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The tragic genius of Elizabeth Bowen - AN Wilson

Features | By AN Wilson

Irish eyes aren’t smiling: Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973)

Tortured by love, longing for children, Elizabeth Bowen poured her pain into her exceptional novels, says her friend A N Wilson

The Heat of the Day, The Death of the Heart and the late masterpiece Eva Trout are among the finest English novels written in the mid- to late-twentieth century.

In her brittle, mannered prose, Elizabeth Bowen caught the painfulness of love and its all-consuming pain. In Eva Trout (SPOILER ALERT!), there aches, throughout the comedy, the yearning for a child by a galumphing, tall, emotionally deprived woman.

It was no surprise to discover, when Elizabeth Bowen’s biography came to be written, how often she fell in love. Notably tall, and with a stammer, she communicated awkwardly with others.

She lived in the days of class distinction, and to be upper class – her manner was notably grande dame – cut her off from the many. She was the only child of the Irish country house – Bowen’s Court, County Cork, demolished by a property-developer after she sold it in 1959. Her history of it is a grief-stricken threnody for the enlightened Ireland of Lady Gregory.

Julia Parry’s very moving new book talks about the love affair between her grandfather, Humphry House, and Elizabeth Bowen. This took place when House was a don at Oxford, in his early twenties, in the process both of getting married and of establishing himself as one of the foremost scholars of Victorian literature – editor of Hopkins, author of a superb study of Dickens.

The most chilling letter in the volume tries, falteringly, to explain why he had not told her that his wife was expecting a baby.

It was too painful a subject. And then, the sentence I almost wish I had not read: ‘Why Elizabeth, did you not tell me when we first slept together that you were a virgin?’ She would have been in her early thirties when the twentysomething cad wrote this letter. She had been married for a decade.

Two memories came back when I read this – one a friend’s memory, one my own.

Elizabeth Bowen liked secrets. Her novels are full of them – the teenage diaries, cruelly read by adults in The Death of the Heart; the missing love letters in A World of Love.

She kept her emotional life in separate compartments. A friend of mine went to one of her dinner parties in the 1950s, where Cyril Connolly, Rose Macaulay and others were exchanging literary quips. He excused himself from the table and went in search of the loo. He opened one door, which turned out to be a cupboard under the stairs, where he found Bowen’s husband, Alan Cameron, a mournful-looking man with a military, white moustache, sitting with his supper on a tray. Whether Mr Cameron had excused himself, or been excluded from, the brilliant company my friend never knew.

I was awestruck when, aged 21, I came across her, aged 70. The Warden of my Oxford college, William Hayter, asked us to dine with her. My wife and I brought our baby in a basket, and I remember Elizabeth Bowen’s powdery face leaning over it, as she said, ‘I n-n-never had a b-baby.’

She lit a fag – she was a chain-smoker – and looked as if she was about to weep.

She was easier in the company of men than in that of women. One close friend was David Cecil, one of whose protégées at Oxford was a young don-novelist, Rachel Trickett. Lord David hit on the disastrous idea of bringing the aspirant writer together with the famous novelist, and asked John Bayley, Iris Murdoch’s husband, to make up the foursome.

Rachel, a brilliantly funny talker with a Lancashire accent, launched into descriptions of college life, and anecdotes about her legendarily severe Principal, Miss Proctor.

John could see – what was invisible to Lord David and to Miss Trickett – Elizabeth hating the younger woman.

While Rachel prattled amusingly about Miss Proctor, Elizabeth leaned forward with her fork and rapped Rachel, really hard, on her knuckles. ‘DON’T talk about your … P-p-principal in that way,’ she blurted. The rest of the meal descended into silence.

My wife and I saw her on and off for about a year. The septuagenarian had developed a crush on an American graduate student in the college, who was the boyfriend of one of my female contemporaries.

Bowen’s pursuit of this man was relentless, though I think she wanted only his company, rather than an affair. He was flattered, but scared by her. She moved to the Bear Hotel in Woodstock for the whole winter, to be near him.

I also saw her with John Bayley and Iris Murdoch. She came to John’s classes – chaotically brilliant – on Jane Austen in New College.

It was Bowen who told me of John’s superb novel of army life, In Another Country. She thought he was a better novelist than Iris.

Reading of her affair with the caddish House has reawakened my gratitude for my having met her, and my sense that almost all good art – and, by God, her novels are good – comes out of suffering


This story was from April 2021 issue. Subscribe Now