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Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks: Elizabeth Bowen

10 June 2015

Elizabeth Bowen, The Demon Lover and Other Stories, 1945

If you'd like to learn a little more about the author, you will find her entry in the Dictionary of Irish Biography below.

Catch up on all of the Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks articles. The project is a collaboration between the Royal Irish Academy and the Irish Times, and covers two of the Academy’s projects – the Dictionary of Irish Biography and the Art and Architecture of Ireland.

Elizabeth Dorothea Cole Bowen
by Ian d'Alton

Bowen, Elizabeth Dorothea Cole (1899–1973), writer, was born 7 June 1899 at 15 Herbert Place, Dublin, only child of Henry Charles Cole Bowen (1862–1930) of Bowen's Court, Co. Cork, and his first wife Florence (née Colley) (1866–1912), of Dublin. They married in 1890; his second marriage (1918) was to Mary, sister of Stephen Gwynn (qv). Henry, a barrister, worked for the Irish land commission. His intermittent mental illness resulted in Elizabeth (‘Bitha’) and her mother living from 1905 with relatives in Kent. After Florence's death from cancer Elizabeth was raised by aunts in England. Later she averred that ‘possibly, it was England made me a novelist’ (Pictures and conversations (1975)); and she wrote often of the plight of the orphaned, dislocated child.


Elizabeth was educated by governesses and at day schools, including Lindum House (Kent) and Harpenden Hall (Hertfordshire). Downe House boarding school near Orpington, Kent, which she attended between 1914 and 1917, eschewed ‘silliness’ and encouraged conviviality and originality. School writings show her mannered style there from the first. Bowen entered the LCC school of art in 1918. Withdrawing after two terms, she subsequently studied journalism. The writer Rose Macaulay – a friend of her former headmistress – helped, in 1923, in the publication of a volume of short stories, Encounters. That year she married Alan Charles Cameron (1893–1952), MC, assistant secretary for education in Northampton, only child of Henry James Cameron (HM inspector of factories) and his wife Elizabeth (née Lanyon). At Oxford between 1925 and 1935, after Cameron's appointment as the city's secretary for education, she wrote three volumes of stories (Ann Lee's and other stories (1926), Joining Charles. . . (1929), The cat jumps. . . (1934)) and four novels (The hotel (1927), The last September (1929), Friends and relations (1931), To the north (1932)). New friends included Isaiah Berlin, Maurice Bowra, David Cecil, and Cyril Connolly.

She had admirers of both sexes. ‘Hers was a handsome face, handsome rather than beautiful, with its bold nose, high cheekbones and tall forehead’ (May Sarton, A world of light (1976)). A painting of Bowen by Patrick Hennessy (qv), RHA, is in the Crawford Gallery, Cork, and an Angus McBean photograph in the National Portrait Gallery, London. An attractive stammer, sometimes bothersome, dated from her mother's death. Charming but occasionally snobbish, in later years she came to like American glitz and easy manners. She dropped people ruthlessly and her behaviour could be casual and unpredictable. Few got close. At Oxford she had an affair with the critic Humphry House. Other lovers followed, notably Goronwy Rees and Sean O'Faolain (qv). Life with Cameron – an intelligent administrator with a deliberate line in boring stories – was an enigma to her friends. The marriage – childless – provided domestic stability as the counterpoint to her literary and social life and peripatetic upbringing. Bowen was discreet about her affairs and Cameron seemingly tolerated them.

In the 1930s she thrived in Oxford, New York, Italy, and, increasingly, London, where she moved in 1935 when Cameron joined the BBC. Two of her finest novels – The house in Paris (1935) and The death of the heart (1938) – date from this period. The latter, a forensic examination of upper-middle-class values with its ‘bitter kernel’ grounded in the end of her affair with Rees (Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin (1994)), is about how society and individuals function only by deception. Bowen had coped with her father's illness by ‘a campaign of not noticing’; this was reflected in the indirectness of her prose. Physical action tended to be minimal, with plot often complex and difficult to follow. Characters and settings were drawn in delicate filigree.

Influenced by James, Proust, and Woolf, Bowen's place is in the canon of English literature, linking the Bloomsbury set with later writers such as Iris Murdoch (qv), Anthony Powell, and Muriel Spark. She lived and worked in two worlds – a cosmopolitan, literary England, and a decaying, brittle, vacuous Anglo-Ireland, especially from 1930, when she inherited Bowen's Court. Her Anglo-Irish life had a pervasive influence on her perspective; Bowen wrote as an outsider. The ‘death of the heart’ of her class infused her work and informed the attenuation and malaise of many of her characters. Bowen established identity by conflating person and place, often leading her to represent the latter (especially houses) as sentient entities. In The last September, the rebels that destroyed the Big House were its ‘executioners’; in The house in Paris she wrote of ‘sending vibrations up the spine of the house’; and in The death of the heart even the furniture is alive. Its apotheosis was reached in her important social and family history, Bowen's Court (1942); ‘A Bowen, in the first place, made Bowen's Court. Since then. . . Bowen's Court has made all the succeeding Bowens'. Bowen's Court was perhaps the child she never had – troublesome and expensive, but also an object of pride, love, and refuge. Further biographical fragments were published in Seven winters (1942) and (posthumously) Pictures and conversations (1975).

For Bowen the war was ‘the most interesting period of my life’. She became an ARP warden and her house was bombed. In 1941 the hothouse live-for-the-day atmosphere of London encouraged an intense relationship with the urbane Canadian diplomat, Charles Ritchie (1906–95). Ritchie was, possibly, the true passion of Bowen's life; she was certainly his. The attachment to Bowen, he wrote in 1942, ‘will bind me as long as I live' (The siren years (1974)). The heat of the day (1949), dedicated to Ritchie, was based on their affair. If her observation-point as a writer was as the ‘spy inside the gates’ (H. Lee, Elizabeth Bowen (1981)), this mirrored her wartime role as a journalist for the ministry of information. Moving between London and Bowen's Court, she conveyed Irish opinion to the ministry; Lord Cranborne found her reports ‘sensible and well-balanced’. In 1948 Bowen was appointed CBE and subsequently lectured for the British Council abroad. She was a conscientious member of the royal commission on capital punishment (1949–53), which was influential in leading to the abolition of hanging.

Bowen's prodigious output in the late 1940s and early 1950s consisted largely of workaday pieces – articles, broadcasts, criticisms, introductions, prefaces, reviews, and travelogues. Her eighty or so short stories were of more even quality than her novels and the subjects diverse, ranging through wartime London, ghosts, children, and hotels. An unpublished play, ‘Castle Anna’ (1948), was notable only for Richard Burton's début. A history of Dublin's Shelbourne Hotel appeared in 1951.

Cameron, diabetic and alcoholic for a long time, died in 1952. The last of the quintessential Bowenesque novels, A world of love, was published in 1955. Its ‘darkened mirror’ (her phrase) reflected Bowen's preoccupations at the time about money, a shabby Irish house, and a shabbier heroine. She had stayed on in Bowen's Court, stacking up financial problems as a generous hostess of the Big House. Attempts to keep it in the family failing, the house was sold to a local farmer and demolished in 1960. Despite an ambivalent attitude towards Ireland in later years, Bowen was a frequent guest of friends, especially in Kinsale. According to Ritchie, she was not afraid to revisit the site of Bowen's Court.

Well-read and intelligent, but not intellectual, she was fascinated by the art of the novel – a major theme of her many visits to American universities as writer-in-residence after the war. She lectured in Rome, Bonn, and London; and Oxford, where she had moved after Bowen's Court was sold. She received honorary doctorates from Dublin University (1949) and Oxford University (1956). In 1965 she was made a Companion of Literature by the Royal Society of Literature. Two further novels – The little girls (1964); and Eva Trout; or, Changing scenes (1969) – saw a change towards greater physicality and action. Eva Trout, with its violent end, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1970. Bowen had settled in Hythe, Kent, in 1965. With Ritchie present, she died there in hospital 22 February 1973, of lung cancer. She is buried, with Cameron, in Farahy churchyard, Co. Cork, beside the site of Bowen's Court.

Bowen's principal publishers were Sidgwick & Jackson, Constable, Gollancz, Longman Green, Collins, Cuala Press, Cape, and Knopf, and her literary agents and executors were Curtis Brown Ltd; a comprehensive bibliography of works by and about her is in J. Sellery and W. Harris, Elizabeth Bowen: a descriptive bibliography (1977, 1981). Many of her papers are in the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Centre, University of Texas, Austin (TXRC98-A19).

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