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.
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...
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