In praise of Elizabeth Bowen, by Derek Hand

Irish Women Writers: ‘Bowen’s writing exposes the arduousness of being modern. Her art is typified by a linguistic poise echoing her characters’ desire to manage emotion’

Elizabeth Bowen: “Hers is a fiction about tradition: about an old world of manners that is passing away. And yet, her writing is also about the future”

Elizabeth Bowen: “Hers is a fiction about tradition: about an old world of manners that is passing away. And yet, her writing is also about the future”

 

I first read Elizabeth Bowen as an undergraduate in UCD and then more intensely later as her work was an integral part of my PhD thesis. Bowen’s writing exposes the arduousness of being modern. Her art is typified by a linguistic poise echoing her characters’ desire to manage emotion. Novels such as The Last September, A World of Love and The Heat of the Day are full of movement, her characters in perpetual transit, coming and going, arriving, visiting and departing. She said herself that she was most at home on the Irish Sea. With all this movement, no relationship is ever straightforward; couples are forever being impinged upon by others: mothers, aunts, awkward teenagers, ghosts and lovers from the past who refuse to stay in the past. Hers is a fiction about tradition: about an old world of manners that is passing away. And yet, her writing is also about the future. Lois from The Last September hopes that:

“There must be perfect towns where shadows were strong like buildings, towns secret without coldness, unaware without indifference. She liked mountains, but she did not care for views.”

She imagines a utopia – a no place – somewhere where she might be herself beyond all those other definitions coming from the past and from others. That, beautifully put, is the struggle of being modern.

Other favourites: Eilis Ni Dhuibhne and Kate O’Brien

Derek Hand is the author of A History of the Irish Novel (Cambridge University Press) and lectures in English at St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra.

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