Academic journal article Hecate

'Everything to Dread from the Dispossessed': Changing Scenes and the End of the Modernist Heroine in Elizabeth Bowen's Eva Trout

Academic journal article Hecate

'Everything to Dread from the Dispossessed': Changing Scenes and the End of the Modernist Heroine in Elizabeth Bowen's Eva Trout

Article excerpt

In the four decades since its publication, literary critics have not been land to Elizabeth Bowen's final novel, Eva Trout; or, Changing Scenes. John Halperin, for example, derides the novel as a 'flat-out flop' for which its author 'ought to be excused on the grounds of diminishing powers, including judgment.'1 Other critics have similarly dismissed it by attributing its supposedly problematic nature to everything from a vast array of personal matters afflicting Bowen in her later years to an attempt at trendiness in the context of the 'swinging' sixties.2 Victoria Glendinning provides a succinct and apt summation of the reception it has so far received: 'Eva Trout is a formidable novel, though a difficult one only for readers who longed for the old Elizabeth Bowen of The Death of the Heart.'3 In effect, certain readers who have formed an emotional attachment to Bowen's 1930s output have found fault with a text produced some three decades later because it fails to replicate the characteristics of its predecessors and thus disappoints such readers' personal expectations. Such a perspective, unfortunately, fails to see that every work is a product of the time and place in which it is created and, as its subtitle suggests, Eva Trout is a chronicle of 'changing scenes,' not only in the sense of its desultory protagonist's peregrinations, but also in the sense of the inevitable and constant motions of history.

The greatest obstacle to an objective reading of Eva Trout, it would seem, has been a reluctance on the part of its most vocal critics to consider the novel without placing it in invidious juxtaposition with Bowen's earlier work, particularly her widely acclaimed novels of manners that might accurately be deemed modernist explorations of female sensibility. But while situating Eva Trout outside of the context of Bowen's complete oeuvre might allow the novel to be judged on its own merits, such an approach would be equally shortsighted as the text is, in many ways, the logical outcome of certain plot structures and character types that its author had refined through many years of fictional exploration. Eva Trout, however, is not so much a radical departure from Bowen's literary heritage as it is a completion of it. Her quirky protagonist is, in a variety of ways, the culmination of two of her most salient character types, the offended innocent and the worldly, often jaded woman of privilege, often locked in varying degrees of passive-aggressive conflict with themselves and each other. While these two figures function as they should within the context of modernist fiction, written at a time when class structures and gender roles were more rigidly stratified, one might assume that the supposedly injured (and therefore often dangerous) innocent of her earlier novels would, after recovering from the loss of the protection her innocence had provided, develop into a sophisticated adult woman. Indeed, once disabused of her naïve idealism, she would likely become much like the adult women she had previously found so insensitive.

This is not the case, however, in Eva Trout. Those standard figures of Bowen's modernist narratives become displaced persons in a novel set in the postwar and increasingly postmodern 1950s and 1960s. Eva, moreover, is an amalgam of both these types and yet simultaneously and contrarily neither; thus she can find no suitable space in which to function in a society that, without any actual foundation, regards her as 'partly foreign ... and partly handicapped.'4 Indeed, this 'foreignness' leads her to be mistaken for one who is dislocated in a political sense: 'What caused the girl to express herself like a displaced person? The explanation- that from infancy onward Eva had had as attendants displaced persons, those at a price being the most obtainable, to whose society she'd been largely consigned - for some reason never appeared: too simple, perhaps?' (ET, 10) This assessment, coming from the perspective of her erstwhile teacher Iseult Arble, is accurate up to the point, but the situation is still far more complex than this question might suggest, for Eva Trout, despite all her material privilege, is not only homeless but also an alien in whatever environment she enters. …

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