In praise of Elizabeth Bowen, by John Banville

Celebrating Irish women writers: ‘Had Elizabeth Bowen been a man, she would be recognised as one of the finest novelists of the 20th century’

Had Elizabeth Bowen been a man she would be recognised as one of the finest novelists of the 20th century. Her best-known novels are The Death of the Heart and The Heat of the Day, but her own favourite was The Last September, published when she was still in her 20s; it was, she said, the work of hers "nearest to my heart".

She had an eye as sharp as Henry James’s, a wonderfully shrewd yet accommodating sensibility, and a sublime literary style.

Was she an Irish, an Anglo-Irish or, as some would insist, an English writer? She said that her most natural place was somewhere about the middle of the Irish Sea. Certainly she could be impatient with what she saw as Irish obtuseness, but she was no less severe on the vagaries and occasional fecklessness of the English character.

Her prose is so subtle and allusive that it would be a disservice to quote from her, but read almost any descriptive passage in The Last September and you will understand her greatness.

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Other favourites Edna O'Brien and Maria Edgeworth. John Banville won the Man Booker Prize in 2005 for The Sea. As Benjamin Black he writes the bestselling Quirke series