In praise of Elizabeth Bowen, by Denis Donoghue

Irish Women Writers: ‘I like her most for her problem: she was so much more intelligent, and more eloquent, than her characters’

Novelist Elizabeth Bowen in the garden of Bowen’s Court, Kildorrey, Co Cork: “Irish by birth and thereafter by heritage and occasional inclination.” Photograph: Hulton Archive/ Getty Images

Novelist Elizabeth Bowen in the garden of Bowen’s Court, Kildorrey, Co Cork: “Irish by birth and thereafter by heritage and occasional inclination.” Photograph: Hulton Archive/ Getty Images

 

My favourite Irish woman novelist: that’s easy. Emma Donoghue, author of Room, Frog Music, Kissing the Witch and half a dozen other works of fiction. But I do not permit myself the pleasure of writing about my daughter. So: next in line, Elizabeth Bowen, Irish by birth and thereafter by heritage and occasional inclination.

Bowen’s Court, The Shelbourne Hotel, Weir’s the jeweler in Grafton Street, Seven Winters and Afterthoughts, and The Last September make her one of us, even though she lit out for New York, Rome, Paris, London and in the end Oxford, mostly to make it easier to be with her beloved Charles Ritchie.

I like her most for her problem: she was so much more intelligent, and more eloquent, than her characters. To confine herself to their limitations was to do herself an injustice. She had this problem with Stella and Robert in The Heat of the Day, with Lois in The Last September, Gavin Doddington in Ivy Gripped the Steps.

I recall a brilliant perception of Declan Kiberd’s in Inventing Ireland, where he says that Lois “feels enough to know that she should feel more”. But Lois could only feel more by being indistinguishable from Elizabeth Bowen, which would cause more problems than the one Bowen leaves unsolved. Sometimes she disengages a butterfly of intelligence from her own mind, hoping that it will attach itself to someone else’s, as in The Death of the Heart: “Illusions are art, for the feeling person, and it is by art that we live, if we do.” It is a lovable problem, in Bowen as in Henry James.

Other favourite: Mary Lavin

Denis Donoghue is the Henry James Chair of English and American Letters at New York University

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