The Elizabeth Bowen Reading Life Project
The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen (1899 to 1973-Dublin) is just a beautiful book. The 88 stories in the collection cover a fifty year range, enough to see a very long process of literary development. Angus Wilson has written a very interesting and instructive introduction.
Bowen was born in a 300 year old 30 room Irish manor house that Cromwell gave her lordly ancestors for meritorious service. Her family had lived in Ireland for 300 years by the time she was born but they were still not considered Irish. They were Anglo-Irish. Bowen was born into financial comfort and security but not great wealth. Her father was confined to a mental hospital when she was seven and her mother died when she was 13. The upbringing of Bowen was turned over to what she would later call a "committee of Aunts". Bowen ending up being sent against her wishes to an exclusive girls residential school. I mention these matters as I think the early death of her parents had a big effect on her writings.
The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen is divided into five sections. First stories included works written prior to age 23. The twenties and the thirties sections included stories from those decades. The War Years section contains the highest regarded of the short stories of Bowen. Victoria Glendinning, author of a wonderful biography of Bowen, lists the six quintessential Bowen stories, four of them are
from the War Years. Both Glendinning and Wilson say they think in time to come Bowen will be most read for her short stories. I was happy to see Harold Bloom has her short stories on his list of canon status works. The final section of The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen consists of five post war stories.
In this post I will talk briefly about the 14 early stories as a group. I will talk briefly about the story from this group I like the most, "Daffodils". I plan to post individually for sure on the six stories Glendinning says are essential Bowen. I will read all of them in sequence published. One of my reasons for not posting on all of them is that these stories are not, as far as I can see, available online. (Only one of them "Demon Lover" can be found online.) I will probably also do a "group post" on the 23 stories in The Twenties section. I estimate I will do around ten posts on this collection, with a concluding post on three to six "recommended starter stories".
In the 14 early stories I saw of the same themes as I have in the two of her novels I have read so far, The Last September and The House in Paris. Much of the early stories are taken up with descriptions of domestic details, interior rooms of comfortable people. The relationships of the people in the stories seem all to be just beginning and full of young hope or ending with a sense of false early perceptions on the parts of both parties. The conversations are about the people in the stories or those off stage. The lead characters are nearly all women. There are shadowy figures in the background of some of the stories. The stories are also about loneliness and abandonment.
Bowen believed in ghosts, not normally as dark sinister forces just presences of the departed (but they could be). These lines really struck me deeply:
"I think", she said, "not to want a person must be a sort, a sort of murder. I think a person who was done out of their life like that would be brought back by the injustice much more than anybody who had been shot or stabbed"."Daffodils", maybe the best early story, is about a young school teacher, a woman in her early twenties. Of course to her pupils she seems already ancient. She at once reminded me of a young "Miss Brill". She invites three of the girls in her class to room for tea. She imagines the girls will be somehow thrilled and honored by this invitation. The fun and power in this story is seeing how her role in life has made the young teacher prematurely old and she how the girls really feel about her.
Bowen does a very good job in the development of these stories for one at the very start of a long career. None of the early stories is more than ten pages long. I am very excited to
have embarked on this mini-project. If anybody wants to read along etc they are more than welcome.