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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.)
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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...
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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 were all eleven…. (p. 82)
[After their reunion] Dinah talks her reluctant partners into digging up the coffer [they buried as children]….
Seeming concern for the retrieval of both chest and friendship is displaced by the psychological mystery of Dinah's behavior and, retroactively, by the motivation underlying the apparent spontaneity of her decision to contact the past. The shift is, of course, seeming rather than real. Basically, the book is constructed on a cunning switch. Of the three women, Dinah appears to be the only one living a satisfying life…. Yet events lead to a reversal in which Dinah emerges as the most troubled of the trio….
[In] summoning her old friends, [Dinah] has encountered fears and doubts about the reality of her existence and the quality of its feeling. (p. 83)
Dinah's [emotional] illness proves double-edged. For her, it serves as purgative; for her circle of acquaintances, it serves as rejuvenation. (p. 85)
[The] book ends with Dinah waking from a long sleep. The brief exchange between herself and Clare reveals, for all its terseness, that Dinah has shed her childlike attitude to life along with her terrifying sense of meaninglessness, and assumed her proper role in the present. Upon awakening, Dinah queries: "Who's there?" "Mumbo." "Not Mumbo. Clare. Clare, where have you been?"… It is a paradox worthy of life that the innocence which came to trouble Dinah is the kind which made possible not only her own salvation but also the resurrection of her closest friends. This paradox recurs consistently in the Bowen novels.
When we at last learn what items the girls placed in the coffer, it can be seen that each buried something really requisite to her life. If not in actuality, then metaphysically, events allow the women to repossess what was secretly hidden. Dinah's contribution was a gun, symbol of violence, without which, according to other Bowen novels, life is incomplete. (p. 86)
Clare buried a copy of Shelley's poetry, believing herself through with it. Her failed marriage and her protective brittleness readily enough indicate her loss of a sense of poetry in life and her indifference to the humanitarianism Shelley advocated. Not so readily translatable as the gun and the book is the sixth toe which Sheila contributed to the casket. But, when she mentions how embarrassed she was over the toe, it may be surmised that, in being unwilling to accept her fate or situation, her unwillingness to acknowledge the sliver of flesh has remained as her inability to accept the events of her life, one which accounts for her tensions and hypersensitivity. (pp. 86-7)
As might properly be expected, almost everything that has been said about the author's interests and techniques in her novels applies equally to her stories. A few generalizations are worth repeating, and there is one noteworthy difference. By and large, the protagonists are sensitive, educated, well-mannered females moving through a reasonably well-to-do-world. The point of view is almost always omniscient, and most stories include generous portions of dialogue. All but a few contain incisive but impressionistic descriptive passages which help to establish and sustain mood and tone. Many of the stories show a greater freedom in their handling of time than the novels. The interplay between present and past time (not readily conveyed by analyses), along with elliptical conversation and terse narrative details, contributes to a "difficult" and challenging style. (p. 94)
[Miss Bowen's harshest stories] constitute a vision of the wasteland while cataloguing various causes of entrapment. Sometimes the will of a strong but misdirected person imposes itself upon an innocent or helpless victim ("The Little Girl's Room"); often a character's own desires or ego twist life ("A Love Story"); at other times a person crumbles before forces he can hardly or only vaguely define ("The Disinherited"). Some characters are not even conscious of their entrapment; but, when they are, enlightenment has come only after the process is complete.
Compared with other stories, these generally originate in relatively normal circumstances, a fact which contributes to their chilling effect since we are reminded of the proximity of limbo. The chill is also reinforced by Miss Bowen's detached, stoical humor. Though the situations portrayed are pathetic and painful, our response is to circumstances rather than character; it is cerebral rather than visceral. These stories are essentially static and disclose their portraits of entrapment scenically rather than narratively. (pp. 95-6)
"The Disinherited" is both one of Miss Bowen's longest stories and one of her most detailed depictions of corruption. At the center of the narrative is Davina Archworth, twenty-nine, who is "idle with a melancholy and hollow idleness…." Without money or life of her own, she has come to live off an elderly aunt whose house sits on a rise overlooking a university town. This situation brings Davina into contact with two others, Prothero, Mrs. Archworth's chauffeur, and Marianne Harvey, a quiet "modern" wife who lives in one of many new homes being built on an estate about the town.
Underlying the story is the theme of mutability. The season is autumn, appropriate to the images of decay which abound; the atmosphere is decadent…. Times are changing, and Davina finds herself neither a member in good standing of the old order nor a candidate for the new. One of the disinherited, she is like the grass on the new homes estate: "wiry grass that had lost its nature, being no longer meadow and not yet lawn."
Davina sees herself as an aristocrat without the means. She believes it is money she wants, though it is more likely power. (pp. 102-03)
It is money which brings her into close contact with Prothero. Offering kisses in return, she borrows from him. He too is corrupt, and almost instinctively she recognizes him as a criminal….
The borrowing of money from Prothero and the kisses are simply a measure of Davina's decay. (p. 103)
The story's major dramatic scene is the party to which Davina takes Marianne while her husband is in London…. The party is composed of a motley crew, Davina's crowd, of men and women who are also caught between desire and impossibility of fulfillment. Principal among them is Oliver, the man with whom Davina was once in love and who is to seduce Marianne before the party's end. (p. 104)
In a nice touch, the story gives the scene the following day in which Marianne meets her husband at the station and returns home with him. The occasion is typical of Miss Bowen in its elliptical, tense, and deliciously suggestive nature. Having settled into the living room, Matthew says, "'I think … I must get my glasses changed!' 'Changed?' said Marianne, starting." What we are left speculating about is the impact of the previous night upon Marianne's future. She is conscious of change, and Matthew detects something…. Mutability, then, both physical and metaphysical, is the way of life. Among Miss Bowen's shorter fiction, "The Disinherited" is one of her most telling portrayals of the pain change can inflict—and of the human incapacity for adapting to it….
[Another type of story that Miss Bowen writes centers about] an individual whose attitudes to or whose views about life are called into question. The action revolves around an "opportunity" presented to him for self-discovery or self-judgment…. One of Miss Bowen's best stories, the frequently anthologized "The Queen Heart," displays a most astute switch and gains force by confronting the reader with a complex problem of judgment; the character under attack is wonderfully appealing, and the individuals surrounding her are otherwise. (p. 105)
Few short-story themes have proven more fruitful for Miss Bowen than that of dislocation. Sensitive people, she observes, do not suffer the disintegration of their world lightly; they frequently react, seemingly involuntarily, in strange and unexpected ways when it is threatened…. The stories written in wartime London and published as The Demon Lover have dislocation as their major concern. (p. 113)
Allan E. Austin, in his Elizabeth Bowen (copyright © 1971 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, a Division of G. K. Hall & Co., Boston), Twayne, 1971, 134 p.
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[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 implications of love and passion by reducing them to sensual needs…. [While] her repugnance for Markie is evident, Elizabeth Bowen shares the ability of those greater writers to persuade the reader of what it feels like to be a damned soul…. [There is an] effort to impose the images necessary to the novel's formal organization on Emmeline's train of thought. This is a risk inherent in the plan to load Emmeline and Markie's relationship with elemental imagery and ominous images of travel. But at the two points of greatest intensity in the affair, the week-end of Emmeline's seduction in Paris, and their final car-drive together, the patterning of images contributes to a satisfying aesthetic logic. Markie's nervousness and Emmeline's exhilaration … on their plane flight to Paris anticipate his sexual sensations 'of having been overshot, of having, in some final soaring flight of her exaltation, been outdistanced'. Emmeline makes a joke about the violent pace of Paris taxis being like 'the Last Ride Together'. Such elements project the idyllic section of the novel towards the powerful, catastrophic ending. Emmeline, wearing the original silver dress, drives Markie northwards, back into the element which he has defiled, in order to take revenge. This scheme is not recognized by the heroine: she acts involuntarily. Those fey looks culminate in a final distractedness; while Markie struggles to bring her back to earth, she is given up to speed. The associations that have been made between her work (over which she has lost control), her passion and her unearthly innocence fall into place. (pp. 131-33)
Emmeline and Markie, though inside a partly comic novel, are thus implacably directed by the author to their end as tragic protagonists. The strict formality of the plot … undermines the characters' opportunities for free choice, in the same way as the relentless patterning of the images which dominate them. Even when the emphasis is on the comic world … the freedom of the will seems no more than a toy…. (p. 134)
It is … the treatment of place which provides the most versatile, complex vehicle for the novel's deeper meanings…. [There is] Markie's sinister flat, cut off at the top of his sister's 'very high, dark-red house in Lower Sloane Street' with its shadowy corners and its invisible cook whose 'reedy, ghostly whistle' makes Emmeline jump…. Set against [this] are places offering peace and stability. But all are potentially lost paradises; a careful colouring of anticipated nostalgia fills the descriptions. (pp. 136-38)
Hermione Lee, "The Placing of Loss: Elizabeth Bowen's 'To the North'," in Essays in Criticism, Vol. XXVIII, No. 2, April, 1978, pp. 129-42.
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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.
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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 that eludes them.
Even in her adult characters, the frightened child still cries. There is always the possibility that the loved one will disappear, does not care, is not what he seems, will die. Sometimes the dependence of childhood is made quite apparent in the adult—characters are crippled, or not quite all there, like the dotty heiress in 'Her Table Spread'.
The Bowen world is a world of women. Motherless herself from the age of 12, she depicts awkward, nervous girls, sexually undefined, for whom older women represent authority, sensuality, excitement. Men in the early stories are hazy escorts, or blunt instruments who disturb the world of feelings without fully entering into it….
As Angus Wilson writes here, 'she can be witty (though not, I think, very satisfactorily funny)'. The unsatisfactory nature of her funniness is evident in her ghost stories. In one of these, 'Foothold', a character asks whether the others have noticed that 'one may discuss ghosts quite intelligently, but never any particular ghost without being facetious.' She had identified the problem, but was not—except in 'The Happy Autumn Fields', a nostalgic dream of her native Ireland, conjured up in war-torn London—able to solve it.
Her sensitivity to the supernatural was part of her vision of the fragility of existence, of her feeling that the civilised surface might crack and all be plunged into chaos…. Overt sexuality is part of this: it breaks the dream, it is violent, perhaps something that only happens in a lower social class….
But all these tensions worked together for Elizabeth Bowen during the Second World War. The surface of life, of London, had indeed cracked; people's minds, in the Blitz, cracked too. In her war stories she charts the hallucinations and heightened perceptions that fear creates, as well as the material ravages to the city. In the best, 'Mysterious Kor', she describes London by night as looking like 'the moon's capital—shallow, cratered, extinct'…. It was only during the war, too, that she began to write about any real relation between men and women….
Her wartime stories were reportage—of the physical and metaphysical experiences of those who stayed in London. There is a journalistic element in much of her writing; but the nonliterary aspect of her personality that gave her a taste for melodrama and made her a reflector of the preoccupations of her class and her times has paid off. Clothes and houses are described obsessively; and the legacy to us of this obsession in the early stories is an unequalled sense of flashback to the 1920s and 1930s. She is fetishistic in her attention to gloves and shoes and hats…. One put pepper on one's muffins in the 1920s, and cushions were satin and had frills, and one used the pronoun 'one', it seems, very much more than one does today….
The remarkable thing, it seems to me, about Elizabeth Bowen's short fictions is the way they straddle the gulf between high art and popular romance….
Victoria Glendinning, "Women and War" (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1981; reprinted by permission of Victoria Glendinning), in The Listener, Vol. 105, No. 2698, February 5, 1981, p. 185.
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[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 of her stories, cannot quite escape the lost world into which, as a person, she was born at just the wrong time. As a writer, she took part of her strength from that predicament….
No story here is unworthy of inclusion; a couple perhaps are on the way to becoming classics. Stories such as "A Day in the Dark", "Tears, Idle Tears" and "The Happy Autumn Fields" are so coolly evocative that they have acquired in their relatively short lives a timeless hallmark. "The Demon Lover" has—technically—a flawlessness that no novel can ever have.
Elizabeth Bowen possessed the short-story writer's darting curiosity, and an imagination that could become lighter and more volatile than the novelist's. She wrote as hungrily about one subject as the next, finding her stories in the supernatural, in sexuality and love and friendship, in lives wasted, time wasted, in houses, families, dreams, nightmares, fantasies, happiness. Nothing could be more different from the over-ripe suppuration of "Her Table Spread" than the calmness turned to panic in "The Cat Jumps". The claustrophobia of "Breakfast" is a far cry from the sad imprisonments of "The Tommy Crans" or the wartime chatter of "Careless Talk". The single common obsession is a concern for the truth about the human condition.
Her own statement that she was inspired by the unfamiliar is borne out in story after story. She came to know England well, but always wrote about the English from an angle which suggests a stranger on the edge of a circle of friends….
The value of this outsider's view was something she strongly sensed: having established her role as that of a traveller forever on the way either to Holyhead or Dun Laoghaire, she stuck to it rigorously….
Naturally, some of these stories are less successful than others. A few are slight, several somewhat flat, others tinged with obscurity. The effort of achieving an effect often shows, so that a story—or part of one—seems breathless and over-written. I don't agree with Angus Wilson that Elizabeth Bowen did not have an ear for the speech patterns of those outside her own class; but I do think that more than occasionally, when searching for the common touch, she failed to find it and caused a certain amount of damage by trying….
A story I have already mentioned, "The Cat Jumps", is one of her most renowned but it seems to me to suffer rather badly in this kind of way. It tells of a house in which a murder has been committed and which is later bought by a no-nonsense couple who refuse to be affected by the shadow of drama. A weekend party is marvellously observed…. The atmosphere, the interplay of the previous owners and the present ones, the vitality that appears to have possessed the house but no longer does, is brilliantly and wittily conveyed. The story gets nicely going but then, close to the end, there is a sudden disastrous change of mood; like a fog, disbelief descends.
But even Elizabeth Bowen's failures have interest enough to fascinate. She did not "develop" or improve (few short-story writers do) but she did set her own standards and must in the end be judged by them. She was well aware that the short story is the art of the glimpse, that in craftily withholding information it tells as little as it dares. She likened what she called the "short storyist" to the poet, since both must be able to "render the significance of the small event". With style and affection she celebrated that exercise herself: the creation of something memorable out of practically nothing, the glimpsing of the gold beneath the dross.
William Trevor, "Between Holyhead and Dun Laoghaire," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1981; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4062, February 6, 1981, p. 131.
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[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 overlooking an estuary on a rainy night; in the estuary is the rare sight of a visiting English destroyer…. A whole welcoming world is being made out of that wet, lonely, amorous Irish night.
They are all asleep at the end, even the bat in the boathouse; while the rain goes on falling on the castle, and below in the estuary the destroyer, still keeping to itself, is steaming its way slowly out to sea.
As it ends the story can be seen to be perfect, and the perfection lies in the telling—the delicacy, the humor, above all the understanding that has enveloped but never intruded upon it, never once pricked the lovely, free-floating balloon.
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…. There was a clock in every story and novel she ever wrote; those not in running order were there to give cause for alarm. Time and place were what she found here. Her characters she invented, in consequence….
Elizabeth Bowen … was—and was from the start—a highly conscious artist. Being alive as she was in a world of change affected her passionately. The nature and workings of human emotions magnetized her imagination; with all her artist mind she set forth to comprehend, and thus capture, human motives—men's, women's and children's. Time and place that she was so aware of, sensitive to, conveyed to her: situation. Human consciousness meant urgency: drama. Her art was turned full range upon a subject: human relationships….
The imaginative power to envision a scene—acute perception, instinctive psychological insight, in an intensified form—was her gift. It became the greatest gift of an artist who was profoundly happy to give the rest of her life to fathoming it.
The passage of time has deactivated "The Needlecase." There are no longer "fallen women," so designated, whose doom it was to earn their living by sewing dresses for other women in other women's houses, poor souls, taking their meals upstairs from a tray. The story dates, and is only mentioned because it constitutes the exception…. The others don't date and will not; their subjects are major.
"The Disinherited" is one of a number of Bowen stories of the dislocations arising from social and psychological disturbance. (p. 3)
This story of a long and misspent evening, in which everything is at cross purposes, miscarries, is misdirected, and every intention seems as lost to the world and as in the way as old Mrs. Bennington, is a turning kaleidoscope of shifting, fragmented lives. The startling moment when Prothero, the chauffeur, comes into view seated before the table in his quarters and writing a letter gives us the interlocking piece. Nothing so far has come up in the story as true, as straightforward and brutally lined out, as plain and simple and never to be changed or subject to change, as Prothero's letter addressed to a woman named Anita, which is the full account of how and why he murdered her. At the end of his long day he writes the letter and then burns it in the stove; he writes it every night and burns it….
Prothero's letter is an example of the extraordinary tour de force of which Elizabeth Bowen was capable. Her imaginative power to envision a scene is almost hallucinatory here; it makes one feel that she might have put herself within the spell of its compulsion….
Her sensuous wisdom was sure and firm; she knew to its last reverberation what she saw, heard, touched, knew what the world wore in its flesh and the clothing it would put on, how near the world came, how close it stood: in every dramatic scene it is beside us at every moment. We see again how pervasive this knowledge was through her stories.
And firmly at home in the world, Elizabeth Bowen was the better prepared to appreciate that it had an edge. For her, terra firma implies the edge of a cliff; suspense arises from the borderlines of experience and can be traced along that nerve. Her supernatural stories gave her further ways to explore experience to its excruciating limits, through daydream, fantasy, hallucination, obsession—and enabled her to write as she did about World War II.
In the unsurpassable "Mysterious Kôr," her most extraordinary story of those she wrote out of her life in wartime London, the exalted, white, silent, deserted other city of Kôr occupies the same territory as bombed-out London through the agency of the full moon at its extreme intensity….
Of all the stories, it is "Summer Night" that I return to….
This unforgettable story, the most remarkable of a group of longer ones, is an example of the sheer force of the Bowen imagination. What other writer could have propelled the whole of "Summer Night" from its rushing headlong start to its softly subsiding conclusion, like a parachute let down to earth gently folding in its petals? The turmoil of all these passionate drives, private energies that in their own directions touch yet never can merge or become one together, is yet all magical; their passions become part of the night sky and part of the world in wartime….
That the collection richly reconfirms the extraordinary contribution Elizabeth Bowen has made to English letters alleviates the pain one feels at their neglect since her death. Their vitality is their triumph…. "A Day in the Dark," her last story, is the last one in the book. It is a growing girl's story of the accidental way in which one learns the name of the deepening feeling that one has come to live with…. Like many another of these stories, it is its own kind of masterpiece. (p. 22)
Eudora Welty. "Seventy-Nine Stories to Read Again," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 8, 1981, pp. 3, 22.
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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 Elizabeth Bowen's supremacy in responding to the civilian dimension of the second world war…. [Such] wartime stories as 'The Happpy Autumn Fields' are faultless embodiments of concentrated perception and intelligence…. The war provided her with the circumstances and symbols in which her art flourished: there was little thereafter to be said.
This centrality of the war in her career reminds us paradoxically of the Irishness; Louis MacNeice and Samuel Beckett (so different in every way) similarly found the war to identify a chasm in their own experience. For Elizabeth Bowen was not Irish in Joyce's sense; she was Anglo-Irish, her identity revolved round a hyphen, a linking minus. Meaning for such a writer involved the acknowledgment of two frequently hostile realities. 'Mysterious Kor', one of her final stories, sets up the remote and deserted city as antithesis to spectral London. This kind of fiction, closer, at times to a self-effacing allegory than to the classic mimetic novel, is illuminated more successfully by reference to Yeatsian masks than to the practice of the Greenes of the Murdochs.
'BREAKFAST,' her first attempt at fiction in 1923, displayed those distinctive features which characterised all her subsequent work. The second paragraph (all of it) reads:
They turned at his entrance profiles and three-quarter faces towards him. There was a silence of suspended munching and little bulges of food were thrust into their cheeks that they might wish him perfunctory good-mornings.
The paragraph, brief as a Jamesian parenthesis or briefer, appears itself to be perfunctory. Its dense, economical use of syntactical suavity and gross attention to appearance will recur in more refined work later. Though the style is modulated later, the same fundamental division persists. While the novels seek to assimilate this condition, the short stories are freer to render it purely as mood. These stories advance memorable characters, present vivid, precise pictures but this ultimate achievement lies elsewhere…. [The] element of narrative involving characters and action is a means to an ultimate distillation of mood. It seems pointless then to insist on Elizabeth Bowen as one who 'brilliantly portrayed classically English, reticent, emotionally secretive characters'. Her real strength as a writer of fiction lay in the external perspective in which she presented character and the emotional grammar with which she deployed character. (pp. 19-20)
W.J. McCormack, "Mask & Mood," in New Statesman (© 1981 The Stateman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 101, No. 2604, February 13, 1981, pp. 19-20.
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[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 an essential soundness of outlook, which made a firm base for the experiments in intricacy she carried out later. Emotional indecorum always affronted her.
Her own terse judgement of Encounters and Ann Lee's—"a blend of precosity and naïveté"—will not, I think, be disagreed with…. Her stories showed at once a striking accomplishment in evoking scenes and settings; as yet, however, character—in its solid and enduring aspect—interested her rather less than the characteristic pose.
Bravado, the quality above all others she noticed in Anglo-Irish writing, is discernible in her own—but bravado with all sense of the flashy removed….
England made her a novelist, by firing her imagination; but Ireland had already marked out her way of seeing. Toughness, melancholy, wit, and a stubborn, oblique romanticism that feeds on loss are among her characteristics….
In the best of Elizabeth Bowen's writing there is hardly an incident or an image that does not have reverberations or draw into its orbit different kinds of complex feelings. By comparison her earliest stories, delightful though they are, are bound to seem slight; they are constructed on one plane only. They abound in swift, vivid perceptions … but lack the sense of undercurrent that distinguishes her later work. This begins to be apparent in "The Tommy Crans" (the first story reprinted here under the heading "The Thirties"), with the feckless couple of the title kept in the background, and a debilitating emotional delicacy (a recurring trait) informing its principal characters. Then, after a foretaste of Elizabeth Bowen's electrifying use of atmosphere in "Look at All Those Roses," we reach the remarkable group of wartime stories.
"Look at All Those Roses" opens with a commonplace mishap—engine failure on a quiet road—and quickly shifts into an area of near-poetic intensity, without losing anything of its down-to-earth flavor. It is Elizabeth Bowen's ability to invest the ordinary with the uncanny that makes this possible. The burning blossoms in the country garden, a damaged child in a wheelchair—a suggestion of violence, romantic in its unspokenness, connects these images. Even at this fairly early stage, Elizabeth Bowen had enough confidence to cut her story short at the most tantalizing moment; the reader is left with nothing but hints and guesses, and this adds greatly to the power of the narrative. But when the author tells us of Lou, the central character, that "her idea of love was adhesiveness" we are back with the plain, wry voice of disenchantment. It's a familiar tone; you might call it Irish asperity at its most pointed.
In "Attractive Modern Homes" an ordinary young woman in a housing development experiences a kind of ecstasy of despair (the closest she will ever get to insight) which lasts for the duration of the story: at the end the old social habits, politeness to neighbors, self-assertion, mild disparagement of husbands, start to reassert themselves. The ambitious "The Disinherited," in which a corrupt poor relation sells her kisses to her aunt's bleak chauffeur, establishes effectively a mood of decay…. (p. 23)
Prothero, the chauffeur, with his melodramatic history, represents an instance of Elizabeth Bowen's tendency, especially pronounced during the Thirties, to incorporate into her fiction episodes straight out of the popular press. Lurid accidents, outbreaks of murder are zestfully re-created as ghost stories, comic horror pieces … or psychological dramas…. Her feeling for the supernatural—which, austerely, she kept out of her novels—finds an outlet in stories like these, where it often becomes an invigorating force. When her objective is not to explore to the fullest the power of suggestion (as in "The Cat Jumps"), or to devise a kind of embodiment for the numinous, she can have fun with her ghosts. (pp. 23-4)
Elizabeth Bowen can be a deadly observer of social ploys and foibles. She views infelicitous or unruly behavior with coolness and amusement…. [In] even the most perplexed or disturbing of her narratives, an oblique comic vision can be detected doing its work. Her own emotions are never caught up in anything mawkish, as Katherine Mansfield's sometimes were. When we find a "dear little table lamp, gaily painted with spots to make it look like a toadstool" (in "Mysterious Kôr"), we know this object is far from being "dear" to the author.
There is an element of sarcastic admiration … in Elizabeth Bowen's treatment of children. Childhood, with its fickleness, its odd formalities, its devious attachments and antipathies, always engaged her deepest interests. The children in her fiction are seen with a peculiar clarity, whether they are pert schemers [comically blundering, or harrowed by some unmentionable stress]…. It is true, as she said, that in childhood nothing is banal; inexperience means a capacity to be perpetually stimulated. However, "it is not only our fate but our business to lose innocence"—this curt declaration says much about Elizabeth Bowen's temperament. Loss of innocence, betrayal, the "wrecking of an illusion" she found to be characteristic of Katherine Mansfield's stories: these are also major themes in her work, as they were in Henry James's, but always enlarged by paradox, irony, and complication; she relished the incalculable too. She is adept at isolating moments of strung-up awkwardness or incommunicable dismay….
Elizabeth Bowen's Demon Lover [(1945)] stories give shape to "a particular psychic London"—a London, moreover, distorted by the effects of war…. The stories deal with psychic dislocation too: in the marvelous "The Happy Autumn Fields" (the title taken from Tennyson's "The Princess") a fragment of intense experience in the life of an unknown Victorian girl blots out the present for the bomb-shocked heroine in her crumbling house.
The childhood trauma described in "Ivy Gripped the Steps," on the other hand, is the hero's own—a devastating instance of betrayal, casually disclosed. Gavin Doddington, revisiting in his forties the seaside town he last saw at the age of ten, remembers his childish infatuation for his mother's fascinating friend Mrs. Nicholson, whose guest he was, and the painful moment when he recognized the element of mockery in that lady's affection for him. He is one of those characters, common enough in Elizabeth Bowen's work, in whom some emotional faculty is significantly deadened.
No one understood better than she did the creative possibilities of evasiveness, the power of the unstated, the fascination of the unaccountable. Against such triumphs as we find in this collection, her failings—the mannered passages, periphrases, gratuitous convolution—can only seem negligible. She was—to adapt her own remark about Virginia Woolf—the extreme and final product of the Anglo-Irish liberal mind: elegant, restrained, always susceptible to sensation in its purest form. (p. 24)
Patricia Craig, "The Power of the Unstated," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1981 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXVIII, No. 8, May 14, 1981, pp. 23-4.
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[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 my symbology, if any, or psychology (whether my own or my characters'), I have occasionally been run ragged; but as to the where of my stories, its importance in them and for me, and the reasons for that, a negative apathy persists. Why? Am I not manifestly a writer for whom places loom large? As a reader, it is to the place-element that I react most strongly; for me, what gives fiction its verisimilitude is its topography.
Note the faint scorn for "symbology," of which there is little in her work, and for "psychology," of which there is plenty, although she was a much better writer for not thinking of it as that. As I return to these stories for a second or third look, it is seldom the incident or the characters that I remember; I don't find myself saying, there's Davina or Agatha or Paul; but, yes, that table, that room, that house, that garden, that deserted bar in an ambiguous road-house, the lounge of that seaside Irish hotel. Yet if you look to see how she achieves particularity of place, you can hardly discover the art, it has been done with so few touches, such rightness of selection. Here are no Balzacian pauses encyclopedically to "do" a room, a neighborhood. Here are no "settings" against which the characters act out some plot: the places are the people, define their lives and present conditions, take their quidditas from the lives lived within them, and what a Bowen story is often about is some fine registration of harmony or dissonance between person and locale. (pp. 229-300)
Character, for Bowen, is not uniqueness of personality, but a tangle of habit, situation, manners and class. There are codes everywhere, stable and unstable, and people are supposed to know by breeding, intuition, or luck, how to read them. Yet the intricacies of code never quite accommodate their lives, are always violated; something has gone just a bit wrong, not only within each story, but within the larger structure of the relatively comfortable classes of England and Anglo-Ireland…. The stories are often about young men and women who must look for suitable marriages; wives trapped within marriages because there is no place else to go; poor relations; and people who live precariously at the edge of the comfortable classes…. To watch Bowen's England move through three decades is to observe almost imperceptible changes through a series of little shocks, as money, manners, and sexual behavior shift and become less stable. (p. 300)
Collected Stories is much more effective as a volume than as individual pieces. It has the cumulative force of a long plotless novel in which Elizabeth Bowen, everywhere present, difficult to identify, is the elusive heroine. (p. 302)
George Kearns, "'Fiction Chronicle': 'The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen'," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1981 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXIV, No. 2, Summer, 1981, pp. 299-302.