Sean O'Faolain (essay date 1948)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3409
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 to think so. (We are left in no doubt as to Uncle Porgie's relations with Dagmar.) The Captain proposes to Monica who, rather helplessly, for she is a bit of a goose, permits an attachment, if not an engagement. One night she stays out late in his company—to the horror of Uncle Porgie, Dagmar and the proprietors of the hotel. Ladies and gentlemen do not do this sort of thing. Is not the hotel fully appointed? The gallant Captain disappears, having found that Monica is not an heiress. The 'good girl' is whirled off to Rome, very exhausted with Virtue, her own especially, and sadly sensible that it is her doom.
Now, the methods Miss Bowen employs to outline her characters—no short-story writer can do more—are of the swiftest. Monica has charm as well as virtue, we gather:
Uncle Porgie, lifting his glass to twinkle in the pink lamplight, paid Monica tribute: "She's a damn pretty girl and a good girl, too!" Yet, all the time under the table he had been pursuing Dagmar's foot.
It is almost a statement. She is a good girl whom one admires while playing footy with some other girl. That disposes of two characters. Captain Montparnesi is outlined brutally. He proposes, he kisses Monica's hands, she asks for time to think (she would), and when she has walked away:—'Captain Montparnesi brought his pocket-book from against his heart and made some calculations.' No more need be said.
The story can now proceed to display its wit and malice at its ease, and further minor elaborations of character may be picked up on the way, or not, according as the reader is alert or merely passing the time. Thus when Monica finishes reading a book on Leonardo da Vinci (poor child) she takes a walking stick and the hotel-dog (poor child) and walks down to the lake (poor child): if you do not bother to note the little stabs you will not murmur 'poor child.' At the end of her walk
she found mud-flats, washing, stark damp reeds, no one about. The lake was intended for distant scenery. She spoke Italian to a child who ran away, then she walked up again. On the terrace she had come upon Captain Montparnesi, engaged in sadness. He patted the dog. "I love dogs," he said: "it is almost a passion with me."
Naturally, he being a solitary man … and so on, with poor Monica gulping it all in. Or one may appreciate her natural resentment at Dagmar's smooth progress through the bewildering narrows of passion where she alone is lost; or Uncle Porgie's kindness in giving her a pair of coral ear-rings, since a good girl must have some compensations; or we may be amused by Captain Montparnesi's solemn family-council. But, whatever one does or does not find amusing and illuminating, one cannot fail to observe that this entire comedy creates its illusion with a minimum of characterisation.
[Bowen's "Her Table Spread"] compresses into the usual modern length of three thousand words material for which Turgenev would have needed twice or three times the space. The scene is Ireland, a castle on the coast, a rainy summer night, the candle-lit dinner table, a friendly party which includes the unromantic Mr. Alban from London, whom the heiress Valeria Cuffe is vaguely expected to marry. In the bay there is a British destroyer whose ambience, all the more romantic by its nearness combined with its inaccessibility, emotionally disturbs them all. Valeria is especially affected. She is a very romantic young lady indeed who has, apparently, dreamed much of 'the Navy' and of marrying one Mr. Garrett who had visited them the previous Easter, when another destroyer was anchored in the estuary. Mr. Alban plays Mendelssohn, and then a Viennese waltz, while Valeria, now quite overbalanced, rushes out into the wet bushes to look at the misty portholes, and hug her dreams under the leaves in the moist night-air, and wave a mad lantern out to the rain-pocked sea. Her uncle and poor, abandoned, self-pitying, civilian Mr. Alban go in agitation to the boat-house to search for her. There is a bottle of whisky in the boat and a bat in the rafters, and the uncle talks of marriage and the parlourmaid. The Irish are, it is evident to Mr. Alban from London, just as dotty as people say. He flies from the bat and the bottle, and runs into Valeria, now beside herself, crying joyously that Mr. Garrett has landed; indeed Mr. Alban is Mr. Garrett. It becomes a moment when even Mr. Alban is unmanned and manned, a fleeting mad moment of sheer abandonment to the excitement of the dark, wet summer's night, the creaking satin and the bare shoulders of the woman, a moment of rampant Celtic emotion…. The story concludes, or rather exhausts itself:
Perhaps it was best for them all that early, when next day first lightened the rain, the destroyer steamed out—below the extinguished Castle where Valeria lay with her arms wide, past the boat-house where Mr. Rossiter lay insensible and the bat hung masked in its wings—down the estuary to the open sea.
The compression of this story is in such enormous degree due to the suggestive style (e.g. a word like 'extinguished' above, saves a whole phrase; or the word 'lightened,' which gives a double sense of brightness and diminution) that we should keep this most difficult part of the analysis for [a discussion of language]. When we try to separate construction from situation the subtle management of the tale likewise resists dissection. I have long wondered whether the situation, the group, the place, or the atmosphere may have been felt first by the author; and whether Valeria came first, or Mr. Alban, and felt that nobody would ever know, least of all the author; for the story has such thirst and urge that it looks as if it had sprung from Jove's forehead fully armed, complete when first conceived. When I asked Miss Bowen this question she said that she saw a castle like this and wanted at once to write 'something' about it; only a somewhat odd and rather dotty girl seemed to fit the mood of the place. The 'mood'? But whose mood? We are back at the indefinable; a writer's own personality seeing things in her own unique way.
One may appreciate the cohesion of "Her Table Spread" by trying to imagine the story as Turgenev might have written it: the lonely girl (a), the remote place (b), the timid suitor (c), the anxious aunt (d), the Navy arriving (e)—step by step, leaf laid on delicate leaf, lyric note on lyric note. Here all occurs together. The three unities of Place, Time and Character weld everything like a handgrip. For Place we keep to the castle dining-room, with a slight extension in lamplight to the garden (and for Mr. Alban and Mr. Rossiter a slightly wider but brief extension to the boathouse), all but Mr. Rossiter coming back to the dining-room for the climax. For Time, all occurs within about an hour, possibly two, except for the epilogue I have quoted, which passes to the following dawn. For character Alban is the focus. I cannot explain how much skill all this involves without a digression to what, for convenience, I call the technique of the camera-angle.
By camera-angle I mean the technique by which the writer of short-stories 'sights' his characters one by one without creating an uncomfortable feeling that we are wandering all over the caste; and without breaking the form of the story. As we read a short-story by Maupassant, or Chekov, or O. Henry, or Frank O'Connor, or Liam O'Flaherty, or A. E. Coppard—and as I mention the names a score or more of their stories pass quickly before me—we do not notice how the mental camera moves, withdraws to a distance to enclose a larger view, slips deftly from one character to another, while all the time holding one main direction of which these are only variations. This mobility as to the detail combined with the rigidity of the general direction is one of the great technical pleasures of the modern short-story….
This matter of the angle is paramount. It is a way of answering the question, 'What is the story about?' without being too obvious in the answer. So, I remember reading a story somewhere about a daughter which was really a story about the father, as did not appear until the last few lines. Or, in that story of Chekov's Gooseberries, the story was ostensibly about one man, and was so, but when we close the book we find that the narrator, the brother of the subject of the tale, has also unconsciously been revealing himself….
Having explained what I mean by camera-angle we can now come back to "Her Table Spread," and observe how Elizabeth Bowen, while presenting a number of characters, has kept her Unity of Character. I have said that Alban is the focus. The story opens with him. 'Alban had few opinions on the subject of marriage …' When the other characters steal into the story we may still feel that it is he who is observing them; some reaction from him is indicated in each paragraph to convey this impression of his pervasiveness. The fourth paragraph breaks into conversation, and the atmosphere of excitement is gradually released. Conversation is every writer's favourite way of escaping from his centre to his circumference. Everybody may share it. All overhear. The writer vanishes. And Mr. Alban may see as well as hear. They have been speaking of the Navy's visit last Easter:
Will they remember? Valeria's bust was almost on the table. But with a rustle Mrs. Treve pressed Valeria's toe. For the dining-room also looked out across the estuary, and the great girl had not once taken her eyes from the window. Perhaps it was unfortunate that Mr. Alban should have coincided with the destroyer. Perhaps it was unfortunate for Mr. Alban too. For he saw now he was less than half the feast …
That rustle of Mrs. Treve's skirt is delicate. He could have heard that. One may presume that he looked up and saw Valeria staring out of the window. The next two sentences belong to anybody. Mrs. Treve's thought? Guessed at by Mr. Alban? They are interesting sentences, technically, because they illustrate how a writer may, having slipped his camera across a scene which includes the main character, quietly pick up other characters on the way. There is, as it were, an elastic bond of thought that ties us to the main character; we may stray from him quite a distance.
There is a nice example of this gentle truancy in the paragraph which follows; the reader will observe the sentence where we slip from Alban to their thoughts of him, and, later, where the writer slips in her own comment on him. (Valeria has meanwhile skipped out into the garden.)
In the drawing-room, empty of Valeria, the standard-lamps had been lit. Through their ballet-skirt shades, rose and lemon, they gave out a deep welcoming light. Alban, at the ladies' invitation, undraped the piano. He played, but they could see he was not pleased. It was obvious he had always been a civilian, and when he had taken his place on the piano-stool—which he twirled around three times rather fussily—his dinner-jacket wrinkled across his shoulders. It was sad they should feel indifferent, for he came from London. Mendelssohn was exasperating to them—they opened all four windows to let the music downhill. They preferred not to draw the curtains; the air, though damp, being pleasant tonight, they said.
To be sure, we do not, in reading for pleasure, observe anything very technical here. It would be obtrusive technique if we did. Indeed, it would not be technique at all since the function of technique is to create illusion, not to break illusion by poking its nose through it. There are hints and suggestions in that paragraph which we will quite unwittingly take; for example, they do not listen well—they get up in the middle of the music to open windows; they speak of the weather. There is more to it than that. They are troubled by Valeria's behaviour and seek to excuse it. 'The air is damp, but it's pleasant,' they said. It is natural for Valeria to have wished to stroll in it. This is true short-story writing; beautiful suggestibility all through.
The camera has stayed long enough away from Alban, so the next sentence returns full-face. 'The piano was damp but Alban played all his heart out …' etc. 'The piano was damp.' What compression of suggestion there! This is genuine poetic realism. Damp. The wet night. Neglect all round. The untended castle. And poor Alban playing his civilian heart out on the damp keys while they chatter. More general conversation allows the camera to wander again and this time the atmosphere becomes hysterical, and floating away on it, in the middle of a waltz played by Mr. Alban (still, doubtless, brooding on himself, on her, on everything), Valeria is given the stage, racing past the window with her mad lantern. This is the most daring part of the story, and it comes off. She has robbed the stage from Alban and done it triumphantly. After two pages in which she and her crazy romantic dreams hold all our interest we return to Alban. He and the uncle go down to the boat-house in the rain after her and there is some secret drinking and maudlin chatter about marriage. When he flies from the boat-house he and she will rush into one another in the darkness, and she will take him into her dream and he will, in his woe and excitement, respond to her wild fancy and the climax will mount and topple. That moment is an emotional tour de force.
Not until we are thinking back on the story, perhaps days after, do we realise that it all began and ended with Mr. Alban, and yet was called "Her Table Spread." It had been a story about a girl's romance all the time.
Naturally, Elizabeth Bowen was probably unaware of her own cleverness in all this; long practice, a gift of emotional combustibility, a great gift of words, an eye of a hawk, a special sympathy for the Valeria type—in one form or another Valeria turns up in all Miss Bowen's novels—combined to cast this perfectly fashioned story as freely and as unconsciously and as perfectly and as successfully as a fisherman casts his invisible line….
Here is the opening of ["Her Table Spread"]…. What individual words in the opening passage strike us by their suggestiveness?:
Alban had few opinions on the subject of marriage; his attitude to women was negative but in particular he was not attracted to Miss Cuffe. Coming down early for dinner, red satin dress cut low, she attacked the silence with loud laughter before he had spoken. He recollected having heard that she was abnormal—at twenty-five, of statuesque development, still detained in childhood …
For me the word 'red' seems deliberately chosen. It may, lightly, suggest Miss Cuffe's dramatic taste in dress. The word 'attacked' (the silence) suggests her strident personality; the word 'recollected' implies that Alban is disturbed, thinks back, perks up, is suddenly alert. The word 'detained' in childhood has ominous undertones as applied to this slightly batty lady. It suggests the dog-house.
This language of undertones is Miss Bowen's specialty. Thus, when Miss Cuffe becomes 'preoccupied' with attempts at gravity we may see her as looking even more vacant in her efforts to look less flighty. When Mr. Alban begins to feel miserable by this 'indifferent shore' the adjective has a treble meaning—heedless, not so hopeless, quite hopeless. When Miss Cuffe proposes a row in the bay, rain or no rain, and the ladies 'produced indignation' we may feel that even these dotty Irish ladies are not wholly averse to the idea which they condemn; they have to force their indignation.
As the excitement mounts the language becomes more and more charged and less and less literal. Mr. Alban's state of mind is proposed metaphorically.
Wandering among the apples and amphoras of an art school he had blundered into the life room; woman revolved gravely. "Hell," he said to the steps, mounting, his mind blank to the outcome.
Words now begin to extend freely, quite dilated.
Behind, through the windows, lamps spread great skirts of light, and Mars and Mercury, unable to contain themselves, stooped from their pedestals…. Close by Valeria's fingers creaked on her warm wet satin. She laughed like a princess, magnificently justified. Their unseen faces were all three lovely, and, in the silence after the laughter, such a strong tenderness reached him that, standing there in full manhood, he was for a moment not exiled. For the moment, without moving or speaking, he stood, in the dark, in a flame, as though all three said. "My darling …"
Elsewhere in the story 'a smothered island' gives an immediate bosky effect without labouring for the picture. We see, or do not see, an 'extinguished Castle.' The striking image of 'The bat hung masked in its wings' is a sentence which gives the clue: this is the language of poetry magnificently taken over by prose. 'La poésie ne consiste pas,' says Saint Beuve, 'à tout dire mais à tout faire rêver.'
It is difficult to find a label for this modern use of English. Some of it is frankly neologistic. Some almost catachresis, or extravagant metaphor: cf. our now-common use of the word to 'jockey'; Miss Bowen's 'attacked' the silence. Most of it is what is technically known as radiation of meaning, which is not only legitimate but the normal process of dilating language in poetry.
By a succession of radiations the development of meaning may become almost infinitely complex. No dictionary can ever register a tithe of them, for, so long as language is alive, every speaker is constantly making new specialised amplifications of its words…. The limits of the definition must always be vague and even within these limits there is always scope for variety. If the speaker does not transgress these limits in a given instance we understand his meaning…. He has given us a conventional sign or symbol of his idea. Our interpretation of the sign will depend partly on the context, partly on what we know of the speaker, partly on the associations which we ourselves attach to the word … [In a footnote, the critic attributes the quote to Greenough and Kittredge, Words and Their Ways in English (1926).]
All these three elements are at work in the witty phrase 'detained in childhood,' with its radiated meanings: that Miss Cuffe has got stuck (in the queue), is engaged (in the nursery), has not been allowed to proceed (by Nursey), or is already in the Big House.
It may be said that such use of language does not make for clarity; it does not. Neither does it make pictures; it is impressionistic, in letters a special feminine strength or weakness. It makes stringent demands on the wit and the intelligence lest it become just too, too clever or an end in itself, or 'transgress the limits.' Yet in this language some of the wittiest things in English have been written and without it we should not have had the romantic music of such as Carlyle or Browne. Its value for the writer of short-stories is at least indisputable in one respect: so alert a language helps to make short-stories shorter….
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1109
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.
Sean O'Faolain (essay date 1956)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1944
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 Anglo-Irish. At least a part of her literary loyalties are with that long and honourable pedigree that goes back through Shaw, Joyce, George Moore, Somerville and Ross, Yeats, Wilde, Goldsmith, Sheridan, Burke, Swift and Berkeley to the forced marriage of two races, two islands….
The effects of this detachment seem to be mainly two. Malice would naturally be more free, and the play of sentiment more indulgent. It is a nice ambivalence. No English writer can have quite the same liberty….
Miss Bowen is indebted to another influence besides her race and her exile to stiffen her own natural, shrewd intelligence, her own natural integrity as an observer. This is the early influence of Flaubert. And when we recall the romantic-realist conflict within Flaubert we may see another reason for thinking of Elizabeth Bowen as a bifrontine writer. The conflict in her work is, in fact, not dissimilar. She wavers between two methods of approach.
The essence of her way of seeing life is that, like the singer who was supposed to be able to break a champagne glass by singing at it, she exposes the brittleness of romance by soliciting it ruthlessly. Time, for her characters, is very far removed from Faulkner's continuum, or Hemingway's feeling for events enclosed-at-both-ends. It is a brittle moment, snatched from fate. Happiness in her novels is rapt away, shoplifted, and always dearly paid for. God is the shop-walker who makes her characters pay, and we vulgar citizens, the run-of-the-mill of ordinary people, decent fathers of families, impatient of all youthful aberrations cannot deny His justice.
Happiness may even have to be snatched between the moments. She pursues these golden if elusive hours on behalf of her heroines. So, in The Last September Francie Montmorency found that during her honeymoon time had been "loose-textured, had had a shining undertone, happiness glittered between the moments". In To the North when Cecilia returns to her flat and looks about her at the unfamiliar-familiar … "Life here, still not quite her own, kept for those few moments unknown tranquillity." Happiness is thus interleaved in the book of life. It is a bonus, a wad of dollars smuggled through the customs of life. But to go after this happiness too hard is, one is led to feel, to wrench from life something that it can only give arbitrarily like a Fairy Godmother. One is not therefore surprised to discover that there is nothing of the Hemingwayan will in her characters. They may seem wilful; they are, in practice, the passive recipients of fate. All they receive from fate is passion, and this receipt is like a soldier's calling-to-the-colours. Her characters are conscripted by passion into action. Once in action they fight well, but what Arnold said of the Celt may be said of them: they go into battle and they always fall. It is true that they may also and for long have desired passion, but the desire is never so powerful as the impulse of chance. Her characters are all played upon.
There is a short story in her second book, Ann Lee's, written before she had published her first novel, which neatly illustrates this fateful element in all her later work. It is called "The Parrot". A young girl, Eleanor Fitch, is a companion to an old lady, Mrs Willesden, in whose life nothing ever happens. One morning Eleanor accidentally lets her old lady's parrot fly away. She pursues the gaudy bird in its wayward flight from garden to garden until it pauses in the garden of a Mr Lennicott, a novelist of doubtful repute according to Mrs Willesden. Palpitating, Eleanor enters the garden of this fabulous person, enters his house, meets him in his dressing-gown, has the great adventure of capturing the multi-coloured bird with his assistance. When Lennicott kindly wishes to detain her, offering her fruit, she refuses. "Nobody had ever reached out for her like that so eagerly; she did not want to go back to that house of shut-out sunshine and great furniture where the parrot was royally carried from room to room on trays, and where she was nothing." Eleanor goes back unscathed to her dull routine, thinking: "How world overlapped with world; visible each from the other, yet never to be one."
Now, I have a profound suspicion of that technique of criticism which elucidates the interior meaning of stories, and the secret meanings of an author's mind, by his unconscious use of symbols, but whether this brilliant and far-faring bird luring a potential Proserpine from garden to garden to the haunts of Pluto is or is not—and I think it is—in the full tradition of Flaubertian symbolism (the blueness of Emma Bovary's dream-curtains suggesting the Virgin; and such-like symbols) one may fairly use this fable as a symbol of one of Miss Bowen's favoured types: the dreaming but recusant girl. Longing but vigilant, troubled by her own eagerness, she will, one fine day, follow the bright bird of her dreams into the woods of life and suffer the fate of Proserpine, or worse. There is an atmosphere of ancient fable behind all of Miss Bowen's fiction. Her persons are recognisable temperaments rather than composed characters. Flaubert merely overlays the fabulous. Her characters are the modern, sophisticated, naturalistic novelist's versions of primitive urges. One feels that if she had lived three hundred and fifty years ago when passions rode freely and fiercely she would have described the dreams that drove Ophelia, Juliet and Desdemona to love and to death….
Elizabeth Bowen is a romantic up against the despotism of reality. So many other Irish writers are. The metallic brilliance, even the occasional jarring brassiness and jauntiness of her style is, in an admirable sense, a fake, a deceptive cocoon wrapped about the central precious, tender thing. One could imagine a hare settling into her form, a sticky little leveret between her paws, or perhaps a lioness growling over her young. It is the growl of Ich grolle nicht, the Flaubertian coldness imposed on Irish feeling, and the theme is so heartbreaking that it would be embarrassing if she were not tight-lipped about those heroines who just do not know what o'clock it is once love enters their unwary lives. She writes of romantic heroines in an age that has made the two words pejorative. The underlying assumptions here are very much of the Twenties. The conflicts are no longer clear enough to justify bold affirmations, positive statements of loyalty, straight fights or declared aims or ends. Miss Bowen's heroines are, after all, always defeated. In Mauriac's phrase their beauty is borrowed from despair. Not, as we have seen, that she is anti-heroic, but that she must state coldly that heroism, the absolute aim, does not stand a chance in modern society, even while she still insists passionately that it is always worth while to try. She has not assumed that we must therefore reject tradition, but she is plainly unenthusiastic about it. She does not assume that violence is the only possible alternative in fiction to thought. She does not assume that the intellect must be abdicated by the modern novelist. She hovers patiently over her subjects. But the prime technical characteristic of her work, as of other modern women writers, such as Virginia Woolf, is that she fills the vacuum which the general disintegration of belief has created in life by the pursuit of sensibility. It is a highly sophisticated pursuit. Sometimes it is over-conscious and overdone.
Her sensibility can be witty; it can also be catty, even brassy, too smart like an over-clever décor for a ballet. I do not mind that it is, to my taste, on occasion vulgar, though not quite in the sense in which her young girls are vulgar. She has defended, or at least pleaded, for sympathy with vulgarity, and are there not times when good taste is itself a little vulgar? One thinks of the ghastly good taste of Mr Charles Morgan. But what one means by finding this kind of good taste rather vulgar is that it is bloodless, and that one longs occasionally for a good, warm, passionate howl like an Italian mother baying over her dead child. This sort of earthiness is outside the range of any English-trained writer. When Elizabeth Bowen is dealing with elemental things she skirts around them with too much elegance. There are certain things she will not deign to describe. The actual falling in love of her people is one….
The one place where she is really earthy is when she is being humorous, and would, many times over, that she were humorous more often, for when she is being humorous she is also most human. Louie in The Heat of the Day is not only good fun but real; down to earth; far more so than Robert, Harrison and Stella pirouetting about each other exhaustingly. Yet, to take a fair measure of the humanity (as against the elegance) of her sensibilities, one may compare them with the sensibilities of Virginia Woolf whose antennae are as sensitive as remote radar, but who reacts not so much to human beings as to things and "states of mind". Miss Bowen is also responsive to things and states of mind, but she responds chiefly, and warmly, to her own favoured types of people. "Things," Mrs Woolf characteristically makes Terence Hewitt say in The Voyage Out, "things I feel come to me like lights. I want to combine them. Have you ever seen fireworks that make figures? I want to make figures." That also, to my taste, is a form of vulgarity through elegance. Miss Bowen would never be quite so refined. She wants to make people not figures, to put them into conflict with society, and her explorations of their feelings are never just an exploitation of her own.
Her outer-imposed limitations do, nevertheless, obtrude themselves. The Death of the Heart was, indeed, a firm and passionately felt protest against the modern desiccation of feeling, but one could not help noting that it offered no moral approach to the problem: meaning that it intimated no norm to set against the subnormal. But can one reasonably blame Miss Bowen for this? We are brought back by this longing for a norm to the death of the traditional Hero, that symbol of the norm in all traditional literature. She, too, can only present us with the martyr in place of the Hero, the representative not of the norm but of the disease. Greene's alternative is God. Miss Bowen is too deeply rooted in the great, central humanist tradition of European culture to take refuge in hereafters. What she directs our eyes towards is the malady of our times that breaks the dreaming and gallant few. It is what her master Flaubert did with Emma Bovary, more ruthlessly. She has described the dilemma of our times honestly, beautifully and at times movingly. To have done so much, and done it so well, is to have done a great deal….
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 208
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.
Jeslyn Medoff (essay date Spring 1984)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3831
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 during the Blitz. Lives were lost, books were burned, works of art and architecture vanished, a way of life disappeared. Even amid this destruction, however, creativity continued. Elizabeth Bowen's wartime short stories speak to later generations, answering the question: "what must it have been like to live in that place at that time?"
A chronicler of life during the bombing, Bowen recorded the emotional and psychological tenor of a city under siege. She was specially qualified for this task, working as an ARP warden and narrowly missing death when her Regent's Park home was bombed. But the "action" of wartime London, people scurrying to bomb shelters, corpses lying in the streets, children crying in the night, is not the stuff of Bowen's fictional documentary. Instead her war manifests itself in strained social encounters, in changing mores, in the dreams and memories of shattered psyches. Already a respected author, recognized for the "comedy of manners" of her novels and early short stories, Bowen transcends that category with these wartime works, showing in her mature and subtle style a gift for treating serious issues and a mastery of her craft.
A great deal has been written on Bowen's art as demonstrated in her novels; far less attention has been paid to her short stories. The recent publication in America of her collected stories provides a perspective for the study of Bowen's canon. In her review of the collection, Eudora Welty aptly expressed an appreciation of Bowen's skill: "Elizabeth Bowen's awareness of place, of where she was, seemed to approach the seismetic; it was equaled only by her close touch with the passage, the pulse, of time." She is indeed a gifted fabricator of atmosphere and climate, both psychological and physical. An examination of three stories—one set in Ireland during the early years of war, another in the heart of London in the midst of war, and a third in the city just after V. E. day—provides at once an understanding of Bowen's wartime perceptions and an appreciation of her artistry as short-story writer.
In the neutral Ireland of "Summer Night," everyday life continues uninterrupted; beneath the calm surface, however, the reverberations of war's destructiveness and moral disintegration are palpable. Peace and beauty exist as mirages. In the opening paragraph a bright, burning reality contrasts with a golden other-worldliness:
As the sun set its light slowly melted the landscape, till everything was made of fire and glass. Released from the glare of noon, the haycocks now seemed to float on the aftergrass: their freshness penetrated the air. In the not far distance hills with woods up their flanks lay in light like hills in another world—it would be a pleasure of heaven to stand up there, where no foot ever seemed to have trodden, on the spaces between the woods soft as powder dusted over with gold. Against those hills, the burning red rambler roses in cottage gardens along the roadside looked earthy—they were too near the eye.
Light, color, and texture create landscapes in two different worlds. The first is one of escape. The hills are those of "another world … a pleasure of heaven." Haycocks are "released," floating as the landscape melts. All "in the not far distance" is "soft as powder dusted over with gold." Fresh air carries the pleasing scent of hay. But closer in, by the road, burn "earthy" roses "too near the eye," part of a more tangible world. The senses—sight, smell, nearly even touch—are alive and alert. The hills also seem alive, like animals, possessing "flanks." In this beautifully constructed paragraph Bowen foreshadows the perspective afforded the characters in "Summer Night." A look at life close up is, at the very least, disconcerting; one looks with pleasure only into the distance of memories, dreams, and illusions.
Through this peaceful landscape speeds Emma, a married woman anxiously en route to a rendezvous with her lover. Emma envisions her encounter with her ever-practical, more experienced lover as a romantic adventure. That illusion is dispelled later when she realizes that she is "being settled down to as calmly as he might settle down to a meal." The distant dream is converted, close up, into a much colder reality. The idealistic immaturity that Emma has harbored and cherished dies: "The adventure (even, the pilgrimage) died at its root, in the childish part of her mind…. She thought for a minute he had broken her heart, and she knew now he had broken her fairy tale."
Emma's romantic adventure, like the strange summer night, affects others in her life. Back home in her bed, Emma's little girl, Vivie, responds to the night in her own way. "One arbitrary line only divided this child from the animal: all her senses stood up, wanting to run the night." She impishly strips off her nightclothes, chalks colorful snakes and stars on her body, and dances wildly on her mother's empty bed. Savage young Vivie responds to the night in a sensuous way that unwittingly imitates her mother's own pursuit of pleasure and release. Her flame is extinguished when great-Aunt Fran envelopes her in a proper pink eider-down, makes her say prayers, and sends her back to bed.
The disintegration of life as it once was, represented by Emma's extramarital affair, is inseparable from war. Old Aunt Fran senses that something is not quite right about Emma's trip away from home, about the world, about the night. Disturbed by the unsettling evening, she tries to pray and to sleep, but she cannot:
The blood of the world is poisoned, feels Aunt Fran…. There are no more children: the children are born knowing…. There is not even the past: our memories share with us the infected zone; not a memory does not lead up to this. Each moment is everywhere, it holds the war in its crystal; there is no elsewhere; no other place…. What is the matter tonight—is there a battle? This is a threatened night.
Aunt Fran mourns the loss of innocence of the young, "born knowing." All is now tainted by the war; there is no purity, no past, no holiness. "Each moment … holds the war in its crystal," and the war, in turn, holds everything in its grasp. Something infectious is in the air; it is war.
A fourth perception of the night is offered in the dreams of middle-aged Queenie, a quiet, deaf, pretty woman who has paid Emma's lover a social call just before Emma's arrival. In her silent world, solitary, chaste Queenie is the only character affected calmly by the night. Her experience balances Aunt Fran's feeling that memories are no longer possible. She drifts off to sleep, ending the story with her peaceful dream:
This was the night she knew she would find again. It had stayed living under a film of time. On just such a summer night, once only, she had walked with a lover in the demesne…. That had been twenty years ago, till tonight when it was now.
The best elements of Bowen's short-story writing are found here: the delicate and subtle creation of environment, a blurring of margins between the real and the unreal, the destruction of a romantic ideal, the perspectives of sensitive female characters who seem to function as emotional barometers. Bowen exercises a steady though unobtrusive control over her subject and theme. Through the many impressive images of "Summer Night" one never loses grasp of the story's major thread: summer night, not-so-distant war. a household without its mistress, a shattered illusion. Ireland hardly seems "neutral." There is no escape; war pervades the environment like the night. Only Queenie, living in "a world to herself," finds peace in distant dreams. Life, close up, burns like "red rambler roses," like Vivie's flushed little form.
A story comparable to "Summer Night" is "Mysterious Kôr," the last story in the early collection The Demon Lover. This tale is the highwater mark in Bowen's self-defined "rising tide of hallucination." The wave of illusion and dreams in the original collection crests in this story, one of Bowen's best. As in "Summer Night," the story's power is evident in the opening paragraph:
Full moonlight drenched the city and searched it; there was not a niche left to stand in. The effect was remorseless: London looked like the moon's capital—shallow, cratered, extinct. It was late, but not yet midnight; now the buses had stopped the polished roads and streets in this region sent for minutes together a ghostly unbroken reflection up. The soaring new flats and the crouching old shops and houses looked equally brittle under the moon, which blazed in windows that looked its way. The futility of the black-out became laughable: from the sky, presumably, you could see every slate in the roofs; every whited kerb, every contour of the naked winter flowerbeds in the park; and the lake, with its shining twists and tree-darkened islands would be a landmark for miles, yes, miles, overhead.
Here Bowen distinguishes three cities: the "real" London; the London that is the "moon's capital"; and the London that strangely combines both the real and the unreal, that place the reader will come to know as "Mysterious Kôr." Time is also carefully presented. "Late, but not yet midnight" reveals the time of night; the reference to a blackout gives the story its place in the century; "naked winter flowerbeds" establishes the season. Like the opening passage from "Summer Night," evocation of atmosphere and the juxtaposition of reality and illusion prefigure the experiences of the characters. The theme of "Mysterious Kôr," survival in fantastic conditions, is presented in five succinct sentences.
Appropriately, Bowen employs the light of the moon, a traditional symbol of fantasy and magic, to create atmosphere. Like the sunset on Irish hills, the near-midnight moonlight creates another world. In a less sinister but equally powerful way, the searching, drenching moonlight pursues the city as German bombers might. The city lies stretched out beneath its full impact; the moon is "full," "remorseless," blazing. All else is "polished," "shining," "whited," "ghostly," "brittle," "naked" London is a corpse, or perhaps T. S. Eliot's "evening … spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table." A similar sense of desolation, passivity, and sterility is conveyed in the prose. Human action is mocked by the moon: "The futility of the black-out became laughable." London is truly leveled by the moon's strength. Whether "soaring" or "crouching," buildings look alike; every nook, cranny, and "niche" has disappeared. Depth cannot be found on earth but in the sky above, which reaches "miles, yes, miles, overhead." The moon's-eye-view, like a camera, sweeps across the city's once-varied levels all at once; roofs, curbs, flowerbeds, the lake all meld to form one shadow reflection of their purveyor. The moon creates a futuristic city, exposing the ultimate threat of this world war, that the earth may become a barren planet, another reflector, like the moon, "shallow, cratered, extinct."
But the moon is no collaborator. It is its own power. The political enemy is absent from this picture:
However, the sky, in whose glassiness floated no clouds but only opaque balloons, remained glassy-silent. The Germans no longer came by the full moon. Something more immaterial seemed to threaten, and to be keeping people at home. This day between days, this extra tax, was perhaps more than senses and nerves could bear. People stayed indoors with a fervour that could be felt: the buildings strained with battened-down human life, but not a beam, not a voice, not a note from a radio escaped. Now and then under streets and buildings the earth rumbled: the Underground sounded loudest at this time.
Life in London is almost unbearably tense and feverish. The "extra tax," the strain, the tangible "fervour" are all shut up within. Dwellings teem with human inhabitants, "battened-down human life," like ships' holds in a storm-tossed sea. The sky, now "glassy," is as silent as the world's surface; it is the earth beneath that rumbles. This second paragraph communicates a feeling of repression and imprisonment more than of sterility and desolation. Life, here insulated and enclosed, goes on despite threats of bombs or "something more immaterial."
Into this unnatural, surreal scene, up from the Underground, emerge a girl and a soldier with nowhere to go. Glancing around the city Pepita shares her vision with boyfriend Arthur, baptizing this new place "mysterious Kôr." When Arthur protests that there is no such place, Pepita explains:
What it tries to say doesn't matter: I see what it makes me see…. This war shows we've by no means come to the end. If you can blow whole places out of existence, you can blow whole places into it…. By the time we've come to the end, Kôr may be the one city left: The abiding city.
The vision to which Pepita so tenaciously clings, her fantasy city, is a sort of spiritual bomb shelter, a place for the soul to seek safety when there is literally no refuge for the body.
Pepita's device for escape contrasts with that of her roommate, Callie, with whom Pepita and Arthur will have to share a small flat that night. Virginal Callie, "the guardian of that ideality which for Pepita was constantly lost to view," is "sedate, waxy and tall—an unlit candle," like that other symbol of purity for which she seems to be named, the calla lily. Callie hides within her naiveté, her innocence, her "still unsought-out state." She reacts to the moonlight with a half-formed understanding. "At once she knew that something was happening—outdoors, in the street, the whole of London, the world. An advance, an extraordinary movement was silently taking place." Callie copes with the bombed-out world not by escaping through fantasy but by seeing that world only partially—through a veil of inexperience. The ironies of a suppressed life do not strike her as strongly as they do Pepita because she has not yet begun to live fully. When Pepita and Arthur arrive at the flat, Callie's old-fashioned expectation that she will share a bed with her roommate kills any hope that the other two may have had for lovemaking. Betrayed by the radiance of the moon and by Callie's ingenuousness, and unable to find a dark corner, the young couple settle down to sleep in separate beds.
In the middle of the night, when Arthur wakes from a restless sleep, Callie joins him for a brief conversation in the dark. Arthur tries to explain how the night and Pepita's vision have affected his fatalism:
"A game's a game, but what's a hallucination? You begin by laughing, then it gets in you and you can't laugh it off…. Now I see why she sleeps like that if that's where she goes … when two people have got no place, why not want Kôr, as a start? There are no restrictions on wanting, at any rate."
"But, oh, Arthur, can't wanting want what's human?"
He yawned. "To be human's to be at a dead loss."
To have lived in that place at that time, according to Bowen, one would have been forced to seek shelter. One shelters oneself in naiveté and innocence, if possible; if not, one can try dreams, dreams so powerful they exist even in waking hours. Neither innocent nor dreaming, Arthur states the wisdom of the disenchanted, the harsh fatalism of a restricted, seemingly doomed generation. His view of life impinges on Callie's world, bringing about a loss of innocence. Marking the waning of the moon, Callie returns to her bed, thinking:
… it seemed likely that there would never be such a moon again; and on the whole she felt this was for the best … she tried to compose her limbs; even they quivered after Arthur's words in the dark…. The loss of her own mysterious expectation, her love of love, was a small thing beside the war's total of unlived lives.
Beside her, Pepita sleeps, dreaming of Kôr.
In "Mysterious Kôr" one finds the same elements as in "Summer Night." The night air that affected the Irish women becomes haunting moonlight in the later story. Queenie's memory-dream that ends "Summer Night" is echoed in Pepita's concluding fantasy-dream. Though Pepita is the woman in love, it is Callie who, like Emma, suffers the loss of a romantic ideal. In both stories the stolid, relatively sanguine male is the agent of this new awareness. Interestingly, Emma's lover and the young soldier, Arthur, share a similar treatment at Bowen's hands. The male characters are depicted almost exclusively through dialogue and action. Bowen rarely represents the male psyche as thoroughly as the female.
This pattern is repeated in a third story, "I Hear You Say So," in which the people's reaction to armistice is expressed almost solely in terms of the female. Here one finds as well thematic and technical echoes of the previous two stories.
It is a warm night in London a week after V. E. Day. A nightingale's song travels through the air, shaking the city's inhabitants out of a postwar numbness. Everyone within hearing distance of the bird is disturbed: lovers in the grass, families in the park, old ladies on a park bench, young widows in their beds. London is already on its way to restoring itself. Victory flags wave in the breeze; lights blaze; windows are audaciously flung open. It is a markedly different city from the "battened-down" London of "Mysterious Kôr":
High up, low down, the fearlessly lit-up windows were like exclamations. Many stood wide open. Inside their tawny squares the rooms, to be seen into, were sublimated: not an object inside them appeared gimcrack or trivial, standing up with stereoscopic sharpness in this intensified element of life. The knobbed or fluted stem of a standard lamp, the bustlike curves of a settee, the couples of photographs hung level, the fidgeting of a cockatoo up and down its perch, the balance of vases on brackets and pyramids of mock fruit in bowls all seemed miraculous after all that had happened…. Each of these theatres was its own drama—a moment perpetuated, an integration of all these living-unliving objects in surviving and shining and being seen. Through the windows, standing lamps and hanging bowls overflowed, spilling hot light into the warm dark.
Now that the war is over, it is permissible to use words such as "miraculous" again. One may now consider "a moment perpetuated," conceive of "integration" and the possibility of something "surviving and shining and being seen." This time the scene is illuminated artificially; there is no longer a danger in "being seen." Man is in the process of reclaiming his own.
The first perceivers of the nightingale's song are Violet and Fred, lovers lying casually in the park grass. They debate whether it is a thrush or a nightingale singing on someone's wireless:
She said: "Funny if you and me heard a nightingale."
"You and me don't look for that sort of thing. It may have been all very well for them in the past."
"Still, there must stilt be nightingales, or they couldn't have put one on to the wireless."
"I didn't say they'd died out; I said they don't come round. Why should they? They can't sell us anything."
Later Violet says, "You begin to wonder … suppose the world was made for happiness, after all?" The nightingale sings again, "drawing out longings, sending them back again frozen, piercing, not again to be borne." Fred's unwillingness to be moved by the nightingale's song dampens Violet's reaction. "'He was right,' she thought, 'we're not made for this; we can't take it.'"
Two middle-aged women sitting on a park bench wonder why the bird has stopped singing. Mary speculates that he has paused to listen. Naomi observes, "Disappointing for them to listen, perhaps. But why not? Why should a nightingale get off scot free, after everything it is able to do to us?" On their way home she comments:
Apart from anything, it's too soon. Much too soon, after a war like this. Even Victory's nearly been too much. There ought not to have been a nightingale in the same week. The important thing is that people should go carefully. They'd much better not feel at all till they feel normal. The first thing must be, to get everything organized.
Of course, it is impossible for people to "go carefully." Aunt Fran and Callie realize this, one with aged weariness, the other with new understanding. People had been existing during the war years in the futility of "unlived lives." They will no longer do so.
Ursula, a young widow, is awakened from her sleepwalking by the nightingale's song. It draws her attention to the no-longer enclosed park: "Every place was invaded and desecrated." She remembers her husband's grandmother saying earlier in the evening. "I shall be glad to go. Look at the shameless people rolling on the grass. Is it for this we have given Roland?" Ursula does not share this sense of indignation and regret. The nightingale symbolizes for Ursula her husband's youth. She realizes that "all they had hoped of the future had been, really, a magic recapturing of the past." Past, present, and future become one for Ursula. Somehow the bird's song fills her with a "profound happiness." Restoration to a sense of normality will be painful, "too much" perhaps, but it is already in process. Ursula is another of Bowen's women whose perceptions and reactions help explain the times.
Populating her stories with impressionable and impressive women of various ages, Bowen looks at the psychological impact of war, the emotional mending and patching that goes on when people find themselves under attack. According to Bowen, people cope by dreaming, whether awake or asleep, of other times and of other places or by assuming a kind of fatalistic numbness or naive blindness. In dialogue, description, and characterization she recreates a special period in history, at once fashioning credible, living characters, evoking the essence of a particular environment, and revealing truths about the human psyche. It is particularly fortunate that we have been left the fictional "reports" of a writer whose talent lies not only in the telling of who, when, and where, but also in the exploring of why and how.
Phyllis Lassner (essay date Spring 1986)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5241
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 Anglo-Irish country estate greatly resembling Bowen's Court, her ancestral home in County Cork. Moreover, the last days of the big house clearly rely on Bowen's appraisal of the Ascendancy. The Ascendancy, in Bowen's view of her family history, "drew [its] power from a situation that shows an inherent wrong…. Having obtained their position through an injustice, they enjoyed that position through privilege." The terrible price of exploiting the local populace was to be Irish rebellion that brought disaster to many of the families descended from the original English settlers. Bowen did not applaud the destruction of the big houses, but she did regard it as the inevitable result of entrenched and unchanging attitudes on the part of an unassimilated and exclusive population. As The Last September reveals, the Anglo-Irish failed to assume direct responsibility for the well-being of that country which bore the weight of their self-proclaimed aristocracy.
The subject of the novel is the twilight of Anglo-Ireland and the fate of those younger people born to inherit the myth of the ancestral home. Tied to the ancestral home by a belief in its power to endow identity and security, "order and a reason for living." those younger people also suffer its "innate" isolation as well as its "intense centripetal life." The big house represents the moral, political, and psychological contradictions that shape the Anglo-Irish. Bowen's Court, the inspiration for all such houses, provided a compelling tie to the past as well as traditions and values that were to shape the future. Many years after writing The Last September, Bowen chronicled her family history which comprises the myth of the ancestral home. She writes of "the strong rule of [her] family myth … A Bowen, in the first place, made Bowen's Court. Since then, with a rather alarming sureness, Bowen's Court has made all the succeeding Bowens." Describing a stay at Bowen's Court. Bowen reflects how the emotional and political legacy of past inhabitants is felt to be part of its walls and atmosphere. Indeed, the big house seems to haunt and ultimately absorb "the lives that submerged here." In turn, the accumulated perceptions of those who lived at Bowen's Court assume an implicit, sentient power felt only by those who belong at the big house and tying them to one another, to the past and to the house in a mutually dependent relationship.
Bowen reconstitutes her conception of her family home in the relationship between Danielstown and its residents—a relationship immutably grounded in her characters' personal and cultural histories and, consequently, in their feelings about themselves and one another. Emotionally isolated, these people remain nevertheless bound to one another by the pull of the big house. Clearly, Bowen's design suggests that the house and the characters serve as metaphors for each other's destinies. Indeed, the presence of Danielstown structures the novel. Through a series of dialogues between the Naylors and their friends, and through the reflections of the characters about themselves and one another, the novel reveals the story of the life and death of Danielstown. Despite what happens to them outside Danielstown, the characters formulate their plans, examine their pasts, and speculate about their futures under the influence of values inherent in the life and history of the estate.
Bowen's dramatized evaluation of big house culture centers on Lois Farquar, the orphaned niece of Sir Richard Naylor. Contemplating the possibilities for her future amidst repressive social conventions and political chaos, she nevertheless sees herself as part of a world clinging to its privilege. Enacting the attitudes and experiences that constitute Anglo-Irish country life, the other characters foreshadow the meager possibilities available to those trying to escape the confines of Anglo-Ireland but unable to divorce their expectations from its traditions. For example, Hugo Montmorency's dream of a new start in Canada shrinks to plans for the next country house visit. The dreams of younger characters are also portrayed as self-deceptions. At face value, Livvy Thompson's romance with a British soldier serves as a comic counterweight to Lois's quest for love and personal expression. The narrator's mocking tone, however, suggests that Livvy is as trapped as the others. A would-be novelist, Laurence understands that his need for self-expression may very well be frustrated. Identifying with Lois's mother, Laura Naylor, Laurence also recognizes the futility of rebellion. The mirror image of her friends and relatives, Lois will also discover that her future can be defined only in terms of Danielstown's legacies. Whether she considers a career of marriage, she reflects that "the unbelievable future became as fixed as the past."
Danielstown embodies a fantasy of limitless nurture and control. Staring "coldly over its mounting lawns" and dependents, the house has been anthropomorphised by the lives it has absorbed, exactly as Bowen describes Bowen's Court. In fact, Bowen's method recreates the house as a symbol of maternal omniscience and omnipotence. Its coldness, remoteness, and emptiness, however, suggest a decidedly rejecting mother who commits her children to a cruel bind. Represented by Danielstown, Anglo-Ireland is an "unloving country" whose "unwilling bosom" threatens to "smother her children." Yet, its inhabitants experience the house as "a magnet to their dependence." Such visitors as Marda Norton and the Montmorencys endure the awful weather, the desolate insularity, and the inevitable rejections served up at Danielstown—along with antique plumbing and lack of electricity—because they feel compelled to return to the world that made them.
Lois wavers in the shadow of two dubious legacies: her mother's impulsive rebellion and Danielstown's "magnetism." Like her mother, she stands between the two opposing and compelling forces of a man who represents a world outside the big house and secure tradition: "And she could not try to explain … how after every return—awakening, even, from sleep or preoccupation—she and these home surroundings still further penetrated each other mutually in the discovery of a lack." So complete is the desire to be part of the house's structure, to fuse with the power projected onto it, that the heirs of Danielstown cannot assess with any detachment the attractions of the external world. It is as though they imagine the house as a human rival to foreign lovers and yet also as empty of fulfillment. How, indeed, can one otherwise explain a building and a human being "mutually penetrating each other with a lack?" The language indicates that Lois has confused home, lover, mother, and herself. Lois's dependence on her surroundings ultimately proves unfulfilling because whatever power the house once represented is being destroyed from inside and out—its "lack" points ironically to its inhabitants' capabilities. Lois's lack is the mark of her frustrated attempts to locate her own needs and find a mode of self-expression within an environment capable of both nurturing and letting go. She discovers, instead, only the suffocating bonds of family expectation.
Sir Richard and Lady Naylor preside over their cloistered estate and young wards as clients of the house and its traditions. They rule with an intensely social design for living which excludes, however, all human realities residing between the gates of their demesne and those of other gentry. Despite expressions of sympathy for local families, the Naylors essentially ignore the Irish, but Bowen does not. While the Irish have no plot of their own, Bowen so implants them in the Naylor's story so that they become the sole agents for change in Anglo-Ireland.
The world of Danielstown, of course, falls victim to its own designs. In all her writing about Ireland, Bowen exposes the Anglo-Irish obsession with their homes, an investment necessarily excluding the interests of the outside world and assuring self-absorption. But Bowen does not suggest that those in power, like the Naylors, would have it any other way. Indeed, in order to insure against rivals for that singular, if precarious place in the "unwilling bosom," they perform an act of self-justification. They mystify their own power to themselves and to others by creating a myth of the big house. With each new generation they duplicate themselves and the conventions defining their "intense centripetal life." Their conventions give them an encoded language by which they communicate only with themselves, about themselves, rein forcing a kind of narcissism born out of loneliness and deprivation, not nurture and love.
Bowen's Anglo-Irish create an artificial world whose only proclaimed inhabitants are themselves. In turn, their political and personal passions have only one object of desire—the estate, which becomes its own island-nation. The compulsion to keep the estate going above all signifies the crippling debt paid by the Anglo-Irish to those limestone shrines to the past. According to Bowen, the big house had no future because by "living for a myth … they refused to give history direction." The realities denied by the Naylors come home to haunt them in the form they most fear—they are dispossessed. What Bowen refers to as "keeping the lid on," proves to be a fatal strategy for coping with the threat of imagined or real danger. Ignoring the capture of their Irish neighbors and even the gunfire outside the house, they fall victim to their own unpreparedness. The world of the Naylors must ultimately burn because "with a kind of fatedness, a passivity, they resumed the operation of living." Only the invited penetrate Danielstown, so the Naylors think. Social obligations become ceremonial acts celebrating the Ascendancy. Sir Richard worries more about visitors coming down too early for dinner than about his role in Danielstown's destiny. Only his dreams are beset by the political violence that threatens his absolute control. Although political matters do not come to the fore of the novel's actions, all actions are, nevertheless, really subordinate to their political implications.
Bowen portrays Danielstown as an analogue to its inhabitants' emotional and political blindness, suggesting that the house's apparent omniscience reflects its owners' narcissism. Historically, it has stood only for its own maintenance, ignoring the needs and individuality of its dependents. In turn, its heirs assume others are only variations of each other. Thus, Hugo's brief infatuation with Marda repeats his misperception of Laura Naylor, the love of his youth. The characters seem imbued with the residual effects of those qualities ascribed to the house. Francie's ghost-like presence reflects "the imposingly vacant house." Lois laments the Naylors' rejection of Gerald Lesworth's unauthorized warmth: "You'd think this was the emptiest house in Ireland—we have no family life." By discouraging free expression of feeling, the social conventions ruling Danielstown reinforce "the lack" its heirs feel.
The only survivor in this impoverished world is the actual story of Danielstown. The characters become prisoners to those traditions upholding the "family myth." By living as though they are replicas of their ancestors and their aristocratic codes, they transform themselves into figures in an historical romance, important only to the imagined continuity of Danielstown. Before the young have even the chance to live as characters in a more realistic fiction, they become conventional, thus sacrificing contingency and indeterminacy to the myth of Danielstown's immortality. Bowen uses the conventions of realism to promise her heroine an open ending and self-determination while simultaneously building a case for the futility of such a promise. Such a transformation renders the characters passive and, hence, incapable of action.
Every character who lives at or visits Danielstown is fated to experience a struggle with the domination of the past; making any plans for the future seems like an exercise in futility or at best, an act of whimsey. Even Marda, whose marriage plans mean that she may escape her own transience and the doom of Anglo-Ireland, assesses herself in relation to Danielstown: "She might not be fatal, but here she was certainly fated." Marda also sees Lois "pray[ing] for somebody to be fatal." Although the literal meaning here indicates that Lois is looking for someone to love, the use of the word "fatal" betrays a connection between Lois's feelings and the fatalism enshrouding the big house. The foreboding ascribed to Lois indeed proves true: her would-be suitor, Gerald, is killed in an Irish Revolutionary Army ambush. Moreover, Lady Naylor's reaction to Gerald's death negates the value of his personal sacrifice by emphasizing that the incident was destined: "he could not help it…." It seems that any force mediating between Anglo-Irish arrogance and ambivalence, on the one hand, and the unacknowledged violent fate or Ireland on the other, is doomed.
Like the inhabitants who live within its limits, the outsider who dares to set foot inside the ancestral demesne is also sacrificed to the history of Anglo-Ireland. An unacceptable suitor partly because he is English, middle-class, and has no money, but mostly because he is not Anglo-Irish gentry, Gerald is dismissed by Myra Naylor as "irrelevant." a rather strange usage reducing him to a nonperson. He is, in effect, treated like the Irish revolutionaries, rendered "superfluous" by her commitment to the myth of the ancestral home. Hugo and Francie Montmorency illustrate further the infection of Anglo-Irish fatedness and passivity. Francie's weak heart has left her too tired to feel, but most significantly, unable to make a permanent home in Ireland. Hugo's passivity betrays the mistake fatal to his sense of self. He sold his ancestral home, Rockriver, without which he has no occupation, no identity, no need for vitality, and no feeling.
Whatever passion and energy went into the conquest of Ireland and the construction of the big houses, the Naylors and the Montmorencys seem to be paying for the moral wrongs of the system they perpetuate by being sterile. Indeed, their generation is but an effete version of their most violent and crude ancestors. They both suffer the "lack" that haunts Lois. Unlike the Montmorencys, however, the Naylors attempt to revive their family tree by directing their energies towards raising Lois and Laurence as replicas of their forbears. Kept under wraps, the young people are virtually suffocated. Lois muses: "How is it that in this country that ought to be full of such violent realness there seems nothing for me but clothes and what people say? I might as well be in some kind of cocoon." They are not only unseen, but unheard as well, as Lady Naylor's strategy reveals: "From all the talk, you might think almost anything was going to happen, but we never listen. I have made it a rule not to talk, either.'" Later she says: "'I make it a point of not knowing.'"
The need of the younger generation neither to be absorbed nor to have its individuality destroyed and the need to insist on its identity are regarded as precisely that kind of disturbance considered anarchy by its guardians. To experience external reality, the young must first know how their guardians feel about themselves and the world beyond Danielstown. The Naylors succeed in keeping the outside world at bay at a tremendous price to the spirit of those who depend on them. Lois and Laurence do not know how to feel about themselves because no one has ever communicated to them thoughts and feelings that might free them from their closed world. For the young, even life within the big house is never spoken of directly. The walls themselves appear to reverberate with sounds of whispers and secrets—"what people feel but never openly express." What is said comes as a sinister revelation to those who overhear their lives being discussed. The effect of being talked about instead of being spoken to—of overhearing indirectly the determination of one's fate—is to diminish the sense of a living self. The young of Danielstown thus become someone else's fictional creation. When Lois overhears a conversation about her art school career, she reacts with anxiety: "Was she now to be clapped down under an adjective, to crawl round lifelong inside some quality like a fly in a tumbler?" Indeed, because Anglo-Irish family character is modeled on one's ancestors, the individual becomes submerged in a rigid pattern. Note that even Bowen's proliferation of names beginning with "L" mocks this inbred society: Lois, Laura, Laurence, Livvy, and even the English Lesworth and Leslie Lawes.
A direct confrontation with the old order is of course impossible, for there exist no common language and convention of behavior with which to express deep emotion. If the young could only articulate their unformed feelings, they would begin to resist having their lives trapped in an unalterable historical pattern. But, as Lois and Gerald's frustrated relationship illustrates, without a language of their own they must become what the Naylors conceive them to be. Gerald can only report to Lois what her aunt has distorted about their feelings for each other, thereby falling into the doyenne's trap. The lovers' failure is mutual because, while Gerald lacks the self-possession to help resolve her conflicting needs. Lois lacks the sense of purpose with which to influence him. She tells him: "Even what I think isn't my own.'" Laurence at least can mock Lady Naylor's strategy and express bitterness at his unsatisfactory dependence. He wishes upon Danielstown the very anarchy its owners dread in the form that haunted Bowen: "I should like … some crude intrusion of the actual … I should like to be here when this house burns…. And we shall all be so careful not to notice." Without independent minds, language, or perceptions, the young cannot see their problem to act on it. Dependence thus leads to bitter passivity, which undermines the urge to live. Marda links the fatalism infecting life at the big house to the Troubles with words that echo Laurence's bitterness and mock Danielstown's strategies for survival. Of Lady Naylor's "despairing optimism," Marda asks: "'Will there ever be anything we can all do except not notice?'"
In The Last September, adolescence, the Anglo-Irish presence, and the subjugation of the Irish appear to be interchangeable states of being suspended between imagining a self and protecting oneself from annihilation. Lois is trapped between her desire for an orderly life and her fear of the "actual" that Laurence craves. This "actual"—emphasized by-its echoed use—is clearly for Laurence the political turbulence that brings on the destruction of Danielstown. For Lois, the "actual" is emotional turbulence—indeed, rage—that threatens to break through the constricted language of the Naylors. While Laurence may wish for someone else to enact his rage, Lois fears it entirely. At first glance it seems to be her own awakening sense of womanhood—her sexuality. Later, it emerges as the aggression underlying Lois's urge to live. Lois uses the word "actual"—Bowen's italics—in response to her suitor's spontaneous and uninvited arrival at the house. Gerald may be "ordinary," but what Lois desires and fears about him endows him with extraordinary power.
Gerald's love violates her unformed sense of self—that part requiring nurture and unprepared for sexual aggression. Gerald's sexuality makes him a real person and, hence, dangerous. If given his desires, he has the power to overcome Danielstown's rigid codes. Hence, the conflict between Lois's desperate need of his passion and her strong desire to retain what she feels is the nurturing quality of her environment. Lois experiences Gerald's kiss as "an impact, with inside blankness," recalling her feelings about her home and its "penetration" which "discovers a lack." Bowen's similar metaphors indicate a fear of being absorbed, by sex or by home, into emptiness. The sensation also reaffirms Lois's troubled feelings about approaching womanhood which, on another occasion, she refers to as a "merciless penetration." Thus, if Lois is not absorbed and suffocated by union, she suffers an assault by and on herself. As antidote against such fears, Lois imagines sexual love as a sanctuary from feelings of emptiness:
Lois felt she was home again: safe from deserted rooms, the penetration of silences, rain, homeless-ness. Nothing mattered: she could have gone to sleep. But he woke her.
The associative strategies of Bowen's narrative, however, link such a relationship to the very home that promises nurture and, yet, violates the boundaries of selfhood. Thus, any other body of needs and the need to feel threaten to be both smothering and violating. It is no surprise therefore, that Lois, hardly capable of self-expression, does not know what to expect of others. She is afraid of being shattered, either by her own desire to live, by the possibility of mutual sexual need, or by her own rage—any or all of which could destroy her carefully constructed cocoon. If feeling is dangerous, action could be deadly.
Bowen's young characters feel that to rebel is to destroy that very source of nurture necessary to life itself. Therefore, Lois submerges her need in the oppressive security of her family home. In a sense, she resembles the subjugated Irish who, for generations, bore their resentment, eking out a minimal existence. While the Irish tenants have been denied autonomy and escape by real or "actual" political and economic structures that existed before they were born, Lois is governed by a self-perpetuating myth endowed with power by her own belief. What is lacking in the lives of these young characters Bowen ascribes to the big house when it becomes, in their minds, another holding environment. The real ability of the house to fulfill such needs, remains of course, highly questionable; the house only reflects traditions towards which Bowen and her characters feel ambivalent.
Bowen writes many times of the importance of place as an inspiration, an "actor." in her fiction. In her autobiographical Seven Winters, she reveals that her sense of place derived from her reaction to her parents' marriage as a "private kingdom"—a place which seemed to exclude everyone but them. Thus, for Bowen relationships become synonymous with places. In her fiction, family life and the family home are characterized as places that fail to communicate feeling and intimacy. For Bowen, such isolation led to creativity. For her characters, no such transformation takes place. What, then, happens to feelings that result from experiencing the isolated but claustrophobic family home as a place which both suppresses imagination and vitality and is fast becoming an anomaly in times of revolution? Where is the rage accompanying the loss, frustration and anxiety that Bowen attributes to Lois, to Laura, to Laurence, and to Hugo, but which seems to dissipate within the characters' reveries? Bowen gives her characters no means by which to enact this rage. Even when they expressed it verbally, it seems to lose its power in the frustrated attempt to transform words into acts.
In two important scenes, however, both taking place away from Danielstown, this rage is suggested by imagery, if not directly by the characters. Hugo, Lois, and Marda confront rage and rebellion in the mill scene in a way they cannot at Danielstown, because Bowen there separates them from the action that precipitates and enacts such feeling. The event becomes central to the novel's meaning precisely because it indicates that the characters of the big house may be "superfluous" to the political realities of Ireland and to the expression of feeling within the novel. Indeed, the "dead" mill is a sinister version of the place symbolizing Anglo-Ireland's "lack": "the house of Usher … like corpses at their most horrible … another … of our national grievances." These references connect personal, cultural, and political deprivation. Ireland may be a country full of decayed monuments to Irish powerlessness and to the lifeless domination of the Anglo-Irish, but such quiescence proves deceptive. Entering the mill, Marda and Lois surprise a sleeping rebel into brandishing a pistol. Although Bowen does not dramatize the accidental firing of the pistol, the mill scene suggests that violence is embedded in the novel, even if no one seems capable of committing it. By witnessing the event, the two women take part in a way that suggests that only someone else's violence can express the rage the characters feel but cannot enact themselves. Moreover, no one is made responsible for its action.
Lois's confrontation with this external reality signifies her ability to grow up. By keeping the Irishman's presence a secret, Lois and Marda attempt to discover and preserve a reality that Danielstown conceals from them. They safeguard it from becoming a conventional fiction, victim of Danielstown's need to censor a story foretelling its own violent end. In this way Lois's secret remains an untold story; however, as with any well-guarded secret, its impact dies with suppression. Thus, neither Lois nor Marda can be rebels. Lois's only autonomy is to usurp Danielstown's method of suppression and reconstitute it. She turns the event into an expression of feeling that she and Marda share.
The barracks dance, like the mill scene, illustrates the radical disjunction between moral and emotional life in the Ireland of Bowen's girlhood. Lois both reflects and struggles to overcome Anglo-Irish political and personal indifference. A British officer named Daventry is the counterweight to the Irish rebel in the mill. An outsider in Anglo-Ireland, Daventry, too, is both sinister and psychically wounded, in this case, by orders to assert a power of dubious value: ransacking beds for guns in "houses where men were absent and old women or women with babies wept loudly and prayed." The scene establishes a tension between the sexual energy generated by the dance and the alienation Daventry, Lois, and Gerald feel, but neither condition has an outlet. Lois and Gerald attempt one tentative embrace, but fail to connect. Lois and Daventry also experience a brief moment of recognition, but only to reinforce their mutual sense of displacement, dehumanization, and powerlessness. As the characters retreat from each other, intense feeling finds expression only in the spontaneous explosion of objects: balloons explode, a gramaphone is upset, and a room throbs as though it would burst.
The juxtaposition of incapacitated people and energized objects, however, is not as comic as one could expect, for it suggests, instead, an absurd and horrifying relationship between the inability to feel and the eruption of violence. The echoes of the mill scene in this scene thus establish a link between the repression both of violence and of responsibility. Those whose feeling is preserved in an object—the big house—literally sit around or disappear from the novel while their country explodes around them. The separation of concealed rage from the outbreak of violence shapes the novel's violent ending while revealing Bowen's ambivalence about her ancestral home.
In "The Big House" Bowen expresses reverence for the comforting forms of gracious living that aestheticized an otherwise gloomy and precarious existence. In The Last September, however, such justification breaks down. After all, for Lois, as for her mother, "in the interest of good manners and good behavior, people learned to subdue their feelings." Twenty-five years after writing The Last September, Bowen admits that such a strategy might also have been "foolhardy or inhuman," for Lois's "acquiescence to strife, abnormalities and danger" deflects what she might feel toward the family and home which not only fail to nurture her, but threaten to incorporate her.
The portrait of Lois may have been a means of diffusing the powerful emotions which bound Bowen to her heroine and to Danielstown, for, as Bowen admits, "This, which of all my books is nearest my heart, has a deep, unclouded spontaneous source…. It is a work of instinct, rather than knowledge." Examining her work in retrospect, Bowen appears uneasy about Lois's indifference to "the national struggle around her." The response may describe her own reaction as well as that of her heroine: "In part, would not this be self-defence?" At the time Bowen wrote the novel, she apparently felt a strong need to distance herself from her heroine and to keep Danielstown discrete from Bowen's Court. As a "niece always, never child of that house," Lois cannot feel the full emotional and economic impact of the big house as did her creator. With twenty-five years of distance, Bowen wonders whether it was "sorrow to [Lois], Danielstown's burning?" One supposes that Bowen is asking about her own reaction, should Bowen's Court have been burned. Although it was spared, the destruction of Bowen's Court was a grim possibility that haunted Bowen during those difficult years. She describes the feelings that compelled her to write The Last September a short time later:
I was the child of the house from which Danielstown derives. Bowen's Court survived—nevertheless, so often in my mind's eye did I see it burning that the terrible last event in The Last September is more real than anything I have lived through.
Bowen's ambivalence about the big house is divided between the pain of imagining her family home in flames and the wish to be free of its burdens and constraints.
Bowen employs another strategy to express and deflect her conflicting feelings. While the heroine and her friends safely leave the stage of war, and the Naylors suffer in appropriate silence, the writer, with the help of Irish rebels, sets fire to the big house. Again, the object bears the brunt of human feeling, but here people alien to the big house are responsible for its destruction. The language describing the conflagration testifies to the strange relationship between the house and its inhabitants. The "open and empty country" burning against a "bosom of night" suggests once again that the house represents Anglo-Ireland as a rejecting but controlling mother now suffering poetic justice. Devoid of nurture, compassion or stability, its fragile and insular interior is appropriately gutted. It is as though enraged children reciprocate her maternal favors through the "fearful scarlet [which] ate up the house that threatened to eat them." Thus, they deliver an "abortive birth" to the myth of Danielstown's continuity, committing its rejecting door to infinite "hospitality."
Rebelling against oppressive landlords, the Irish also express the rage of the big house characters, thus becoming the instruments of action and feeling that Bowen denies Lois, Laura and Laurence. As the big house embodies both the emptiness and suffocation that comes with withholding and control, so Bowen's novel implies that the relation between the Irish and the big house is also that of deprived and oppressed children and controlling and indifferent parents. Thus, the Irish fulfill Laurence's wish and burn the cocoon—freeing the children of the Ascendancy to realize their own capacity for life. Although Danielstown is destroyed, the myth of the ancestral home thrives, however, in the wishes, needs, and fantasies of Bowen's characters in future novels. Even in those works set far from Ireland, characters desperately yearn for the power, identity, and sense of purpose they feel comes with belonging to a family home. With The Last September Bowen became a successful novelist, exploring characters who desire the nurturing promise of home and family, but who experience their overwhelming demands instead. Regardless of the setting of her subsequent novels, Bowen is never far removed in her imagination from the world she knew so well and described so evocatively in The Last September.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 116
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.
Mary Jarrett (essay date Spring 1987)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3077
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, and each sought refuge through 'magical' fictions. Kipling, born in Bombay, was abandoned as a small child in England. The hell of bullying into which he was delivered laid, he says, 'the foundation of literary effort.' He played imaginary games in which he literally fenced himself off from the alien world in which he had been made a prisoner, making the later comment that 'The magic, you see, lies in the ring or fence that you take refuge in.' And it was in his House of Desolation that he learnt to read: 'on a day that I remember it came to me that "reading" was not "the Cat lay on the Mat," but a means to everything that would make me happy.'
Elizabeth Bowen suffered feelings of dislocation and betrayal as a child from the lies told to her about her father's mental breakdown and her mother's cancer, and Edwin J. Kenney has pointed out that she learnt to read, at the age of seven, precisely at the time 'when her family catastrophes began to enter her consciousness with her removal to England. As she said later, "All susceptibility belongs to the age of magic, the Eden where fact and fiction were the same; the imaginative writer was the imaginative child, who relied for life upon being lied to." So from this time on, she said. 'Nothing made full sense to me that was not in print.' She instinctively connected being a grown-up with being a writer—that is, being in control of one's own fictions. For her, as for Kipling, fiction was a way of escape, a powerful magic, a means of creating another, more tolerable, reality and identity.
Yet this identity could be a shifting one. Elizabeth Bowen, who was the first Bowen child to live and be educated in England since the family settled in Ireland in the seventeenth century, could never decide at school whether to present herself as Irish or as ultra-English, and this 'evasiveness' stayed with her all her life, this 'reluctance to be pinned down to a relationship' affected the way in which she presented her fictions. In all her best stories there is a refusal to pronounce on the validity of the worlds her characters create for themselves. Many of her characters share the fervent wish of Lydia in 'The Return': 'if she had only a few feet of silence of her own, to exclude the world from, to build up in something of herself.' But the nature of the silence, like the nature of the building up, in all her best stories is always left open to question. This is true too of Kipling: I would name in particular 'Mrs Bathurst' and 'The Wish I House'. Kipling, however, draws attention to his ambivalence by the use of the frame of an outer narrator (in 'Mrs Bathurst' a double frame) in a way Elizabeth Bowen does not.
Nor do all Bowen's short stories have this richness of ambivalence. She wrote in 1959, of her art as a short story writer: 'More than half my life is under the steadying influence of the novel, with its calmer, stricter, more orthodox demands: into the novel goes such taste as I have for rational behaviour and social portraiture. The short story, as I see it to be, allows for what is crazy about humanity: obstinacies, inordinate heroisms, "immortal longings".' Some of this craziness and these immortal longings are made explicitly supernatural, for example in 'The Cheery Soul', 'The Demon Lover', 'Green Holly', and 'Hand in Glove'. That is to say, they are stories in which the surface of ordinary life cracks. This is to use Elizabeth Bowen's own image; in a broadcast discussion of 1948 she explained that she was fascinated with the surface of life not so much for its own sake, as for the dangerous sense it gives of being a thin crust above a bottomless abyss: 'the more the surface seems to heave or threaten to crack, the more its actual pattern fascinates me.' I would argue that in her finest stories the surface only seems to heave but never finally cracks.
One consistent cause of surface-heaving in Bowen is alienation, a loss of identity, like Mrs Watson's in 'Attractive Modern Homes', who begins to doubt her own existence when she moves to a new housing estate, or that of the drifting Tibbie, 'The Girl with the Stoop', who 'had not learnt yet how to feel like a resident'. Bowen remarks of the Londoners in 'A Walk in the Woods' that 'Not to be sure where one is induces panic'. Yet in this same story the 'city woman' exclaims to the young lover she has brought to the woods, "'Before you came, I was walled in alive.'" Imprisonment, the ultimate loss of control of one's environment, is another major preoccupation of the stories.
Imprisonment takes many forms. The prison can be one of vulgarity, an intolerable aesthetic assault, as it is for Mr Rossiter in 'Breakfast', trapped by the lodging-house's 'thick fumes of coffee and bacon, the doggy-smelling carpet, the tight, glazed noses of the family ready to split loudly from their skins'—an image in which even the family's noses become impatient prisoners. Cicely in 'The New House' makes her escape into marriage, with the claim—which would be merely whimsical in another writer—that she was imprisoned in her life with her brother in the old house by the way the furniture was arranged. Oliver and Davina fail to escape into marriage, and their imprisonment is inaction: 'Their May had been blighted. Now, each immobile from poverty, each frozen into their settings like leaves in the dull ice of different puddles, they seldom met.'
Very often the imprisonment is the capture of one person by another. It can be deliberate, like the social capture of the young wife in 'Mrs Windermere': 'Firmly encircling Esmée's wrist with a thumb and forefinger she led her down Regent Street.' Or it can be involuntary, like the enslavement of the hapless Mr Richardson in 'Ann Lee's' by someone 'as indifferent as a magnet'. Ann Lee, the mysterious enslaver and hat-creator, incidentally appears to derive her power from the fact that she eludes identification: 'Letty Ames had said that she was practically a lady; a queer creature, Letty couldn't place her.'
For other characters, imprisonment can actually be the pressure of being a magnet, of feeling other people's needs. Clifford in 'A Love Story' feels that 'the nightmare of being wanted was beginning, in this room, to close in round him again.' In 'The Dancing-Mistress' Peelie the pianist, who wears a slave bangle on each arm, and Lulu, the male hotel secretary, are in thrall to their 'dancing mistress' Joyce James, whose name is perhaps an allusion to the 'paralysis' of James Joyce's Dubliners, since she is the prisoner of her own stupor of weariness. Bullying a clumsy pupil is all that affords her 'a little shudder of pleasure' and she is dismayed by Peelie's bright suggestion that the pupil might die, because 'She couldn't do without Margery Mannering: she wanted to kill her.' She wants, that is, the perpetual pleasure of hating and tormenting Margery. But, on another level, to kill Margery would mean that she need never do without her, for the Metropole ballroom in which Joyce and Peelie work is a vision of Hell. As Joyce says to her friend: "'Oh, Peelie, I'm dead!'", and when her would-be lover Lulu tries to hold Joyce's sleeping body in the taxi, Peelie implicitly warns him: "'You'll be as stiff as hell in a few minutes—I am, always.'" The story balances exactly between the real and the supernatural.
In many of the 'ghost' stories the ghost may be seen as the conscious or unconscious fiction of one of the characters. In 'Making Arrangements' a deserted husband is asked to send on all his wife's dresses, and his perception of her shallowness and her social dependence on him becomes his perception that 'From the hotel by the river the disembodied ghost of Margery was crying thinly to him for her body, her innumerable lovely bodies.' In 'The Shadowy Third' the second wife is haunted by the idea of the unloved first wife—although she does supply a technically correct explanation (murder) for the existence of a ghost by saying that she thinks "'that not to want a person must be a sort, a sort of murder.'"
Some ghosts are seen by the characters themselves as fictions. Thomas, a ghostlike figure himself who must never enter the world of the couple's children, visits Gerard and Janet. He is treated to a sickening, civilized display of luxurious acquisitions, but the fly in the ointment is Janet's acquisition of a ghost called Clara. It gradually becomes apparent that the ghost is the embodiment of Janet's own loneliness and unhappiness, so that Thomas feels how much less humiliating it would have been for Gerard for Janet to have taken a lover, and Gerard complains petulantly, "'She's seeing too much of this ghost.'"
In 'Dead Mabelle' the ghost is the dead film star whose films go on playing. Like Vickery in Kipling's 'Mrs Bathurst', Mabelle's fan William is drawn obsessively to her phantom image. The different worlds of reality comically collide when the distraught William returns home and jerks open a drawer for the pistol for a cinematic suicide, only to find a litter of odds and ends. Another collision of realities, or fictions, occurs in 'The Back Drawing-Room'. This story is relatively unusual for Elizabeth Bowen in having an outer framework of narrators. As one of the characters mutters disgustedly under her breath, "'Hell!… Bring in the Yule log, this is a Dickens Christmas. We're going to tell ghost stories.'" But the guileless little man who tells of his own supernatural experience in Ireland has no notion of the proper, literary way to tell a ghost story, despite hints about the House of Usher. He is actually presented as the prisoner of his ignorance as 'the others peered curiously, as though through bars, at the little man who sat perplexed and baffled, knowing nothing of atmosphere.' Mrs Henneker, the acknowledged arbiter of atmosphere, acts as a marvellous parody of Elizabeth Bowen herself as she urges the little man to recall correctly his entry into the phantom country house.
'You had a sense of immanence', said Mrs Henneker authoritatively. 'Something was overtaking you, challenging you, embracing yet repelling you. Something was coming up from the earth, down from the skies, in from the mountains, that was stranger than the gathered rain. Deep from out of the depths of those dark windows, something beckoned'.
This is a brisker, more peremptory version of the atmosphere Bowen herself establishes in 'Human Habitation', published in the same volume (Ann Lee's, 1926), in which two students on a walking tour blunder out of the rain into a heavily atmosphere-laden house. The pelting rain, and the physical exhaustion of the students, serve as the bridge into what one of them perceives as 'some dead and empty hulk of a world drawn up alongside, at times dangerously accessible to the unwary'. In his zombie-like state of weariness, he had already begun to doubt his own existence: 'He was, he decided, something somebody else had thought.'
Bowen uses a similar bridge in 'Look at All Those Roses', the story I would select as the best example of her delicate balancing of fictions against realities. Here the bridge is the 'endless drive' of Lou and Edward through the Suffolk countryside back to London. We are reminded that 'there is a point when an afternoon oppresses one with fatigue and a feeling of unreality. Relentless, pointless, unwinding summer country made nerves ache at the back of both of their eyes.' Beyond a certain point the route becomes pointless: unmappable. In any case it has always been a 'curious route', since Edward detests the main roads, and we are therefore prepared for the fact that when they break down 'Where they were seemed to be highly improbable'. They have already 'felt bound up in the tired impotence of a dream'. Lou and Edward may have driven over the borderline into another kind of reality—or they may not.
The title of the story becomes its first sentence.
'Look at All Those Roses'
Lou exclaimed at that glimpse of a house in a sheath of startling flowers.
The word 'sheath' has a sinister connotation. But the third sentence of the story runs, 'To reach the corner, it struck her, Edward accelerated, as though he were jealous of the rosy house—a house with gables, flat-fronted, whose dark windows stared with no expression through the flowers.' The curious syntax of 'To reach the corner, it struck her, Edward accelerated' emphasizes Lou's subjectivity. It is only her 'astounding fancy', later in the story, that the murdered father lies at the roses' roots.
The perhaps unsurprising lack of expression of the house's dark windows gains a resonance not only from Mrs Mather's greeting them with 'no expression at all', but from Edward's and Lou's reaction when the car breaks down: 'He and she confronted each other with that completely dramatic lack of expression they kept for occasions when the car went wrong.' The car's breakdown itself is completely realistic and simultaneously a kind of magic spell: 'A ghastly knocking had started. It seemed to come from everywhere, and at the same lime to be a special attack on them.' There is a 'magic' which is suggested by the curious isolation of the house and its dislocation: Edward speaks of the rest of the country looking like something lived in by "'poor whites'", although this is, on one level, Suffolk and not the American South. But Lou and Edward are themselves isolated and dislocated. Lou is perpetually anxious that Edward, who is not her husband, will escape her, whereas Edward feels that 'life without people was absolutely impossible'—by which he means life only with Lou. Lou is presented as rather less than a person: during the course of the story she is compared with a monkey, a cat, and a bird. When she says longingly of the 'rosy house', "'I wish we lived there … It really looked like somewhere'", Edward replies tartly, "'It wouldn't if we did.'" Mrs Mather is also isolated, but it is a powerful isolation, like Ann Lee's, and one disconcerting to Lou and Edward, who cannot make out whether she is a woman or a lady. She has no 'outside attachments—hopes, claims, curiosities, desires, little touches of greed—that put a label on one to help strangers.' By contrast, her crippled daughter Josephine has 'an unresigned, living face'. She asks Lou which are the parts of London with the most traffic, and her restlessness is expressed by her canary 'springing to and fro in its cage'. Josephine is described as 'burning', just as the rose garden has a 'silent, burning gaiety'.
Various interpretations of the 'rosy house' and its occupants are possible for the reader who is searching for a label. One is that Josephine's father had escaped after injuring her back. (This would have happened when Josephine was seven, the age at which Elizabeth Bowen left her father and felt abandoned by him.) As Lou, whose 'idea of love was adhesiveness', thinks bitterly: 'He had bolted off down that path, as Edward had just done.' Another is that he has been murdered by Mrs Mather, a view which obviously enjoys much local support. The murder weapon was possibly the lump of quartz, the 'bizarre object' which props open the front door, wielded by Mrs Mather's 'powerful-looking hands.' This leads to another interpretation, that the house and garden are in effect haunted, and that the murder is manifested by the over-profuse roses, 'over-charged with colour' and 'frighteningly bright'. When Lou sees the same roses that Josephine sees, 'she thought they looked like forced roses, magnetized into being. This would explain why the farm is "'unlucky'", and why there is only one servant for the house, "'not very clear in her mind'." This in turn leads to another interpretation, that the 'rosy house' is a place of enchantment, which it is impossible to leave. Lou says jokingly to Josephine that she put the evil eye on the car, and when Lou refuses to eat tea, Josephine says, "'She thinks if she eats she may have to stay here for ever.'" (Eleanor in 'The Parrot' remembers Proserpine when she is offered figs by the Lennicotts.) The enchantment, however, may be either good or bad. Is Lou's 'ecstasy of indifference' to life, experienced as she lies beside Josephine's invalid carriage, an unaccustomed peep into the nature of things—one of her 'ideal moments'? Or is she succumbing to the lure of death, so that Edward rightly realizes that he had 'parked' her, like the car, in the wrong place? Lou realizes that she has always wanted 'to keep everything inside her own power', but to abandon this desire to control one's own fictions may be to abandon life.
The story is alive with ambiguities, like Josephine's "'We don't wonder where my father is.'" This reminds us of Edward's taunting Lou with "'You like to be sure where I am, don't you?'" Edward, who is a writer, comments on the episode, "'There's a story there'", which may reveal him either as a sensitive artist or a shallow journalist.
The title of the story is the first sentence, Lou's exclamation. It is also an exhortation to the reader to look at all those roses—and make what you can of them.
John Coates (essay date July 1990)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10125
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. The strongly autobiographical derivation of the novel which its author herself emphasized ("I was the child of the house from which Danielstown derives"), seems to enforce attention to the Anglo-Irish predicament. As a result critics have often approached the novel as if called upon to strongly disapprove of its inhabitants. The Anglo-Irish were casualties of an "inevitable" historical process which they ought, nevertheless, to have foreseen or prevented in some way. Danielstown is burned down so, obviously, its inhabitants must have deserved their fate. For example, E. J. Kenney's condemnation of the "guilty void at the center of such a life" as that of the Anglo-Irish landowners colours his view of Lois Farquar, the novel's heroine. She has a fundamental affinity with them because both lack "any vital connection with life". Kenney sees the Anglo-Irish as a whole, as "adolescent only children". Hermione Lee's position is subtler. She sees the "satiric mode" of the comic scenes of The Last September as a "form of elegy" for the Ascendancy in decline. The poignance of this decline is that it involves the loss of those qualities recorded in Bowen's Court "the 'grand idea', the sense of family pride, the almost mystical apartness". Hermione Lee's mention of Bowen's Court is apt, because Elizabeth Bowen's long family history provides an essential context for The Last September. It records a much more complex and ambivalent attitude to her Anglo-Irish heritage, and her Bowen ancestors than some critics have allowed:
In the main, I do not feel they require defence—you, on the other hand, may consider them indefensible. Having obtained their position through an injustice, they enjoyed that position through privilege. But while they wasted no breath in deprecating an injustice it would not have been to their interest to set right, they did not abuse their privilege—on the whole.
The situation of the Anglo-Irish, intruders in an alien land, is not in itself unnatural. Rather, as Antonia, a character in the much later novel A World of Love, reflects, it is a paradigm of the condition of man. The Anglo-Irish landowners may have had to maintain a "hostile watch" against a potentially rebellious population, yet, after all "everywhere is a frontier" where the "outposted few", the "living" must never be off their guard. One recalls, too, Elizabeth Bowen's comment in The Big House that the struggles of the owners of great Irish houses to maintain themselves were part of a struggle which goes on everywhere and that "may be said, in fact, to be life itself".
Critics' insistence that the Anglo-Irish political crisis is the subject of The Last September and hostile view they sometimes take of the Anglo-Irish themselves tend to drain the novel's events of significance. The people in the book are doomed and irrelevant to the process of political events. Therefore their doings must lack substance and appear only as "aimlessness and malaise". Tempting as it may be to view Danielstown simply as a historical limbo it is a mistake to do so. If the meaning of The Last September is that its characters and actions are nugatory then it hardly seems worthwhile to give them close attention. Critics have chosen instead to emphasize the atmosphere or mood of the novel. Jocelyn Brooke, for example, asserts that what the reader remembers best about The Last September was a "brooding nostalgic melancholy". Such concentration on atmosphere neglects the intellectual meaning of Elizabeth Bowen's work. (In any case the distinction between atmosphere and intellectual meaning is a dubious one with her). Discussion of The Last September in terms of its general mood also neglects the architecture of the novel.
One of the most obvious features of The Last September is its unusually symmetrical structure, the three parts of almost equal length, drawing attention to a design. These divisions and their titles, 'The Arrival of Mr and Mrs Montmorency', 'The Visit of Miss Norton', and 'The Departure of Gerald' unavoidably suggest a pattern rather than simply the ebbs and flows of an empty emotion critics have seen. Elizabeth Bowen's own subsequent comments are also suggestive. She was "most oppressed" by the technical difficulty of "assembling the novel's cast", of bringing the characters to the same place and keeping them there in order "to provide the interplay known as plot". Clearly she thought the interplay important. The encounters and conversations of the novel, above all the choice of just that particular "cast" of characters and of the particular way in which they interact, are meant to be significant. The inner dynamics of The Last September clearly require a much closer attention if its meaning is to be fully elicited.
The second critical preconception about the novel, that the owners of Danielstown are living a false life, "in a vacuum", in fact rests on very little either in the text or in the way of external evidence from Elizabeth Bowen's own comments. The Last September does not endorse that quirk of thinking which has long fascinated social psychologists, and from which historians and political writers enjoy no exemption, of holding the victim responsible for his own ruin. Elizabeth Bowen's opposition to retrospectively seen historical inevitability and the facile and complacent moralising it involves is as obvious in The Last September as it is in her later treatments of the Anglo-Irish decline. The burning of Danielstown is not "death", the result of inevitable internal organic decay, but "execution rather". The book's final description emphasizes violation of the seasons and of the pattern of light and dark. At the burning of the house an "extra day" comes to "abortive birth". The roads run dark through "unnatural dusk" in a landscape which is a crazy "design of order and panic". Those who carry out the burning do so with a cold fanatical assurance, "executioners bland from accomplished duty". A flow of life has been broken. There will be "no more autumns" after this "hard spring darkness". All the visiting and parties of the novel rise to an unnatural climax as the door of the house stands "open hospitably on a furnace". The accent throughout that crucial last passage is on an abrupt ending by superior force of what had been earlier described as the "vital pattern" of expected continuity. Elizabeth Bowen's remark that the novel "from first to last takes its pitch from the month of its name" reinforces this sense of the breaking of a seasonal rhythm as the primary fact of The Last September. The chief point about the Naylors and the life of places like Danielstown is not that they and it were decadent or wilfully blind. It is that they were erased.
It is worth comparing the impression of this final scene with that important earlier passage describing the response of Laurence, Lois's cousin, to the watcher on the mountain, the I.R.A. man looking down at Danielstown. Laurence is aware of force, a "reserve of energy and intention" which "impinges to the point of transformation" on the "pattern below." Force, it is implied, can make or unmake "reality", can change the way in which a pattern of living is perceived, even by those within it. It is the property of overwhelming hostile "energy and intention" to deny not merely the life but the meaning of what they set themselves to destroy. Whatever general historical views the reader may entertain of the Anglo-Irish landowners outside the scope of The Last September, it is impossible to deny that within the novel the Naylors, for all their obvious limitations, are the only example of a fairly happy relationship and a degree of stability. It is as this that they are destroyed, not as the representatives of an unjust social order, the question of whose injustice is not, in any case, the subject of the novel. (This, of course, is not to deny that the Naylors' weaknesses and the weaknesses of the Anglo-Irish position are, incidentally, shown in The Last September. Bowen's Court was later to sum up one of the most salient of them in the remark that the Protestant landowners had "formed a too-grand idea of themselves".)
Elizabeth Bowen accepts the process of history and the destruction it brings about with a matter of factness which critics of her work have not shown. This view of history has to be taken into account in reading The Last September. Although it violates a complex work to name some one theme as its "subject", the book is essentially an exploration of the individual's search for meaning and order at a time of cultural fracture. Apart from their personal significance to the author, the Troubles and the downfall of the Anglo-Irish landowners offer the setting for a peculiarly vivid instance of that displacement of sensibility which has come subsequently to be widely known as the "Modernist Crisis". The focal point of The Last September is not a political crisis or a social upheaval but one of those moments when it becomes obvious that, in Thomas Mann's well-known phrase, "the wisdom of the past has become non-transferable" or in D. H. Lawrence's remark in Kangaroo: "It was in 1915 the old world ended".
One early comment is particularly illuminating. The Times Literary Supplement reviewer (February 7, 1929), sedulously adopting the "plain man" standpoint, saw the novel as displaying "too much cleverness" and its story as no more "than a framework for a flickering study of human convolutions", a vision of life as "fundamentally absurd". Although this early reviewer does not develop his perception, his reaction is more authentic than most of the later repeated generalizations about "mood" and "atmosphere". The Last September belongs, with an important part of its vision, to a 1920's preoccupation with the discontinuity of the world, with disorientation and the loss of a communal reality. "Flickering studies of human convulsions", or "visions of life as fundamentally absurd" are irritated but not inaccurate descriptions, from the contemporary conventional point of view, of the work of Proust, Joyce or Virginia Woolf. Although not experimental in form, The Last September has many of the most significant "modernist" hallmarks, especially an emphasis on cultural breakdown, severance from past traditions, the failure or at least inadequacy of communication, the isolation of the individual and the uncertain nature of selfhood. It is typical of such a "Modernist" climate that Marda Norton, for example, should consider that her own experience must be meaningless to Lois, because the individual's relation to life is one of "infinite variation" which
breaks the span of comprehension between being and being and makes an attempt at sympathy the merest fumbling for an outlet along the boundaries of the self.
The Naylors' life and attitudes are presented not as a testimony to some peculiar decadence in the Anglo-Irish landlords but as an example of a 1920's avant-garde truism best known in Virginia Woolf's formulation "On or about December 1910 human character changed". Elizabeth Bowen's subsequent comment merely confirms what the novel itself shows. The Naylors are meant to seem historically dated rather than guilty:
If it seems that Sir Richard and Lady Naylor are snobs with regard to Lois's young officers, recall that the uncle and aunt's ideas dated back to the impeccable years before 1914.
Mrs Ramsay in To The Lighthouse (published two years before The Last September) provides an excellent analogy for the Naylors and their function. Like Virginia Woolf's hostess and homemaker, Sir Richard and his wife have an assured sense of their roles both social and sexual. (Their stability is suggested by, among much else, the Victorian wholesomeness of dreams when "soundly asleep" in a night that rolls over them "thickly and uneventfully"). When her old friend Francie sees Lady Naylor again, after a lapse of years, she sees her as "happier, harder". In her face is a record not of failure but of toughness and coping. Myra Naylor is someone who "goes on with" life, who discharges "the duty of love and pleasure". Like Mrs Ramsay, Lady Naylor stresses the personal rather than the abstract and concentrates on the achieving of pleasant social occasions, and the maintaining of emotional stability. Her view of her own particular historical situation is neither foolish nor incomprehensible. Although cancelled by events, it is not wrong or escapist. Rather it reflects her reliance on the restraints, tolerances and little acts of personal kindness which soften the edges of social and economic systems. The Naylors' fuzziness and vagueness, their deliberate ignoring of provocations and alarms, their agreeable manners and solicitude for their native Irish neighbours (because "it's not a good thing to have made an enemy") prevents lines being drawn too sharply. There is, in fact, some political wisdom in such behavior. Those enjoying privileges or a position others question may help themselves by being personally pleasant. The Naylors are destroyed not by their own lack of perception but by the British parade of naked force, the countryside "altogether too full of soldiers" which shows too clearly the mechanism of society which the tact of Danielstown's owners had helped to disguise. Elizabeth Bowen's own later comment that the Anglo-Irish keeping up of their "orthodox conventional social life", as the Naylors did at Danielstown, seemed "the best thing to do" in circumstances "more tragic than they cared to show" suggests a different interpretation of Sir Richard and his wife from the one adopted by almost all critics of The Last September: (Read in the light of such a comment for example, the early scene in which the "crowd of portraits" reflecting an earlier ease and confidence, give the present inhabitants of Danielstown "a thin, over-bright look" in their "lower cheerfulness, dining and talking" is sympathetic rather than condemnatory. It suggests not some process of historical degeneration but the poignancy of the effort to maintain social life against a threatening background). As Mrs Ramsay's world of elaborate hospitality, of chaos kept at bay by adroit charm, represents an ideal the young cannot accept and do not wish to follow, so the Naylors' delicate scheme of pleasantness, evasion and sociability finds few imitators in a new generation. Mrs Ramsay's and the Naylors' pattern of life are alike in another respect too. Both codes and their representatives are destroyed by sheer force, the brutalities of individual death and the Great War in one case, the Troubles in the other.
Arguably the most original feature of The Last September, and the most suggestive for its author's future development, is the odd angle from which it views the "Modernist Crisis" and cultural deracination. Indeed, the novel's epigraph, from Proust's Le Temps Retrouvé, seems to announce the solution to discontinuity and deracination, to failures of communication between individuals and to the meaninglessness of experiencę, on which the great Modernist works were built. Proust had stated that the materials of art could come "in frivolous pleasures, in idleness …, in unhappiness" and that art, by creating significant harmony from these materials, can redeem them. This could be said to be the faith of Modernism, of Proust, Joyce or Virginia Woolf. It is exemplified by the great and well-known moment in To The Lighthouse when Lily Briscoe completes her painting.
At first sight, it might seem that this "Proustian paradox" (in Hermione Lee's phrase) of tedious, poverty-stricken experience being redeemed by an aesthetic achievement for which tedium has itself provided the materials or the preconditions is to be the ultimate meaning of The Last September. The "Proustian paradox" raises a problem. It clearly does have a significance in Elizabeth Bowen's own life. One might well argue that she is presenting herself as Lois and suggesting that experiences which for her seemed thin at the time will become the novel itself, that the writing of the book comes out of what appeared at a time of "impatience, frivolity or lassitude". However, if one reads The Last September as it stands and without this external autobiographical information the expectation of the "Proustian paradox" is raised only to be challenged. Some support is given for such a reading in Elizabeth Bowen's remark that the novel does deal with "invented happenings, imagined persons" and is "at many, many removes from reality". There is no moment of artistic transcendence for Lois within the novel. Her painting, the conversation with Marda makes clear, is weak and derivative. (She is "cleverer", the older woman apologetically remarks, than her drawings suggest.) The sardonic authorial comment on Lois's writing is even more decisive:
She took all this merciless penetration for maturity.
Any artistic promise she may have remains not only unfulfilled, but unrevealed when the book ends and the "Proustian paradox" has no significance for her, whatever its significance for her creator. Perhaps one should read the epigraph of The Last September more carefully. It comes from that passage in Le Temps Retrouvé where Proust is describing those with an artistic temperament or leanings but who are unwilling to undertake the concentration and labour of creation:
They suffer but their sufferings, like the sufferings of virgins and lazy people, are of a kind that fecundity or work would cure.
The Proustian epigraph offers no possibility of a Modernist aesthetic transcendency but rather emphasizes a peculiar kind of failure, not necessarily permanent or irremediable, but not remedied within the bounds of The Last September.
In order to understand the failure the novel records, it is necessary to look more closely at that structural symmetry already referred to. The opening episode of The Last September is dominated by two factors. The reader is made aware of the difference between the generation of Francie Montmorency and the Naylors and that of Lois and her cousin Laurence. Secondly, attention is drawn to Lois's expectations about her meeting with Mr Montmorency, the object of one of her most important childhood memories. It is at once made clear that some substantial alterations in the quality and nature of personal relationships, the way in which they are conceived and valued, has occurred between one generation and another. The Naylors' and Montmorencys' acquaintance with each other "was an affair of generations". More important, out of this now fading context of stability and habitude, had grown the particular friendship of Myra, Lady Naylor and Francie Montmorency. Francie's feeling for Myra, it is established, grew out of her feeling for the old presence of Danielstown in her consciousness. She had "heard all her life" of its inhabitants before she met them. "There had been no beginning". She has a "sense of return" because of this old family connection, "of having awaited". This security is, it appears, the necessary background to the young womens' enthusiastic discovery of each other. The house "lying secretly at the back" of Francie's mind is the setting for talks "confidential if not alarmingly intimate". This whole past episode connects a certain kind of order with a certain kind of intimacy, both of which are fact vanishing in the present.
Here, the older generations' confidence and readiness to enter into relationships seems to have evaporated. To Laurence and Lois emotional commitments are awkward, embarrassing, even incredible. They are like the debris of the Imperial and Ascendancy past among the Danielstown furniture, including those photographs of reunions "a generation ago" which seems to Lois to give out "a vague depression" from the wall. Laurence sits carefully out of the way on a "not very comfortable" chair because he "dared not go down" for another book, fearing to meet the visitors and have to talk to them. Lois feels a similar unease. She prefers Laurence's cold egocentricity and indifference to "every shade of her personality" to the tender and receptive listeners with whom she feels she has exposed too much of herself. Both cousins share a wariness, a refusal of involvement or commitment. Laurence boasts of having "no emotional life". Lois notes the warm meeting of her aunt and Francie like an anthropologist noting the customs of a remote tribe. She remarks calmly that "There was a good deal of emotion". The opening juxtaposition of Lois and Laurence helps, of course, to broaden the observation of the novel to an affair of generations. Lois's characteristics cannot be seen as mere personal idiosyncrasies or products of her own raw youth.
However, a second and vital point is made in these opening pages of The Last September. While Lois shares Laurence's "post-War" edginess and general lack of confidence in human relations, there is another and contradictory element in her character. Mr Montmorency has been the focus of her "illusions" since she was ten and the reason for this childhood memory, which causes her to be interested in the reunion in spite of her awkwardness, is a curious and symptomatic one. She remembered Hugo, as her mother's guest, falling asleep in the garden in a "perfectly simple exposed way". He seemed without pretence and unlike other visitors who were "noisy at one" as a child. What Lois apparently values is a quality of repose she once thought she detected in her aunt's guest, a "melancholy and exhausted and wise" readiness to be himself, a wholeness of nature which needs no effort or attitudinisings. In fact, Lois is wrong about Hugo Montmorency. What she hoped for in a minor way from meeting him again, however, is what she pursues, much more deeply, in her relationship with Gerald, the possibility of a connection of intellect with instinct, in a life free from self-consciousness and self-division. (It is suggestive that she should recall Hugo's unembarrassed sleeping immediately after her own almost dottily self-conscious reflections on how her fingernails grow inexhaustibly "out of" her and that they are the only part of one's person "of which it is possible to be conscious socially"). Elizabeth Bowen's places Lois firmly in a post-War context in the later Preface to the novel:
World War had shadowed her school days: that was enough—now she wanted order.
The order which Lois wants, involves an emotional and personal stability, even more than a social one. Yet such a desire, it is plain, must involve a placing of the self in a social context for which neither Lois nor her cousin Laurence appear to have the desire or the confidence.
Hugo Montmorency, through his relationship to the Naylors and to Laura, Lois's dead mother, introduces another significant factor into the book's design. The dimension of past events is insisted upon for various reasons. One of the most important of these is that figures in the present, such as Lois or Laurence, and the emotional and cultural climate which they represent have, we are meant to see a context in the choices or refusals of the previous generation. The "Modernist Crisis" is the result, not of a sudden cataclysmi, but of a number of complex processes, some of which are typified in the lives of Hugo and Francie and in Hugo's early decision to sell his property. At first sight, Hugo's conduct might have seemed that of a realist, one who has read a historical situation aright and salvaged something from the downfall of the Anglo-Irish landowners. Surely it was better to have sold his house Rockriver long before the Troubles, rather than to have hung on, like the Naylors, until Danielstown was burned. Yet, the novel early makes clear, what purported to be sensible, a making of his peace with circumstances, was, in fact, ignoble, an uprooting and a destruction of some part of Hugo's life from which it has never really recovered. Francie, with "a delicate woman's strong feeling for 'naturalness'" always blamed herself for not having dissuaded him from the sale. She had been pained by his lack of feeling for his home "as by an expression of irreligion". "Religion" and "nature" are strong and challenging terms. They insist uncompromisingly, and in a novel otherwise so aware of the Modernist climate, so unfashionably, on the real value of the home, the family past, the pieties of ancestry. Even if, for some reason, they are impossible to get or to keep, these are the essential preconditions of emotional health. Hugo sells Rockriver not, we are to believe, from a wise and necessary yielding to historical processes but because "he had expected little of life". This chosen homelessness and resulting debility of the Montmorencys is emphasized by their weak notion of buying a bungalow somewhere which is then as weakly abandoned. Hugo's uprooting of himself has prepared the way for the self-pitying anticlimax of his later life, a "net of small complications" without the dignity of tragedy. Especially, it explains the emotional failure of his marriage to Francie. Since "they had no house" and Francie "no vocation", they have drifted about, Hugo steering his wife into the role of a permanent invalid. The closest part of their marital bond seems to be his nightly combing out of her hair. (Hugo and Francie are, of course, one of many other instances of displacement and deracination resulting in emotional damage in Elizabeth Bowen's work. One recalls the way in which the rootlessness of Theodora Thirdman's parents in Friends and Relations is linked to her own disastrous emotional development or the context given to Robert's betrayal of his country in The Heat of the Day in the impermanence of his family home, Holme Dene, a house like a stage set, practically always for sale).
If we are meant to compare the older and younger generation in The Last September we are equally meant to compare the two specimens of the older generation itself. The Naylors and their real, if conventional, happiness take on another light when compared with the choices their contemporaries the Montmorencys have made. Myra, who would not have her husband "otherwise" has made a better bargain, within the limits of the established duties of family and position, than her friend Francie has with a husband who has drifted away from them. Hugo's failure is, significantly, twofold. It involved the sale of his home and the choice of a wandering life spent largely in hotels. Also, and equally important, was his failure to love Laura, Lois's mother, no doubt a difficult woman, but one whose restlessness had been an "irradiation" as he recalls years later. This earlier betrayal of love, linked to the failure to establish one's life, is echoed and amplified in the second generation, in Lois.
The background of Hugo's failure, and his vanity, posturing and self-deception throughout The Last September undermines the "wisdom" of his view of the Anglo-Irish dilemma, whatever its apparent plausibility. His answer to Marda's question about the Troubles, "Will there ever be anything we can all do except not notice?" is to deny any point or meaning to the Anglo-Irish. Their collective personality is merely "a sense of outrage and we'll never get outside it". Marda Norton's response to this pseudo-omniscience, this moral and emotional bankruptcy masquerading as maturity, defines the spiritual landscape of The Last September with peculiar accuracy:
But the hold of the country was that she considered, it could be thought of in terms of oneself, so interpreted. Or seemed so—"Like Shakespeare", she added more vaguely, "or isn't it?"
She half recollects, is dimly aware, of some universe of moral discourse in which instincts are their own arguments, or rather need no arguments. Love of land, of family, home or country cannot be rationally defended against a determinedly nihilistic scepticism any more than can the moral pieties or imperatives of Shakespeare's tragedies or histories. Such pieties are simply, in life as they are in Shakespeare, the bases and the perameters of a human existence. Marda's vague half-awareness, her sliding away from her own perception, shows that she knows this but cannot hold onto her knowledge. This little exchange, itself an epitome of Elizabeth Bowen's management throughout the novel of undeveloped communications and abortive arguments, suggest the presence of needs which cannot be satisfied, because they cannot be articulated, as Marda here, somehow, lacks the will to state them.
Hugo Montmorency's languid and somewhat precious nihilism, redolent of the fin de siécle, is a reminder that the crisis of meaning and order, of relationships and communication, which lies behind The Last September has been developing for many years. The opening of the novel presents two lines of approach, the realization of a gap between the generations in their perceptions and emotions and, by contrast, the sense of historical and psychological processes which link the generations in an unfolding development. The choice between the stability and "despairing optimism" of Lady Naylor and Hugo's narcissism and surrender was an earlier and simpler picture of the problems which in Lois's life have become more intractable. The suggestion is made that at least part of the climate of the 1920's was created by earlier abandonings of hope, and lack of energy and purpose, veiling themselves, as in Hugo's case by a pretence of superior sensitivity and refinement.
One of the most subtle and amusing facets of this unfolding of tendencies in The Last September is illustrated by Hugo's encounters with Laurence. It is clear that nihilism in the mode of Maeterlinck does not care for nihilism in the mode of Aldous Huxley. It is also clear that the two are connected. (The affinity between Laurence and the boorish intellectuals in Huxley's recent novels was noted by the Times Literary Supplement reviewer). Hugo is offended by Laurence's clever conversation and asks, as an attempted snub, "Are you the undergraduate of today?" The "overfine machinery" of his own mind revolts from the details of living but, in the manner of his generation, prefers "manly talk" as a refuge rather than "articulate" cynicism. Marda Norton, however, tells Laurence that he is in danger of growing up into another version of Mr Montmorency.
Laurence himself notices the affinity, detecting the fact that Hugo "hated parties and conversation" as much as he did but was less "adept" at avoiding them or less fierce in honouring "the virginity of the intelligence". When asked by Marda Norton what he thinks about Lois, Hugo is about to reply that he is "no good at people" but refrains because "he reminded himself of Laurence". Hugo's stance is an 1890's melancholy fastidiousness. He is like a less successful member of the "Souls":
His nostrils contracted slightly as though the smell drawn up from the roots of the grass … were more offensive than he cared to explain.
In Laurence, the facade of sensitivity has been dispensed with and the underlying misanthropy and egocentricity he shares with Hugo has become obvious. Where Hugo and those of his generation who shared his pose affected a flaccid ennui, Laurence is briskly malicious, exaggerating his Bloomsbury-like patter "his vein of third or fourth quality", or bringing up Hugo's failure to settle in Canada in order to needle the older man.
Hugo is (mentally) unfaithful to his wife Francie, or almost worse, to the memory of Laura, Lois's mother. Once recollections of her had filled the valley through which he walks with Marda but now "he and she might never have come here; they were disowned". The rocks are "transmuted" by his new found, or fancied, love for his new companion, who, comically, finds him unsympathetic and is even exasperated "past caution" with him. All Hugo's "unordered moods" are merely sentimentalisings of his own egotism:
He loved her; a sense of himself rushed up, filling the valley.
Laurence, and those of the younger generation he typifies, need no such romantic clothing for their selfishness. Where Hugo used women for private fantasies, without ever really knowing or caring about them, Laurence discards them altogether, regarding Hugo as one who "had given away his integrity, had not even a bed to himself". It is interesting too, to notice affinities between Laurence and Francie, Hugo's wife. Neither of them, we are told, wanted to know "how anyone was" at the tennis party, or what they thought or wanted, but while Francie is all tremulous sensibility on the surface and egocentric beneath, Laurence is simply egocentric.
It may seem that too much may be read into Laurence's would-be clever chatter and cynicism. Is there really more in them than in those of many tiresome or pretentious undergraduates? A partial answer to the question is to consider Laurence's place in the scheme of The Last September. He clearly offers a contrast with Gerald, Lois's fiancé, as the important passage which juxtaposes the two young men's view of what civilization consists makes plain. At the same time, Laurence, as has been suggested, represents a continuation to a point of graceless absurdity of the selfishness and narcissism of the previous generation. What Laurence and the other characters around Lois are intended to embody is that "shape" which Elizabeth Bowen was later to describe as "the important thing". The juxtapositions, oppositions and developments between persons and generations in The Last September fulfils her later pronouncement that "in a novel every action or word on the part of any one of the characters has meaning … and the whole trend of the story suggests direction". Each member of the small, carefully chosen "cast" of The Last September has a cultural significance, a representational quality Laurence's elevation of his own refusal to know, or to be interested in, others into a sign of superior intelligence ("I never can conceive of anybody else's mentality") is to be judged against Elizabeth Bowen's constant preoccupation with the individual's duty to society. The ability of people to talk to each other in pleasant and easy ways, the capacity to like one's kind and to want to find out about them are indices of psychological health in the individual and cultural health in a society. Laurence anticipates Elizabeth Bowen's fuller treatment of the intellectual who betrays the duties of human sympathy, St Quentin in The Death of the Heart. In fact, Laurence and St Quentin both offer the same manifesto of aloofness, in almost the same words.
More significantly, the view civilization which Laurence is made to hold is not some trivial, purely personal affair. It is the epitome of the rationalist, hedonist "progressive" 1920's thinking of which, no doubt, Elizabeth Bowen was fully aware when she was writing The Last September. This was a period, she remarked, when "Civilization (a word constantly on my 1928 lips) was now around me". Laurence's view of civilization as "an unemotional kindness withering to assertion selfish or racial; silence cold with a comprehension in which the explaining clamour died away" recalls the ambience of Lytton Strachey or of Bertrand Russell's popular writings, among so many others.
It is an ideal to which Elizabeth Bowen is as merciless as D. H. Lawrence had been while adopting at the same time a much calmer and more matter of fact tone. She agrees with Lawrence's perception of the sterility, even suppressed hatred, behind the "progressive" ideals of the day. Under the rationalism and civilized irony of Lois's cousin lies the desire for "a faceless and beautiful negation", an end of "art, of desire" as well as of battle, effectively for a kind of death. The novel underlines this point elsewhere in Laurence's daydreams about violent destruction, his longing to "be here when this house burns" or for the arrival of the raiders whose non-appearance "pricked his egotism". In that curious passage, informed with the new psychological preoccupations of the period, which describes his fantasizing when unable to go to sleep it becomes clear that what Laurence enjoys is a frivolous mental manipulation of his relations and acquaintances, placing them, for his amusement, in imaginary scenarios, remaking marriages. Superficially amusing, it is a somewhat chilling passage suggesting Laurence's indifference to, even dislike, of people and relationships which actually exist. In superficial contrast Hugo "sets up a stage for himself" where, "divorced from fact and probability", he can indulge in erotic day-dreams about Marda. Underneath the romantic trappings and self-deception ("and if this were not love") there is a substantial similarity with Laurence in Hugo's manipulations of "power disconnected with life".
If it is interesting to see Laurence and his type as a continuation and development of the predilections of people like Hugo Montmorency, it is essential to see Lois in relation to her family past. Hugo's account of Laura, the dead girl's mother, may, perhaps must, be coloured by his unsatisfactory relationship with her, but there are striking likenesses between what we learn of the dead woman and what we see of her daughter. Like Lois, in her own way, Laura had "wanted her mind made up" by a relationship with a man. This Hugo felt unable to do for her: "I had enough to do with my own mind". In any case, she was never "real" in the way that he wanted. Her endless talk was a camouflage, he felt, for a wish to avoid personal contact or being known. If she thought he had succeeded in knowing she would "start a crying fit". Her throwing of herself into a marriage with Farquar, Lois's father, was an impulsive and muddled affair, completed before she "had time to get out of it". Her subsequent unhappy life gave her something concrete to be miserable about. Hugo's waspish recollections contain a substantial truth about the externals of Laura's behaviour, although he makes no attempt to understand the inner reasons for her actions. Hugo's version of these external details is confirmed when Sir Richard applies the very phrase to Lois which Hugo had used to describe her mother:
She was just like Laura, poor Laura's own child in fact; she would talk and talk and you never knew where you had her.
The existence in her dead mother of a kind of prototype for Lois and an earlier version of some of the problems she faces might be a way of making the simple point that Lois has inherited something of her temperament. More than this is involved however. Laura's uncertainty about her role had fed those "epic rages", which Laurence remembered "against Hugo, against Richard against any prospect of life at all". The bitter quarrels, the "eroding companionship" with Hugo, to whom Laura was attracted but whose unresponsive nature could not provide what she needed, bred a "confusion which clotted up the air" of Laura's life. She raged impotently, scrawling "with passion" an insulting drawing of Hugo whose failure to marry was, in Lady Naylor's view part of his general "way of avoiding things". Finally, in her frustration, she "hotly" went North to marry Mr Farquar "the rudest man in Ulster". In these fragmentary references to her enough of Laura's character has been preserved to suggest an intelligent, spirited woman, reacting against the sentimental and limited role imposed on her sex, as in her abrasive rejection of "being loved" and gushed over by Miss Part, Lois's governess. We are reminded, however, that she belonged to a different world from the one Lois inhabits and a simpler. In Laurence's recollection the "dated" quality of Laura's impulsive marriage is what is emphasized. She
buttoned a tight sleek dress of that day's elegance over her heaving bosom, packed her dresses in arched trunks (that had come back since to rot in the attics)
before embarking on her despairing flight. In its late romantic melodrama, such a scene belongs to the same world as Hugo's melancholy sensitivity, or Lady Naylor's sleeping when young and a "rebel" with a copy of Shelley's poems under her pillow.
The comparison which the reader is invited to draw between Lois and her mother is a vital part of the novel's historical dimension, a reinforcement of the sense, fundamental to The Last September, of changes in moral feeling and emotional response. Essentially the changes are in the direction of a greater complexity where the confidence to make even the wholehearted, if disastrous, gestures Laura made in the 1890's has been sapped. Lois recognizes that she is "twice as complex" as the older generation, because of the multiplicity of elements which have gone into her making. This feeling is accompanied by a sense of the passing of time, like a ship "rushing" onwards. The fact that she will penetrate "thirty years deeper" into it than her uncle, her aunt and than Hugo who "belonged" to their world, enhances Lois's awareness of "mystery and destination".
Lois looks in three directions in order to find answers to the problems raised by her apprehensions, needs and expectations of living. The tripartite division of The Last September corresponds to the three fields of her quest. In the novel's first section she is shown turning her eyes at the past, at Mr Montmorency, the lover who had failed her mother. Hugo's desertion of Laura and the resulting marriage to Farquar brought about Lois's birth and the identity with which she finds it so hard to cope. It might well seem that her problems might be clarified, if not solved, by going back into the past where they originated. Hugo, the missed possibility in her mother's life, is the missed possibility in her own, since he was the father she did not have. The journey back into the past is a frequently used narrative device, with its own mythic power. However, it is Elizabeth Bowen's purpose to raise the possibility of such a narrative line, or personal quest, only to disappoint it. She suggests an obvious and pleasing way in which The Last September might develop and then deliberately balks expectation. Hugo possesses none of that repose with which Lois's childhood memory had endowed him and for which she herself is seeking. He is vain, restless and self-deluding. Almost at once, on meeting him, she recognizes that though he was so subtle he "would not take the trouble to understand her". When he does look at her, it is with a cold, bored intelligence, superficially perceptive, actually dismissive:
He supposed that unformed, anxious to make an effort, she would marry early.
It is, of course, a sound enough assumption, since she almost does. Hugo, however, is judging Lois by the choices and limitations available in his own generation and exemplified in the action of her mother Laura, the woman he emotionally betrayed.
If the past, incarnated in Hugo, has nothing to offer or to teach, it is natural to assume that one must look towards the future. The second section of The Last September, accordingly, is built round the visit of Marda Norton to Danielstown. Marda's stay, and its effect on Lois, represent a second aborted narrative possibility, a second potent myth deliberately discarded. If one cannot explore and redeem the past, then one can discard its elaborate and outworn claims and face the world in a spirit of "existential choice" (before the name), of rational unencumbered freedom.
Marda is introduced as a disrupter of social ease through her accidents and gaucheries on previous occasions at Danielstown. Her first effect on Lois is to accelerate the girl's emancipation from romantic illusions of the past in general and Hugo, in particular, through her open derision of him as a man married to a woman old enough to be his mother. In other ways, too, Marda's "sophistication opened further horizons to Lois". The new woman of the 1920's, she has shed the "feminine" sweetness of Francie and the assiduous charm of Lady Naylor along with "feminine pearshape". She watches and assesses others, challenging their "integrity" and the sincerity of their social postures from "the stronghold of her indifference". By these astringent standards, Hugo is quickly disposed of. She treats his infatuation with her as an irrelevant nuisance which does not concern her in the least.
In Lois's first fairly lengthy conversation with Marda, however, the younger woman quickly detects an underlying insecurity beneath the surface elegance and ease. Lois's attitude changes in this encounter. She starts from admiration of Marda's "inimitable deftness" with her make-up, those casual gestures which, like Stella's as seen by Harrison in The Heat of the Day, are the outward tokens of a "brilliant life". Lois yearns to purchase a place in the memory of this distinguished being even at the cost of the burning of the house in "one scarlet night". The room in which they sit seems, like Lois's own existence, hopelessly devalued, full of the "dusk of oblivion", compared with the nature promise of Marda's forthcoming marriage. However, the turning point in their talk comes quickly and decisively. Lois attempts, in a long passage, left in reported speech perhaps to suggest its breathlessness and incoherence, to explain her need "to go wherever the war hadn't", to travel "alone", to look at sights "unprepared" and "unadmonished". Her daydreams, although inchoate, involve a reaction against wartime restrictions but even more, a revolt against the limited role of women, "of being not noticed because she is a lady", a demand for wider experience. Marda's reply reveals that her emancipation is superficial. She advises Lois not to "expect to be touched or changed—or to be in anything that you do". The comment is "unwisdom" since, in a somewhat cryptic but telling authorial phrase, it lacks "the sublimer banality". In order to live, one must have an appetite for living, a hopefulness or idealism prepared to risk sounding naive or banal. This Marda, in spite of her poise and air of independence, does not possess. When Lois tries to explain that she wants to be "in a pattern", to be "related", her companion immediately sees this in the narrow formalized terms of being "a wife and mother". Marda's praise of this "traditional" feminine role is vitiated by her own adoption of it out of a search for financial security and in a weary spirit of "we can always be women".
Lois, watching the deferential stoop of the older woman's head, as she writes to her fiancé Leslie Lawe, thinks "how anxious to marry Marda must really be" and "her distantness and her quick, rejecting air must be a false effect". This intimation about Marda's deliberate choice of the conventional role out of mere expedience, does not, at once, form a final verdict on her in Lois's mind. The delay in Lois's reaction is one of the characteristic subtleties in Elizabeth Bowen's writing. Rather (and this is surely more true to the way in which individuals do perceive each other) Lois's insight remains, beneath many pleasant and interesting exchanges, to surface again, after the failure of her relationship with Gerald, in a poignant complaint:
Even Marda—nothing we said to each other mattered, it hasn't stayed, she goes off to get married in a mechanical sort of way. She thinks herself so damned funny—it's cheap, really.
Marda's modishly tough and disengaged manner is as deceptive as Laurence's Bloomsbury "civilization". Embracing the future with Miss Norton is no more of an answer than disentangling the past with Hugo.
One of the most curious features of The Last September is the significance of events which do not happen. Indeed what does not take place (but very well might have done) is as important as what actually does. The novel propounds the features of the crisis familiar in Modernist literature, the abrupt break in the pattern of history, the loss of confidence in the autonomous personality, the discontinuity of the self and the uncertainty of its contact with the outside world, the failure of social contact and communication. Where The Last September differs from other books which examine this crisis is partly in its diagnosis of the problem and partly in what seems a resolute refusal of the solutions most commonly offered. The most popular of these, the aesthetic transcendence of chaos, the solution of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and To The Lighthouse, is emphatically rejected, by disallowing Lois artistic talent and success. More traditional solutions, the search and understanding of the past or the open-eyed facing of the future are denied with equal force.
There remains one final solution, that of synthesis, the possibility that a split culture or a splintered vision of reality may be healed by the joining through love of rival and originally incompatible visions. Perhaps the best known example of such a synthesis is E. M. Forster's enterprise in Howards End. Lois's relationship with Gerald clearly does have resonance far beyond that of a purely personal love affair. To the shattered Daventry, it is primarily Gerald's youth that is striking. He looks across a gulf at "our young friend", and his capacity for hope. In Lady Naylor's view, however, "no amount of experience shook these young Englishmen up". Gerald is primarily a study in the success and failure of training, in the nature of the public school product. His conditioning is thorough, an imbibing of simple healthy sentimental images, of the ideal life as
a fixed leisured glow, and relaxation, as on coming in to tea from an afternoon's gardening with his mother in autumn.
At first sight in such passages and others, we seem to be being offered a version of E. M. Forster's critique of the "undeveloped heart" of the English professional and middle-class. However, one has only to think of Gerald Dawes in The Longest Journey, of Ronnie in A Passage to India or even of the Wilcoxes in Howards End to realize that a satirical intention is not predominant in the portrait of Gerald in The Last September. Instead, one might even view him as a recapitulation of some Forsterian material from a non-Forsterian standpoint, as a partial answer or alternative to that "unfairness" with which, a few years later, Elizabeth Bowen suggested Forster had treated "half his cast in A Passage to India".
Gerald is unfailingly amiable. Betty Vermont's description of him as "so absolutely nice-minded" is sustained by his behaviour throughout the novel. The key incident in his severance from Lois is caused not by an instance of insensitivity but by one of mistaken chivalry and decency. He refrains from making a physical response to her appeal, which might have saved the situation. He does this, however, not out of lack of feeling but because he earlier promised Lady Naylor not to try to kiss her. Lois feels not so much that she is the victim of emotional shallowness or refusal to feel as of a refusal to see her as she really is. She tells Gerald "I don't believe you know what I'm like a bit". Some idea he has formed of her remains "inaccessible to her" and she cannot affect it. He, for his part, is convinced that "his darling Lois … had no idea what she was".
Comparison is one of the most significant devices in The Last September. The reader is meant to infer meaning by the carefully placed moral and historical juxtapositions of Lots and Laura, the Montmorencies and the Naylors, Gerald and Laurence, and Laurence and Hugo. Among the less obvious, but nevertheless useful, of these comparisons is that of Lois and Gerald with Livvy and David. What the contrast of Lois's love relationship with that of her much simpler friend, whom she suddenly outgrows and drops, is that Lois has a much more complex organization. She reveals a need to express, to explore and to understand her own needs. Her conception of love is, like her conception of herself, one which rejects the premature closing down of the development of feeling and of mutual emotional exploration. Gerald's reserve is, on the contrary, a matter of "convenience", undeserving of the "sensitive reverence with which such a quality is apt to be treated". He avoids emotional communication because it embarrasses, not because it is too sacred to discuss. Lois was Gerald's
integrity of which he might speak to strangers but of which to her he would never speak.
There is obviously a serious defect in the training which prevents a lack of emotional articulacy, even though such a lack is not the final truth about Gerald.
Lois's predicament is not specifically an Anglo-Irish one. Rather it is, in considerable part, the product of the need felt by some women for a less stereotyped role, for a freer and more open way of feeling, for a greater respect for the individual identity. Lois feels the need for "some incalculable shifting of perspectives that would bring him wholly into focus, mind and spirit" before she can wholeheartedly love him. For her, love must involve a communion of intelligences, a growth of understanding not simply a meeting of instincts, of "unclothed" emotion where a kiss is "an impact with inside blankness". It is, perhaps, this refusal to accept that instinct can be all in all which caused Jocelyn Brooke to note a cerebral quality in Elizabeth Bowen's description of sexual feeling.
However there is a contradiction at the heart of Lois's problem. While she desires the openness to development, the avoidance of some narrow role as Gerald's "lovely woman", she does at the same time, desire "something beyond sensation", a "quiet beyond experience", a kind of wholeness and calm which exists beyond the "little twists of conversation all knotted together". It is a misreading of her relationship with Gerald to ignore her own persistent sense of being "lonely", without a future, "ruled out", of lacking the stability such a love might bring. Besides, the reader's awareness that the inability of Lois to love Gerald is a failure is sharpened by the existence in the novel of a wider context of rootlessness and refusal to feel, deepening from Hugo's generation to Laurence's. It is also worth giving weight to Elizabeth Bowen's later remark that Lois "touches the margins of tragedy, not in Gerald's death, but in her failure to love".
However, no external evidence is needed since the text makes it clear that Lois chooses to abandon the possibilities of this love and supplies her motive for doing so. When all is allowed for Gerald's limitations and for Lady Naylor's interference (well meant according to her lights, since she wishes to spare Lois the poverty she foresees for Livvy), it is Lois who cannot bring herself to make the choice, which, like all choice, contains some sacrifice. In a crucial incident she overhears her aunt and Mrs Montmorency discussing her relationship with Gerald. Lois is aware of the disadvantages of marrying to a woman:
Love, she had learnt to assume, was the mainspring of womens' grievances.
(The parenthesis is significant, of course, because it implies that some of these disadvantages may be subjective and ignores any possible gains). The overheard conversation proceeds and Lois is about to hear Mrs Montmorency make some definite statement about her. This Lois cannot bear. "She didn't want to know what she was" since she feels "such knowledge would finish one". The rejection of final self-knowledge is linked here with the rejection of the confinement, as it's seen, of a relationship.
The Last September nowhere pretends that Gerald does not have very obvious limitations. However, in a superb passage, Elizabeth Bowen underlines the fact that, in rejecting love, even with its attendant restrictions, Lois has denied herself the chance of understanding herself and of achieving some final fruition. Lois bangs her water-jug about in her basin to draw attention to her presence and stop the two women talking. In this she succeeds.
It was victory. Later on, she noticed a crack in the basin, running between a sheaf and an cornucopia; a harvest richness to which she each day bent down her face. Every time, before the water clouded, she would see the crack: every time she would wonder: what Lois was—She would never know.
The image is an apt suggestion of the failure of any "harvest richness" in Lois's own life. The last sentence of the chapter is ominous with its implication of some definite and final turning away, some willed refusal. There will, indeed, be no more Septembers.
This sense of refusal is reinforced later when Gerald utters words which have a "solemn echo", "You know I'd die for you". In Lois's mind these words evoke the high arches of a church, where the young pair are to be married. What he says has too a "warmth and weight" and a "quiet" as though "for many nights he had been sleeping beside her". It is the promise of a bond, a progress to stability and peace, "beyond experience", perhaps because nothing in her experience affords evidence for what she yet nevertheless intuitively senses is possible and which she desires. Then, with a deliberate baldness, and a bleakness, unexplained here but perhaps explained by the breaking of the "Golden Bowl", the novel states the fact of her refusal:
But she turned away from some approach in his look.
What Gerald had said and what Lois had felt is proof of the existence of words of power, offers, promises, or kinds of loyalty which bind individuals to each other and on which "quiet" can be built. What Gerald had offered was significantly different from the "future" envisaged by Marda or Laurence or the "past" incarnated in Hugo. In a final scene with her cousin, Lois tentatively admits the existence of a range of feeling from which she has chosen to exclude herself Laurence comes to Lois in the garden of Danielstown after Daventry has brought the news of Gerald's death. She explains that she is "just thinking". This seems to be a mood Laurence can understand, in which by a process of reflection one can reach a kind of indifference or detachment where everything appears relative, without ultimate meaning or value and at last without power to hurt. This is the consolation he promises Lois:
I think I should, I expect—I don't know—one probably gets past things.
Lois replies that "there are things one can't get past", meaning Gerald's love of her and of his country: "At least, I don't want to". Laurence, perhaps out of politeness, agrees, "studying, with an effort of sight and comprehension, some unfamiliar landscape". Gerald's fumbling sense that Laurence's earlier idea of civilization reflected "a wrongness that was the outcome of too much thinking" receives a posthumous confirmation.
If one gives due weight to this exchange, our last glimpse of Lois, then it signifies an affirmation of certain values. These values had been preserved in a fossilised form by the Naylors, before being engulfed by historical change. They had been denied by the modern consciousness, developing from Hugo to Laurence. They are values which, it appears, survive their association with Gerald's naivety and emotional immaturity, his young man's awareness of Lois's needs and feelings at a time when women's image and expectations were changing.
The Last September has many titles to distinction but perhaps the greatest use of them is its handling of a complex moral and emotional problem. This problem, born of longstanding cultural change, now sharpened by war and social upheaval, is, essentially the conflict between the claims of development and those of stability. Lois is a microcosm of that conflict, to which Elizabeth Bowen returns in her later novels, and which is, perhaps, their essential subject. The "creation of atmosphere", or the evocation of minute notations of feeling for which she is celebrated are, in fact, subordinate to a far more striking quality in The Last September, that of a judicious moral assessment which treats every feature of a problem with scrupulous fairness, combined with a tough-mindedness which does not attempt to suggest that there is some compromise in which every incompatible good can be combined. As the rootless Stella finds in The Heat of the Day, the stability of Mountmorris had its price. There is no easy answer. In The Last September, current solutions to the "Modernist" crisis of meaning, having been tried and found wanting, another choice was left. It again was not without its price, one which Lois was unwilling to pay. However, The Last September does not enforce a sense of futility so much as that of an unanswered question. It can claim the giving of that sense of "direction" which Elizabeth Bowen, later offered as one of the reasons she wrote:
Even stories which end in the air, which are comments on and pointers to futility imply that men and women are too good for the futility in which they are involved.
John Coates (essay date July 1992)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9002
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 not, on the whole, sympathetic to Bowen's conservative social and moral position. They cannot and do not deny the distinction of her style and the skill of her design but her vision does not appeal to them.
In many ways this is unfortunate. Whatever the reader's own political or moral sympathies, there is no denying Bowen's subtlety and intelligence. Her Anglo-Irish inheritence might be bound (if one was not utterly stupid and perverse) to make for a sharpened consciousness of the problem of any order or any attempt to build stability or permanence. The achievement of the 'people of Burke and Grattan' was one of glorious distinction but the injustices and cruelties it involved were blatant. At least some of Bowen's density of texture comes from the great value she placed on order and rootedness while acknowledging that the two are insecure and precarious and may (perhaps must) involve some pain or loss of oneself or to others. What is inescapably the good, the natural life is, at some time, difficult, threatened, undermined. Order and rootedness can never be merely assumed or taken for granted either as facts which will continue or as values to be endorsed. The object of this paper is to examine one of the most interesting of Elizabeth Bowen's studies of the problems of rootedness and order in her novel Friends and Relations (1931).
Clearly enough Friends and Relations has its basis in the contrast between two instincts, the first locating the emotional life in institutions such as marriage, the home or the family, and the second desiring to reject those institutions in favour of the autonomy of the self without ties. It is possibly that basis itself which has irritated critics and led them to undervalue the novel. Hermione Lee, for instance, attributes what she feels is an 'affectation' of language to the novels being 'reduced to investigating compromises and repressed emotions'. Yet the basic premise of Friends and Relations is the direct opposite of the one which underlies Lee's criticism. The compromises and 'repressions' (or rather acts of self-control) which the work examines are the foundations of social living, ultimately of civilisation. Far from being 'pointlessness', they are also the conditions of limited but substantial victories in the emotional life, of creation over destruction, of a difficult but rewarding art of the possible in the pursuit of happiness.
The first scene of Friends and Relations introduces many of its themes and many of those contrasts around which its structure is organised. One of the simplest and yet most fundamental of these is the dichotomy between stasis and mobility. Laurel Studdart's sense that the hours before her wedding to Edward Tilney are 'like a too long wait on the platform of some familiar station' whose associations have become 'irksome' is a preliminary hint of an appetite for movement, for the cutting of ties, the taking of the individual out of a family or communal context. It is an appetite which is seen as a pervasive and deeply damaging feature of the contemporary world. The image is echoed, within a few pages, when Theodora Thirdman, who epitomises this destructive current in the novel, reproaches her parents for failing to live in such a fashion that they 'mattered' in a place, for failing to be other than 'superfluous'. It is a failure which helps to launch their daughter on her course:
Arn't we ever going to begin? Mother, you're like someone sitting for always on a suitcase in a railway station. Such a comfortable suitcase, such a magnificent station!
Friends and Relations, like its successor To the North (1932), is concerned to explore the true nature and effects of this questing, unsettled spirit.
One of the two most important extended passages of imagery in the earlier novel is a revaluation of movement towards an unknown future. Lewis, Edward's closest friend, is 'stung to the personal quick' by the thought that Edward has, as he imagines, deserted his wife Laurel and gone off with her sister Janet. (The somewhat fragile but worthwhile marriages of the two Studdart sisters, Janet and Laurel; are the essential subject of the novel.) The 'guilty' couple are 'now out at sea', as it were, looking back at 'the whole town'. This image of the ship, sailing away with brave voyagers, out of the bounds of the known and conventional into the untried where risks must be taken, new values discovered, new emotions experienced, draws on a stock of feeling which Modernism inherited from the Romantic Movement. It is the mood of Virginia Woolf's The Voyage Out as much as Tennyson's Ulysses. Both the image and the mood behind it are questioned and subverted by Bowen as Lewis ponders what he feels was his friends' failure and betrayal: 'Land-bound, he hated their damned ship, all damned ships and hated those everlasting departures'. The travellers are not going towards a 'trackless' and exciting future but towards a knowledge 'scored bewilderingly'. Even more significantly, the perspective from which the voyage is being made is altered. In this frequently recurring image the journey was invariably seen through the eyes of those who are setting out towards freedom or selfhood. The version of Friends and Relations makes a number of delicate adjustments. Lewis projects himself into the minds of those who, he supposes, are sailing away on their moral and emotional adventure.
However, what they see in the town they are leaving behind are its unexplored possibilities, 'some unknown relation' between its buildings or the church 'you often went in without looking up' and the steep avenue 'never mounted'. The angle of vision then shifts in Lewis's mind to those left behind. They 'relinquish the travellers,the ship vanishes'. Even regret is lost in 'that last exchange' and the town received the observers back into its 'confusion'. The point (one rarely made) is that those who remain within have a view of things just as much as those who reject or leave the community.
The very end of the novel offers another shift of perspective on this basic contrast of movement and stasis, or journeying to the unknown or remaining in the habitual. Friends and Relations begins with Laurel impatient to depart from the 'familiar station' of her old home to a new destination. It ends with both of Colonel Studdart's daughters, Laurel and Janet, back at their home, accompanying their father down the Cheltenham street, 'smiling to left and right'. American tourists are startled by 'a horn in the street, some alarm of departure', but the hotel down whose steps they hurry is the one in which Edward, Laurel's husband, stayed in before his marriage. The continuities of the novel's world have contained and neutralised the forces of departure and disruption. At the same time the resolution is qualified with sorrow. Mrs Studdart worries about Laurel though not about Janet: 'What became of her? She has never been away. When this house goes—I don't know'.
The sophistication and unpredictability of the novel's patterning of order and stasis are only part of its wider complexities. Many of these relate to the nuances of an attitude to human beings in society which the first chapter begins to define. Friends and Relations opens in that somewhat unfashionable literary territory of 'social comedy'. It is not one which many critics currently find interesting. Why describe the postures and pretensions of the public man or woman, the snobberies of class or money, or the minute gradations of position in some artificial hierarchy, when one ought to question the whole foundations of such a society or even help to hasten its disintegration? A recent and very influential account of the English novel sums up the common current dismissal of social comedy: 'At its lower levels, which have been very popular, it is the mode of an anxious society—an anxious class preoccupied with placing, grading, defining…. It's the staple of familiar sometimes witty, sometimes malicious minor fiction.' The description of the Tilney-Studdart wedding at the opening of Friends and Relations seems to go out of its way to emphasise the strain and artificiality of the event. Edward's 'wonderfully self-possessed' manner, too studied to be entirely pleasing, is the result of his determination that his wedding should pass off, like Julien Sorel's execution, simply, suitably, 'without any affectation on his part'. His mother, Lady Elfrida, 'over-acted a little' in her attempts to charm. In order to have a 'summer wedding' the bridal pair had 'devoured' each other through their endless winter engagement. Strain and artifice are the keynotes of the wedding photograph. The young couple wait 'for the curtain to rise' in a garden 'staged in light'. Yet it is not a successful piece of theatre. The photograph, when it is developed, is a partial failure, the young bridesmaids looking 'over-posed', the married pair suggesting 'the heroic perhaps exaggerated a little'. Yet Mrs Studdart can never resist showing the photograph to her visitors. It is a hint of the ambivalence the novel explores.
These are reinforced by a number of echoes of Jane Austen throughout Friends and Relations, The name of the richer and somewhat intimidating family with a 'dark' secret about whom the Studdarts know little is Tilney, an allusion to Northanger Abbey. There are verbal echoes, too, as in Janet's letters to her mother describing Rodney's courtship which, it appears, resulted from the fact that 'weather in—shire was uncertain' or in her parent's delight that Laurel has been given an 'establishment' through her marriage. Sometimes the echo is continued into a short passage of pastiche. When Janet's marriage is endangered, 'letters on this affair of extreme delicacy shot to and fro between the distracted Studdarts in Cheltenham and the distracted young Tilneys honeymooning in Dalmatia'. The Austen echoes suggest a continuity both in English social life and in the way that life has been described in English novels. They recall a mode of perception which views society as necessarily involving both pretension and a contrast between the unaccommodated individual and his or her social role. In that perception the existence of property necessarily colours views taken of marriage. Yet this coexists with an entire acceptance of both property and marriage as necessary and inevitable. The comedy is concerned with excesses within a recognised framework, not with a questioning of the framework itself.
The embarrassments of the Studdart-Tilney wedding set the tone for a whole view of society in Friends and Relations. Its starting point is a recognition of the limitations and inherent comedy of social gatherings. Almost anyone who has ever been to any wedding would understand such a standing joke as the penumbra of 'friends' and relations one hardly ever sees and scarcely knows now, yet who have to be invited: 'Many old friends whose persistence has become a reproach and cousins receding in the distance almost to vanishing point'. In such situations, and they are many, social exchange involves certain conventional responses, a common acceptance of certain codes which channel feeling and avoid fuss and friction. No sensible person would dream of taking such useful devices and guidelines for the realities of the private emotional life of individuals. As Mrs Studdart remarks, having 'learned to reply by formula' to the congratulations which 'come in steadily' on Janet's engagement to Rodney Megatt, 'I suppose it's never possible to be absolutely sincere'. As if to suggest what the use of social conventions consists in, the reader is allowed a brief glimpse in the opening wedding scene of nature untrammeled by convention. The bride's two attendants, little girls 'with pink knickers', are typical of the unidealistic view Friends and Relations takes of young children generally:
'Cheat!' shrieked Prue.
'Are you allowed almond-paste?' Dilly countered.
'Oo, I'm sick of old almond-paste.'
The Jane Austen references have a second and more important function, however. By their contrast with the present they remind the reader of disruption as well as continuity. The Studdarts, in their Cheltenham seclusion, may carry on the older modes of life but their daughters' marriages thrust them into a current of radical moral change. It is bad enough to discover that one daughter, Janet, is to marry the nephew of the man who had been the lover of their other son-in-law's mother, Lady Elfrida. It is much more disorientating to find that their delicacies, doubts and moral quandary seem to mean nothing whatever to others. Lady Elfrida 'didn't consider the situation awkward at all. Not nowadays when everybody was different'. The Studdarts are left confused about their own behaviour. They do not know any longer whether they are being worldly or unworldly about the matter 'highhanded or simple'. It is perhaps significant that this amiable couple's home is called 'Corunna Lodge' with its suggestion of a gallant last stand. In their case it is a defence of failing standards and attitudes.
Yet the battle of Corunna was not an entire defeat, but a kind of Napoleonic Dunkirk. What the introductory chapters of Friends and Relations record is just such a narrow escape against the odds. They explore a victory against forces that make for disintegration. The compromise, the adjustments, the acts of self-command, the settling for what is less than one might have dreamed of but still a substantial contentment, all make up the map of civilised and adult life. The scheme is briefly suggested in the description of Janet's marriage to Rodney Megatt: 'No one knew what she thought. She had now, of course, her happiness, but it had been difficult—Cheltenham did not know'. What Cheltenham did not know has, however, been made clear enough to the reader. It is a mistake to see the structure of Friends and Relations as being based on two 'scandals', the overt one of Lady Elfrida's adulterous affair with Considine Meggatt, uncle of the Rodney who marries her daughter-in-law's sister, and the far more serious one of Janet's passionate but suppressed love for her sister's husband. This design could have made a striking plot and an interesting theme for a novel, but it is not the one Elizabeth Bowen chose to write. In fact, both 'scandals' are equally obvious from the beginning of Friends and Relations. The schoolgirl Theodora Thirdman, who is later to be developed as the main example and source of modern disorder, detects the emotional trouble behind Janet's impassive manner. Overhearing Lady Elfrida's loaded remarks. 'Theodora, intently listening, inferred that Janet loved Edward, that his mother preferred Janet; that for Janet this was a day of chagrin, possibly of despair'. The weight of interest in Friends and Relations rests not on the revelation of a secret to the reader but in examining the problem of maintaining order in the personal life and the poignancy of carrying out duties undertaken within relationships. It is concerned with the quality of love viewed as an institution rather than as a form of self-fulfilment.
The strains of maintaining the two sisters' marriages and the limitations of each relationship are made sufficiently clear for the question of whether they are worth maintaining to become unavoidable. Neither marriage is based on deep and whole-hearted love or romantic self-abandonment. In one case, that of Laurel and Edward, it is not what is somewhat intimidatingly called a mature or adult relationship at all. Rodney, Janet's husband, is an admitted second best. A somewhat colourless man, 'fair, lean and solid', he was 'very much liked in the neighbourhood'. What Janet values is his calming sympathy and undeniable physical attractiveness as she 'wept on his shoulder': 'Though she did not love him she began to understand desire. He comforted her a little'. However, Rodney's behaviour during the meal at the lonides Restaurant, his first, extremely difficult meeting with his future brother-in-law Edward, reveals his more substantial qualities. It also defines much more clearly the novel's moral attitudes. The meal is a test of the two sisters' husbands' ability to get on with each other and of the future family relationship to cohere. The test is passed. Potentially explosive material is rendered manageable by manners and the exercise of self-control. The scene is a paradigm of that social loving which secures the individual's peace of mind and realisable happiness and skirts around possible disasters. There is a suggestion of a code in which thought and emotion may be free but in which it is not possible or worthwhile to express everything one thinks or feels. Rodney's low-key 'impassable' manner, his equable cordiality, deflects Edward's suspicion of the nephew of the man who caused the collapse of his mother's marriage and his own miserable childhood. An even more dangerous area is avoided by Janet's self-suppression. Her brooding obsessive love for her sister's husband is even more likely to wreck the future family alliance than scandals from the previous generation. Yet, while Janet thinks with 'cold dispassionate passion' how easy it would be to make Edward fall in love with her and make him 'run about' in the palm of her hand, she thinks this while 'deliberately not looking' at him. Janet's behaviour is best understood by comparing it with her sister's on the same occasion. Laurel 'forgot herself—an objective in manners her mother had constantly put before her—in the determination to set them all at ease'. Both Laurel and Janet are, in fact, their mother's daughters and their standards are, in important ways, those of Corunna Lodge, Cheltenham.
The predicaments of Lady Elfrida and of the would-be destroyer Theodora are not caused primarily by either woman's sexual tastes or 'failings'. Both Janet and Laurel are faced by dilemmas at least as serious, but which are surmounted. What lay at the heart of Lady Elfrida's earlier unhappiness is what lies, in a far grosser form, at the heart of Theodora's nearly disastrous activities. It is an egotism which will not admit the duties of social living. Lady Elfrida 'had few friends, for she appeared to lack reticence and talked extravagantly, exaggerating her idea of herself'. It was this self-dramatisation, this playing up of her own postures and attitudes without a regard to others, which, much more than the single fact of her adultery, destroyed her marriage. She 'exasperated' the affection of those who had loved her, especially her husband 'Edward's gentle father'. It was this 'cumulative' indignation which led him to divorce her 'punitively'.
It is worth comparing the cause of Lady Elfrida's marital breakdown and subsequent relative isolation with the causes of Theodora's disruptive career. Theodora is more complex and interesting than is suggested by critical descriptions of her as a 'ghoulish lesbian' providing the only vivid patches in the novel or as 'an awful irresponsible female adolescent'. A useful starting point is the perception that the problem Theodora poses, like that posed by Lady Elfrida, is wider and deeper than the isolated facts of a sexual transgression or a sexual unorthodoxy. At the end of the novel, Theodora has broken up the family party at Batts by her malicious letter, but her interference has, apparently, had the effect she least desires, of driving Janet, with whom she is infatuated, into the arms of Laurel's husband Edward. This is Theodora's tragic moment. She is about to launch into a great confession scene ('I tell you, idiot, I love her beyond propriety') when it is cut off by Lewis: 'And never, never think of anyone but yourself. It would be fatal, wouldn't it, Theodora?' Like Lady Elfrida, Theodora has an 'idea of herself' which overrides any notion of the obligations of corporate living or the duties of relationships. Far from being 'destined' to grow up as she does, by some impersonal fate, she is the product of a particular modern ambience, implicitly contrasted both with the Studdart family home at Cheltenham and the more precarious and self-conscious achievements of order and stability in the marriages of Janet and Laurel which she threatens. Alex and Willa Thirdman, Theodora's parents, embody a devitalised intellectualism which possesses neither a social function nor a sense of social responsibility. (Their very name, perhaps, suggests this supernumerary quality.) They have returned to England from Switzerland but really prefer their hygienic exile with its 'arrangement of scenery; there but never too close'. That last phrase is, perhaps, the clue. The older Thirdmans seek disengagement from living. They do not want the sharp experience of places or people which, risky or painful as it might be, is the inevitable accompaniment of really knowing them. They can never be made to understand that the individual is responsible for making his or her life count and that this 'affair' is a 'desperate' one. Their only response to experience is 'a little mild fortitude'. The Thirdman's spiritlessness, lack of appetite and of the habits and idiosyncrasies which are the tokens of spirit and appetite, their refusal of the particular and the exciting are directly responsible for their daughter's attempts to grab at associations, friendships, or any kind of emotional intensity to be had on the instant and on the cheap. In reaction to Alex and Willa, Theodora 'armed herself like a bandit, to hold up anything, anyone and wreak pillage on the years'. The Thirdman parents are a serious critique of 'progressive' thought and styles of living, as well as a pair of comic minor characters. They are, it is clear, far from unique oddities. 'Hundreds of English families' live like them, 'happy in their translation' from England to Geneva, where they can enjoy modish, antiseptic and undemanding pleasures: 'boating, botany, the dear League of Nations'. The last reference to an institution whose well-intentioned futility was apparent at the time when Friends and Relations was published, helps to define the Thirdman ambience of advanced thought in the 1920s, already wearing thin.
The futility, and worse, of Alex and Willa's values becomes clearer in the description of the 'rigorous education' to which they have subjected their daughter from the age of six. Under their up-to-date allegiances lies an emotional rejection of Theodora. Her father would have preferred a boy. Both parents have taken no care to understand her feelings or affections and 'hardly knew' whether she formed 'strong attachments'. Instead of the bonding of family life, they fob her off with a cultural package deal in which the 'bleak excellence of her Swiss education' is succeeded by the pretentious absurdities of an innovative English schooling. Miss Byng's establishment is obviously a foretaste of Miss Paullie's in The Death of the Heart (1938) and touches on some similar preoccupations. Portia in the later novel is a poignant examination of that violation of childhood sensibility and that refusal of love which is handled mainly as grotesque comedy in the figure of Theodora. Both schools are establishments to which the unwanted child, awkward and embarrassing for whatever reasons, can be packed off. Thomas and Anna in the later novel salve their consciences with the pretence that Portia is imbibing culture and lady-like ways at Miss Paullie's. In Friends and Relations Alex and Willa's ostensible educational aims are those fashionable in more 'liberal' circles. The headmistress of their chosen school, Mellyfield, 'sets great store by individual development'. Theodora is to be exposed to a diluted Freudianism. 'Neurosis had a high value at Mellyfield' and the girls are absorbed by their own personalities which 'they displayed, discussed and altered'. They 'read psychology to each other' on Sunday afternoons. It is in this heady atmosphere that Theodora develops her interest in alternative sexual orientation through male roles in amateur theatricals ('"You make a marvellous man." said Jane and Ludmilla') and falls under the influence of Marise, Lewis's young sister, a 'bleak fair girl' with whom she later sets up house. The relationship begins not in an atmosphere of affection but of appraisal. Marise, who, significantly, is 'too thoroughly the Statue' in a school production of Don Giovanni, takes the measure of Theodora and her situation: 'The one thing she oughtn't to be is taken notice of. She's probably been sent here to make nice friends'. Her future 'nice friend's' hold over Theodora is based on this cold knowingness rather than emotional closeness.
It is at Mellyfield, too, that Theodora's need for vicarious emotional satisfaction becomes dominant. Earlier this had been little more than childish mischief, a lonely and bored girl's attempt to connect herself with some life outside her parent's flat with its 'hired bric-a-brac'. All the Thirdmans can suggest to their daughter is a kind of dim parody of the modernist aesthetic solution to the problem of living, the notion that one can make life bearable by converting it into art, already rejected in The Last September (1929). The earlier novel's epigraph, from Proust's Le temps retrouvé, seemed to suggest that the meaninglessness of experience might be redeemed by art. Yet Lois's writing, in The Last September, is dismissed as weak and derivative. It is interesting, in this connection, that the attempt of Theodora's friend Marise to write a novel on 'women's difficulties, difficulties about women' is, like Lois's artistic velleities in The Last September, dismissed as without merit. The Thirdmans go about on buses, 'looking at all the types', and Willa expects that 'Art will come' for Theodora and that 'she will write'. (The first phrase may be an echo of Pater's The Renaissance and a hint of that connection established in The Last September between the deracination of the 1920s and the moral climate of the 1890s and the Edwardians.) The Thirdmans' 'calm parental faces' and tones of sweet reasonableness cannot disguise their fundamental lack of love for their daughter. She recognises the emotional void in which she has been living and knows that her progressive school is a device to dispose of her: '"I am being put out of the way," she thought of Mellyfield angrily. "I am tike a dog going to the lethal chamber".'
In such a context, Theodora's earlier antics with the telephone become only too understandable. Having no place, no world, no love of her own, she takes to ringing 'several prominent people' in disguised voices and maintaining conversations with them: 'Passionately passing along the wire she became for those moments the very nerve of some unseen house'. These forays into other lives are too brief and disconnected to do other than produce 'bitterness'. At Mellyfield, however, Theodora moves from idle mischief to a more fully developed emotional parasitism, focused on the Studdart sisters and their marriages and especially on the figure of Janet, whose kindly sensible letter, extorted after constant pressure, she folds in her camisole until it 'became limper and limper'. She develops this emotional interest partly to impress her new associate Marise and partly in response to the theoretical interest in psychology and relationships manifested around her.
The account of the way in which Theodora Thirdman is shaped towards the sterile and destructive role she is later to occupy in Friends and Relations is important for two reasons. Firstly, it emphasises that Theodora's case grows out of a moral and intellectual context in a particular society at a particular time, a context produced by the choices of individuals like her parents. Secondly, the account forces the reader to revalue what it is that both Janet and Laurel do in their marriages and, perhaps, something of the nature of marriage itself.
The other of the two main images in Friends and Relations, equal in importance to the departing ship which in Lewis's reflections deflates the 'poetry of departure', is like the ship, unexpected and challenging in its implications. In the striking 'Tree of Jesse' passage, Janet reflects on the old branchings 'like the fatal apple tree in a stained-glass window', the affair of Lady Elfrida with Considine Meggatt, the uncle of her own husband Rodney:
And in her confused thought this one painted tree associated itself, changed to another, the tree of Jesse; that springing—not, you would think, without pain somewhere—from a human side, went on up florescent with faces, to some bright crest or climax or final flowering to which they all looked up.
The passage is a conflation of two historical and religious metaphors familiar in earlier writings and iconography. The fatal apple tree with the man and woman on either side was often seen as part of a process which was to culminate in the Redemption of mankind. Popular medieval legend suggested that the wood of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was actually used to make the Cross on which Christ was crucified and that when Eve left Eden she carried away a branch which 'betokened a great happiness … a sign of our return hereafter'. The movement from Fall to Redemption was even seen as in some sense dynamic, a way to a better state than the first innocence, as the well-known carol 'Adam Lay Abounden' suggests.
At the same time this pivotal passage in Friends and Relations draws on a second medieval mythic mode for understanding history and the relationship between individual choice and action to its wider social context. The Tree of Jesse first appeared in iconography in the twelfth century, one of the first examples being in the psalter of Henry of Blois, Winchester 1140–1160. Based on Isaiah, II, 1-2, it is a genealogical linking of David's father with Christ and the Virgin Mary, a means by which the most private and domestic of Old Testament stones, that of Naomi, Ruth and Boaz, is joined to the ultimate cosmic drama.
It is worth dwelling on the full implications of this passage in Friends and Relations because it offers a radically alternative vision to that of the discredited 'voyage out', a way of seeing feeling as private and yet joined by a web of connection to other lives, other choices, the actions of the past, the consequences in the future. The individuals, the 'perplexed similar faces', are part of a wider process of institutional and familial growth which contains but does not suppress their identities. Lady Elfrida may regret for herself but she must not disown the act of adultery which is the ultimate origin, the 'pain somewhere', from which the Studdart marriages have emerged in their present form. That act must, in a manner, be regarded as a 'fortunate Fall' since it has produced the fabric of friends and relations, the family connections whose potentialities the novel explores and whose virtues it celebrates:
If you felled the tree, or made even a vital incision, as Elfrida impatient of all this burden now seemed to desire (for if her heart were the root it had contracted, if hers were the side, it ached) down they all came from the branches and scattered, still green to the core like July apples, having no more part in each other at all: strangers.
The fear expressed here is that, by her denial of the inheritance of marriage and relationship brought about by her own action, Lady Elfrida risks destroying a complex growth of mutual dependence before its fruits have ripened.
It is here that the novel is most challenging. Superficially, it is only too easy to read the situation as Lady Elfrida reads it here, when she wishes to 'fell the tree' her actions have planted. It seems hard to deny the force of her own conclusion that, by destroying her marriage and breaking up his childhood home, she damaged her son emotionally, rendering him incapable of a fully adult relationship such as marriage with Janet would have offered. As it is, 'scared' by his mother's actions, he is 'fit for no one but little Laurel' with whom his life is 'nursery tea' or 'miniature happiness'. However, the validity of this passional view of relationships is at once checked. It is the biased response of one who by nature and circumstances is unable 'to conceive of love' except as 'a very high kind of overruling disorder'. Clearly unless one does accept the conclusion of Friends and Relations as a whole that love is other than solely a quest for emotional and sexual satisfaction, one will agree with Lady Elfrida here or with those critics who regret that Edward's and Janet's suppressed love 'doesn't have enough force to persist against the family' or that their 'prospect of sexual fulfilment is relinquished'.
In fact, by the time Janet has this conversation with her mother-in-law, the novel has investigated both sisters' marriages, suggesting the climate and quality of each. What emerges are not two cases of conventionality and personal frustration but two examples of growth and ripening which promise to heal the past (as much as it can be healed) and to make the future. The love of Laurel and Edward may be 'childish' or 'retrogressive'. Yet while they 'lay side by side on their two low beds as on tombs', they remain 'aware' of each other over the 'chasm' and a 'small thrill animated the tombs'. The account of Laurel and Edward is a gently amusing yet effective plea for remembering that there are many kinds of love which may be worthwhile in many kinds of ways. 'Nursery tea' is better than starvation.
What his marriage offers Edward is, confessedly, an opportunity to regress, to have with his wife the happy childhood he should have had and to gradually erase the pain inflicted upon him. In the early period of their life together, he tells Laurel of the shattering effect of the loss of his childhood home and of his desertion by his mother: 'It really did seem as though she had thought out what she ought not to do, what to avoid, what would hurt people most, and done it all'. Without explanation the child Edward was carried off by his Tilney aunts to 'a dreadful house in Buckinghamshire' to which bits of the furniture he had known 'like wreckage came down on a flood'. This, of course, is the price paid by the innocent victims of the view of love as 'a very high kind of overruling disorder' and who are left behind when others make the voyage out.
It is particularly significant that Laurel can offer Edward sympathy which Janet, who loved him in a far more full-blooded fashion, could not. While Janet dismisses Edward's early traumas ('It's time you gave him something else to think about'). Laurel readily takes on the comforting role the situation requires of her:
Her husband had told Laurel all about this in the dark, with his head close to hers and his arms round her. Had he spoke of this before? He said, till now he had not let himself think or feel. Once she comforted him so much that he wept. They had designed, wordlessly, that he must re-live his childhood.
Friends and Relations makes it abundantly clear that Janet's predicament is that she has fallen in love with a man who cannot respond to the kind of feeling she has to offer. It is not a question of compromise or conventionality strangling love or of passion being 'relinquished'. Such passion is never possibility. Forced to a point 'where dread and desire ran round the circle to meet' in one of those brief self-revealing encounters with Janet brought about by Theodora's interference, Edward admits this fact about his own nature: 'If you and I had fallen in love—but I didn't want that, he said clearly'. His and Laurel's alternative, of life as an 'affair of charm, not an affair of passion', is, the text makes clear, a workable choice, and, for some temperaments, a perfectly sensible one. (To Janet's suggestion that it must be a good thing for people to harden, Laurel aptly replies, 'If people can'.) Laurel's 'childishness', her very lack of emotional depth, provides her husband with exactly what he needs. She turns their inevitable quarrels into 'burlesque', throwing everything into a 'harmless light by exaggeration' and making up arrears of nonsense right back to his infancy.
Friends and Relations posits a real and credible dilemma. Whatever the pain and sterility of the view of love as an imperative of personal fulfilment (and it is clear from the affair of Lady Elfrida and Considine that it maybe both painful and sterile), there must be situations in which such love is, in any case, unavailable. Janet rears the edifice of her life in recognition of that fact. Her 'conventional' marriage to Rodney is intended to secure happiness both through that marriage itself and because it is a means to have a connection, 'to be related', in some way to Edward who cannot return her love. At first sight, and bearing in mind Henry James's acknowledged influence on at least Elizabeth Bowen's early work, it is tempting to see Janet's conduct as some recondite psychological case history. It might seem to rival the moral curios in what Chesterton called James's 'treasury of unique inventions'. In fact, such a response is itself testimony to the hold of romantic and sub-romantic conceptions of love on the minds of readers and critics.
Janet's actions are understandable against a background suggested by the 'Tree of Jesse' passage, an emotional context which gives more weight to family, both as an inheritance and as an atmosphere, and less to the romantic satisfaction of any given pair of its members. Such an emotional context would have seemed comprehensible and valid in other times and cultures, as the medieval image reminds us. Begging Edward not to quarrel with her because she has married the nephew of his mother's lover, she assures him that 'we are relations for life' always meeting and 'talking over arrangements' for the next fifty years. Above all, the family connection offers its own kind of quietness and order: 'You must see what families are; it's possible to be so ordinary; it's possible not to say such a lot'.
Much of Friends and Relations is, in fact, a celebration of these qualities in family life, of its power to cure the past and to build the future. The 'recurrence', even 'monotony', of domestic life has its own delicate rhythm for Janet. Her and Rodney's marriage, without being a great meeting of mind and spirit, is a testimony to the force of kindly habit. 'Ten years work on a calm lover' can produce in the inarticulate husband 'a strong natural law' that his wife should be at his side. He follows her movements about the house, and looks for her shadow on the 'curved white wall'. The family, however, involves much more than the relation of husband and wife. It is shown as an increasingly complex interaction of all its members in somewhat unexpected but rewarding combinations. Edward's friend Lewis forms a pleasant companionship ('an unequivocal success') with Janet's and Laurel's father. Janet as an aunt is beneficial to her sister's children. The fact that she leaves them alone, 'is not concerned with them', is a healthy relief from the somewhat overwrought attentiveness of their own parents. Above all, it is in the cases of Elfrida and Considine that the developing family works its most profound effect. The 'guilty pair' become the indulgent grandmother and uncle to the Studdart children. The scandal and, more important, the pain of the past is assuaged and overlaid by the new relationship.
The suspicion of sentimentality is challenged by the novel's insistence that family occasions and festivities are not outmoded or irrelevant. Rather, they correspond to natural, if unfashionable, appetites. Elfrida's fear that she will not be able to 'be together for Christmas' with her grandchildren 'was the nearest she ever came to penitence' for her past escapades. Considine, we are told, 'loved gatherings', and Elfrida fears that this wish for future meetings will be rejected, like her own for family Christmases. She does not care to think of her former lover as 'sentimentally wounded'. If the peculiar moral landscape of Friends and Relations could be summed up in any one sentence, it is the next. Elfrida reflects: 'to be rebuffed as an uncle would be disastrous'. Much of the originality of the book lies in its unfashionable insistence on the value of the wider family connection, of the relationships which grow up on the penumbra of the married couple. The opportunities to be an uncle, an aunt, a grandparent or a family friend correspond to real emotional needs which individuals have, even if the climate and ideologies of a rootless and atomised society do not encourage their discussion. The chief 'event' of the novel's second section is bound up with the natural dynamic of this wider familial living.
Janet gradually becomes aware that in spite of the unremitting courtesy and loyalty of her husband's uncle, 'she was not his type'. This lack of sympathy is due partly to the 'lenten' quality of the 'daily companionship' at her husband's house, but the main reason lies in the changing climate of society between Considine's Edwardian generation and that of the late 1920s and early 1930s. There may, Edward's friend Lewis admits, be an 'asexuality, a competitiveness' in talk and less enjoyment in the contemporary world. However, there is a natural and easy solution to this social difficulty. If Considine lacks his 'pair' in the 'smallish, equable and domestic' home his nephew and Janet have set up, then that 'pair' can easily be found. Elfrida is the obvious person to provide companionship and 'entertainment' for him. Whatever the burnt-out scandals of their past, the elderly couple do belong to the same generation and besides, share an interest in and connection with the family now growing up around them.
The passage which describes how, and more importantly why, the taboo about Elfrida and Considine staying at the same time as Edward's children melts away is particularly significant. It is made clear that this 'moral front of a lifetime is abandoned calmly', simply out of a desire to make existence as pleasant as possible within the family circle. As Rodney remarks, although he is sorry for Edward, 'life has really got to be lived somehow'. It is the undramatic but sensible reaction of one who 'so seldom spoke of life'.
The scene of domestic comedy in which Considine and Lady Elfrida take Edward's children to have their hair cut and eat ices, which one of the first reviewers rightly called 'delightful' is so for two reasons. Like the comedy of the hordes of unknown 'friends' and relatives at Laurel's wedding, it is an immediately recognisable human situation, the harassed grandmother or uncle dealing with the childrens' demands for sweets. Secondly, and more subtly, the comedy lies in the two worldly people with their 'wicked' past being brought into that common domestic and family situation. To their young charges, they are harmless and amusing. Elfrida is a lady with a Petunia-coloured hat, who at one time 'had been very much in the papers'. Considine is 'a daddy-longlegs rather than a spider', in spite of all Anna has heard about his 'bad character'. The bleak and dismal episode of Edward's ruined boyhood Christmas, with an unwanted teddy-bear from his mother's lover, is recalled now by Edward's son Simon as an 'awful' hint to Considine to buy him a camera.
This capacity of family growth to change and mitigate past attitudes is suggested by Elfrida's reaction to Considine when she meets him again at Janet and Rodney's house: 'He took on as much, in her view, from this domestic setting as he did in Janet's from the social heightening and brightening Elfrida's presence set up'. In the 'ordinariness' and ease of this new life, the two erring members of the older generation are allowed to forget their past defeats and disasters. Elfrida 'had certainly sinned' in bygone years but she can now enjoy having an egg for breakfast with her grandchildren looking on. The new light in which she and her lover can see each other originates from their being both involved in new relationships in a new setting. Escaping from the 'sad conventionality' of their sterile and rigid roles as failed adulterers, they relax into an easy friendliness.
These are the hopeful and developing prospects which Theodora Thirdman attempts to blight by her interference. That attempt and its failure are the core of the novel's plot, the essence of its moral diagnosis. To say that Theodora embodies forces hostile to the family might have been to credit her with a certain boldness or courage, a creative adventurousness, given the notion that a defence of this family would only be mounted or believed by the stuffy or unimaginative. Friends and Relations launches a radical attack on this notion. Since the reasons for Theodora's behavior in her parents' failure and rejection and in her school experiences have already been given, that behavior seems a compulsive needling and undermining born out of emotional parasitism, rather than a deliberate gesture of emancipation. More important, however, it is the family, viewed in all the temporal and spiritual perspective of the 'Tree of Jesse', which brings about interesting changes, cuts across stereotyped relations and images of the self which revolt from it does not bring.
Even on the mundane level of easy daily living, Theodora's appearance as a house guest at Batts, to which she invites herself after the failure of her Austrian holiday, marks disruption. She is an irritant, glancing at the company 'casually, superciliously', grinding out 'cigarette after cigarette' against the range, the chum or the mangle. Her 'ironic patience' and 'lucid perplexity' are, it is plain, techniques intended to unsettle others, to make them self-conscious, to devalue their mode of living or their activities. She follows Janet about weighing her movements down with her 'attention'. One of Elizabeth Bowen's constant preoccupations, here as elsewhere in her work, is with the connection between the minutiae of domestic life and the broader issues of social and spiritual health. The whole passage in which Theodora refuses to sit down, keep still or to leave objects or people alone epitomises this approach, the inability to make oneself agreeable or even to be quiet is one index of a much deeper and more widespread sickness. Elizabeth Bowen shows, too that such emotional derangement, no mere matter of sexual preference, disguises itself by an air of sophistication. Theodora may emulate her friend Marise's 'cool little air of self-sufficiency that discredited marriage' and may attempt to impale others on smart prepared phrases but these are far less impressive than she intends ('"Nonsense," said Janet kindly, hoping it pleased Theodora to be so clever').
Emotionally dependent in the worst sense, Theodora battens on others, looking for drama, 'situations' or excitement. She cannot keep off the subject of Lady Elfrida's past, that 'extinct sin' in spite of the fact that the old crater is 'now so cheerfully verdant'. She loves, too, to dwell Edward's 'victimization', unlikė Janet who, 'impatient for order', regards grievances as a 'delay of the faculties'.
A substantial part of the problem Theodora poses lies in the fact that others do not grasp her skill in wrecking and undermining or the need she feels to do so. Lady Elfrida, while seeing her, probably rightly, as a product of contemporary life with its 'still recent sense of catastrophe', dismisses her emotional oddity and exorbitance as 'awkward … like nausea at meals'. Janet is unable to quite focus her attention on Theodora, only registering in a vague, good-natured way that 'something is the matter' with her. She cannot concern herself with the younger woman's complexities: 'she supposed, Theodora is bored, Theodora is fond of me'.
If Friends and Relations celebrates the values and explores the potentialities of an emotional order based on the family and its wider connection, it also shows poignantly that such an order, perhaps all order, is deeply vulnerable. The making of stability, the striking of roots, depend on vigilant self-command. Since her passionate love for her brother-in-law has been smothered but not eradicated, there are moments when 'Janet's composure became something precariously but calmly held, some very delicate glass dish piled high with fruit that balanced curve on curve just not tottering'. The accent here is not on the keeping up of a facade but on the maintenance of something fragile and precious. The 'Tree of Jesse' may reach into both past and future but its growth might be broken at any point.
Theodora, then, is dangerously destructive as well as fatuous and pathetic. Even after the earlier evidence of her background and upbringing there is still something shocking in the 'potent vulgarity' of her final definition, of the stance she has taken up by the end of the novel. The letter she writes to Laurel, letting her know that Edward's and her children are staying at Batts and precipitating a predictable scene over the improper visit and, less predictably, to a surfacing of Edward's and Janet's feelings for each other, is one of the most brilliant stylistic tours de force in Friends and Relations. 'Clever' as one of the first reviewers called it, it is the epitome of clever futility. Theodora's response to her supposed friends is revealed as that of glib and malicious psychological speculation. Above all, she is guilty of presumption. Unable to make or maintain any home or relationship of her own, she yet feels able to judge or dismiss the mutual feelings of others. What has been shown of the admittedly imperfect marriage of Rodney and Janet in any case disproves her suggestion that they 'can't love reciprocally'.
A final proof that the order Theodora attempted to destroy was worthwhile is to be found in Willa Thirdman's visit to the flat her daughter shares with Manse Gibson. This place is one of Elizabeth Bowen's finest domestic nightmares, a worthy anticipation of Eddie's flat in The Death of the Heart or Holme Dene in The Heat of the Day (1949). It shares some of the features of the much more fully developed later settings. Here, as later, discomfort is not merely an awkward atmosphere or a lack of pleasant arrangements. It involves the refusal of relationships and communication, the denial of the wish to sit and talk. Marise had had the mantelpieces removed 'so there's no dust', but really, one suspects, to deprive each room of a focus. Offering Willa 'an edge of the divan', she 'groaned in the Kitchenette' while making her visitor what she almost boasts will be 'impossible' tea. Marise repudiates the most elementary gestures of friendliness or hospitality as if they were crude and pointless ('You don't eat, do you?') and refuses even to share the tea she has made for Mrs Thirdman.
When Marise suggests that Janet might like to come over ('She need not talk to us'), Willa reflects that she would be far happier in the mediocre little hotel she uses on her London visits where, if the brass bed-knobs are unpolished, the maid 'who forgot the hot water remembered Rodney's grandfather'. In the bleak flat Theodora and Marise share, Willa Thirdman for a moment glimpses the futility of her daughter's life which, at the same time, is the futility of her own motherhood: 'Twenty-six years ago she had borne Theodora—to what? For this?'
Friends and Relations has set itself a difficult subject in the avoiding of tragedy. Survival, the maintenance of what is threatened, may, as themes, disappoint some readers' expectation that only the harrowing is ultimately significant, and they may feel that the novel's characters show a failure to rise to crisis. However, the book's choice of subject is deliberate and important, a difficult and threatened course of action pursued because it alone affords the means of growth and life, and after the alternative has been fully shown. The determining interview between Edward and Janet hinges on their recognition that in the marriage of each they have created a wider world which sustains them. They are unlike Edward's mother Lady Elfrida, who 'spent her own life' because it was all she had to spend.
This exchange between Edward and Janet means a dispelling of 'the obscurity of the years', the facing of the hidden feeling between them. They now know themselves and each other but neither is prepared to destroy the marriages they have made. What they realise is that the emotion may be powerful but can lead to nothing and that not merely because Edward does not have Janet's range of feeling. Curiously and interestingly, what overlays the possibility now overt in his mind, enabling him to bear it 'without regret or desire', is simply the existence of domestic patterns, the bonds of habit, the events of day to day in his sister-in-law's life and his own. The 'flickering little sequences' of his intimacy with his own wife, memories of her habitual acts (throwing him a cushion, patting cream on her face 'from the chin up'), are facts more concrete and valid than a world of notional erotic fulfilment. The weight in the novel's rejection of passion falls, after the context that has been built up, on the preference for the actual, in all its satisfying detail, over the formless and partly imaginary might have been.
To rely on the institutional view of marriage, to merge individual passion in the social framework of friends and relations, of the past and the future, is to avoid the 'bitter necessity' of the unaccommodated individual and the voyage out. For all its limited scale, Elizabeth Bowen's novel is one of her most coherent and thorough examinations of these potent, and in her view, debilitating modern myths.
Alexander G. Gonzalez (essay date Summer 1993)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2612
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 and social attitudes—despite obvious differences in the authors' social classes and general cultural upbringing—which are a testament to how strong an influence Joyce was. Bowen's Court and the streets of Dublin are as strikingly diverse raw materials of experience as one may imagine in Ireland. At first "Her Table Spread" would appear to have nothing Joycean about it, since it involves Ireland's Protestant upper class during the twenties; Dublin's slums and middle-class neighborhoods are nowhere in sight. However, further connections do exist once we consider certain significant subtleties of symbol, theme, and technique—all of which Bowen successfully adapts to suit her own purposes.
Not much has been written on Bowen's short stories, and precious little is dedicated to the study of her Irish stories. Antoinette Quinn, the only recent scholar to focus specifically on Bowen's Irish stories, unfortunately restricts herself to the period 1939 to 1945. Heather Jordan, however, not only lists Joyce among those authors Bowen most admired but also reminds us that Bowen's first published book, a volume of short stories, was titled Encounters—a fact of some significance for two fairly obvious reasons: it echoes the title of Joyce's second Dubliners story, "An Encounter," and it suggests Joyce's epiphanic method in his collection, a method utilized by Bowen in "Her Table Spread" to imbue the story with significant depth and poignancy. Mary Jarrett has noted Bowen's use of paralysis as spiritual metaphor in another of her stories, "The Dancing Mistress," likening it to something out of Dubliners; the same metaphor is clearly at work in "Her Table Spread," whose protagonist has much in common with Gabriel Conroy of "The Dead" both in terms of character traits and in the narrator's rhetorical stance toward the protagonist.
Bowen makes it very clear throughout her story that she is criticizing not only a handful of upper-class individuals, and one in particular, but also the remnants of Ireland's formerly powerful ascendancy as a whole. In fact, Bowen's story seems the logical ending point of a tradition in Irish fiction concerned with exposing the ascendancy's ailing spiritual condition. Beginning with George Moore's A Drama in Muslin (1886) and continuing through Seumas O'Kelly's The Lady of Deerpark (1917) and various short stories by Daniel Corkery, Brinsley MacNamara, and others, this tradition has always emphasized the ascendancy's paralysis in parallel fashion to the better-known tradition that criticizes Ireland's other classes for having the same disease—as manifested in Dubliners, its most salient example. Even though Valeria Cuffe may own her palatial home while Joyce's Misses Morkan merely rent their sprawling second-floor middle-class apartment, considerable similarities exist between the dinner parties in the two stories, especially since the events presented at each party occupy the bulk of each story. The party in Bowen's story is something of a reduced version of the one in Joyce's, for it involves far fewer participants. Still, when the story's protagonist, Mr. Alban, plays the piano, no one listens; Mr. Rossiter, Bowen's version of Mr. Browne, drinks to excess and has some ridiculous flirtation—or worse—going on with the parlor maid; and the general veneer of good manners hides only temporarily the underlying indelicacies of human nature.
The role of Mr. Rossiter, who conceals his bottle of whiskey in the most undetectable places, seems to be to show the debauched and seedy side of the self-consciously polite aristocracy—to expose the falseness skulking behind refined airs. Valeria's aunt, Mrs. Treye, and her younger friend and associate, Miss Carbin, are snooty, two-faced, and patronizing—and since they insist on treating the 25-year-old heiress as a child, they play a part in enabling Valeria to continue her bizarre puerility. Their only stake in Valeria's well-being seems to be that if she were to remain unwedded and childless, "the Castle would have to be sold and where would they all be?" Their fortunes are, apparently, legally tied to Valeria's. Mannerly and controlled to the utmost, these two older women seem intent upon suppressing the spontaneous actions and ejaculations of the effervescent Valeria—as when she excitedly contorts her body so that her "bust [is] almost on the table" and Mrs. Treye is forced to step on her toe from beneath the table in an effort to rein in her niece's enthusiasm.
In contrast to the general paralysis suffered by her class, Valeria maintains a vibrancy that cannot be effectively controlled. Though her passions may seem silly, they are at least genuinely felt and emanate from an independent-spirited soul. In this respect she continues the tradition in Irish fiction of such women: Moore's Alice Barton. Rose Leicester, and even Esther Waters; O'Kelly's Mary Heffeman; and, ultimately, Joyce's Gretta. There are more. Yet though none of these lives a vigorous peasant life, conversely, none suffers from upper- or even middle-class inertia. In fact, except for her age, level of maturity, and probably intelligence, Valeria shares a good deal with Gretta Conroy. Caught up in her wildly romantic imaginings, Valeria runs out into the rain and mud with no concern for her shoes or her satin dress; at times like these she seems much like Gretta, who, according to the fearful Gabriel, "would walk home in the snow if she were let." Valeria's spontaneous and heartfelt responses to life are found throughout Bowen's story and remind us of Gretta's similar reactions, as when she "clasped her hands excitedly and gave a little jump" at the thought of a trip to romantic Galway. And while Gretta has really lived through a highly romantic episode in her life—her involvement with Michael Furey—Valeria has at least a similar receptivity to romance, a state of being to which we are directly exposed via the device of narrated interior monologue. Valeria's consciousness reveals not only a strange and immature propensity for romantic reverie, but an almost incredible naïveté, a flightiness that is like a child's, and a fertile imagination that is wildly out of control—picturing, for example, a fight for her honor between two naval officers she has never even met. But why would Bowen create such an abnormally childish young woman as a major character in her story? Valeria's behavior has led at least one critic to call her "demented," but Bowen's vision of the protagonist's epiphanic moment requires just such a character.
The story's protagonist, Mr. Alban, whose name suggests his colorless, unromantic nature, is every bit as paralyzed as Gabriel Conroy, though obviously his malaise is not of exactly the same sort. For instance, while Gabriel has the consolation of being much sought-after for conversation throughout the Morkans' party, Mr. Alban is remote from Valeria and her guests, and, because he is colorless, he easily becomes socially invisible. He is described as one who "disappeared personally" from the rest of the company; later he feels that the party sits "looking through him"; and, finally, when the best he can attract is "less than half their attention," his instant thought is that "some spring had dried up at the root of the world." This is the man invited as a suitor to Valeria's symbolic table spread but who finds himself to be "less than half the feast" when he discovers that a naval destroyer, with its imagined romantic officers, has usurped his position as the gathering's main point of interest.
Like Gabriel, Alban is highly controlled and unspontaneous. While Gabriel has his prophylactic galoshes, Alban has his mackintosh buttoned tight up to the very collar. Gabriel worries if his literary references will be above the heads of his listeners, for whom he feels some obvious cultural contempt; Alban also feels culturally superior to the other guests, finding it "sad" that they should feel so "indifferent" to a man who comes from London and plays Mendelssohn on the piano for them (an exercise they find so "exasperating [that] they open all four windows to let the music downhill"). Finally, just as Gabriel fails several times in his dealings with women (with Lily, with Miss Ivors, and, most poignantly, with his own wife), Alban, actually a reluctant suitor, is twice described as having a "negative … attitude to[ward] women." This unromantic figure, with his fussiness and constant adjusting of his glasses and clothing, is, like Gabriel, so self-absorbed that he is described as having "failed to love" ever in his life. We cannot miss one of Gabriel's chief epiphanic revelations: that "he had never felt [as Michael Furey had] towards any woman but he knew such a feeling must be love." However, this is not the stuff of Alban's epiphany, since we are apprised of his misogynous attitude early in the story, well before the epiphanic moment itself; rather, Alban's loveless condition is more like an attendant detail that lends additional meaning to his coming revelation.
Significantly, Alban begins to shed his paralytic constraints by degrees, thus clearing the way for his epiphany to occur with full force. When Valeria runs off into the rainy night in search of her imagined naval officers, Alban feels—reluctantly—obliged to follow her and bring her back. He worries about his expensive shoes—his treasured pumps—for once they are destroyed with mud and scuffs, he has "no idea where to buy them … in this country" and he has "a ducal visit ahead." But let go he must, and as he uncharacteristically mutters a minor expletive he finally breaks loose and charges off gallantly into the downpour, for the first time "his mind blank to the outcome"; he has acted spontaneously even though pushed to it by circumstances. Finally locating Valeria in the dark after her lantern has gone out, he attempts to communicate with her but finds it impossible because the voluble Valeria has mistakenly assumed he is one of her much-desired naval officers come to rescue her—and she gives Alban little opportunity to make any explanations. She does not even recognize his voice—evidence of how invisible Alban has indeed become over the course of the evening. But for these few moments, Alban is unwillingly and suddenly thrust into the role of the romantic lover. Finding himself in an uncontrolled situation, "madly" out in the rain and the dark—muddy, dirty, and sopping wet—he realizes that he is standing very close to a warm, beautiful young woman, whom he can feel next to him better than he can see. It is for him an exciting moment, almost purely romantic and sensory: for once his all-controlling intellect is inoperative.
These stimuli bring on his epiphany, but one that is not as limited as it may seem. It is not the mere sexual arousal he is feeling, which would hardly constitute an epiphany, but a much broader and more significant insight that includes all women. This is so because just above him and Valeria, up on the balcony, are the story's two other female characters, the middle-aged Miss Carbin and the older Mrs. Treye. Among the three women all ages are represented, especially if we remember that Valeria, though in her twenties, behaves much like a young, teenaged girl, "still detained in childhood." As Bowen's narrator puts it, "their unseen faces were all three lovely, and … such a strong tenderness reached him that, standing there in full manhood, he was for a moment not exiled." Alban's awakening, then, has very broad implications, reaching beyond Valeria to include all women and an appreciation of womanhood itself; ultimately, through the three women's agency, he also arrives at a new and vital understanding of his own manhood. These emanating ripples of insight are, on a far smaller scale, similar to the waves of new vision that Gabriel Conroy experiences—going beyond Michael Furey's death to a far broader contemplation of death itself. Bowen's stuffy protagonist has been enabled to reach his fullest potential as a sentient human being by an epiphany of such magnitude that his former self has been momentarily obliterated.
The role of the destroyer (which is actually anchored far below in the estuary) and its crew is, strangely, comparable to that played by Michael Furey: both are catalysts. Unchanged themselves, they have been the chief agents in permanently changing the life perspectives of the protagonists. Hence, the destroyer in Bowen's story appropriately heads out to sea as the story's final detail. The significance of Bowen's title becomes fully clear now: Valeria's table has obviously been spread for a suitor. Originally that suitor is supposed to be Alban; then he is replaced by the never-seen naval officers; and, finally, it is Alban who replaces the naval officers by unwittingly impersonating one of them and thereby assumes the role of suitor in a totally new way. It can also be said that her table has been spread to enable Alban to reach his epiphany.
Mary Jarrett has argued that in all of Bowen's best stories "there is a refusal to pronounce on the validity of the worlds her characters create for themselves." This is most certainly true for Alban—and Valeria for that matter—in "Her Table Spread." What we have, then, is an ambiguity very similar to that at the end of "The Dead." Is Alban to change as a result of his epiphany? Is Gabriel? Is either capable of change? Are they too old, chronologically or emotionally? Or is each man terminally paralyzed and now painfully aware of it—and of what each, somnambulistically, has missed in his life? Such ambiguity is both meaningful and intended. As is the case at the end of Joyce's story, multiple perspectives emerge as possibilities. Those of us who are optimists would hope that significant change will occur in each protagonist.
Harold Bloom finds Bowen's stories to be "even … more remarkable than [her) novels" and he places Bowen only after Joyce and Lawrence as possibly "the most distinguished writer of short stories in our time." Once again we have Bowen and Joyce linked, this time in terms of quality. "Her Table Spread" is by no means on the level of "The Dead," but then not many stories are. Bowen's story is, however, qualitatively comparable to other Dubliners stories that demonstrate both spiritual paralysis and then the use of epiphany as the means by which a character becomes acutely aware of his of her affliction. This level of quality acts to reinforce the argument that Bowen, perhaps idealizing Joyce's work as a level of art to which to aspire, read him carefully and probably subconsciously—imitated some of the effects he had perfected, especially in "The Dead." When she applied her considerable talents to writing the story of Mr. Alban and Valeria Cuffe, what emerged was a thoroughly Joycean story—except for the merely surface differences of setting and social class. The imitation may possibly have been a conscious effect, but it seems to me more likely that it was a subconscious phenomenon that Bowen could not have helped noticing soon after the composing process had begun. The aesthetic stance and the multiplicity of connections between Bowen's story and "The Dead"—on the level of character, theme, symbol, and technique—make the case for influence considerably strong.
Robert L. Calder (essay date Winter 1994)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3124
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. Early critical commentary is typified by Allen E. Austin's remark that "'The Demon Lover' is a ghost story that builds up and then culminates like an Alfred Hitchcock movie."
This interpretation was first challenged by Douglas A. Hughes in his 1973 note "Cracks in the Psyche: Elizabeth Bowen's 'The Demon Lover.'" "Far from being a supernatural story," he argued, "'The Demon Lover' is a masterful dramatization of acute psychological delusion, of the culmination of paranoia in a time of war." The ghostly threat, rather than having any external reality, is a product of the disturbed mental state of the protagonist, Mrs. Kathleen Drover. Her guilt over her fiancé's disappearance and presumed death in the First World War, buried by years of conventional marriage, has been reawakened by another war, and she hallucinates his vengeful return. The inconstant woman in the English ballad "The Demon Lover" discovers that the lover is in fact the devil; in Bowen's story, "war, not the vengeful lover, is the demon that overwhelms this rueful woman" because it strips her of her recent memories and plunges her back to her betraying past.
In 1980, in an article entitled "Elizabeth Bowen's "'The Demon Lover': Psychosis or Seduction?," Daniel V. Fraustino disputed Hughes's interpretation, arguing that it interpolates several key points in the text. There is no evidence, says Fraustino, that Mrs. Drover suffered an emotional collapse after the loss of her fiancé or was gripped by "psychotic guilt," and nothing in her thought processes indicate incipient mania. To the contrary, the fiancé was clearly a psychopath who survived the war and has now returned to kill Mrs. Drover on the twenty-fifth anniversary of their parting. Impelled by an unconscious desire to escape from an impoverished and unfulfilling marriage, she becomes the victim in a "murder mystery of high drama."
Fraustino's analysis rightly identifies some serious flaws in Hughes's reading—there is indeed little evidence that Mrs. Drover suffered an emotional collapse after the loss of her fiancé—but in making his own case he is guilty, if not of interpolation, certainly of exaggeration. To counter Hughes's argument that Mrs. Drover's disarrayed house, which Bowen describes in characteristic detail, reflects her internal collapse, Fraustino claims that she has had an unsatisfactory marriage, marked by years of "accumulated emptiness." Her London house is an objective correlative, not of Mrs. Drover's psychological state, but of her "impoverished married life."
There is nothing in "The Demon Lover," however, to indicate that Mrs. Drover is dissatisfied with her marriage. After some years without being courted, she married William Drover at the age of 32, settled down in a "quiet, arboreal part of Kensington," and began to raise three children. When the bombs drove the family out of London, they settled in the country, and on the day of the story, wearing the pearls her husband had given her on their wedding, she has returned to the city to retrieve some things from their house. Empty of any human presence, it now seems to her full of "dead air" and "traces of her long former habit of life": a smoke stain up the fireplace, a watermark left by a vase on an escritoire, and scratch marks left on the floor by a piano. These may be images of emptiness, repetition, and stagnation, but they underline the absence of the family and its normal human interaction, not dissatisfaction with the marriage. She is a "prosaic" woman, whose "movements as Mrs. Drover [are] circumscribed," and her marriage is simply conventional.
Fraustino's view of Mrs. Drover as a discontented wife in an unfulfilling marriage runs into difficulty when he attempts to make her behavior relevant to the murder mystery plot. Like Hughes, he regards the title of "The Demon Lover" as an allusion to the English ballad about an absent lover, an intervening marriage, and a desertion from that marriage upon the lover's return. Bowen's story, however, has no indication whatsoever that Mrs. Drover intends or attempts, even fleetingly, to abandon her marriage. As a result, Fraustino can voice only the vaguest, most guarded of suppositions: "is it not possible that Bowen at least suggests Mrs. Drover's desertion?"
Finally, to build his case for murder, Fraustino interprets the character of the fiancé in a way surely not justified by the text. He rightly emphasizes that the young soldier was never tender and loving, that he was "without feeling," and that he extracted an "unnatural promise" from Kathleen. When, however, he notes that she left the encounter with a weal on her palm, which he had "pressed, without very much kindness and painfully, on to one of the breast buttons of his uniform," Fraustino concludes that "the soldier is a sadist of the most deranged kind … a psychopath." Cold, unfeeling, and disconcerting the fiancé certainly is, but can his behavior really be called sadistic, deranged, or psychopathic? If not, how credible is it that he would return to kill his lover of 25 years earlier?
As Fraustino admits, his reading of "The Demon Lover" as a realistic murder story invites several practically unanswerable questions: "how the taxi-driver knew that Mrs. Drover would be visiting her London house on that particular day, or how he managed to engineer events so cleverly that she would inevitably seek a taxi precisely on the hour of seven, can only be guessed." After suggesting that Mrs. Drover may have gone to London in an unconscious response to the twenty-fifth anniversary and arranged in advance for a taxi, he confesses that the story docs not provide enough information "to reconstruct a completely rational, satisfying interpretation of events."
If, then, there is no completely "rational" interpretation—and both the Hughes and Fraustino readings are attempts at rational explanations—could the story be operating on another level? Given her other writing, Bowen is unlikely merely to have written a ghost story or a tale of murder, though she does elsewhere explore psychological breakdown. In connection with this last point, however, it is important to see "The Demon Lover" in the context of the period in which it was written and of the collection in which it was published. In writing of the wartime milieu in the preface to the American edition. Bowen states that the stories "may be found interesting as documents, even if they are negligible as art. This discontinuous writing, nominally 'inventive,' is the only diary I have kept." It is as a wartime "document," then, a "diary" entry of a woman's response to yet another war, that "The Demon Lover" perhaps can be most clearly understood.
Elizabeth Bowen was not only keenly sensitive to political and social developments around her—witness her article on Ireland's neutrality in The Spectator in 1941—but immersed in the British literary scene. As such, she is likely to have read Vera Britain's book about another writer, Winnifred Holtby, Testament of Friendship, first published in January 1940. There she would have seen the following passage:
There are to day in England and in France and Germany and Austria and Italy, one imagines—women peacefully married to men whom they respect, for whom they feel deep affection and whose children they have borne, who will yet turn heartsick and lose colour al the sight of a khaki clad figure, a lean ghost from a lost age, a word, a memory. These are they whose youth was violently severed by war and death; a word on the telephone, a scribbled line on paper, and their future ceased. They have built up their lives again, but their safety is not absolute, their fortress not impregnable.
Brittain is here quoting Holtby's review of Pamela Hinkson's novel The Deeply Rooted, published in Good Housekeeping in 1935, and the phenomenon it describes was common enough that Frances Partridge, on reading the passage, noted in his diary:
Vera Brittain writes of the number of women now happily married and with children who still hark back to a khaki ghost which stands for the most acute and upsetting feelings they have ever had in their lives. Which is true, I think, and the worst of it is that the ghost is almost entirely a creature of their imagination.
There is no proof that Bowen read either Holtby's review or Brittain's reiteration of it, but its similarity to the plot of "The Demon Lover" is so striking that it could well have provided the idea for her story. Mrs. Drover has built up her life after losing a fiancé through war, has peacefully married and raised children, and certainly has her safety shattered and her "fortress" proven not to be "impregnable" by the appearance of some "lean ghost from a lost age."
If Bowen were writing only about the women haunted by the memories of lovers lost in the First World War, however, she is hardly likely to portray Mrs. Drover's fiancé in such harsh, negative terms. After all, few women would mourn the loss of a painful presence or have their present settled lives dislocated by its return. The formula demands a loving fiancé described in such detail as to evoke a sense of poignancy when he is lost. In Bowen's story, there is nothing sensitive or kind about the soldier, and, more remarkably, he is in no way individualized. We are given the barest of details, not about his features, but about his uniform, and his face remains hidden by the darkness. This lack of identity is emphasized again later when Bowen writes: "She remembered—but with one white burning blank as where acid has dropped on a photograph: Under no conditions could she remember his face" (original italics). Though this is obviously a very significant element in the story, both Hughes and Fraustino give it little attention. Hughes briefly suggests that the facelessness is the result of Mrs. Drover's faulty memory 25 years after the event, and Fraustino makes no mention of it.
Such an unusual treatment of the soldier suggests that he is meant to represent something quite different from the conventional lost lover, something perhaps arising from the conditions and times in which "The Demon Lover" was written. In 1935, sparked by Holtby's review, Bowen might well have described the unsettling recollection of lost love. Several years into the Second World War, when Britons were facing the real possibility of annihilation of their culture and civilization, she is more likely to have invested the soldier with a more ominous significance. In the midst of one war, a relic from an earlier one that was to have been the war to end all wars, would be a ghastly symbol of endless, inescapable violence.
In his forward to Writers on World War II, Mordecai Richter calls the Second World War "no more than a second act," and it has become commonplace to refer to the inter-war period as "the Long Armistice." The realization that the years from 1919 to 1939 were merely a temporary respite from armed conflict, however, came early to many thinking Britons. The Yorkshire novelist Phyllis Bentley, for example, wrote of "the armistice period [1919–1939] in British fiction" in the New York Times in August of 1941. Bowen, born in 1899 and having worked in a hospital for shell-shocked soldiers in 1916, could hardly have escaped feeling that the violence of one war had been let loose again in another.
Looked at as allegory, much in "The Demon Lover" becomes explicable. The present action takes place in August 1941, and the earlier parting took place in August 1916, almost exactly half way through a war that began in August—just as August 1939 had seen Europe rushing into another conflagration. The faceless, featureless soldier becomes a representative figure, a threatening everyman in military uniform. The absence of kindness, his not "meaning a person well," his being "set upon" Kathleen rather than in love with her, suggest that she is gripped by a force that is seductive but not benign. That she is in the presence of something demonic is conveyed by the "spectral glitters" she imagines "in the place of his eyes." The experience of war could hardly be more vividly embodied than in the image of the young woman's hand being so forcefully pressed onto the buttons of a military uniform that they leave a weal on her palm. Tennessee Williams employs a similar metaphor in The Glass Menagerie when he describes the American middle class "having their fingers pressed forcibly down on the fiery Braille alphabet of a dissolving economy." In Bowen's story, "the cut on the palm of her hand was, principally, what [Kathleen] was to carry away."
Kathleen takes something else away from her encounter with the soldier, though it becomes forgotten in her subsequent inter-war life: "the unnatural promise." Inexplicable in conventional terms, Bowen's language here becomes more understandable if it suggests complicity with war. In perhaps the last major war that the public approached with zealous idealism, in which women saw men off to battle amid banners and brass bands, and in which they gave white feathers to young men not in uniform, it would seem that they "could not have plighted a more sinister troth."
Just as war subsumes normal human life and interaction, Kathleen experienced a "complete suspension of her existence during that August week" when, she is told, she was not herself. In the years immediately following her loss, she suffered a "complete dislocation from everything," just as the western world went through a decade of dislocation—whether it was the Roaring Twenties in America or the era of Evelyn Waugh's Bright Young Things in Britain—in reaction to the disillusionment and horror of the First World War. And just as the 1930s brought the world back to a sober confrontation with serious issues of economics and politics, Kathleen's thirties made her again "natural enough" (as opposed to the "unnatural promise") to return to a conventional pattern of living. She married the prosaically named William Drover, and settled complacently down, convinced that they were not "still watched."
For many people in Britain, the 1930s was a period of similar complacency, grounded on the assumption that war had been "presumed killed" by the Treaty of Versailles and the creation of the League of Nations, and that appeasement would prevent its return. As we now know, however, the seeds of the second armed conflict had been sown and not eradicated in the first. Kathleen had thought that her khaki-clad demon was "going away such a long way," but his reply, "not so far as you think" suggests that war was never remote, no matter how normal and settled her life and that of her fellow citizens. The inevitability in his "I shall be with you, sooner on later…. You need do nothing but wait" matches the seeming inexorable march to September 1939 when, in the words of his letter, "in view of the fact that nothing has changed" the European powers had to return to their "sinister troth" with war.
But Kathleen is not haunted by her demon lover in September 1939. Total war did not really touch those in Britain until the following summer, and then she and her family were isolated from its full horror by living in the country. It is when she returns to London's deserted streets, cracked chimneys, and her shut-up, bomb-damaged house that she receives the letter. "The hollowness of the house this evening canceled years on years of voices, habits and steps," putting her back into the more dominant awareness of war, and so her demon soldier appears—on one level perhaps an hallucination but on another a symbol of war that will not go away.
In her 1916 parting from her fiancé, Kathleen had suffered a "complete suspension of her existence" when she was "not herself"; and the final lines of the story return to this idea, but much more dramatically and terrifyingly. Several moments after the taxi moves off, she remembers that she has not "said where," in other words that she has given no instruction and that she no longer controls the direction of her life. Bowen treats the taxi, normally an island of security in London's streets, as a brutal machine in a brutally mechanized age; the jolt of the driver's braking throws Kathleen forward so violently that her head is nearly forced into the glass. This places her six inches from the driver's face, and as they stare "for an eternity eye to eye," she recognizes what she could not remember in the features of her fiancé 25 years earlier: the face of war itself.
Like most allegorical readings, this interpretation of "The Demon Lover" will invite questions, and some of the suggested parallels may not persuade everyone. It should be remembered, though, that other tales in Ivy Gripped the Steps and Other Stories are fantastic and hallucinatory but above all about people's experience of war. In "Mysterious Kôr" a young woman is preoccupied by a waking dream of escape to the mythical city of Kôr, arguing that "if you can blow places out of existence, you can blow places into it." In "The Happy Autumn Fields," another young woman seems to lead a dual existence: one in London during the Blitz and one in the country at the turn of the century. Neither story is totally explicable in rational terms, but both dramatize what Bowen called "resistance to the annihilation that was threatening [them]—war."
"The Demon Lover" is another reaction to that threatened annihilation but also a reminder of its origins. Always conscious of the formative influence of the past, Bowen wrote a book about her family home, Bowen's Court, in 1942, and in an afterword staled: "War is not an accident: it is an outcome. One cannot look back too far to ask, of what?" "The Demon Lover" links the Second World War to the First and concludes horrifically that our "sinister troth" with war is inescapable. The final image of Kathleen trapped in a taxi "accelerating without mercy" into the "hinterland of deserted streets" perfectly captures the feelings of millions of people who in 1941 seemed to be propelled at an increasingly frenzied pace into a European wasteland of rubble and death. Like Kathleen, they could only scream.
Richard Tillinghast (essay date December 1994)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6319
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 from the Irish Catholic population, the Anglo-Irish were always, from the sixteenth century on, to some degree rootless and insecure in the country they governed. But the Land Wars and legislation of the late nineteenth century set into motion forces that would soon deprive the Protestant land-owning classes of whatever raison d'être they had. By the time Bowen was born in 1899, the shadows of what Mark Bence-Jones has called, in his 1987 book of the same name, the "Twilight of the Ascendancy," had already lengthened dramatically.
Though she spent most of her adult life in England, and London is in some ways the center of her fictional world, Elizabeth Bowen was the daughter of a County Cork "big house" called Bowen's Court, which she inherited and, unable to afford its upkeep on her earnings as a writer, eventually had to sell in 1959. She was born into a Protestant Ascendancy that rose to power and distinction in the eighteenth century and went into decline by the late nineteenth. Comparisons to the planter aristocracy of the American South are roughly, but only roughly, apt. The alienation of the Anglo-Irish landowner, set above and isolated from the "native" population, is a vantage point to which Bowen refers often when writing of Ireland. "I have grown up," she writes in her essay "The Big House" (1940), "accustomed to seeing out of my windows nothing but grass, sky, tree, to being enclosed in a ring of almost complete silence and to making journeys for anything that I want."
Visiting these houses today as a guest or a tourist, one feels the uncanny accuracy with which Bowen captures the strangeness emanating from these gray limestone piles, Palladian or neo-Gothic, set starkly against the primal green of the Irish countryside:
Each house seems to live under its own spell, and that is the spell that falls on the visitor from the moment he passes in at the gates. The ring of woods inside the demesne wall conceals, at first, the whole demesne from the eye: this looks, from the road, like a bois dormant, with a great glade inside. Inside the gates the avenue often describes loops, to make itself of still more extravagant length; it is sometimes arched by beeches, sometimes silent with moss. On each side lie those tree-studded grass spaces we Anglo-Irish call lawns and English people puzzle us by speaking of as "the park." On these browse cattle, or there may be horses out on the grass. A second gate—(generally white-painted, so that one may not drive into it in the dark)—keeps these away from the house in its inner circle of trees. Having shut this clanking white gate behind one, one takes the last reach of avenue and meets the faded, dark-windowed and somehow hypnotic stare of the big house. Often a line of mountains rises above it, or a river is seen through a break in woods. But the house, in its silence, seems to be contemplating the swell or fall of its own lawns.
The sense of the house "contemplating" its surroundings is pure Bowen—one of many instances of a house as a living entity: an Irish house or just any house. In her novel The House in Paris (1949), she writes: "The cautious steps of women when something has happened came downstairs, sending vibrations up the spine of the house." Just how remote, how starved for company, the houses must have seemed when their day had passed can be gathered from the opening sentences of The Last September (1929):
About six o'clock the sound of a motor, collected out of the wide country and narrowed under the trees of the avenue, brought the household out in excitement on to the steps. Up among the beeches, a thin iron gate twanged; the car slid out of a net of shadow down the slope to the house. Behind the flashing windscreen Mr. and Mrs. Montmorency produced—arms waving and a wild escape to the wind of her mauve motor veil—an agitation of greeting. They were long-promised visitors.
Many of the Anglo-Irish found it convenient to forget how they came by their land in the first place. In Bowen's Court (1942, revised 1964), her classic family history, and elsewhere, Elizabeth Bowen does not shy away from admitting that her original Welsh ancestor (the name Bowen derives from the Welsh ap Owen, "son of Owen") was granted land taken from the defeated Irish owners as booty from Oliver Cromwell's campaign to put down the rebellion of the 1640s. At the same time she makes a positive claim for the value of the country-house culture founded by people of her class. This culture, molded in the age of Gandon and Swift and Burke, retained in its architecture and its literary style the clean lines of classicism. And Bowen saw in big-house life, too, a ritualistic element that was practically religious. How the housemaid Matchett, in The Death of the Heart (1938), prepares for the night in the London establishment that she serves is informed by her English country-house training:
About now [i.e., about 10:30 P.M.], she served the idea of sleep with a series of little ceremonials—laying out night clothes, levelling fallen pillows, hospitably opening up the beds. Kneeling to turn on bedroom fires, stooping to slip bottles between sheets, she seemed to abase herself to the overcoming night. The impassive solemnity of her preparations made a sort of an altar of each bed: in big houses in which things are done properly, there is always the religious element.
As its last owner, Elizabeth Bowen describes her house, built in 1776, as "a high bare Italianate house" and elsewhere as a "great bare block," "severely classical." Like Newbridge in County Dublin, Castle Ward in County Down, the ruin of Tyrone House in County Galway, and many another Irish big house, Bowen's Court, which was pulled down in 1960, was an austere rectangle of limestone that dominated the landscape from its imposing elevation. "After an era of greed, roughness and panic, after an era of camping in charred or desolate ruins (as my Cromwellian ancestors did certainly), these new settlers who had been imposed on Ireland," she writes in "The Big House," "began to wish to add something to life. The security that they had, by the eighteenth century, however ignobly gained, they did not use quite ignobly. They began to feel, and exert, the European idea—to seek what was humanistic, classic and disciplined."
For the full flavor of the Anglo-Irish in their ridin', fishin,' and shootin' prime, the reader should turn to the two cousins who published from 1889 to 1949 under the names Somerville & Ross (Edith Somerville continued to regard Martin Ross—the pseudonym of Violet Martin—as a collaborator even beyond the latter's death in 1915). Somerville & Ross picture an Anglo-Irish ruling class characterized by vigor, sangfroid, eccentricity, and a habit of command, at ease with their neighbors among the native Irish. This is a world where a favorite hunting dog wipes his muddy paws on a priceless Oriental rug, where the squire goes on a tear with the poacher. As portrayed in the stories brought together in collections like Experiences of an Irish R.M., the Anglo-Irish played a vital role in their adopted country. The Resident Magistrate of Somerville & Ross's stories adjudicated—often with hilarious results—the disputes of the Catholic majority, while other members of this group functioned in the economy as large farmers, bankers, merchants, and administrators. The never less than outspoken Edith Somerville reprimanded her brother, who had written her that he had come to regard himself as English: "Nonsense about being 'English'! I don't mind if you say 'British' if you like…. My family has eaten Irish food and shared Irish life for nearly three hundred years, and if that doesn't make me Irish I might as well say I was Scotch, or Norman, or Pre-Diluvian!"
The attenuation and malaise one feels among Bowen's characters springs, historically, from the growing isolation of the Anglo-Irish in an Ireland increasingly bent on controlling its own destiny and increasingly successful in moving toward that goal. Only four years after Bowen was born, the Wyndham Act—engineered by George Wyndham, Chief Secretary of Ireland at the turn of the century—was passed, enabling landlords to sell their farms to their tenants in transactions financed by the government, with an added Bonus of 12 percent paid by the British Treasury. By 1914 three-fourths of the former tenants had bought the lands they farmed, leaving landlords with only their big houses and a few hundred acres of surrounding land. This put them in the position of being (relatively) rich men living in islands of leisure, with no useful function in the country. "The story is told," writes Mark Bence-Jones, "of how when Wyndham was walking through one of the gaming rooms at Monte Carlo a few years after the passing of his Act, he was greeted by an Irish peer of his acquaintance who pointed to the large pile of counters in front of him and said gratefully: "'George, George, the Bonus!'"
I would not want to claim that such irresponsible attitudes toward the ownership of property in a poor country were typical: in landed or monied classes the socially responsible and the scrupulous always co-exist cheek by jowl with the callous and the profligate. The Last September, set in 1920 during the Troubles of that period, is Bowen's most sustained look at the predicament of Anglo-Irish big-house people—caught between the nationalist agitation of the Irish, with whom, temperamentally, they feel they had so much in common, and the protection of the British military, whom they really don't like very much. Perhaps because of their hyphenated position between England and Ireland, the Anglo-Irish have produced several masters of the comedy of manners—Oscar Wilde, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and William Trevor among them. Bowen's writings are sprinkled with delicious little moments of social comedy, and the latitude she allowed herself in using the omniscient point of view lets us see into the minds of widely incompatible characters whose thoughts are inaccessible to each other. Here, in The Last September, we have a British officer's wife, Mrs. Vermont, and an Irish lady, Mrs. Carey, conversing at a tea and tennis party at a country house called Danielstown:
"Hoity-toity!" thought Betty Vermont (she never used the expression aloud, as she was not certain how one pronounced it: it was one of her inner luxuries). Turning to Mrs Carey (the Honourable Mrs Carey), who sat on her other side, she said frankly:
"Your scrumptious Irish teas make a perfect piggy-wig of me. And dining-room tea, of course, makes me a kiddy again."
"Does it really?" said Mrs Carey, and helped herself placidly to another slice of chocolate cake. She thought of Mrs Vermont as "a little person" and feared she detected in her a tendency, common to most English people, to talk about her inside. She often wondered if the War had not made everybody from England a little commoner. She added pleasantly: "This chocolate cake is a specialty of Danielstown's. I believe it's a charm that they make it by, not a recipe."
"Things do run in families, don't they? Now I am sure you've all got ghosts."
"I can't think of any," said Mrs Carey, accepting another cup of tea …
Edith Somerville wrote in Irish Memories (1917) of "English people whose honesty and innocence would be endearing, if they were a little less overlaid by condescension." The patronizing tone adopted seemingly unconsciously by the English when speaking of or to the Irish shows no signs of abating even in our own day. The revulsion and hostility occasioned by IRA bombs going off near the Bank of England, by the mortar attacks on Heathrow Airport, are made all the more virulent by the sense that one is being betrayed by people who were considered to be loyally subservient—when, in the language of an older generation of American Southerners, the "good nigger" suddenly and inexplicably becomes the "bad nigger."
Speaking to an Anglo-Irishwoman, Mrs. Vermont will naturally presume that they are both of the same breed, unaware how complicated questions of identity were for the Anglo-Irish, who thought of themselves as Irish, while to their tenants they were "the English." This was brought home to me recently in a conversation with a friend from Connemara whose first language was Irish—a great fan of Elizabeth Bowen's writing. I was speaking to her of the ease with which Bowen used French words in her writing. "Yes of course," my friend said. "That would have been typical for an Englishwoman of her time."
To return to the conversation between Mrs. Vermont and Mrs. Carey, however. Here are the terms in which the English officer's wife commiserates with her Anglo-Irish acquaintance about the armed rebels in the hills above her house:
"All this is terrible for you all, isn't it? I do think you're so sporting the way you just stay where you are and keep going on. Who would ever have thought the Irish would turn out so disloyal—I mean, of course, the lower classes! I remember Mother saying in 1916—you know, when that dreadful rebellion broke out—she said 'This has been a shock to me; I never shall feel the same about the Irish again.' You see, she had brought us all up as kiddies to be so keen on the Irish, and Irish songs. I still have a little bog-oak pig she brought me back from an exhibition. She always said they were the most humorous people in the world, and with hearts of gold. Though of course we had none of us ever been in Ireland."
If you add to the isolation common to other members of her class in the twentieth century the peculiar circumstances of Elizabeth Bowen's childhood, you find yourself face to face with an individual perilously, heroically it seems to me, cut off from nurturing influences. Her father, Henry, broke with a family tradition that expected the master of Bowen's Court to live there and manage the affairs of the estate. He studied law, eventually becoming an examiner of landlords' titles for the Irish Land Commission, and set up housekeeping in Dublin. After suffering a nervous breakdown apparently brought on by overwork, Henry Bowen succumbed to a lifelong mental illness. His daughter responded with a "campaign of not noticing," which may be related to the subtlety and indirectness of her fiction: the reader must often follow barely detectable nuances in the development of character and plot. Not uncommonly in Bowen's work, something that is never mentioned—or that is alluded to ten pages later—may be the most important thing that is going on.
"I had come out of the tension and mystery of my father's illness, the apprehensive silence or chaotic shoutings," Bowen would later write, "with nothing more disastrous than a stammer." Great artists by definition turn defects into distinctions, and she would turn her speech impediment to advantage. As an internal British Council memo regarding Bowen as a lecturer put it in 1950: "She is a most successful lecturer with a most successful stammer." With Henry Bowen confined to a mental hospital near Dublin, his wife and daughter left for England, where they bounced from one relative and one rented house to another. In 1912 her mother told her sister-in-law, "I have good news, now I'm going to see what Heaven's like." She had cancer, and she died when Elizabeth was thirteen. As Victoria Glendinning writes in her biography, "One of the words at which her stammer consistently baulked her was 'mother.'"
From her first novel, The Hotel (1927), to her last, Eva Trout (1968), the isolated or orphaned girl is a recurring character in Bowen's fiction: the girl who lives much of her life in hotels, the girl who gets fobbed off on relatives. In The Death of the Heart, Bowen's best-known novel, Portia, the isolated, in-the-way girl, with her outsider's point of view, reminds one of the way Robert Lowell writes of himself as a child: "I wasn't a child at all—/ unseen and all-seeing, I was Agrippina / in the Golden House of Nero." The conflict with which The Death of the Heart opens is initiated when Portia's sister-in-law, Anna, finds and reads her diary, which contains disturbing though vague comments about Anna and St. Quentin, Anna's presumed lover (I say "presumed" because Bowen is not one to make such relationships explicit). "Fancy her watching me!" St. Quentin exclaims. "What a little monster she must be. And she looks so aloof." Anna responds: "She does not seem to think you are a snake in the grass, though she sees a good deal of grass for a snake to be in. There does not seem to be a single thing that she misses."
Portia Quayne is the daughter of a love-match. Her father, an older man, had fallen in love with Louise—this is his daughter-in-law Anna telling the story—"a scrap of a widow, ever so plucky, just back from China, with damp little hands, a husky voice and defective tear-ducts that gave her eyes always rather a swimmy look." How unerringly, in these thumbnail sketches, Bowen places her characters: "[Louise] had a prostrated way of looking up at you," continues Anna,
"and that fluffy, bird's-nesty hair that hairpins get lost in. At that time, she must have been about twenty-nine. She knew almost nobody, but, because she was so plucky, someone had got her a job in a flower shop. She lived in a flatlet in Notting Hill Gate…. I often think of those dawns in Notting Hill Gate, with Irene leaking tears and looking for hairpins, and Mr. Quayne sitting up denouncing himself…. She would not be everyone's money. You may be sure that she let Mr. Quayne know that her little life was from now on entirely in his hands. By the end of those ten days he cannot have known, himself, whether he was a big brute or St. George."
No fool like an old fool, of course, and Mr. Quayne confesses the affair to his wife. "Mrs. Quayne was quite as splendid as ever: she stopped Mr. Quayne crying, then went straight down to the kitchen and made tea." Before he knows it, the poor man has been kicked out of his comfortable country house and finds himself living out the rest of his life on a reduced income with his new little family of three in hotels, pensions, and rented villas in the least fashionable parts of the Riviera. Portia's half-brother and his wife, Anna, take the orphan to live with them after both her parents have died. "A house is quiet, after a hotel," Portia tells her brother. "In a way, I am not used to it yet. In hotels you keep hearing other people, and in flats you had to be quiet for fear they should hear you."
Perhaps it is the habit of keeping quiet and listening that has sharpened Portia's attentiveness to the nuances of life in her new surroundings. "Mother and I got fond of it, in some ways. We used to make up stories about the people at dinner, and it was fun to watch people come and go." This outsider's point of view—cold-eyed, unillusioned—places Portia beyond the cozy circle of civilized mutual accommodation practiced by Anna and Thomas, and thus makes their visitor a dangerous presence.
What Portia's inner wounds might be, we are never quite sure. Of her mother, the child's constant companion, we learn little, even about the circumstances of her final illness. We only catch a glimpse—poignant for anyone who has ever lived on the cheap in Europe during the off-season—of the last little pension where they lived in Switzerland:
They always stayed in places before the season, when the funicular was not working yet…. Their room, though it was a back room facing into the pinewoods, had a balcony; they would run away from the salon and spend the long wet afternoons there. They would lie down covered with coats, leaving the window open, smelling the wet woodwork, hearing the gutters run. Turn abouts, they would read aloud to each other the Tauchnitz novels they had bought in Lucerne. Things for tea, the little stove and a bottle of violet methylated spirits stood on the wobbly commode between their beds, and at four o'clock Portia would make tea. They ate, in alternate mouthfuls, block chocolate and brioches. Postcards they liked, and Irene's and Portia's sketches were pinned to the pine walls.
And finally we see them leaving:
When they left that high-up village, when they left for ever, the big hotels were just being thrown open, the funicular would begin in another day. They drove down in a fly, down the familiar zigzag, Irene moaning and clutching Portia's hand. Portia could not weep at leaving the village, because her mother was in such pain. But she used to think of it while she waited at the Lucerne clinic, where Irene had the operation and died: she died at six in the evening, which had always been their happiest hour.
In Anna's relations with Thomas Quayne, one guesses there is something of Elizabeth Bowen's own marriage to Alan Cameron, an ex-army officer who bored the London literary crowd—perhaps deliberately, as a way of getting even for being ignored—by telling long war stories. One anecdote that Victoria Glendinning repeats has a guest at a Bowen's Court party, while searching through the old house trying to find a lavatory, opening a door and finding Alan Cameron "alone in a small room eating his supper off a tray." Thomas chafes in his study with a large whiskey while Anna has her tête-á-têtes with her friend St. Quentin and the enfant terrible, Eddie, whose relationship with Anna is even more equivocal than what the reader gathers about St. Quentin. The situation might remind someone who has read Bowen's biography of Mr. Cameron's complaints about the "Black Hats"—so-called from the rows of men's hats hanging in the hall of their house in Regent's Park when he would come home from his office at the BBC—who visited his wife. A complex and interesting marriage in which "married love" was less a factor than a mutual dependence and affection. "I never saw real strain or needling between them," May Sarton writes, "never for a second. Love affairs were a counterpoint."
Perhaps drawing parallels between marriages, fictional and real, even after husband and wife are dead, is an exercise in frivolous presumption. In The Death of the Heart, at any rate, Anna is rattled by her young sister-in-law's observant eye. "I cannot stand being watched. She watches us." Bowen renders the tense accommodation between this man and woman with her own keen eye:
She posted herself at the far side of the fire, in her close-fitting black dress, with her folded arms locked, wrapped up in tense thoughts. For those minutes of silence, Thomas fixed on her his considering eyes. Then he got up, took her by one elbow and angrily kissed her. "I'm never with you," he said.
"Well, look how we live."
"The way we live is hopeless."
Anna said, much more kindly: "Darling, don't be neurotic. I have had such a day."
He left her and looked round for his glass again. Meanwhile, he said to himself in a quoting voice: "We are minor in everything but our passions."
"Wherever did you read that?"
"Nowhere: I woke up and heard myself saying it, one night."
"How pompous you were in the night. I'm so glad I was asleep."
In a house galvanized by these tensions only Matchett, the impassive family retainer, one of the best serious portraits of a servant in fiction since Proust's Françoise, has very definite ideas about what is to be done with Portia. And with Bowen's beautifully specific imagination, the details of Matchett's standards ring with authenticity:
Matchett's ideas must date from the family house, where the young ladies, with bows en flowing horsetails of hair, supped upstairs with their governess, making toast, telling stories, telling each other's fortunes with apple peel. In the home of today there is no place for the miss: she has got to sink or swim. But Matchett, upstairs and down with her solid impassive tread, did not recognize that some tracts no longer exist. She seemed, instead, to detect some lack of life in the house, some organic failure in its propriety. Lack in the Quaynes' life of family custom seemed not only to disorientate Matchett but to rouse her contempt—family custom, partly kind, partly cruel, that has long been rationalised away. In this airy vivacious house, all mirrors and polish, there was no place where shadows lodged, no point where feeling could thicken.
Portia, like Bowen's other orphans, is in dire need of affection, unequipped by her experience with the means to ask for love. She turns to the massively self-controlled Matchett, whose very name tells us how stiff and contained a creature she is. A poignant scene in The Death of the Heart has Matchett sitting on Portia's bed, reluctantly drawn into the sort of confidential talk Portia had ought to be having with her sister-in-law if Anna were not so cold:
"She had a right, of course, to be where I am this minute," Matchett went on in a cold, dispassionate voice. "I've no call to be dawdling up here, not with all that sewing." Her weight stiffened on the bed; drawing herself up straight she folded her arms sternly, as though locking love for ever from her breast. Portia saw her outline against the window and knew this was not pique but arrogant rectitude—which sent her voice into distance two tones away. "I have my duties," she said, "and you should look for your fond-ofs where it is more proper."
Matchett is only one of the servants who appear in Bowen's pages—though a distinction should be made between Irish servants and English servants, in houses and thus in books. Irish people curiously manage to be both egalitarian and hierarchical at the same time. Hierarchical because traces of a feudal society endured perhaps as late as the 1950s on this little island with its bogs and mountains and months of rain. The Middle Ages were slow to disappear in a "land of saints and scholars" and large land holdings where even today, driving through the Irish countryside, the visitor is struck by mile after mile of demesne walls, perforated every so often by baronial gates and Gothic gate-lodges. Egalitarian, perhaps because the Irish are religious people whose church teaches that all souls are equal in the eyes of God.
And perhaps also because the man saddling the horse of his jumped-up Anglo-Irish squire or squireen may have, or fancy he has, noble blood running in his veins. The Kerry poet Egan O'Rahilly (1670–1726), of whom Brendan Kennelly has written, "O'Rahilly is a snob, but one of the great snobs of literature," wrote a great contemptuous putdown of the new Cromwellian adventurers who had conquered Ireland and usurped the land of the Irish nobility, using the house, as Bowen habitually does, as an emblem of a way of life:
That royal Cashel is bare of house and guest,
That Brian's turreted home is the otter's nest,
That the kings of the land have neither land nor crown
Has made me a beggar before you. Valentine Brown.
This is Frank O'Connor's translation from the Irish lament, where O'Rahilly characterizes himself in a haunting synecdoche as "An old grey eye, weeping for lost renown." The last line, in which the English name Valentine Brown would undoubtedly sound even more contemptible in the context of the Gaelic words of the original, recurs as the burden of every stanza in the poem. Kennelly comments: "O'Rahilly himself would have considered 'Valentine' a ridiculous name for anyone calling himself a gentleman, and as for 'Brown,' he would as soon have addressed a 'Jones' or a 'Robinson.'" I mention O'Rahilly and his great poem of hauteur and despair because he lived in the next county over from Elizabeth Bowen's County Cork, and because the people he so eloquently despised were of the same ilk as the Bowens.
Bowen never committed the modern heresy—inspired, I suppose, by what might be called a romantic Marxism—of wanting to become a member of the working class. Servants—or Mrs. Vermont, of the bog-oak pigs and the tendency to talk about her inside—were simply not her social equals. In the eyes of many readers, Americans especially, this makes her a snob. Even as sensible a reader as Elizabeth Bishop, in a letter to Robert Lowell expressing reservations about the Boston poet Anne Sexton, criticizes Bowen for her gentility:
Anne Sexton I think still has a bit too much romanticism and what I think of as the "our beautiful old silver" school of female writing, which is really boasting about how "nice" we were. V. Woolf, E. Bowen, R. West, etc.—they are all full of it. They have to make quite sure that the reader is not going to misplace them socially, first—and that nervousness interferes constantly with what they think they'd like to say.
I think Bishop mostly has it wrong. I would agree with her about Rebecca West, the precariousness of whose family origins and social status I touched on in my essay on her in these pages [in The New Criterion]. On the other hand, Anne Sexton in her poetry never struck me as being out to impress anyone about her social standing, which takes a back seat to her emotional problems and her drinking and drugging. In terms of social standing, Woolf and Bowen had nothing to prove; both wrote within the social context they were born into.
Bowen to a large extent took the world as she found it, and was more interested in her characters as people—with likes and dislikes, and especially with a desperate and often frustrated need for love—than as exemplars of social class. When she writes in "A Love Story" (1939), "Servants love love and money, but the Perry-Durhams bored the servants by now," at first one's radar of political correctness beeps; then one thinks again about the sentence and says, "How true that is!" When politics, as the modern substitute for religion that it has become among what are called in Britain "the chattering classes," arises in Bowen's novels—and it rarely arises—it is seen as a form of emotional desperation. Here is part of an exchange from The House in Paris between Karen, who has grave doubts about her impending marriage, and her upper-middle-class Aunt Violet. The time would be the early 1930s.
"Things one can do have no value. I don't mind feeling small myself, but I dread finding the world is. With Ray I shall be so safe. I wish the Revolution would come soon; I should like to start fresh while I am still young, with everything that I had to depend on gone. I sometimes think it is people like us, Aunt Violet, people of consequence, who are unfortunate: we have nothing ahead. I feel it's time something happened."
"Surely so much has happened," said Aunt Violet. "And mightn't a Revolution be rather unfair?"
"I shall always work against it," said Karen grandly. "But I should like it to happen in spite of me."
Except for saying she wants to work against the Revolution, how much Karen sounds like W. H. Auden at this same time!
The "lack of life" Matchett regretted would not, I suspect, have been found at Bowen's Court when Elizabeth Bowen was mistress there. Something of the insouciance, the gay defiance of adversity, to be found at all levels of Irish society can be seen in Bowen's remark from the essay I have quoted:
the big house people were handicapped, shadowed and to an extent queered—by their pride, by their indignation at their decline and by their divorce from the countryside in whose heart their struggle was carried on…. These big house people admit only one class-distinction: they instinctively "place" a person who makes a poor mouth.
It is, I think, to the credit of big house people that they concealed their struggles with such nonchalance and for so long continued to throw about what did not really amount to much weight. It is to their credit that, with grass almost up to their doors and hardly a six-pence to turn over, they continued to be resented by the rest of Ireland as being the heartless rich.
The strengths of Bowen's big-house people—pluck, style, common sense, decency, and a sense of community—are what several of her orphans and heart-wounded girls yearn for, often without even understanding this. A question Bowen implicitly asks over and over is: What precisely is the emotional damage inflicted on her orphaned heroines (herself included) by the circumstances of their lives? In "The Easter Egg Party" (1940), Hermione, taken in for a long visit in the country by two maiden ladies who are friends of her recently divorced mother, frustrates the ladies' desire to help her. "Their object was to restore her childhood to her," the story begins. But there is some basic human generosity, some sense of give and take, that she has simply missed out on. A spoiled child, she can appreciate things only by owning them: "'I think those lambs are pretty,' said Hermione, suddenly pointing over a wall. 'I should like a pet lamb of my own; I should call it Percy.'" After she demands to leave the sisters' home, seeing that they refuse to cater to her self-centeredness, she leaves a sadness behind her, because they realize her childhood is beyond the power of their wholesome kindness to restore: "The sisters seldom speak of her even between themselves; she has left a sort of scar, like a flattened grave, in their hearts."
As implied by the age and nature of many of her characters, Bowen's novels and stories are songs of innocence and experience. The innocence is not necessarily pure, and the experience may be benign or sinister. In The House in Paris, astounded by a lie that the tyrannical Leopold, the illegitimate child of a troubled and unfortunate affair, is willing to tell, Henrietta, the settled, "normal" child, finds herself thinking: "'But we're children, people's belongings: we can't—' Incredulity made her go scarlet …" Leopold observes cynically: "Nobody speaks the truth when there's something they must have." Emma, beginning an adulterous affair in "Summer Night" (1941), realizes: "Yes, here she was, being settled down to as calmly as he might settle down to a meal." Portia in The Death of the Heart, because she is such a sacrificial lamb, is easy prey for the heartbreaker Eddie, Anna's young protégé. The novel, as its title implies, is almost an allegory, a Unicorn Tapestry in which the "pure"—Portia, Thomas—are victimized by the worldly and corrupt—Anna, St. Quentin, Eddie.
Unstrung by Eddie's betrayal, and disoriented by Anna's rejection of her, Portia takes the extraordinary step of going to the decent, avuncular old Major Brutt, a demobbed colonial ex-army officer who is floundering around trying to find his way in the fast-changing Britain of the Thirties, living in an attic room of a cheap hotel in the Cromwell Road. After she has told the Major how unhappy she is with her brother and sister-in-law, he asks quietly what she wants to do:
"Stay here with you," she said. "You do like me," she added. "You write to me; you send me puzzles; you say you think about me…. I could do things for you: we could have a home; we would not have to live in a hotel…. I could cook; my mother cooked when she lived in Notting Hill Gate. Why could you not marry me? I could cheer you up. I would not get in your way, and we should not be half so lonely."
Eva Trout, the rich young heiress and title character of Bowen's last, rather odd, and not very satisfactory novel, buys through the mail, in a similar effort to settle herself, a seaside house—sight unseen. When she descends on the small town to take possession, she startles the real-estate agent by her rather mad-seeming peremptoriness.
"Now," she announced, looking round for her charioteer, "I want to go home."
"Home?" cried he, fearing all was lost.
"Where is my house?"
Ireland and England, house and hotel, innocence and experience, the child and the world—these are the boundaries between which Elizabeth Bowen's fiction runs its supple and sinuous course. With a touch of the worldly French moralist, she is fond of delivering maxims reminiscent of Madame de Sévigné. In thinking about the way she mediates between her classic polarities, one might ponder the following formulation from the last part of The Death of the Heart: "Happy that few of us are aware of the world until we are already in league with it."