A Reading and Remembrance of Elizabeth Bowen

Sean O’Faolain

  • The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen introduction by Angus Wilson
    Cape, 782 pp, £8.50, February 1981, ISBN 0 224 01838 8
  • Elizabeth Bowen: An Estimation by Hermione Lee
    Vision, 225 pp, £12.95, July 1981, ISBN 0 85478 344 X

If there ever was a writer of genius, or neargenius – time will decide – who was heart-cloven and split-minded it is Elizabeth Bowen. Romantic-realist, yearning-sceptic, emotional-intellectual, poetic-pragmatist, objective-subjective, gregarious-detached (though everybody who resides in a typewriter has to be a bit of that), tragi-humorous, consistently declaring herself born and reared Irish, residing mostly in England, writing in the full European tradition: no wonder all her serious work steams with the clash of battle between aspects of life more easy for us to feel than to define. It is evident from the complex weave of her novels that it can have been no more easy for her to intuit the central implication of any one of those conflicts – she never trod an obvious line; nor easy for her to express those intuitions in that felicitous language which, more than any other writer of her generation, she seemed to command as if verbally inspired. But that suggestion of inspiration lifts a warning finger of memory. Once, when one of her guests at Bowen’s Court, I inadvertently interrupted her when she was, as I at first thought, tapping away fluently at her desk. She turned to me a forehead spotted with beads of perspiration.

And yet these thematic conflicts in her novels can sometimes seem quite clear in the first couple of pages. It is only a seeming: the sinuosities are waiting in ambush. See, for example, the later of her two masterpieces, The Death of the Heart.[*] (The other, and for some readers the even finer novel, was The Last September.) If we again open it and read its first two pages to peer through the first wisps of its smoke of battle in search of the central theme, it is there as plain as an opened diary. The ‘catch’ is, as old lovers of this poignant, funny, passionate story will at once remember, that this first open declaration carries with it a complexity of themes and sub-themes: among others, Innocence versus Worldliness, Youth versus Maturity, Romantic dreams versus cruel Actuality, Love’s illusions and delusions, the frailty of Ideals, the clash of the Generations, Society versus the Individual, and, this above all (it is a constant Bowen theme-song), the lust to do the heroically honest thing when one does not know what the hell the heroically honest thing to do is in a socially ‘edited’ world. On that terrible adjective we may pause for a long time. It throws the clearest and coldest beam of its presiding author’s mind, and perhaps her final capital judgment on those cool conventions, those prophylactic artifices, with which, with the best of intentions, every organised society devitalises the instincts of the ‘unedited’ heart. It was very much a theme of the Twenties and Thirties. Not that we find it in Bloomsbury. They had less heart to hurt than brains to protect. Indeed, the only two other outstanding writers of her time who strike this Bowenesque theme were anti-Bloomsbury: I have in mind, of course, D.H. Lawrence and that great writer (and I mean great – if you doubt it try to think off-hand of six other great comic novelists in the entire history of fiction), Evelyn Waugh, even though he did from time to time get entangled in the golden folds of his ecclesiasticism. Recall his novel A Handful of Dust. He derides innocence as Bowen sighs maternally over it: but in the end poor, idealistic Tony Last’s Gothic castle collapses, teddy-bears and all, just as the heroine’s dream castle collapses in The Death of the Heart. E. Waugh is the satirical obverse of E. Bowen.

Let us concentrate for a bit on the novel I have just mentioned: it shows her at her best and most characteristic. The Death of the Heart was first published in 1938, an interesting date, the year before time’s final assault on tradition, on the Europe of Bismarck, of Napoleon III, on the Empire born of Queen Elizabeth I, on that Papacy of which Thomas Hobbes said that ‘it is no other than the ghost of the deceased Roman Empire sitting crowned on its own grave.’ In this splendid pre-war novel we meet Thomas Quayne, a successful businessman, and his smart wife Anna, both in their thirties: very comfortable, three servants, one char, no children, living in a moderately elegant house, though not a Nash house, on the Outer Circle of Regent’s Park, enviable, should be happy. But who is? One asks the rhetorical question because one cannot fail to interpret their historian’s description of that terraced house: ‘At the far side of the road dusk set the Regency buildings back at a false distance; against the sky they were colourless silhouettes, insipidly ornate, brittle and cold. The blackness of windows not yet lit or curtained made the houses look hollow inside.’ The Flaubertian symbolism is almost too obvious: ‘false’, ‘colourless’, mere ‘silhouettes’, ‘insipidly ornate’, ‘brittle’, ‘cold’ and ‘hollow inside’. Thomas Quayne’s father, we gather within a few pages of confessional conversation between Anna and an inquisitive literary friend, had been an idealistic (dirty word in the Twenties), sentimental (ditto) old buffer who at the age of 57 had fallen in love with a fluffy young widow named Irene and, much to his surprise and dismay, been at once cheerfully packed off to the Continent with his bit of fluff by his wife. There Portia, the central character of the novel, was born; there the old boy died; there for some sixteen years Portia had been reared by Irene, wandering like gypsies from one dim European hotel or pension to another until, at her mother’s death, Portia is received – her father’s dying plea to his son Thomas – into that elegant house in NW1. ‘He had felt,’ Anna Quayne explains uncomfortably to her friend in those opening pages of the story, ‘that Portia had grown up exiled not only from her own country but from normal, cheerful, family life ... He idealised us rather, you see’ – and one must admit that it was kind of her and Thomas to give house room to the girl, if only experimentally for one year. Indeed, the pair may well have seemed more than hospitable to anybody who knew them – a normal, well-meaning, refined pair, eager to behave in a civilised fashion to an abandoned orphan. Unfortunately, the girl’s hunger for warm affection is too intense for those social virtues: too much to make a home out of that cold, brittle, colourless, elegant, hollow house, shuttered and muffled against the noises of London, wherein Anna’s ‘cut-glass’ lamp drops its complex shadow on the white stone floor, where the hearth of Thomas’s study is warmed by the sterile glow of an electric fire.

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[*] The Death of the Heart is published by Penguin (230 pp., £1.75, 0 14 001690 2). Cape reissued A World of Love (149 pp., £6.95, 0 224 60051 6) and The Hotel (199 pp., £6.95, 0 224 60057 5) last November. New editions of The Heat of the Day and The House in Paris will be published by Cape in May.