Elizabeth Bowen’s life (continued) and “Summer Night”
I am continuing with my reading of one chapter of biography and one short story of Elizabeth Bowen’s.
I thought you might like to see a better picture of her – here is a picture of her from the cover of a recent Bowen-related book:
She is often described as very much looking of her heritage – with “upper class” features, such as a long face. Interesting… I could just as easily see her face on a US Depression Era impoverished sharecropper, although it would probably be more gaunt and worn. I think it is more her carriage, clothing, and accessories that signal her class.
This picture captures this well. There is a real mixture here – very old fashioned, severe, really, clothing and pearls – combined with dark (presumably red) nail polish, a cigarette held with panache, and a look that oozes confidence and imperiousness.
This was a woman born in 1899 who reportedly had affairs, not always with men, and who wrote about infidelity with a knowing sense of the tiny, uncomfortable elements of these illicit encounters. This picture effectively displays her contradictions..
I ran into a New York Times Book Review of Neil Corcoran’s 2005 Bowen biography (which I don’t own, but I did download a sample to my kindle – does this violate my rules for the year? not sure, I need to write them down) at “‘Elizabeth Bowen’: A Fan’s Notes” by Susan D’Erasmo (originally, I not surprisingly, typed this as “Erasmus”). [Be patient with the link – it is old. I found hitting refresh, as the re-route page suggest, did the trick]. This is a nice summation of her life and contributions.
Apparently, “undervalued” is nearly always associated with her name. As this essay suggestions, she may not be read as often as she deserves because of the way that she “bears down so hard on intimacy.” This make sense to me. As I’ve read “Summer Night” and “The Disinherited” this week, and read them carefully, this characteristic of her writing is very clear and a bit of a sucker punch. But first, a bit more about her life…
Chapter 2, Elizabeth Bowen by Victoria Glendinning
Bowen’s early life was quite tragic. Her father was a Dublin lawyer and her family spent the most of the year in Dublin, summering at the family house, Bowen’s Court. When Elizabeth was a young girl, her father suffered a breakdown spending many years in a mental hospital. This caused a precipitous drop in the family’s income and forced them to move to Britain, bouncing between Bowen’s aunts (echoes of “The Disinherited”).
Then, at 13, she lost her beloved mother. Relatives continued to care for her until her father emerged from the hospital in her early teens and she returned to Bowen’s Court and Ireland. World War I broke out during the summer of 1914 when she was there with her father. And at 15 she went to a tiny beloved boarding school, “Downe House.” She loved books, but was not an academic star.
Elizabeth (or Bitha as she was called) was an extrovert who loved parties and friends. Growing up in a class and time period when people did not move much (except from town to country in a yearly summer house migration) I suspect that she had to develop excellent skills in reading people and negotiating social shoals.
I am struck again and again in reading her short stories of her incredible acute and delicate sense of social nuance. She has a wonderful ability to describe a scene on so many levels – the upper, obvious one, but then also this whole subterranean level at which people are doing things that they would not really like to admit to… There is this obvious level of social propriety and polish and then this other level at which so many things are un- or very lightly said that she captures amazingly.
I should move into discussing this story more officially. This was another of the short stories highlighted by Glendinning as among her best.
It is a World War II era story of a woman (Emma) speeding in her car in the dark to visit a home. And the man who owns the home, Robinson (presumably a last name) who is entertaining an older brother (Justin) and deaf sister (Queenie) from the local village.
As I made my way through the story, it seemed to me to be a kaleidoscope: shifting narrators, shifting perspectives on what was happening, what just happened. Much of it is conveyed obliquely – through phone calls, letters, introspective interior dialogues. I found it confusing initially (like the Disinherited) and then it all made perfect sense. Bowen is being (coy sounds manipulative, but is the first word I think of) very careful with what she reveals. She’s peeling her onion of a story, showing you a little bit here, a little bit there – it’s very delicate.
For instance, toward the end Justin writes Robinson (the host Justin and his sister dropped in on) a monster of a scathing letter condemning Robinson for being a poor host and looking down on them. As I read it, I thought, wow! the social norms of this culture were amazing because Robinson’s put-down is so subtle that you think (as you are reading the scene of Justin and Queenie visiting his house) that Robinson is being very polite although he is somewhat impatient (he is waiting for Emma to reach his house). You do know from his interior dialogue that he is not particularly excited by his company, but you don’t get the sense that he is conveying this to Justin or Queenie.
I thought, well, Justin really understood more than I would have thought. And then I went back and re-read the story and realized that Justin’s a real neurotic, very hair-trigger. You are left with a sense that Justin both jumped the gun and understood the subtleties of Robinson’s attitude. And then, at the end, you hear what the deaf Queenie got out of the evening and you realize that she was on an entirely different plane.
I’m trying to hold back a bit on the plot because Bowen does and this is part of the fun of the story (it reminds me of the first Memento). But I do want to say that her highly evocative descriptions of nature are front and center here too.
It took me awhile to get into this story – I read it over a couple days – and can see now that her stories demand focused, sustained attention which they pay back in spades.
Happy reading! Ruby