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

Monday, March 11, 2013

"Oh, Madam" by Elizabeth Bowen

"Oh, Madam" by Elizabeth Bowen  (1941, 5 pages)

March 1 to March 31

Elizabeth Bowen
1899 to 1973

Ireland was neutral during the war but Elizabeth Bowen (1899 to 1973-28 Books) was strongly loyal to England.    She spent the war living in London and worked as an air-raid warden, walking the streets getting people into shelters and making sure black out rules were observed.    This put her in harms way as she had to be among the very last to take shelter.  Many air raid warders lost their lives saving others.   Bowen said after the war that she never felt more alive than she did during the Blitz in London. She acknowledged, and did many others, that she felt a sense of liberation by the eminence of death.     Bowen had a very exciting and varied life, not at all like the one that the pictures of her on the internet might suggest.  She delighted in being the "wild Irish girl" in London but back at home in Bowen's Court in Ireland (her family was given land by Cromwell) she was very Anglo-Irish, the lady of the manor and most of her Irish contacts were servants or trades people. 

One of the most worth buying short story collections I am aware of is The Collected Short Stories of Elizabeth Bowen with 88 wonderful works.     Bowen lived life to the full, she loved parties, drank a good bit, entertained lavishly,  smoked, and even though in a long term marriage to a very decent man who loved her, had a number of short and long term affairs which she made little effort to hide.   It is a shame the only pictures one can find of her make her appear to be a sternly prim school mistress who would be appalled at the idea of any non-Victorian behavior.  

Many consider her stories set during WWII her very best work.  They were written when London, her home, was under vicious attacks by the Germans and in a time when it was very possible England might be invaded by the Nazis.  "Oh, Madam" shows what happens when an upper class woman returns to find her house partially destroyed by a German bomb.  She is accompanied by her maid, who worked in the house for ten years, and the story is completely couched as if it were the maid trying to console her employer as they walk though the house surveying what is left of it.  There are some very interesting class marks in the story, one of the hall marks of the work of Bowen.   We also see the maid take the opportunity to besmirch the name of a male servant, maybe the butler, my suggesting he deserted the house for fear of the attack, but then she tries to pretend she is nice by saying "Oh, Madam, you know how nervous men are, he probably went to his wife".  The ending kind of reveals the true feelings of the maid toward her employer.  

Bowen does have better stories than this but for sure this is worth reading.  I really would suggest one simply read all of her collected short stories (under 800 pages).  

Mel u

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