The Power of the Unstated

The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen

Knopf, 782 pp., $17.95

Elizabeth Bowen developed early an acute vision of what the short story should, and should not, do. “Poetic tautness and clarity” she saw were essential ingredients, along with a single theme or mood which is pitched in a fairly high key. The story, with its brief span, cannot accommodate those troughs of slackness which properly separate the moments of climax in a novel. It should not contain anything which might “weaken, detract from, or blur the central, single effect.”

How far does her own work measure up to her requirements? Reading this collection, which brings together seventy-nine stories for the first time, we are aware of steady progress, of increasing mastery of the form which culminates in the astonishing stories in The Demon Lover (1945)—the title story; “Ivy Gripped the Steps”; “Mysterious Kôr”; “The Happy Autumn Fields.” She shares with the novelist Henry Green (as Angus Wilson remarks in his valuable introduction) an ability to render with the utmost keenness the sights and sounds of wartime London.

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 he experiments in intricacy she carried out later. Emotional indecorum always affronted her.

Her own terse judgment of Encounters and Ann Lee’s—“a blend of precosity and naïveté”—will not, I think, be disagreed with. In 1949, when she was forced to reconsider her early work (for the preface to a new edition), she found it frivolous, effervescent, full of pretty detail—the soft furred edges of a tea gown dripping out of a wardrobe; the parasols;, the wisps of smoke rising from a small wood fire—but lively, and illuminating at times. She was twenty when she began to write prose, having failed to be a poet and being, she says, in the course of failing to be a painter. 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. She was born in one of Dublin’s Georgian terraces in 1899 and inherited, as well as an ancestral home—Bowen’s Court in Co. Cork—a tradition in style which subscribed to the classic idea. The Irish Protestant Ascendancy, to which she belonged, valued nonchalance, show, sociability, and a kind of emotional hardihood …

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