The Flight of the Hawk: An In­tro­duc­tion to El­iz­a­beth Bowen’s “Mys­te­ri­ous Kôr”

The Iowa Review - - CONTENTS - Mar­got Livesey

El­iz­a­beth Bowen was a great con­ver­sa­tion­al­ist who stam­mered and a great ob­server who was very short­sighted. She hated wear­ing her glasses, and the im­pres­sion­is­tic qual­ity of her writ­ing can be partly at­trib­uted to this re­luc­tance, which left the more dis­tant world blurred. Also, per­haps the in­ten­sity with which she noted de­tails—she had to look closely to make sense of things. The Bri­tish philoso­pher Stu­art Hamp­shire de­scribes Bowen in a gar­den at dusk. Talking hard, she walked straight into a hedge and, still talking, backed out, he said, “like a bus.” Later, dur­ing the war, she once served cof­fee on the bal­cony of her London house with­out notic­ing that an air raid was in progress. As for the stam­mer, she ne­go­ti­ated that by us­ing hand ges­tures, or choos­ing new words; of­ten, when she was lec­tur­ing or ap­pear­ing on tele­vi­sion, it was barely no­tice­able, and when it was, peo­ple found it charm­ing. A rich friend once paid for her to see a psy­chi­a­trist in the hope of cur­ing it, but the psy­chi­a­trist, af­ter a few ses­sions, poured out his se­crets to Bowen, rather than vice versa. Is it merely fan­ci­ful to think that her stam­mer, like her my­opia, con­trib­uted to her fa­mous style? She hes­i­tates, she feints, she cir­cum­nav­i­gates, she reaches for first one word, then an­other; al­most al­ways, she avoids the ob­vi­ous. Vir­ginia Woolf, El­iz­a­beth’s se­nior by seven­teen years, writes in Mo­ments of Be­ing how much more vivid the present is when the past is pressed up against it. Bowen, for good or ill, was born into a fam­ily where the past was in­escapable. Her fa­ther, Henry Bowen, was large, gen­tle, and cour­te­ous: “If he saw men as trees walk­ing,” Bowen mys­te­ri­ously wrote, “he bowed to the trees.” Ac­cord­ing to fam­ily leg­end, one of his an­ces­tors, a lieu­tenant-colonel in Cromwell’s army, had been granted by Cromwell as much land in County Cork as a hawk could fly over. Sev­eral gen­er­a­tions later, a house was built on the land, and the first Bowens moved into Bowen’s Court in 1776. Henry in­her­ited the house in 1889, the year af­ter he passed the bar. The year af­ter that he mar­ried Florence Col­ley of Clon­tarf. El­iz­a­beth, their only child, was born nine years later, in 1899. From her ear­li­est mem­o­ries, El­iz­a­beth was in mo­tion, and her characters are too. Her sto­ries and nov­els are full of en­trances and ex­its, greet­ings and farewells, and her metic­u­lous sense of how set­ting—where we

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