Elizabeth Bowen: On the Mark

PICTURES AND CONVERSATIONS by Elizabeth Bowen Knopf, $7.95
As everybody knows, Alice was a child who grew easily bored: “Once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversation in it, ‘and what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversation? ‘ ”
Quite in agreement with her, in spirit if not to the letter—there are pictures and pictures: a world of difference between drawings by Tenniel and photographs by Charles Dodgson on the one hand, and word-pictures by Dickens and Lewis Carroll on the other—Elizabeth Bowen decided to make use of Alice’s phrase as the title for the autobiographical work she began to write in her seventy-first year, and left unfinished at her death two years later. The phrase was a peculiarly apt one where Miss Bowen is concerned, for in each of her twenty books, going back to the very earliest of them, Encounters, published in London in 1923, there have been pictures and conversations, whether in the novels (The House in Paris, The Last September,The Little Girls, Eva Trout) or stories (Look at All Those Roses, Ivy Gripped the Steps surely among the best fiction written about England in World War II), or books of travel (A Time in Rome), literary criticism (Collected Impressions), reminiscence (Seven Winters), or family history (Bowen’s Court).
Her visual sense was acutely developed, responsive to the look of persons, places, and things, in a way that is not always the case: there are writers (often of great distinction) who seem to live entirely unaware of the objective world surrounding them and their characters. Dialogue—as one would expect, given her declared interest in and willingness to listen to voices other than her own—plays a crucial and dual role in her fiction, being subtly pitched to reveal her characters the while they are projected forward in the action she has invented for them. Even in the nonfiction—the history of the Hotel Shelbourne in Dublin, for example-where a certain impersonality might seem inevitable, one has the sense of conversation, between author and reader perhaps, certainly between the various selves of the author—the thinking, feeling, watching, listening selves, constantly engaged. Out of the fusion of these elements, the aural and the visual, played upon by Miss Bowen’s corrosive intelligence and finding expression in an unflagging masters of language, comes the famous Bowen style.
Some people, using a phrase Miss Bowen herself almost certainly would not have used, are turned off by it one has heard, will continue to hear, the usual objections: manner too idiosyncratic; matter too circumscribed. But what author of the first class has ever won (or wanted) universal approbation: there is an army still sniping at Hemingway; Faulkner continues to represent an ordeal to many an earnest collegian; and think of all those readers who have dutifully bought their multivolumed Proust and never got beyond volume one. For myself, I was turned on as an undergraduate by the first Elizabeth Bowen novel I read—The Death of the Heart, in 1939-and I have been in a state of happy addiction ever since.
Spencer Curtis Brown, the wellknown literary agent, who was a friend of Miss Bowen’s, and whom, in the mid-1950s, she named as her literary executor—an excellent choice, it would now seem contributes a sympathetic, informative introduction to this, her last volume. A distinguished career of half a century has ended: sad enough in any circumstances, rather more so in these, for the posthumous book is an assemblage of fragments, evidence again of her mastery (which she had kept to the end), and w’e can only be grateful for them, even as we lament that we are deprived of the finished works the author had contemplated. Early in 1972 she showed the first two chapters of Pictures and Conversations to Curtis Brown, and they talked “a little of what might come in the succeeding chapters she had outlined.” Not long afterwards she fell ill and was hospitalized; in July, Curtis Brown tells us, “when I saw her in hospital, she had just learnt that she had not more than a year to live, and she told me that what she wanted most was to finish both this book and a short novel before she died. But the cancer weakened her more than she knew.” On February 21, 1973, she sent for him. ‘The nurse had told me that she was very weak, under strong pain-killing drugs, and might not recognize me, but she did. She could hardly speak, but when I asked her ‘Do you want the fragment of the autobiography published?’ she suddenly gained strength and said clearly and firmly, ‘I want it published,’ and then she repeated it, ‘I want it published.’” The next day she was dead.
In 1942 she had written Seven Winters, a memoir of her early childhood in Dublin she was born into an Anglo-Irish family of the Ascendancy, a heritage she was never to forget and one of singular importance in the shaping of her literary career. The new memoir, which was to have taken her into her adult years, but only in relation to her life as a writer, begins when Elizabeth, aged seven, was brought by her mother from Ireland to England. Her father, suffering the beginning of “an agonising mental illness,” was “sent for treatment to a mental hospital outside Dublin; my mother and 1 were ordered away by the doctors. Better for us to be across the sea, for even the idea of our nearness agitated him.” The impact of these events upon the child transplantation; the loss, for that effectively is what it was, of her father is touched on only lightly, glancingiy, in these pages. Clearly she had no wish to go deeper; besides, the tone she had decided upon argued against her doing so. But the impact must have been profound, and it goes a long way to account for the view of life that permeates her work: nothing so sentimental as that early injunction of Auden’s, “We must love one another or die,” which he himself was later to repudiate; but rather. We are in the world, and we must accommodate to it if we are to survive, for in the end, in most cases anyway, it is the world that wins.
Remarkably soon, it appears, Elizabeth accommodated herself to her new situation, but then she was, she remembers, “a tough child, strong as a horse or colt. . . . Not ‘nervous,’ I was demonstrative and excitable: an extrovert.” Blessed with the essential equipment of your born novelist or spy—curiosity, an inexhaustible willingness to look at and listen to and remember pictures and conversations—she had also, from childhood, a sense of the irresistible comedy as well as the pathos of life: this perhaps belongs to the Anglo-Irish inheritance. Brilliance flashes from her, as it does from all those stars of the AngloIrish galaxy she mentions in passing: Goldsmith, Sheridan, Wilde, Shaw, Beckett.
Her school days, recalled here for a last time, are as hilarious in autobiographical actuality as they w’ere in the fiction of The Little Girls. The difference between Miss Bowen’s recollection of her time at Harpesden Hall and, for example, George Orwell’s of his at St. Cyprian’s is so striking as to suggest that they were on different planets. Yet both writers were at school at virtually the same time, and their schools were very close, topographically and socially (south coast of England; upper-middle-class). One is tempted to generalize: can it be that schoolgirls enjoy themselves more?
Miss Bowen, I hasten to add. had no such wish to generalize, or to suggest that her experiences were “universal”; that they were peculiarly hers was a reason for undertaking the book. There are only two completed chapters of Pictures and Conversations, a portion of a third, and a brief statement prepared for her publishers:
One of my reasons for wishing to write this book [as she explains it] and one, also, why J think it should be a fairly good or at least an engaging book, is: books, lengthy critical studies, theses are perpetually being written about writers, novelists in particular. I, inevitably, have been the subject of a certain number of these. While appreciative of the honour done me and of the hard work involved, 1 have found some of them wildly off the mark. To the point of asking myself, if anybody must write about Hlizabeth Bowen, why should not Hlizabeth Bowen?
And indeed, why not? As far as she had gotten in this memoir, she was invariably on the mark; within the iimits she meant to impose upon it, it would certainly have been the best book about Elizabeth Bowen, though not the last—and its being no more than a fragment makes the commissioning of a biography all the more urgent. But in the long run, the novelist is most on the mark in her novels; accordingly one turns with particular interest (and some trepidation) to the opening chapter—all that she had written, or that was deemed publishable—of “the unfinished novel on which she was working when she died,” which is included in Pictures and Conversations.
Here, once more, is the familiar Bowen mastery. She belonged, after all, to the generation, perhaps the last such, who believed in the novel and felt no need to apologize for it—the novel, from Emma to Howards End, as novel, not as put-down or send-up. And here, too, are the familiar elements of her fiction, to be rearranged this time in who could say what new, hypnotic pattern. A house in the country. Evening. July. Three adults at dinner, visible through the bulging bay window, being served by a maid in black uniform and white cap. Suddenly. up the graveled drive, the racket of a car. (The echo of the opening of Miss Bowen’s novel of 1929, The Last September, cannot be unintentional.) In the car, three young people the young, a familiar Bowen specialtytwo youths and a girl, she wearing “rolled-up jeans and a man’s shirt two or three sizes large for her.” They have not been invited; they don’t know the people in the house; yet they intend to stay: hence the title of the chapter, ‘The Move-In.”
Familiar, but disquietingly unfamiliar: this might be the beginning of a film written by Harold Pinter. I have suggested earlier that Miss Bowen’s theme (one of them at least) was of accommodation to the world a world in which the young are vulnerable (Portia in The Death of the Heart would be the classic example), and must play the game according to rules set by grownups—adults of a certain age, their hearts etiolated, who have themselves already made their respective accommodations. But in this final novel, what had seemed an inexorable law perhaps has begun to disintegrate. One can only surmise, of course; we have but the opening chapter. These young, emerging from the car onto the gravel, don’t strike us as vulnerable, as do the adults at dinner. It is the young who are playing a game of their own devising, for which only they know the rules. Perhaps this was not at all what Miss Bowen intended, and I shall not speculate further. It seems safe to say, however, that she would have been on the mark, describing the world as it is with a certain wit, candor, courage, poetry, and style, and with an admirable lack of illusion: a novel (never now to be written) by no one but Elizabeth Bowen.