Showing posts with label Elizabeth Bowen. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Elizabeth Bowen. Show all posts

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Elizabeth Bowen by Victoria Glendinning

Most people who have read any of Elizabeth Bowen's remarkable work will concur with Victoria Glendinning's assertion, in her Foreword, that Bowen is a "major writer; her name should appear in any responsible list of the ten most important fiction writers in English on this side of the Atlantic in this century.  She is to be spoken of in the same breath as Virginia Woolf".  Glendinning sets out to trace the origins of this literary greatness and to explore the woman behind the text.  Bowen's childhood was intermittently idyllic, but blighted by her father's mental illness and the early death of her mother.  An only child but well-supplied with cousins, she grew up to be gregarious and sociable; a short spell at a very serious-sounding girls' school seems to have drawn out a sense of duty from Elizabeth's roots in Anglo-Irish gentry.   Elizabeth grew up to be hard-working, good fun, generous and - for the most part - well-behaved.  She was married for thirty years to Alan Cameron, a career administrator, who supported her writing and tolerated her various indiscretions.  It probably helped that Elizabeth was reserved; she could create intimacy very quickly with strangers, but generally without revealing much of her own interior life.  Her writing, which arose when she realised she had no talent for fine art, drew on her own life and relationships, but transformed them, taking possibilities further, exploring tracks passed by in the real world. 

 This was Glendinning's second book, and her first biography of a celebrated writer; published in 1977, only four years after Bowen died, it necessarily glides carefully over some of the details of her personal life, presumably to avoid offence to people still living.  I've heard Victoria Glendinning tell of how she tends to fall in love with her subjects, and Bowen certainly receives a great deal of generous sympathy and admiration.  Other biographers might perhaps have made more of her failings, but Glendinning is prepared to understand and accept them, particularly those failings that contributed to her work.  This generous understanding is also extensive in her later biographies of Vita Sackville-West and Leonard Woolf.  In this book, however, I got the feeling that, like her subject, Glendinning was holding back.  This might be due to her evident enthusiasm for Bowen's work, to the date of publication, or because the archival Elizabeth was as charming and delightful as her real-life counterpart.

Glendinning is very good on Elizabeth's relationship to Ireland, to her Anglo-Irish background, and also on her position and relation to English literary society.  There is a thorough consideration of all her major works, and of the themes that underpin them; given her other, ancillary work such as teaching and lecturing, Bowen's output was fairly prodigious, especially in view of the quality of her writing.  The chapter on literary wartime London is also fascinating, and I enjoyed the post-war chapters in which Bowen's literary position is secured, and she can encourage the young, travel, contribute to political work, and find time to persuade her American publisher to offer Muriel Spark's books in the US, which gives us all an additional reason to be grateful to her.  This book made me like and admire Elizabeth Bowen the person, an admiration to set alongside the one I already have for her writing.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

The Demon Lover by Elizabeth Bowen

This collection of short stories was published in 1945; thematically, the stories concern the psychic, social and material damage inflicted by the Second World War.  Many of the stories centre around houses changed by bombing, requisition, or disuse, and on the effect of these changes on the people who move around and through these houses.  A crack in a wall may act as a conduit to another world; disturbing memories and dreams are summoned by rediscovered objects; social structures are as cracked as the masonry.  Some of the stories are deeply sinister in effect - the title story in particular - and Bowen is very good at showing how close to the boundaries of madness her protagonists come.  Other stories deal, more humorously, with the frustrations that arise from the limitations of wartime, and in more than one story Bowen skewers the self-importance of the war-worker with great effectiveness.

This collection left me with the general impression that civilian life in wartime, with its dreary constraints, deprivations and shocks, allows long-buried sorrows to surface, almost as if one trauma calls up another, older one; and that war service required a mask, a persona, not just for the purposes of national security but also to sustain individual endurance of the intolerable.  It is these masks that slip, or are knocked askew, in Bowen's stories.  Being Bowen's stories, they are exquisitely written: there are some elegiac descriptions of the lost past, imbued both with beauty and with a deserved sense of unreality, as they are invariably the products of dreams or hallucinations.  Beauty can be read as another casualty of war, only to be accessed if one is prepared to peer beyond the limitations of sanity.

Bowen tends to focus on her particular milieu and class; if you are interested in fiction about the Blitz in the East End, you won't find it here.  There is even an Irish country house setting for one of the stories.  However, as with The Death of the Heart, the voices of the servant class and the lower-middle class do break through, and in some stories are symptomatic of the social disruption occasioned by the war.

The Demon Lover is no longer in print as a collection, although there are second-hand copies about - mine is a rather elegant volume that the title page tells me was "produced in complete conformity with the authorized economy standards" prevailing in 1945.  However, Vintage offer a volume of Bowen's collected short stories which includes 79 of her stories, including the stories in this book.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

I've come late to Elizabeth Bowen. Apart from a few short stories, the first thing of hers that I read was A House in Paris. That was odd and interesting enough to tempt me to more, and I've been picking them up in secondhand bookshops ever since. The Death of the Heart revolves around sixteen-year-old Portia, billeted on her half-brother Thomas and his wife Anna in their elegant home overlooking Regent's Park. Thomas's father was, messily, divorced from Thomas's mother and obliged to marry his mistress Irene; after his death Irene and Portia lived in hotels around Europe, staying in cheaper north-facing rooms, until Irene too died and Portia arrived at Windsor Terrace. Portia, naive and awkward, uncomfortable at her day-school for young ladies and at home, takes solace in the company of Matchett the housekeeper and in her diary. Portia falls for Eddie, a rather camp young flirt who has been rebuffed by Anna, and who can only ever disappoint her. Discovering that Anna has read her diary precipitates Portia's inevitable crisis.

This book, too is odd and interesting. It's a slippery narrative, shifting between characters' points of view and between a third-person narrative, stream of consciousness, and extracts from Portia's diary. The prose is very densely packed with meaning; the events of the plot cover a few months at most, but we learn a great deal about the histories of the major characters; Bowen seems to excel in concentrating meaning in fleeting memories and snatches of conversation. Every character is rounded out, including those who never appear such as Portia's late father and mother, by a range of views and opinions, thoughts and memories. We learn along with Portia, of course, puzzling her way through various alien environments, but we learn more that Portia, being privy to the internal monologues of other characters.

The claustrophobia of Portia's environment, at Regency Terrace and at school, and also at the seaside villa owned by Anna's former governess where Portia is sent for a few weeks while her guardians are abroad, makes her attempts at escape through her diary and her relationships with Eddie and with Matchett believable; once Eddie has let her down and the secret of her diary has been lost, her flight from her uncomfortable family to Major Brutt, an acquaintance of Anna's who has been kind to her and lives in the hotel environment she knows well, is entirely credible. Portia is clear-sighted and quite tough, standing up to Eddie's criticisms, for example, but she cannot see any way out of her situation beyond appealing to a kind stranger for rescue.

Other than Portia, the women in the novel seem to me to be constrained by loyalty rather than love. Anna is loyal to the memory of her first lover, which unsurprisingly compromises her relationship with Thomas, and also seems to be a late but passionate convert to social convention. Matchett is fiercely loyal to Portia's late father and this locks her into a relationship with his children and to employment by Anna, who she finds less than congenial. Mrs Heccomb, Anna's old governess, remains loyal to her former charge, even when this disrupts her own houshold. Her stepdaughter Daphne is loyal to a peculiar local moral code, in which outward jollity and disinterest is all; flirting may take place but this must never be acknowledged publicly. This rigid network of loyalties forms part of the claustrophobic atmosphere and emphasises Portia's awkwardness; she has grown up in a world where the cast of characters changes daily, and enduring loyalties and their associated conservatisms are unknown.

Nicola Humble has written about The Death of the Heart in The Feminine Middlebrow Novel; the contrast between Regency Terrace and Mrs Heccomb's seaside house, in terms of decor, inhabitants and entertainments, delineates quite clearly the highbrow home from the middlebrow one. It is interesting that only Eddie, a young man with a lower-class background who has become socially acceptable in upper-class circles through education, is able to move freely between these worlds and to mock them both; but then Eddie is at home nowhere.

I've thought a lot about this book since I read it and it is still mysterious to me. I can understand why people become slightly obsessive about Bowen's work; it has an elusive quality combined with a frankness and an intensity which makes for very unusual and unsettling reading. Sylvia Townsend Warner's novels can be similar, although I find her more affectionate towards her characters. I still have The Demon Lover and The Heat of the Day on my unread pile, so look forward to further opportunities to explore Bowen's odd and interesting world.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen

Shifting narrative perspectives and timescales work to great effect in this story of an illicit love affair in 1920s England and France. We meet, through Henrietta - a young girl travelling through Paris - the outcome of this affair: Leopold. The children, and their combative, cruel encounter, are well-drawn and convincing. Bowen's long, central section of the book, "The Past", addresses to Leopold the account of the affair between English Karen and French-Jewish Max; Leopold has been protected from the truth of his origins by his adoptive family. Occasionally Bowen reminds us that the narrative is for Leopold, addressing the reader as "you, Leopold"; this gives the impression of reading a private letter, as Leopold does in the first chapter. Returning to the present, the effect of Leopold's birth and existence on his mother's marriage is shown through a couple of pages of stage dialogue, attributed to He and She; the pronouns depersonalise the difficulties and effects of a very personal and complex story.

In the background are several sinister, ailing women: Mme Fisher, the witch-like, omniscient queen of the eponymous house; she is echoed in the more benign character of Aunt Violet, whose death triggers the events and emotional upheavals that bring us Leopold. Mrs Arbuthnot, Henrietta's grandmother, completes a trio of powerful and sometimes manipulative old ladies, puppet-masters moving the main players around the continent. This sets up a tension between Bowen's presentation of Max and Karen as self-possessed, dynamic lovers in "The Past" and the narrative's emphasis on them as characters, foregrounding their artificiality and continually reminding us that they are stereotypes of romantic fiction. This tension is repeated in other aspects of the book: bonds of affection are stretched and undermined, then reformed with apparently greater strength; and ultimately gives the novel a resonance and a complexity that are deeply rewarding.