Elizabeth Bowen: chronicler of wartime and the Big House
A new collection of Bowen's elegant writings reveal a complex author best enjoyed with age and experience, writes Claire Connolly
'There are certain literary works," writes John Banville in the introduction to the new Everyman edition of Elizabeth Bowen's Collected Stories, "which, once read, make one burn with envy of those readers who have still to come to them for the first time". Yet first encounters with Bowen's writing can be tricky and not all readers will feel the heat of Banville's envy. Her style is always elegant but often testing, seeming to push readers away from clear understanding only to guide us towards the unnerving territory of uncertainty, doubt and dreams.
Bowen's own story played out across the shifting terrain of Ireland and Britain in the years before and after 1916, the War of Independence and World War II. The elegant architecture of the Collected Stories, divided as it is between 'First Stories', 'The Twenties', 'The Thirties', 'The War Years' and 'Post-War Stories', conceals the turbulence of her life. She was born in Dublin in 1899 to Henry and Florence Bowen of Bowen's Court of north Cork. As a daughter and an only child, she became aware of issues of inheritance from a young age and remained fascinated by the idea of generations with a ghostly hold on the present.
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In 1905, when Bowen was aged six, her father (a barrister who became a land commissioner) suffered a nervous breakdown. She and her mother moved to England, renting a succession of seaside villas in Kent. Florence Bowen died in 1912, just as her husband recovered.
Around this time, Bowen developed a stammer from which she suffered throughout her life. As her biographer Victoria Glendinning tells us, however, it would be wrong to imagine Bowen as "irrevocably scarred" by these years.
Rather, a writerly sensibility began to develop, as the young girl pursued what she later described as a "campaign of not noticing" certain things while also absorbing in rich detail the passing parade of everyday English life. She became, she later said, "diplomatic and imitative". Even the stammer had its own distinct character. Glendinning quotes an admiring British Council memo of 1950, reporting on Bowen's lecture tour and recommending her for further engagements: "She is a most successful lecturer with a most successful stammer."
A professional writer from a young age, Bowen married Alan Cameron in 1923 and (it seems) lived chastely with him for the rest of her life. She had intense friendships and affairs with men and women including the Irish writer Seán Ó Faoláin, the Canadian diplomat Charles Ritchie and the American writer May Sarton. Her social circle widened with marriage and she had many friends in Oxford and London: an early affair was with the Oxford don and critic of Charles Dickens, Humphry House.
In 1929, she published her classic Irish War of Independence novel, The Last September. Shortly afterwards, she inherited Bowen's Court and began to travel to Ireland more regularly. Renowned already as a welcoming if sometimes waspish hostess, she held famous house parties in Cork and entertained writers including Virginia Woolf, Isaiah Berlin, Iris Murdoch and Carson McCullers. In 1935, she and Alan Cameron set up home on Clarence Terrace, Regent's Park in London. Her great novels follow on from these years, with To the North (1932) and The Death of the Heart (1938), both dramatising the precarious insights afforded by vulnerable or placeless people (especially children).
In London, Bowen lived through the Blitz, writing memorably about what she described as the "lucid abnormality" of wartime alienation and estrangement in such short stories as 'Mysterious Kôr' and 'The Demon Lover'. With The Heat of the Day (1948), she gave us one of the classic novels of civilian life during the war.
During these war years, Bowen travelled regularly between Britain and Ireland and wrote confidential reports on neutral Ireland for the Ministry of Information, activities for which she is still not forgiven in certain quarters. During the war, Bowen also began to reckon with personal and family history. In 1942, she published Bowen's Court, a history of her family, followed a year later by Seven Winters, a memoir of her childhood in Dublin.
In an essay published in Ó Faoláin's The Bell, she offered a witty and thoughtful series of meditations on the fate of Anglo-Irish houses, "far from neighbours, golf links, tennis clubs, cinemas, buses, railways, shops". And in any case, these houses "would only be called 'big' in Ireland," she says, wondering about the "hostility" and "irony" of that designation. "One may call a man 'big' with just that inflection because he seems to think the hell of himself." By 1959, she was ready to sell Bowen's Court, witnessing its "clean end" as the property was demolished. From the late 1940s and into the '50s, Bowen lectured, wrote for radio and magazines and toured. Her final Eva Trout (1968) explores the new territory of technology, travel and identity: "What is a person?", asks its strange heroine.
Bowen still has countless admirers. The British novelist Tessa Hadley is a lifelong fan. Remembering her first experience of tackling Bowen, aged 13 or 14, Hadley says: "I only half understood what I was reading, first time round - but I responded to the promise her writing gave: that lived experience could be as subtle, complex, richly substantial as her sentences. That promise is mostly what you read for, at that age."
Age and experience matter in reading Bowen. Her novels and stories are full of dense emotional scenarios, worked out on the page with all the promise, hesitations and setbacks of life itself. In 1951, Bowen confessed a youthful fear that she might not ever "establish grown-up status: a writer and a grown-up, it appeared to me, could not but be synonymous". Yet to be a grown-up was to be able to take that world down from the inside: "I was anxious at once to approximate the grown-ups and demolish them." Although often drawn to the lives, voices and thoughts of children, Elizabeth Bowen remains quintessentially a writer for grown-ups.
Claire Connolly is professor of modern English at University College Cork