The essays within Elizabeth Bowen: New Critical Perspectives, compiled and edited by Susan Osborn, offer several compelling examinations of the Anglo-Irish writer, most of which seek to establish her place within early-twentieth-century literary studies. Taken as a whole, the seven essays indicate that Bowen may, in fact, inhabit several places—Irish modernist, feminist, mimetic experimentalist, and linguist. That Bowen does convincingly fit within the categories explored by the authors exhibited within the collection provides further evidence of her growing significance as a writer of note.
Osborn’s introduction surveys trends in Bowen studies and explains how she was initially viewed as a “writer of sensibility” and then “as a psychological realist” (1) to readings of her work bases on “gender, class, ethnicity, and nationhood” (3). Arguing that many of the more recent critical examinations of Bowen fail to account for the discrepancies of style, realism, and the like in her work, Osborn justifies the essays within her collection as “testif[ying] to both the complexity and originality of Bowen’s art” (7). Indeed, the essays that follow do provide nuanced approaches to her work that attempt to illuminate the ingenuity of her creativity. Furthermore, Osborn’s collection should be commended for its attention to the range of Bowen’s work. Most of the major novels are examined, as well as several of her short stories, making the collection useful for scholars interested in Bowen’s prolific career.
The first essay in the collection, “Unstable Compounds: Bowen’s Beckettian Affinities” by Sinéad Mooney, explains how and why Bowen ought to be looked at alongside Beckett and suggests that doing so allows critics to place Bowen staunchly within the modernist period. Unpacking Beckett’s Murphy and Watt and Bowen’s The Hotel, The Heat of the Day, and Eva Trout, Mooney pays careful attention to “the void” within their works (14). While Beckett was often praised for his stylistic discrepancies, Bowen’s narrative disunities confused and confounded readers. Mooney’s essay, then, seeks to justify Bowen’s slippages and subversion of literary norms in ways similar to Beckett’s. This comparison, then, opens up a conversation about Bowen’s modernist tendencies. Mooney writes, “Continually practising stylistic and structural experiment, deliberately injuring her disjointed, self-reflexive narratives in order to inoculate them against empty elegance, Bowen is a writer deeply attuned to the aims of high modernism, even if she never entirely loses touch with classic realism and its more customary methods” (33). [End Page 436]
Susan Osborn’s “‘How to measure this unaccountable darkness between the trees’: The Strange Relation of Style and Meaning in The Last September,” takes on Bowen’s problematic and strange stylistic choices, suggesting a mimetic rationale for the linguistic occurrences. Claiming that “it is Bowen’s inconsistent and unsystematic employment of representational and formal irregularities that threatens the stability of conventionally conceived historical interpretations and that also lends to The Last September its strangely transformed air, its sense of being about something other than itself, at times beyond the control of intelligence” (42), Osborn explicates the way that The Last September demonstrates the slippery relationship of the self with the outside world (60).
Young scholars should take special note of Eluned Summers-Bremner’s “Dead Letters and Living Things: Historical Ethics in The House in Paris and The Death of the Heart” for its clear, uncomplicated prose and carefully plotted thesis concerning Bowen’s objectification of human beings and how such objectification allows for a greater understanding of history itself. Drawing on Lacan and Badiou to define historical truth, Summers-Bremner uses the logic of trauma in writing to assert that “through this process of being driven back to particular images for which no others will suffice, the novel reproduces the structure of human subjectivity” (63). The essay offers a compelling illumination of the act of reading Bowen’s work through well-developed examples.
“Mumbo-jumbo: The Haunted World of The Little Girls” offers June Sturrock’s examination of how Bowen’s little-considered tale uses supernatural elements to comment on “the devastations...