Elizabeth Bowen Bowen, Elizabeth (Vol. 22)

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(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...

(The entire section is 8,182 words.)