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.
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.
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.