Elizabeth Bowen Bowen, Elizabeth (Vol. 11) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Bowen, Elizabeth 1899–1973

Bowen was an Anglo-Irish novelist, short story writer, essayist, critic, editor, and author of several autobiographical and historical works, and books for children. The inevitable disillusionment inherent in human relationships is a recurrent theme in Bowen's work. The plots of her novels often revolve around conflicts of innocence and experience, usually depicted through the painful experiences of love in a young female character. Bowen defined the novel as the "non-poetic statement of a poetic truth," and in her straightforward, unadorned prose she achieves this verisimilitude. She received the C.B.E. (Commander, Order of the British Empire) in 1948. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18; obituary, Vols. 41-44, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)

Paul A. Parrish

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Last September, The House in Paris, The Death of the Heart, and Eva Trout are each] concerned with a young romantic female awakening to life and love and [have] certain central scenes which focus on the imagination of these young innocents. Readers of Elizabeth Bowen have too easily concentrated on the inherent sympathy in the portrayals of these characters and have too seldom recognized that to Miss Bowen the inexorable romantic mind is doomed, as well as, in its own way, admirable. The scenes which unite the elements of nature, love, and idealism are themselves reminiscent of the Edenic myth and the Garden where reality, in the form of a serpent, sin, and death, intrudes and ultimately destroys the perfection which has been realized. Adding to a sense of the tragic destiny of the inflexible romantic is the paradox that the young idealist commands the greatest sympathy precisely at the moment that the futility of her romanticism is most fully recognized. As Lois, Karen, Portia, and Eva strive to claim their loves and to live with their lovers in an alien world, the reader is emotionally bound up in their efforts but intellectually certain of their inevitable failure. These young idealists fail because they cannot distinguish between the external world and the Edenic world of their imaginations…. Unless a person feels, he is not really alive, but if that feeling distorts or falsifies external reality, death, either spiritual or physical, is the ultimate consequence. The dream of an Eden is at once appealing and impossible, the romantic herself sympathetic and doomed. (pp. 86-7)

[In The Last September] the conjunction of nature, love, and imagination possesses characteristics quite unlike the pattern found in the other three novels…. The most distinctive feature of The Last September is the presence of a prominent, older male romantic, Hugo Montmorency, as well as a young female innocent, Lois Farquar. The most dramatic scene in which nature, love, and imagination conjoin is the mill scene in Chapter Seven of Part II, in which Lois is primarily an observer, not a participant. Hugo acts and feels: he is in love, and his mind captures the importance of the moment by its imaginative participation with nature. (p. 87)

Hugo is here the romantic mind in extremis, projecting onto nature his feelings and imagination. That his love is, from its very conception, unrealizable seems obvious. What is more important is that Lois has an opportunity to witness a romantic mind in love and in nature, unique among Miss Bowen's romantic heroines….

But if she observes and learns, if it is true, as Marda tells her, that "nothing gets past … [her] imagination,"… her education and imagination push her further into the extremes of idealism…. As she reads a letter from Gerald she thinks of their relationship as "perfect." At that moment the perfection seems to be confirmed by the appearance of a ray of sunshine which alters "the room like a revelation."… Even as she is witnessing it, the room ominously suggests that she is deceived: "Noiselessly, a sweet pea moulted its petals on to the writing table, leaving a bare pistil. The pink butterfly flowers, transparently balancing, were shadowed faintly with blue as by an intuition of death."… Between this moment and their final meeting in the garden of Danielstown (their only memorable scene in a natural environment), the "intuition of death," not the sunshine, prevails.

The garden at Danielstown, unlike the mythic one, admits no perfection. Nature here implies no sanction of their love; to Lois it is, in fact, severe and limiting…. When Gerald leaves she can remember only his seemingly innocent act, during a former meeting, of pulling the leaves from the hedge, "scattering them on the grass and throwing them over her."… The experience smothers her, and like the snail she is crushed, not by the hand of another person, but by the destruction of her romantic vision. When the necessary reconciliation with the world of reality is not accomplished, the death of the spirit is the inevitable result. (pp. 88-9)

The effect of the weather [in The House in Paris] is felt most acutely in the scene at Hythe, a scene in which we again see that particular conjunction of love, nature, and imagination. (pp. 89-90)

Even during [Karen's and Max's] first meeting nature and the sun seem to be offering their sanction of the relationship. As in The Last September, a garden is the setting…. (p. 90)

Later, when Karen and Max walk after their dinner and talk, the sun is oppressive; they seek the comfort of the shade. The oppression is only physical; it does not affect the imagination of either. The sun is still felt to be that third presence which contributes to their association. Its absence from Hythe causes a disturbance not felt at Boulogne.

Rain casts a literal and spiritual shadow over the meeting of Karen and Max at Hythe. There she "cannot divide the streets from the patter of rain and rush of rain in...

(The entire section is 2097 words.)

Edwin J. Kenney, Jr.

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In] the stylishness of Elizabeth Bowen's art, one senses the dislocated child who is urgently seeking an identity as a means of survival, and who sometimes strikes that "kind of farouche note which one associates with teen-age delinquents about to break prison—that is, leave home," as her friend Sean O'Faolain said. As Miss Bowen asserts in her most famous novel, The Death of the Heart, "Illusions are art … and it is by art that we live, if we do." The recurrent theme of Elizabeth Bowen's fiction is man's primary need for an illusion, an image of himself, in order for him to be. Her fascination with problems of identity has its source in the experience of her early life, and it often finds its expression in allusions to the story of the early life of man, the story of the fall from the garden of Eden; for both are stories of the need to be, the loss of innocence, the acquisition of knowledge through loss, and the entrance into selfhood. (p. 18)

She showed her own fascination with [her background as a motherless only child, shuffled between England and Ireland,] by writing three works of nonfiction specifically about it—Seven Winters (1943), "a fragment of autobiography" … describing her life with her mother and father in Dublin until she was seven; Bowen's Court (1942, 1964), a history of her family home, where she spent her summers; and The Shelbourne Hotel (1951), a history of the cosmopolitan focus of Anglo-Irish life—and one early novel, The Last September, set during the Troubles. The biographical and historical experiences described in these books inform all of Miss Bowen's fiction. (p. 20)

Her sense of Ireland was-not a literary or intellectual one of revived myths and celebrated national heroes; Ireland always existed for her literally in the land itself and in the image of Bowen's Court, behind its demesne walls, at the end of a long avenue, set on the land in its circle of trees. (p. 21)

Miss Bowen's whole conception of the Anglo-Irish naive dignity and tragedy implies and depends on a sense of betrayal, a feeling that the best intentions of the best of her class were somehow betrayed both by others of that class and by the native Irish…. This view of the Anglo-Irish in Ireland is also Elizabeth Bowen's view of having been brought up to be Anglo-Irish, and ultimately her view of life itself. (p. 23).

The experience of unknowing separation from vital goings-on that is most often violated by a sudden knowledge of betrayal fraught with tragic consequences is what Miss Bowen sees in the history of her class in Ireland and in her being brought up to the expectations of that class at the time she was. This is what she describes as child-like; this is what she felt made her a "nomad" in her travels between Ireland and England, and this is, not surprisingly, the story of her relations with her mother and father, both of whom seemed to abandon and at the same time to implicate her. (p. 24)

In The Last September, Miss Bowen's first important novel, she deals directly with the crisis of being Anglo-Irish at a time of national crisis, called the Troubles. Just as her early stories were written about her childhood at the time of her transition to adulthood, this work, too, marks another stage of transition in her life. (p. 31)

The achievement of this novel … is the complementarity it creates between the adolescent crisis of its heroine, Lois Farquar,… and the cultural and political crisis of the Anglo-Irish in 1920. The Anglo-Irish are seen now as being not just only children but adolescent only children. The suspension between being English and Irish finds its complement in the suspension between being a child and being an adult because this is the time when one feels it most confusedly, as Elizabeth Bowen herself did. Miss Bowen said that this novel was of all her books the one "nearest her heart" and that it had a "deep, unclouded spontaneous source" in her own experience. (p. 32)

Our loss of innocence is the business of Elizabeth Bowen's fiction. Her novels create, obsessively, a sense of insecurity. One is made to feel that life itself cannot be trusted; those we love are taken away by obscure, arbitrary forces such as death, or they betray us. The experience of Miss Bowen's fiction is similar to her description of the experience of Ireland: it tends to drive one "back on oneself." (p. 40)

In her novels she is … as much or more concerned with the self's response to the experience of loss as she is with the loss itself. Like her admired friends E. M. Forster and Virginia Woolf, she regarded the surface of life as a fragile crust saving us from the bottomless abyss below, and she said that "the more the surface seems to heave or threaten to crack, the more its actual pattern fascinates me." Once "the crack appears across the crust of life," Miss Bowen is concerned with how her characters work around it, for ultimately there is no making the crack go away or pretending it is not there. If one tries not to acknowledge it, one risks self-destruction; one falls into the abyss. This horrible alternative to creating a new pattern that includes the knowledge of life's evils is explored in To The North.

Neither To The North (1932) nor Miss Bowen's preceding novel, Friends and Relations (1931), should be ranked among her best works. Despite moments of fine writing and comic effect, both are rather static books with diagrammatic design the execution of which seems to have squeezed the life out of them. In To The North this design is that of melodramatic tragedy…. [Emmeline is] at the center of the tragic action [in To The North], and her capacity for feeling places her there. This quality is part of her innocence and her fatality because she does not see the dangers, within and without, that threaten her. She is characterized as nearsighted and, although she requires glasses, she chooses not to wear them on social occasions, times of most perilous encounters.

What makes Emmeline transcend the archetypal innocent is the way Elizabeth Bowen shows how Emmeline has coped with her situation though her disability goes unrecognized by all those around her. Emmeline is unlike Miss Bowen's other heroines who have nothing to do, or who have only those "deliberate interests" for young ladies that provide excuses for luncheons. (pp. 40-2)

Emmeline, the orphan, the dislocated child, is characterized by Miss Bowen as "the stepchild of her uneasy century." This is Elizabeth Bowen's vision of herself, and Emmeline's attraction to travel, like Miss Bowen's, is an expression of this dislocation and an attempt at accommodation with the condition of it. (p. 43)

The importance of fictive concords to overcome the fragmentariness of life and the self is nowhere more poignantly expressed by Miss Bowen than in the disjointed The House in Paris (1935)…. As in The Hotel and The Last September, Miss Bowen uses the architectural framework of the house in Paris as a structure for her fiction, an enclosure for her characters, and an emblem of their lives. But this novel is distinguished by her use of the child as a vantage point for viewing the conduct of the adults and by her bold division of the book into three sections that juxtapose time in such a way as to express the separation between child and adult. (p. 46)

The child's loneliness, often caused by deaths or separation of parents or abandonment by them, is for Elizabeth Bowen a metaphor for all human loneliness caused by the combination of fate, of external circumstances, and innocence. The child is alone because he does not know what is going on outside of and often within himself; in this sense the child is an outsider to any family, community, or place, whose tacit organization, conduct, and values he does not understand....

(The entire section is 3270 words.)

Walter Sullivan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

At the end of her career Elizabeth Bowen's work was in a state of decline. Like a baseball pitcher who starts aiming for the plate, Miss Bowen in her closing years was trying to achieve by main force the drama and ambiguity and profundity that accrued naturally to her work in her finest days. A World of Love was a shadow, an anemic imitation of the best of her novels, and The Little Girls and Eva Trout were tours de force which did not succeed. (p. 142)

According to her own testimony her fictional process, the manner of her creating, always started with place. Other novelists might begin with a concept of character or with a germ of a story or with a human situation that they...

(The entire section is 1080 words.)

Hermione Lee

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The opening of To the North is deceptive: leaving Italy is not, in itself, to be of importance. Cecilia Summers, the 'young widow' waiting for the train, is not to be the heroine. Its tone is significantly odd and ambiguous. The satirical treatment of a carefully demarcated social world is apparently anticipated, and this is borne out by the ensuing emphasis on manner and properties…. Affluent people lunch, dine, and go to parties; we are often told what they are wearing. The fashions are exactly registered…. (pp. 129-30)

Nevertheless, there is a discomforting tone to the first paragraph of the novel, strongly suggesting that the material world in which it has its being is to be...

(The entire section is 1876 words.)