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 which could pass for courage. The “big house people,” Elizabeth Bowen wrote, “admit only one class-distinction: they instinctively ‘place’ a person who makes a poor mouth.”

No more than eight or ten of Elizabeth Bowen’s stories, and two of her novels, are set in Ireland (two further novels, The Heat of the Day, 1949, and The House in Paris, 1935, have Irish interludes). She left the country at the age of seven, after her father suffered a nervous breakdown; for her, it was the end of a series of Dublin winters and Bowen’s Court summers. With her mother, she removed to Folkestone—a radical displacement. “From now on there was to be…a cleft between my heredity and my environment.” (You get the same awareness in Louis MacNeice, who wrote in an auto-biographical poem: “Torn before birth from where my fathers dwelt/Schooled from the age of ten to a foreign voice….”) The classical façades of the Ireland she knew were succeeded by an abundance of architectural frivolities: the balconies, porches, bow windows, stucco and plaster decorations of the English seaside villas. It was heady experience for someone who was always exhilarated by the unfamiliar.

England made her a novelist, by firing her imagination; but Ireland had already marked out her way of seeing. Toughness, melancholy, wit, and a stubborn, oblique romanticism that feeds on loss are among her characteristics. Her first Irish novel, The Last September (1928), grew out of a fear: that Republican revolutionaries would set fire to Bowen’s Court. (In this phase of the Tan war, at the end of 1920, the homes of the Anglo-Irish, the landed gentry, were legitimate targets for attack.) Danielstown, the house in the novel, goes up in flames in an extraordinary final evocation. (In fact Bowen’s Court survived, but without the money to keep it going; it was sold and demolished more than ten years before Elizabeth Bowen’s death in 1973.) The author, it is plain, is not susceptible to the romance in Irish insurrectionism; the lost cause engages her sympathy not at all. She is, instead, the custodian of those values Yeats revered—“Traditional sanctity and loveliness”—though they take a wayward, unsettling shape in her books.

It has been said that the “big house” tradition in Anglo-Irish literature (a tradition stretching back to Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent in 1800) came to an end in 1955 with Elizabeth Bowen’s A World of Love—a novel full of “summer emptiness darkening along the edges” and hypnotic skies, with a family more gallant than grand insecurely in residence in the house called Montefort. In fact, the tradition has not died yet. The Northern Irish episodes in Caroline Blackwood’s Great Granny Webster (1977) testify to a continuing preoccupation, on the part of the “big house people,” with the symbols of their own degeneration. Blackwood’s Dunmartin Hall is dramatically without the income necessary to keep it intact. It has bats in the bedrooms, and pots and jam jars placed at intervals to catch the drips of rainwater from the disintegrating roof. Elizabeth Bowen also acknowledged the symbolic significance of the Irish roof, and the inexhaustible struggles of the so-called rich to keep it propped up.

In the best of Elizabeth Bowen’s writing there is hardly an incident or an image that does not have reverberations or draw into its orbit different kinds of complex feelings. By comparison her earliest stories, delightful though they are, are bound to seem slight; they are constructed on one plane only. They abound in swift, vivid perceptions—“a person who came quickly and frothily to the boil, like milk”; “Elise wrote a terrible letter, full of horses and brothers”—but lack the sense of undercurrent that distinguishes her later work. This begins to be apparent in “The Tommy Crans” (the first story reprinted here under the heading “The Thirties”), with the feckless couple of the title kept in the background, and a debilitating emotional delicacy (a recurring trait) informing its principal characters. Then, after a foretaste of Elizabeth Bowen’s electrifying use of atmosphere in “Look at All Those Roses,” we reach the remarkable group of wartime stories.

Look at All Those Roses” opens with a commonplace mishap—engine failure on a quiet road—and quickly shifts into an area of near-poetic intensity, without losing anything of its down-to-earth flavor. It is Elizabeth Bowen’s ability to invest the ordinary with the uncanny that makes this possible. The burning blossoms in the country garden, a damaged child in a wheelchair—a suggestion of violence, romantic in its unspokenness, connects these images. Even at this fairly early stage, Elizabeth Bowen had enough confidence to cut her story short at the most tantalizing moment; the reader is left with nothing but hints and guesses, and this adds greatly to the power of the narrative. But when the author tells us of Lou, the central character, that “her idea of love was adhesiveness” we are back with the plain, wry voice of disenchantment. It’s a familiar tone; you might call it Irish asperity at its most pointed.

In “Attractive Modern Homes” an ordinary young woman in a housing development experiences a kind of ecstasy of despair (the closest she will ever get to insight) which lasts for the duration of the story: at the end the old social habits, politeness to neighbors, self-assertion, mild disparagement of husbands, start to reassert themselves. The ambitious “The Disinherited,” in which a corrupt poor relation sells her kisses to her aunt’s bleak chauffeur, establishes effectively a mood of decay:

…Mid-autumn set in mild, immobile and nerveless; the days had unclear margins, mists webbed the gardens all day, the sun slanting slowly through them to touch the brown pear trees and pale yellow currant-leaves, here and there a marigold or a sodden rose. There was no wind, and the woods stood heavily tense; against their darkness, in the toneless November evenings, the oaks were still yellow and shed a frightening glare. Everything rotted slowly.

Prothero, the chauffeur, with his melodramatic history, represents an instance of Elizabeth Bowen’s tendency, especially pronounced during the Thirties, to incorporate into her fiction episodes straight out of the popular press. Lurid accidents, outbreaks of murder are zestfully re-created as ghost stories, comic horror pieces (“One of Mrs. Bentley’s hands was found in the library…. But the fingers were in the drawing-room”) or psychological dramas (“Himself they had all—always—deprecated”). Her feeling for the supernatural—which, austerely, she kept out of her novels—finds an outlet in stories like these, where it often becomes an invigorating force. When her objective is not to explore to the fullest the power of suggestion (as in “The Cat Jumps”), or to devise a kind of embodiment for the numinous, she can have fun with her ghosts. In “The Cheery Soul,” for example, a playful spirit (in life a drunken cook), leaves cryptic messages about fish kettles and rude injunctions to her ex-employers.

Elizabeth Bowen can be a deadly observer of social ploys and foibles. She views infelicitous or unruly behavior with coolness and amusement: the bumptious, insensitive Heccombs of Waikiki, Seale-on-Sea (in The Death of the Heart, 1938) have come to exemplify her faculty for satire. At Waikiki, the table is made from synthetic oak, and breakfast is eaten off crockery “whose pattern derived from the Chinese”: you could say she’s averse to the factitious. In fact, in even the most perplexed or disturbing of her narratives, an oblique comic vision can be detected doing its work. Her own emotions are never caught up in anything mawkish, as Katherine Mansfield’s sometimes were. When we find a “dear little table lamp, gaily painted with spots to make it look like a toadstool” (in “Mysterious Kôr”), we know this object is far from being “dear” to the author.

There is an element of sarcastic admiration (the only permissible way, we learn from “The Jungle,” for a schoolgirl to express approval of a friend’s expertise) in Elizabeth Bowen’s treatment of children. Childhood, with its fickleness, its odd formalities, its devious attachments and antipathies, always engaged her deepest interests. The children in her fiction are seen with a peculiar clarity, whether they are pert schemers like Maria in the story of that title, comically blundering like Theodora in Friends and Relations (1931), or harrowed by some unmentionable stress like Roger in “The Visitor,” whose mother is dying. It is true, as she said, that in childhood nothing is banal; inexperience means a capacity to be perpetually stimulated. However, “it is not only our fate but our business to lose innocence”—this curt declaration says much about Elizabeth Bowen’s temperament. Loss of innocence, betrayal, the “wrecking of an illusion” she found to be characteristic of Katherine Mansfield’s stories: these are also major themes in her work, as they were in Henry James’s, but always enlarged by paradox, irony, and complication; she relished the incalculable too. She is adept at isolating moments of strung-up awkwardness or incommunicable dismay.

Angus Wilson in his Introduction takes mild exception (rightly, I think) to the plethora of “ever so queers” and “did oughts” which create such a monotonous effect in the lower-class monologues (“Oh, Madam…”; “Love,” etc.) Elizabeth Bowen sometimes tries her hand at. Only in her war-time novel The Heat of the Day does she raise vernacular speech patterns to a high level of stylization. Louie and Connie, factory and ARP girls, engage in conversation like this:

…Often you say the advantage I should be at if I could speak grammar; but it’s not only that. Look at the trouble there is when I have to only say what I can say, and so cannot ever say what it is really…”

We’re reminded, as with the London blitz scenes, of the very eccentric use of dialogue in Henry Green’s novels (“We’ll not possibly make anything out of you that’s one item dead certain”). Both writers show a striking gift for idiosyncratic documentation.

Elizabeth Bowen’s Demon Lover stories give shape to “a particular psychic London”—a London, moreover, distorted by the effects of war. In moonlight, the eerie city looks “like the moon’s capital—shallow, cratered, extinct.” No wonder, then, that one of her central characters begins to dwell on an imaginary refuge—Mysterious Kôr, from Rider Haggard’s She. The stories deal with psychic dislocation too: in the marvelous “The Happy Autumn Fields” (the title taken from Tennyson’s “The Princess”) a fragment of intense experience in the life of an unknown Victorian girl blots out the present for the bomb-shocked heroine in her crumbling house.

The childhood trauma described in “Ivy Gripped the Steps,” on the other hand, is the hero’s own—a devastating instance of betrayal, casually disclosed. Gavin Doddington, revisiting in his forties the seaside town he last saw at the age of ten, remembers his childish infatuation for his mother’s fascinating friend Mrs. Nicholson, whose guest he was, and the painful moment when he recognized the element of mockery in that lady’s affection for him. He is one of those characters, common enough in Elizabeth Bowen’s work, in whom some emotional faculty is significantly deadened.

No one understood better than she did the creative possibilities of evasiveness, the power of the unstated, the fascination of the unaccountable. Against such triumphs as we find in this collection, her failings—the mannered passages, periphrases, gratuitous convolution—can only seem negligible. She was—to adapt her own remark about Virginia Woolf—the extreme and final product of the Anglo-Irish liberal mind: elegant, restrained, always susceptible to sensation in its purest form.