ELIZABETH BOWEN was one of the handful of great English novelist of this century and must be ranked beside Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, Evelyn Waugh, Henry Green, and Ford Madox Ford. In fact she was not English but Anglo-Irish, an accident that gave her a lucid perspective on the English upper crust, just as Proust's Jewishness made him the ideal observer of the Faubourg St. Germain.
In recent years Bowen has not been much read or discussed, a fate she shares with the other English masters save for Woolf and Forster. She is more of a social novelist than Woolf and less of a moralist than Forster, though such statements must be hedged. Whereas Woolf concentrates on the inner life of her characters, their richly sensuous appreciation of being in the world, Bowen gives her people a trajectory to travel, a destiny. Woolf, for instance, can spin out a dinner party for a hapter during which the only real events are subjective; Bowen's books, by contrast, are more tightly and traditionally plotted and dramatized. The society Bowen analyzes has vanished - the cultivated and conservative elite of prewar London. Its demise is still recent enough to make Bowen's books seem dated; after another decade, however, that world will seem as distant - and as fascinating - as Jane Austen's villages.
As a moralist, Bowen is more subtle and severe than Forster. She comes close to embodying Unamuno's tragic sense of life; the recognition that some antinomies inherent to being human are eternal and insoluble. In The Death of the Heart , for instance, the dilemma is presented in these terms: if one observes the proprieties, one suffers a radical loss of vitality and sincerity; but if one flaunts society, one ends up isolated, crankish, materially and spiritually impoverished. The gains and losses of conforming to a harmonious but losses of conforming to a harmonious but exacting social order are neatly if intricately balanced in Bowen's fiction. Such a view of things is too chilling for most modern readers, who often think that existence need not be tragic, that happiness requires only a bit more social or psychic tinkering.
Bowen's wisdom may constitute her chief claim to seriousness, but her style is the source of her considerable charm. Here is a random passage from The House in Paris : "It is a wary business, walking about a strange house you know you are to know well. Only cats and dogs with their more expressive bodies enact the tension we share with them at such times. The you inside you gathers up defensively; something is stealing upon you every moment; you will never be quite the same again. These new unsmiling lights, reflections and objects are to become your memories, riveted to you close than friends or lovers, going with you, even, into the grave: worse, they may become dear and fasten like so many leeches on your heart. By having come, you already begin to store up the pains of going away. From what you see, there is to be no escape. Untrodden rocky canyons or virgin forests cannot be more entrapping than the inside of a house, which shows you what life is. To come in is as alarming as to be born conscious would be, knowing you are to feel; to look aroud is like being, still conscious, dead: you see a world without yourself . . ."
This is a style of deceptively simple diction mined with cadences that are either unusual (The you inside you") or strikingly placed ("like being, still conscious, dead"). The shifts from the concrete to the abstract ("the inside of a house, which shows you what life is") can be breathtaking. It is, more noticeably, a style that is daringly old-fashioned in its profusion of apothegms. In this regard, Bowen took a step backwards towards the intrusive narration of the 19th century. Despite its artfulness, however, it is still a spoken language; never does the writing depart from the sobriety of English prose (or conversation). Finally, Bowen's fiction is as delicate in its psychological notation as Woolf's - and far more precise. To some readers, of course, this very precision, when mapped onto the incoherence of experience, may seem a dubious virtue.
What this passage does not reveal is the luster of Bowen's descriptive details, especially her light effects, as in this sentence from the short story. "The Disinherited": "one door stood open, and light peered in at the glacial sheeted outlines of furniture and a chandelier that hung in a bag like a cheese and glittered inside the muslin." Sight and insight grace page after page; as she once remarked, "Much (and perhaps the best) of my writing is verbal painting."
Victoria Glendinning's biography depicts the woman behind the work. Bowen, who lived from 1899 to 1973, was born into the Anglo-Irish tradition that spawned such different but wlways eloquent writers as Goldsmith, Sheridan, Wilde, Shaw and Beckett. Though her first years were spent in Dublin, she grew up at Bowen's Court, the ancestral family seat in County Cork. When she was only seven her father suffered a bout of insanity and her mother spirited her off to England. There she moved about from villa to rented villa and intermittently attended an assortment of schools. When Elizabeth was 13 her mother died of cancer, there after the girl was passed round from relative to relative. Her only real education was obtained at Downe House, a girls' boarding-school in Kent. There she remained for three years until she was 18. Two years later she was living in London and writing. In 1923 her first collection of short stories appeared - and she married Alan Cameron (as [WORD ILLEGIBLE] wrote, "I and my friends all intended to marry early, partly because this appeared an achievement or way of making one's mark, also from a feeling it would be difficult to settle to anything else until this was done.").
Her career developed with remarkable smoothness. OVer the years a string of brilliant and acclaimed novels came out: To The North (1932); The House in Paris (1935); The Death of the Heart (1938); The Heat of the Day (1949); A World of Love (1955); and Eva Trout (1968). Less successful novels memoirs, travel books, masterful short stories also appeared as testimonies to Bowen's fecundity. Her personal life, despite its surface calm, was far more turbulent. her patient but alcoholic husband was eclipsed in hter affections by her literary friends and by several intense affairs; the last of these, with Charles Ritchie, began in 1941 and endure lengthy separations and Ritchie's marriage. It lasted until Bowen's death. But the 1930s seem to have been the high point of Bowen's life; then she did her best work and conducted a highly civilized existence in London and at Bowen's Court. Long country weekends, literary renown, exciting romantic advantures, the companionship of such people as William Plomer, Virginia and Leonard woolf, William Butler Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Henry Reed, Stephen Spender, Cyril Connolly - this was a heady time indeed. After the war Cameron died, Bowen's Court was lost, friendships faltered and the quality of Bowen's work fell off with the stunning exception of A World of Love .
Glendinnings's biography gives a valuable sense of what Elizabeth Bowen was like and of what happened to her, but it leaves several questions unanswered. How did a woman with such a spotty education acquire the extraordinary literary sophistication that marks even her earliest stories? If it was transmitted to her by her family or social group, that needs to be explained. What were her liter ary opinions - whom among her contemporaries did she read and what in their work did she admire? This information is not hard to uncover; Bowen wrote scores of book reviews. Of Henry Green's Loving , for instance, she remarked: "This novel has the straight, humanistic touch lost, I have sometimes thought, to most English fiction since the eighteenth century. Also, he is rare in his power not feeling, but of conveying beauty. The doves, the emerald days seen through the Gothic Kinalty windows, the two housemaids waltzing in the empty ballroom, the rain, the rain, the evenings, the picnic on the sands - these are poetry." Few novelists have been as clear and useful about their art as was Bowen; her "Notes on Writing a Novel" are the best thing on the subject we have. Unfortunately little about Bowen's artistic and intellectual development appears in this overly modest biography.
It strikes me that Glendinning, somewhat like Quentin Bell in his biography of Virginia Woolf, has chosen to eschew all literary evaluation. To be sure, the Bowen book contains plot summaries and a few remarks about Bowen's style (her inverted sentence structure, for instance), but for the most part it avoids complex issues of influence and taste. In the case of Woolf, about whom a new book appears every month, such a method is defensible. But to make short shrift of Bowen's writing, in the only major work on her that is likely to be published in a long time, is like doing a biography of Escoffier without mentioning food.