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Éire-Ireland 42.3&4 (2007) 126-147

Elizabeth Bowen, Surrealist
Keri Walsh

Irish literature exerted an enduring fascination for the surrealists. Not only did the movement's leader, André Breton, name his Skye terrier Melmouth in honor of Charles Maturin's Gothic protagonist, but when the group published their 1929 map of the world, they accorded a place of honor to the land they associated with unusual powers of fantasy and rebellion (Polizzotti 303; Matheson 626). For Breton, the Celtic imagination was naturally surrealist, as were the works of Jonathan Swift and Thomas Moore, both of whom he evoked as precursors to the movement. W.B. Yeats's experiments with automatic writing and his evocations of Celtic mythology, no less than James Joyce's explorations of a nighttime world in the "Circe" section of Ulysses and in Finnegans Wake, emerged from the same taste for verbal play and hallucinatory settings that inspired the surrealists. Like surrealism, Irish modernism appealed to a notion of the collective imaginary, juxtaposed the banal and the marvellous, and modernized the powers of the Gothic. Declan Kiberd observes how the early twentieth-century Irish dramatists who created the Abbey Theatre's mythical drama were essentially forging a surrealist aesthetic: they were "among the first to grasp that fantasy, untouched by any sense of reality, is only decadent escapism, while reality, untouched by any element of fantasy, [End Page 126] is merely squalid literalism" (339). "The split between modernity and underdevelopment" in Ireland, Kiberd argues, culminated in Joyce's "almost surreal juxtapositions of affluence and dire poverty, of ancient superstition and contemporary anomie" (338).

Despite the shared pedigree and enduring commonalities between modern Irish and surrealist art, few critics have explored this mutually fertile relationship, perhaps because the highest-profile Irish writers of the surrealist era put some distance between themselves and the movement. In Paris in the nineteen twenties, where Joyce's social circles overlapped with those of Breton, Louis Aragon, and Philippe Soupault, the great Irish modernist never affiliated himself with the surrealist group. And a decade later, when Samuel Beckett translated writings by Breton, Paul Eluard, and René Crevel for This Quarter, he too eschewed any official status in the movement (Cronin 132).1

In what follows, I approach the emerging notion of Irish surrealism in a seemingly unlikely corner: the fiction of Elizabeth Bowen (1899–1973). Seldom considered in the context of a modernist avant-garde, Bowen's work has been read—particularly since Hermione Lee's 1981 groundbreaking study—within the history of the novel of manners, with Jane Austen and Henry James as precursors. In the mid-1990s, Irish studies scholars began to consider Bowen as a chronicler of Anglo-Irish anxiety and ambivalence in the first half of the twentieth century.2 Underrepresented in the critical literature until recently, however, are the specifically modernist commitments of her art. In 2004 Neil Corcoran observed that Bowen was "deeply impressed by the ambitions of High Modernism" (4), and a year earlier Maud Ellmann identified a "prose-style whose reflexivity . . . associates her work with the modernist tradition," singling out Bowen's "hallucinatory treatment of objects, [End Page 127] particularly furniture and telephones" (x; xi). Bowen's career-long attention to the effects of new technologies on consciousness; her willingness to revise older forms of fiction and to experiment with techniques influenced by painting, cinema, and radio; as well as her depictions of women struggling to resist inherited Victorian roles and fulfil their desires for autonomy, education, travel, and love align her with the modernist tradition of Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, and Djuna Barnes. Yet rather than classifying her with such innovators, even those critics attending to her modernist style and technique figure such experiments as idiosyncrasies. Where her prose subverts expectations of realist fiction, Bowen is more often described as an eccentric writer than one participating in modernism. Ellmann, for example, terms her "one of the strangest" fiction writers of the twentieth century (x); Lee notes the "surprising, ambushing oddness of much of her work" (12); and Corcoran devotes himself to "illuminating her sheer strangeness...


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