- Review of Bowen’s Court (Reissue 1979)1
1119 Pinehurst St.
Jackson, Mississippi 39202
(reviewed from bound galleys)
BOWEN’S COURT. By Elizabeth Bowen. 459 pp. Photographs. New York: The Ecco Press. _______.
By Eudora Welty
“This is Bowen’s Court as the past has left it,” Elizabeth Bowen wrote in 1939,
an isolated, partly unfinished house, grandly conceived and plainly and strongly built. Near the foot of mountains, it has little between it and the bare fields that run up the mountainside. Larger in manner than in actual size, it stands up in Roman urbane strongness in a land on which the Romans never set foot. It is the negation of mystical Ireland: its bald walls rebut the surrounding, disturbing light. Imposed on seized land, built in the rulers’ ruling tradition, the house is, all the same, of the local rock, and sheds the same grey gleam you see over the countryside. So far, it has withstood burnings and wars.
Though the house the early Bowens built in County Cork is gone, the throes out of which it rose and through which it stood for its not quite 200 years remain unabating. The story of Bowen’s Court Elizabeth Bowen sees as a microcosm of the society that made it, the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy. Clearly, writing it was for her a labor not only of love but of necessity. Brilliant and broadly based, it has kept that urgent and living value for us. Its reissue in the present edition is in every respect timely. As a full-length portrait of a house, a family, its time and place, it belongs somewhere near the heart of Elizabeth Bowen’s body of work.
The first Bowen to set foot in Ireland came out of Wales—the Bowens were never English. He was a lieutenant-colonel in the army of Cromwell. When time came to divide the spoils, Henry Bowen was rewarded with as much land as his hawk, released from his wrist, would fly over. [End Page 21]
The war in Ireland to which he came was three-sided—Catholic Confederates, Royalists, Parliamentarians were all up in arms. Up until the time of Cromwell’s coming, it had
damaged fortunes and cities, laid waste tracts of country, distracted consciences and broken hearts.… But it had been a war between three parties of people who fought, felt and acted in one another’s terms, people all dyed with the temperament of a country … led by lords who had dined at each other’s tables, and who were up to each other’s tricks.… When Cromwell came, he meant business. The Irish had yet to learn—and they did—what business meant. It must be said for Cromwell in Ireland that the methods he used were those de rigueur, in his time, for subduing and colonizing a savage country.
Of the Ireland she was born into, Elizabeth Bowen writes:
This is a country of ruins.… They give clearings in woods, reaches of mountain or sudden turns of a road a meaning and pre-inhabited air.… In this Munster county so often fought over there has been cruelty even to the stones; military fury or welling-up human bitterness has vented itself on unknowing walls. Campaigns and “troubles,” taking their tolls, subsiding, each leave a new generation of ruins to be reabsorbed slowly into the natural scene.… Yes, ruins stand for error or failure—but in Ireland we take these as a part of life. [15–17]
Of Henry Bowen—the first of many Henry Bowens to come—Elizabeth Bowen writes: “Pressure of natural affectations in Colonel Bowen was said by his enemies to be very low. He loved his hawks and hawking, doubted God and cared almost nothing for man” :
The tale—it is more than a legend—of the Bowen Hawk has been handed down in our family, always by word of mouth. It gathers force in the telling, and though I cannot find it written down anywhere it is the last story that I would ever doubt—it has a psychological, if not a strictly historical, likeliness.
Here the key to her imaginative understanding is...