Elizabeth Bowen Bowen, Elizabeth (Vol. 118) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Elizabeth Bowen 1899–1973

Anglo-Irish novelist, short story writer, essayist, nonfiction writer, autobiographer, and critic.

The following entry presents an overview of Bowen's career. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1,3,6, 11, 15, and 22.

Bowen was proficient in many fictional genres, from comedies of manners to mystery stories that include elements of horror and the supernatural. All of her work, however, is strongly informed by the cultural shift toward modernism that occurred after World War I. Marked by alienation, disillusionment, and a sense that twentieth-century life was essentially monstrous, this shift was highlighted to great effect by Bowen and other writers of her generation who witnessed the comparative serenity of the Edwardian period shattered by modern warfare.

Biographical Information

Bowen was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1899, the only child of Henry Cole Bowen and Florence Colley Brown Bowen, who traced their family history to Wales but considered themselves Anglo-Irish. Despite spending much of her early childhood in Dublin, Bowen was heavily influenced by the genteel life at her family's seventeenth-century estate, Bowen's Court, in County Cork, Ireland. In 1905 Henry Bowen suffered a nervous breakdown; unprepared to support herself and her child, Florence Bowen moved with Elizabeth to southern England, where she had family. Around this time, Bowen developed a life-long problem with stammering. When she was twelve, Bowen's father was recovering from his breakdown and planning to reunite his family in Ireland. But a year later, Bowen's mother died of cancer, leaving Bowen in the care of her aunts, who sent her to Downe House boarding school in Kent. While at Downe House, Bowen met novelist Rose Macauley, who became her mentor and introduced her to influential people in the literary community; Macauley may also have been instrumental in the publication of Bowen's first book of short stories, Encounters (1923). She continued to spend her summers at Bowen's Court with her father and one of his unmarried sisters. When Bowen finished school in 1917, she returned to Dublin to work in a hospital for shell-shocked soldiers, memories of whom remained with Bowen the rest of her life. She later infused her characters with many of their most notable traits. At the end of World War I, Bowen returned to England to attend the London County Council School of Art, but withdrew after two terms, disappointed with her abilities in painting and drawing. When her father remarried in 1918, Bowen felt she had no focus in her life; she spent the next several years taking classes and traveling abroad with her aunts. Social and political conflict in Ireland erupted into civil war in 1921. Ancestral homes—known as the "Big Houses"—such as Bowen's Court were occupied by soldiers or burned as symbols of British oppression. Bowen's Court escaped major damage, but with the demise of other Big Houses, Bowen's world changed permanently. In 1923 she married Alan Cameron, an assistant secretary for education. Two years later, when Cameron was appointed Secretary for Education in Oxford, Bowen entered the Oxford intellectual circle, befriending many of the leading thinkers in England at the time. By the time she became the first woman in the family to inherit Bowen's Court after the death of her father in 1930. Bowen was a well-known and highly respected figure in the literary world, often compared to her friend Virginia Woolf. In 1948 Bowen was made a Commander of the British Empire and was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters by Trinity College in Dublin in 1949. Bowen and her husband moved from London to Bowen's Court in 1952; Cameron died later that year. Bowen lived at her family estate until 1959, when she sold it. She received a Doctor of Letters from Oxford University in 1957. Several more moves and many more highly lauded published works followed. Bowen died of lung cancer in 1973.

Major Works

Bowen frequently used her own life as a starting point for her fiction. Having lived through both world wars and the Irish civil war, she had experienced the horror of war and its aftermath firsthand. Hence, many of her characters reflect her own sense of disillusionment and displacement. Her protagonists, notably in Encounters, Ann Lee's and Other Stories (1926), and The Hotel (1927), are often inexperienced young women who have been separated for from their homes and families for various reasons—sometimes deliberately—and who have failed to develop meaningful emotional attachments. The Last September (1929) portrays life in the Irish Big Houses during the Irish civil war. Lois Farquar desperately tries to escape the suffocating life at Danielstown, her family estate, while her uncle and his neighbors ignore the war and attempt to maintain their way of life. Eventually, Danielstown is burned by Irish rebels, and Lois is released from her emotional prison. Friends and Relations (1931) draws attention to upper-class society life in England. Stale, unloving marriages and the resulting infidelities appear in Friends and Relations. Similarly, the protagonist of The House in Paris (1935) makes a socially advantageous match with a man to whom she feels indifferent. When he leaves on a diplomatic assignment, she begins an affair with a friend's fiancé, which results in an unwanted pregnancy. The Death of the Heart (1938) returns to the plight of innocent young women without family to instruc or guide them. The most critically acclaimed of Bowen's novels, The Death of the Heart compares favorably to James Joyce's Ulysses because of its technical innovation. Her short fiction explores the sense of alienation engendered by World War I and uses elements of horror and mystery, notably in The Cat Jumps and Other Stories (1934), Look at All Those Roses (1941), and The Demon Lover and Other Stories (1945). Explicit reference to the widespread psychological repercussions of the first World War appears in the widely anthologized "The Demon Lover," in which a woman returns to her old home and receives a vengeful message from her fiancé, who died in the war.

Critical Reception

Bowen earned a reputation with her early work as an observer of social absurdities among the upper classes. Her comedies of manners are considered witty and delicately handled satire. Gradually, her work moved into the more serious, and tragic, realm of psychological realism, where her focus shifted to the decadent but emotionally stunted post-War period of the 1920s and 1930s in Europe and Great Britain. Bowen's novels that fall into this phase of her writing—especially The Last September, Friends and Relations, The House in Pans, and The Death of the Heart—are among her most critically admired work. However, many commentators believe Bowen's technical and artistic achievement reached its peak in her short stories, particularly the supernatural stories in The Cat Jumps and Other Stories, Look at All Those Roses, and The Demon Lover and Other Stories.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Encounters (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 (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) 1941
Bowen's Court (nonfiction) 1942
English Novelists (criticism) 1942
Seven Winters (autobiography) 1942
The Demon Lover and Other Stories (short stories) 1945; also published as Ivy Gripped the Steps and Other Stories
Anthony Trollope: A New Judgement (criticism) 1946
Selected Stories (short stories) 1946
The Heat of the Day (novel) 1948
Why Do I Write? An Exchange of Views between Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene, and V. S. Pritchett (nonfiction) 1948
Collected Impressions (nonfiction) 1950
Early Stories (short stories) 1951
The Shelbourne Hotel (nonfiction) 1951
A World of Love (novel) 1955
Stories (short stories) 1959
A Time in Rome (nonfiction) 1959
Afterthought: Pieces about Writing (essays and lectures) 1962
The Little Girls (novel) 1963
A Day in the Dark and Other Stories (short stories) 1965
The Good Tiger (juvenile) 1965
Eva Trout; or, Changing Scenes (novel) 1968
Pictures and Conversations (memoirs) 1975
Irish Stories (short stories) 1978
The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen (short stories) 1981
The Mulberry Tree: Writings of Elizabeth Bowen (collected works) 1987

∗This work contains Encounters and Ann Lee's and Other Stories.

Sean O'Faolain (essay date 1948)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: In his The Short Story, Devin-Adair Co., 1951, 370 p.

[In the following excerpt from his acclaimed critical study of the short story genre first published in 1948, O'Faolain gives a detailed evaluation and appreciation of Bowen's techniques of characterization, language, and construction in "Her Table Spread."]

"The Good Girl" is a characteristic [Elizabeth Bowen] story, among her best twelve. It is witty, malicious, intelligent, satirical, amusing. Uncle Porgie, who is not really an uncle, is Rolls-Royceing in Italy with his niece Monica, who is not his niece, and the lovely Dagmar who is not Monica's aunt though Captain Montparnesi is polite enough to pretend...

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Sean O'Faolain (essay date 1956)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Elizabeth Bowen; or, Romance Does Not Pay," in The Vanishing Hero: Studies in Novelists of the Twenties, Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1956, pp. 167-90.

[In the following excerpt, O'Faolain asserts that Bowen's writing was influenced by her Anglo-Irish background and its accompanying sense of exile. O'Faolain also considers Bowen's relationship to the French novelist and short story writer Gustave Flaubert and discusses Bowen as a romantic in an anti-romantic age.]

Elizabeth Bowen is detached by birth from that society she describes. She is an Irishwoman, at least one sea apart from English traditions. She descends from that sturdy and creative sub-race we call the...

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Jeslyn Medoff (essay date Spring 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'There Is No Elsewhere': Elizabeth Bowen's Perceptions of War," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 30, No. 1, Spring, 1984, pp. 73-81.

[In the following essay, Medoff examines Bowen's descriptions of life during wartime in her short fiction.]

On book application forms at the British Library there occasionally appears this notation: "It is regretted that this work was destroyed by bombing in the war; we have not been able to acquire a replacement." This statement serves as a reminder of the irreparable damages of war, which destroys history even as it is created. The intricate fabric of British history, woven with a sense of cultural permanence, was burned through...

(The entire section is 3831 words.)

Phyllis Lassner (essay date Spring 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Past Is a Burning Pattern: Elizabeth Bowen's The Last September," in Éire-Ireland, Vol. 21, No. 1, Spring, 1986, pp. 40-54.

[In the following essay, Lassner examines the Anglo-Irish myth of the ancestral home in The Last September, focusing on the narcissim, false privelege, and fatalism it fosters.]

Although Elizabeth Bowen's Anglo-Irish background has been acknowledged as a powerful influence on her fiction, scant attention has been given to The Last September, the novel which deals most directly with the political and social forces that shaped her life and creative vision. Bowen sets the novel during the Troubles at Danielstown, an...

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Mary Jarrett (essay date Spring 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Ambiguous Ghosts: The Short Stories of Elizabeth Bowen," in Journal of the Short Story in English, No. 8, Spring, 1987, pp. 71-9.

[In the following essay, Jarrett discusses the ambiguous line between reality and fiction in Bowen's short stories.]

Elizabeth Bowen felt early what she called the 'Anglo-Irish ambivalence to all things English, a blend of impatience and evasiveness, a reluctance to be pinned down to a relationship.' This, I would argue, richly affected her fiction.

Bowen may be compared with the Anglo-Indian Kipling, with his similar ambivalence to all things English. Each was early exposed to betrayal, alienation, and compromise,...

(The entire section is 3077 words.)

John Coates (essay date July 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Elizabeth Bowen's The Last September: The Loss of the Past and the Modern Consciousness," in Durham University Journal, Vol. 82, No. 2, July, 1990, pp. 205-16.

[In the following essay, Coates examines the narrative tension in The Last September in terms of the cultural shift that occurred after World War I.]

The existence of a seemingly obvious frame of reference for The Last September may mislead the critic. Given the intrinsic interest of the Irish "Troubles" and of the last phase of the Protestant Ascendancy, the historical setting of The Last September, it is tempting to see them as the defining factors of the book's meaning....

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John Coates (essay date July 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Tree of Jesse and the Voyage Out: Stability and Disorder in Elizabeth Bowen's Friends and Relations" in Durham University Journal, Vol. 84, No. 2, July, 1992, pp. 291-302.

[In the following essay, Coates examines the essentially conservative framework of Friends and Relations, arguing that the narrative defends family and social institutions despite its characters' personal weaknesses.]

Elizabeth Bowen (1899–1973) is a novelist highly praised in standard works of reference and literary histories. Yet, oddly, critical attention has not kept pace with general acclaim. There is an obvious reason for this. Academics, at least in Britain, are...

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Alexander G. Gonzalez (essay date Summer 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Elizabeth Bowen's 'Her Table Spread': A Joycean Irish Story," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 30, No. 3, Summer, 1993, pp. 343-48.

[In the following essay, Gonzalez explores the symbolic, thematic, and technical similarities between "Her Table Spread" and James Joyce's "The Dead."]

One of Elizabeth Bowen's earliest published Irish short stories, "Her Table Spread" (1930), merits serious attention for two central reasons: not only is it an engrossing and rewarding work of art but it also reveals yet one more Irish fiction writer contemporary with James Joyce who was clearly influenced by him. Moreover, Bowen's story demonstrates surprisingly similar aesthetic...

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Robert L. Calder (essay date Winter 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'A More Sinister Troth': Elizabeth Bowen's 'The Demon Lover' as Allegory," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 31, No. 1, Winter, 1994, pp. 91-7.

[In the following essay, Calder suggests that "The Demon Lover" is an allegory of war, drawing parallels between the story's imagery and the cultural context of its composition.]

Of all of Elizabeth Bowen's short stories, none has been anthologized as often as "The Demon Lover." First published in The Listener in November 1941 and reprinted in The Demon Lover and Other Stories (1945) and Ivy Gripped the Steps and Other Stories (1946), it is usually introduced as a clever tale of occult possession....

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Richard Tillinghast (essay date December 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Elizabeth Bowen: The House, the Hotel & and the Child," in The New Criterion, Vol. 13, No. 4, December, 199, pp. 24-33.

[In the following essay, Tillinghast traces biographical influences in Bowen's fiction as allegories of innocence and experience, noting in particular the importance of displacement and abandonment among her characters.]

To read Elizabeth Bowen is to enter, both with pleasure and with consternation, the world of the Anglo-Irish: that spiritually hyphenated class which has all but vanished from Ireland since the Easter Rebellion of 1916 and the foundation of the Republic. As a British Protestant ruling class which owned land taken by force...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Jordan, Heather Bryant. "Rifling the Past: Elizabeth Bowen's Wartime Autobiography." Notes on Modern Irish Literature 2 (1990): 52-57.

Examines the ways in which Bowen came to terms with her family's past while writing her autobiography.

Watson, Barbara Bellow. "Variations on an Enigma: Elizabeth Bowen's War Novel." Southern Humanities Review XV, No. 2 (Spring 1981): 131-51.

Discusses the sensibilities imparted by World War II onto Bowen's novel The Heat of the Day.

(The entire section is 116 words.)