The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen 
introduced by Angus Wilson.
Cape, 782 pp., £8.50, February 1981, 0 224 01838 8
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Elizabeth Bowen: An Estimation 
by Hermione Lee.
Vision, 225 pp., £12.95, July 1981, 9780854783441
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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.

By page two of the novel the situation is clear. Anna confesses (or is this a pretence?) to her friend St Quentin that she has accidentally come on Portia’s open diary, beginning, ‘So I am with them, in London’; carrying on to report ‘them’ to herself day after day with an artless innocence so lethal that Anna calls the diary ‘hysterical’. The theme is clear. Betrayal. But of whom, by whom and why? It is only at the very end of the novel – for up to then the story is seen mainly through Portia’s eyes – that we are driven to ask peremptorily: ‘Who led Anna to the diary in the first place?’ The answer is ‘Everybody.’ (Are we, then, all traitors to somebody?) For it was Portia’s sole, perfectly trustworthy male pal, gradually become her total confidant, finally her passionately-loved Eddie, who told Anna, his protectress, who keeps him in his job in her husband’s business only because she enjoys his amusing pretty ways. He is a typical, symbolical Bowenesque figure, part cad, part card, part honest, part liar, courtier and spy, a smooth getter-by, already in his early twenties corrupted by the ‘edited’ world to which he has sold out all but the last farthing of the ideals he once nourished – his last farthing being that he can still be enchanted to rediscover his lost innocence in Portia’s trust, admiration and love. What a laugh he and Anna have had together over that diary! Anna, as we have seen on page one, told St Quentin about it. St Quentin, who may be politely described as a bastard, tells Portia towards the end of the novel, just for kicks, that they have all known about her inner life. It is probably not irrelevant that Elizabeth Bowen to all intents lost her father when she was a child (his mind became temporarily unhinged), and that her mother died when she was 13. Although she had warm-hearted relatives to love and care for her, she could guess what it might be like to be as lonely and unbefriended as Portia Quayne.

Such a novel as I have outlined could be unbearable in the hands of any writer less sensitive than Elizabeth Bowen. Henry James had a similar theme on his hands in The Wings of the Dove. He cooled the cruelty of it by intellectualising its moral problem. Colette could take any amount of cruelty on the chin and in her hard-bitten way grin at it like a mauled boxer. With E. Bowen cheerfulness keeps breaking in. Precisely one-third of The Death of the Heart removes Portia from NW1 by sending Anna and Thomas away for an Italian holiday and Portia for a mild charivari among natural boys and girls in a seaside boarding-house managed by a former governess of Anna Quayne. This more-or-less un-inhibited bunch of young people naturally find Portia, who for the past 16 years has not mixed with their carefree like, a blend of idiot and monster: as when in all innocence, in fact because of her very innocence, she falls foul of the daughter of the house, Daphne, a more than nubile girl, following a visit to the boarding-house by the gregarious Eddie, and a visit by the whole gang to the cinema, where Portia is deeply wounded, bewildered, shattered, all but heartbroken to observe that her darling love, seated on her left, his loving right arm in her loving left arm, is meanwhile fondling the right hand of Daphne seated on his left. After a tormented and sleepless night Portia is driven by her incomprehension of the ways of the (‘edited’?) world to ask Daphne please to explain to her about this holding of Eddie’s hand. Daphne after two seconds of amazed silence erupts in Vesuvian rage, unable in her turn to understand how any female human, cat, bird or mouse could be so foul-minded, so vulgar, so common, so utterly filthy, so stupid, so bats ... This kind of mutual incomprehension, which it is so often the fate of innocence to arouse, is a joy and an awe to pursue. It may be mentioned that this charming second third of the novel is sweetly entitled ‘The Flesh’, about as justifiably as the first third, the sterile Regent’s Park section, is dryly entitled ‘The World’.

The ‘Devil’ of the novel’s third section is that cascade of all-round betrayal, its diabolism modified benignly by two attractively simple-minded, indeed almost incomprehensible appendages to the Quaynes: their as-honest-as-the-day old housekeeper, Matchett, and old, retired Major Brutt, a fine name, suggestive of butt and bore, a Micawber always hoping some job may turn up, living, if that is the word, in a dog-kennel under the slates of a tenth-class Kensington ‘hotel’ called the Karachi. When Portia discovers that her Diary, her secret soul, has been laughed over not only by her guardians but even by her beloved Eddie, and runs away from them all into the wilds of London, to whom does she go for protection? She remembers in her frantic state that this nice old Major Brutt had once given her a present of a jigsaw puzzle. He had done so partly out of kindness, but she does not know, perhaps he did not know – we deceive and betray even ourselves – that he also did it to keep in with the Quaynes who may help to find him a job. In her misery she seeks out the Hotel Karachi where, to his shame, she winkles him out of his scruffy attic under the roof and betrays his fond and final trust in the Quaynes by telling him the truth, which she has meanwhile squeezed out of Eddie – that they have all along been laughing at him as they have been laughing at her. She implores him to let her live with him in this divine attic; she proposes that he should marry her. At that very hour – in the last scene of the novel – the Quaynes are dining in elegance in their parkside home. Their dinner is not made more savoury by Major Brutt’s telephone call informing them about Portia’s flight and asking them, if they would be so good, to tell him what he should do with her. Wondering what indeed, they quietly resume their dinner, softly assassinating one another in words and in tones as restrained and polite as befits well-bred people in good society. I am sure that every reader of the novel guesses by then exactly what they do decide to do. They send a servant – stout old, kind old, withered old, undeceived old Matchett. As the taxi drives away with her to bring the silly girl home, the novel closes.

Closes? Or finishes? Is this the final murder scene where a girl’s heart breaks and dies? Scarcely. No girls die of a broken heart. That is just a metaphor – like Love. At most they starve for lack of metaphors. Portia’s diary had been private and personal; it contained a crumb of eternity. It could have been written of any age, in any country. Those of us who first read it on the eve of the Empire’s last war could read it again today as a parable, rootless and dateless, fit for all places and times. Still, one may wonder what Portia Quayne’s chances in life would have looked like in an epilogue written ten or twenty years after. There are so many grown-up girls in Elizabeth Bowen’s stories and novels who might have been like her in their teens to suggest possible sequels. The sulky, sultry, sourly rebellious Davina in that ominous short tale ‘The Disinherited’; the insatiably romantic Emma of the story ‘Summer Night’; the dithering, self-distrusting, introspective Sydney Warren of Bowen’s very first novel, The Hotel, a prentice work memorable nearly half a century later if only because it shows in bud her later sophistication, relentless eye, stern judgment, sense of comedy and sympathetic sister-feeling for the vulnerably young at heart; and surely this Sydney Warren is blood-sister to the Lois of that masterly novel The Last September, who stands in its opening pages on the steps of a Big House (as we call in Ireland all Country Houses), which is presumably Bowen’s Court, and who will, as Elizabeth Bowen did, fall in love with a British officer during those Troubles which, as the novel ends, will see several such houses burned by the Sinn Feiners.

What these figures all have in common is that none of them is free to act of her own will. Each is like a swimmer hesitant at the edge of a river waiting to hear the word of command from her given nature – given to her, that is, by her literary creator – to dive in and swim away. They think they are in command: in fact, they are acted on hypnotically; victims of circumstance who imagine themselves rebels. We admire these swimmers in the great river. Foreseeing their fates, we sympathise with them limitlessly. But nobody does this more passionately and sincerely than their fond creator, sadly waving her hand after them as they flash out of sight towards the cataract that she has prepared for them. A divided creator, adoring all romantic dreamers and rebels, coldly aware – worldly woman – of the lion always in the way.

How on earth did Elizabeth Bowen succeed in conveying so many emotional variations in so large a cast of characters held together by one consistent discipline – that is, by her personal manière de voir, her rational view of life? The answer is too obvious to have any meaning – by her technique. For what is technique? For the fun of it, I take down the first three Thomas Hardys in my row of T.H.’s. Two on a Tower opens: ‘On an early winter afternoon ... a gleaming landau came to pause on the crest of a hill in Wessex.’ Tess opens: ‘On an evening in the latter part of May a middle-aged man was walking homeward from Shaston to ...’ The Mayor of Caster-bridge: ‘One evening of late summer ... a young man and woman, the latter carrying a child, were approaching the large village of ...’ Chronicle novel. Period last century. Who is speaking? The universal, impersonal, God-like voice of Nobody. ‘At one o’clock on a spring day of 1868, in Petersburg ...’ Turgenev’s Virgin Soil. It must have seemed quite revolutionary when Tolstoy opened War and Peace with somebody talking, though his next paragraph does begin: ‘It was July, 1805 and the speaker was ...’ Objectivity; which has gone on ever since. The first sentence of E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View opened just like War and Peace, but he had even less time for the chronicle technique. He stands back, even if no farther than the prompter’s box. Elizabeth Bowen may give, is pleased to give the impression of also being absent from the scene, from the whole theatre, but every page she writes is inspissated by her moody presence.

I have already given an example of this beautiful deception: the two sentences that appear to give a quite impersonal description of the main location of The Death of the Heart – that is, the Quaynes’ home beside Regent’s Park – but in fact impose by the author’s private, subjective view of the life within and around that house. Hermione Lee, in her indispensable, scholarly, penetrating and sympathetic study of Bowen’s work, puts her finger on the tap-root of her author’s powers when she says that her ‘best work was done in the “subjective”, “personal” novels and stories of the 1929-1945 period, and not in the more cryptic “distanced” last work. It is as a subjective writer that she is either praised or denigrated.’ So, if we airily say that she ‘does it’ by her technique, what we are really saying is that she has some cryptographic, occult way of her own of using images, words, grammar, even punctuation, to communicate in her own personal style her own personal reaction to life. But is there, actually, a recognisable Bowen style, as there is, say, a recognisable Jamesian style? One single style for so complicated, so protean a personality? She has to employ half a dozen styles to suit her varying responses to her various occasions. There are the familiar Domestic Style that we all use, the Hectic Style that uses all of us when we get over-excited, the Sibylline which we whisper over a coffee, glancing about lest the victim overhear, the Impressionist style that is only for the most delicate artist to employ, the Waggish which only a few command, the Moody Style with which we address ourselves when alone and overcome, the Social which requires a great deal of cold, or amused, observed experience, the Grand Duchess which can also be disrespectfully called the Fortnum-and-Mason, or the Bond Street, or the Ritzy Style, unless those places have all been taken over by Lord Forte within the last couple of weeks, or, of all her styles that one which I feel she held most close to her heart, and which, again disrespectfully, I call the Bowen 707 or the Take-Off Style, which lifts her into the skies of her poet’s imagination. For her essential nature is not, as has been so often asserted, that of the social critic, but of the visionary.

Let us, finally, look at just one of her stories to see her pass from style to style as need demands: the story called ‘Summer Night’ from her 1941 volume Look at all those roses. Its opening is already a blend of the Grand Duchess and the Impressionist with a forecast of the Take-Off!

  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 ...

Those are the impressions of a heated woman, whom we are to know as Emma, driving at top speed, from the next paragraph onward, to meet a lover some ninety miles away, a tough, big, sensual man – the adjective is vital, since the essence of the tale lies in her dubieties about the quality of his ‘love’. She is married, with two children, attractively graced with ‘a tentative little swagger and a pleading air of delinquency’. In the second paragraph we note the sudden change of speed in the style, the brief sentences that lunge, stab, collide, merge; the lavish use of semi-colons, colons; for four pages there is only one relative pronoun, no subordinate clauses, therefore no flowing sentences. This is the Hectic Style, excellent for its purpose:

  The road was in Ireland. The light, the air from the distance, the air of evening rushed transversely through the open sides of the car. The rims of the hood flapped, the hood’s metal frame rattled as the tourer, in great bounds of speed, held the road’s darkening magnetic centre streak. The big shabby family car was empty but for its small driver – its emptiness seemed to levitate it. On its back seat a coat slithered about, and a dressing case bumped against the seat. The driver did not relax her excited touch on the wheel: now and then while she drove she turned one wrist over, to bring the watch worn on it into view, and she gave the mileage marked on the yellow sign-posts a flying, jealous, half-inadvertent look. She was driving parallel with the sunset: the sun slowly went down on her right hand.

  The hills flowed round till they lay ahead. Where the road bent for its upward course through the pass she pulled up and lighted a cigarette. With a snatch she untwisted her turban; she shook her hair free and threw the scarf behind her into the back seat. The draught of the pass combed her hair into coarse strands as the car hummed up in second gear. Behind one brilliantly-outlined crest the sun had now quite gone; on the steeps of bracken, in the electric shadow, each frond stood out and climbing goats turned their heads. The car came up on a lorry, to hang on its tail, impatient, checked by turns of the road. At the first stretch the driver smote her palm on the horn and shot past and shot on ahead again ...

When she halts at the first town to telephone her lover the style changes somewhat: a waggish note; two relative pronouns on one page; and when the scene alters to the house, in the town of her destination, where her lover, Robinson, awaits her, burthened awkwardly by two unexpected visitors, the Domestic Style takes over so firmly that we enter the mind of one of them, a deaf woman who rejoices in being inside this house that she had hitherto seen only at a distance. Indeed, the style becomes Sibylline with her thinking: ‘They are too rare – visions of where we are.’ Emma has meanwhile telephoned again, back to her home. Nerves? Conscience? Thoughts of her children? Robinson is also a trifle on edge, eager to get rid of his visitors. By the time they go, just as Emma is about to turn into Robinson’s avenue, the romance of this summer night is (in the familiar Bowenesque pattern) facing its own reality. We have trundled out to the runway. We hear the voice from the control-tower. We stir, move forward, feel the bump of the tyres as speed slowly gathers. Geared for Romance, Emma is trying to control herself, Robinson, trying to calm her, bids her take her time:

‘Why, am I nervous?’ she said.

‘Darling, you are like a bat in out of the night ... ’

She asks for a drink. ‘You could feel the whole of her hesitate.’ She talks about the logistics of her departure from home, the timing of her due return there, before daylight. He says curtly that that will all keep. He clearly wants bed. ‘Here you are.’

  ‘Yes, here I am. The night was lovely,’ speaking more sadly than she knew. Yes, here she was, being settled down to as calmly as he might settle down o a meal. Her naivety as a lover ... She could not have said, for instance, how much the authoritative male room – the electric clock, the side-board, the unlit grate, the cold of the leather chairs – put, at every moment when he did not touch her, a gulf between her and him. She turned her head to the window. ‘I smell flowers.’

  ‘Yes, I’ve got three flowerbeds.’

Even the most casual reader will have heeded her past tense (‘The night was lovely’), the unlit grate, the cold leather chairs, her postponements of passion, and what happens when he picks up his electric torch and they go out, and she knelt down abruptly beside the flowers. ‘She made movements like scooping the scent up and laving her face in it.’ He, meanwhile, lighted a cigarette, ‘and stood looking down’. She speaks of her home, of her Aunt Fran there, ‘so old, too old, it’s not nice,’ and her husband who keeps thinking about the war, and the children who don’t think she is good, until he says abruptly: ‘Come out of that flowerbed.’

With the next 30 lines we leave the ground far below us. Skyborne.

  They walked to the brow of the lawn; the soft feather-plumes of the pampas rose up a little over her head as she stood by him overlooking the road. She shivered. ‘What are all those trees?’ ‘The demesne – I know they [the rebels] burnt down the castle years ago. The demesne’s great for couples.’ ‘What’s in there?’ ‘Nothing, I don’t think; just the ruin, a lake ...’

‘I wish ...’

‘Now what?’

‘I wish we had more time.’

‘Yes: we don’t want to stay out all night?’

  So taught, she smothered the last of her little wishes for consolation. Her shyness of further words between them became extreme; she was becoming frightened of Robinson’s stern, experienced delicacy on the subject of love ... The adventure (even the pilgrimage) died at its root, in the childish part of her mind. When he had headed her off the cytherean terrain – the leaf-drowned castle ruin, the lake – she thought for a minute he had broken her heart, and she knew now he had broken her fairytale. He seemed content – having lit a new cigarette – to wait about in his garden for a few minutes longer: not poetry but a sort of tactile wisdom came from the firmness, lawn, under their feet. The white gateposts, the boles of beeches above the dust-whitened wall were just seen in reflected light from the town. There was no moon, but dry, tense, translucent darkness: no dew fell.

One can hear the tinkle of the broken bits of her dream. The leaf-drowned castle ruin, the invisible lake of Aphrodite are not for her. The best part of her flight had been that hectic revving-up. Once in the sky, she is dismally alone. A female Icarus.

Every critic has made fun of Elizabeth Bowen’s swanky vocabulary. This, too, is part of her longing to dissipate the actuality of the familiar. Hence her ‘atmospheric rectory’, ‘unclouded amicability’, ‘phantasmagoric variety’, ‘bewildered gardens’, ‘sublimated inglenook’, and so on. Besides, although she has her countless visual felicities – a girl stands up suddenly ‘uncoiled like a spring from an armchair’; or somebody gives somebody ‘a doctor’s look’; or ‘the sea, mackerel blue, swelling sleekly between breakwaters’ – she as a rule transfers feelings to our sensibilities rather than images to our eyes. Of an over-mothered husband: his wife ‘had made a kind of bassinet of life for him, dim with lace’. Of a husband secretly wishing he had married some unknown other woman: ‘His regrets opened out fanwise, profound avenues, each white at the end with a faceless statue.’ Of after-dark London: a ‘provincial meanness’ is exposed by the bright lights ‘like a governess gone to the bad, in a Woolworth tiara, tarted up all wrong’. Or we do not see but may feel how ‘Diana slept voraciously.’

She is our great illusionist, sometimes her own self-hypnotist. ‘Not for nothing,’ she once wrote, ‘do we invest so much of ourselves in other people’s lives – or even in momentary pictures of people we do not know. It cuts both ways: the happy group inside the lighted window, the figure in long grass in the orchard seen from the train stay and support us in our dark hours. Illusions are art and it is by art that we live, if we do.’ She knew the social life of the upper-middle classes of her day intimately – by all accounts she was very much a woman of the world, for which see Angus Wilson at his most percipient, in his Preface to her Collected Stories, about her worldy elegance and her clear-eyed attitude to all the aberrations of love – but she no more composed her novels for the interest of their social milieu than, say, Prosper Mérimée and Bizet composed Carmen for the sake of the chorus. Social ways, manners, values change. Art remains. There are no anachronisms in Shakespeare. When we are at one of his plays we adjust them out of existence. I have a relevant memory of accompanying Elizabeth Bowen one morning to Tavistock Square when she was calling on Virginia Woolf. At one point in their chat Mrs Woolf produced a little ring-casket, a memento that she had received that morning from the estate of Lady Ottoline Morrell. This must have been, allowing for the usual delay involved in probate, some time around the spring of 1939 – Lady Ottoline had died in the April of 1938. The foreheads of the two women almost touched as they bent over the little casket to inhale the undying scent of its little, pale-green velvet cleft. Their two profiles, Virginia’s exquisitely, delicately beautiful, Elizabeth’s not beautiful but handsome and stately, were, as I recall them now, 44 years after, like two young faces on an obsolete coin. Within months their world was under fire. Within half a dozen years it was dotted by ruins. Today we think of that prewar world as an anachronism – until we read Woolf, or Forster, or Bowen, or Lehmann, or Waugh. I repeat: in art there are no anachronisms; certainly not when, as with Elizabeth Bowen, we are flown into another world that has its own ‘Spirits to enforce, Art to enchant’, another island of the imagination.

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Vol. 4 No. 6 · 1 April 1982

SIR: In the course of my piece about Elizabeth Bowen (LRB, 4 March), I am printed as writing: ‘For her essential nature is not, as has been so often asserted, that of the social critic, but of the visionary.’ I will go a long way to assert that she was not primarily a social-realist, but it would be going too far to suggest that she was a ‘visionary’. What I wrote was that her essential nature was that of ‘the visionary idealist’. The last word got lost somewhere between my typewriter and your printer. I chose my words with some little care, aware that the word ‘visionary’ carries a suggestion of the unpractical, or the purely ideal, as does the word ‘idealist’ whether in its common use or its philosophical.

I think the idea that Elizabeth Bowen was primarily a social critic started with the great popular success of The Heat of the Day, towards which many people who still remember the London of the Blitz feel a deep loyalty. It does indeed evoke that London brilliantly, but, as I tried to suggest in my essay, in no work of art should the background take the place of the foreground – here the story of an English woman’s love for a man who turns out to be a spy. In dealing, or rather in not dealing, with the psychology of this relationship she was out of her depth, although I would not be so harsh as the late Philip Toynbee, who said in an otherwise most admiring and affectionate obituary that in that novel she ‘fell flat on her face’.

Sean O’Faolain

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