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A Master of Hidden Things

Elizabeth Bowen
Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos
Elizabeth Bowen, New York City, 1955

In her biography of Elizabeth Bowen, published in 1977, Victoria Glendinning judged that it was “too soon to assess precisely [Bowen’s] place among twentieth-century novelists.” Such caution was understandable at the time, just four years after the writer’s death, but even then there could have been no question as to Bowen’s greatness in the short-story form. In her finest novels, such as The Last September—the one she prized most highly—The House in Paris, and The Death of the Heart, she was as good as, if not better than, the best of her English contemporaries; but as a practitioner of the shorter form she was the supreme genius of her time.

Randall Jarrell famously, and wittily, defined the novel as an extended work of prose fiction that has something wrong with it. Most novels are loose, baggy monsters, and even the gilded artifacts Henry James produced over his long lifetime inevitably display a hairline crack, as the Master himself was ruefully aware. It is the curse of the novel, and its glory, to be contaminated by life’s incorrigible disorderliness. However, though perfection, as we know, is not of this world, and literary perfection not of any imaginable world, there are certain short works of fiction in which the sublimest sunlit uplands of achieved artistic form are to be at least glimpsed. Joyce’s “The Dead,” Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Dog,” Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” and William H. Gass’s “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” are simply beyond criticism in their rightness—and they are but a handful of jewels lifted from an overflowing trove of treasures.

Revisiting Elizabeth Bowen’s Collected Stories, one realizes that there are certain literary works that, once read, make one burn with envy of those readers who have still to come to them for the first time.* There is not a story in this substantial volume, from the first to the last, that is not brought off beautifully. While it is no doubt foolhardy and certainly vulgar to choose favorites, one must mention instances in which Bowen outdid herself. These include the elusive but vividly immediate “Summer Night”; the haunting “Mysterious Kôr” and the haunted “The Demon Lover”; the trance-like wartime set pieces “Ivy Gripped the Steps” and “The Happy Autumn Fields”; the forlorn “Joining Charles”; and the merely—merely!—marvelous early tales “Daffodils” and “The Parrot.” In these and many other of the stories, Bowen reached, as Glendinning puts it, “a perfection and a unity that the sustained narrative and shifting emphases of a novel do not attempt.”

At this point it is prudent to make a brief pause. In praising her mastery of the short story, it would be a grave error, and a graver injustice, to imply that Bowen was not a novelist of the subtlest talent and highest accomplishment. It is tempting to think that, had she been a man, her reputation would be more substantial than it is, but there are examples also of male Anglo-Irish writers unjustly neglected: Joyce Cary, born in Londonderry, is by now hardly read outside a small circle of enthusiasts, while that abundantly gifted Belfast-born poet Louis MacNeice seems doomed to languish forever in the shadow of Auden.

Bowen’s second and, many would contend, best novel, The Last September, written in her late twenties, is a bravura demonstration of her early powers, a work rich in metaphor, sumptuous landscape painting, and forensic, beady-eyed characterization. Although she declared herself dead-set against the notion of art as self-expression, this novel is, she confessed, autobiographical in significant aspects. In particular, the setting, Danielstown, a substantial mansion secluded among the soft folds of north County Cork’s hill country, is closely modeled on Bowen’s Court, her ancestral home near Kildorrery, northeast of the town of Mallow.

Being Anglo-Irish, Bowen always felt her true place was a point in the Irish Sea halfway between Dun Laoghaire and Holyhead. Although on her purely Irish side she identified most closely with Cork, she was born in Dublin, on Herbert Place, a once-noble Georgian townhouse facing the Grand Canal. Her early years she wrote about in an admirably un-misty-eyed memoir, Seven Winters, while her abiding love of County Cork is recorded in Bowen’s Court, which might be considered the nonfiction counterpart of The Last September.

Bowen’s Court, which she inherited on her father’s death in 1930, was almost as significant for the novelist as the people who lived in it. A fine house it was, three-storied, many-windowed, not ostentatious but solidly aware of its status as a bastion of bien-pensant Protestant folk long settled in the midst of a not entirely accepting Catholic majority—there is still a nationalist rump in that part of Cork who insist that Bowen cannot be considered in any way an “Irish” author. It is not hard to understand local resentment against the “Big House” and its privileged occupants, even if the privileges were in many cases decidedly pinched. In the catastrophic famines of the 1840s, families such as the Bowens would have been regarded with deep bitterness as parasites feeding upon a land writhing in the throes of countless death agonies—it is estimated that a million people perished in the recurring famines between 1845 and 1849, and another million emigrated, while the aftermath was economic disaster and general despair. Bowen’s great-grandmother opened a soup kitchen in Bowen’s Court to feed the starving: some of these poor wretches died trying to crawl up to the house and were buried in a famine pit in a corner of the local churchyard.

Whatever the people in the surrounding farms and cottages may have thought, the house, like many such, was, in its earlier days at least, hardly conducive to gracious living. It had to wait until the early 1950s, and the commercial success of Bowen’s novel The Heat of the Day, to be fitted with bathrooms—a Bowen in the nineteenth century had installed two lavatories, but given the state of plumbing generally in such houses, one prefers not to entertain the thought of what condition they were in by Elizabeth’s time.

All was not granite and grimness. In her biography of Bowen, Glendinning notes that, in another of her improvements, the main drawing room at Bowen’s Court “was embellished with curtains made, incredibly, of pink corset-satin” from a stash discovered in the department store Debenhams; as one house guest exclaimed, “actually you would never think of it, but once you have been told you can think of nothing else!” Elizabeth, in need of money as usual, sold the house in 1959 to a local businessman. She had imagined the man and “his handsome children” would live there, but instead he promptly demolished it, and today almost nothing of it remains except the shadowy outline of its stone foundations. It is fitting that the name of the house’s nemesis should be recorded: Cornelius O’Keefe, whose only interest was the land and the timber.

Bowen was stoical. “It was a clean end,” she wrote. “Bowen’s Court never lived to be a ruin.” Molly O’Brien, who had worked “below stairs” for the Bowens for more than thirty years, witnessed the former chatelaine driving away for the last time as if it were just any other day.

Bowen’s people were well-to-do Protestants, particularly on her mother’s side. Florence Bowen née Colley came from a propertied family whose home was the stately but somewhat dour Mount Temple, on the coastal outskirts of Dublin. Florence’s mother was by all accounts something of a termagant, with a keen sense of social boundaries. Elizabeth’s father-to-be, Henry Bowen, was a prosperous lawyer and therefore acceptable to Florence’s mother as a contender for her daughter’s hand: had he been a lowly solicitor, he would have been beyond the pale—and the Pale, that portion of the east of Ireland centered on Dublin and ruled from London, was no symbol for the descendants of sixteenth-century English Protestant settlers in Ireland, but a fully functioning social barrier against encroachment by parvenus and, in many instances, Catholics.

By all accounts, Henry Bowen was a striking figure, well over six feet tall, with brooding good looks that the Brontë sisters would have appreciated. He was high-strung, and as a lawyer employed by the British civil service in Ireland he worked hard—so hard that he suffered a serious nervous breakdown when Elizabeth was still a child, and for the rest of his life was beset at intervals by recurrent bouts of what was in those days known as mania. Florence was handsome, a little fey, somewhat scattered, but she gave to her only child what Elizabeth regarded as the best start in life, namely, the sure knowledge of being unconditionally loved.

Following Henry’s first breakdown, doctors advised that mother and daughter should absent themselves from Bowen’s Court, not for their sake, but for the sake of the ailing Henry. When Elizabeth was seven, therefore, she and Florence went off to England, where they were to stay for nearly six years, living the “villa life,” which they both adored, in places such as Folkestone, Seabrook, and Hythe.

Inevitably the idyll, like most idylls, came to a sad end: Florence was stricken with cancer and told that she had six months to live. This was the moment when she showed her mettle, greeting the dire prognosis with perfect aplomb, telling her sister-in-law that she had received the good news that she would soon know what Heaven was like. She died at Hythe in 1912. Elizabeth was thirteen. Years before, when Elizabeth was a small child and her father’s nerves collapsed, she had learned the Irish Protestant trick of determinedly not noticing the most dreadful events; now that skill was called on again, in greater measure. She bore her loss with remarkable, perhaps too remarkable, fortitude; the tensions and trials of her father’s illness had caused her to develop a stammer—which when she was an adult many people found endearing, even attractive—and from now on the word that most often caught her up was “Mother.”

Yet we must beware cheap psychologizing, as Bowen herself was always careful to do. She was a determined survivor, and although it may seem callous to say so, these early tragedies were not entirely tragic in that they went into the making of her both as a formidable “lady”—she was at ease at all social levels—and a writer. She understood the solitary nature of her artistic calling and accepted its consequences. She once observed to the short-story writer and critic V.S. Pritchett that it would have been perfectly possible for both of them to be gregarious and jolly, which would probably have made them nicer people—but not writers. Also, she was tremendously proud of being Anglo-Irish, and thus part of a literary tradition that had produced the likes of Goldsmith, Wilde, Shaw, Yeats, and Beckett. She did say on one occasion that “it was England made me a novelist,” but began the sentence with the telling word “possibly.”

Although she passed much of her life in London—she and her complaisant and unfailingly caring husband Alan Cameron occupied a house in Clarence Terrace near Regent’s Park—an essential part of her imagination was fixed permanently in County Cork, and at Bowen’s Court. It is striking how many of her stories feature houses of strong character—some stronger, in fact, than the characters inhabiting them—while many of them open with a meticulous and carefully nuanced evocation of a specific landscape, season, and even, in some cases, time of day. She is as alive to the play of light and shade as a Dutch painter of the Golden Age. Consider the opening paragraph of that mysteriously beautiful, sad masterpiece “Summer Night,” the action of which takes place in an easily identifiable County Cork:

As the sun set its light slowly melted the landscape, till everything was made of fire and glass. Released from the glare of noon, the haycocks now seemed to float on the aftergrass: their freshness penetrated the air. In the not far distance hills with woods up their flanks lay in light like hills in another world—it would be a pleasure of heaven to stand up there, where no foot ever seemed to have trodden, on the spaces between the woods soft as powder dusted over with gold. Against those hills, the burning red rambler roses in cottage gardens along the roadside looked earthy—they were too near the eye.

Even this apparently tranquil scene has a touch of the uncanny—“where no foot ever seemed to have trodden”—and the story that follows is fraught with hurry, unexpected conjunctions, disappointed longings, and a house in the country that seems to stand waiting uneasily for something momentous to occur that never will. This is the southern Irish landscape that the Northern Irish poet Derek Mahon catches again and again with poignant immediacy. In Bowen’s story, an unnamed woman is driving in haste, presumably from Dublin, toward a rendezvous with a strangely ambivalent, even offhand lover; when she stops at a gas station, the moment is reminiscent of one of Mahon’s finest poems, “A Garage in Co. Cork”:

Nirvana! But the cracked panes reveal a dark
Interior echoing with the cries of children.
Here in this quiet corner of Co. Cork
A family ate, slept, and watched the rain
Dance clean and cobalt the exhausted grit
So that the mind shrank from the glare of it.

There is much in these stories that the mind shrinks from. Something is always lurking beneath the exquisitely limned surface of Bowen’s fictional world. Baudelaire remarked that genius consists in the ability to summon childhood at will, and throughout Bowen’s work, but especially in the short stories, we feel we are observing the action and the atmosphere through the eyes of an ever-attentive orphaned girl. This sense of things hiding behind other things is one of the most abiding leitmotifs in all her stories, even the sunniest of them. Their author knew how it felt to be an only child in a big house, straining her ears toward the sound of nearby adults going about their incomprehensible doings—to a child, all grownups seem slightly mad.

Bowen’s Court, County Cork, Ireland
Government of Ireland National Monuments Service
Bowen’s Court, County Cork, Ireland, 1960

Ireland in general, but especially the rural Ireland of Bowen’s youth, is steeped in the uncanny. The isle is full of noises. How must it have been for that little girl, lying at night in bed in the nursery above the drawing room, watching the shadows of leaves a-tremble on the ceiling and thinking of the famine folk of old dying on the grassy verges of the front drive? On occasion she went hungry herself, due not to neglect by her parents but simply their vague detachment from the commonplace requirements of life. On a visit to his wife and daughter in Hythe, Henry Bowen came upon Elizabeth and a friend eating dog biscuits, and promptly took them off to a local café and bought them plates of jammy doughnuts. It seems somehow an emblem of Elizabeth’s childhood: doughnuts and dog biscuits.

She was to encounter the uncanny again as an adult, in London during the war years. Particularly in the Blitz of 1940 and 1941 she was afforded, as Angus Wilson noted, “an extraordinary revelation of English behaviour and feeling.” In the wartime stories, which are among her very best, the city becomes an ethereal, haunted place, unhuman, otherworldly, where people move about in a fevered, dreamlike state. Here are the opening lines of “Mysterious Kôr,” one of the greatest of Bowen’s tales, in which the characters view London, crouched in wait for the bombers, as a place as fantastical and unknowable as the fabled city in Rider Haggard’s She, one of Bowen’s favorite novels:

Full moonlight drenched the city and searched it; there was not a niche left to stand in. The effect was remorseless: London looked like the moon’s capital—shallow, cratered, extinct. It was late, but not yet midnight; now the buses had stopped the polished roads and streets in this region sent for minutes together a ghostly unbroken reflection up. The soaring new flats and the crouching old shops and houses looked equally brittle under the moon, which blazed in windows that looked its way.

For Bowen, London under threat of extinction—as it must have seemed to be in those early years of the war—was at once terrifying and thrilling. She catches this peculiar emotional duality in a seemingly frivolous story, “Careless Talk,” in which a group of socialites chatter through a meager lunch in a posh restaurant and engage in what Bowen, recalling the time of her father’s nervous collapse, called her “campaign of not noticing.” Someone at the table mentions evacuees and is immediately, airily silenced:

“But we won’t talk about those, will we?” said Mary quickly. “Any more than you would want to hear about bombs. I think one great rule is never to bore each other.”

Although she is mocking her characters here, she made a point herself of behaving with impervious sangfroid even on the most perilous occasions. She was serving after-dinner coffee to her friends one warm autumn evening on the balcony of the Clarence Terrace house when a bombing raid on the docklands commenced. As the ground shook and the flames and smoke rose in the distance, the tray continued unflappably to circulate, while Bowen in a murmur made apologies for the noise.

It was during the Blitz that she met the Canadian diplomat Charles Ritchie, cultured, suave, etiolated, whom she told at one of their first encounters she would like to put into a book, and which she would do, in many fictional guises. There is a little of Ritchie in all of her male protagonists, and even some of her female ones, from the 1940s onward. Ritchie himself saw clearly that part of his attraction for her, and perhaps of hers for him, had its source in the realm of literature. In May 1942 he wrote in his journal:

Elizabeth and I went to Kew…. It was a day like a page from one of her books, the involved relationship between two people who are wandering among the flower beds. They sit together on a bench to look across the narrow muddy Thames at the set-piece of Syon House and discuss projects of happiness, voyages they may never take, childhood, but never Love…. At moments I could see Elizabeth peering about her—her head a little back, her eyes half closed (how affected it sounds—how utterly unaffected the gesture was) focusing on the memories of the place.

Ritchie was to become her lover, and remain so, through numerous vicissitudes—he had a wife, as well as an eye for other interesting amatory possibilities—and at the end visited her on her deathbed, bringing champagne and, no doubt, the parting gift of his sparkling conversation, while both of them concentrated on not noticing. He was her lover, but did he love her? The entries in his journal are tentative, guarded—he did refer, perhaps a mite ungallantly, to her exceptionally beautiful back—except on occasion when he loosened the straps of his emotional straitjacket: “I now know that this attachment is nothing transient but will bind me as long as I live.” Even here, though, the restraints are not entirely relaxed. Note the word “attachment,” where we might have expected some stronger noun; and while the attachment will “bind” him, to be bound is not the same as being bound to another. Still, she loved him, and perhaps, for her and for her work, that was the important thing.

Of the greatest importance was, and is, her art. Her stories are breathtaking in their richness and variety, in the sharpness of their perceptions and the clarity of even their most complicated psychological unpickings, and, above all, in their stylistic beauty. How vividly she portrays the world, both the human and the natural—for the sensuousness of her surfaces one would need to go to the paintings of William Orpen or, better, Pierre Bonnard. One can not only see the world in her words, one can smell it, taste it, feel its very texture.

She is always alive to the presence of animals; she is good on dogs, wonderful on cats, superb on birds, especially the pet ones. For any reader new to this writer’s work, an ideal entry place would be “The Parrot,” written in her early days. It is technically dazzling, exquisitely balanced, bittersweet, elegant, and faintly wistful, with an eye for what the story itself designates the “thoroughly idiotic” nature of human affairs. Note the lovely, arcing descent from the poise and color of the opening sentences to the comic bathos at the paragraph’s close:

When Mrs Willesden’s parrot escaped, it rocketed in a pale-green streak across the sky and settled in the chestnut tree at the foot of the garden, where it became invisible among the branches. Invisible, that is to say, to Maud Pemberty and Eleanor Fitch, who stood staring up under their hands into the glare of the morning, until Maud located his head, a vermilion blot borne up and down like a buoy, slowly, by the undulations of a lower layer of the foliage. The chestnut tree blazed all over in the sunshine with candles of wax blossom. The scent of the pollen gave Eleanor Fitch shivers; about the end of May she would pass the tree on any pretext, sighing for something that she could not remember. Maud was in love, and chestnut flowers meant nothing to her; besides, as parlour-maid, she had more to do in the house than Miss Fitch, who was only a companion.

One reads, one sighs for bliss, one smiles, and reads on.

  1. *

    This essay will appear, in somewhat different form, as the introduction to Collected Stories by Elizabeth Bowen, to be published by Everyman’s Library in October.