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.)
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...
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When Elizabeth Bowen died …, she was at work on a short novel, The Move-In, and a work of non-fiction, to be called Pictures and Conversations after a phrase on the first page of Alice in Wonderland. This, she explained, was not to be a full-dress autobiography, but would mingle descriptions of episodes in her own life with an account of how and why she wrote her books. Its underlying theme would be the relationship between living and writing…. Her friend and literary executor, Spencer Curtis Brown, has wisely allowed these few literary remains to appear. Of The Move-In, only ten pages survive, lively and suggestive enough to tantalize. Of Pictures and Conversations, there remain two completed chapters, the start of a third and a projected outline of the rest. These do more than tantalize—they satisfy; and they also sadden, because it is clear that the finished result would have been among Miss Bowen's most fascinating books. Here the subtle mixture of poetic sensibility and robust imagination found in her novels alternates with the fine intellectual honesty of her best analytical work.
In the same volume, Mr. Curtis Brown has reprinted Miss Bowen's essay The Art of Bergotte, commissioned for a Proust symposium, and her revealing Notes on Writing a Novel: both are welcome reminders of her accomplishments and range….
A reader coming upon Elizabeth Bowen for the first time with this posthumous collection would be left in comparative ignorance of those astonishing achievements, The House in Paris and The Death of the Heart, while The Hotel and Friends and Relations, in their ways equally brilliant, are not even included in the list of her books on the fly-leaf. Miss Bowen's reputation is at present much lower than it should be: partly through a superficial and temporary vagary of fashion, and partly perhaps because her later books, although always distinguished, did betray a certain slackening in the intensity of her inspiration. Pictures and Conversations, had she lived to finish it, might have caused this judgment to be modified; but otherwise to camouflage its relevance can only delay the revived recognition, long overdue, of her greatness.
Francis Wyndham, "Between Living and Writing," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1975; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3841, October 24, 1975, p. 1254.
As a writer, Bowen must be evaluated on the basis of about a dozen stories and five novels—The Last September, To The North, The House in Paris, The Death of the Heart, and The Heat of the Day. (A case could be made, too, for The Little Girls.)… On the basis of her fiction alone, Bowen is as good as Evelyn Waugh, better than Ivy Compton-Burnett, Graham Greene or Henry Green. Her novels yield to Woolf's in visionary intensity but are superior to them in formal construction, variety of subject, and moral force.
Bowen is below the greatest novelists—Flaubert, George Eliot, Tolstoy, James, Proust—but like them she reflected constantly and profoundly on the nature of fiction. So much so, that the "laws" of fiction came to constitute a metaphorical system for her, used in the novels themselves sometimes to help present the action…. (p. 619)
It would be wrong, however, to regard Bowen as a rulebook novelist. The rule she most often waives is the one proscribing authorial comment. Rather like one of the "innocents" in her own novels, Bowen can't keep quiet about what she sees and knows. The proportion of comment to narrative is much higher than Flaubert, say, would have tolerated. Yet Proust commented even more freely than Bowen, and her rushes of insight are often as good as his. In both cases you feel that some principle of genius is at work, so that the propensity must be indulged, and the rules broken—all the more since the results are so startling. As much by their weaknesses as by their strengths do artists come into their own.
Much of the moral energy of Bowen's novels resides in just these passages of authorial comment. In them, she renews for English fiction the tradition of the French moralistes—La Rochefoucauld, La Bruyère, and the great women diarists and letter-writers of the eighteenth century. But she is still squarely within the precincts of fiction: these passages arise directly from the action presented, and they illuminate what comes after them. Moreover, Bowen isn't deficient in the way many moralists are, so intent on the meaning, purely, of human action they lack sensory awareness. Bowen is all perception. Reading her you realize you have never paid close enough...
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The Heat of the Day, [Elizabeth Bowen's first post-World War II] novel, is significantly not only a picture of life in England during the war but a novel divided in its setting between England and Ireland. As reflected in both autobiographical statements and in fictive constructions, it was Bowen's experience of the Second World War that led to her questioning of what was lacking in the culture and life of those persons who were both its victims and its perpetrators. Bowen now struggled with the questions that Yeats and T. S. Eliot had struggled with earlier: how in an age without belief or tradition can the individual live with purpose? how can the individual be kept from a solipsistic working of his selfish will upon the rest of mankind? where is to be found a standard for value judgment other than the pure numbers of the mob? since man's reason does not curb his cruelties, how foster his sympathetic identification with his fellow man?
The similarity in the landscapes which Bowen makes explicit in her autobiographical writings seems to have suggested the importance of the life she had known and loved as a child. The landscape which Bowen emphasizes for that heredity—the ruins surrounding the homes of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy—prefigures the landscape of Bowen's environment, the crumbling world of Europe after two world wars. (pp. 129-30)
For Bowen Ireland is not a place to escape to … but a place in which those realities are embodied in the landscape. It is a landscape whose "inherent emptiness" forced those who built there to recognize that they were creating a "pattern" … upon the "anonymous countryside."… (p. 130)
The central significance of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy's way of life for her was its self-consciousness and discipline, which limited the freedom of the individual and gave him a "sense of community" in the face of the void. It rooted him in an order outside himself but of himself as well. The isolated life that the demesne dwellers lived encouraged the virtues of hardiness, independence and courage…. While T. S. Eliot's experience of the wasteland led him to the established church to find a timeless order in which man could identify with his fellows through a God which transcended them all, Bowen's experience of it led her to the Anglo-Irish tradition of a circumscribed family life within the history of which a social order was preserved that transcended the individual's experience of time. Through man's commitment to his participation in that order, he became free to love and be. That order was identified by her in terms of its physical expression, the way the houses and the city of Dublin defined their spaces. A home for Bowen, however, was not just the physical expression of a tradition; it was the dwelling place of the tradition's active essence. The relationship between architecture and landscape and the human spirit was integral to Bowen. Only through man's experience of place could he become a part of the transcendent reality it embodied. (pp. 130-31)
[But Bowen also] calls attention to the Irish landscape's dramatization of the forces in life which challenge the permanence of man's constructions and notes the English lack of comprehension that man may be limited in his ability to erect physical edifices to withstand the onslaught of time.
Within this macrocosm of desolation and mutability, the Anglo-Irish created their island-worlds of conscious living…. Here "the present seems to be there forever," and the past "pervadingly felt." And thus it is for Bowen that character "is printed on every hour, as on the houses and demesne features themselves." In the Irish big-house tradition, encapsulating an interaction of character and place, man's spirit finds a focus and commitment to a numinous reality. That reality and the awareness of his minuteness and fragility in the large world of time and space pattern his relationships with others. (pp. 131-32)
Bowen, observer and participant in the rootless twentieth century, whose inhabitants are whirled about as if "Dancing to a frenzied drum," shares William Butler Yeats' pessimism about man's ability to live other than at his fellow man's expense when his will is unrestrained or unchannelled by identification with place, tradition and a social idea…. These are the same factors Bowen holds responsible for the world wars: "the private cruelty and the world war both have their start in the heated brain." She fictively portrays the relationship of this individual phenomenon to the social world and the physical space which is both creator and creature of its expression in The Heat of the Day, which spans the years 1942–44 in London. (p. 133)
[In the novel, the character Stella] lives in a rented flat...
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