In the cage: Elizabeth Bowen, First Stories

Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973), First Stories

My Everyman hardback copy of Anglo-Irish author Elizabeth Bowen’s Collected Stories (2019) runs to 860 pages of fairly small print. This post will therefore focus on the first section – a collection of 14 stories first published as Encounters in 1923, when she was only 24 years old.

The usual approach to consideration of a collection of stories like this is to identify common threads or themes. But each of these stories is a finely crafted entity in its own right. If there are such themes, they’re probably to do with people using plenty of fine-sounding language but failing to communicate – or to articulate what they really mean (if they even know themselves). There’s very little action or plot in the stories; instead we see people gossiping, assessing each other (often not very favourably), scoring points, deflecting, struggling with social expectations.

The first story, ‘Breakfast’, published when Bowen was only 21, is a good example. A man steels himself to join the breakfast group in the house where he’s a paying guest. ‘Behold, I die daily’, are his unspoken thoughts as he descends from his room to join the unsympathetic group already eating. His landlady, the owner of the house, passive-aggressively chides him for being late to the meal, then proceeds to accuse him of profligacy in losing collar-studs – his excuse for his lateness.

The story sets the tone for most of what follows. There’s wit and psychological perception in the portrayal of these sparring characters. Bowen’s modernist approach means there’s a lot of free indirect thought, disconnected or inconclusive musings and dreams, epiphanies and obliquely observed scenes which reveal depths and complexities in the characters that the reader has to work at figuring out. It’s worth the effort. Atmosphere prevails over exposition.

Bowen was born to a wealthy Protestant Irish family. Her mother’s ancestors included a Viscount Powerscourt (a fine estate in Co. Wicklow; I attended a wedding there with Mrs TD some years ago when a relative of hers had his reception in the big house – now an upmarket hotel. Her father as a lad had climbed the rockface behind the waterfall in the grounds).

The author spent her childhood summers at her father’s family home, Bowen Court in Co. Cork, but she lived mostly in England, moving there with her mother permanently in 1907 when her father had a mental breakdown. When her mother died in 1912, when Elizabeth was only 13, she went to live with great-aunts in England. This peripatetic early start to life, and the traumatic events she experienced, seem to have influenced her writing. Another aspect of these stories includes characters who are dislocated, disengaged, unfulfilled. Maybe as a person who was perceived by many in Ireland as not a true Irishwoman, and by the English as a colonial, she felt inclined to write about outsiders, people estranged from those around her.

She conveys the passion and anger felt by a small girl when her mother isn’t home to lavish praise on her for the essay her teacher had read out to her class at school. Her immature instinct is to lash out when the mother finally appears.

There are wives who feel they live in an ‘intolerable cage’, like the woman in ‘The Evil that Men Do -‘. She receives a florid love-letter from a man she’d met at a poetry reading, and with whom she’d shared a bus-ride afterwards. This leaves her in a romantic flutter; she feels she’s lived her life ‘on the defensive’. She doesn’t like her solicitor husband any more, she concludes. He doesn’t even glance at the poetry books she leaves lying around. When she sat gazing at the fire for hours, or out of the window, he never asked her what she was thinking about (T.S. Eliot used a similar trope about the same time). He often left her alone with the children and servants for days on end (the characters in these stories usually have servants and grand houses). She bemoans this solitude, but also embraces it: ‘of course solitude was her only escape and solace.’ She adds this self-consciously poetic thought to the postscript of the letter she’s writing to her effusive admirer.

The story’s conclusion provides an example of Bowen’s capacity for sly humour: the unsentimental, neglectful husband buys his wife a pretty gift, and she’s instantly won over. Her romantic fantasies vanish, and she’ll never know that for fateful reasons her correspondent will never read her letter.

This is not the only story in which a married woman (or one with a selfish, possessive brother) has a third, shadowy man in the background. In ‘The Shadowy Third’ this third person is the late wife of a man whose second wife, as in Rebecca, is uncomfortably aware of this ghostly, possibly better-loved predecessor.

Loneliness is also apparent in the schoolmistress’s life in ‘Daffodils’. She tries to engage with a trio of her girl pupils, inviting them as they pass her house to take tea with her. But she puts them off by berating them for their lack of perception of life or fully ‘seen’ things, symbolised by those Wordsworthian flowers that she’d just bought. ‘Nothing ever comes new to them…or impresses them…Their sentimentality embarrasses me.’ It’s no surprise when they up and leave, grateful to escape this sad woman; they for their part cattily agree the teacher ‘has never lived.’

It’s difficult to convey the range and variety of these exquisite stories. I’ve possibly over-emphasised the connections between them, and their poignancy; there are also many differences, and each story is a vignette in its own right. I particularly liked ‘All Saints’, a story about an eccentric, ‘theatrical’, rather vampish middle-aged woman who leaves a vicar ‘nonplussed’ when she asks if she can donate a stained-glass window to his church: ‘I think coloured windows are so beautiful. They make me feel so religious and good.’ She wants it to be an All Saints window, but her idea of what constitutes a saint is highly unconventional and definitely not Christian. No wonder the vicar is shocked and wrong-footed.

Two novels by Elizabeth Bowen that I’ve posted about left me less than impressed, although I thoroughly enjoyed pre-blog readings of The Heat of the Day (1929) and The Last September (1948). Those two are:

Friends and Relations (1931) HERE

Eva Trout (1968) HERE

6 thoughts on “In the cage: Elizabeth Bowen, First Stories

  1. Interesting, Simon, that your responses to her stories should be different to her novels. I do think that her prose in longer form takes a particular kind of reading, but the short works I’ve read have been stunning (I’m thinking of the WW2 collection, “The Demon Lover” which is superb). I have the collected stories so should really spend more time with them!

    • I did find the stories much more engaging. In the short form her sometimes rather overheated style is less obtrusive. Her psychological insights and observations are spot on, too, and she refrains from over-explaining.

  2. I haven’t read any Bowen yet but her name is on my next classics list, I’ll take a look at The Heat of the Day and The Last September in particular. I love all the background information, thanks!

  3. I’ve not read her short stories but they sound fully formed and rich, so I might well give them a go (I’m fussy about short stories). 860 pages, though!! Although the collected Elizabeth Taylor is so massive I had to give up and buy a Kindle copy …

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