Elizabeth Bowen Bowen, Elizabeth (Vol. 22) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Elizabeth Bowen 1899–1973

Anglo-Irish novelist, short story writer, essayist, critic, and editor.

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 "nonpoetic 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, 15, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18; obituary, Vols. 41-44, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)

Allan E. Austin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In her fiction, Miss Bowen is first of all an impressionistic writer. Since there are degress of impressionism, she might best be considered a concrete impressionist. Highly selective, she writes a taut, concentrated style which produces clear, well-defined vividness, in opposition to a vague impressionism verging on the dreamlike. Scenes and characters are rendered in few but telling strokes; here, as with other aspects of her work, Miss Bowen's ideal reader is invited to exercise his own imagination and intelligence. She approaches her material not as a camera but as an X-ray, and she produces a print of essences from which the reader must create a realistic image. (p. 23)

Miss Bowen's prose is polished and crafted with the care of poetry. But on occasion, however, cutting across the normally elegant surface, like a variation in poetic meter, are deliberate awkwardnesses compounded of syntactical circumlocutions…. Her prose constantly seeks to reflect … [the] pressure of straining suppressed tensions, desires, and emotions. Much is implied, even if little sometimes is seemingly said. The prose style also relates to the omniscient narrator who writes the fiction. The persona's vision is classical: rational, intelligent, aloof, penetrating, discriminating, and witty; its attitude is humane and benevolent; but it is unsentimental. Its whole approach to life is firm, frank, and wise—what is meant by "mature" at its optimum. Strategically, the mask is most cunningly devised to make effective Miss Bowen's subject—feelings. (p. 24)

A very considerable portion of any Bowen novel is dialogue; and it is presented much of the time with only modest intrusions by the narrative voice that allows the reader to gather implication and ramifications. Obviously a measure of obliqueness results, and on this count the author has been accused of obscurantism. Without denying that there are moments when she appears overly elliptical, her technique can be defended. Most directly, her obliqueness serves to make the reader conscious of the difficulties of identifying and assessing the undercurrents of meaning and feeling upon which conversation moves; technique thus functions as a correlative. Furthermore, ellipses are a rich source of suspense and possibility…. Finally, the dialogue, which further involves the willing reader in the creative process, enriches and intensifies the whole texture of her work…. (pp. 24-5)

[Two] other characteristics are pervasive: a strong sense of place and the play of wit, which evoke a distinct atmosphere. (p. 25)

Miss Bowen's most dramatic rendering of the dangers of preserved innocence is in To the North. In no other novel is she so close to the world of fairy tale…. (p. 41)

Emmeline [the heroine of To the North] is at last to be identified as a narcissist. The repeated emphasis upon her beauty, her passivity, and her [poor] eyesight provides the clues to her trouble. Nothing has disturbed her peace; her beauty has been both protective cocoon and sufficient reason for gentle treatment by the passing world. Miss Bowen tells nothing of Emmeline's past because there is nothing to record; she has not had the gradual training which prepares individuals for life's rude and inevitable shocks. Markie [Emmeline's lover], on the other hand—and—this is one of the book's master touches of irony—does progress to awareness and to a greater sense of responsibility toward others. He is capable at the last of self-judgment, of "self-contempt, and a maddening resentment of his desire …"…. Markie, whatever distortions he has harbored, can be seen to have always had the heat of life within. Increasingly terrified by her speed and trancelike driving, Markie speaks her name "hopelessly"; and, "as though hearing her name on his lips for the first time, dazzled, she turned to smile"…. She, it appears, has already found herself in the promised land and she is joyous to discover Markie's presence. In the instant of distraction, the car plunges head-on into another, killing everyone. The rendering of this last ride together is one of the finest passages in all of Miss Bowen's work. (pp. 45-6)

[The Little Girls] is symbolic; but it differs in the degree of ambivalence attached to its symbols. Consequently, this novel is Miss Bowen's most challenging book; this fact is all the more surprising in the light of its taut and racy style. We might conceivably be reminded of Wallace Stevens's poetry with its pure, crystalline exterior and its metaphysical interior. In this novel, the author presents what must constitute the ultimate variation upon her innocent heroine character by creating one who is sixty-one years old. (p. 68)

The Little Girls is Miss Bowen's most intricate and subtle novel: intricate in the relationship of its components and subtle in its psychology. Allusiveness is carried to a tantalizing edge where one more step would plunge everything into an incomprehensible state. Yet the surface almost belies this allusiveness; the author has never sustained sprightlier pacing or more rapid dialogue….

[Dinah (Dicey) Delacroix] decides to contact the two women [Clare (Mumbo) and Sheila (Sheikie)] with whom she was most intimate when they...

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Hermione Lee

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[There] is a discomforting tone to the first paragraph of [To the North], strongly suggesting that the material world in which it has its being is to be undermined. The knowing information about the Anglo-Italian express [traveling north] sounds a little ominous. (p. 130)

Violent deaths … are symptoms of betrayal in Elizabeth Bowen's work, and mark' the passing of innocence, whether personal or national. In order that their moral significance should not be blurred by the dramatic shock of feeling the deaths evoke, Elizabeth Bowen establishes from the start a pattern of images which will necessitate them. That the pure-hearted Emmeline should be driven to what is, in effect, murder and suicide, is a badge of her innocence. But the ending of this novel is not therefore grotesquely sensational…. Rather it has an air of classical formality: the motifs are seen to accumulate and finally cohere in a formulation which is at once simple and extreme.

Unlike her sister-in-law [Cecilia], Emmeline is not quite of this world. She is ethereal, angelic, 'pale and clear'…. She is repeatedly described as short-sighted and thus disconnected from her surroundings…. Before she meets Markie, she is the unawakened ice maiden, the unfallen angel: 'nothing could be as dear as the circle of reading light round her solitary pillow.'

On the other hand, Markie, as Cecilia perceives at their first meeting, is Satanic. (She notices at once that he has the 'quicklidded eyes of an agreeable reptile'.) He is the familiar modern anti-hero who has lost touch with the sources of faith and idealism. Reason is his God (he is a very good lawyer) and he masters the threatening...

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John Mellors

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Elizabeth Bowen wrote her best stories during the 1939–45 War. None of them are conventional war-stories, but in most of them the effects of war are present, the material effects of bombs on buildings and also the effects on people's behaviour of their feelings of fear, frustration, hope, boredom and despair….

In The Demon Lover Elizabeth Bowen took on one of the most difficult tasks a writer can attempt: to make the supernatural credible. The results establish her, in my view, as one of the finest storytellers in the last 50 years and more than make up for her deficiencies as a novelist. In these stories she uses the wartime atmosphere, in particular of bombed and battered houses in London, to merge dreams with waking life, the world of ghosts with that of furniture-movers and taxi-drivers. In 'The Happy Autumn Fields' she persuades us to believe that Mary, ignoring the danger that the bombed house is likely at any moment to collapse and bury her, merges her persona with that of the Victorian Sarah. In the title-story, Mrs Drover is pursued from one war to the next, from August 1916 to August 1941, by the dead fiancé whose face she cannot remember. Another superb story, 'Ivy Gripped the Steps', is set in 'the desuetude and decay' of Folkestone in 1944; the ivy in the title stands for 'the tomb-defying tenaciousness of memory', and it is the memory of the 'glittering' Mrs Nicholson of his childhood that leads middle-aged Gavin to try to pick up a young ATS girl whose 'face was abrupt with youth'. (p. 68)

With illusions and fantasies people fought back against the 'dessication by war' of their day-to-day lives. I do not remember that any other writer has uncovered and interpreted those particular aspects of our wartime moods, and Elizabeth Bowen's unique achievement was to make that analysis and then transform her findings into works of art. The stories … will, I hope, be enjoyed and admired long after her novels have fallen into 'desuetude and decay'. (p. 69)

John Mellors, "Dreams in War: Second Thoughts on Elizabeth Bowen," in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1979), Vol. 19, No. 8, November, 1979, pp. 64-9.

Victoria Glendinning

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

One of the ways the world can be divided up is into those people for whom life only began when they grew up, and those for whom childhood remains the inescapably real world. Elizabeth Bowen belonged to the latter group; as Angus Wilson says in his introduction [to The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen,] she had 'one of the principal features of the great romantics—a total connection with her own childhood'. A concentrated reading of these 79 stories, written over half a century, confirms this view. Most of the strongest are about children, isolated and uncertain about who they belong to; staying in houses where they would rather not be, making attachments that do not hold, looking for an Eden of happiness...

(The entire section is 644 words.)

William Trevor

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen there] are echoes of mystery … like reverberations after an explosion that has not itself been heard. It was part of [Elizabeth Bowen's] subtlety that she dealt so often and so confidently in such shadows, in the ghosts that lurk beneath mundane reality, and in the inaccessible….

There are echoes of another kind in Elizabeth Bowen's stories, pattering through even the most English of them. These are the tell-tale hints of the Irish mood….

Nationality matters in novels and short stories only when it makes itself felt, and Elizabeth Bowen now belongs less to Ireland than to literature. But any assessment of her work, especially...

(The entire section is 753 words.)

Eudora Welty

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Elizabeth Bowen] wrote with originality, bounty, vigor, style, beauty up to the last….

["The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen"] makes several new pleasures possible…. To see anew these bright stars set among their own constellations, to read again "Mysterious Kôr" in company with "Summer Night," "The Happy Autumn Fields," "Ivy Gripped the Steps" and "The Demon Lover" is to experience in its full force that concentration of imaginative power which was hers.

We can gain, too, a truer perception of its nature. Her work was in very close affinity with its time and place, as we know….

In "Her Table Spread," we're at a dinner party in a remote Irish castle...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Elizabeth Bowen has not written a short story as totally impressive as Lawrence's 'Odour of Chrysanthemums' or Joyce's 'The Dead', but she has produced the most consistent and extensive body of work in this form by any author writing in English…. Yet she has never been fully assimilated to the canon of modern English literature, and this failure of judgment on the critics' part is intimately connected with her mastery of the short story form.

The short story is allegedly un-English, a foreign mode indebted to Maupassant and Chekhov, excessively worked upon by Americans and Irish. (p. 19)

The ultimate and lasting impression which this entirely welcome collection will create is of...

(The entire section is 512 words.)

Patricia Craig

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Reading The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen] we are aware of steady progress, of increasing mastery of the form….

Her earliest stories (Encounters, 1923, and Ann Lee's, 1926,) were exercises in observation, rounded out by guesswork; she noted mannerisms and imagined their sources or followed up their implications. Her characters are meek, pompous, put-upon, confused, or contrite. She evokes gaiety only to undercut it with an ironic repudiation of its shallowness. Mockery, "the small smile of one who, herself, knows better," is never too far away. She is hardest on the arch, the effusive, and those who would attribute to themselves a "fearful" sensitivity; and this denotes...

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George Kearns

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Elizabeth Bowen's Collected Stories are] a treasure house of pleasure and mystery; even in the less successful of the seventy-nine, those that retain a "magazine" touch, some of the ghost stories and the Saki-like tales of Wise Children, there is always some fineness of phrasing, some shrewd observation (how could she have known so much?), and the strong evocation of place that is her signature. She wondered, in a manuscript she was working on at the time of her death in 1973, why people showed so little curiosity about the places:

Thesis-writers, interviewers or individuals I encounter at parties all but stick to the same track, which by-passes locality. On the subject of...

(The entire section is 596 words.)