Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Elizabeth Bowen-23 Stories from the 1930s (More on Irish Short Stories Week)

Collected Short Stories by Elizabeth Bowen (1980, 784 pages, with an introduction by Angus Wilson)

Please consider joining Elizabeth Bowen for Irish Short Story Week March 14 to March 20, St Patrick's Day is March 17

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 Thirties (the section this post spotlights)  , 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 girl's residential school.   I mention these matters as I think the early death of her parents had a big effect on her writings. 

The personality of Elizabeth Bowen is not reflected well in the few photographs of her that are on the Internet.   She seems like your very prim and proper head mistress of a very expensive girl's school who perhaps smiles once a week, laughs once a decade, never has tried whiskey or cigarettes and would die of mortification at the thought she might have any romantic contact with a man to whom she was not married.    Nothing could be further from the truth.   She loved a good party, was hilarious herself, chain smoked (not so look down on in her day), loved her Irish whiskey and had as many romances as Katherine Mansfield, Jean Rhys or Colette but unlike them Bowen's  romances were with distinguished  men who treated her very well.   Bowen visited the United Nations when one of her romantic partners was the Canadian Representative to the General Assembly.    When people at the UN met Bowen they felt they were in the presence of Irish Nobility before they even knew anything about her.   Bowen also had a long lasting marriage which, though it was a strange one, was loving and harmonious.    Another was a famous author who will be featured during Irish Short Story Week.   She also had a same sex relationship with the author May Sarton.   According to Victoria Glendinning, Sarton had an extreme crush on Bowen and pressured her into a one night encounter which was Bowen's only same sex experiment.   Glendinning basically says Bowen was open to try it but concluded in the morning that she will stick with men.   Bowen is also said to have been very beautiful in her youth and to have an incredible body.   I go into these details as I do not want people to see her as boring, from her pictures.   

You can see the stories improve as she passes from her 20s into her 30s.   One of these stories, "The Disinherited" is considered by one of her very best works.    I will just spotlight a couple of the stories.   

"The Good Girl" (1934, 8 pages) is a strange read between the lines tale of a perverted "uncle".    It is in spite  perhaps of the subject matter a really entertaining story.    As I read on in the stories of Bowen, I  she enjoyed writing about  sexual encounters and within the limits of her cultural world writes pretty openly about them. 

"The Cat Jumps" (1934, 9 pages)-This story is about a murder and its after effects.   It is also a satire of academic intellectuals.    I found it quite funny.

"The Little Girl's Room" (1939, 8 pages) relies on a Saki like twist ending for full power (very few of her stories make use of surprise endings).    Angus Wilson in his very interesting introduction says in Bowen as in Saki you can sometimes see the malicious very bright child playing a joke on the adult world.    This joke is kind of an evil one!     I hope people will read her stories so I will not spoil it but my guess you will have to read the ending two or three times to be sure you got it right.   The story also makes gentle fun of the fascination of the English with European royalty of any rank.   

I will next post on the World War II era stories of Bowen.   Both Glendinning and Angus Wilson think the best of Bowen's work (she wrote about 20 books all of which are still in print) is her short stories set in London during WWII.     In fact I already read the first story in this section "Unwelcome Ideas" and it is just a wonderful work.   It makes you in just a few pages feel you are living in London in 1941 dealing with the Blitz and the fear of imminent German invasion.   When these stories were written it was by no means sure who would win the war.

If you would like to participate in Irish Short Stories Week all you have to do is post on a short story by an Irish author during this week.   The author can be Anglo-Irish like Bowen or if you like first or second generation immigrants like the great Australian short story writer Barbara Baynton .   You can post on living authors famous or promote a new writer you like.   There are really a lot of options from James Joyce and Oscar Wilde and before them Oliver Goldsmith down to William Trevor today.   Just Google "Irish Literature" if you need any ideas.   I will do a link to all the posts for the week (assuming there are some besides mine!) and comment on each one.    I have done similar events on Indonesian and on Malaysian short stories but Irish Short stories is something anyone can join in.   Any way if you are interested please leave a comment.   If this works out at all I hope to make it an annual event on my blog-

Mel u


ds said...

I love your biographical description of Bowen! I didn't know half that stuff about her, and while I've read a couple of her novels and a few of the stories i am making note of the ones you recommend. She and Wilde and John McGahern and William Trevor are all on my pile of unread or unfinisheds. Your project sounds like an excellent way to take them off it! (I wanted to read Irish authors in March anyway) Thank you!

Mel u said...

ds-would love to have you join in for Irish Short stories week-all one has to do is post on one story between 3/14 to 3/20

Carolyn said...

Fascinating to get more clarification about her relationship with May Sarton! I knew they had a relationship and that Bowen is listed as a queer author, but it seems the reality wasn't as flamboyant as I'd thought, which is fine by me. I read The Cat Jumps recently and found it quite disturbing, put me off reading more of her stories. I'll have to try again for your Irish short stories week.

Mel u said...

Carolyn-I think it is very misleading to classify Bowen as a GLBT writer on the grounds of one encounter that she appears to have just gone along with once and never desired to repeat-The Cat Jumps is a very interesting story, a satire on intellectuals?