|See you 3/14 to 3/20!|
The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen (1980, 784 pages, edited by Angus Wilson)-The WWII Stories
The Reading Life Elizabeth Bowen Project
Before I begin my post on what are the best of the short stories of Elizabeth Bowen (1899 to 1973-Ireland)I want to invite everyone to consider participating in Irish Short Stories Week. From March 14 to March 20 (March 17 is St Patrick's Day) I will be posting every day on at least one short story by an Irish author. I hope others may join in by posting on an Irish short story that week and leaving a comment on my blog about their post. I will create a master post and link up to everyone. I am hoping there will be posts on Irish female authors as it is a very male dominated genre. Most of the stories I will personally post on will be stories in the public domain that can be read online. This gives others the opportunity to read along if they wish. I am working on prizes by authors of books set in Ireland but nothing concrete yet. The real prize is the chance to sample world class authors like James Joyce and Samuel Beckett (he wrote some short stories in his early years), read some horror stories by Bram Stoker (the author of Dracula), or the wonderful short stories of Oscar Wilde. This just gets you started. I will post more reading ideas soon. To be part of what I hope will be an annual Reading Life event all you have to do is read and post on one short story. Lots and lots of online options-you do not need to go to the library or buy a book.
Victoria Glendinning and Angus Wilson both say the WWII era stories of Elizabeth Bowen (16 in the collection from 1941 to 1944) are the parts of her work that will be highest regarded in posterity. I do not feel I have found a way to explain why I like the short stories of Bowen so much. Part of it, I admit, is my admiration for her as a person. I know she is not as great an artist as her acquaintance Katherine Mansfield was or as brilliant as her good friend Virginia Woolf. I know why I like her so much I just have not found a reason I can articulate clearly yet. As a person, Bowen had a broader group of friends than Woolf or Mansfield and a wider experience of life. On a personal level, I could see Woolf or Mansfield asking Bowen for advise but not the reverse. If I had the option of asking one of these three great authors for advise on a serious relationship issue, I would for sure ask Bowen for her advise. This does not mean I think she is the greater writer because I know she is not.
Elizabeth Bowen spent much of the WWII years (1941 to 1945) in London. She and her husband were there for the worst of the Blitz when London was bombed night after night. Bowen became an Air Raid Warden and would walk the streets in a uniform making sure everyone was seeking shelter and that there were no exposed lights. Many wardens were killed during raids and it took a great courage to do this work. Many of her friends had their houses destroyed and everyone in her set had relatives in the war and many had lost friends or loved ones. In the opening years of the war there was a real concern about German invasion (remember the Germans did take some of the Channel Islands) and the possibility that the English would lose had to be faced. Bowen said and expressed it in her short stories that she never felt so alive as during the Blitz in London. She acknowledges it expanded her libido
Part of the fun of these stories is seeing how ordinary people coped. In a wonderful so funny story "An Unwelcome Idea" (the unwelcome idea is Hitler ruling England) we see a married for a long time couple talking about Hitler and the war. The man is complaining about how he not had a real tea for a long time and the wife says "Oh you just think Hitler is bombing us just to annoy you, I suppose". You can tell they have had this conversation before and you can also see the war has brought them closer and these quarrels are part of how they cope with day to day life. In "Oh Madame" a woman of means and her maid walk through her nearly bomb destroyed house. The entire story is a monologue by the maid. It is simply brilliant and brings so much to life. I do not think there is anything close to this in Woolf and I know there is not in Mansfield. I felt the immense pain of the woman whose home was destroyed even though she never said a word. There are other much better than these stories among the WWII stories of Bowen but I do not want to post just a line or two on them.
I think the best way to read the Bowen stories is simply to read all of the stories straight through so you can see the full scope of her work. If you think about it, 800 pages is shorter than many a Victorian novel. It will not be hard work, you will not be confused or made to feel you are not quite smart enough to follow her but I think you well might have found a new very favorite writer.
Please do not judge her by "The Demon Lover" which seems the only one of her stories most have read. (I think it is included in a lot of classes). This is a good story but there are others so much better. I am reading now her last novel, Eva Trout and hope to post on it soon.
The collections closes with four post WWII stories. I plan to post on them during Irish Short Stories Week.
Again, please consider joining participating in Irish Short Stories Week-March 14 to the 20th-please leave me a comment if you are interested or have any questions or suggestions. If you know what you might read for the week please let me know.