Elizabeth Bowen is another one of my favorite classic writers even though I have not yet read an awful lot of her work.
She was born in 1899 in Dublin, Ireland and died in 1973 in London, England. She came from a fairly well to do Protestant family that lived in a house called “Bowen’s Court.” Biographies of her always refer to her as “Anglo-Irish.” I gather that this means living in Ireland, but being Protestant and following English habits of living. It was a legal category of Irish citizen – a category that conferred high status and privilege. I don’t know a lot about her life, but I will learn as I read through my library.
I like her work because it was ahead of its time – and it tends to take a rather cerebral look at people’s relationships and interior lives – particularly women. So far, she tends to throw people together in a setting and let them erupt.
Bowen is a very highly regarded 20th Century writer. While not as visible as Hemingway or Woolf, I think she may be a sort of writer’s writer. Someone who probably deserves more attention than they have gotten – at least in the US, perhaps she is better known in Britain.
In a way, I suppose she has something in common with Jane Austen, Henry James, and Edith Wharton. But her work is much more modern. Some of her characters seem to be of the same class as those who inhabit Agatha Christie novels (not to mention Austen, James, and Wharton novels)- that is comfortably upper middle class (with a few lords and ladies sprinkled in), sometimes fairly intellectual or dissolute, and with a lot of time on their hands (does anyone other the servants and Hercule Poirot work in Agatha Christie novels?).
Beyond her plots and themes, I love the quality of and (sardonic) humor in her writing. It is very smart (some call it “psychological” – I guess I get the gist of that, but it seems a little vague). Like Willa Cather (and Alice Munro, Sue Miller, and Anton Chekhov) she was a highly astute observer of human beings and their interactions.
I own and have read:
The Hotel (1928 [First American Edition] The Dial Press) This is the first Bowen book I read. It is the story of people thrown together in a hotel in the early 20th Century – the character sketches are finely drawn and acutely insightful.
To the North (1932, Anchor Books Edition 2006) I read this a few years ago and remember very little about it except that it is about drifting young people living and loving together in London in the 1920s with all kinds of self-involved collisions. I have to re-read this one, so I’m adding it to the list below.
Anchor Books – a Random House Inc/Knopf Doubleday imprint appears to have recently published (reissued?) most, if not all, of her stories and novels as trade paperbacks (for US markets?).
I own and have not read (or need to re-read):
10) To the North (1932, Anchor Books Edition 2006)
11) The Death of the Heart (1938, Anchor Books Edition 2000)
12) The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen (1981, Ecco Edition 1989)
13) The Mulberry Tree Hermione Lee (ed.) (1986 Harcourt Brace Jovanovich) This book (according to the jacket) includes 40 years of her essays and nonfiction writings – it appears to draw from writings in the last 40 years of her life.
14) Pictures and Conversations: Chapters of an autobiography with other collected writings. (1974, Alfred A Knopf Press 1975). This was published shortly after her death.
15) Elizabeth Bowen: Portrait of a Writer. Victoria Glendinning. (1977 Penguin) This is one of the major Bowen biographies – it is fairly short.
16) Elizabeth Bowen. Patricia Craig. (1986, Penguin) Another major Bowen biography, also short.
I also have Elizabeth Bowen and the Dissolution of the Novel by Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle (1995, St Martin’s Press). This is literary criticism – a scholarly book. I’m going to dip into this one, but if it is too technical I’ll skip it.
So, that’s it – Elizabeth Bowen – a writer whom I very much enjoy but have not read a great deal yet. This is the year that that will change.
Happy reading! Ruby
Because her work is still copyrighted, my library contains only hard copies. As always, I number texts consecutively by their mention in my blog.