Into Council Care

John Bayley

  • Elizabeth Bowen and the Dissolution of the Novel by Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle
    Macmillan, 208 pp, £35.00, December 1994, ISBN 0 333 60760 0

When Bookering last year I found most of the novels fitted into one of two categories, which I began to think of as ‘Conscious Modern’ and ‘Pattern Naive’. Pattern Naive, the larger category, pursued its course by holding onto an image of the novel which suited its own version of individuality: the novel, in this sense, being something that was always around – a way of turning life back into convention rather than into a sense of the present moment. Authors in this genre were full of other novels, but not disturbed by them: other novelists were a reassurance and a bulwark, like sitting an exam with a lot of other candidates. (E.M. Forster liked to imagine novelists from all periods all writing together in the same room.) Conscious Modern (nothing to do with the Modernist movement of course) was much rarer because harder to do. A good writer in this genre, such as Martin Amis, succeeds in raping the ‘now’ by means of a philistine main character, who brutishly makes clear the sourness and the nowness of our time. Modernity’s awareness of itself must hit the reader through the pretence of utter indifference to any other possibility. As a gimmick the Modern may fire an arrow backward, but must always shun the convention of consciousness running free in time – being ondulant et divers. This is as true now as it was in the days when the Modern was invented, and practised by novelists like Hemingway or Anthony Powell, both of whom significantly reverted, in their later work, to the older authorial convention of a time-free consciousness.

As a pre-war writer Elizabeth Bowen made gestures towards the Modern but preferred her own pattern of individualities. She was not much of a theorist, though she liked to advance her ideas on fiction boldly and with a certain panache, in what she would have described as a damn-your-eyes way. ‘The aesthetic is nothing but a return to images that will allow nothing to take their place’ – which in literary terms might mean that this novelist uses conventions which in becoming compulsive make her novels come alive. This and other pronouncements are effectively quoted in Phyllis Lassner’s excellent little book in Macmillan’s ‘Women Writers’ series (1990). It is written from a feminist angle, whereas Bennett and Royle are theorists who have found in Bowen, perhaps rather surprisingly, an opportunity for what they call a ‘new kind of literary critical writing’ in which the critics will take ‘her personal experience, imagination and feelings’ away from the author and into the sphere of theory, rather as abused children are taken into council care.

It was a good choice of novelist for such an enterprise. In the explosive, unstable, and as the authors point out, culturally disruptive world of the Bowen novels, both the feminist and the theoretical approaches might now be thought to work remarkably well, disclosing formidable literary virtues which the ‘canonical’ verdict on her works, as Bennett and Royle call it, has praised her faintly by ignoring. She has, as these critics say, been trapped inside her blurbs, inside her ‘passionate and intense’sensitivity, and sensibility, and all the rest of it. This is perhaps a trifle unfair to the good work done previously by Hermione Lee and Victoria Glendinning, to name but two more orthodox critics: but it does indeed help – and very strikingly – to remove Bowen from the socially feminine personality on which her admirers used fondly to dote, and see how far she can run without her smart accessories of class, style and humour.

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