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Elizabeth Bowen: the Sleuth Who Bugged Tea Cups


ISSUE:  Autumn 1991

Elizabeth Bowen must have felt off duty when having her picture taken. For some of them she even dispensed with a cigarette, the smoke screen that customarily veiled her disabused eyes. Book jacket portraits vouch for the most widely displayed of her personae, a high-spirited, mondaine London hostess primed for tea at Harrods. That calculatedly outsize jewelry probably distracted companions while she fed morsels to her memory. A longer peek at the lean profile, not comely in the fashion magazine sense yet serenely riveting, conjures up a dressing room: she might be rehearsing fresh bits of gesture or intonation for Macbeth. If one does not break cover, a new surmise edges closer: now one faces no West End actress but a close cousin—a superbly practiced undercover agent.

Her habitual duty station was dinner parties where stylish married couples, civil servants, debutantes between rival beaux, an Oxford don or two could be observed and queried. Despite her myopia, the spurning of glasses was a choice, no crutch. What she drew from the subtext in a neighbor’s voice supplied all the data she needed. She sent no traitors to the Old Bailey: her patria transcended national boundaries. She served that unarmed, if loquacious, commonwealth we designate as high art during decades when she watched terror mount from midnight ambushes on the back roads of her native Ireland to air raids that pummeled major cities.

The first County Cork Bowen, one of Cromwell’s colonels, had come over from Wales. Covetous of land, he was duly rewarded. Two and a half centuries later his more altruistic descendant praised a number of co-workers on behalf of her other more peaceable commonwealth, among them Henry James and E.M. Forster. Yet her most impassioned fealty was reserved for a Norman Frenchman. What drew her was Flaubert’s wrestling with projects that for others might have seemed banal (Madame Bovary) or cripplingly esoteric (Salammbo), his monastic zeal in welding style with subject, most of all his pride in the vocation of storyteller. In an essay that gives off a whiff of incense she sums up: “Live and write?—the two were synonymous. A sin against art, for him, was a mortal sin” (Collected Impressions). She might have been reciting her own credo.

Her undercover work was not exclusively in the service of her craft. During the Second World War she eavesdropped in Eire for the British Ministry of Information. Such stints could be coordinated with furloughs at Bowen’s Court, her ancestral estate. Candid, often witty, her reports gauged reactions in the republic to the mortal threat then menacing England: she advised Whitehall to keep hands off. Yet this temporary phase entailed no major shift: it gave official status to what had already become ingrained habit. Nowhere can this investigative bent be traced with more compactness, more revealingly, than in her short fiction.

Her early habitat discouraged questions. Born in Dublin as Victoria’s tightly lidded matriarchy dozed to its close, growing up among the Anglo-Irish landed gentry during Edward VII’s naughty interlude, shuttling back and forth across the Irish Sea for school and visits to kin, she lived in a maze of contradictions that would have crazed any gardener. Over the years in her nonfiction—personal essays, her history of Bowen’s Court, book reviews—she set down what now read like a sheaf of aide-mémoires. Sometimes clan pride wins out. “They had begun as conquerors,” she concedes about her Cromwellian forebears, “and were not disposed to let that tradition lapse” (The Mulberry Tree). Elsewhere she sympathizes with the Anglo-Irish self-image as guarantors of civilized living, setters of standards. To the end of her life words like “demesne” would preserve the hallowed status of Mecca for a Moslem. At moments, though, she sounds adrift between Dun Laoghaire and Holyhead, acknowledging the Crown as potent symbol while too honest to stifle a doubt as to how far from Buckingham Palace its sway should reach. Then her phrasing apes the stammer that sometimes besets her. “The security that they had, by the eighteenth century, however ignobly gained, they did not use quite ignobly. They began to feel, and exert, the European idea—to seek what was humanistic, classic and disciplined” (TMT). Such dispatches—to herself as much as to readers—attest to the strain of reconciling a legacy at once supportive yet suspect with the candor she demanded of herself. She was as much shadowed by her past as William Faulkner.

At first she paddled in a lily pond, pretending to swim. The Millicents, Esmées, and Penelopes who dawdle through her apprentice work waste whole afternoons sniffing heliotrope as they muse, limply lyrical, over tea cups. They move like student performers in some parents’ night entertainment. Their flurried stops and starts grow nerve-racking; drooping shoulders imply a disenchantment not yet earned. One waits for a member of the audience—a drowsy father whose firm makes fire extinguishers—to leap on the stage and spray the wall of their bewitched garden, proving it was gauze all along.

As she grew braver she ventured from pond to seashore: salt water proved energizing, if bitter to the tongue. Early on genuine hazards began to trample her neatly mowed lawns. While still in her twenties she set down (in “Recent Photograph”) one of the most hair-raising sentences in 20th-century fiction: “One spring evening Mr. Brindley, returning from business, cut his wife’s throat with a razor, and afterwards turned in for the night with his head inside the gas oven, having mitigated the inside’s iron inclemency with two frilly cushions” (Collected Stories). In time she would learn that the most insidious peril need not depend on gore: it strikes at the heart, not the jugular vein, yet leaves no trace of blood.

One of her little boys watches the outside world with “a passion of observation” (Stories). A similar compulsion quickens her own accounts of a face or landscape that subtly coalesce, rousing us by cryptic hints, not frontal explanation. Sometimes we have to squint, as when reading on a beach suffused by sunlight. But the diligence exacted pays off. She warrants the approach of a critic such as Cyril Connolly when he said: “I stay very close to the text—no soaring eagle, but a low-swung basset who hunts by scent and keeps his nose to the ground” (Pritchett). Yet her range of people remained modest: children whose relation to their elders is commonly that of escapees to pursuers, girls like apprentice subversives, mature men and women writhing to give asylum to their clandestine needs without jettisoning the safeguards of public decorum.

As if admonishing herself, two of her best performances from the 1930’s weigh the cost of entrapment by one’s elders or, worse yet, by oneself. In “Reduced” we enter a suburban English scene. The Carburys have managed to attract a manifestly superior governess for their two daughters. Given the atmosphere of their home, their coup is remarkable. Already Bowen’s rapt attention to place carries special weight. Their dim (in several senses) dwelling betrays Mr. Carbury’s failure to mask his stinginess. “The house looked dedicated to a perpetual January. . .” (Stories). Indoors, oil lamps affect the picturesque: the owner balks at having electricity installed. A nosy woman guest ferrets out the governess’ past from her timid hostess. Henrietta Post, as she then was, had been the accused in a lurid trial, charged with killing her aging, lecherous employer. Acquitted for lack of evidence, she was persuaded to relocate where she would not be traced. When the visitor whispers about possibly baleful influences, Mrs. Carbury panics.

Our attention ultimately fixes on the children. Another guest, an obtuse young man, ventures upstairs where Miss Rice, as she now calls herself, supervises her charges: the girls have to skip rope to keep warm. Having overheard the downstairs whispering without grasping its real significance, the intruder seeks further details. With suppressed terror Miss Rice summarizes the case as if drawing on newspaper accounts, then speaks her choked appeal: “”. . .she disappeared, hoping to be forgotten.”” We have already recognized the youngsters’ readiness for insurrection. “What they thought of being alive their parents would never know; their characters were like batteries storing something up.” As they watch the two adults, a conjecture chillier than the temperature in the room immobilizes them. “They sat stone-still, clasped hands thrust down between their knees; you could not possibly tell what was going on in their heads, which were both turned intently away from their governess.” Those clasped hands, those averted eyes, as of one unable to face another’s pain, tell all we need to know. When their mother discloses that Miss Rice will be dismissed, they react with icy composure: they, too, will leave. Whether or not they make good their unlikely escape, they have become orphans twice over.

In “Look at All Those Roses” plants traditionally prized as symbols of devotion, arbors of safety, assume an unexpected role: they burn like warning lights. Here nature breathes on events like a mute, sardonic chorus, unwilling to tell what it knows. Two young lovers are driving back to London from a querulous rural weekend. When their little car stalls they seek help at a nearby cottage. In the front yard mammoth clusters of roses beckon as to a shrine. Lou pauses while her companion hunts down a garage. She feels ill-at-ease lest he be planning to rejoin his wife. Lou carries no school girl’s burden: hers is sexual jealousy. “. . .her idea of love was adhesiveness. . .” (Stories).

Mrs. Mather, a large, rough-hewn woman, dispenses tea. Lou distracts herself with the daughter of the house, a cripple. Stealing glances at her wristwatch, she learns about the teenager’s accident, caused six years earlier by her own father. Afterward, so the child claims, he ran away. Against her will, Lou becomes absorbed by thoughts of the absentee parent, why he took himself off. Affecting a self-command her past behavior has not verified, she reminds herself that “men dread obstinacy, of love, of grief.” Later she lies on the grass, with her mystifying mentor nearby on a portable stretcher. Apparently what Lou has been told has stirred a more objective view of her own problem. “No wonder I’ve been tired, only half getting what I don’t really want.”

On his return her lover insists that they get away. In town he has learned that the child’s mother may have exacted a fierce revenge, By now a reader knows better why those flowers, unnaturally robust, earlier “glared at the strangers, frighteningly bright.” Yet the text ends with no comfortable moment of knowledge reinforced, selfhood shored up. What lurks longest in the mind are misgivings. Lou’s passion always to be in control will probably strike again. The oracle’s voice in a child’s body may have spoken obliquely, even disingenuously, but for an adult listener to react in kind, even to herself, foreshadows grim possibilities. As she leaves Delphi, Lou remains at risk.

II

As the 1930’s slid toward chaos, entrapment threatened on a broader front. In newsreels massed formations of German youths wore uniforms that transformed them into predatory robots. After Munich, with Hitler’s ever more covetous demands, she could no longer rely on the Continent to supply examples of an approach to living that defied exclusions, rampant nationalism included. With the attack on Poland and the defeat at Dunkirk less than a year later, wreckage from her European idea smashed against her drawing room door. Names she had once invoked to validate her stance as an artist now swelled lists of the proscribed. The site of Flaubert’s home at Croisset became part of occupied France.

At this point her fiction was chiefly confined to those stories collected in 1945 as The Demon Lover. (In the U. S. the book appeared as Ivy Gripped the Steps.) Her preface to the first American edition reads like a map of her mind during a siege. “This discontinuous writing, nominally “inventive,” is the only diary I have kept” (CI). Her prior habit of distancing more problematic segments of her inheritance, of tidying up, got drowned out in the scream of air raid sirens. Ironically, hazards sharpened her perception. She no longer had to accept history largely on hearsay evidence: now she confronted it face to face. She started to probe more closely those decades during which she herself had lived, decades that had brought to pass the catastrophe in which her century found itself.

The language with which she describes this phase suggests a kind of shock therapy. The Demon Lover stories became “flying particles of something enormous and inchoate that had been going on.” Overnight Eire-United Kingdom rancors had been demoted to a subplot in a far wider tragedy. Her wartime fiction appeals even to readers who felt impatient at those occasional longueurs, the price paid for the feverish introspection of heroines in her major novels of the thirties, The House in Paris and The Death of the Heart. Now there exists an incontrovertible parity between private tension and public trauma.

“Ivy Gripped the Steps” starts with a sustained minor key chord, not so much subdued as enervated. By now the decorous heliotrope, even those enticing, if guileful, roses, have been supplanted by far greedier growths. “Ivy gripped and sucked at the flight of steps, down which with such a deceptive wildness it seemed to be flowing like a cascade” (Stories). The present time frame is September of 1944: D-day headlines have already been thrown out with the trash. A middle-aged man, alone, manifestly expecting no voice at the door, gazes up at a once fashionable house near the English Channel coast. Gavin Doddington, a civil servant, has returned to the until recently off-limits resort where he once spent entranced holidays with one of his mother’s friends, a wealthy widow. The ivy, thick clusters of which blind windows of the long closed dwelling, has choked whatever life once flourished within. “There was something brutal about its fecundity.”

Decay has sapped more than bricks and mortar. The text has nothing directly to do with the war then raging. It conducts a postmortem on a corrupt Eden. Its hero last saw Mrs. Nicholson, who once owned the house, in 1910, at the close of those summers of waltz tunes and willfulness, Edward VII’s reign. Mrs. Nicholson exemplifies that decade’s claim to be the epitome of civilized living, yet she has stunted Gavin’s growth: he has never exorcised her magnetic, traitorous ghost. Since his teens he has been involved in a series of frustrating affairs. In his forties he still feeds on what has by now become “his infantile passion for explanation.”

As he pauses, his mind reverts to his first visit. As a child of eight, he feels awed by his hostess’ carefree opulence. He contrasts it with the worries over money detectable in his own parents. Mrs. Nicholson presides where “dividends kept their mystic origin: they were as punctual as Divine grace, as unmentioned as children still in wombs.”

Gavin soon faces a rival, Admiral Concannon, now retired with an ailing wife. In short order the boy feels his first pangs of jealousy. Apart from his pleasure in the widow’s company, a second absorption seethes in the admiral’s mind: he foretells an impending war with Germany. Admiral Concannon speaks like a clubman Tiresias, no more heeded in England than in Thebes. Of his two hearers, one is ignorant, the other impervious. Here as earlier in Bowen’s world the young pay debts accrued by their elders.

Mrs. Nicholson spurns repugnant prophecies. In company with her two admirers, man and boy, the three of them move “with the dignified aimlessness of swans.” Like many another United Kingdom matron during those pre-Sarajevo years, her hazardous conceit flaunts itself when the admiral warns about shadows in the public sector. “I never even cared for history at school; I was glad when we came to the end of it.”

One cannot speak of Gavin’s attachment as a momentary crush. On subsequent visits he feels that he now presides as her favorite. She fuels his pretensions. As she plays the piano, he stands close by to turn pages, forgetting his task to worship her elegant hands. She becomes archly provocative: “Why don’t we go right away somewhere, Gavin; you and I? To Germany, or into the sun?”

Disillusion strikes abruptly. On the last night of what proves to be his final visit, before his return to school, Gavin overhears an exchange not meant for his ears. The admiral has been making clear to Mrs. Nicholson his disinclination to closer intimacy. “It would have been enough, where I am concerned, to watch you making a ninnie of that unfortunate boy.” She retorts, “Must I have nothing?—I have no little dog.”

At the close we return to dingy, depleted 1944. Gavin walks listlessly around the now deserted town. He tries to strike up an acquaintance with a girl in uniform. His “desperate jauntiness” rouses her impatience. Only when he lights a cigarette does she realize his plight. “She had seen the face of somebody dead who was still there—”old” because of the presence, under an icy screen, of a whole stopped mechanism for feeling.”

At first “Sunday Afternoon” seems a retreat to safer terrain: a group of Anglo-Irish friends sequestered from the war, a politic hostess, a retired judge, a patroness of the arts among them. Yet it stands as arguably the saddest story in the Bowen canon. It projects a “fastidious, stylized melancholy, an air of being secluded behind glass” . . .(Stories). Here again weather beckons like thematic semaphore. The month is May. They are assembled outdoors, yet “something less than a wind, a breath of coldness, fretted the edge of things.” Similar confrontations must have faced Elizabeth Bowen during those wartime visits to Ireland. Her problem and that of the visitor in the text are painfully similar, both reluctant to disavow what remains revered from their past while at the same time recognizing the need to face inescapable changes. By this point she had taken a closer look at the trajectory of her century. “Sunday Afternoon” is her ave atque vale to her Anglo-Irish perquisites: the modish amenities, the self-satisfied poise, the lapses into smugness. Here she weighs retrenchments that must be borne if civilized interchange is to survive, even in attenuated form.

The primary focus is on Henry, a friend in his forties who works in some London ministry—the London of the blitz. Although he has been intimate with his companions since his childhood, he now feels out of place. Circumstances have forced him to modify the “aesthetic of living” he absorbed in their midst. Henry is provoked to explain himself by one of those fidgety girls who recur in Bowen’s world. By now the private school stage performer has been exposed to a whole new range of ideas. Maria’s generation has developed sturdier armor: no clinging vine, she is an interrogator. Indulged as a niece of the hostess, she risks broaching subjects that others in the group skirt. She has the look of a spoiled pet, “calculating and passionate.” She aches to confront the future and make it identify itself. Nor is she wrong to be impatient with some of her elders’ judgments. One old gentleman dismisses the war as an aberration. He declares like some fin de siècle aesthete: “It will have no literature.”

As the air grows chillier, the party moves indoors for tea. Chinese peonies surmount a table with its plates of cucumber sandwiches—we are back in a pre-1914 setting. Maria’s avid queries about the blitz force the overseas visitor to rally his own thoughts. But Henry is no creative artist. He admits, “One’s feelings seem to have no language for anything so preposterous.” He has been bombed out of his London flat, with its prized collection of family heirlooms. Their loss has been one among many. “. . . I am very glad to remain. To exist.” Without realizing it, Maria confirms William James’ judgment that, for centuries past, war has always constituted the supreme excitement—for noncombatants. Bemused yet tolerant, Henry tries to respond. If he survives as an onlooker, she throbs as a callow recruit for what must prove a diminished, Spartan future. In his eyes she “seemed framed, by some sort of anticipation, for the new catastrophic outer order of life—of brutality, of being without spirit.”

As he waits alone with the girl for his bus to Dublin, Henry addresses her as Miranda. Engrossed in her own drama, she misses his allusion to The Tempest. Her list of heroes includes no cautious Prosperos. What frets Henry most of all is his fear of what lies ahead for him and his kind. “He thought, with nothing left but our brute courage, we shall be nothing but brutes.” Reluctantly, he jots down his London address, yet Maria and he are too dissimilar to become comrades. He verifies Coleridge’s admonition that the knowledge gained by experience resembles a lantern at the stern of a moving boat: it casts light only on what is already behind us. The past cherished by his older companions has been built on a provincial cast of mind, yet even a flawed tradition may be preferable to a no man’s land where blood, toil, tears, and sweat are to be the fare even of those enlisted on the more defensible side in the struggle. Like many another 20th-century voyager, Henry hesitates between the desire to set forth and the urge to disembark while still inside a familiar, if confining, harbor.

III

The title text in The Demon Lover, the most reprinted Bowen story, has often been taken to be an updated Victorian ghost tale, this time culminating in a taxi, not a country mansion. But such an approach diminishes its resonance. Haunting occurs, true enough, yet its implementation underscores her indefatigable auditing of states of mind. The grisliest revenants are those that materialize from within. At a time beset by daily shocks it faces what, but for the therapy afforded by her art, might have befallen Elizabeth Bowen herself.

From internal evidence we know that Mrs. Drover’s crisis strikes during August of 1941, when the Luftwaffe was still terrorizing London. She has returned to her damaged home to collect articles needed at her family’s country refuge. The day has been hot, humid, with enervating showers. At first it is as if she were being warned away. She has trouble opening the front door: its lock must be forced to turn the key. Once inside, she confronts the residuum of her hitherto sheltered domestic world: a yellow smoke stain on the marble mantelpiece, a ring deposited by a vase on top of an escritoire. One vacant space intimates lurking peril, not now from the sky but closer at hand. The absent piano “had left what looked like claw-marks on its part of the parquet.” She might have intruded on an echoing mausoleum.

Long submerged memories and here-and-now exhaustion join to overpower her. As her composure wilts, she conjures up an envelope on a hall table. Moments later she watches herself scanning its contents with the total recall of someone reliving a nightmare. The spectral message could only have been written by the young soldier to whom she had been engaged 25 years earlier, that is to say, in August of 1916, when the Battle of the Somme, the most fearful butchery of B.E.F. troops, was already in its second month. Launched on July 1, after an artillery barrage that lasted five full days, its first 24 hours cost the British attackers, in dead, wounded, and missing, close to 60,000 men. Pulverizing shells made the route of advance almost impassable—without eliminating the German barbed wire. Their machine guns did the rest. By the time the campaign was abandoned it was November. Gains had been negligible, British casualties more than 400,000. Even after the spurious victory claimed at Versailles, in the national psyche such a massive hemorrhage had not yet been stanched more than two decades later.

Before he left for the front her lover had wrenched a promise that she should wait. After he had been reported missing, she suffered “a complete dislocation from everything.” Being a survivor begot its own pangs of guilt. Ever since, though more and more at a level below conscious awareness, she has been tracked by a supplicating ghost. The account of her eventual marriage to another man suggests acquiescence, not fulfillment. “. . .in this house the years piled up, her children were born and they all lived till they were driven out by the bombs of the next war.” By now a publicly poised woman in her forties, yet still her “most normal expression was one of controlled worry, but of assent.”

She launches a feeble counterattack, using her domestic errand as a shield. Together with purchases made earlier that day, her house parcels will require a taxi. She walks, refusing to rush, toward a nearby square. She will return to the house, then take her bundles to the train. As she reaches the square, to her relief a solitary taxi awaits. At this point she slips from dread into schizophrenia. Given her state, a reader may well question the report of what she has actually seen or done. The finale graphically charts the delusions of a victim being throttled by phantoms. To her impaired senses, the driver fails to pause for directions but heads back into the side street from which she has come. She moves forward to give instructions. As he faces her, the precipitate surge of human features at close range unearths one dimly remembered countenance from those mounds of dead. As she collapses, the taxi seems to be “accelerating without mercy” as it carries her into the maze of silent, staring streets. A quarter of a century afterward, Mrs. Drover has become yet another victim of that futile crusade in Flanders.

In a letter Elizabeth Bowen once described herself as “idiosyncratically Irish,” supplying addenda such as “cagey,” “on the run,” and “bristling with reservations.” Her thumbnail portrait was on target. Years of winnowing the uncritical assumptions of her clan had made her wary of hard and fast rules. She faced daily existence buoyed up by a candid, lively pragmatism. Better than any of her characters she escaped entrapment. Not deeply religious, she adhered comfortably, without transports, to the practices of Anglicanism. Its rituals appealed to her eyes. Its Book of Common Prayer, confident but not querulous, provided a source for the voicing of aspirations neither boastful nor outdated. She wanted discipline—without having to wear a hair shirt. Yet she was not prepared to achieve comfort at the expense of common sense. She told one man with whom she was having an affair to break her heart, if he must, but not to waste her time.

As a craftsman, she ranked high among those devotees of style and symbol Cyril Connolly designated as the mandarins, yet in art as in quotidian routine temperament ultimately outweighed theory. Sometimes in spite of themselves Celts remain congenital mixers. Even her special devotion to Flaubert could not keep her from laying flowers at adjunct altars. She grew wary of her contemporaries who demanded submission to any new aesthetic Scripture, and who proselytized on its behalf. She felt the need for some complementary authority, a kind of literary magisterium that appraised the new in the light of long-established practice. She heard this continuum, like an unextinguishable heartbeat, in earlier authors as unlike as Henry Fielding, Jane Austen, and Henry James. She respected the scholastic excavations of James Joyce, yet she never sought him out as a John the Baptist. She resisted approaches to storytelling that smelled of dogma. Homiletics grafted on fiction, for her, constituted a major heresy. Creative work was as essential as food, yet it remained irrevocably of this world.

She realized that her lifetime coincided with the death of one era and the birth pangs of another. At such a border crossing sensibility could not move forward unattended. Her sibylline friend Virginia Woolf likewise deplored the escalation of brute force after 1939. But a tidal wave conceals fewer risks for secret agents than for sibyls: the former make provision for more than one escape route. With its cult of privacy, Bloomsbury tended to limit its communication to members of its own circle. For Elizabeth Bowen, those who besought the Muses prayed harder for skill in reaching readers than for fame as devisers of ciphers. While still an apprentice monitoring the London scene, she attended a reading by another of the gurus of Modernism, Ezra Pound. She found him “hypnotically unintelligible.” His cryptograms excluded too much.

What best safeguarded her room for maneuver was that irrepressible curiosity. In 1944 she published in a Dublin magazine a tribute to a family servant, Sarah Barry. Brought by Elizabeth’s grandfather from Tipperary as a young girl, Sarah eventually became a kind of kitchen Nestor. Most important, she respected Elizabeth’s need to write. “. . .what I did, along with the much that she did, followed the same ideal—to keep things going” (TMT).

For her part, what Elizabeth Bowen kept going was that portion of the storyteller’s task which reveals how private motives are impinged upon by public events. In 1949 The Heat of the Day surveyed in more panoramic fashion locales first met in the wartime stories. Toward the end of her life, in The Little Girls and Eva Trout, she substantiated yet again her investigative bent, now probing closer to the frontier of fantasy. But these novels do not eclipse The Demon Lover. In her dispatches wrested from the wrack of near disaster, more incisively, more forcibly, than at any other stage of her quest, she might have appropriated for her own purposes one of the more open-handed precepts contained in Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading. “Literature,” it concedes, “is news that STAYS news.”

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