Authors: Elizabeth Bowen

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Irish novelist and short-story writer

Biography

Elizabeth Dorothea Cole Bowen (BOH-uhn), born in Dublin, Ireland, on June 7, 1899, the only child of a landed Protestant attorney, Henry Charles Cole Bowen, and his wife, Florence Colley Bowen, was a distinguished Anglo-Irish writer. Her introverted and shy parents responded to their only child with emotional vagueness and hired nurses and governesses to supervise her schedule. Though stories were read to her, she was not permitted to learn to read before she was seven years old, for fear it would stress her mind. During these early years, which Bowen articulates in her first autobiography, Seven Winters, she spent the winter months of each year in Dublin and the rest of the year at Bowen’s Court, the eighteenth century estate deeded to her ancestor Colonel Bowen, a professional soldier who was a lieutenant colonel in Oliver Cromwell’s army in 1653.{$I[AN]9810001206}{$I[A]Bowen, Elizabeth}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Bowen, Elizabeth}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Bowen, Elizabeth}{$I[geo]IRELAND;Bowen, Elizabeth}{$I[tim]1899;Bowen, Elizabeth}

Elizabeth Bowen

(Library of Congress)

Throughout her life, Bowen was not only reticent about discussing personal experiences but also elusive when asked overt questions. Much of her childhood was buried within her until she began to write. This emotional diffidence resulted from the traumas which occurred between her seventh and thirteenth years. Her father had a mental breakdown when she was seven years old, and her mother died of cancer when Bowen was thirteen. After her father’s hospitalization, the doctor recommended that Bowen and her mother leave Ireland and go to England to live. There, they settled near her mother’s cousins on the Kent coast. After the death of her mother, Bowen became afflicted with a significant but well-controlled stammer. One word that she could never say without stammering was “mother.” After her mother’s death, Bowen attended Downe House, a girls’ boarding school in Kent, and during the first year, insisted upon wearing a black armband. She loved Downe House and remained in school from 1914 to 1917, leaving to go to art school in London.

The early and painful tragedies of Bowen’s life are adroitly circumvented in her essays, short stories, and novels. Though Bowen planned a career in art, she soon decided she lacked enough talent and turned to writing short stories. “Breakfast,” the first story that she completed, is the opening story of her first publication, Encounters. Though a major theme in Bowen’s writing centers on the perceptions of and by children–for example, in the novels The Death of the Heart and The Little Girls–these attitudes are always transformed from the personal to the universal. In fact, the personal grounds her fiction. Like her own personality, her characters are extremely perceptive, very human, and full of fun, conversation, wit, sarcasm, and laughter. They are never moody, introspective, or gloomy; they like to attend parties and picnics. Bowen loved to travel and talk, and A Time in Rome and The Shelbourne reflect her unusual verbal ability to paint scenes of places and regions.

Bowen’s painterly perceptions dominate her style and descriptive passages in her fiction through her narrators and characters, who are astutely observant of rooms, landscapes, and social mores. Her recurrent preoccupation throughout her canon appears to be a sense of place, an interest in a child’s perception, and her insistence upon middle-class manners and behaviors. Early attitudes or social behavior and place permeate her consciousness and writings. Having an income large enough to support these values provided Bowen with ingenuity and determination, for Bowen’s Court, which she inherited in 1930, after her father’s death, cost a great deal to maintain. The proceeds of her writings were poured into that house. For years, she was a regular reviewer for The Observer, The Spectator, Horizon, and New Statesman. In 1923, Bowen married Alan Charles Cameron, who then managed her publishing affairs.

Critics proclaimed Bowen’s writing reached maturity with the publication of the highly acclaimed novel The House in Paris. Thereafter and through World War II, Bowen carefully ordered her life to include writing, publishing, speaking, and reviewing. During World War II, while living in London, besides being an air-raid warden and having her house in Regent’s Park bombed a number of times, she worked on or completed some of her most important stories (for example, “The Demon Lover” and “Ivy Gripped the Steps”) and the novels The Heat of the Day and A World of Love. Thereafter, Bowen traveled for the British Council, spoke and wrote for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), and continued to write until her death. Her posthumously published Pictures and Conversations includes autobiography and chapters of a novel. Bowen’s writing, from 1923 to 1973, reflects with consummate skill and perception an exploration of middle-class society in Ireland, England, France, Italy, and the United States. She reveals the contradictions, problems, and complexities of society with a rich intensity, verbally painted with extraordinary deftness.

BibliographyAustin, 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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