People, Places, Things
Essays by Elizabeth Bowen
Edited with an introduction by Allan Hepburn
Edinburgh: University Press, 2008. x, 467 p. £20.99 (Paper)
ISBN: 0748635696; 9780748635696
Reviewed by Christine Reynier
Université Paul-Valéry-Montpellier III
Elizabeth Bowen, renowned as a short story writer, was also a novelist and prolific essayist. Throughout her life, she wrote essays and collected some of them in Collected Impressions (1950) and Afterthought : Pieces about Writing (1962). A third volume, Pictures and Conversations, was published posthumously in 1974. With People, Places, Things, Allan Hepburn presents us with 82 uncollected essays written between the 1920s and the 1960s. Some are published here for the first time; many were first published in magazines and newspapers as famous and as diverse as The Listener, The Bell, The Spectator, Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue or House and Garden. The essays themselves cover a wide range of subjects from writing to modern life, from foreign countries to home or from woman to objects and fashion. The public as well as the private sphere are scrutinised by the author with great sensitivity, perceptiveness, humour and originality. The most unlikely topics—calico or millinery—or seemingly dull ones, like age, are brought to life by Bowen.
The flexibility and porousness of the essay enables her to tackle various genres, from the political to the autobiographical or lyrical essay. All come out in lively pieces which capture, beyond a topical subject, the mood of a period—the fascination for modernity, the impact of war, etc.—and tell us a lot about Bowen’s own writing.
Further than making these uncollected essays available, the editor is offering particularly apt and satisfactory groupings under such headings as Light, Places or People, etc. In the first series of essays, “Light”, Bowen provides a sort of history of light, from the natural light of the sun to candlelight and electricity. Her sensitivity to the beauty of light, enhanced by contrasting shadows and darkness, her ability to capture shaded Victorian interiors or candle-lit Christmas display not only her writing skills but also her painterly ones. With a painter’s eye, she can create chiaroscuro pictures and her essays glow with the generosity of the beauty they conjure up. Her essays thus contrast with the 1938 paintings in the Royal Academy Exhibition that exudes, according to her, the “insincerity’, the “falseness” and the “facetiousness” of a dead art.
The second series, “Places”, is probably one of the most striking in the whole volume. Time and place are closely interwoven in the evocation of war-time and post-war Europe. “Britain in Autumn” deals with the blitz in London and focuses on people coming out of their shelters in the morning after a night of bombing. This essay unexpectedly turns out to be a hymn to life in which the author shows a sense of community is being built up through such circumstances: Londoners become aware of their neighbours and start loving them, forgetting their class-consciousness. The blitz “acts as a leveller”, Bowen writes and she adds: “We all touch on the fundamentals we are not speaking about”. “Britain in Autumn” is also interesting for the many excisions it displays: irretrievable words cut by the censor that enable the reader to retrieve the mood of the time.
This is followed by four essays on the 1946 Paris Peace Conference. By recording what no historian would record, Bowen gives a very telling idea of what is going on in post-war Paris. She does not give any detail about the conference yet she transcribes its “climate”, namely the changes in mood and in atmosphere. Bowen registers the impalpable changes that occur in the various commissions, the tensions or the gradually relaxing atmosphere, the familiarity setting in among the delegates and how these alterations little by little affect the work the delegates are doing, the way in which they propose to change the world. Hers is an account of a historical moment not through facts but through impressions.
Similarly, in “Prague and the Crisis”, she captures the atmosphere in Prague in 1948, just before the Czech Communist Party seized power. There, “art has the rank of religion”, whatever the difficulties of everyday life, and she can feel the “unremitting internal excitement” in every Czech, which is both spellbinding and makes her feel her own foreignness. In a few pages, rather than offering a banal tour of the city, she captures its “Czechness”.
And in another political essay, “Hungary”, she shows how Hungarians silently resist the Soviet influence in the Hungary of 1948: through attention to dress—one of the marks of self-respect—, through voluble if hushed conversation in cafés, or through church-going. In “Without coffee, Cigarettes, or Feeling”, Bowen gives us food for thought when she writes about being in contact with students in West Germany through her British Council lectures and realising with a pang that higher education in that country, “aims not so much to widen and enrich life […] as to reduce it to one fundamental purpose” . Through the editor’s agency, the genius of traumatised London, Paris, Prague or Berlin is contrasted with the glittering beauty and quickening effect of New York City.
The third section, “People”, is a short one compounded of portraits of people Bowen met or knew, ordinary people like her former headmistress or well-known ones like the French writer Paul Morand or Mainie Jellett, a childhood friend and Cubist painter. Putting these essays together suggests that for Bowen, ordinary people could be as extraordinary as famous ones and sends us back to the first essays on “light”, where the author voices her delight in candlelight or electricity that can turn perfectly ordinary moments into pure magic. Bowen’s modernist sensibility is thus implicitly stated.
In “Houses” and Bowen’s evocation of “Home”, the war is omnipresent again either as a present or a recent reality. The ruin and damage it brought about is evoked as well as the more positive influence it had on people’s behaviour: just as they became aware of the other after a night of bombing, they started opening their homes for Christmas to strangers who were far from home or homeless. While heightening the significance of home, war has opened the private sphere to the other. Generosity and hospitality are foregrounded and the author expands in several other essays, in “Things”, on the act of giving as a token of love and a way of giving pleasure. These values are held high by Bowen who has always opened her eighteenth-century house, Bowen’s Court, to neighbours and friends such as Eudora Welty, Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf or Frank O’ Connor.
“Bowen’s Court” is an introduction to several essays on her country and her love of Ireland. This may well be construed as an act of conservatism and patriotism—which it may well be; however, it is the poetry, warmth and generosity of these essays which remain in the reader’s mind. These essays are meant to be an alternative to tourist guide-books and to make the reader discover the heart of Ireland which, for her, lies in the small towns and their intimate life.
Then come several sections which are devoted to writing. In “Writers and their books”, Bowen gives snapshots of various writers, famous ones like Jane Austen, James Joyce or E.M. Forster, as well as less well-known ones like Princess Bibesco, Angela Thirkell or Rose Macaulay. About Jane Austen, she reminds us that she was not yet 21 when she wrote Pride and Prejudice, the same age as her heroine Elizabeth Bennet; she insists on the freshness of the novel, the prevailing effect of which is youth. She praises Jane Austen’s study of characters, her taste for laughter and comedy, her sense of proportion and restraint and reminds us that the subject of the story is the misleading nature of first impressions—First Impressions being the initial title of Pride and Prejudice. Even if Bowen had not said so, we would have guessed how much she learnt from Austen.
As for Joyce, Bowen claims him as an Irish writer who received much from Irish tradition. Foregrounding his Irishness, she foregrounds his contradictions, his cruelty as a writer, his capacity for despair as well as for laughter and his linguistic skills. “He pounded language to jelly in his attempts to make it tell us what he was laughing at”, she writes and most of all, she remarks that what is unintelligible in Finnegans Wake for someone who expects narration is not unintelligible for someone who accepts to be affected by Finnegans Wake. It “acts on us […] Sense has been sacrificed to sensation”. A particularly perceptive reading. She also renders a vibrating homage to E.M. Foster who, she confesses, influenced her own writing. She discusses his novels and short stories, showing convincingly enough that novelists do not develop but enlarge.
What Bowen tells us about Austen, Joyce or Foster is quite different from what Virginia Woolf does in her own essays. For that matter, Bowen’s essays are not only worth reading for what they tell us about these writers but also for what they tell us about Bowen herself and her own conception of fiction-writing. If, as she explains, discussing E.M. Foster’s work amounts to writing “the autobiography of an E.M. Foster’s reader”, we could add that it also amounts to writing the aesthetic autobiography of Bowen the writer herself. These essays in a way come as a complement to “What we Need in Writing”, a criticism of contemporary English novels and plays as too complacent and claustrophobic; she particularly regrets that the writers of the 1930s are too timid and the prisoners of public taste: “We want more emotion implied […] more vital relations shown“ . However, as the editor remarks, “Bowen does not fully specify what she wants from contemporary writing” . It could be suggested that the answer is provided indirectly in the author’s appraisal of Austen, Joyce or Foster where, while discussing their merits, she delineates her own conception of fiction.
Literary genre is another topic Bowen deals with. In “Fairy Tales”, she writes in defence of fairy tales, dismantling as early as 1962 the arguments feminist critics will use, baring and analysing the various components of the genre in a straightforward, sensitive and certainly more appealing way than Propp ever did. She voices her preference for such tales which, unlike comics, are full of magic and aesthetically satisfying. Her point of view is definitely that of a writer of fairy tales and children’s books.
In a 1945 essay, “The Short Story in England”, she gives a tentative history of the modernist short story from Kipling to Mansfield and D.H. Lawrence, through lesser known ones like A.E. Coppard, H.E. Bates or A. Calder-Marshall. She is of opinion that the short story is more adapted to war-time experience than the novel because, being generally closer to poetry, it “can register the emotional colour of a moment” . In the next essay, she states that the short story “demands visual sense” and cannot be too analytical. “It can offer, also, an ideal commentary on human behaviour, i.e. on human behaviour seen as a whole, but exhibited in some small, special incident” ; it “requires fancy, then technique” and economy. She thus defines in these pages her own conception of the short story, a genre in which she excelled.
In the 1950s, Bowen will focus on another literary genre, the novel. Unlike E.M. Foster and without any compunction, she will underline in “English Fiction at Mid-Century”, the importance of the story, whether true or untrue. She will also make an appraisal of the English novel of the first half of the 20th century, stating the names of the best novelists—D. Richardson, V. Woolf, I. Compton-Burnett, R. Lehmann, V.S. Pritchett, Graham Greene, Henry Greene, Evelyn Waugh—, thus showing how perceptive she was.
In all her essays, on the most diverse subjects, and especially in those of the last sections, Bowen the essayist is never far from the preoccupations of the writer, indirectly capturing the mood of a character as she tries to define childhood disappointment for Parents Magazine or representing daydreaming when addressing a jet-setting cosmopolitan readership in her last essay, “The Thread of dreams”. She implements her taste for story-telling and capturing an event or a moment in such journalistic pieces as “An Enormous Channel of Expectation” where she evokes the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953. Even in her short essays she displays her stylistic skill and her ability at defining in a few words “charm” or the role of women in post-war Britain, while claiming she is not a feminist: “The home was her sphere, and now the world is her home” .
In these numerous essays that she wrote over forty years for various magazines, Bowen proves to be a very sharp, witty and enthusiastic critic. Alert to the writings as well as the historical events of her time, she illuminates them in her essays just as her essays illuminate her own fiction in return, for our greatest pleasure.
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