Elizabeth Bowen Bowen, Elizabeth (Vol. 11)

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Introduction

(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...

(The entire section is 8,442 words.)