Elizabeth Bowen

I am completely undone. Words fail me. I am reading To the North, on Darlene’s always excellent recommendation, and I cannot believe how exquisite Elizabeth Bowen’s writing is. Every sentence is perfect, every character walks off the page. I thought Dorothy Whipple was the mid 20th century’s most underrated female author; I was wrong. That crown has to belong to Bowen, whose craftmanship is absolutely flawless. Every moment I spend not reading her words feels wasted. Go; find, buy, read, now!

30 comments

  1. I have only read two of Bowen’s novels, the achingly sad and nostalgic The Last September and the disturbingly atmospheric The House in Pairs. On the basis of these I’d whole-heartedly agree with your assessment. She has a control of tone and atmosphere that is all the more impressive for the relative spareness of the prose. [In the US, judging from what comes through the used bookstore where I work, she is much more widely read, and more easily available, than Whipple.]

    1. Steve, I can’t wait to read those novels you mention! She is definitely more widely available than Whipple, but I think in the sense of being read and talked about and acknowledged as a talent, she’s definitely not getting the attention she rightly deserves. I have never seen her books in a high street bookshop, which makes me very sad.

  2. I purchased most of her work in paperback here in the US, but that was some time ago. I also have a few first lovely first editions in hard cover (Be jealous!) Most of her major novels are still available here, but not everything. There is tons of scholarly work on Bowen, Victoria Glendenning did an easily obtained biography and Bowen wrote a wonderful book about her ancestral home in Ireland entitled Bowen’s Court. She was one of the last of the great Anglo-Irish writers and I imagine William Trevor is the actual last one. You can most likely obtain nice hard covers when you return to the UK if you want them for your permanent collection.

    1. I am jealous Ellen! I can smell a new collecting frenzy coming on! I am definitely going to be snapping up everything of hers and relating to hers that I can when I get back the UK – I will never have enough of her writing!

  3. Oh, I just knew you would be blown away by Bowen! She left me completely mesmerized, and mystified as to why it took me so long to discover her work. I literally could not think of anything else but the ending of To the North for two solid days! Thanks for spreading the word, Rachel.

    My respect for Bowen even increased after reading how supportive she was of Elizabeth Taylor at a time when others were minimalizing her work. A true gem in my eyes.

    1. Oh Darlene…I finished To the North yesterday…I couldn’t breathe!!

      Oh really? You are making me long for my English bookcase…I need an Elizabeth fest! Thank you SO MUCH for showing me what I was missing out on!

    1. I can’t wait for The Last September! I have heard such good things. I’m glad you’re a Bowen fan too – I’m pleased that you persevered!

  4. I am so excited to hear you say this! I love Elizabeth Bowen and her book “The Death of the Heart” is one of my favorites, it is just exquisitely written. I have not read “To the North” and will now do so. I have all of her books and cannot wait to read this one.

  5. Gosh! Well, I’m afraid I found The Last September a huge slog… must try again. I could tell that her writing was good, sentence by sentence, but did have to plough through it. (Maybe how you felt about my wonderful Ivy Compton-Burnett!)

    I don’t really consider her underrated either – I know she doesn’t get TV programmes made of her books etc., but she’s certainly considered brilliant amongst literary critics etc. – unlike poor Whipple.

    1. Oh Simon! Really?! Try To the North…it really is spectacular and I couldn ‘t put it down!

      I see your point…she is definitely appreciated in literary circles, but in a wider general public sense, I’d guess the average Waterstones shopper has never heard of her, which is a terrible shame. I wish novels like this were the ones being chosen by TV book clubs.

  6. I just re-read my post above and noticed a silly typo: for Pairs, read Paris. Although … a novel with the title I mistakenly created above might be amusing.

  7. I love it when you find something you instantly connect with. One of my friends wrote her dissertation on Bowen and one of my supervisors was doing a phd on her, I think she might be having a bit of a renaissance. Did you notice her come up in ‘Wait for Me!’? DD really has known everyone. Enjoy working your way through her work! x

    1. I am so jealous of your friend! I wish I’d discovered Bowen younger and then I’d have written by dissertation on her! Vintage have fairly recently reprinted her novels so she’s definitely become more widely available…let’s hope she gets discovered and talked about by someone influential. I’d love to see her work filmed. I did! I think that mention, after having read Darlene’s review before, gave me the push I needed. DD was a lucky woman to have met her! Thank you, I will!🙂

  8. Her work was a revelation to me too. Keep reading. Not a disappointment to be found in her work. Or at least that is what I think.🙂

    1. I think I will be agreeing with you wholeheartedly…I can’t see HOW she can disappoint! Don’t worry, I am not going to stop…she’s an author I cannot leave on the shelf from now on!

  9. I just this morning finished In the Heat of the Day, her 1948 novel of the middle years of the war. It is, on reflection, one of the oddest books I’ve read. Scenes of intense introspection — not all of it justified, in literary or dramatic terms — alternate with some of the most delightful scenes of English comedy. The novel unfolds as a series of extended “set pieces”, often psychologically so improbable that I sometimes rolled my eyes. (You accuse a guy of being a spy, he turns on you angrily — and then he proposes marriage??? Really???)

    Overall, the depiction of wartime London is superb, the comic sections are brilliantly sustained and, I acknowledge in fairness, there IS much beautiful writing. The passages between the unformed, rather anomic Louie Lewis and her friend Connie are exquisitely funny; the dialogue, rendered in a torrent of slangy cliches and catchphrases, is like some weird modernist poetry.

    Prepare to skip over the occasional overwritten scene and the author’s endless parsing of nuance and implication, which does not add significantly to our appreciation of the central characters and their dilemma.

    1. Hi Ted,

      Well you have intrigued me! I can’t wait to read The Heat of the Day and see what I think now. I think Bowen’s strength is her incredible writing ability, and her humour is surprising – so much of To the North made me laugh. I look forward to reading more of her – I hope you will read more too!

  10. I hope you’re not regretting sending me that collection of her short stories, hopefully you can find another copy of them at some point! There has been a movie made of The Last September actually, with Michael Gambon and Keeley Hawes I believe. So there’s that too. And again, I’m thrilled you like her too.

    1. Not at all, Carolyn, because I know they brought you joy! Her books are easy to find in the UK so I shan’t have a problem amassing a collection when I return! Oh really? I shall have to find that once I’ve read it. I am so glad I have now read a Bowen and can join the fan club – she is just fantastic!

    1. Hi Ruby, it’s nice to meet you! I’m glad you are enjoying Bowen too – that’s interesting about the painting, I never knew that. I can see that now you’ve told me – what a great insight, thank you!

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