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 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.
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.
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.”