Elizabeth Bowen’s “The Disinherited”

Dear Reader:

I thought it would be interesting to shift over to reading some Elizabeth Bowen since I’d been reading so much Willa Cather this summer. And, since my blog post about Bowen showed that I know little about her, I thought I’d accompany reading some of her writing with reading about her life.

So I got out 12) The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen and 15) Elizabeth Bowen: Portrait of a Writer by Victoria Glendinning.

Elizabeth Bowen by Victoria Glendinning
Chapter 1

I read a chapter from Glendinning’s biography first, including the forward, and there it was:

“Why a life of Elizabeth Bowen?…she 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 [the British side] in this [20th] century…She is what happened after Bloomsbury; she is the link which connects Virginia Woolf with Iris Murdoch and Muriel Spark. She changed with the century in approach and technique without losing her original inimitable voice” (Glendinning 1977, p. 1).

This fits so well with how I had been seeing her work. Bowen was such a smart, insightful writer. Given that she lived between 1899 and 1973 in Ireland and England, she saw enormous change and upheaval. As a writer, and particularly as a female writer, to me she wrote in a particularly modern way. A manner that examined human beings in an impressively insightful manner.

I have work by Woolf, Murdoch, and Sparks that I would like to read this year (this will be another entry or two or three…) and it pleases me to look forward to putting these pieces together – comparing and contrasting their themes, styles, approaches… I’ve read Murdoch because she is so acclaimed (and I loved the film Iris) – I have to say, I found her somewhat slow going, but who knows, maybe it was the particular book or my mood at the time. I’m eager to give it another go.

But back to Bowen. I learned a little more about about the term “Anglo-Irish” – as mentioned in another blog, it refers to people of another era who were Irish, but gentry and culturally British. This was a privileged class, but not the supremely wealthy. They were very horsey and lived in rather large, formal homes that appear a bit severe to today’s eyes.

Bowen’s family lived in Bowen Court, a classic Anglo-Irish house built by her predecessors in the 18th century and occupied by Bowen’s for about 125 years when Elizabeth was born. Bowen’s family seems to have been somewhat tragic and chronically overspent. After generations of spending down the family fortune, the house passed on to Elizabeth, an only child.

It was in the Irish countryside and the land sounds really lovely. There was a walled garden that, during Elizabeth’s childhood, was beautiful. But over the 20th century, the house slowly fell into more and more of a state of disrepair (Bowen did not start to make real money from her writing for awhile). Eventually, when she returned to it from England as an adult, she was able to attract fascinating friends for wonderful visits and parties. But the set-up was always somewhat down at the heels.

In 1959, she sold the house to an individual she expected to live in it and improve it – but, heartbreakingly, he tore it down almost right away. This feeling of coming from “quality people” that Bowen would have been born into combined with the fact that the relative importance of this particular type of quality person was diminishing (Bowen is considered the last important Anglo-Irish writer) and that family fortunes were dwindling to a point of no longer keeping up with the requirements of the family mansion, seems so common in 20th Century British literature.

This seems to be true whether you are talking of Bowen’s work or that of Agatha Christie. I suspect that this story, common though it may be in Britain, is so culturally relevant, at least in part, because echoes the larger stories of the fading of the British empire and of Britain’s royalty. I spend some time explaining this because it is a theme I have seen prominently featured in Bowen’s work and it is an important theme in the Bowen short story that I just read.

Bowen’s “The Disinherited”

I thought starting with one of her short stories would match well with reading a chapter of her biography at a time – one chapter of biography, one short story. I should also note that I don’t read many short stories these days.

Weirdly, I feel like I don’t have the patience… I can read (and love to read) absolutely massive novels. But maybe because it seems that I find it increasingly difficult to focus on what I’m reading, a novel works for me because it gives me time to move into it and immerse myself. If I’m inattentive through the first few pages, that’s OK, there’s lots more to come. A short story, on the other hand, requires attentiveness throughout. OK, it’s a theory. I used to read a lot of short stories… go figure. Do you feel that way?

So, I chose to take Glendinning’s recommendations of Bowen’s strongest stories and started with “The Disinherited.” And the first couple paragraphs took my breath away. I hate to include so much text here, but the two paragraphs go together:

“Autumn set in early. While the days were still glowing, the woods took on from a distance a yellow, unreal sheen, like a reflection from metal; their fretted outlines hardened against the blond open hills that the vibrations of summer no longer disturbed. In the early mornings, dew spread a bright white bloom between long indigo shadows; the afternoon air quickened, but after sunset mists diluted the moon. The first phase of autumn was lovely; decay first made itself felt as an extreme sweetness [underline mine]: with just such a touch of delicious morbidity a lover might contemplate the idea of death.

Later the rain came, and there were drenching monotone days; the leaves, rotting uncoloured, slid down through the rain. Midautumn set in mild, immobile, and nerveless; the days had unclear margins, mists webbed the gardens all day, the sun slanting slowly through them to touch the brown pear trees and pale yellow currant-leaves, here and there a marigold or sodden rose. There was no wind, and the woods stood heavily tense; against their darkness, in the toneless November evenings, the oaks were still yellow and shed a frightening glare. Everything rotted slowly. The dark, rain-swollen rivers flowed fast between bleaching sedges, with leaves caught on the current. After the rain, an unlit grey sky bound the earth, and pools threaded the grass, and lay unglittering inside the brittle reeds. Now and then the skies were disturbed by a high-up swift rustling sigh: the summer birds flying south. The shredded last leaves still clung to the trees, as though they would not fall: eternity seemed to have set in at late autumn. Some way into November, a wind sprang up at nights.”
(Bowen, 1981, p. 375)

I’ve never read a description of the shift from summer into fall into winter that was so evocative. Reading this over and over, I tried to really absorb the imagery. The description is so poetic, accurate, and true. I loved it and marveled at the notion that seasonal shifts like this would feel so similar between Ireland/England and the northeastern United States.

She sets these two paragraphs off at the beginning of the story. She’s using them to evoke the themes of the story: the bright, fertile promise of summer, shifting into an overripeness, into decay and decline, into desolation. This is, in a sense, the arc of the young people in her story.

The story is largely about two 20 something young women, Davina, the younger, spendthrift, wild one, and Marianne, the staid, ostensibly happy, mildly isolated, married one. Davina has spent the “capital” she inherited from her family. It probably wasn’t enormous, but might have gotten her by if she had been more careful. It is clear that she likes a good time and that she is “past her sell-by date” – in this time period (the 1930s). She’s broke and no longer highly marriageable. Her only real prospect, Oliver, is likewise broke and not much more capable of committing to anything requiring real work than Davina.

These two (and, seemingly, many of their friends) get by through drifting around to the extra bedrooms of friends and families. Like their friends, they aren’t particularly likeable – in fact, no one in the story is terribly sympathetic. So, like summer fruit, they reached their peak, “unpicked,” and fell to the ground to decay.

Marianne, on the other hand, appears very comfortable within her 12 year marriage. She has a husband who makes a good living. She walks her dogs, tends to her garden, and makes a home in their new house. She loves her husband. Davina, staying at her gently gracious, patient aunt’s house, encounters Marianne and, in Davina’s boredom, latches on to her.

They go to a pretty awful party at “Lord Thingummy’s house” (the lord is away, Oliver has been hired to do a halfhearted job cataloguing his moldering books). Marianne is nervous, uncomfortable, and has a half encounter with one of the fairly pathetic men hanging about.

There’s a subplot about Davina’s aunt’s chauffeur. Suffice to say, he an interesting, but malevolent, character who intrigues and repells Davina.

It’s the sort of story that you read and think – “what happened here? I don’t really get it.” But as you think about it, it begins to make sense. Davina is poised between a very bad path and, well, a not so bad path (there is no big happy ending here, not surprisingly).

Only a very generous, and, to Davina, shocking, act of kindness saves her. Marianne, on the other hand, is newly aware of what a controlling, not so great guy her loving husband is…

I won’t try to give you every plot point. But I think Bowen’s saying something about life, the taking of it for granted, how we don’t appreciate our youth when we have it, and how fate can turn on a dime. I think that there is also an element of the importance of people for each other. Davina’s drifting along, angry, bored, probably scared. She has no money and no prospects. She doesn’t really like her aunt, although her aunt loves her. Basically, she just needs someplace to live (as you’ve probably picked up, getting a job is not an option).

Ultimately, her aunt’s generosity seemingly snaps her out of her drifting and moves her into a firmer, clearer position. Maybe this is like so many of us who move through our (hopefully) early adulthood self-absorbed, angry, and scared – feeling entitled and let-down, but not really knowing how to make something of ourselves. And maybe Bowen is showing us that it is the good, loving people in our lives who can turn us around… If you get a chance to read the story, I’d love to hear what you think.

Happy reading! Ruby


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