Elizabeth Bowen: Writer and woman of substance

'Heart-cloven and split-minded’, Elizabeth Bowen’s upbringing gave her a special Anglo-Irish insight into culture and society — one which still resonates today, writes Patricia Laurence

Elizabeth Bowen: Writer and woman of substance

'Heart-cloven and split-minded’, Elizabeth Bowen’s upbringing gave her a special Anglo-Irish insight into culture and society — one which still resonates today, writes Patricia Laurence

Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973) was a major modern writer, and, if she had been a man, John Banville asserts, “she would be recognised as one of the finest novelists of the 20th century”.

She comes into view as she shared the same divisions of self and culture that are reawakened in the recent Brexit debates.

Bowen, described as “heart-cloven and split-minded” by Sean O’Faolain in the late 1930s, was born and raised in Dublin until she was seven, and after her father’s breakdown, resided in Kent, England, though travelling intermittently to Bowen’s Court, Kildorrery, her family estate.

“After all, what a non-attached divided life I’ve led, since childhood, haven’t I? Nothing ever particularly is the norm, which I suppose is why I attach myself to any surroundings of the moment and live in the moment so very nearly completely.”

It could be said she was a “citizen of everywhere”, countering Theresa May’s notion of pro-Europeans as “citizens of nowhere”.

And she created an original literary style from a constellation of traditions — Anglo-Irish, Irish, Celtic, English, and European. She published 10 novels, 16 collections of short stories, and several volumes of non-fiction. She was also a sometime reporter for The Cork Examiner.

Brexit discussions revive the political and cultural memories of those who lived in Ireland during Bowen’s time alongside the preoccupation with practical and economic challenges of borders, reporting systems, and trade crossing the Irish sea.

Old feuds and divisions that Bowen felt and wrote about in her ‘big house’ novel, The Last September, captures the historical narrative of the beleaguered position of the Anglo-Irish gentry in Ireland in the early 1920s that feared retaliatory attacks from the IRA.

Bowen was the child of such a house, and anachronistically attempted to shore up its ruins against the historical tide in 1928, writing her novel seven years after many IRA house-burnings in Cork.

In the novel, the Naylor family supports the British troops that patrol the countryside outside their home, at the ready for reprisals against the IRA; yet they are also sympathetic to the defiant local people, the Catholic farmers among whom they live.

There is an unstated violence beneath the decorous description in its setting: “The house seemed to be pressing down low in apprehension, hiding its face ... It seemed to gather its trees close in fright and amazement at the wide light lovely unloving country, the unwilling bosom where it was set.”

Bowen expressed ambivalence toward these cultural forces, and lived with vivid fears.

“So often in my mind’s eye,” she said, “did I see [Bowen’s Court] burned that the terrible last event in The Last September is more real than anything I have lived through.”

She said it was her favourite novel built around the atmosphere of a place. In 1942, she would write Bowen’s Court, a history of the family house described in The Last September.

In this work, she reveals her Anglo-Irish family’s infatuation with a “will to power” as well as the taint of Bowen family “madness”. Bowen Court was as old as the 20th century, living through its major wars and conflicts.

Some say Bowen is an Irish writer; others, English; some say Anglo-Irish, and still others say European,cosmopolitan, or international. She experienced the national rifts between North and South/England and Ireland — particularly during the Second World War — that have been reawakened in the hectoring and often confused Brexit debates.

Those debates are now apparently over, with the UK’s formal departure from the EU on January 31, 2020. But they have left a resentful legacy. The North (along with Scotland) voted to remain in the EU, but the British governments since the Brexit referendum in 2016 will not admit these ‘national’ determinations.

Dare the British again determine the Irish course?

The age-old power dynamic is reversed as Ireland is no longer an impoverished nation in thrall to empire and has a thriving economy within, as well as the backing of, the EU.

The maintenance of an open — that is, a non-existent — border has been the aim of the Government. British prime minister Boris Johnson, in order to get his withdrawal agreement with the EU over the line, caved in. As a result, the North will be in a sort of limbo.

All this has put the question of Irish reunification back into play. It may still be a long play, though, despite the assertion by Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald that “it is now impossible to ignore the growing demand for a referendum on Irish unity”.

For the North,determining that demand is not within her power— under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, a unity referendum will only be called if the British secretary of state thinks that it would be successful.

For such a referendum to be successful, though, there will have to be a sea-change in how the two cultures on the island — the nationalist/Gaelic/Catholic and the unionist/Anglocentric/Protestant — see each other. Bowen, although entangled in the British governing establishment, was always concerned about the unity of hearts and minds that would necessarily be a precursor to political unity.

As a southern Irish Protestant, she was acutely aware of how her Ascendancy class, with often halting steps, came to an accommodation with the Irish state after independence in 1922.

She urged the reconciliation in an essay on ‘The Big House’ in The Bell, stating, it “seems to me a pity” that the gulf between “the two Irelands” was still experienced by young people in 1940.

In 1942, a Ministry of Information report (written when Bowen was an agent at the beginning of the war) notes that the Irish were beginning to favour the formation of “a third party” to erase the divisions left by the Civil War.

In the same set of reports, she alludes to her father’s school, St Columba’s, as a model of integration, given that it was a Protestant institution then accepting Roman Catholic students.

Toward the end of her life, Bowen became engaged in a collaborative project with painter Derek Hill to address the divisions in Irish society, and in an ecumenical spirit, they produced Nativity Play during the early part of the Troubles.

Hill handled the theatrical design and Bowen the script, and it was first performed in a Catholic church in Limerick in 1964.

Another performance occurred at Christmas time in 1970 in the Church of Ireland cathedral in Derry, a place where intercommunal conflict was ingrained and endemic.

Bowen considered it a great success because Pope Pius VI had lifted the ban on Catholics entering Protestant churches, and people of different faiths attended the play.

Another timely presentation of the play took place in Derry Cathedral after Bloody Sunday in January 1972, when 26 unarmed civil rights protestors were shot by British soldiers, with 14 deaths. Many Anglicans and Catholics attended the sad but hopeful event that Bowen and Hill created in an attempt to find common social and religious ground.

Few know that the Anglo-Irish Bowen had penned such a play, but her participation reveals her commitment to the traditions of conciliation through religion. That’s a conciliation still to be devoutly wished.

Patricia Laurence’s biography of Elizabeth Bowen, A Literary Life, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in December 2019. Patricia Laurence is Professor Emeritus at City University of New York.

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