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Elizabeth Bowen (Elizabeth Dorothea Cole Bowen) Biography

(1899–1973), (Elizabeth Dorothea Cole Bowen), Bowen's Court, Encounters, The Hotel, The Last September

Anglo-Irish novelist, short-story writer, and essayist, born in Dublin. An only child, she grew up in Protestant, Georgian Dublin and at the family home in County Cork, which she described in Bowen's Court (1942). At 13, after her father's breakdown and her mother's death, she was taken to Kent, but divided her adult life between Ireland and England. Her first collection of stories, Encounters, appeared in 1923; in the same year she married the educationalist and BBC administrator Alan Cameron. They lived in Northampton, Oxford, and, from 1935, Clarence Terrace, Regents Park, which was bombed in 1944. Her novels are The Hotel (1927); The Last September (1929), her own favourite, set in Ireland in the Troubles; Friends and Relations (1931); To the North (1932), a story of sexual betrayal set in London; The House in Paris (1935), of a memorable day spent by two children, Henrietta and Leopold, in Mme Fisher's Gothic house, intercut with the passionate story of Leopold's parents; The Death of the Heart (1938); The Heat of the Day (1949); A World of Love (1955), a romantic Irish ghost story; The Little Girls (1964); and Eva Trout (1969). Of her many short stories, the best deal with the supernatural (‘Foothold’, ‘The Cat Jumps’), English betrayal and deracination (‘The Disinherited’, ‘Ivy Gripped the Steps’), Anglo-Irish relations (‘Her Table Spread’, ‘Sunday Afternoon’), children (‘The Tommy Crans’, ‘Tears, Idle Tears’), and above all the atmosphere of wartime London (‘Mysterious Kor’, ‘The Demon Lover’, ‘The Happy Autumn Fields’). Angus Wilson, in his Introduction to her Collected Stories (1980), called her one of the great writers of the Blitz. After Cameron's death in 1959 and the sale of Bowen's Court, she lived mainly in Oxford, America, where she taught, and Hythe. Bowen's subjects are the loss of innocence and the conflict between what she calls the ‘lunatic giant’ in all of us—our childish, unsocialized, extremist egos—and the knowing, compromised grown-up world. From her Anglo-Irish background she derives a mixture of edgy alienation and a respect for classical impersonality and good form. Her characters are reckless, romantic sensationalists—orphans, spies, criminals, adulterers—and there is violence and danger in her books. Her style is mannered, elegant, and witty. Henry James, Proust, and Flaubert are strong influences, as is the gothic atmosphere of Sheridan Le Fanu. Above all, she evokes a spiritual condition through a landscape—the ‘Bowen terrain’—whether it is the ‘Big House’ in Ireland, out-of-season resorts, London flats and houses, or claustrophobic suburban villas. Bowen has been more read in America and Ireland than in Britain, but she can be compared to other writers published between the 1920s and 1960s, some of them her friends (Henry Green, Ivy Compton-Burnett, L. P. Hartley, Rosamond Lehmann) whose value is now being reassessed. See V. Glendinning, Elizabeth Bowen: Portrait of a Writer (1977); H. Lee, Elizabeth Bowen: An Estimation (1981), and (ed.) The Mulberry Tree: Writings of Elizabeth Bowen (1986); P. Craig, Elizabeth Bowen (1986).

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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: Edward Bond (Thomas Edward Bond) Biography to Bridge