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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).

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Recent Comments

  1. Ewan Fernie

    Terrifically interesting and evocative, Stephen, and certain to send me back to your fine anthology of Irish lit. Bowen contemplating the negative beauty of those leaves mouldering on dark water, together with the threatening and tremedous power of those late lines from Yeats, leave me feeling how disturbingly value and even a self can be wrought from more than individual pain….

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  3. Iain Twiddy

    A beautiful and lucid introduction, as well as a persuasive reminder of the extent to which Bowen’s virtue lay in the indeterminate, being positioned between Ireland and England (and the United States), between conditions of peace, war and neutrality, and alternating throughout her career between shorter and longer forms of fiction. If Bowen’s creative origins were rooted in hurt, they nevertheless rose up to produce an uncommonly open imagination; the ‘minority worlds’ she depicted do not deserve minor status.

  4. M. J. Plygawko

    The cogency of this introduction derives in part from its apposite balance between biography, autobiography and literature. Any danger of flattening either author or text seems to be averted in favour of a usefully accessible piece that I genuinely enjoyed.

  5. […] beloved Lotte anyway. In that society the likely fate of any man or woman of sensibility is what Elizabeth Bowen calls “the death of the heart.” Werther kills himself. And, as the narrator says, “they […]

  6. Dan Ross

    What a very fine piece this is. I hope to use it as an introduction next fall when I teach The Last September. Stephen Regan’s placement of his subject within the broad context of European modernism and then in the more local context of Irish life writing pays a real tribute to Bowen’s great range of work.

  7. Touria Nakkouch

    This is a fine and stimulating introduction to Elizabeth Bowen’s work and its contribution to European modernism and within this large intellectual frame, to the awakening of the Irish consciousness. One, however, which raises a number of issues, not to say problems, for me as a non-European academic: first, My vision of European modernism has been shaped ( righly or wrongly) by an international narrative of modernity , due to which I am tempted to gauge Elizabeth Bowen’s work against canonical ( mostly male) English modernist writers . Am I not disregarding the fact that Bowen should have her place, and be more fully acknowledged, in a (world) modernist female tradition including V.Woolf, D.Lessing , G.Stein and others? Secondly, to me, Bowen’s notion of “religious minority” ( being Protestant among a majority of Catholics ) and her class sense raise the question of religious and socio-political affiliation of the modern writer in all “ postcolonial” contexts” regardless of geographical or linguistic frontiers, and of the cultural schizophrenia that this nebulous affiliation gives birth to. I have an ample idea of the cultural violence that issues from this schizophrenia when between native and colonial languages, but I am intrigued by the depth of the hurt n within the same (English) language. Third and last, I feel, from my perspective as a North African comparatist, that the colonial past of peoples constitutes in itself a common heritage that puts into question the notion of an English or Anglophone “world literature”. I think that the common heritage of the (once) colonized of the earth is capable of creating a world literature free from the violence of the Englishness paradigm.

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