Elizabeth Bowen: Her life and short stories (continued)

Dear Reader:

I’m continuing reading from 12) The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen and 15) Elizabeth Bowen: Portrait of a Writer by Victoria Glendinning (I number books by the order listed in my blog).  Perhaps this is true of most writers, but the more I know about Bowen’s life, the more I see parallels in her stories.  There is a richness that you get when you read both.

Victoria Glendinning’s Elizatbeth Bowen Chapters 3 (Encounters) and 4 (The Oxford Connection)

I learned the root cause of Elizabeth’s beautiful, visually powerful writing: she started out as an artist.  She drew, painted, and attended art school for awhile.  However, as she went along, she came to realize that her talents in that area were relatively limited and switched to writing.

Here’s another illustration from the beginning of “Summer Night” in #12 The Collected Stories:

“As the sun set its light slowly melted the landscape, till everything was made of fire and glass.  Released from the glare of noon, the haycocks now seemed to float on the aftergrass [?]: their freshness penetrated the air. In the not so far distance hills with woods up their flanks lay in light like hills in another world – it would be a pleasure of heaven to stand up there, where no foot ever seemed to have trodden, on spaces between the woods soft as powder dusted over with gold.”

I particularly love the image of “hills with woods up their flanks.”  This is so evocative and sets us up for the sensuality of the story.  Bowen saw herself as highly sensual, not in the sexual sense, but rather in the love of input to the senses.  Her writing very much conveys this. She said “It seems to me that often when I write I am trying to make words do the work of line and colour.  I have the painter’s sensitivity to light.  Much (and perhaps the best) of my writing is verbal painting”(Glendinning 1977, 41).

Glendinning’s chapters begin to cover Bowen’s writing life, including her early successes as she published stories in magazines, a book of stories, and The Hotel.  During this time, she began to build her early, lifelong friendships and met her husband, Alan Cameron, with whom she moved to Oxford.  She began to be modestly famous and to connect with well-known writers of the era, like Virginia Woolf, and a wide range of Oxford intellectuals.  Her father died and she inherited the blessing and curse of Bowen’s Court where she began to bring friends and host parties.

Bowens Court

Bowen’s Court (From the Ballyhoura County website)


Waldencote, Oxford, home of Bowen and Cameron.

(From the Headington, Oxford Website)

To my eyes, neither of these homes (above photos) look very welcoming.

There was a sense that she settled for Cameron rather than be alone and while Glendenning describes strong connections with other men, but there is no real discussion of affairs so far.  Sadly, it is clear that Cameron loved her more than she loved him.

Bowen’s short stories: “Mysterious Kor”, “The Happy Autumn Fields”, “Ivy Gripped the Steps

I continued with following Glendinning’s recommendations for her best short stories. All of these stories were written during World War II – I haven’t gotten far enough to know if she spent it in London, but she certainly had a strong sense of what it was like during this time and two of the three stories are at least partly set there.

“Mysterious Kor” takes place during the blackouts in London – I”m not sure if this meant that it was during the Blitz or how long the blackouts continued.  It involves Pepita and Callie (roommates) and Pepita’s soldier boyfriend, Arthur.  Arthur is on leave and he and Pepita are desperately seeking someplace to be alone.  It is night with a full moon that, ironically for the blackout, is fully illuminating every road, shingle, and piece of metal in the city.  Although Arthur will be staying on Callie and Pepita’s couch, Callie resists Pepita’s not so subtle suggestion that she spend the night elsewhere, saying that this would not be proper.

The title takes its name from Pepita’s fantasy city – a sort of parallel universe in a city not at war – a refuge where she goes to dream.  Pepita is not the most sympathetic character – somewhat self-involved.  Apparently, as some who have written of Bowen’s work say, she tends to include two close women who are a work in contrast (just as Bowen felt that she had two very different women inside her).  Callie is the staid, sweet young woman who waits up for the twosome with cocoa and has never had a boyfriend.  Pepita is more worldly and less gracious.

Callie and Arthur encounter each other late at night when neither can sleep.  The story tiptoes up to the notion that Arthur awakens to Callie’s virtues, but goes no further (Bowen said that she left many of her stories purposely unfinished because a lack of resolution seem inherent in her vision for them).  Themes include finding refuge in a violent world and sustaining connection when loss is so prevalent.  This seems to me to be another story where acts of kindness are important: Callie is good, but underappreciated.  Yet it is she who is up connecting with a soldier who will soon return to war…

“The Happy Autumn Fields” is an interesting story that shows Bowen’s experimental side.  You can’t be sure what is happening until the end and even then there are many unanswered questions.  Some of the story takes place within a large manorial family living in an unknown era (maybe World War I – there may be a mention of a soldier, but I couldn’t find it again).  There are 4-5 girls and 4-5 boys – a mix of ages from around five to 18 or so.

The family is taking one last walk through the fields together before the older boys return for the year to boarding school.  The sadness of the occasion is intermingled with the older twin girls’ excitement to see a young man with whom one is in love.  This story is interwoven with another of a young woman and man in a bombed out house in London.  It is not really clear why until the end when in explaining the connection, Bowen also tells us what became of the children in the other family.

I think this is a story about how our interconnections are so tenuous and affected by fate.  If the other stories I have discussed seem to hinge on how people treat each other, in this story (and the next one) that is irrelevant in the face of larger world events.  If Bowen had a particularly strong belief in the power of human relationship to shape fate, it would make sense that living through World War II in England, much less London, would challenge that.

“Ivy Gripped the Steps” is about a Mrs Nicholson and her friend’s son Gavin.  Mrs Nicholson is a well-to-do widow living in a grand home in the seaside village of Southstone.  Because the village is on the English Channel, it was closed down to civilians during the war, so that it could be used for military purposes.  Gavin is returning to the home as World War II is winding down.  His friend Mrs Nicholson died more than thirty years before, the house was sold, and during the war it has become covered with thick ivy that seems to be parasitizing and consuming the house.

When he was a boy, Gavin spent a couple of years visiting with the childless Mrs Nicholson – one visit for a long summer (he was prone to respiratory illnesses exacerbated by the damp country where his family lived so they sent him to the seaside), another in the winter, and another, the last, at the end of a second summer.  Gavin connects with Mrs Nicholson, who is a middle-aged woman, in a manner that has elements of both mother-son and, very subtly, lovers (in the way that a 10 year old may have a crush on an adult that the adult reciprocates in an entirely platonic manner that has an element of courtship).

Their relationship is sweet and very important to him (he seems disconnected from his immediate family).  Ultimately, he is deemed sufficiently well to move on to boarding school and there is a sense that maybe he was a bit too close to Mrs. Nicholson for his parents’ comfort (they are of much more modest means than she).  Mrs. Nicholson dies shortly after that last end of the summer visit.  This is an enormous loss to Gavin and he dares not think of or return to Southstone for decades until the war is nearly done.  The story moves back and forth between his visits as a child and his bittersweet return to a shuttered up town and a decaying house.

I enjoyed this last one the most of the three.  If, as I discussed earlier, one of her main themes is the essential nature of human connection, this continues with the theme, but evoking the deep pain of loss.  To love deeply is to risk great pain.  This has not been as clear in some of her other stories, but emerges as a major theme in “The Happy Autumn Fields” and “Ivy Gripped the Steps.”

I may read a couple more short stories, but then plan to shift away to one of her novels, while continuing to read Glendinning’s biography.

Happy Reading!  Ruby


1 Comment


    1. Elizabeth Bowen’s Collected Stories (cont) « A Year of Actually Reading My Own Books

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