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Reconsidering Elizabeth Bowen
Elizabeth Bowen's fiction has, on most readers, a queer and indeterminate impact. We respond intensely, even in ways viscerally, to the press of something not always made manifest in the language of her stories. All of her novels and short stories have an oddly transformed air—something there for recognition also hides itself and is only partially suggested, and we often have the sense when reading her work of seeing or hearing something that is not always manifestly there, something oscillating between the formed and the perceived that cannot always be accounted for by reason or an appeal to the logical coherence of a theory. As a result, in surprising and sometimes contrary ways, the intensity of reading her fiction does not necessarily coincide with any clarity of understanding—against what one knows to be there, we are often drawn into strange depths. This sense of excess, this extra charge, which is felt as both enigmatic and occasionally burdensome, lends to her work its most penetrating influence and constitutes its most baffling and salient effect. And while these provocative exchanges irregularly and erratically produced by her stories and existing within the stories are experienced [End Page 187] as both haphazard and organized, it would be misleading to suggest that they are ever solely one or the other. Rather, these unfamiliar and capricious exchanges are both unpredictable and contrived, and as such, they leave both lasting and impermanent inscriptions, and they grant to her stories a protean strength and allure not easily neutralized by their exegesis or by their proper classification. Consequently, Bowen's stories are distinguished by, among other things, the interpretative labor involved. Certainly her stories confer meanings, but they are meanings both mobile and concealed, meanings that simultaneously encourage and resist interpretation. As a result, our understanding of those meanings is often stranded in a liminal phase, the unifying principles sensed but occluded and imperfectly perceived.
Despite this conspicuous and disconcerting quality, in the past, Bowen's stories have most often been read thematically. William Heath published the first full-length introduction to her work.1 In it, he concentrated on what he described as her critique of the English middle class and the theme, early and nearly unanimously identified in Bowen's work, of innocence versus experience (the innocent and gradually disenchanted protagonists, having suffered deaths of their hearts, struggle to compromise and make their way in a world for which they are generally ill-suited). With the publication of Heath's book, Bowen was identified as a novelist of manners or sensibility and her work was placed uneasily within the tradition of social realism.
Twenty years later, following the publication of Victoria Glendinning's biography, Hermoine Lee wrote another well-considered, full-length study in which she discussed Bowen's recurrent themes of "dislocation, unease, and betrayal" in relation to modern history (12).2 More recently, Bowen has had a cadre of feminist readers including reneé c. hoogland and Phyllis Lassner who have identified feminist themes in her work. In their penetrating studies, both hoogland and Lassner explore Bowen's fiction in the context of her marginality and discuss her characters' psychologies primarily in terms of "internalized" social, economic, and political forces (Lassner, A Study 3). For example, in Lassner's studies, she connects the constraining effects of the myth of femininity as represented by the conventions of "English domestic fiction" to the protagonists' "struggle with autonomy, dependence and self-expression" (Bowen 153).3 To the roster of thematic readers we can now add Neil Corcoran whose particular interest is in tracing the origins of the three dominant images or themes that he sees recurring in Bowen's fiction: Ireland, childhood, and war. Because he perceives Bowen "engaged with some of the most urgent matters of both personal and public history in her time," his goal, in large...