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 InformationBowen 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.
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