- Elizabeth Bowen
This collection of essays on Elizabeth Bowen is the second volume in the Irish Academic Press’s new series, Visions and Revisions: Irish Writers in Their Time. Such a context has clearly determined some of the touchstones of the collection: Bowen’s status as an Anglo-Irish Ascendancy or Big House writer, her conservatism vis-à-vis Irish nationalism, her wartime work for the British Ministry of Information, and the impact of her life history on her works. These themes would undoubtedly run through any consideration of Bowen’s oeuvre, but they are highlighted in the context of Irish literary and cultural criticism. For American readers, this emphasis is a bonus: there is useful information here about Bowen’s reception in Ireland, the controversies around her wartime “espionage,” and her representations of Ireland in her novels, short stories, and essays. There is also illuminating historical context, such as Clair Wills’s descriptions of an Irish government report on emigration and a collection of essays on the same theme entitled The Vanishing Irish, both published while Bowen was working on A World of Love. Not of course limiting itself to Irish issues, the volume also focuses on Bowen’s treatment of ghosts and haunting, her explorations of alternative sexualities, and her Modernist interest in instabilities and fragmentation.
The main strength of the volume lies in some contributors’ facility for viewing Bowen through multiple categories at once. Vera Kreilkamp bridges the divide between readings of Bowen as Anglo-Irish, Burkean conservative on the one hand, and as innovative Modernist on the other by suggesting that the “sense of psychic incoherence and homelessness shaping Bowen’s fiction stemmed no less from an Irish Ascendancy sensibility than from her receptivity to twentieth-century cultural innovation” (13). Andrew Bennett links Bowen’s modernism and feminism by arguing that her refusal of the romance or marriage plot and her portrayals of women’s lives not changing constitute a modernist intervention into the very idea of plot. Patricia Coughlan connects Bowen’s anatomizing of feminine gender performance in “The Dancing-Mistress” with second-generation psychoanalysis as well as with Bowen’s particular psychobiography. And Sinéad Mooney reads Bowen’s Gothic tendencies as responses to the uncannily “intimate relations generated by the increased speed of communications and the passage of information” (92).
Several of the articles focus on Bowen’s interest in non-normative gender and sexuality. Reading the essays by Bennett, [End Page 448] Coughlan, Mooney, and Tina O’Toole, we piece together a picture of a writer whose observances of surface proprieties screen a radical undermining of accepted notions of the relations between the body and desire. Bowen seems to understand gender to be an often unwilling performance, as Coughlan and O’Toole show when they discuss her representations of masculinized women and feminized men, and of women whose efforts at femininity possess them to the extent that they lose what autonomy they may have had. Moreover, in nearly all of her novels, women are drawn at least as much to each other as to the men to whom they are married or engaged. When her female characters desire men, that desire is almost always illicit and triangulated by another woman, even at times a sister (for instance, Karen’s desire for her friend Naomi’s fiancé Max in The House in Paris and Janet’s desire for her sister Laurel’s husband in Friends and Relations). Desire in Bowen always spills out of its approved channels. In one story, “The Happy Autumn Fields,” analyzed by Mooney, the Gothically possessive love of a sister magically kills her sister’s soon-to-be-fiancé when his horse shies in an empty field and throws him. These Victorian women then haunt another woman living in twentieth-century wartime who becomes obsessed with them, believes she is one of the sisters, and feels nothing but indifference toward her husband. Mooney views Bowen’s recurrent use of the supernatural as a way to approach such impossible trajectories of desire: “her supernatural . . . affirms that the individual is traversed, even terrorized, by an...