Elizabeth Bowen

By Hopkins, Chris | The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Elizabeth Bowen


Hopkins, Chris, The Review of Contemporary Fiction


In 1981 the critic Hermione Lee felt she had to open her excellent book-length critical study of Elizabeth Bowen by saying: "I have written a critical study of Elizabeth Bowen because there is a great deal to be said about her work, and because she has been peculiarly neglected" (11). Since then, Bowen's stock has probably risen: there have been many critical articles and several more critical books, and there have been new editions of all her novels and her autobiographical writings. Bowen now has a well-established reputation as an important twentieth-century English (and Anglo-Irish) writer, who worked in both the novel and short-story form. However, she is still, perhaps, not that widely read. She is not easy to locate in the traditions of prose fiction--not because she has no affinities, but because on the contrary she combines a wide range of literary influences in novel and striking forms. Influences are said to include, in way or another and at one time or another, such writers as Jane Austen, Chekhov, Ivy Compton-Burnett, George Eliot, Gustave Flaubert, E. M. Forster, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, Henry James, James Joyce, Le Fanu, Iris Murdoch, Marcel Proust, Muriel Spark, Somerville and Ross, Evelyn Waugh, and Virginia Woolf. She has been seen (quite correctly in each case) as an Anglo-Irish writer, an English realist, a writer of comedy of manners, a European modernist, and a novelist of sensibility, as well as drawing on the thriller and the romance. It has been said that "Attempts to make her fit the traditions of the English novel say more about canon formation than they do about Bowen's work" (Lassner 142). However, this difficulty of applying labels is not, in this case, just a matter of the critics trying to impose tidiness on the untidy reality of a writer. Her variousness and utilization of a range of traditions not only across her career but sometimes within a single work is an essential part of her method and her appeal. It is also part of her difficulty. She does not even attempt to combine all her varying influences and modes into a smooth, homogenous text, but allows them, in varying degrees, to work with or against each other. Thus in novels such as To the North and The Death of the Heart modernist and realist conceptions of character and representation meet and clash in odd and illuminating ways. Bowen makes use of the explorations into the mind pioneered by Woolf, but retains a more classic realist fluidity in the ways in which her narration moves between representation of the outer world and of internal worlds. However, unlike in classic realism, Bowen does not homogenize the transitions between these points of view. Instead, there can be abrupt shifts between different viewpoints. This technique that accepts "jerkiness" and multiplicity leaves the reader with much work to do in the way of understanding the text. It also results in a representation of the world in which internal and external viewpoints are often uncoordinated until (and if) they can be made sense of through the efforts of the reader. This is not entirely new: her style has an affinity with, and is as challenging as, that of Henry James.

Indeed, Bowen is often simply not at all easy to read. Her style is often angular rather than flowing. One often needs to pause and reread a sentence or paragraph to check that one has taken it aright, as in this relatively straightforward, but quite characteristic example from The Death of the Heart: "Anna had been askance. The forecast shadow of Portia, even, had started altering things--that incident of the mirror had marked an unheard-of tendency in Matchett, to put in her own oar" (42). Here can be noted the very unusual verb and noun combinations ("had been" rather than looked "askance"), the inverted word order, with the delayed verb at the end of a sentence ("to put in her own oar"), the capacity of metaphors to become substantial ("the forecast shadow ... altering things"), and the sudden use of popular idioms or even cliches ("to put in her own oar"). …

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