Elizabeth Bowen Bowen, Elizabeth (Vol. 15)

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Bowen, Elizabeth 1899–1973

Bowen was an Anglo-Irish novelist, short story writer, essayist, critic, editor, and author of several autobiographical and historical works and books for children. The inevitable disillusionment inherent in human relationships is a recurrent theme in Bowen's work. The plots of her novels often revolve around conflicts of innocence and experience, usually depicted through the painful experiences of love in a young female character. Bowen defined the novel as the "non-poetic statement of a poetic truth," and in her straightforward, unadorned prose she achieves this verisimilitude. She received the C.B.E. (Commander, Order of the British Empire) in 1948. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 6, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18; obituary, Vols. 41-44, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)

Douglas A. Hughes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In a recent study of Elizabeth Bowen, Allan E. Austin has written, "'The Demon Lover' is a ghost story that builds up and then culminates like an Alfred Hitchcock movie." This misreading of Miss Bowen's unforgettable story is, to judge from my experience with student interpretations, fairly common. Far from being a supernatural story, "The Demon Lover" is a masterful dramatization of acute psychological delusion, of the culmination of paranoia in a time of war. Because the narrative point of view is restricted to that of the patently disturbed protagonist, Mrs. Kathleen Drover, some readers may see, as the character herself certainly does, the ominous return of a ghostly lover. But in contrast to Mrs. Drover's irrational belief that she is watched and in peril, the narrator subtly but clearly indicates why the forty-four year-old woman suddenly loses her tenuous hold on reality at this particular moment and succumbs to madness.

In the English ballad "The Demon Lover," an inconstant woman betrays her absent lover and marries another man; but when the ostensibly wealthy lover returns years later, the woman is quick to abandon her husband and children. Too late, she discovers the lover is, in fact, the devil. Miss Bowen's story superficially resembles the ballad, and the author even relies upon the poem to suggest how Mrs. Drover views herself. In reality, however, Mrs. Drover is decidedly not a faithless woman and there is no spectral figure come from the nether world to claim her. Like all the characters in the collection of stories Ivy Gripped the Steps …, Mrs. Drover is simply an indirect casualty of war. In the First World War, at the age of nineteen, she lost her fiancé, precipitating her first emotional collapse, which lasted for thirteen years. Twenty-five years later the air war in Britain has the devastating psychological effect of depriving Mrs. Drover of her recent past. War divests her of the memory of those years that separated her from the feelings of loss and guilt she experienced at the news of her fiancé's disappearance. War, not a vengeful lover, is the demon that overwhelms this rueful woman. (p. 411)

The beauty of "The Demon Lover" lies in the skill with which the author, in the shortest possible space, reveals how Mrs. Kathleen Drover loses her way on the path leading from a crumbling present to a permanent but terrifying past.

From the first paragraph of the story the narrator begins to attenuate and ultimately to efface the significance of the landmarks and objects Mrs. Drover associates with her recent past. Returning to the bomb-damaged and shut-up Drover house in London by her familiar street, she is struck by the "unfamiliar queerness which had silted up."… The whole neighborhood, which would have been animated with life in earlier years, stands silent and deserted…. For Mrs. Drover, psychologically maimed and predisposed to a sense of loss, the return to the house is a shattering revelation, a threshold experience that activates her dormant hysteria. In fact, Miss Bowen explicitly utilizes the war-damaged house as an objective correlative of Mrs. Drover's psychological state...

(The entire section is 4,521 words.)