Elizabeth Bowen: The Enforced Return

Elizabeth Bowen: The Enforced Return

Elizabeth Bowen: The Enforced Return

Elizabeth Bowen: The Enforced Return


Elizabeth Bowen is a writer who is still too little appreciated. Neil Corcoran presents here a critical study of her novels, short stories, family history, and essays, and shows that her work both inherits from the Modernist movement and transforms its experimental traditions. Elizabeth Bowen: The Enforced Return explores how she adapts Irish Protestant Gothic as a means of interpreting Irish experience during the Troubles of the 1920s and the Second World War, and also as a way of defining the defencelessness of those enduring the Blitz in wartime London. She employsversions of the Jamesian child as a way of offering a critique of the treatment of children in the European novel of adultery, and indeed, implicitly, of the Jamesian child itself. Corcoran relates the various kinds of return and reflex in her work-notably the presence of the supernatural, but alsothe sense of being haunted by reading-to both the Freudian concept of the 'return of the repressed' and to T. S. Eliot's conception of the auditory imagination as a 'return to the origin'. Making greater interpretative use of extra-fictional materials than previous Bowen critics (notably her wartime reports from neutral Ireland to Churchill's government and the diaries of her wartime lover, the Canadian diplomat Charles Ritchie), Corcoran reveals how her fiction merges personal storywith public history. Employing a wealth of original research, his radical new readings propose that Bowen is as important as Samuel Beckett to twentieth-century literary studies--a writer who returns us anew to the histories of both her time and ours.


Laurence said—beating the bushes vaguely—‘Imagine, sir, a small resurrection day, an intimate thing-y one, when the woods should give up their tennis balls and the bundles of hay their needles: the beaches all their engagement rings and the rivers their cigarette cases and some watches…. Last term I dropped a cigarette case into the Cher, from the bridge at Parson’s Pleasure. It was a gold one, flat and thin and curved, for a not excessive smoker, left over from an uncle. It was from the days when they wore opera cloaks and mashed, and killed ladies. It was very period, very virginal; I called it Henry James; I loved it. I want to see it rush up out of the Cher, very pale, with eyeballs, like in the Tate Gallery. It wants a woman to be interested in a day like that, to organize; perhaps the Virgin Mary? Don’t you think, sir?’

Mr Montmorency, startled at this address, replied: ‘I have never been to the Tate Gallery.’

The Last September (42)

‘You’re not doing anything—I mean, only reading?’

Veronica to Sydney, in The Hotel (97)

Letters figure everywhere in Elizabeth Bowen, sometimes directly influencing action and plot, always re-directing readerly attention, re-focusing narrative, undermining or ironizing singularity of perspective. Some instances. In A World of Love Jane falls in love with the past or, more specifically, ‘in love with a love letter’ from Guy, a soldier killed in the First World War, and this love enables her transition to a different kind of future. In The House in Paris Leopold reads a letter from his foster-mother whose vulgar combination of prudishness and prurience disgusts him; and he then fantasizes a letter from his long unseen mother, pressing her empty envelope to his head as if in . . .

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