Elizabeth Bowen

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Elizabeth Bowen is as well known for her ten novels as she is for her short-story collections. She also wrote books of history, travel, literary essays, personal impressions, a play, and a children’s book.

Achievements

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Elizabeth Bowen’s career is distinguished by achievements on two separate, though related, fronts. On the one hand, she was among the most well-known and accomplished British women novelists of her generation, a generation which, in the period between the wars, did much to consolidate the distinctive existence of women’s fiction. Bowen’s work in this area is noteworthy for its psychological acuity, sense of atmosphere, and impassioned fastidiousness of style.

As an Anglo-Irish writer, on the other hand, she maintained more self-consciously than most of her predecessors an understanding of her class’s destiny. Themes that are prevalent throughout her work—loss of innocence, decline of fortune, impoverishment of the will—gain an additional haunting quality from her sensitivity to the Irish context. Her awareness of the apparent historical irrelevance of the Anglo-Irish also gives her short stories in particular an important cultural resonance.

Other literary forms

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The first seven novels that Elizabeth Bowen (BOH-uhn) produced were republished by Jonathan Cape in Cape Collected Editions between the years 1948 and 1954, when Cape also republished four of her short-story collections: Joining Charles (1929), The Cat Jumps, and Other Stories (1934), Look at All Those Roses (1941), and The Demon Lover (1945). Other collections of her short stories are Encounters (1923), Ann Lee’s, and Other Stories (1926), Stories by Elizabeth Bowen (1959), and A Day in the Dark, and Other Stories (1965). The Demon Lover was published in New York under the title Ivy Gripped the Steps, and Other Stories (1946); this work, as the original title indicates, has supernatural content that scarcely appears in Bowen’s novels. Bowen’s nonfiction includes Bowen’s Court (1942), a description of her family residence in Ireland; Seven Winters (1942), an autobiography; English Novelists (1946), a literary history; Collected Impressions (1950), essays; The Shelbourne: A Center of Dublin Life for More than a Century (1951), a work about the hotel in Dublin; A Time in Rome (1960), travel essays; and Afterthought: Pieces About Writing (1962), which collects transcripts of broadcasts and reviews. A play that Bowen coauthored with John Perry, Castle Anna, was performed in London in March, 1948.

Achievements

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Considered a great lady by those who knew her, Elizabeth Bowen draws an appreciative audience from readers who understand English gentility—the calculated gesture and the controlled response. Bowen’s support has come from intellectuals who recognize the values of the novel of manners and who liken her work to that of Jane Austen and Henry James. Her contemporaries and colleagues included members of the Bloomsbury Group and scholars of Oxford University, where the classical scholar C. M. Bowra was a close friend. Many readers know Bowen best through her novel The Death of the Heart and her short stories, especially “The Demon Lover,” “Joining Charles,” and “Look at All Those Roses,” which are frequently anthologized in college texts. Bowen was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1948, and she was awarded an honorary doctor of letters degree at Trinity College, Dublin, in 1949, and at Oxford University in 1957. She was made a Companion of Literature in 1965.

Discussion Topics

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How might Elizabeth Bowen’s sensitivity to the complexity of Irish social history be accounted for?

Consider how Bowen’s skill at dialogue, rather than action, helps move the plot along in The Death of the Heart or in one of her other novels.

Weigh the advantages and disadvantages of Bowen’s grammatical and syntactical challenges to the reader.

Explain why, in The Death of the Heart , Matchett’s qualities make her...

(This entire section contains 105 words.)

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“a perfect servant.”

Biographer Victoria Glendinning ranked Bowen as one of the ten most important fiction writers in English. Challenge or defend this ranking by comparing Bowen with other fiction writers in English.

Bibliography

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Austin, Allan E. Elizabeth Bowen. Rev. ed. New York: Twayne, 1989. Austin contends Bowen’s better stories investigate psychological states that are more unusual than those in her novels. He calls “The Demon Lover” a ghost story that builds up and culminates like an Alfred Hitchcock movie.

Bennett, Andrew, and Nicholas Royle. Elizabeth Bowen and the Dissolution of the Novel: Still Lives. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994. Asserts that Bowen was one of the most important authors in English in the twentieth century and that her work has been undervalued. A good source of information about Bowen’s novels and their influence.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Elizabeth Bowen: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Collection of eleven essays surveys the range of Bowen criticism. Includes excerpts from important book-length critical works on Bowen. Supplemented by an extensive bibliography.

Corcoran, Neil. Elizabeth Bowen: The Enforced Return. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Analyzes several of Bowen’s novels by showing how these and other of her works focus on three themes that are central to Bowen’s writing: Ireland, children, and war.

Craig, Patricia. Elizabeth Bowen. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1986. Short biographical study is indebted to Victoria Glendinning’s work cited below, although it draws on later research, particularly on Bowen’s Irish connections. Offers perceptive readings of Bowen’s stories and novels and includes a useful chronology.

Ellmann, Maud. Elizabeth Bowen: The Shadow Across the Page. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003. Examination of Bowen’s life and writings uses historical, psychoanalytical, and deconstructivist approaches to interpret her works. Focuses on analysis of Bowen’s novels but also explicates some of her short stories and nonfiction.

Glendinning, Victoria. Elizabeth Bowen. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977. Comprehensive biography by an author who is well versed in the complexities of Bowen’s Irish context and details them informatively. Establishes and assesses Bowen’s standing as an eminent English novelist of the 1930’s. Also candidly discusses Bowen’s private life, making full use of Bowen’s numerous autobiographical essays.

Hoogland, Renée C. Elizabeth Bowen: A Reputation in Writing. New York: New York University Press, 1994. Views Bowen’s work from a lesbian feminist perspective, concentrating on the ways in which Bowen’s fiction explores the unstable and destabilizing effects of sexuality.

Jarrett, Mary. “Ambiguous Ghosts: The Short Stories of Elizabeth Bowen.” Journal of the Short Story in English, no. 8 (Spring, 1987): 71-79. A discussion of the themes of alienation, imprisonment, loss of identity, and the conflict of fiction and reality in Bowen’s stories, focusing primarily on the so-called ghost stories.

Jordan, Heather Bryant. How Will the Heart Endure: Elizabeth Bowen and the Landscape of War. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992. Focuses primarily on Bowen’s novels and argues that war was the most important influence on Bowen’s life and art. Discusses how two of her most common fictional motifs—of houses and ghosts—reflect war’s threat to cultural values and its blurring of the lines between reality and fantasy.

Kenney, Edward J. Elizabeth Bowen. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1977. A brief survey of Bowen’s life and works. Drawing on Bowen’s autobiographical writings, this study opens with a sketch of her background. This leads to a discussion of the theme of identity problems in her fiction. The study’s main concern is then developed. This concern is with Bowen’s use of the illusory, its nature, its necessity, and its frailty.

Lassner, Phyllis. Elizabeth Bowen: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1991. An introduction to Bowen’s short fiction focusing on its unique characteristics. Deals with the basic conflicts in the stories between the present and the past, often embodied in female ghosts and ancestral homes. Interprets many of her stories in terms of women’s struggle with a patriarchal society that stands in the way of their pursuit for a creative life. Includes essays on short fiction by Bowen and discussions of her stories by William Trevor and Eudora Welty.

Lee, Hermione. Elizabeth Bowen: An Estimation. London: Vision Press, 1981. Comprehensive and sophisticated study makes large claims for Bowen’s work. Asserts that she is both the equal of her Bloomsbury contemporaries and an important exponent of the European modernism deriving from Gustave Flaubert and Henry James. Also incisively analyzes Bowen’s concentration on the intersection of the cultural and the psychological.

Partridge, A. C. “Language and Identity in the Shorter Fiction of Elizabeth Bowen.” In Irish Writers and Society at Large, edited by Masaru Sekine. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble, 1985. An overview of Bowen’s short stories that focuses on her impressionism, her economy, and her Jamesian approach to narrative. Illustrates that style is Bowen’s overriding preoccupation.

Rubens, Robert. “Elizabeth Bowen: A Woman of Wisdom.” Contemporary Review 268 (June, 1996): 304-307. Examines the complex style of Bowen’s work as a reflection of her personality and background; discusses her romanticism and her rejection of the dehumanization of the twentieth century.

Walshe, Eibhear, ed. Elizabeth Bowen Remembered. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1998. Collection of essays drawn from the annual lectures at the church where Bowen was buried. In addition to a brief biography, includes discussions of Bowen’s use of Irish locales, motifs of gardens and gardening, and the Anglo-Irish tradition in Bowen’s writing.

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