- Out of the Shadows:The Newly Collected Elizabeth Bowen
Elizabeth Bowen is "hot" at last. Her position and literary reputation have finally emerged from the jealous boundaries of critical canonicity as well as from ambivalent pleas for both her integration and exceptionality. She is now well on her way to being established as one of the most important British and Anglo-Irish writers of the twentieth century, particularly of the Second World War. Thanks to Allan Hepburn's pathbreaking editions of previously uncollected essays, short stories, and broadcasts and interviews, the rich complexity of Bowen's oeuvre should no longer need apologetics or justification. Interest in Bowen has always been sporadic, with occasional essays, biographies, and scholarly monographs. Recently, however, she has begun to capture the sustained attention of tastemakers at the MLA, MSA, and other standard-bearing literary and cultural institutions. Bowen scholars have consistently argued for and demonstrated her brilliance, albeit from various theoretical perspectives. But the record of publication on Bowen shows that critic after critic has felt compelled to mount yet another new appeal. The critical dilemma has always been one of situating and stabilizing Bowen's oeuvre and style in literary history and theory. For instance, Victoria Glendinning's 1978 biography positioned Bowen as a "link" between the high modernism of Virginia Woolf and the contemporary narrative experiments of Iris [End Page 669] Murdoch and Muriel Spark.1 Hermione Lee's seminal studies of Bowen in her intellectual and cultural contexts broadened the writer's purview to include her in both "Anglo-Irish literature and history, and that of European modernism."2 Very recently, Vera Kreilcamp identified Bowen as "a conservative modernist [and] cosmopolitan author [who] also moved from local historical trauma to the wider European catastrophe of the First World War" and beyond.3
Critics past and present acknowledge that Bowen's liminal national identity, lexical discontinuities, elliptical references, and elusive characterizations defy extant analytical categories. But these indeterminate specifications reveal a more afflicting kind of displacement. In short, as a writer and as a person, Bowen's identity is a trouble-maker. Traditional, even revisionary, literary and cultural theories are challenged by Bowen's cultural and political ambivalences and polysemous writing style. Her work resists being anatomized by these discourses, and marks a limit to their explanatory power. Even recently, wherever her work has been discussed, efforts to conceptualize it have been marked by allied but contradictory methods and assessments that both affirm and reproach her forms and narrative syntax. Any review of extant Bowen criticism will reveal the following dissonant descriptions for her style: peculiar, distinctive, convoluted, conservative, transgressive, disturbing, nostalgic, resistant, obsessive, and otherwise confounding. In turn, critics have attempted to rescue her writing from the misunderstandings and neglect that occur because of its vast distance from the aesthetic, political, and ethical concerns of current theoretical paradigms. Critics have sought to do so by repositioning her writing within modernism, postmodernism, postcolonialism, surrealism, gender studies, psychoanalysis, and multiple combinations thereof. Read together, these rescue efforts could suggest Bowen's multivalent achievements, but they also represent a danger: that the overdetermined nature of these efforts demonstrates a collective lack of confidence in analyzing Bowen's writing, and results in special pleading on her behalf.4 As a result, to use one of Bowen's favorite metaphors, these timorous approaches create more shadow than light. Neil Corcoran succinctly summarizes the point: "Neglect creates an aura of unapproachability, a sort of endlessly repeated preliminary throat-clearing in critics who do take her up, and a lack of comparative focusing . . . something of a ghost at the banquet of modern critical debate."5
As these three new volumes (with Allan Hepburn's introductions and notes) demonstrate, Bowen's style is consonant with her own critical approaches to her various subjects. These volumes...