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  • Elizabeth Bowen: A Literary Life by Patricia Laurence
  • Allan Hepburn
Elizabeth Bowen: A Literary Life. Patricia Laurence. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan. Pp. 357. $24.99 (paper); $19.99 (eBook).

This biography of Elizabeth Bowen draws upon rich and varied archival material. Patricia Laurence has been intrepid in tracking down correspondence, interviewing scholars and surviving relatives, and visiting locations that inform Bowen’s fiction. Laetitia Lefroy, a descendant on Bowen’s mother’s side, is a fount of family lore and anecdotal evidence. Laurence had the rare privilege of consulting letters that Bowen sent to literary critic Humphry House, with whom she had an affair in the early 1930s. These letters, still in private hands, confirm Laurence’s assessment of Bowen as “an independent, upper-middle-class woman of cosmopolitan tastes and manners, and sexually adventurous” (268). Other sources, such as Bowen’s letters to Stephen Spender, L. P. Hartley, and William Plomer—all of which are held in university archives—widen our understanding of her substantial network of friends.

As Laurence demonstrates, Bowen had a remarkable gift for friendship. Her charm, conviviality, and conversation drew people to her. Among her literary friends, she counted T. S. Eliot, Henry Green, Graham Greene, Francis King, Rose Macaulay, Carson McCullers, Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf, and numerous others. Living near Oxford between 1925 and 1935, she struck up friendships with university people, including Maurice Bowra, David Cecil, and Isaiah Berlin. Each of these men had strikingly different personalities; all of them, however, appealed to Bowen, who liked intellectual talk and who could hold her own in such company. Bowra, a classicist, was known as a great wit. Cecil, son of the fourth Marquess of Salisbury, wrote literary criticism and biographies. Berlin, capable of talking a mile a minute, finished his book on Karl Marx at Bowen’s Court, the family demesne in County Cork, Ireland. Some of these friendships lasted; others did not. As Laurence notes, Bowen warmed to people quickly, but she dropped them without apology when her interest flagged.

The emphasis in this biography falls on the themes and motifs in Bowen’s life that inform her fiction. The book is organized by short sections devoted to stammering, madness, lovers, refugees, wartime work, transience, postcards, art, Bowen’s husband Alan Cameron, and so forth. This arrangement has the advantage of showing continuities across Bowen’s career, although it does create redundancies. For example, Laurence quotes Sean O’Faolain’s memoirs regarding his affair with Bowen, which came to a momentous halt on August 31, 1939: “as we lay- [a-bed], passion-sated, Alan rings from the office to tell her that the British fleet had been ordered to mobilise, ‘Which means war’” (quoted in Laurence, 151). This passage is cited again later, albeit with more accuracy and a different verb tense (200).

Laurence gives an informative account of the madness of Bowen’s father, Henry, an illness that manifested itself in violent rages. Henry spent a year and a half in St. Patrick’s Hospital, a private psychiatric facility in Dublin. The family feared that his madness might be transmitted to Elizabeth: she was not permitted to read until the age of seven on the grounds that mental effort might overtax her brain.1 After Henry’s breakdown, Elizabeth and her mother, Florence, [End Page 863] moved to England and stayed with relatives, a pattern that continued for Elizabeth even after her mother died in 1912. Henry recovered, became a successful land-purchase lawyer in Dublin, and worked tirelessly to transfer land to Irish tenants. Late in life, he published a massive book entitled Statutory Land Purchase in Ireland Prior to 1923.

One of the best sections in Laurence’s biography concerns trees. Henry Bowen took out a legal injunction against his brother Robert, who was bent on destroying as many trees as he could on the Bowen estates. Laurence shrewdly interprets deforestation in terms of colonialism: timber in Ireland was harvested and sold for next to nothing in Britain. In her family history, Bowen’s Court (1942), Bowen describes her father cryptically: “[H]e saw men as trees walking, he bowed to the trees” (quoted in Laurence, 68). This...


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