A deep dive into both writer and char­ac­ter

Pa­tri­cia Lau­rence’s rich, kalei­do­scopic book in­ter­weaves Bowen’s lit­er­ary and in­tel­lec­tual life with her per­sonal one

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‘How shall I fall! How sor­row­ful and lowly/ Un­mas­tered all my mor­tal fan­tasy,” wrote El­iz­a­beth Bowen in a poignant poem for the great love of her life, Charles Ritchie, just be­fore she died on Fe­bru­ary 22nd, 1973. But the poem also il­lu­mi­nates what Hermione Lee, in her lit­er­ary bi­og­ra­phy, El­iz­a­beth Bowen, called “the Bowen un­will­ing­ness to face up to re­al­ity”. Pa­tri­cia Lau­rence’s re­fresh­ing in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Bowen’s life cap­tures that re­al­ity, wherein she was a rule-maker and a risk-taker in both love and let­ters.

Lovers were cu­ri­ously agreed about the

El­iz­a­beth Bowen: A Lit­er­ary Life

By Pa­tri­cia Lau­rence

Pal­grave Macmil­lan, 357pp, £17.99 vis­i­ble Bowen. “The con­trast be­tween her face and body seems sym­bolic,” wrote Ritchie. “It is a pow­er­ful, ma­ture rather hand­some face. But the body is that of a young woman . . . Naked she be­comes po­etic, ruth­less and young.”

May Sar­ton, with whom El­iz­a­beth had a Sap­phic af­fair, con­curred: “Hers was a hand­some face, hand­some rather than beau­ti­ful, with its bold nose, high cheek­bones and tall fore­head.” An at­trac­tive stam­mer, some­times both­er­some, dated from her mother’s death. Charm­ing, but oc­ca­sion­ally snob­bish, in later years she came rather to like Amer­i­can glitz and easy man­ners. How­ever, she dropped peo­ple ruth­lessly and her be­hav­iour could be ca­sual, un­pre­dictable and some­what dis­con­cert­ing. When once asked by David Ce­cil to a fam­ily din­ner, she is said to have replied: “David, I think you know by now that I want to see you ei­ther alone or at a large party.”

Few got close, but those few tended to be of high qual­ity. “Whom one sleeps with is al­ways rather im­por­tant,” she once am­bigu­ously de­claimed. Seán Ó Faoláin was such, of whom she had ini­tially in­quired of a friend: “Is he nice? He might pos­si­bly be quite dim.”

Vic­to­ria Glendin­ning’s bi­og­ra­phy, El­iz­a­beth Bowen: Por­trait of a Writer, was pub­lished less than five years af­ter her death. It was a nec­es­sar­ily ret­i­cent work, with gaps and si­lences about El­iz­a­beth’s love life, de­scrib­ing her as “a re­specter of the con­ven­tions [but] . . . not a con­ven­tional per­son”. That’s putting it mildly. Lau­rence lifts the lid in a chap­ter specif­i­cally de­voted to “Loves and Lovers”, and here we have the first com­pre­hen­sive ac­count of her ro­man­tic en­tan­gle­ments, male and fe­male, plac­ing these within the louche and loose morals and de­li­ciously dan­ger­ous li­aisons of 1930s Ox­ford and Lon­don.

Bowen was mar­ried to a dec­o­rated war hero, Alan Cameron, whose in­flu­ence on her psy­che has been down­played by the Bowen academy. Here, he is dis­played as a sig­nif­i­cant cen­tre to El­iz­a­beth’s life, flap­ping around her like “a great grey pi­geon”. It is doubt­ful if the mar­riage was ever con­sum­mated, but Cameron pro­vided a sta­bil­ity that had not been her lot in a frac­tured and dis­lo­cated child­hood, and she set great store by this. Bowen was

ex­ces­sively for­tu­nate that Cameron seem­ingly tol­er­ated her dal­liances and af­fairs, and she took full ad­van­tage of that. All he wanted was for her to come home. Which she al­ways did.

If the dif­fi­cul­ties of love de­fined Bowen’s per­sonal re­la­tion­ships, then iden­tity was an equally tense af­fair. Who was she? Did it mat­ter? She once con­fessed to Ritchie, “I think we are cu­ri­ously self-made crea­tures, car­ry­ing our per­sonal worlds around with us like snails their shell. I am strongly and idio­syn­crat­i­cally Ir­ish in the same way that you are Cana­dian, cagey, re­cal­ci­trant, on the run, bristling with reser­va­tions and ar­ro­gances that one doesn’t show.”

Hy­phen­ated ex­is­tence

That goes against the con­ven­tional di­chotomy of Bowen’s hy­phen­ated ex­is­tence as “An­glo-Ir­ish”, per­pet­u­ally tran­sit­ing – ge­o­graph­i­cally, psy­cho­log­i­cally and in a lit­er­ary sense – be­tween the is­lands. Lau­rence’s valu­able con­tri­bu­tion is to dis­cuss Bowen’s iden­tity (was she English or Ir­ish or even “Brirish”?) within a more transna­tional per­spec­tive. Bowen’s mul­ti­ple al­le­giances were not out of kil­ter with many south­ern Ir­ish Protes­tants at this time. If her con­tri­bu­tion was to “spy” for the British min­istry of in­for­ma­tion, it was lit­tle dif­fer­ent in kind to that of the many from Ire­land who vol­un­teered to fight fas­cism by join­ing the British mil­i­tary. Nei­ther could be held to im­ply that they were “anti-Ir­ish”. in­evitable, with a soupçon of just dessert thrown in.

When Bowen was sell­ing the house in 1959 af­ter a long fi­nan­cial war she ul­ti­mately lost, she told her lawyer that her next of kin was Bowen’s Court. That re­flected the sta­tus of this “great stone box” (Vir­ginia Woolf’s ap­palled de­scrip­tion) in Bowen’s world. Her mar­riage was child­less. Yet, the house can be seen ei­ther as the mother she lost when only 13; or, more em­pa­thet­i­cally, as the child she never had – way­ward, ex­pen­sive, ex­as­per­at­ing, but also loved and lov­ing, a refuge, a point of hope. The book Bowen’s Court was its off­spring – a grand­child to Bowen’s imag­i­na­tion. To El­iz­a­beth, the house was al­ways a liv­ing thing – writ­ing of its de­mo­li­tion in 1960 she was glad that Bowen’s Court “. . . had a clean end. It never lived to be a ruin.”

There is much more in this kalei­do­scopic, rich book. It in­ter­weaves Bowen’s lit­er­ary and in­tel­lec­tual life with her real one, con­tex­tu­al­is­ing each with the other, and rep­re­sents a sig­nif­i­cant step be­yond the stan­dard works by Glendin­ning and Lee. It is not en­tirely Bowen-cen­tric ei­ther, which per­mits us to bet­ter un­der­stand the ef­fect that this some­times trou­bled, of­ten happy woman had on those who moved within her or­bit. That grav­i­ta­tional pull was strong – Ritchie wrote af­ter her death: “I need to know again from her that I was her life . . . if she ever thought that she loved me more than I did her, she is re­venged.”

PHO­TO­GRAPH: SLIM AARONS/GETTY IM­AGES

El­iz­a­beth Bowen at Bowen’s Court, her Co Cork an­ces­tral home, in 1962.

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