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  • Introduction Elizabeth Bowen:New Directions For Critical Thinking
  • Susan Osborn (bio)

Our ideal therefore, must be a language as clear as glass—the person looking out of the window knows there is glass there, but he is not concerned with it; what concerns him is what comes through from the other side.

—Elizabeth Bowen, Seven Winters

When confronted with the decision of whether to include selections from Elizabeth Bowen's work in the Aubane Historical Society's North Cork Anthology, the editors, Jack Lane and Brendan Clifford, seemed uncertain about how best to approach her. Of greatest concern to them were various disturbing irregularities that they perceived to be a prominent part of her personal history, irregularities that complicated their desire to identify her with one national identity or another. As they detail their deliberations, special note is made of the various ways that the Dublin-born writer had strayed across borders—she was raised in an Anglo-Irish family and spent her early childhood in County Cork, she lived part time in London, and she worked for the British government during World War II. That the constitutive facts of Bowen's personal history involve closely interwoven and even overlapping ideas of national identity only increased the editors' difficulty [End Page 225] when trying to describe them. Troubled by the conflicting claims that her personal history presented, and perhaps prompted by a desire to spare themselves further indecision, the editors finally declared that she was not an Irish writer at all, but was rather an "English" novelist. Further, "[s]he was not a North Cork writer, either in the sense of being a product of North Cork society, or of being interested in it and writing about it." Given their repudiation of Bowen, one might expect that they would choose to excise her work from the anthology altogether, but instead, they devoted a considerably greater amount of space to her work than they did to many other writers included. However, at the same time, they indicated their frustration with her and the problems that her history presents by drawing a line of cancellation through her name, which appears at the top of the page introducing her entry. The editors explained: "We include her in this anthology, in deleted form, in order to explain why she does not belong to it" (9).1

The paradoxical and innovative strategy that Lane and Clifford adopted in an attempt to come to terms with the complicated issues involved in conceptualizing, describing, and evaluating Bowen's national identity reveals—at the very least—a highly ambivalent response to the various pressures and threats that Bowen's personal history presents to conventional notions of identity and political and philosophical coherence. Clearly, the editors felt that Bowen had stepped out of bounds, that she had violated customarily conceived boundaries and had gone "too far." A good part of Lane and Clifford's enterprise centers around the single task of finding an expedient accommodation, one, that is, that would harmonize the competing claims that Bowen's history presents. Yet rather than dispensing with the problems Bowen's history creates, the editors' delete mark has the (we can presume unintentional) consequence of highlighting problems, seen in especially high relief in this case, that biographies such as Bowen's present to conventional notions of definition, identity, and fit, and their conflicted solution leaves open the question of whether Bowen's national identity can be accommodated by a particular form or whether the competing claims that her personal history presents are irreconcilable. Ultimately, then, rather than situating her among the not-Irish or the not-Cork, the editors' horizontal line suspends Bowen in a state of limbo, neither properly in nor properly out, both norm and deviation, her personal and national boundaries obscured, not clarified.

For some time, there have been degrees of doubt about Bowen's proper position within the field of literary studies as well. Troubled by the competing claims that her narratives present, critics have likewise struggled with the unsystematic ways that her peculiar and in ways [End Page 226] often transgressive and non-identical body of work resists historical, generic, and ethnic incorporation, and have historically struggled...


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