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Bowen, Elizabeth

(Irish, 1899–1973)

Bowen's reputation as one of the greatest Anglo-Irish novelists and short-story writers has been growing hugely in recent years. She has always been admired for her treatment of women's lives and middle-class society, and for her evocative moody descriptions of houses and places, but more recently her diagnosis of the Anglo-Irish condition—semi-strangers in two countries—and her obsessively brilliant accounts of loss of innocence and emotional unease have been attracting increasing numbers of readers. Her mannered, elegant, edgy, sometimes difficult prose, her sharp-eyed characterizations, and her acerbic comedy are strangely mixed with profound, violent passions, terrifying hauntings, and reckless love-affairs.

Her life story reflects the sense of displacement felt by many of her characters. She grew up in Anglo-Irish middle-class Dublin and Co. Cork (her family house, demolished in 1959, was Bowen's Court), but her childhood was traumatically interrupted by her father's breakdown and her mother's death when she was 13. Her marriage to an Englishman, her grand house in Regent's Park, her rich literary social life, were always unsettled—especially in wartime—by her links to Ireland and her private double life of long-term affairs.

Her greatest novels—To the North (1932), The House in Paris (1935), The Death of the Heart (1938), and The Heat of the Day (1945)—intensely act out these personal themes of childhood anxiety, internal exile, betrayal, and disillusion. Her own favourite was The Last September (1929), the story of a restless young girl in a Co. Cork Anglo-Irish house during the Troubles, a wonderfully evocative tragicomedy of an isolated and malfunctioning class in a country at war. These novels, and her great stories of childhood, ghosts, love, and wartime London, are her finest work; but her troubling late novels, The Little Girls (1964) and Eva Trout (1969), are also interesting.

Maria Edgeworth, Somerville and Ross,

William Trevor, Rosamond Lehmann


Additional topics

Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionBooks & Authors: Award-Winning Fiction (A-Bo)