Elizabeth Bowen in European modernism and the awakening of Irish consciousness
By Stephen Regan
Elizabeth Bowen was born in Dublin on 7 June 1899. She grew up in an elegant Georgian house on Herbert Place, close to the Grand Canal, hearing the busy rattle of trams going over the bridges and the lively bustle of barges carrying timber to a nearby sawmill. Her memoir of early childhood, Seven Winters (1942), recalls the sights and sounds of Dublin city life with striking clarity and immediacy. It both registers the unique and specific details of the author’s early years and takes up its place in a marvelously rich tradition of Irish memoir and autobiography.
As the child of an affluent Anglo-Irish Ascendancy family with land settlements in Cork going back to Cromwellian times, Bowen was acutely conscious of social distinctions deriving from religion and class. Although her walks through Dublin acquainted her with the lives of working-class Catholics, they were simply “the others,” whose “world lay alongside ours but never touched.” She recalls the strange and pungent smell of incense wafting through doors and curtains as she passed by churches that were “not ours.” She enjoyed the summer retreats at Bowen’s Court, the ancestral family home in County Cork, but her memories of returning to Dublin each winter are freighted with darkness and a strong sense of things coming to an end. The family came back to the city at the end of October, in time “to see the leaves fall and lie clotted on the sleepy and dark canal.” There are intimations here of the decline and fall of the Anglo-Irish landowning class so brilliantly depicted in her novel The Last September (1929). The coldness of the ensuing winter functions as a state of mind, a chilly isolation, as well as an actual season: “It was not until after the end of those seven winters that I understood that we Protestants were a minority, and that the unquestioned rules of our being came, in fact, from the closeness of a minority world.”
During Bowen’s seventh winter in Dublin, her father suffered a nervous breakdown, and she and her mother went to live in England while he recovered. Her feelings of displacement and alienation were intensified. The search for some consoling or compensating value became a prominent theme in the prolific outpouring of short stories and novels in the fifty-year period between her first published volume of stories, Encounters, in 1923 and her death in 1973. Although undeservedly neglected, her writings have a central place in the emergence of European modernism, alongside those of Henry James, Virginia Woolf, and T.S. Eliot. The Heat of the Day (1949) remains one of the most powerful fictional renderings of London life during the blitz. Hermione Lee has shown superbly well how Bowen’s work confronts the existential dilemmas of modern Western civilization and its pervasive sense of emptiness and loss. At the same time, as Neil Corcoran has persuasively demonstrated, Bowen’s writing has a spectral, haunted quality that connects it with a long tradition of Irish Gothic fiction, prompted by deep-seated cultural and political anxieties and uncertainties.
Seven Winters and Bowen’s Court (1942) are reminders of how autobiography and memoir in modern Ireland are intricately and inextricably caught up with the troubled political life of the nation. For writers of Bowen’s generation, the awakening of consciousness is also an awakening to the political urgencies of place and time. In that uncertain nexus, as Ireland moves towards independence, notions of identity take on a curiously suspended form. What we now commonly refer to as ‘life writing’ has a peculiarly intense and self-conscious rendering in Irish literature, inspiring notable examples of autobiographical fiction, in which the struggle for artistic and creative self-realisation is, itself, a principal subject. James Joyce produced the exemplary model for this kind of writing in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), but it also includes more recent works, including Seamus Deane’s harrowing life story in Reading in the Dark (1996) and John McGahern’s deeply moving Memoir (2005). There are countless Irish political memoirs, including James Stephen’s vivid day-by-day recording of the Easter 1916 Rising in The Insurrection in Dublin (1916) and Earnán O’Malley’s unforgettable account of the War of Independence in On Another Man’s Wound (1936). For many of these writers, inspiration has deeply troubled origins, recalling W.H. Auden’s verdict in his magnificent elegy for W.B. Yeats: “Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.” Yeats himself speaks eloquently of the predicament of modern Irish writers and the distillation of great writing from the processes of hurt and struggle in a late poem titled “Remorse for Intemperate Speech” (1931): “Out of Ireland have we come. Great hatred, little room, / Maimed us at the start. / I carry from my mother’s womb / A fanatic heart.”
Stephen Regan is Professor of English at Durham University. He has recently produced a new edition of George Moore’s Esther Waters (1894), but he is also the editor of Irish Writing: An Anthology of Irish Literature in English 1789-1939 (both books in Oxford World’s Classics).