The Little Girls Summary
by Elizabeth Bowen

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The Little Girls Summary

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

It is appropriate that a novel whose theme involves the question of dealing with the past should take place in two time frames. The first and third sections of The Little Girls are set in the period after World War II, when Dinah “Dicey” Piggott Delacroix decides to recapture her childhood; the second section is set in the time just before World War I, when she and her friends were living that childhood.

Dinah’s preoccupation with the past is evident in the first scene of the novel. Ostensibly from whim or boredom, actually from a deep need, Dinah has been collecting treasured objects from her friends with the intention of burying a sort of time capsule for the benefit of future scholars. Interestingly, she wishes to preserve the varied objects which seem essential to her friends. While she is discussing her project, Dinah suddenly recalls another cache of treasures, the coffer which she and two school friends buried when they were eleven, just before World War I. Despite the discouraging words of her suitor and neighbor, Major Frank Wilkins, who points out that one cannot go back in time, Dinah resolves to track down the school friends who shared the earlier burial and with them to find that long-forgotten box.

Like Frank, Sheila Beaker Artworth and Clare Burkin-Jones believe that a venture into the past may be dangerous. With typical zest, Dinah has advertised widely for her schoolmates, and it is primarily to stop the embarrassment caused by this publicity that Sheila and Clare agree to meet Dinah. As Clare points out, she and Sheila feel like the little pigs whose houses may be blown down at any moment. Clearly, their apprehensions are caused by more than a fear of publicity. For most adults, the present is a fragile construct whose stability depends partly on selective forgetting of the past. Fearlessly, however, Dinah persists, and the women dig up the buried coffer, which proves to be empty. Although they do reveal to one another what they had placed in the box, the schoolmates feel increasing tensions and even animosity toward one another. At the end of the novel, Dinah falls into a psychological collapse, perhaps the immediate result of a physical attack by Clare, perhaps the culmination of the schoolmates’ exploration of their common past. The moment of danger passes, however, and it is clear that Dinah will recover to commit herself to the present.


(The entire section is 609 words.)