THE EARLIEST OF these stories were published first in 1923, and readers may observe the graph of their author's talent soaring into the '30s and '40s when it peaked. The peak was high and so were Miss Bowen's standards. Wen editing The Faber Book of Modern Short Stories, in 1936, her demands were for "poetic tautness and clarity," spherical perfection," "necessariness" and a central emotion which "should be austere, major." A surprising number of her own later stories measure up to this exigent mark. Failures are honorable and occasioned by a venturing outside her range, which was upper and upper-middle-class private life: a literary enclosure by then more raffish than formerly and less able to cope with its black sheep -- who interested Miss Bowen.
This collection, however, feels older than it is. Fragrances of an earlier England float from its pages. Sometimes they have been enticed. Dreams and hallucinative memories draw in a past whose use in the wartime stories seems to be therapeutic. Memory offers characters a respite from a darkened fictional present and gleams in their consciousness like a great secular icon. Although this fastidious writer would have hated the notion, the device was probably a form of agitprop. The past remembered is always upper-class, stylish and -- inevitably -- undermined.
Let nobdoy be put off. Romance and nostalgia are well in hand, for Elizabeth Bowen cast a very cool eye. Ironic, romantic entertained and entertaining, she could simultaneously surprise and convince. "Yes," one feels of her perceptions, "how odd! How ture!" Her stories have the immediacy of gossip from a subtle and worldly tale-bearer who has a hotline to the human heart.
She herself noted that the story-form has affinities with the cinema and this was particularly true of her own work because of her skilled used of the visual. Quick effects are thrown off like sparks: a face is "abrupt with youth," a table splays "gilt claw feet out on the parquet like an animal on the ice." More ambitiously, she could turn a landscape into a moral medium to bind and define within a single image, like the one about a girl whose aunt "wrapped her own dank virginity round her like someone sharing a mackintosh." That doom feels inexorable. So does the fate of the young people in "the Disinherited" who have slipped from their social class. At the story's start, a description of early autumn drives words home like coffin nails: "delicious morbidity . . . monotone . . . uncoloured . . . mild, immobile and nerveless . . . sodden . . . tense . . . brittle . . . sigh." Though the passage has a dying fall, the story is energetc and resourcefully counterpoints the shifts of murderer, who has taken his victim's identity, with those of the ex-gentlefolk seen reveling in a shabby mansion where they have "no call to be." So utter is their moral collapse that one girl sells her charms to her aunt's chauffeur: the murderer.
Houses are important in these stories -- unsurprisingly, for Elizabeth Bowen belonged to that class known in Ireland as "Big-House people." Her totem affected her imagination and her houses affect their inmates, often to their detriment, for she was not sentimental. One of her best known stories, "Ivy Gripped the Steps," shows a man emotionally crippled by a memory which clings to a house like ivy.
She admired Jane Austen for writing about "life with the lid on" -- i.e. polite society -- but her own class had the lid blown off its world. An Austenish serenity was hardly possible for someone who came of age during the Irish Troubles and lived through the London Blitz. Moreover, when it comes to lids, most writers are Pandoras. As though reflecting this, there is a story here about a girl who lifts a trunk lid to steal her dead aunt's gloves -- and is strangled by them. The macabre device worked well for Bowen. So did fetishism, most strikingly employed in "Making Arrangements," a story in which an abandoned husband revenges himself on his wife's clothes. His act is not described but kept off stage, as murder was in classical tragedy and sex in the novel's prime. Assaulting his wife's dresses, "her innumerable lovely bodies," has something of both and takes on the humor of parody. Humor -- as in the mackintosh image -- is often latent in these narratives. It rarely courts an outright laugh but offers a stoci's consolation for illusion's loss.
Illusion was Miss Bowen's great subject. In one story, a woman in the blitz escapes to a dream of Victorian girlhood; in another, a sexually molested child turns on the fatuous maiden ladies who have been trying to fabricate an unreal innocence for her; a house discomfits the rationalists who thought themselves impervious to the echoes of a murder which took place there. Ghosts and children are often the exorcising agents: innocent, implacable beings, like the artist whom Miss Bowen approvingly likened to a savage, adding that "by the time he learns what is what, some virtue is gone. . . ."
Since the last story here is one of her best, it seems fair to say that she herself never lost her defining virtue, which I take to be a delicate tension between vigor and control. She had faults: occasional snobbishness, occasional preciosity and a tin ear for lower-class speech, except when it was Irish. The faults belong to her time. The stories, however, when read as a body, leave an impression of timelessness, achieved, I think, by her ability to accommodate within a realist's viewfinder the romantic perception that the warp of life is yearning. A mad girl yearns for an officer husband; children yearn ahead; and characters in a war-time story discover that, "All they had hoped of the future had been, really, a magic recapturing of the past." The web of crisscross impulse, binds the Bowen world in a chart of human titles and tempers as valid today, and probably tomorrow, as it ever was.