“How shall I fall! How sorrowful and lowly/Unmastered all my mortal fantasy,” wrote Elizabeth Bowen in a poignant poem for the great love of her life, Charles Ritchie, just before she died on February 22nd, 1973. But the poem also illuminates what Hermione Lee, in her literary biography, Elizabeth Bowen, called “the Bowen unwillingness to face up to reality”. Patricia Laurence’s refreshing interpretation of Bowen’s life captures that reality, wherein she was a rule-maker and a risk-taker in both love and letters.
Lovers were curiously agreed about the visible Bowen. “The contrast between her face and body seems symbolic,” wrote Ritchie. “It is a powerful, mature rather handsome face. But the body is that of a young woman . . . Naked she becomes poetic, ruthless and young.”
May Sarton, with whom Elizabeth had a Sapphic affair, concurred: “Hers was a handsome face, handsome rather than beautiful, with its bold nose, high cheekbones and tall forehead.” An attractive stammer, sometimes bothersome, dated from her mother’s death. Charming, but occasionally snobbish, in later years she came rather to like American glitz and easy manners. However, she dropped people ruthlessly and her behaviour could be casual, unpredictable and somewhat disconcerting.
When once asked by David Cecil to a family dinner, she is said to have replied: “David, I think you know by now that I want to see you either alone or at a large party.” Few got close, but those few tended to be of high quality. “Whom one sleeps with is always rather important,” she once ambiguously declaimed. Seán Ó Faoláin was such, of whom she had initially inquired of a friend: “Is he nice? He might possibly be quite dim.”
Victoria Glendinning’s biography of Bowen, Elizabeth Bowen: Portrait of a Writer, was published less than five years after her death. It was a necessarily reticent work, with gaps and silences about Elizabeth’s love life, describing her as “a respecter of the conventions [but] . . . not a conventional person”. That’s putting it mildly. Laurence lifts the lid in a chapter specifically devoted to “Loves and Lovers”, and here we have the first comprehensive account of her romantic entanglements, male and female, placing these within the louche and loose morals and deliciously dangerous liaisons of 1930s Oxford and London.
Bowen was married to a decorated war hero, Alan Cameron, whose influence on Bowen’s psyche has been downplayed by the Bowen academy. Here, he is displayed as a significant centre to Elizabeth’s life, flapping around her like “a great grey pigeon”. It is doubtful if the marriage was ever consummated, but Cameron provided a stability that had not been her lot in a fractured and dislocated childhood, and she set great store by this. Bowen was excessively fortunate that Cameron seemingly tolerated her dalliances and affairs, and she took full advantage of that. All he wanted was for her to come home. Which she always did.
If the difficulties of love defined Bowen’s personal relationships, then identity was an equally tense affair. Who was she? Did it matter? She once confessed to Ritchie, “I think we are curiously self-made creatures, carrying our personal worlds around with us like snails their shell. I am strongly and idiosyncratically Irish in the same way that you are Canadian, cagey, recalcitrant, on the run, bristling with reservations and arrogances that one doesn’t show.”
That goes against the conventional dichotomy of Bowen’s hyphenated existence as “Anglo-Irish”, perpetually transiting – geographically, psychologically and in a literary sense – between the islands. Laurence’s valuable contribution is to discuss Bowen’s identity (was she English or Irish or even “Brirish”?) within a more transnational perspective. Bowen’s multiple allegiances were not out of kilter with many southern Irish Protestants at this time. If her contribution was to “spy” for the British ministry of information, it was little different in kind to that of the many from Ireland who volunteered to fight fascism by joining the British military. Neither could be held to imply that they were “anti-Irish”.
Despite Bowen spending most of her life in city houses and suburban villas, Bowen’s Court in Co Cork – house and book – feature as an anchor that was the topographical equivalent of Alan Cameron. It is safe to say that, without its Elizabethan serenade, Bowen’s Court would have merited little more than a line in any catalogue of Irish lost mansions.
As it turned out, Bowen’s Court the book (1942) has attracted a great deal of attention, principally from cultural and literary scholars and, contradicting the house’s physical modesty, has come to stand for those who see in the Anglo-Irish world of the 20th century a particular trope – one of grand tragedy, predetermined, relentless, inevitable, with a soupçon of just dessert thrown in. When Bowen was selling the house in 1959 after a long financial war she ultimately lost, she told her lawyer that her next of kin was Bowen’s Court. That reflected the status of this “great stone box” (Virginia Woolf’s appalled description) in Bowen’s world. Her marriage was childless. Yet, the house Bowen’s Court can be seen either as the mother she lost when only 13; or, more empathetically, as the child she never had – wayward, expensive, exasperating, but also loved and loving, a refuge, a point of hope.
The book Bowen’s Court was its offspring – a grandchild to Bowen’s imagination. To Elizabeth, the house was always a living thing – writing of its demolition in 1960 she was glad that Bowen’s Court ‘. . . had a clean end. It never lived to be a ruin.’
There is much more in this kaleidoscopic, rich book. It interweaves Bowen’s literary and intellectual life with her real one, contextualising each with the other, and represents a significant step beyond the standard works by Glendinning and Lee. It is not entirely Bowen-centric either, which permits us to better understand the effect that this sometimes troubled, often happy woman had on those who moved within her orbit. That gravitational pull was strong – Ritchie wrote after her death: “I need to know again from her that I was her life . . . if she ever thought that she loved me more than I did her, she is revenged.”