Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks: 1945 – The Demon Lover and Other Stories, by Elizabeth Bowen

The writer used her unique imagination to devastating effect in these stories

Elizabeth Bowen: “The disruptions of the war, oddly, gave Bowen a sense of common purpose, making the deep uncertainties of her own identity merely part of the common human condition”

Elizabeth Bowen: “The disruptions of the war, oddly, gave Bowen a sense of common purpose, making the deep uncertainties of her own identity merely part of the common human condition”

 

Perhaps the strongest story in this landmark collection, The Happy Autumn Fields, opens with an evocation of an idyllic 19th-century, Anglo-Irish, land-owning patriarch and his beautiful family strolling through the fields of his prosperous estate. The harvest is saved, and all is right with the world. The story feels like a deluded version of the old landlord system – until the reader realises that is exactly what it is.

This vision is being conjured in the mind of Mary, a woman living in a bomb-damaged house in contemporary, war-torn London. Mary is in imminent danger but she cannot draw herself away from these dreams of a lost past. Gradually, the two worlds seep into each other, as the instability of the present asserts itself in Mary’s vision of the “big house” of her fantasy.

The stories in The Demon Lover capture much about Elizabeth Bowen’s unique imagination. There is her upbringing between Bowen’s Court, a “big house” near Kildorrery in north Cork, and England – Roy Foster has described her as a writer who “felt most at home in mid-Irish Sea”.

There is her very particular combination of realism and a Gothic imagination: all of these stories picture real people living with the war, yet all are in some sense also ghost stories. And there is her extraordinary style, slightly baroque and immediate.

For Bowen, the war years were both imaginatively fertile and personally edgy. War also brought out a new aspect in Bowen’s relationship with her native country: she wrote secret reports on Ireland and Irish neutrality for the British ministry of information – which was seen, retrospectively, in some Irish quarters as spying.

The reports reflected her complex allegiances: she wished to support the British war effort but also to explain, as she does with considerable intelligence, why Éamon de Valera’s decision to keep Ireland neutral was inevitable.

More importantly, the war and its dramatisation of her dilemmas fuelled Bowen’s creativity. She writes in the preface to The Demon Lover: “During the war I lived, both as a civilian and as a writer, with every pore open . . . arguably, writers are always slightly abnormal people: certainly in so-called ‘normal’ times, my sense of the abnormal has been very acute. In war, this feeling of slight differentiation was suspended: I felt one with, and just like, everyone else . . . We all lived in a state of lucid abnormality.”

The disruptions of the war thus, oddly, gave Bowen a sense of common purpose, making the deep uncertainties of her own identity merely part of the common human condition.

One consequence of this “lucid abnormality” was a flood of writing about Ireland: Bowen’s Court in 1942, Seven Winters in 1943 and stories such as The Happy Autumn Fields and Summer Night in this 1945 collection of stories .

In all of these Irish writings, Bowen looked homewards to north Cork as a place of stability and loyalty in an endangered and treacherous world and her vision of Anglo-Ireland becomes her talisman, her source for imaginative power in war-disordered London.

But even then, unease lurks in the north Cork terrain. Like Mary in The Happy Autumn Fields, she both needs a fantasy world and knows that it, too, will crumble like a bombed-out house.

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