The Power of the Past: Structural Nostalgia in Elizabeth Bowen's the House in Paris and the Little Girls

By Kelly, Marian | Style, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

The Power of the Past: Structural Nostalgia in Elizabeth Bowen's the House in Paris and the Little Girls


Kelly, Marian, Style


Elizabeth Bowen subjects both her characters and her readers to the dynamics of nostalgia in two of her novels. The House in Paris and The Little Girls are unique in Bowen's oeuvre in their use of "structural nostalgia"--a tripartite structure containing a section that takes place in the past put between two sections that take place in the present. Though this structure suggests that readers may simply engage in a nostalgic return along with the characters, Bowen uses it instead to force both her characters and her readers into a conscious examination of both the pleasures and the problems created by nostalgia.

"Do we compromise in this matter of loving life by loving it at one remove-- in the past?"

--Elizabeth Bowen, "The Bend Back"

Of the enduring concerns that characterize twentieth-century fiction, an interest in the plasticity of narrative conventions and a sense of irrevocable change in the perception of time and history most fundamentally transformed our understanding of the novel. Nor are these two interests unrelated, for, as Paul Ricoeur asserts, "narrativity is the mode of discourse through which the mode of being we call temporality is brought to language" (99). A certain perception of time is inherent in any narrative, and narrative is one of the means by which we both depict and examine our conceptions of time. Therefore, it is not surprising that with the sense of rupture between past and present at the turn of the century came an unprecedented degree of experimentation with the form of narrative itself, and, indeed, Ricoeur calls the works of Woolf, Mann, Proust, Conrad, and Joyce "veritable laboratories for a fictive experience of time" (350). The authors of these laboratories push narrative conventions literally to their breaking point--to the point at which they no longer function as instruments of communication, which is what conventions are designed to enable and facilitate, but instead impede communication so that each text becomes, as Robert D. Newman suggests, "a narrative combated by its narration" (83).

Elizabeth Bowen's interest in the way we live in time places her in direct dialogue with her experimental contemporaries. While her novels appear traditional by comparison, they nonetheless betray a high awareness of the intersection of time and narrative that manifests itself in Bowen's examination of the mechanics of nostalgia. This focus resonates with the project of writers like Woolf, who, horrified by the fragmentation of modern life, depict the unifying potential in shared nostalgia. Bowen's interest, however, lies more in exploring the dangers of an overwhelmingly personal and therefore isolating nostalgia, as the contrast between herself and her fellow countryman W. B. Yeats makes clear. Yeats, a supporter of the Gaelic League and its efforts to recover a culture that is all but, lost exploits popular nostalgia in an attempt to bring the Irish nation together, but Bowen, more properly a member of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy than Yeats, saw too much of the damage that nostalgia can do to a culture unwi lling to face present realities. The Big House culture that Bowen knew clung to a narrowly focused nostalgia that, far from uniting it with the rest of its country, further isolated it and led to its eventual dissolution. Consequently, Bowen is sensitive to nostalgia's negative effects more than its positive potentials, and her fiction reflects her own attempts to confront and correct the excesses of nostalgia.

Two novels in particular stand out from her larger oeuvre because of the way in which they structurally recreate the disjunction between past and present. In both The House in Paris (1935) and The Little Girls (1964), Bowen twists the chronology of her fairly typical tripartite structure so that the middle section takes place in the past and divides the two sections that deal with the present. On one level such a framework implies simply a nostalgic return, but Bowen does much more than this with her temporal architecture. …

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