her, and when Clare refuses, somehow manages to injure her head and retreats to her bed. Dinah's collapse is brought about by the hidden connection between what was buried in the box and her life as an adult woman. What was buried was something which she wanted to repress but which she (and the other girls) also valued, something which they thought of as precious, as a resource. The digging up of the box forces the recognition that adult social/sexual life, both feared and desired by the girls, has been, precisely, ‘nothing’, an unreality. For Dinah, ‘Nothing's real any more’. She goes on:

‘Nothing's left, out of going on fifty years.’


This has done it,’ said Dinah. ‘Can't you see what's happened? This us three. This going back, I mean. This began as a game, began as a game. Now—you see?—it's got me!’

‘A game's a game,’ Sheila averred, glancing down her nose.

‘And now,’ the unhearing Dinah went on, ‘the game's collapsed. We saw there was nothing there. So, where am I now?’

(Bowen [1964] 1966: 175-6)

This deepens Dinah's sense, expressed in the first section of the book, that the middle years of her life have ‘gone for nothing’—but she goes on, in this scene, to remark, ‘But you're real, Mumbo … You were there before.’ (Bowen, [1964] 1966: 176).

Dinah's appeal to Clare to come and live with her is connected with this sense of the reality of their early life. Clare resists her request because she doesn't want to fall in love with Dinah, to repeat relationships she has had in adult life. Dinah asks her at one point, ‘Mumbo, are you a Lesbian?’ and Clare does not deny it. A little later, she reveals that she had loved Dinah's mother, but tells Dinah, the ‘enchantress's child’, that ‘once is enough’. She then leaves the house and Dinah withdraws into her trance, lying in a bed under a canopy having ‘the look of a death bed’. She is roused first because Clare sends Sheila to nurse her, finally by Clare herself, who comes in while she is sleeping and thinks about their relationship, now and in the past:

We were entrusted to one another, in the days which mattered, Clare thought. Entrusted to one another by chance, not choice. Chance, and its agents time and place. Chance is better than choice; it is more lordly. In its carelessness it is more lordly. Chance is God, choice is man. You—she thought, looking at the bed—chanced, not chose, to want us again.

(Bowen [1964] 1966: 255)

What Clare sees is that their relationship in ‘the days that mattered’ was entirely a chance relationship, without calculation or forethought, unmediated by social forms and structures. Chance is better than choice because, in Deleuzian terms, it represents the free play of desire, exceeding the limitations of human subjectivity and of socialised bodily desires. Dinah's renewed need of Clare (and Sheila) can, to a certain extent, set up a relation which reactivates the past. There can be no absolute return to little girlhood, as the last line of the text makes clear, with Dinah acknowledging Clare's adulthood—‘Not Mumbo. Clare. Clare, where have you been?’ (Bowen [1964] 1966: 256). But a revived friendship can allow for some interplay between past and present, for some renewed access to the profound freedom of early life.

Eva Trout, Bowen's last heroine, is an inscrutable and powerful figure. When we first meet her, at the age of twenty-four, this is the impression she makes:

The giantess, by now, was alone also: some way along the edge of the water she had come to a stop—shoulders braced, hands interlocked behind her, feet in the costly, slovenly lambskin bootees planted apart. Back fell her cap of jaggedly cut hair from her raised profile, showing the still adolescent heaviness of the jawline.

(Bowen 1969: 13)

Both massive and childlike, Eva, heiress to an immense fortune, seems to experience her adult female body as a burden from which she seeks to escape. Her background is as extraordinary as her appearance. Her father, a wealthy financier, committed suicide, tormented beyond endurance—Eva thinks—by his long-time male lover, now Eva's guardian. Her mother left when she was two months old, only to die almost immediately in a plane crash: Eva has by no means had a conventional family upbringing.

Eva's first love is Elsinore, a fellow pupil at an ‘experimental’ school to which her father consigns her at the age of fourteen (at which point, we are told, ‘Eva was showing no signs of puberty’). Elsinore is delicate, elfin. She walks into a lake, like Ophelia, and then goes into a coma: throughout her illness she is attended, silently, by Eva. The scene is reminiscent of Dinah's trance in The Little Girls:

What made Eva visualise this as a marriage chamber? As its climate intensified, all grew tender. To repose a hand on the blanket covering Elsinore was to know in the palm of the hand a primitive tremor—imagining the beating of that other heart, she had a passionately solicitous sense of this other presence. Nothing forbad love. This deathly yet living stillness, together, of two beings, this unapartness, came to be the requital of all longing.

(Bowen 1969: 64)

The references to Hamlet underscore the pre-Oedipal and Oedipal possibilities of this situation, and Eva's resistance to both positions. She refuses to accept either father- or mother-figures as objects of desire, adhering to the mute reciprocity of her childlike relation to Elsinore.

Eva's next object of love is Iseult Smith, a teacher at the next school she attends. The relation between the two is accidental—Iseult doesn't really know why she takes an interest in this awkward girl—but it brings Iseult Eva's complete devotion. Eva feels that she is a mute and ‘submerged’ creature, and Iseult's attention seems to hold out the possibility for Eva of speech and connection with others. None the less, the relationship is compromised by Iseult's marriage. When, after she has left the school, Eva goes to stay with her former teacher, she responds to the marriage in an extraordinary way, staging a fake adulterous relationship with the husband, Eric, and even going so far as to give Iseult the impression that she is pregnant by him. Eva mimics heterosexuality, having no great regard for love, as she later confides—‘I had had disagreeable impressions of love’ (Bowen 1969: 262).

Eight years later, Eva returns to England with Jeremy, the child she has (illegally) adopted to stand in for the child she is supposed to have had with Eric. Jeremy is a deaf mute, who thus perfectly replicates and mirrors Eva's mute and frustrated existence. The ‘inaudible years’ of his childhood are spent travelling about America, as Eva and he ‘[lord] it in a visual universe’. They live in an insulated, solipsistic world—‘Society revolved at a distance from them like a ferris wheel dangling buckets of people’ (Bowen 1969: 221). However, the return to England precipitates a break between Eva and Jeremy. Eva reestablishes her friendship with Henry Dancey, the son of a local vicar who had been her confederate when she was twenty-four and he was twelve years old. Their relationship is hardly a conventional hetero-sexual relationship—it is more like Eva's relationship with Elsinore than anything else, a link that is confirmed by Eva's associating both Elsinore and Henry with a honeymoon in the fantastic castle setting of her first school. The relationship remains in a sense childish—Henry's mother remarks that ‘from childhood they have been kindred spirits’ and that ‘Eva's a child at heart’ (Bowen 1969: 249). None the less, the relationship develops to the point where Eva proposes marriage to Henry. Meanwhile Iseult, Eva's old teacher, rouses Jeremy as she had earlier roused Eva, inspiring in him for the first time the desire to use language and make contact with the external world.

Bowen speaks of Eva's return to England as a return to ‘face the music’, music which once faced ‘stirs her’. The suggestion is not only that Eva must face the consequences of her actions, and their effect on others, but that she must enter the world of music, of relationships, of ‘becoming’. She enters this world fully only when Henry tells her he will marry her. She has her moment of becoming, of relationship, and speaks with her body, shedding the first tears she has ever shed:

They were far from alone; down the long, suave car various fellow-occupants were already seated. In here it seemed, after the platform, silent—to be not overheard, the two had to stand close together. As though the train had started and started swaying, they swayed slightly. ‘I'm not going to get off,’ he said, brushing his lips against her ear. ‘I'm not going to get off this train, I mean. Did you really want me to?—did you imagine I would?’

… Something took place: a bewildering, brilliant, blurring filling up, swimming and brimming over; then, not a torrent from the eyes but one, two, three, four tears, each hesitating, surprised to be where it was, then wandering down. The speediest splashed on to the diamond brooch. ‘Look what is happening to me!’ exulted Eva. She had no handkerchief, not having expected to require one—she blotted about on her face with a crunched-up glove. ‘What a coronation day …’.

(Bowen 1969: 315-16)

Jeremy, however, is still and may always be exiled from such connection: in the final ironic twist of the novel, he shoots Eva dead as she prepares to depart for her wedding journey.

Like Bowen's other late novels, Eva Trout presents a heroine who resists the Oedipal plot, and the novel may be said to be anti-Oedipal in this respect, especially in its delineation of the eccentric relationship between Eva and Henry. None the less, the strongest impression which the novel leaves is of Eva's entrapment in a curiously inert body. ‘Becoming’ in the world of Bowen's last novel seems to be an almost impossible feat, for both female and male characters. An image worth pondering in this respect is that of the trapped bird, which Henry watches as he listens to his father preaching, just before he leaves to join Eva at the end of the novel. The bird might be said to represent both Eva and Henry: Eva is repeatedly compared to a bird, and Henry is, like it, trapped in his father's church:

A thrush had got into the church. It was adolescent; though full-grown still hardly more than a bloated fledgling. Barely yet fit to fly, it did so with arduousness and terror, hurtling, hoping, despairingly losing height, not knowing where it was to land, if it ever did, or how again to take off, if it ever could … The thrush, gathering velocity from the distance, catapulted beak-on into the glass of the window above Henry. Like a stone it dropped. Henry fainted, alone in his corner of the vicarage pew.

(Bowen 1969: 295-7)

I would suggest, following Deleuze and Guattari, that it is Eva's capital inheritance (her ‘horrible money’, as Henry calls it, the product par excellence of damaging social relations) which petrifies her body, and that it is the church, with its misplaced emphasis on transcendence and its moribund ideas, which petrifies Henry. It is these overwhelming forces which ensure that their intersecting lines of flight, though embarked on with passion, with ‘arduousness and terror’, will ultimately fail. Bowen does not underestimate here the forces of habit and repression which inhibit the ‘becomings’ so eloquently explored by Deleuze and Guattari and so intensely evoked in her fiction.


Battersby, C. (1998) The Phenomenal Woman, Cambridge, Polity Press.

Bowen, E. (1955) A World of Love, London, Jonathan Cape.

———. ([1964] 1966) The Little Girls, London, Reprint Society.

———. (1969) Eva Trout; or, Changing Scenes, London, Jonathan Cape.

Braidotti, R. (1991) Patterns of Dissonance: A Study of Women in Contemporary Philosophy, Cambridge, Polity Press.

Deleuze, G. and F. Guattari, ([1972] 1984) Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Vol. 1, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem and Helen R. Lane, London, Athlone Press.

———. ([1980] 1988) A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Vol. 2, trans. Brian Massumi, London, Athlone Press.

Grosz, E. (1994) ‘A Thousand Tiny Sexes: Feminism and Rhizomatics’, in Constantin V. Boundas and Dorothea Olkowski (eds), Gilles Deleuze and the Theater of Philosophy, London, Routledge.

Hughes, J. (1997) Lines of Flight: Reading Deleuze with Hardy, Gissing, Conrad, Woolf, Sheffield, Sheffield Academic Press.

Lee, H. (1981) Elizabeth Bowen: An Estimation, London, Vision Press.

Lis Christensen (essay date 2001)

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SOURCE: Christensen, Lis. “Identity.” In Elizabeth Bowen: The Later Fiction, pp. 43-65. Copenhagen, Denmark: Museum Tusculanum Press, University of Copenhagen, 2001.

[In the following excerpt, Christensen discusses the ways Bowen establishes her characters' individual and group identities.]

‘What a slippery fish is identity,’ reflects Eva Trout; ‘and what is it besides a slippery fish?’ (ET [Eva Trout] 193). Bowen's texts give no answer; but they do refer, in many different words and phrases, to those features that characterize or define a person as being different from anyone else: persona, personality, being oneself, deeper nature, etc., plus the word identity itself.

The ‘slippery fish’ assumes diverse shapes. National identity, for instance, is prominent in the wartime ambience of The Heat of the Day, where Robert Kelway's attraction to the group identity of a totalitarian political regime makes him a traitor to his country. On the opposite side there is the obstinate Irish landowner Francis Morris, to whom Ireland's abstention from the Second World War is a severe blow, while strident nationalism is reserved for the press propaganda that the subplot's Louie accepts unquestioningly. The identity stemming from one's profession or place of work may be exemplified by Clare in The Little Girls; this self-made woman identifies herself with her chain of gift-shops so much that she proudly announces that she is ‘Mopsie Pye’, as she calls her shops (with scant feeling for the nursery-size Beatrix Potter associations of the name—Clare, the text makes clear, is a very large woman). Homes are likewise indications of their owner's personality, and characteristically the identity-seeking Stella in The Heat of the Day and Eva Trout have no permanent home of their own: Stella's furnished flats and Eva's hotels are poor substitutes, and Eva's acquisition of somebody else's cast-off seaside villa is one big mistake. The question of woman's identity in marriage comes into The Heat of the Day in the earlier ladies of the house that the diffident Stella feels herself akin to, and in the character of Cousin Nettie, the former mistress of Mount Morris, who has of her own free will spent years in a mental home because she felt that, childless as she was, she could not live up to what was expected of her as a wife; and Mrs Dancey in Eva Trout has so little identity apart from her husband and children that she is not even given a Christian name. Sexual identity looms large in Bowen's last two novels, which are shot through with open or barely-veiled homoeroticism. I return to this aspect of identity later.

‘Identity’ may signify merely ‘identification’. In this sense it enters briefly into The Heat of the Day in the silent watcher outside Stella's flat, who turns out to be the counter-spy Harrison on one occasion, but whose identity on the fatal night of Robert's death is not made clear. It is fundamental to the plot of A World of Love, where the actual identity of the woman to whom the all-important letters are addressed remains a mystery throughout. A typographical ploy on the part of the author suggests that there is more to this concern with identification than mere suspense: the frequent italicizing of ‘you’. In one of Guy's love-letters it is both italicized and capitalized: ‘“I thought,” he wrote, “if only YOU had been here!”’ (WL [A World of Love] 48). Immediately, a page later, ‘you’ is italicized again when Maud says to Jane: ‘“Just wondered what you were making up”’ (WL 49). Lilia and Antonia are also addressed in this emphatic way. This would seem to indicate that all three women who have been under Guy's spell—Antonia, Lilia, Jane—partake of the identity of the unknown beloved; we are therefore hardly surprised that the actual name of the stranger should not be revealed. At the end of the book, Jane is explaining why it was she herself and not Kathie, the superstitious little maid, who burnt the letters:

‘Kathie got frightened. She found a name in them.’

‘Oh?’ said Antonia.

Jane gave the unknown name, naturally adding: ‘So who was she?’

‘I don't believe I remember,’ said Antonia.

(WL 139)

The illegitimate Fred, whose married life has been lived in the shadow of his high-powered cousin, is also at one point a ‘you’; this also goes for the sinister Latterly chauffeur and the freak daughter of the house, Maud, who bring in an element of the supernatural, suggesting that there is a further mystical dimension to this form of address. There is also a hint of the supernatural when Antonia calls at Latterly Castle to fetch Jane (WL 71); she has apparently introduced herself to the butler as ‘Jane's cousin’, but she will not come in, and for a brief moment, when Lady Latterly asks who the young lady's cousin is, we are not quite sure that it is not Guy who is waiting outside for the young girl. (This is taken up later in Chapter 10, ‘Doors and Entrances in A World of Love’).

The question of identity in a wider sense is not easily solved, and Eva Trout may well be read as Bowen's most notable contribution to this popular, if loosely defined, literary theme. Seen in this light it is the story of a sexually and socially unformed girl whose only ‘identity’ is her enormous wealth; as Henry Dancey puts it: ‘When you came cracking into the vicarage you'd already been pointed out as A Very Rich Girl. We had none of us ever seen one—it was like knowing a violinist, or something’ (ET 236). Eva's adult life is spent searching for another identity, which may partly explain her adoption of a baby son who was to be everything that she herself would not be. In the last part of the story Eva is still a Very Rich Girl, but with a difference: her early same-sex loves have forcibly come to an end, and she seems to find some degree of compensation in motherhood until the growing need for independence of her adopted son Jeremy is resolved by her death. Jeremy is arguably Bowen's supreme example of that ‘slippery fish’, identity, and his sleek, slippery nature is highlighted by both sense and sound in many of the words associated with him: when he gets down from the vicarage tea-table, he slides off his cushion (ET 160), when he goes to look at the garden in the square he slants across the roadway (ET 169), one of his puzzles slithers about on the car seat where he has been sitting (ET 202), his smiles are sliding (ET 205), and when he gives up reading his Asterix he shelves it (ET 256). The boy's angelic behaviour proves to be only skin deep, and at the end of the book we are left wondering whether his outbursts of violence go back to his unknown heredity or whether they result from the psychological shock of being transplanted into a world that is strange to him but familiar to Eva—the concepts of Predestination and Environmentalism having been helpfully pointed out for us by the French doctor to whom Eva has entrusted her son.


Before looking more closely at Eva, it will be convenient to consider an aspect of identity that carries a good deal of meaning in the novels: the naming of the characters. The importance of a person's name appears perhaps most clearly in The Little Girls, where Clare distances herself from her failed marriage by reverting to her unmarried surname (LG [The Little Girls] 32), and Diana deliberately changes her name to Dinah rather than be called after ‘that bristly goddess’ (LG 52). In the climactic scene after their coffer has been found empty, the confusion in the minds of the women is reflected in the suppression of their names: though they are still occasionally ‘Dinah’, ‘Clare’, and ‘Sheila’, at times these names give way to general nouns (which are in fact used liberally throughout the novel): Sheila is now e.g. ‘the hostess’ (LG 161, 162, 168), ‘the settee's owner’ (LG 162), ‘the speaker’ (LG 163), ‘the owner’ of a large water-colour of the Old High Street in Southstone (LG 166); Dinah ‘the late-comer’ and ‘the third of them’ (LG 162), ‘the culprit’ (LG 164), ‘the guest’ (LG 169); Clare ‘the magazine-addict’ (LG 161) and ‘the occupant of the settee’ (LG 162). In thus being nameless, the women have now lost one of the foremost signs of their identity, just as they have lost their past because the coffer they buried as children is now empty. That we are meant to notice this non-naming is suggested by the mention of the names over the shops in the picture of the Old High Street, where one can ‘read the right names over the right shops’, as Dinah says (LG 166).

As ‘little girls’ the main characters use nicknames for each other: Dicey (Dinah), Mumbo (Clare), Sheikie (Sheila)—fitting names for them as adults, too; for Dinah is not always reliable or predictable, Clare is clumsy and has grown to almost elephantine proportions, and Sheila has much of the romance and secretiveness many like to associate with an eastern prince. It is notably Dinah and Clare who keep up this intimate naming habit as grown-ups—until, in the very last line of the book, Dinah finally faces the fact that they are no longer children and calls her friend ‘Clare’. As a general rule I have used the nicknames when referring to the childhood scenes.

Naming often displays a considerable degree of irony. In The Heat of the Day, for instance, Stella's less than victorious husband, who dies just after their divorce, is called Victor. For a parallel example from a short story, one could instance the ‘amorist’ protagonist of ‘Ivy Gripped the Steps’, Gavin Doddington. Gavin or Gawain is the title figure of the 14th century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, whose courtly mediaeval ambience is recalled in the text of Bowen's story by a remark from Gavin's mother: ‘Why, Lilian has made quite a little page of you!’ (CS [Collected Stories] 697); Gawain was the most perfect of King Arthur's knights and the very opposite of ‘amorist’. Similarly, Constantine Ormeau in Eva Trout is hardly the most constant of men, nor is Professor Portman C Holman the most manly; and conversely, the most incorruptible figure and stern moral touchstone of the book, the Rev. Alaric Dancey, bears the name of the Goth leader who sacked Rome. Vesta Latterly in A World of Love has the name of the Roman goddess of hearth and home though she is the very opposite of a home-maker—she cannot keep her friends or her servants, she does not bother to introduce her guests, and she has in fact forgotten to invite a guest she is expecting; and the chaste Roman vestal virgins conjured up by this first name clash grotesquely with a surname that recalls D H Lawrence's Lady Chatterly's Lover, besides indicating that she has only lately become rich: ‘She was nouveau riche; but, as Antonia said, better late than never’ (WL 57). Some names are almost Dickensian in their inventiveness: the mercenary Sheila in The Little Girls, for instance, who judges pictures by their price, is Mrs Artworth; the sharp-witted cleaning lady in Eva Trout, who adapts her words to her surroundings just as a stoat changes colour winter and summer, is Mrs Stote; and it is a Mrs Caliber who brings Jeremy to Victoria Station in the same book and makes the grisly remark that ‘a child likes to play gunman, it's only human nature’ (ET 265). Some names are only mildly ironical, as that of the uxorious estate agent, Mr Denge, also in Eva Trout, who is inordinately proud of his town and is appropriately named from a Kentish locality, Denge Marsh; or that epitome of small-town respectability and limited horizon, Mrs Tringsby in The Heat of the Day, whose name brings to mind the quiet Hertfordshire town of Tring.

There is a good deal of recycling in the names Bowen gave her characters. It seems worth noting that the counter-spy Harrison in The Heat of the Day and Harris, the chauffeur in A World of Love who wears ‘Martian gauntlets’ (WL 53), bear surnames reminiscent of a well-known nickname for the Devil, ‘Old Harry’: they are both, in a sense, emissaries from the Underworld. But from one novel or short story to another it is often difficult to see any connection between characters bearing the same name—between Roderick's guru-like friend Fred in The Heat of the Day and the down-to-earth Fred of A World of Love, for instance. Within the individual texts it is another matter: in The Little Girls there is a significant contrast between Dinah's obnoxious house-boy Francis and her doleful neighbour Frank Wilkins, whose given name would presumably have been ‘Francis’; in The Heat of the Day, it can be no coincidence that the idiosyncratic Irish landowner is called Francis Morris, for the familiar form of his name links up with the idea of being ‘frank’ that is central to that novel. There is an obvious pointer, too, in the fact that spy and counter-spy in The Heat of the Day are both called Robert, a name that associates phonetically with the name of Stella's son Roderick and their surname, Rodney.

Naming is closely linked to theme and subject-matter in Bowen's last novels in the case of Dinah's and Eva's family names, Piggott and Trout. Stuart Piggott was a well-known archaeologist some dozen years younger than Bowen; he was the author of several works on early civilizations,1 and in The Little Girls the surname forms a running accompaniment to the plotline motif of digging up relics of the past. Eva Trout's surname chimes in with the many occurrences of the word ‘fish’ in Eva Trout to underline the theme of that ‘slippery fish’, identity. In The Heat of the Day Stella's surname, Rodney, is also interesting. Admiral Lord George Rodney (1718-1792) was next to Nelson England's most illustrious naval hero, whose name was much in people's minds in the Second World War on account of the battleship named after him.2 Rodney is reputedly a ‘nice rich English name’, as a character in Virginia Woolf's Night and Day (1919) has it, and it is a subtle reminder of Stella's love for her country3 that goes some way towards explaining her violent reaction to her lover's treason.

A character's role-playing is frequently signalled by a change of designation in the narrative voice; thus Sheila is regularly ‘Mrs Artworth’ when she is putting on airs and enacting her public persona, just as she was ‘Miss Beaker’ when she remembered to stand on her dignity as a child (LG 97, 102). Texts often veer between Christian names, full names, and titles plus surnames to reflect the presence or absence of narrative empathy, and to mirror both character relationships and the niceties of social behaviour. We are only a few pages into The Little Girls, for instance, when we are brought up sharp on hearing Dinah introduce her friend and neighbour—whom we by now already know as ‘Frank’—as ‘Major Wilkins’: a subtle exercise of narrative control that without further comment confirms our initial point of view as being identical with Dinah's. In Bowen's last novel, a scene at the girls' school between Eva Trout and her teacher likewise needs no analysis by the narrative voice, for the fluctuations in their degree of intimacy are fully reflected in the alternating names: Miss Smith, Iseult, Iseult Smith. Roles are also reflected in the frequent use of personal nouns rather than names, which may not always be put down to a desire for ‘elegant variation’ or to a suggestion of loss of identity, as in the climactic scene in The Little Girls referred to above; in the parting scene between Mrs Piggott and Major Burkin-Jones in the same book, to take another example, Dicey is ostensibly outside the adults' conversation and is often referred to in the text as ‘the child’.


In a lighter vein, ‘being oneself’ is a recurring phrase. In many contexts it often entails little more than a change of dress, sometimes carrying a load of irony—as when Stella says that her son is looking more like himself once he is out of uniform, though when she says it he is in fact wearing her lover's dressing-gown (HD [The Heat of the Day] 47). The way a person dresses is never unimportant; as one of Bowen's early characters puts it: ‘One's clothes are part of what one has got to say’.4 Accessories and jewelry are similar personality-markers; and even if we did not suspect that Cousin Nettie was probably in some sense the wisest and most level-headed of all the characters in The Heat of the Day, the fact that she wears an opal ring (HD 207) not only tells us of the bad luck that has dogged her life, but also confirms her role as clairvoyante and, we assume, a reliable source of family history.

Texts often remark on the suitability of what a person is wearing. Thus in The Heat of the Day we hear of Stella that ‘her clothes fitted her body, her body her self, with a general air of attractiveness and ease’ (HD 25). Frank Wilkins, too, in The Little Girls, suits his clothes, and his clothes suit him: ‘this fortunate man not only liked his clothes but was liked by them’ (LG 190). The minute attention to dress in this book means tailor-mades for the formidable business woman Clare and soft colours and soft fabrics for the mermaid-like Sheila, while the countrified lady-of-the-manor Dinah rarely wears anything more formal than slacks and a sweater. The novel carries identification by dress to comic lengths in its introduction of Clare and Sheila, who are referred to by the hats they are wearing:

A big woman wearing a tight black turban, and on the lapel of her dark suit a striking brooch, sat down, with all but no hesitation, opposite a woman already there at the table … Her hat was composed of pink roses.

… Black Turban, settling into her chair, bumped a leg of the table with her knee, whereat Pink Roses tittered.

(LG 30)

At the opposite extreme, the message conveyed by the clothes worn by the chauffeur in A World of Love (including the ‘Martian gauntlets’ already mentioned) is positively sinister. On his first appearance he is in a ‘disaster-dark’ uniform (WL 53); the second time we see him he is wearing a ‘sort of a compromise get-up, dark coat, groom's breeches’ (WL 138) reminiscent of the dark green tunics and khaki trousers of the notorious Black and Tans that terrorised the country during Ireland's War of Independence 1919-1921.

Change of style in dress is a useful indication of character development. In the beginning of Eva Trout, Eva with supreme lack of taste sports a Robin Hood hat and an ocelot coat, and bright scarlet stockings (ET 29, 74); her transformation in the second half of the book is suggested immediately by her elegant grey flannel suit. Anticipated in complimentary remarks by other characters, the going-away scene at Victoria shows a total metamorphosis from the ugly duckling of the first chapters:

There stood Eva.

Not far off, in one of those chance islands of space, she stood tall as a candle,5 some accident of the light rendering her luminous from top to toe—in a pale suit, elongated by the elegance of its narrowness, and turned-back little hat of the same no-colour; no flowers, but on the lapel of the jacket a spraying-out subcontinent of diamonds: a great brooch. A soft further glow had been tinted on to her face; her eyes were increased by the now mothy dusk of their lashes.

(ET 261-262)

As with Eva, a change of dress often means a change of personal or sexual identity; in A World of Love, for instance, the adolescent Jane comes to womanhood on the day she puts on a new striped blazer. Iseult's transformation into a Bohemian in Eva Trout is also reflected in her dress. As a teacher, in the first chapters of the book, she wears a dark nun-like suit (ET 58); later, meeting Eva in Dickens' house in Broadstairs, her new dress is provocatively feminine: ‘pinkish, diaphanous as the day demanded, becoming to the young woman she still was. … The garb of a votaress, with a touch of the ball gown’ (ET 113). Her later Bohemian disguise includes a new hairstyle (for one's hair is also part of what one has to say, to misquote Bowen): when she makes off with Jeremy she has a deep fringe and looks like a Zola harlot; at the end of the book she is ostensibly the respectable Mrs Arble again and wears her hair off the forehead with a little-girlish Alice band—ironically, in view of her blatant lack of innocence.

On a different level, having one's hair cut takes on ritual significance in A World of Love when Lilia's shorter hair signals that she has finally broken with the past and is free to accept her husband without the image of her dead fiancé coming between them. Lilia's decision to have her hair cut becomes particularly significant from having been taken in the pivotal night when Jane comes home late from the castle dinner and Antonia communes with the spirit of Guy in the landscape. Her visit to the hairdresser's gets a good deal of emphasis by occasioning an outing to the village of Clonmore that takes up nearly a whole chapter, and incidentally includes a good deal of social comedy.


In The Heat of the Day Stella sees, on the table at Mount Morris, her gloves ‘shaped by her hands’, and her handbag ‘containing every damning proof of her identity’ (HD 164). What ‘proof of her identity’ can the bag hold? Name and address, place of work, passport, tickets, keys, identity card; enough to identify her in case of accidents, yes. Powder compact, lipstick, handkerchief, loose change, cheque-book perhaps—together with the bag itself and her gloves, enough to suggest her femininity, her elegance, her expensive taste, her economic standing. But will there be anything to show what kind of woman she is, how gentle, how hesitant, how unwilling to ask too many questions? Or that her divorced husband is dead, her son in the Army, the flat she lives in full of somebody else's furniture, her lover suspected of treason? Of this kind of identity a handbag can surely say very little.

When Stella takes a lamp in the darkened drawing room to study in a mirror ‘the romantic face that was still hers’ she becomes for a moment ‘the lady of the house, with a smile moulded against the drapery of darkness. She wore the look of everything she had lost the secret of being’ (HD 173-174). This would seem to mean that she has lost all power of decision and authority normally associated with a ‘lady of the house’; and that she is groping for her identity, as the text has it two or three pages later, is palpably one way of saying that she is seeking the resolution to confront her lover with Harrison's allegations.6 The Irish intermezzo serves largely to give substance to those allegations, confirming them for her in confirming that Harrison has in fact been to Mount Morris and that he is, in all probability, what he makes a show of being.

Stella's uncertainties are echoed in the subplot in the character of the working-class Louie, who gratefully and uncritically accepts the variety of identities offered by the popular press; as an illustration of the confusion attaching to the notion of ‘identity’, this can hardly be bettered (it is also a good example of that fondness for agent nouns which is apparent even in Bowen's last novel):

Was she not a worker, a soldier's lonely wife, a war orphan, a pedestrian, a Londoner, a home- and animal-lover, a thinking democrat, a movie-goer, a woman of Britain, a letter writer, a fuel-saver, and a housewife? She was only not a mother, a knitter, a gardener, a foot-sufferer or a sweetheart—at least not rightly.

(HD 152)

In Eva Trout, it is, at least in Eva's own view, the frustration of her attempt to form a personal identity for herself that is behind her deep disappointment at her teacher's defection. We owe some of this understanding to the Inquisitor-like but less than percipient Father Clavering-Haight, who extracts the following confession from Eva:

‘What did she do?’

‘She desisted from teaching me. She abandoned my mind. She betrayed my hopes, having led them on. She pretended love, to make me show myself to her—then, thinking she saw all, turned away. She—’

‘—Wait a minute: what were your hopes?’

‘To learn,’ said Eva. A long-ago tremble shook her. ‘To be, to become—I had never been.’ She added: ‘I was beginning to be.’

He remarked, with enthusiasm: ‘A gifted teacher.’

‘Yes. Then she sent me back.’

‘Sent you away?’

‘No; sent me back again—to be nothing.’

(ET 184-185)

Some pages later, speculating whether it really is her former teacher who suddenly has rung her up after eight years (here is the question of identity as identification), Eva plunges into the reflections referred to above about that ‘slippery fish’, identity, and makes an excursion to the National Portrait Gallery to try to find an answer. She is disappointed by the faces she sees, but the visit does at least set her mind at rest on one point: ‘there is no hope of keeping a check on people; you cannot know what they do, or why they do it’.

No, no getting through to them. They were on show only. Lordlily suffering themselves to be portrayed, they'd presented a cool core of resistance even to the most penetrating artist. The most martial extroverts, even, nursed their mysteries. Each was his own affair, and he let you know it. Nothing was to be learned from them. … In so far as they had an effect on the would-be student, it was a malign one: every soul Eva knew became no longer anything but a Portrait. There was no ‘real life’; no life was more real than this. This she had long suspected. She now was certain.

(ET 195-196)

These reflections would seem to be in line with the fact that Eva's own features are not described, and in the Chicago coffee-shop it is not her face but her hand lying on the table, as it lay on Elsinore's bed in their childhood, that makes Eva recognizable to her early roommate. It is generally the male characters who come in for detailed facial description: Eric Arble, Constantine Ormeau, Clavering-Haight, Jeremy, and Mr Anapoupolis in Chicago; Constantine's inscrutable ‘shadowless face’ in particular claims a good deal of attention, here in a striking tour de force:

The blond, massaged-looking flesh of Constantine's face seemed, like alabaster or indeed plastic, not quite opaque, having a pinkish underglow. … Now and then some few creases came into being, to supply their owner with such degree of expression as at that particular moment he chose to grant himself—or occasionally (though this was rarer) there was a calculated levitation of the eyebrows. Anything of that sort was, though, almost instantly wiped away.

Colour entered the picture, though used sparingly. Lips, for instance, were the naive fawn-pink of lips in a tinted drawing. Less perceptibly pencilled-in were the eyebrows, lashes, the exhausted pencil employed being gold-red. And the same tone reappeared in the hair; well-nourished, though back from the forehead. And the eyes? These too were in the convention: a water-colourist's grey-blue. If they glinted beneath their lids, this appeared phenomenal. They were to see with, chiefly.

(ET 36)

In contrast to the mocking tone of these last lines, eyes are used in The Heat of the Day seemingly without irony as character markers. Thus the fact that Robert Kelway's would-be dominant father insisted so much on his son seeing him in the eye is responsible, Robert himself explains, for the fact that he himself seldom looks into Stella's eyes (as ever, he has a neat explanation for his own deviousness). In the same book, the uneven set of Harrison's eyes and his way of ‘using both eyes at the same time’, in Stella's words (HD 101), mark him out clearly as a spy (Bowen gives a hilarious take-off on this character of hers in the secret agent manqué Francis in The Little Girls, who has not a squint but a cast, ‘one eye stay[ing] riveted to his profile, leaving the other to dart where it would’ [LG 24]). It goes for many of the characters, however, that their stance and movements are more revealing than their faces. In Eva Trout, Eva herself is first pictured ungracefully straddling with her hands behind her back; as the book progresses attention is more often drawn to her upright carriage: she stands ‘like a ramrod’ (ET 148), ‘tall as a candle’ (ET 261-262), which we may see as an indication of her fundamentally upright nature. Conversely, Henry's uncertain attitude to life in general and love in particular is captured in his habit of balancing on one foot, and he characteristically weaves his way through the crowds at Victoria Station rather like a dancer (ET 259; cf. his surname, Dancey).


Woman-to-woman relationship as an early motif in Bowen's fiction was pointed out already in 1975 by Jane Rule, who remarked that ‘it was not until late in her career, after the death of her husband, that Elizabeth Bowen returned to a concern for relationships between women’ (115). This statement has been modified and elaborated by more recent feminist criticism: Patricia Coughlan has pointed out, for example, that in The Heat of the Day Louie's admiration for Stella certainly has sexual overtones (121). And there can be little doubt that sexuality colours the friendship between Louie and Connie, who are both promiscuously fond of men yet share a bed (though Connie has her doubts about this being ‘healthy’ [HD 242]), and who have met one another in that sexually suggestive location, a staircase—in a cascade of tumbling vegetables, no less. Male homosexuality runs through the novel in numerous instances of the adjective ‘queer’, which is frequently used by one character about another, along with ‘funny’, in a naïvely non-sexual sense that leaves the reader with a strong suspicion that the narrator is speaking with her tongue in her cheek. In A World of Love there is an undertone of sexual attraction between Jane and Antonia that lasts until the end of the book, when Jane simultaneously frees herself from the domination of the long-dead Guy and that of his living counterpart, Antonia. Nevertheless, it is not until Bowen's last two novels that unconventional feminine sexuality comes into the open as a central issue. ‘Mumbo, are you a Lesbian?’ asks Dinah in The Little Girls (LG 197), and Eva Trout is asked whether she is a hermaphrodite (ET 51); characteristically, Clare does not answer the question, and Eva does not know, or perhaps does not understand the word.


Of course Clare does not answer Dinah; she is accustomed to hiding her feelings, and also to actually hiding away. We recall that even as a child she lies on the ground ‘in what felt like hiding’ when she is making up the secret language for their coffer (LG 112), and she sits in the dark attic box-room rather than go down for a candle, for ‘downstairs was all party voices and, worse, laughter’ (LG 115). She dresses unobtrusively and finds the striking brooch she has put on to meet Sheila not really her style—‘too much of an eye-catcher’ (LG 30). Towards the end of the book, her words and actions leave little doubt about her unarticulated same-sex leanings: it is after Dinah has asked her openly whether she is a lesbian that Clare, having scolded Dinah for always running for cover, herself ‘runs away’ by declining to spend the night at her house. This behaviour is noted by Patricia Juliana Smith as a narrative manifestation of lesbian panic. Clare's action precipitates Dinah's breakdown: a few hours after Clare has left, Dinah is found unconscious with a bruise on her forehead, perhaps, as Smith suggests, ‘the result of striking her head against the wall in her frustration and shame’ (2).

Clare apparently regrets her angry departure very soon, for she telephones the house in the early hours of the morning and sends for Sheila to nurse their friend. Later she herself slips into the room where Dinah is sleeping; she looks at the china she used to love that belonged to Dinah's mother, whom she adored as a child, and love thus receives our full attention on this final page:

Clare turned round and, facing the chimneypiece, dared again to look into the world of china. Shepherds and shepherdesses branched towards one another their mended arms; beautiful bowls stayed cradled within their network of cracks; stitches held obstinately together what had been broken; handles maintained their hold on cups by grasping with tiny alloy claws. She was looking into a fragile representation of a world of honour, which was to say unfailingness.

… She looked with longing at the everlasting seashores, mountain peaks, bays and lakes, even at the castles, on the frail rounded sides of the cups and bowls. Never had she found them anywhere else. She had loved them because they were not for her.

(LG 236)

Deciding to leave, Clare thinks of the goodbye she never said to Dinah as a child after the birthday picnic on the beach all those years earlier:

Turning to go, she thought of her last sight of the sands, from the seawall: the wide sands and the running figure.

‘Good-bye, Dicey,’ she said—for now and for then.

The sleeper stirred. She sighed. She raised herself on an elbow, saying: ‘Who's there?’


‘Not Mumbo. Clare. Clare, where have you been?’

(LG 236-237)

Looking back on the whole novel from the vantage point of this closing scene, the theme of love between women appears as a constant undercurrent under the light-hearted comedy of the plot. Dinah's question in the very last words of the novel, ‘Clare, where have you been?’, gives the book an emphatically open closure. This last exchange between Dinah and Clare has been interpreted by Jane Rule as suggesting that they will now ‘deal with the relationship the one has longed for, the other longed for but dreaded’ (121). In Patricia Juliana Smith's reading, Clare, by calling herself ‘Mumbo’, harks back to their childhood friendship and abrupt parting; Dinah on the other hand uses her real name to invite that friendship to continue:

Dinah's repudiation of the childish nickname and her enunciation of the adult name indicate an acceptance of Clare's unspoken apology and a forgiveness for the offenses of the both distant and recent past, just as the final question invites the presence of one long absent.


It bears noting, too, that earlier that day Dinah goes to take a bath and thus prepares herself to enter a new life, ‘garbing herself’ in her yellow dressing-gown (the wording suggesting the formality of a ritual; LG 208).


The sexuality of the heroine receives a good deal of limelight in Bowen's last novel. When the book opens Eva is 24 and sexually still ambivalent. Before this, at her two schools, she has certainly felt love for members of her own sex. At the castle school she rooms with the neurotic Elsinore, who has tried to drown herself in the lake because she has been parted from the Japanese butler's son, and since gone into a coma; Eva is never happier than when they are alone together in their turret room:

What made Eva visualize this as a marriage chamber? As its climate intensified, all grew tender. To repose a hand on the blanket covering Elsinore was to know in the palm of the hand a primitive tremor—imagining the beating of that other heart, she had a passionately solicitous sense of this other presence. Nothing forbad love. This deathly yet living stillness, together, of two beings, this unapartness, came to be the requital of all longing. An endless feeling of destiny filled the room.

(ET 56)

She recalls this situation when she meets Elsinore again several years later:

The tower room in the castle, the piteous breathing. The blinded window, the banished lake. The dayless and nightless watches, the tent of cobwebs. The hand on the blanket, the beseeching answering beating heart. The dark: the unseen distance, the known nearness. Love: the here and the now and the nothing-but. The step on the stairs. Don't take her away, DON'T take her away. She is all I am. We are all there is.

(ET 133; original italics and emphasis)7

After the castle school has folded and Eva is allowed to go to an ordinary girls' school, she becomes devoted to one of her mistresses, Iseult Smith, who takes an interest in her and wants to improve the way she speaks. Nothing comes of this project, but the girl is dazed by gratitude that someone has actually shown her ‘an attention which could seem to be love’ (ET 17). The natural world is used with unequivocally erotic overtones to render Eva's awakening sexuality:

She saw (she thought) the aurora borealis. Love like a great moth circled her bed, then settled. Air came to her from hayfields where, not alone, she had walked in a trance, or the smell of the rushy and minty and earthy wetness of moments at the fringe of the stream returned. The silence of buildings and of the garden was now and then disturbed by a sigh.

(ET 63)

Looking back many years later, Eva sees things in a less romantic light, and it is clear to the reader, at this point if not before, that she is justified in feeling ‘betrayed’. Thinking back to Chapter I, 5, ‘Two Schools’, we can see how the emotionally deprived Eva has been overwhelmed by the interest her teacher has taken in her, and we note that the narcissistic Iseult Smith was not unaware of what was going on. Two scenes at the school stand out. The first is suggestively in a showery late spring: Eva meets Iseult Smith coming across the lawn and sees her against the sun, like a vision in her yellow oilskin; in what is difficult to see as other than an invitation to intimacy, the teacher asks her pupil to help her out of the suffocating oilskin. In the library Iseult Smith encourages Eva to start reading:

The girl took out a lovely morocco volume and nursed it, looking upon it sorrowfully. She said nothing.

‘If you were read aloud to? Stories, at the beginning? Poetry? Shall we see what happens?’

‘Miss Smith … ?’

‘I think we should try, don't you?’

‘Miss Smith … how can you be so good to me?’

Then a girl came in. This first manifestation took place at five ten in the evening, by the library clock.

(ET 61; original ellipses)

Having withheld her sympathy by the use of the word ‘manifestation’ proper to spiritualist jargon and the pseudo-scientifically precise noting of time, the narrator elaborates on the scene, explaining Iseult Smith as a young teacher in a ‘state of grace’ who realizes her powers and is not yet aware how dangerous they can be:

About Iseult Smith, up to the time she encountered Eva and, though discontinuously, for some time after, there was something of Nature before the Fall. There was not yet harm in Iseult Smith—what first implanted it? Of Eva she was to ponder, later: ‘She did not know what I was doing; but did I?’

(ET 61)

The second climactic scene takes place in Iseult Smith's room a couple of months later. It is an embarrassing confrontation, where Eva asks her teacher why she cares for her and tries to extract from her a promise that her happiness will last, having poured out her subconscious love by reciting some Metaphysical verses she has learnt by heart.8 The intimacy of the situation is reflected in the narrator's ‘Miss Smith’ becoming briefly ‘Iseult’, only to revert again to ‘Miss Smith’ after Eva's recitation when the teacher is aware that she has gone too far, and ending with the non-committal ‘Iseult Smith’ (ET 64-67). The chestnut trees outside the window are no longer in flower when her pupil leaves the room, and only the vulnerable Eva cannot see that this interlude of heightened emotion will not last.

It will be natural to bring in here a later scene between Eva and her teacher—later in plotline, for it takes place not long after Eva has turned 25, and later also vis-à-vis the reader, for it occurs almost half-way through the book, as the chapter called ‘A Summer's Day’. Eva and Iseult are meeting for the first time since she has left the Arbles' home. The venue has been chosen by Iseult, with her characteristic sense of the theatre: Charles Dickens' house in Broadstairs, ‘Bleak House’, perched high over the town with a view over the sea. Looking her best (and knowing it), Iseult seems all set for conquest in a seductive, ‘diaphanous’ pinkish dress (ET 113). She is profuse in her thanks for the money gift Eva has sent her; but she is too eager to probe into the motives behind the generosity of her former pupil, who remains stolidly impervious to her teacher's blandishments. Eva has the upper hand throughout the chapter, most emphatically when the scene has changed to her own house further along the coast and she as good as tells Iseult, in a supremely ambiguous curtain-line, that her husband Eric has fathered the child she herself is going to have:

‘Couldn't you possibly come to us for Christmas? … even Christmas seems very far ahead, far too far ahead for Eric. Why, if you do come then, it will have been seven—no, eight, nine?—months since he's seen you. A long time.’

‘Nine,’ said Eva, looking up at the evergreen.

‘Then at least, Christmas?’

‘Christmas is in December?’

‘It is usually.—Why? Is there anything else you think of doing?’

‘In December I shall be having a little child.’

(ET 121)

Moving on to the end of the story, we note that it is Iseult who provides the weapon that is used to kill Eva. She has already bought a toy gun for Jeremy, and she significantly fails to get the real gun from him when he appears at Victoria Station flourishing it. ‘Eva Trout … inspires many forms of panic in others,’ comments Patricia Juliana Smith; ‘in her former teacher, later the unhappily married Mrs Arble, she evokes a particularly lethal manifestation of lesbian panic’ (114).

We are given an outsider's view of Eva's rather overwhelming presence as a young adult when she flies to America, in a letter from one of her fellow-passengers, the voluble, apparently besotted professor Portman C Holman. Eva is characteristically silent, even secretive, about her personal life, and the good professor is thrown back on his own (wildly imaginative) resources when it comes to picturing her parents and supposed husband. The question of identification bothers him—who is this woman so obviously unimpressed by air travel but unaccustomed to flying Economy class?—and his speculations form a salutary corrective to any tendency to judge by appearances and first impressions. We who have seen the neglected state of the house Eva has leased on North Foreland will know how to interpret the professor's transports:

Your home by the sea. It seemed to me I visited its calm great rooms with their elemental outlook, ‘opening on the foam of perilous seas—’. Other though my subject is, my resort and irrational sustenance has been poetry; under its influence I perceived your echoing oaken gallery, your traditional kitchen, your garden leafy and green through every season. … I identified with your cycling trips, your work on your shell museum (do you project a catalogue?), your marketing in that ancient seaport.

(ET 126)

This letter says quite a lot about the immediate impression Eva creates. In the present context it is interesting not least for the light it throws on her sexuality, for it tells us that she is wearing a signet ring, ‘I should say a male one’, hazards Professor Holman (ET 127).

Of the mature Eva's love for Henry Dancey the reader is never in doubt. The ‘fervour’ she seems to reserve for him already as a child (ET 14) is picked up in the second half of the book, e.g. in the way she looks ‘with fervour, with passion almost’ at a mobile in Henry's room rather than admit to him then that she is in love with him (ET 180). The large part he and his letters play in the last section of the book reflects the large part he plays in Eva's thoughts. During their trip to the castle she lays bare her feelings for him and in effect proposes marriage, and it is when he refuses that she suggests the mock wedding departure that ends the book (in the event Henry admits his love for her by declaring that he does not intend to get off their train again after all). The scene at the castle is in many ways idyllic and might have prefigured some kind of harmony for their future relationship, were it not for the ‘Millais wild roses’ at the edge of the larch plantation, which I have referred to earlier. The name of the painter Millais alone brings an air of art or artifice into the scene—the roses even stand out ‘as though painted’ (ET 233)—and to those who are familiar with his painting of the drowning Ophelia, the roses in Bowen's text introduce a positive air of doom: for there is a bush of wild roses at the river's edge in Millais' picture, and we may thus link the Millais-rose reference to Eva's ill-fated schoolmate Elsinore, who tried to drown herself and was in fact called ‘Ophelia's illegit’ by one of her fellow pupils.

The full-blooded Eric Arble is something of an anomaly in Eva Trout, where so many characters are either homosexual (Constantine Ormeau, his friend Kenneth ‘of the unclouded brow and Parthenon torso’ [ET 48], Father Clavering-Haight) or bisexual (Willy Trout) or ambivalent (Henry). Coughlan finds the homosexual characters treated ‘with a conspicuous hostility’ in Eva Trout, and holds that Bowen presents them as either ‘parasitic’ or ‘deluded’ (113). Though it is difficult to disagree entirely with this latter judgement, surely the failed marriages in the book show heterosexual love as no desirable alternative: Eva's parents, Elsinore's parents, the Arbles—they all split up; the marriages we glimpse in the Chicago scenes are mere shells, and Eva's own wedding departure is in intention not much better than her early fantasy honeymoon. And if Constantine and Clavering-Haight and Trout senior are negative portraits, what are we to say of the aggressively heterosexual Eric Arble? Setting aside the marriage of the hen-pecked estate agent Mr Denge, which we can only guess at, and the childless marriage-partnership of the French Doctor Bonnard and his wife, the most stable union in the book is that of Henry's parents; we never see them together, however, and though Mr Dancey seems devoted to ‘my wife’ (ET 154, 160) we hear no details of their relationship beyond the fact that they have four children; given the general fogginess of Mrs Dancey's thoughts, it is difficult to see this as a marriage of true minds.

Double or doubtful sexuality is in the air throughout the novel, from the unisex berets and overcoats the children wear in the beginning to what Henry calls a ‘bi-sexual’ cricket match towards the end—‘Mixed’, his sister corrects him, ‘sex does not enter into cricket’ (ET 246-247). There is also Henry's Cambridge friendship with the androgynously named Jocelyn who leaves ‘gracefully’ after tea (ET 179); and, not least, there is the recurrent word-play on Eva's surname: fish, fishy, kettle of fish, fish-kettle, kingfisher, etc., which emphasizes the central image of that ‘slippery fish’, identity, and recalls a popular belief generalizing an observation of Aristotle's, that some fish were bi-sexual.9

I have already pointed to an erotically evocative landscape in Eva Trout and mentioned the sexual implications of the staircase on which Louie and Connie meet in The Heat of the Day. To this last example it will be relevant to add the curious structure of the vicarage in Eva Trout, whose ‘ill-lit staircase climbed up a shaft in the middle’ (ET 27). According to the narrative voice, it is to get away from his noisy home life that Mr Dancey has his study at the top of these stairs (ET 27); his association with stairs is repeated on a later occasion (ET 154).


Though sexual attraction is an important element in all the four novels I am looking at (and in the short stories ‘Ivy Gripped the Steps’ and ‘A Day in the Dark’), actual descriptions of the sexual act are conspicuously absent. This is perhaps not surprising, considering the general reticence on such matters at the time of writing, and considering also that Bowen found life ‘with the lid on’ quite as interesting as life ‘with the lid off’.10 On this urbane background, other kinds of intimate physical detail stand out with unusual force, e.g. Roderick in The Heat of the Day examining his bare foot—‘I say!’ he shouts ‘I've got a corn!’ (HD 52)—and Connie scratching her armpit (HD 247). In A World of Love there is Lilia cutting her toenails (WL 124) and Antonia digging wax out of an ear (WL 106) or dislodging a gooseberry pip from her lower teeth with a thumbnail (WL 42), in The Little Girls Clare splitting a nail to below the quick in trying to untie the knot of Dinah's cave (LG 219). The convulsive yawns of some of the characters also belong here: Eric Arble in Eva Trout, for instance, is ‘rent by a cavernous groaning yawn, which finished its way through him in a string of shudders’ (ET 97), and after he and Constantine have left Cathay Eva herself yawns ‘so dismissive a yawn that it distended her ribcage to cracking-point, just not dislocating her jaw by the grace of heaven’ (ET 109). These examples may simply be reminders of the vulnerability of the flesh—which they are, of course, but one may also see them as a kind of sublimation of the sexual instinct; or perhaps one should say, rather, that the reader's attention is directed to sex by default, much as the sexual pointer would seem unmistakable in the insistence on re-used handkerchiefs and rewadded Kleenexes in Eva Trout. It can be no coincidence that it is the father of four, Mr Dancey, who is afflicted with hay-fever and common colds, and thus associated with bodily secretions; and the used paper handkerchiefs stuffed unceremoniously down the couch in the vicarage form a marked contrast to the snowy handkerchief—monogrammed, like Constantine Ormeau's—that the effete, homosexual Father Clavering-Haight uses to wipe his fingers.

Bowen's interest in identity, especially women's identity, is apparent throughout her writing, and in the novels under consideration all the female protagonists pass, or have passed, through some crisis revolving on their personal identity: Stella faced with her lover's defection (The Heat of the Day); Jane breaking away from the dominance of Antonia along with that of Guy (A World of Love); Sheila disappointed in her dreams of becoming a dancer, Clare carving out an independent life of her own, Dinah losing her sense of security when she sees the empty coffer as a sign that her past life has ‘run away’ (The Little Girls); and the heart-broken Eva Trout, who feels that her teacher has betrayed her by sending her back ‘to be nothing’ (ET 185). Male characters do not in fact come off much better: Robert Kelway submerges himself in an alien cause that gives him the confidence his father bred out of him, while the colourless Harrison's only identity is that of a spy (The Heat of the Day); Frank Wilkins' mournful identity amounts to little more than a military title, vegetable gardening, a fondness for playing old gramophone records, and an obsessive fear of the future (The Little Girls); Eric Arble becomes not the authoritative Army officer he might have been, or even a successful independent fruit farmer, but an employed garage mechanic; and what the shilly-shallying Henry Dancey is destined to become is anyone's guess (Eva Trout).

In all Bowen's post-war writings the existential question of what kind of life to make for oneself seems at first glance to be solved most convincingly by Stella's son, the ‘tranquil’ Roderick. His relationship with his mother and his role in the novel are both bound up with the notion of identity. On leave from the Army, for instance, we hear from the narrator that he gradually sheds his soldierly bearing and lack of spontaneity by watching Stella ‘until, by an imitation of her attitudes he supplied himself with some way to behave, look, stand—even, you might say, be. … He searched in Stella for some identity left by him in her keeping’ (HD 48). Later remarks of his own may be read along similarly existential lines: feeling that something should be said about her lover's death, he asks his mother: ‘But by me? Why me? After all, who am I?’ (HD 299), and he seems almost unduly pleased to be taken seriously: ‘You do really think I am a person?’ (HD 300). Yet the confidence with which Roderick makes plans for fulfilling his future identity as landowner on the Irish estate he inherits is without any suggestion of the ambivalence and precariousness inherent in such a position, aspects that Bowen had brought into The Last September (1929) and was to treat again in A World of Love (1955). The Irish scenes in The Heat of the Day, notably the happy feudal relationship between the Rodneys (Stella and Roderick) and the domestic servants at Mount Morris (the cliché old family retainer and his submissive daughters), put such a gloss on historical realities that they leave the reader with serious doubts about the authenticity of such an identity. We may be more confident, I think, in the future of the unglamorous, illegitimate Fred Danby. His life has been blighted for nearly twenty years by his wife's memory of her dead fiancé, for which he has compensated by throwing himself into physically strenuous work, but at the end of A World of Love he comes into his own as husband as well as father and master.


  1. E.g. Neolithic Cultures of the British Isles (1954).

  2. HMS Rodney played an active part in WWII, e. g. at the Sicilian and Normandy landings.

  3. I differ here from those critics who assume that Stella's family background is Anglo-Irish; I have found no indication that such connections are not solely her husband's.

  4. Mrs Roche in ‘Sunday Evening’. Encounters, 1923; CS 90.

  5. It is tempting to see in this image an echo of W B Yeats' Cathleen ni Houlihan in ‘Red Hanrahan's Song about Ireland’ (1894): ‘But purer than a tall candle before the Holy Rood / Is Cathleen, the daughter of Houlihan’. Collected Poems, 90.

  6. At Mount Morris Stella wakes in the morning not knowing where she is, or what time it is: ‘Her watch told her the hour, but then so did instinct—what she was forced to grope for, as though for her identity, was the day of the week, the month of the year, the year’ (HD 176).

  7. Coughlan points to the phrase ‘She is all I am’ as a ‘striking expression of Lesbian love as identification’ (126).

  8. The verses in question are from ‘Euen-song’ by George Herbert (1593-1633). The Works of George Herbert, 203.

  9. Aristotle in Historia Animalium IV. xi. 538a.

  10. Bowen used this expression about Jane Austen: ‘The constraints of polite behaviour serve only to store up her characters' energies; she dispels, except for the very stupid, the fallacy that life with the lid off—in thieves' kitchens, prisons, taverns and brothels—is necessarily more interesting than life with the lid on.’ ‘English Novelists’ in Impressions of English Literature, 246.

Select Bibliography

Works by Elizabeth Bowen Discussed or Cited

The Heat of the Day (1949). Penguin ed. 1962. Abbr. HD

A World of Love (1955). Penguin ed. 1983. Abbr. WL

The Little Girls (1964). Penguin ed. 1982. Abbr. LG

Eva Trout (1968). Penguin ed. 1982. Abbr. ET

Collected Stories (1980). Penguin ed. 1983. Abbr. CS

The Last September. London: Constable & Co, 1929.

To the North. London: Victor Gollanz, 1932.

The House in Paris. London: Victor Gollanz, 1935.

The Death of the Heart. London: Victor Gollanz, 1938.

Bowen's Court. London, New York, Toronto: Longmans, Green & Co., 1942.

“English Novelists.” Impressions of English Literature. London: Collins, 1944.

The Shelbourne Hotel. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1951.

A Time in Rome. London: Longmans, Green & Co, 1960.

Pictures and Conversations. Ed. Spencer Curtis Brown. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975.

The Mulberry Tree. Writings of Elizabeth Bowen. Ed. Hermione Lee. London: Virago Press Ltd, 1986.

Notes from Eire. Espionage Reports to Winston Churchill, 1940-42, with a Review of Irish Neutrality. Aubane Historical Society, 1999.

Other Works

Atkins, John. Six Novelists Look at Society. London: John Calder, 1977.

Auden, W H. Collected Shorter Poems, 1927-1957. London: Faber (1966), 1969.

Austin, Allan E. Elizabeth Bowen. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1971.

Bacon, Francis. The Works of Francis Bacon, vol. IX = The Letters and the Life, vol. II. London, 1862; reprinted Stuttgart—Bad Cannstatt, 1961.

Bennett, Andrew and Nicholas Royle. Elizabeth Bowen and the Dissolution of the Novel. Houndmills and London: Macmillan Press, 1995 and New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.

Chessman, Harriet. ‘Women and Language in the Fiction of Elizabeth Bowen.’ Twentieth Century Literature 29 (1983), 69-85.

Christensen, Lis. ‘A Reading of Elizabeth Bowen's “A Day in the Dark”’. Irish University Review 27, 2 (1997), 299-309.

Coates, John. Social Discontinuity in the Novels of Elizabeth Bowen. Lewiston, Queenston, Lampeter: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1998. Cited as Coates 98a.

Coates, John. ‘The Misfortunes of Eva Trout.’ Essays in Criticism XLVIII, 1 (January 1998), 59-79. Cited as Coates 98b.

Coughlan, Patricia. ‘Women and Desire in the Work of Elizabeth Bowen’, in Sex, Nation and Dissent. Ed. Éibhear Walshe. Cork: Cork University Press, 1997.

Craig, Patricia. Elizabeth Bowen. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1986.

Dorenkamp, Angela G. ‘“Fall or Leap:” Bowen's The Heat of the Day’. Critique. Studies in Modern Fiction X, 3 (1968), 13-21.

Eliot, T S. Four Quartets. London: Faber and Faber, 1944.

Ferguson, George. Signs and Symbols in Christian Art (1954). New York: Oxford University Press, 1961.

Flaubert, Gustave. L'Education sentimentale. 1869.

Foster, R F. Paddy and Mr Punch. Harmondsworth: Allen Lane. The Penguin Press, 1993.

Glendinning, Victoria. Elizabeth Bowen: Portrait of a Writer. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1977. Phoenix Paperback, 1993.

Glendinning, Victoria. ‘Gardens and Gardening in the Writings of Elizabeth Bowen’. Elizabeth Bowen Remembered. The Farahy Addresses. Ed. Eibhear Walshe. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1998.

Greene, Graham. ‘The Dark Backward: A Footnote’. London Mercury 32 (1935); Collected Essays. London: The Bodley Head, 1969.

Heath, William. Elizabeth Bowen. An Introduction to Her Novels. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1961.

Herbert, George. The Works of George Herbert. Ed. F E Hutchinson (1941). Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1972.

Hoogland, Renée C. Elizabeth Bowen. A Reputation in Writing. New York: New York University Press, 1994.

Johnson, Toni O'Brien. ‘Light and Enlightenment in Elizabeth Bowen's Irish Novels.’ Ariel: A Review of English Literature 18, 2 (April 1987), 47-62.

Jordan, Heather Bryant. How Will the Heart Endure. Elizabeth Bowen and the Landscape of War. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992.

Joyce, James. Dubliners. 1914.

Kenny, Edwin J. Elizabeth Bowen. Lewisburg, Pennsylvania: Bucknell University Press, 1964.

Kiberd, Declan. Inventing Ireland. London: Jonathan Cape, 1995.

Lassner, Phyllis. ‘Reimagining the Arts of War: Language and History in Elizabeth Bowen's The Heat of the Day and Rose Macaulay's The World My Wilderness.Perspectives on Contemporary Literature 14 (1988).

Lassner, Phyllis. Elizabeth Bowen. Houndmills & London: Macmillan Education, 1990.

Lassner, Phyllis. Elizabeth Bowen. A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1991.

Lee, Hermione. Elizabeth Bowen. An Estimation. London & Totowa, NJ: Vision and Barnes & Noble, 1981. Revised edition: Vintage, 1999.

Leech, Geoffrey N and Michael H Short. Style in Fiction (1981). London & New York: Longman, 1991.

McCormack, William. Dissolute Characters. Irish Literary History through Balzac, Sheridan Le Fanu, Yeats and Bowen. Manchester & New York: Manchester University Press, 1993.

McDowell, Alfred. ‘Identity and the Past. Major Themes in the Fiction of Elizabeth Bowen’. Unpublished dissertation: Bowling Green University, 1971.

McGowan, Martha. ‘The Enclosed Garden in Elizabeth Bowen's A World of Love.Éire-Ireland XVI, I (1981), 55-70.

Meredith, George. Selected Poetical Works of George Meredith. Ed. G M Trevelyan. London: Longmans, Green & Co, 1912.

O'Toole, Bridget. ‘Three Writers of the Big House: Elizabeth Bowen, Molly Keane and Jennifer Johnston’ in Across the Roaring Hill: The Protestant Imagination in Modern Ireland. Ed. Gerald Dawe and Edna Longley. Belfast and Dover, New Hampshire: The Blackstaff Press, 1985.

Radcliffe, Mrs Ann. The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). London: Oxford University Press, 1966.

Rule, Jane. Lesbian Images. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Co, 1975.

Sellery, J'nan and William O. Harris. Elizabeth Bowen. A Bibliography. Austin: Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, 1981.

Smith, Patricia Juliana. Lesbian Panic. Homoeroticism in Modern British Women's Fiction. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

Spark, Muriel. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. 1961.

Stanzel, Franz K. Theorie des Erzählens (1979). Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1989.

Tacitus. Agricola, trans. M Hutton, rev. R M Ogilvie, in vol. I of Tacitus in Five Volumes. Loeb Classical Library. London: Heinemann (1914), 1970. De Vita Agricolae, ed. R M Ogilvie and Sir Ian Richmond. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1967.

Tracy, Robert. The Unappeasable Host. Studies in Irish Identities. Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 1998.

Walshe, Eibhar, ed. Elizabeth Bowen Remembered. The Farahy Addresses. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1998.

Wessels, Andreis. ‘Elizabeth Bowen's A World of Love: A “Cultural Analysis” of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy in the Twentieth Century.’ The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies 21, 1 (1995), 88-95.

Weston, Ruth D. Gothic Traditions and Narrative Techniques in the Fiction of Eudora Welty. Baton Rouge & London: Louisiana State University Press, 1994.

Woolf, Virginia. Night and Day. 1919.

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs Dalloway. 1925.

Yeats, W B. Collected Poems (1950). London: Macmillan & Co, 1961.

Lis Christensen (essay date 2001)

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SOURCE: Christensen, Lis. “Communication.” In Elizabeth Bowen: The Later Fiction, pp. 66-83. Copenhagen, Denmark: Museum Tusculanum Press, University of Copenhagen, 2001.

[In the following excerpt, Christensen explores Bowen's use of various means of communication, both spoken and written, in her last four novels.]

In looking at how Bowen lets her characters convey their meaning to one another, I use ‘communication’ to embrace all exchanges that may establish or reflect a relationship between people, ranging from the serious interchange of ideas to the most casual snippets of conversation, and including also the deliberate absence of verbal expression: the eloquence of silent response.

The limitations of speech were a recurrent concern of Bowen's, culminating in her last novel with Eva Trout's obsession with communication devices and her adoption of the deaf-mute child who shoots her dead on the last page of the book. Other forms of communication besides speech also figure prominently in her fiction—letters and telegrams, for instance. Letters are of course supreme examples of imperfect communication when they do not reach their destination, as happens in Eva Trout to Professor Holman's long effusion (ET [Eva Trout] 129), and to a letter from Henry to Eva which she never gets because she has moved on, leaving no forwarding address: ‘In the rack of the cross-eyed Paris [hotel], therefore, the letter probably is still, more flyblown with each day’ (ET 214). Communication by letter receives an added twist in A World of Love, which centers on an old packet of love letters to an unknown woman that has repercussions on the lives of all the main characters. A quite different kind of communication is at the root of The Little Girls, where objects are buried in order to say something about their owners to future generations. In Eva Trout the way Eva communicates with her deaf-mute son is another thing altogether: ‘extra-sensory’ (ET 158; see pp. 77-78 below).

That the one-way communication of writing is by nature imperfect and open to interpretation may be illustrated by the following seemingly pointless piece of dialogue in The Heat of the Day; reading the will whereby his distant cousin Francis Morris has left him his estate, Stella's son, Roderick, uses ‘mean’/’meant’ seven times in half a page:

‘Which did Cousin Francis mean?’

‘Which what, darling?’

‘Did he mean, care in my own way, or, carry on the old tradition in my own way?’

Uncomprehending, Stella returned her eyes to the cropped top of Roderick's downbent head. ‘In the end, I suppose,’ she hazarded, ‘it would come to the same thing?’

‘I'm not asking what it would come to; I want to know what he meant.’

‘I know. But the first thing is that you'll really have to decide—’

‘What should I decide? He's decided. It's become mine.’

‘We must think what you're going to do.’

‘But I want to know which he meant. Does he mean, that I'm free to care in any way I like, so long as it's the tradition I carry on; or, that so long as I care in the same way he did, I'm free to mean by “tradition” anything I like?’

‘There was another cousin of yours, Roderick, a Colonel Pole, at the funeral, who said—‘

‘Yes, mother, yes; but never mind Colonel Pole. What we must make out is, what Cousin Francis meant.’

(HD [The Heat of the Day] 87-88)

That ‘mean’ should attract so much attention in The Heat of the Day is consistent with the novel's preoccupation with the corrosive influence of wartime propaganda and the restrictions on free speech. But faulty understanding dogs much communication in all the novels, and ‘mean’ does heavy duty in numerous spoken exchanges between characters who fail to understand one another, often in quite banal contexts: ‘What do you mean?’—‘I mean to say’—‘What I mean, though’—‘You mean … ?’—‘I do wish I had said nothing … From now on I shall. I mean I shall not.’ The failure of the speakers to convey their meaning is usually resolved on the spot, in the course of conversation. Some misunderstandings have the air of serving merely to introduce a note of humour into the text, but the explanation involved may also serve the purpose of drawing attention to the subject; this happens e.g. in A World of Love when Lilia is explaining to Fred that she had not expected it to be him she saw in the garden:

‘You know I was never one to imagine; and who was I to imagine it could be you? As we now are, anything seemed more likely. Guy seemed more likely, dead as he is.’

‘What d'you mean,’ he said, ‘“as we now are”?’

‘You know you know. What's the use of asking?’

He gave a frown.

She put her hands to her face and added: ‘As we have come to be.’

(WL [A World of Love] 102)

In the two-way intercourse of conversation, listening is of course as important as speaking, and several of Bowen's characters complain, like Louie in The Heat of the Day, ‘Oh, you never listen to what I say’ (HD 322). Yet in spite of possible inattention and misunderstandings, face-to-face conversation would still seem to be the best means of communication between people (and there are many passages of dialogue in Bowen's fiction). In The Heat of the Day the importance of conversation is pointed up, again by some clowning on the part of young Roderick, when he finds what Stella dismisses as ‘notes on some conversation’ in the pocket of her lover's dressing-gown, and this triggers off the following outburst from her son:

Really, Mother … conversations are the leading things in this war! Even I know that. Everything you and I have to do is the result of something that's been said. How far do you think we'd get without conversations? And can you really suppose that someone where Robert is doesn't have conversations about conversations, even if he doesn't have conversations himself?

(HD 63)

We may note in passing a wry comment on what counts as conversation between the subplot's Louie and Connie, by way of a comparison with the presumably more lofty exchanges in government circles at 10, Downing Street; the girls live at 10, Chilcombe Street, and their bickerings are called ‘conversations at No. 10’ (HD 153).


One of Bowen's most common metaphors of imperfect communication is the telephone; an obvious choice, perhaps, since one cannot see the person one is talking to. (There are of course no telephones in the Irish Big Houses, Mount Morris in The Heat of the Day and Montefort in A World of Love, where people communicate with one another more ideally, face to face).

In the novels I am considering there are not so very many full telephone conversations where we can hear both voices speaking. Exceptions include Eva's more than shady contact concerning the illegal adoption of her child in Eva Trout. In the same book there is also a revealing telephone conversation between her and Mme Bonnard; it is good to have this conversation in full, for it says not a little about the now chilly relations between the two women. Most telephone calls are one-sided, however. The Little Girls has a full-page take-off on a telephone conversation which should rightly be between three people (wishful thinking at the time the novel was written); the speaker's words to the character who cannot hear the other end of the line are given in parentheses:

Oh, Sheikie, hullo! … Why yes, of course I am me! (She knew my voice) … I was just telling Mumbo, you knew my voice … Yes, of course she is here. Or rather, I am with her … In a Mopsie Pye shop … A garden of all delights. (She wants to know what your shop's like.) … I was telling Mumbo you want to know what her shop's like …

(LG [The Little Girls] 149; original punctuation)

Characters often complain of the impossibility of talking properly on the phone, and telephone conversations are rarely perfect, even as such conversations go. In The Heat of the Day, for instance, Stella sometimes speaks in her ‘company voice’, or lowers her voice and ‘can't talk now’ because Harrison is in the next room; or she cannot hear properly because Roderick is calling her from a public telephone in a station while a train is pulling in. In what is perhaps the most remarkable instance of non-communication in the book, the characters simply do not answer the ‘demoniac’ ringing of the telephone at Holme Dene, Robert's family home, where his mother and sister have called him down to decide whether to accept an offer for their ugly Victorian house. Well aware that the counter-spy is on his trail, Robert starts violently when the telephone rings; and the reader, too, will surely be interested in what the call might be about—much more so than the rest of the family, who spend so long debating who it might be and who is to answer it that the telephone ominously stops ringing ‘of its own accord’ (HD 265).


The question of open and honest communication is a very real issue in The Heat of the Day. The habit of watching what one says is an integral part of the wartime atmosphere of the book, reflecting the ‘Careless Talk Costs Lives’ slogan launched by the Ministry of Information and popularised in a series of striking posters by Fougasse. Stella herself moves ‘at the edge of a clique of war, knowing who should know what, commanding a sort of language in which nothing need be ever exactly said’ (HD 172), and Harrison complains of everyone being ‘cagey’ (HD 42). He himself characteristically finds it difficult to express himself (‘I hardly know how to put it’ [HD 29]) and speaks in clipped, jerky sentences:

Harrison turned back to close the door behind him, but paused to ask: ‘Not expecting anyone else?’


‘Good. By the way, I found your downstairs door on the latch. That in order?’

‘Quite. I left it open for you.’

‘Thanks,’ he said, as though touched. ‘So I shut it—that was in order, too?’

(HD 26)

That Harrison's hesitant speech may be a sign of the universal problem of finding adequate and socially acceptable words to convey one's meaning is suggested by the fact that Stella's exemplary son Roderick uses the same expression as Harrison, ‘to put it’, when he is explaining to his mother why he did not apply for compassionate leave when he heard of Robert's death:

I know how I could have put it; in fact I was going to put it that way if it came to the point—I should have put it that you and Robert were engaged.

(HD 295)

The otherwise talkative Robert Kelway is the prime example of not ‘talking’ in the police jargon sense of the word. ‘This is the first time I've ever talked,’ he says to Stella in their last scene (HD 282), and his lack of frankness is at the heart of the love-espionage plot, culminating in Stella's heart-broken words when he has finally confessed to her: ‘Still, tell me. If you had told me more—!’ (HD 270). In so far as Robert's treason is explained in the text, he gives part of the explanation by referring to himself as a Dunkirk wounded man,1 and as we know him in 1942 he still limps from his Dunkirk wound (though we note that his limp is most pronounced when he is acting The Wounded Soldier). In the present context it will be natural to mention another of Robert's self-justifications: the meaninglessness he finds in certain words. For him there are no countries left, only names, and words like ‘betrayal’ are part of a dead language that he feels he has had to steel himself against, as he tells Stella in their last scene:

What is repulsing you is the idea of ‘betrayal’, I suppose, isn't it? In you the hangover from the word? Don't you understand that all that language is dead currency? How they keep on playing shop with it all the same: even you do. Words, words like that, yes—what a terrific dust they still can raise in a mind, yours even: I see that. Myself, even, I have needed to immunize myself against them; I tell you I have only at last done that by saying them to myself over and over again till it became absolutely certain they mean nothing. What they once meant is gone.

(HD 268)

In the book, Robert's father is dead and the Kelway home dominated by the stifling presence of his widow, whose failings include a total insensitivity to language. When Stella is on a visit with Robert, Mrs Kelway shows no interest whatsoever in her guest and quashes any attempt on her part to make conversation; on Stella's volunteering the information that her son, like Mrs Kelway's grandson, is in the Army, she is merely met with an ‘Oh’ by her hostess. ‘For, why should she speak?’ comments the narrator, ‘—she had all she needed: the self-contained mystery of herself. Her lack of wish for communication showed in her contemptuous use of words’ (HD 109-110). Robert's grotesque sister Ernestine is always laughing wildly and barking out orders rather than speaking, in a parody of the empty language that passes for conversation in this arid atmosphere; for even with no strangers present, the Kelways ‘communicated with one another with difficulty, in the dead language’ (HD 252). Their contemptuous use of language also appears in the repressive upbringing that Robert's seven- and nine-year-old niece and nephew are given; crowning the amazing list of do's and don't's is the insensitive baby-talk with which Mrs Kelway addresses her granddaughter, referring to herself in the third person: ‘If it's not too much trouble, Grannie would like some bread’ (HD 112). With an upbringing in this language-inimical house, it is perhaps not surprising that Robert Kelway should have a warped attitude to words.

The question of language also informs the subplot revolving on the two working-class girls, Louie and Connie. Louie is in many ways close to this central concern of the novel. Her compulsive fibs that fool no one are a low-scale counterpart to Robert's deceitfulness, and also to Stella's glib performance in the final chapter, at the inquest after Robert's death. It is this simple-minded factory-girl, moreover, who ‘[has] no words’ and cannot ‘speak grammar’, who is given a long, important speech about the frustration of not being able to express oneself:

Look the trouble there is when I have to only say what I can say, and so cannot ever say what it is really. Inside me it's like being crowded to death— … I could more bear it if I could only say. Now she tonight [Stella], she spoke beautifully: I needn't pity her—there it was, off her chest. If I could put it like she does I might not be stealthy: when you know you only can say what's a bit off, what does it matter how much more off it is? … I would more understand if I was able to make myself understood.

(HD 245-246)

The narrative voice amplifies this naïve outpouring later, in a perceptive passage about the power and far-reaching effect of language. The blanks in Louie's vocabulary determine the way her mind works, we read, they ‘operated inwardly on her soul’ (HD 306); knowing only the words ‘refinement’ and ‘respectability’, she is incapable of recognizing any virtue divorced from those two, and her early hero-worship of Stella turns to moral condemnation when she sees in the papers a sensational version of her heroine's statement at the inquest: there has been an expensive flat, she reads, bottles, a lover, other men friends. Louie now sees Stella as a fallen woman, with the result that, having no one to admire, she drops back into her promiscuous habits.

The Heat of the Day is by way of being a key text in the matter of communication. We have often been told that political treason is the theme of the novel, and much ink has been spent in pointing to Robert Kelway's Nazi allegiances. Though these cannot be denied, I would suggest that they are in the long run of secondary interest. The near-identification of the two Roberts is too pointed to be ignored: not only do they have the same Christian name, they are also expressly linked in Stella's reflections about her lover's calculating attitude to their fellow-countrymen. He must have been spying on them all, she finally realizes, just as Harrison has been spying on him, and ‘She now saw [Robert's] smile as the smile of one who has the laugh. / It seemed to her it was Robert who had been the Harrison’ (HD 275). The use of the definite article before Harrison's name here confirms earlier suggestions that he is a type rather than an individual. His enigmatic personality, the uneven set of his eyes, his sudden comings and goings, his being in the know and apparently in a position of some power—all this contributes to giving his character an uncanny air of being not quite human. And since Old Harry is a nickname for the Devil, it is natural to see Harrison as an emissary from the Underworld (a role he shares with the sinister chauffeur Harris in A World of Love, as pointed out p. 47).

Coupled with the indeterminate nature of Robert's espionage, the link between him and Harrison suggests that the treachery on which the plot hinges is not essentially a betrayal of any one political system. It is something more universal, something that thrives in times of repression, and something that Stella herself is part of. The truth of Harrison's allegations is brought home to her during her trip to Ireland half-way through the book; but before that, the very first question she asks her lover about Harrison has been the beginning of what she later sees as her ‘espionage’—her ‘watch on Robert's doors and windows, her dogging of the step of his thought, her search for the interstices of his mind’ (HD 172). In the most dramatic confrontation between her and Harrison she accuses him of having distorted love by making her spy on her lover—by making her like himself. To his ‘You and I are not so unlike—yes, it's funny,’ she throws out: ‘Why? Below one level, everybody's horribly alike. You succeed in making a spy of me’ (HD 138). Stella's words receive additional emphasis from their effect on Harrison: he winces when he hears them and walks away from her over to the window, where he stands ‘headed into the curtain like an animal blindly wanting to get out of a room’ (HD 138). The link between the two of them is underlined in this scene by the intimate ambience of her flat and the window embrasure where she joins him behind the blackout curtains, and sexual attraction seems part of that link. (Some verbal reflections of this are taken up in the next chapter).

All these things considered, The Heat of the Day may be read as a demonstration of the way confidence and trust between human beings may be stamped out by those in power, whether by democratic governments in times of national emergency or, by inference, by any authoritarian regime at any time. Bowen is no Orwell and her wartime novel no Nineteen Eighty-Four, yet it does seem to me that in its insidious undermining of mutual trust and its pervasive mood of ‘caginess’ and lack of ‘frankness’, the book is fundamentally as pessimistic as Orwell's futuristic vision. It was said almost two thousand years ago by the Roman historian Tacitus, writing of the cultural and political totalitarianism of the Emperor Domitian, that the ‘investigations of the secret police have deprived us even of the give and take of conversation’, or, more literally, of ‘the intercourse of speech and hearing’.2 In betraying this essential human faculty, the Robert Kelways and Robert Harrisons of this world are equally guilty. They make traitors of the rest of us.


In Eva Trout Bowen makes her final fictional statement about the limits and possibilities of communication. It is no longer, as in The Heat of the Day, a question of surmounting or surviving the deadening influence of totalitarian measures, but, rather, of people being by nature or upbringing or circumstances so inhibited that they cannot attain the supreme human good of making themselves understood by their fellow human beings.

Eva is presented as an outsider in the social world of the 1960s, one of her disadvantages allegedly being her ‘cement-like conversational style’ (ET 17). This is not necessarily the view of the narrator, or of the reader. The phrase occurs in a paragraph largely held in language alluding to the patterns of thought or speech of her teacher Iseult Smith, whose ‘vivisectional interest’ (ET 33) has originally drawn her to Eva:

Iseult Smith had gone out of her way to establish confidence, for her own reasons—she proposed to tackle Eva's manner of speaking. What caused the girl to express herself like a displaced person? The explanation—that from infancy onward Eva had had as attendants displaced persons, those at a price being the most obtainable, to whose society she'd been largely consigned—for some reason never appeared: too simple, perhaps? Much went into the effort to induce flexibility. But Miss Smith had come too late on the scene; she had had to give up. Eva by then was sixteen: her outlandish, cement-like conversational style had set. Moreover—the discouraging fact emerged—it was more than sufficient for Eva's needs. She had nothing to say that could not be said, adequately, the way she said it.

(ET 17; italics original)

The question in lines 2-3 in this quotation, ‘What caused the girl to express herself like a displaced person?’ reflects Iseult Smith's thoughts; some lines on, the question ‘too simple, perhaps?’ would seem to be the narrator's comment on the teacher's overly clinical approach. That Iseult Smith here is very much The English Mistress appears from the fact that she is now called ‘Miss Smith’. 40 pages or so later the narrative shows the teacher-pupil relationship in action, so to speak, in a flashback to Eva's first term at the girls' school where she is sent after the disastrous mixed-school experiment at the castle. Miss Smith's own noli-me-tangere attitude does not prevent her from treating Eva in a way that is as manipulative as Miss Brodie's in Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961); and, with a mind running in the familiar groove of English Literary History, she does not hesitate to divert Eva's nascent religious feelings into those well-worn channels:

‘One thing,’ declared Eva,’ I have done.’


‘Learned that religious poem.’

Religious poem?’

‘It is to God, I think.’

‘Oh, one of the metaphysicals. Say it, then.’

(ET 65)

Ignoring the religious content of George Herbert's verses then quoted in the text, and deliberately ignoring, likewise, any suggestion of erotic tension between Eva and herself, the apparently neo-critically trained Iseult Smith straightaway launches into her favourite subject: ‘You see how pure language can be? Not more than two syllables—are there?—in any word’ (ET 66). In her reading of Iseult's reaction as the ‘ineffable emergence of lesbian panic’, Patricia Juliana Smith posits that ‘language’ has by now become ‘subliminally analogous with sexual desire’ for both Eva and Iseult (116-117). Taking ‘language’ to mean ‘verbal communication’, perhaps more narrowly ‘spoken communication’, this is in line with an observation in A World of Love, allusively reflecting Lilia's thoughts about the future of her marriage: ‘Survival seemed more possible now, for having spoken to one another had been an act of love’ (WL 105). Iseult's obsessive interest in language also colours her initial reaction to Constantine Ormeau, whose letter she finds ‘garlands of affectation’ (a style which she nevertheless adopts herself in her later letters) (ET 33). With regard to that conversational style of Eva's found so regrettable by her teacher, we may well feel that what Eva lacks is merely the airs and graces with which to embellish her own utterances, but that there is in fact nothing wrong with her actual meaning. This is apparent in the scene between Eva and Iseult in Broadstairs that I have referred to earlier (pp. 59-60). And we can hardly blame Eva for being suspicious of the false endearments and speechifying of many of the other characters—Eric Arble's repeated ‘sweetheart’, for instance. One endearment in particular haunts her for years, spoken by the mother of her sick room-mate Elsinore at the castle school: ‘How is my darling?’ (ET 47); but this, too, is merely a mechanical expression, for in spite of all her sweet words Elsinore's mother turns out to be just as flighty and uncaring as Eva's own. Eva has in fact a salutary habit of unmasking pretentious speech by asking the meaning of words she does not understand, as she does in her last words, spoken to her former guardian on the last page of the book; Constantine is making a wedding speech:

‘Er—life stretches ahead. May a favourable concatenation of circumstances … No, here I become a trifle tied up, I think. That is enough.—Henry, you'd better kiss Eva.

Henry did so, lightly on the cheek.

‘Constantine,’ asked Eva, ‘what is “concatenation”?’

Her last words.

(ET 268; punctuation original)

Eva's conscious or subconscious awareness of her reluctance to speak, brought about by years of virtual isolation, is given visual form in the communication devices with which she fills her drawing-room at Cathay, the house she has leased on North Foreland:

Outstanding examples of everything auro-visual on the market this year, 1959, were ranged round the surprised walls: large-screen television set, sonorous-looking radio, radio-grammophone in a teak coffin, other grammophone with attendant stereo cabinets, sixteen-millimeter projector with screen ready, a recording instrument of BBC proportions, not to be written off as a tape-recorder. Other importations: a superb typewriter shared a metal-legged table with a cash register worthy to be its mate; and an intercom, whose purposes seemed uncertain, had been installed.

(ET 118)

When she returns briefly to Cathay after her stay in America, these installations have become obsolete and their futility is apparent. Perhaps we may take this to mean that there is in fact no substitute for the give and take of conversation. It is an open question whether Eva's killing at the hand of her adopted son suggests the failure of any kind of communication, even wordless, between people.

Eva's difficulty in communicating with others is magnificently symbolized in her adoption of a child who turns out to be deaf-mute. The eight years that elapse between parts I and II of Eva Trout are the ‘inaudible’ years of her life with Jeremy, when they have been cocooned ‘as near as twins in a womb’ (ET 188), hardly distinguishing between what went on inside and what went on outside the films and television they watch in silence. These seem to have been happy years, with Jeremy ‘capering naked on Eva's bed like Cupid cavorting over the couch of Venus’ (ET 189) in a Boucher-like image of Eva as the Temptress. But Jeremy is growing up. At the same time, Eva is beginning to conquer her innate suspicion of speech: she is ‘ready to talk’, though she senses that this will make her a traitor to the American years with Jeremy (ET 188). She has apparently been led to take him to England by the sight of something approaching manhood in his eyes, not realizing the shock it would be to him. It is as though he has been brought into another dimension, and it makes her a stranger to him. There is even so much submerged hostility in his relationship with her that he gouges deep eye-holes in the clay head he is modelling of her: ‘Out of their dark had exuded such non-humanity that Eva had not known where to turn’ (ET 190). This is revealed in the text just before we hear that Jeremy has been carried off from the studio for some hours by an anonymous woman—Iseult Arble, it appears later. We are not told how Iseult and Jeremy communicated, but the text insists that they had a profound liberating effect on each other. They take a bus-ride to Westminster Abbey, where Jeremy traces the letters of monument inscriptions ‘as though responsible for incising them for the first time’ (ET 245; we recall that a beautiful handwriting is one of Eva's few accomplishments). Ever since this day Jeremy is withdrawn as never before, and the habitual contact between him and Eva changes: where Eva could earlier communicate with him even without lip-reading, she now has to touch him to get his attention. Their common universe is a thing of the past, and the location of their last weeks together is aptly Fontainebleau, a town redolent of past history.

That it should be French doctors who look set to cure Jeremy of his muteness and that French will thus be his mother tongue, as it were, adds yet a dimension to the book's concern with language (anticipated early in the book by Iseult's French translations). The issue of conveying meaning in what is not one's native tongue is not taken up, however, and Eva's long conversation with Dr Bonnard in the last chapter is conducted in English.


Jeremy apart, silence between Bowen's characters is as eloquent as words. It may be referred to as a ‘vocabulary’ (HD 187), and when Clare in The Little Girls chooses not to take up a bantering remark of Dinah's, the text tells us that she conveys her meaning by a ‘formidable silence’ (LG 168). Characters do in fact not always answer questions put to them, and our attention is often drawn to their silent responses. In The Heat of the Day, for instance, Stella's growing suspicion of her lover is mirrored in her silences: when he asks her whether she is influenced by what Harrison says, she tries to dismiss his question by silence (HD 191); and to his ‘You love me?’ she ‘eloquently’ answers nothing at all (HD 200). Or silence may suggest that a character is fully aware of the unspoken emotions of others, as we realize that young Dicey in The Little Girls knows perfectly well how her mother feels about Clare's father, who puts in an apparently chance appearance at the beach picnic: on seeing him, ‘the child said nothing, merely went back diligently to amassing shells’ (LG 130). In Eva Trout, silence is palpably a cover for Eva's embarrassment on several occasions, e.g. when as a girl she evades a question of Iseult Smith's by ‘examin[ing] the path's brickwork; then, down to its very roots, some near-by grass’ (ET 59); or later when the talk veers dangerously near to her feelings for Henry Dancey, and she looks fixedly at a mobile in his room (ET 180), or into the distance (ET 231), or at some trees (ET 233), rather than speak.

As a characteristic woman's response, silence has been the subject of much discussion in feminist criticism, and since Bowen's protagonists are almost exclusively female it is usually women we hear of ‘not answering’ or ‘remaining silent’. The blustering, bumbling Eric Arble in Eva Trout, who is occasionally at a loss for words, is one of the few exceptions: ‘That's what comes of trying to talk,’ he says early in the book, after a misunderstanding with his wife. ‘Can anybody wonder I keep my mouth shut?’ (ET 34). In The Heat of the Day there is a revealing glimpse of earlier generations of ladies at Mount Morris:

Though seated together, hems of their skirts touching, each one of the ladies had not ceased in herself to reflect alone; their however candid and clear looks in each others' eyes were interchanged warnings; their conversation was a twinkling surface over their deep silence. Virtually they were never to speak at all—unless to the little bird lying big with death on the path, the child being comforted out of the nightmare without waking, the leaf plucked still quivering from the felled tree.

(HD 174-175; my italics)

There is a subtle connection between the pregnant silences of Bowen's characters and the silence of her locations. In The Heat of the Day, Stella's silent responses and Robert Kelway's silence about his espionage are thus echoed in the silent London townscape, where ‘silence mounted the stairs, to enter her flat through the door ajar; silence came through the windows from the deserted street’ (HD 23); and the ‘islands of stricken silence’ (HD 91) formed by the roping-off of dangerous areas are a visual counterpart of the lovers' mutual silence and their ‘hermetic world’ (HD 90). In Eva Trout, Eva and her adopted son lead a ‘cinematographic existence with no sound track’ (ET 188), living in a visual universe of film and television that mirrors Jeremy's enforced silence. (Other instances of Bowen's thematic use of silent surroundings will be taken up in Chapter 8, ‘Stages and Stage Properties’).


In view of the many spoken exchanges between Bowen's characters, it may be appropriate to round off this chapter with a few observations about her handling of dialogue.

One may note, first, the use of stilted or meaningless dialogue to reflect the embarrassment or nervousness or withheld emotion of the speakers, as in this exchange between Dinah and Clare about a telephone conversation:

‘What were you doing?’

‘Well, I was in my flat.’

‘Of course you were, else you couldn't have answered. What were you doing?’

‘Thinking about you,’ said Clare crossly.

(LG 143)

Similarly, the first words between Iseult Smith and Constantine Ormeau in his office reveal the wary tension of the speakers:

‘You're well, I hope?’ he asked with renewed concern.

‘Very. And you?’

‘So-so. This is a treacherous time of year.’

‘Though spring,’ she suggested, ‘is more treacherous, isn't it? In winter one at least knows what to expect.’

‘How true. Yes, that is very true.’

(ET 35)

Spontaneous or troubled thoughts on the part of the speaker are often expressed in sentences that may appear garbled in isolation but turn out to be perfectly idiomatic when read aloud, or with an inner voice, with the correct placing of stress. (Much of James Joyce's writing makes the same demands on the reader). Stella's enigmatic ‘I don't think I think’, for instance, makes perfect sense in the context: ‘“You think, in me this was simply wanting to get my hand on the controls?” / “I don't think I think”’ (HD 273). A puzzling line or two of Robert's may likewise easily be cleared up when read aloud:

When you didn't speak I thought you thought silence better. … There were other times when I was less certain you knew. But I did not know you did not know till you asked me.

(HD 271)

Such ‘difficult’ lines often involve a pun-like repetition apparently unnoticed or unintended by the speaker. This is particularly noticeable in The Heat of the Day, where such discourse may be seen as a colloquial variant of the book's general dislocation of language; it often occurs in passages whose style alludes to the ways of speech and thought of the characters:

Here now was Louie sought out exactly as she had sought to be: it is in nature to want what you want so much too much that you must recoil when it comes.

(HD 248)

This does not make for easy reading. But then, as William McCormack comments, speaking of a somewhat similar example in the underground café scene in the same book, ‘Easy reading is not intended’ (227).

Another recurrent feature of Bowen's fictional exchanges is equally easy to parody, but demonstrably functional in that it sets the pace for our reading and conveys a good deal about the mood or character of the speaker: the use of syntactically intrusive speech tags of the type ‘“Do you think,” she asked, “it's going to rain?”’ (WL 137). On the one hand such tags undoubtedly encourage slow reading, but as against this they potentially speed up the reading process for the simple reason that an interrupted line of thought or an interrupted sentence naturally leads the eye of the reader on to its conclusion. Intrusive tags may reflect the hesitancy with which something is said, as in the conversation between young Roderick and the mentally disturbed Cousin Nettie in The Heat of the Day:

‘I believe I am very odd. And you must not,’ she said with a gesture, ‘tell me I'm not, or I shall begin to wonder.’

‘I thought,’ she said, still in agitation, ‘it had all begun again.’

‘But,’ said Roderick, having taken thought, ‘I don't really think I'm like that.’

(HD 208)

Similarly, the following lines from The Little Girls say a good deal about the guarded atmosphere at dinner-table conversation between Sheila and Dinah's sons:

‘Who thought up those three extra-secret things?’

‘That,’ she said, having thought, ‘I believe was me.’

‘Neither of us,’ said Roland—entitling himself, by a glance, to speak for his brother—‘now, of course, can ever hope to rest till we know what they are.’

(LG 233)

Syntactically interruptive locutionary clauses like these are used frequently and with great effect in The Heat of the Day, where the pull of opposite forces is in keeping with the tension at the heart of the novel. Syntactic breaks range from a mild hiatus when tags coincide with the beginning of a subsidiary clause (‘I'd no idea,’ she said, ‘you were going to feel like this’ [HD 161]) to the startling separation of subject from verb or verb from predicate (‘I don't,’ she said, ‘see anyone I have ever seen’ [HD 233]). The hiatus is felt most violently when the locutionary clause is expanded, as it often is—especially in reporting the speech of Harrison, who is patently unsure of himself and consequently often acts up: ‘“Absolutely,” he said with fervour, “not!” (HD 221); “He might, of course,” added Harrison, studying the short, clean nail of his right thumb, “fairly ask you what came over you” (HD 228); “Which was not,” said Harrison, secretively fiddling with a cigarette but not lighting it, “unnoticed”’ (HD 232).

This characteristic construction was one of the things that Daniel George, Cape's otherwise appreciative reader, singled out for comment in the manuscript of The Heat of the Day. Glendinning reports that he wrote four pages of notes on what he called ‘snags in the crystal stream’ for Bowen to think about (93:153). One sentence which came in for comment was the one I have just quoted: ‘“Absolutely,” he said with fervour, “not!”’. George's remark was: ‘Far, I diffidently suggest, fetched.’ But Bowen did not amend the construction in The Heat of the Day (where it also occurs as ‘“Actually,” he had to admit, “not”’ [HD 137]—here, too, reporting a line of Harrison's), and she retained it even in her last novel: ‘“Evidently,” he said, approvingly, “not” (ET 166); this is spoken by Constantine Ormeau and aptly reflects his pompous, deliberate manner of speech, where every word is weighed separately and given its due.

Characterisation through speech thus combines with the dynamics of reading to forge Bowen's dialogue into a complex experience in which the active participation of the reader plays no little part.

In the texts I have been considering, instances of imperfect communication far outweigh those where people relate to one another in full understanding and openness. Lack of frankness is at the root of the tragic outcome of the Stella-Robert love-affair in The Heat of the Day, and even though the relationship between young Dicey and her mother in The Little Girls is in many ways idyllic, there is necessarily much that is unsaid between them (e.g. Mrs Piggott's love for Clare's father). Technical innovations of course do nothing to mitigate such psychological restraints, and they have their own disadvantages. Telephoning is attended with all kinds of drawbacks that go beyond the limitations imposed by the speakers' surroundings that I have instanced above (background noise, background company). A telephone call may come at a bad time or when people are simply unprepared for it, for instance: Clare sounds cross when Dinah calls her up, because, as she says, ‘You made me jump, suddenly coming through like that’ (LG 143); and some subjects seem unsuited to telephone conversation: ‘What a thing to ask her over the telephone!’ says Clare, when Dinah impetuously asks Sheila whether she has ever killed anyone (LG 150). Writing is ‘hopelessly distant’, as Iseult Arble remarks (ET 115)—and Bowen's narratives contain a good deal of ‘writing’ in the form of verbatim letters. The possible advantages of avoiding the constraints and embarrassments of a face-to-face interview by actually choosing to write rather than speak are not taken up. In the long run, non-verbal communication is no solution either, for the perfection of Eva's and Jeremy's ‘cinematographic’ life ‘with no sound track’ in America does not outlast the boy's growing need for independence. Eva Trout is the only one of Bowen's post-war novels to end on a significant note of finality: Eva overcomes her reluctance to speak only to be killed on the very last page by the flawed communication represented by her adopted son. The outlook for the future is bleak indeed in this last novel.


  1. Robert was apparently a member of the British Expeditionary Force, which was evacuated from the beaches of the Northern French port of Dunkirk (Dunkerque) at the end of May 1940. See illustration opposite.

  2. The first is M Hutton's translation, revised by R M Ogilvie, of adempto per inquisitiones etiam loquendi audiendique commercio (Tacitus, Agricola 2.3), in volume 1 of the Loeb Classical Library edition of Tacitus, pp. 28-29; the second translation of loquendi audiendique commercio is from Ogilvie and Richmond's annotated edition of the Agricola, p. 135.

Select Bibliography

Works by Elizabeth Bowen Discussed or Cited

The Heat of the Day (1949). Penguin ed. 1962. Abbr. HD

A World of Love (1955). Penguin ed. 1983. Abbr. WL

The Little Girls (1964). Penguin ed. 1982. Abbr. LG

Eva Trout (1968). Penguin ed. 1982. Abbr. ET

Collected Stories (1980). Penguin ed. 1983. Abbr. CS

The Last September. London: Constable & Co, 1929.

To the North. London: Victor Gollanz, 1932.

The House in Paris. London: Victor Gollanz, 1935.

The Death of the Heart. London: Victor Gollanz, 1938.

Bowen's Court. London, New York, Toronto: Longmans, Green & Co., 1942.

“English Novelists.” Impressions of English Literature. London: Collins, 1944.

The Shelbourne Hotel. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1951.

A Time in Rome. London: Longmans, Green & Co, 1960.

Pictures and Conversations. Ed. Spencer Curtis Brown. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975.

The Mulberry Tree. Writings of Elizabeth Bowen. Ed. Hermione Lee. London: Virago Press Ltd, 1986.

Notes from Eire. Espionage Reports to Winston Churchill, 1940-42, with a Review of Irish Neutrality. Aubane Historical Society, 1999.

Other Works

Atkins, John. Six Novelists Look at Society. London: John Calder, 1977.

Auden, W H. Collected Shorter Poems, 1927-1957. London: Faber (1966), 1969.

Austin, Allan E. Elizabeth Bowen. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1971.

Bacon, Francis. The Works of Francis Bacon, vol. IX = The Letters and the Life, vol. II. London, 1862; reprinted Stuttgart—Bad Cannstatt, 1961.

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Bowen, Elizabeth (Short Story Criticism)


Bowen, Elizabeth (Vol. 1)