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 9, 2011

Elizabeth Bowen by Victoria Glendinning

Elizabeth Bowen by Victoria Glendinning (1977, 330 pages)

Elizabeth Bowen (1899 to 1973, Dublin) is a great writer.   So far I have read and posted on "Demon Lover" which I think is her most popular short story and one of her novels The Last September.  I really enjoyed both of these works.   I was very happy to discover that Victoria Glendinning had written a biography of Bowen.  I have already read and posted on her biography of Leonard Woolf and her biography of Vita Sackville-West, Vita, the role model for the central character in Virgina Woolf's Orlando.     

I like this  book best of the three works by Glendinning I have read so far and I liked the other two a really lot.   I like Elizabeth Bowen so much as a person and a writer.  Bowen was brought up in a castle in Ireland, Bowen court.   She was Anglo-Irish.   Even though her family had been Lords there for 300 plus years she was not Irish.   If you look at the pictures of Bowen you can find on the Internet she looks like a very serious very severe head mistress of a terribly expensive girl's academy.   She looks very intimidating.    You picture a woman who never took a drink or smoked a cigarette and would rather die than ever even kiss a man to whom she was not married. A woman devoid of humor of any kind  I was a bit shocked to learn she chain smoked (in this time smoking was not as looked down on as it is now), loved her Irish Whiskey and carried on a very passionate 30 year extra marital  relationship with a man some ten years younger than her.    She had a vast network of friends of all sorts.  She was a acquainted with many Bloomsbury figures but in simple terms pretty much out classed them all. 

    As we see from reading the biography, Bowen was very much pampered growing up and there is a sense in which she maintained a childlike quality in someways throughout her life.   This is not to be seen in a negative way, but in a way Wordsworth or maybe even Bob Dylan would approve.     She was a friend of Virginia Woolf and numerous other well known literary figures.   She was acquainted with Katherine  Mansfield and was good friends with Virginia Woolf.  Bowen is not the towering genius that Woolf is or the ground breaking artist that Mansfield was but in the end she just might be a writer from whom we can learn more and her stories all seem a lot of fun.    She had her ups and downs in life.  She had a strange marriage to man she very much loved.   She was a great spender of money and loved to host big parties and have guests  come stay a long time at the castle, Bowen Court.  I think the scene in the book I loved the most was the one describing the visit of Eudora Welty to Bowen Court.  Welty worked on one of her short stories while she was there.   I know we all would have loved to been allowed to sit in tea time!

This is a rich book.  Bowen did a lot and wrote a lot of very good books.   Long term Glendinning says she may be most remembered for her short stories.   She traveled all over Europe and the USA giving talks and workshops.   At times she needed money and she wrote well paid magazine articles.  

I got the feeling Glendinning really loves Bowen.  She definitely deepened my understanding and appreciation for Bowen and her works.  I liked this book so much I delayed reading the last few pages for three days.   

Elizabeth Bowen was a class act pure and simple. 

  I like to imagine groups of writers conversing with each other in a real way, not just in the Great Conversation.  I imagined Bowen having tea with Colette, Jean Rhys, Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield and saying "ladies don't give the air to the men in your life that your are desperate for their company."   When Virginia Woolf tells everyone they need a room of their own to write in, Bowen responds, "oh if you like you can come write in a room in my castle like Eudora did."   

Mel u



Suko said...

Wonderful review! Elizabeth Bowen does sound like a very interesting individual. Her response to Virginia Woolf is priceless.

Mel u said...

Suko-yes very interesting and just so likable-and wise too boot!

Anonymous said...

I definitely want to get this. I didn't get on with Elizabeth Bowen for ages - I think because I had to read Heat of the Day at uni and you know how it is when you have to study books until they are emptied of meaning. But I did really like the Last September, and she had an incredibly interesting life.

Anonymous said...

I just read Demon Lover and thought it was a great short story -- my first Elizabeth Bowen read. This sounds like a fascinating biography ... Virginia Woolf intrigues me so learning about her contemporaries would be absolutely fascinating.

Laurie said...

You've got me intrigued! I'm off to read "Demon Lover", and perhaps thence to add this bio to my TBR list. (intriguing Woolf connection!)
Thank you for maintaining your focus on classics here, Mel U: you raise the bar.

Hannah said...

I love Glendinning--and I adore reading biographies where it is clear the author loves his or her subject. Thanks for the tip!

Mel u said...

teadevotee-yes I do know what you mean-I think maybe the short stories are the best of her work-I liked house in Paris and Last September a lot also

Dragonfly419-in time you might end up liking the contemporaries of VW more than her but no one is the great writer or genius

Laurie-I hope you like Demon Lover-it is a good story but I just read a better one by her today-really scary!

LifetimeReader-do you have a favorite Glendinning biography-?so far I have read 3 of her seven biographies-

Hannah said...

I've not yet read a whole one--but I've enjoyed poking around in the Trollope edition as well as reading little pieces I've seen here and there about Rebecca West. Her Swift book also really intrigues me, but I've only read a couple of pages in the bookstore. Have you read one of her novels, by any chance? I haven't at all.

Mel u said...

LifetimeReader-no I have not read any of her novels-I would like to read her other biographies in time-I saw somewhere her next book would be on Thomas Raffles-the founder of Singapore as a British colony-I looked just now at her novels on Amazon-I might like them but I doubt I will buy them sight unseen