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.

A damn long way might be her own answer. She despised the Modern as such, as she despised most kinds of what she thought of as cant, though she loved fashion, and she used her own idiom to be funny about it. Cars and clothes and newspeak get short shrift as the latest thing, but are also greedily battened on: she loves and could not do without them, nor would she want to. By taking her out of herself her theorists may reveal all the better what she really is, and that is the right sort of achievement, though perhaps not the one she would herself be looking for. But the theoretical approach does help to show how fragile is the individuality she built up, however stylistically emphatic it might seem. There was a Rhoda from The Waves inside her: she was less certain of herself than she liked to seem. There is never a gap with her, as there is with ‘Conscious Modern’, between the impact of the work and the consciousness behind it. Her glittering surfaces are absolutely at home with her disrupted deeps, mingling with them as freely as a society lady with lushes and misfits at a cocktail party.

This is shown in a specially graphic way by what must remain her masterpiece, though she always hated hearing it referred to as such, The Death of the Heart. The young Eddie and the 16-year-old Portia live darkly and pungently in the non-individuated world in which they have found each other, keeping both convention and character at bay, leaving these threatening things to those who, like Thomas and Anna Quayne, Portia’s stepbrother and sister, have succumbed in the coldly defeated world of being themselves. To be young is to have none of the story – the stigmata – by which the adults are inexorably ‘placed’. For his elders, the amoral and totally unreliable Eddie has all the fatal charm which goes with freedom, with not having to be anybody. So had Anna’s first love, Pidgeon (Bennett and Royle are good on the significance of names), an ex-army officer who ‘could do anything’. He and Anna never married ‘because they refused to trust each other’; but he remains for her the potent symbol of youth and love, and the age in which anything can be done, because no plot exists and no decisions have been, or need be, taken.

Opposite Pidgeon, in terms of the novel and its equivalences, is the admirable figure of Major Brutt: sound, good, utterly reliable, a total and honourable failure patronised by everyone except Portia, to whom he gives jigsaw puzzles he can ill afford. They will not tell her about the puzzles of life, but they will eventually make her fly to Major Brutt, as the one man on whose inabilities she can wholly rely. The irony of Major Brutt is that he is 100 per cent ‘placed’ by other people, and yet allotted no place or function which might be commensurate with his helpless virtues. Eddie, who has no virtues, can of course get a job whenever he wants one: the world falls over itself to use his unsoundness, but has no place for the soundness of Major Brutt.

Eddie is based on the author’s friend and former lover Goronwy Rees, who much later wrote a splendid memoir about himself with a title taken from Hume – A Bundle of Sensations. As philosopher and intellectual Rees rejoiced in his own freedom in possessing nothing but impulse and sensation, the qualities which fascinated Elizabeth Bowen (‘We are the young’) as they unconsciously did the youthful Portia. Eddie can use Portia because she has not learnt to judge him, which in literary terms means she cannot ‘read’ people or novels: and this priceless asset is valued by Eddie, until it degenerates with her growing awareness that he can or will do nothing for her.

Bowen’s sense of always being helplessly young, while at the same time possessing inevitably the sophistication of the mature or elderly, produces the great rift of drama and emotion from which spring all her inventions. It makes a gap which Bennett and Royle describe, between her acute sense of the present time – her own of course – and the frightening timelessness of ‘images that will allow nothing to take their place’. Her feel for wartime London, as shown in the story ‘Mysterious Kor’ and the novel The Heat of the Day, is as immaculate as is her sense of social nuance: but neither would do her much good today if they were all that was there: she would have joined the great lost army of the Conscious Modern, of novelists whose nowness has not survived, or survived only as a curiosity. That this has not happened, and that she continues to excite the admiration and respect of avant-garde critics like Bennett and Royle, is due to the alarming way in which she joins young and old together by dramatising obsessive and almost psychotic continuities. Robert Kelway, the traitor hero from The Heat of the Day, who is giving away secrets to the enemy from his job at the War Office, is traced to his childhood in peculiarly prosperous and loveless suburban surroundings – or rather not traced, for Bowen is never methodical, but revealed there in the sudden swoop of a gestalt pitilessly jocular and yet full of the most intense sympathy.

Bowen’s jocularity, almost her leading characteristic, is one thing which the modern critic finds it hard to take, or to exploit in terms of his own ‘discourse’; for it is neither satire nor slapstick nor safe black humour. Its ‘enormous meaning’ is located in an eerily juvenile area of pointed silences, explosions of violent giggling, knowing obscurities and brutal nicknames. Bennett and Royle understand it very well, and are particularly effective on what they term the ‘sheer kink’ in the Bowen vision, its ‘convulsions’, the ‘blitz-writing’ of The Heat of the Day, in which the idea of treachery has an uncanny and overwhelming authenticity, never attached to fact or rationality, to cause and effect. It inhabits the same version of single and responsible identity (‘You do really think I am a person?’) which goes haywire in Dinah of The Little Girls, and her obsession with discovery of ‘things’ which have unaccountably vanished, or perhaps were never there. Evasiveness reaches a climax of baroque magnificence in Bowen’s last novel, Eva Trout, whose heroine makes no sense except in bizarre terms of place (Bowen’s Hythe and Romney Marsh fixation). She is a waif who finds her fate in an act of adoption – the adoption of a beautiful dumb child who kills her. This extraordinary and final denial of the single personality – for Eva Trout is fissiparously able to spawn an alter ego and her death is itself due to this eerie ability – is summed up in the character’s own words, with their gentle air of going much much too far. ‘What is a person? Is it true, there is not more than one of each?’ One often has the feeling that the Bowen novels penetrate and inhabit the world of the two children in The Turn of the Screw, the world which Henry James suggests so well by so scrupulously declining to enter it, or to ‘understand’.

Not that there is anything nightmarish about this late world of Bowen, in the crude sense in which other novelists, Anna Kavan for instance, have drawn such a world. For Bowen breathes into hers the vitality of humour, its own true animating life. She is as hilarious as Kafka, and in a curious way as sensible. Portia in The Death of the Heart is her most remarkable achievement because she is not ‘mad’, like Dinah and Eva Trout, but at the age of 16 is paradoxically already full of what Stella in The Heat of the Day finds out, after her lover’s violent death, to be that ‘air of timid apology’ suited to a widow. Portia is apologising for being there at all, and yet by deprecating her own existence she becomes involuntarily a judge of those who have established theirs – but a judge who longs unconfidently and naturally to enter the fun of life, the fun which abounds in all Bowen’s fiction, and especially in the marvellous seaside comedy of The Death of the Heart, where the young and the old meet in ruthless comradeship, equally uncaring and kind.

Perception is as instant in Bowen as pondering is absent. A young man who has just been put down by a woman in one of Barbara Pym’s novels reflects ‘how sharp the nicest women are’. But the important point is that such women are nice, however capable of deflating every sort of pomposity and not just masculine ones. Bowen’s style has a trick of deflating itself, and herself too, by momentarily putting on an air of sly gravity or portentousness (‘We must live as we can’) in the face of which cheerfulness – spontaneous and yet equally sly – keeps derisively banging in. Such an attitude can make things difficult for Dr Lassner’s feminist approach, for Bowen and her characters are no more prepared to be ‘women’ – one friend spoke of her ‘androgynous waist’ – than they are prepared to be single individuals, or old, or young. Bowen famously observed about the Anglo-Irish, of whom she was very definitely one, that they were Irish when it suited them and English when it did not. In the same way it suited her both to be a woman and a man, an urchin and an ingénue, a derisive teenager and a mature lady novelist with the grand manner.

Lassner is clear-headed enough to grasp this too; she draws apt attention to the Bowen syndrome (also evident in Rose Macaulay) of being infinitely sociable and at the same time infinitely solitary. Bowen said that writing novels was a way of working off ‘the sense of being solitary and farouche’. By writing she became ‘relatable’. If one were ‘house-trained and made jolly’ one would stop writing. In fact, of course, her writing is in one sense not only jolly but very definitely house-trained. But then there is the darkly incoherent side of it, the side that makes Emmeline involve herself and her lover in a fatal accident on the Great North Road. And it is this dissolution into the primeval and inarticulate (she herself had a convulsive and never-conquered stammer) which ‘loosens the text’ for the modern theorist, ‘so that words and figural processes induce a hallucinatory logic counteracting experiential readings’.

At least so the blurb, written by the theorist Ann Wordsworth, tells us. Bennett and Royle, a highly agile pair of Broad Church critics, may strike the reader as crucified on such pronouncements, rather as Bowen herself once used to be on her anthill of ‘sensitivity’, and ‘poetic’ prose. Yet the vocabulary of the theorist, drawing our attention to such matters as ‘risky equivocal textuality’ does indeed seem strangely valid for the sense of impending collapse which haunts the later Bowen novels, almost as if in her sardonically proleptic way she were anticipating that dissolution of personality, and its old truth-revealing reassurances, which theory has proclaimed and analysed. Bowen as the theorist’s model novelist is a nice notion, not at all a quaint one, and her technical progress into ‘dissolution’, as Bennett and Royle call it, give her, as model, a special aptness.

As an explorer in technique and effect, intrepidly able to use loss and upheaval in her personal life in the cause of her writing, her only equal was Henry James, who rescued himself from the disasters to which infatuation with the theatre had exposed him, and put them into the three great novels of his last period. Breakdown was both used and headed off. The very sudden loss of her husband, and of the house in Cork which had been in her family since Cromwell’s time, reduced Elizabeth Bowen to the vagrant life which in a sense came to suit her best, the life of a prince or princess in exile: and in literary terms one in which ‘the Great God Chance’, as she named him, could be let loose to overwhelm her imagination.

As with James, iron discipline was none the less the order of the day; the dismal bohemianism of a Jean Rhys would have been unthinkable to Bowen, who also hated sex being treated at all physically: both novels and stories are rich with her own kind of respectability. As distinctions and divisions crumbled in her imagination, her style took on an ever more compelling and more goblinesque accuracy. Her imagination had always centred less on Ireland than on the South Coast of England, where she had spent her girlhood, and in her last two novels place takes on a vividness at once hallucinatory and homely. But the homeliness was emphatically that of the not-at-home.

It is admirable, and indeed uncanny, to see her rescued for the strict literary demands and standards of the present, when she lived and worked so humorously in a more casual past. The fact itself calls attention both to the novel form’s eternal return to its old preoccupations, and to the quality in her which was always avid for the present and amused by its brutish confidence in being the only moment that matters. The present for her was nothing without the past, and she mingled the two without effort, but with a great deal of droll awareness of how comic each in its own way could be. She would have read The Information with zeal (as she once read Fowles’s The Collector) and might well have been entertained by the resemblance of its real subject to that of The Little Girls. Martin Amis’s supposed topic, a literary rivalry, forces the obvious into the portentous like clothes into a suitcase, but his underlying theme is the perpetual adolescence of the masculine, and its hatred for female grownupness. Bowen knows better; and whereas Amis’s phrases tend always towards the same banality, her incomparably more subtle, and more disturbing, disclosure is of both sexes as orphans, driven to the social and the sexual shambles, but breaking back endlessly into childhood, as if into old age.