The Reading Life Elizabeth Bowen Project
There are 88 short stories in Collected Stories by Elizabeth Bowen. The stories are divided into five sections, First Stories (on which I have already posted), The Twenties (the section this post spotlights), The Thirties, The War Years, and Post-War Stories.
Bowen (1899 to 1973-Dublin) 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 truly 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.
There are 22 stories in the collection from the 1920s and from the 20s of Bowen. I can see a strong artistic development from the stories in the early years from her late teens. Most of the stories are nine to twelve pages long (some times page length in short stories was sort of dictated by the requirements of magazine publishers) in this section. The stories mostly focus on the world that Bowen knew best, Anglo-Irish gentry. Her stories are taken up with family visits, private schools for girls, tea parties, endless discussion of the personality of neighbors, and issues with household management. Everyone in her stories seem to have servants. There is a very preoccupation with the interiors of houses, incredibly subtle characterizations, and enough detail to make this world come alive for us. Her stories are not told in an experimental mode and do not require a guide to follow them. There is deep wisdom in the stories of Bowen but they are also just fun to read. Once and a while she uses a Saki like ending but that is OK as long as the surprise ending is not the whole point of the story.
I feel bad in that these stories cannot be read online. That is part of the reason that I am not posting on each one individually as I did with Katherine Mansfield.
I will just comment briefly on three of the 22 stories that stood out for me.
"Ann Lee's" (1924, 9 pages) is set in exclusive dress shop in London. The patrons are all society ladies who bring a maid along to carry their purchases. One of the reason the women patronize the store is they know they will not encounter anyone of the "lower classes" other than shop girls and servants. However, today something seems very wrong in the shop. A sinister young man is there apparently the boyfriend of one of the shop girls. The patrons of the shop are offended and made uneasy by his threatening presence. To make matters worse there is no deference or sense of knowing his proper place in his bearing. As one a pair of patrons leave the shop they ask for directions to a London location. The young man volunteers them directions but they turn out to be wrong and as the story closes we see the young man is behind them on the street. To me "Ann Lee's" is a brilliant evocation of class differences. It shows how these differences shape and limit those who do not see them. It is also a scary story to boot.
"The Parrot" (1925, 11 pages) is set in the house of a very old lady living with her servants and her beloved parrot. (Stories about servants may be hard for most readers to relate to. Here in the Philippines nearly everyone who has a book blog probably also has one to three servants which makes us able to directly relate to stories about ":servant problems".) The most important thing in world to the elderly lady is her pet Parrot that she has had for so many years. One of the main duties of one of the helpers is to feed the parrot and clean his cage. Horror of horrors one day while the old lady is taking a nap the parrot gets out of his cage and flies out the window into a tree in the yard next door. The other servants tell her she will be fired if she does not get the parrot back and jobs are hard to find. The servant ends up on the roof of the house next door and recaptures the bird. The old lady never knows what happened to the parrot.
"The Visitor" (1925, 10 pages) reads like something out of David Copperfield. In "The Visitor" a young boy, a distant cousin, is being entertained while is mother is dying in own home. The boy finds about it second hand. We get to see his reaction as he hears his relatives debate what go do with him. It is a very sad, poignant story.
I will shortly do a similar post on Bowen's short stories from the 1930s, followed by one on her WWII era stories where everyone says her best work lies.
Bowen is for those who like a well written and told story by a very wise person, secure enough not to be intimidated by anyone and alive enough to enjoy fully a very diverse range of people and pleasures. To me Bowen is a class act and will have a permanent place in my header collage along with Woolf and Mansfield.
Please consider participating in Irish Short Story Week-March 14 to March 20
Mel, I read an article in the NY Times Book Review about Elizabeth Bowen and thought of your latest reading project. Thank you for bringing this author to my attention. Her attention to detail in her work helps to record history.
Suko-yes for sure Bowen's collected stories could be an important historical document one day
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