Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973): Biography and Famous Books

Elizabeth Dorothea Cole Bowen (1899-1973) was an Irish- British novelist and short story writer of the 20th century. She was born in Dublin. Her father was a barrister. She spent much of her childhood at Bowen’s Court in Kildorrery, County Cork, the family home of her father which she described in Bowen’s Court (1942). When her father became mentally ill in 1907, she and her mother moved to England, eventually settling in Hythe. She returned to Dublin in 1916 to work in a hospital for World War I veterans. Two years later she moved back to England and enrolled in the London County Council School of Art. In 1923 she married Alan Charles Cameron and published her first collection of short stories Encounters. They lived for ten years in London, a city vividly evoked in many of her works; her skill in describing urban and rural landscapes and her sensitivity to changes of light and season-changes characteristically made emblematic of psychological and social fluidities are distinguishing features of her prose. Her fictional works mainly focused on life in wartime London and relationships among the upper-middle class.

In 1925, Bowen and her husband moved to Oxford, where, in 1927, she published her first novel The Hotel. Her Irish War of Independence novel, The Last September, appeared in 1929, discussed life in Danielstown, Cork at the time of the Irish War of Independence. In 1930, her father died and she inherited Bowen’s Court, spending her summers there for the next few years. Her novels continued into the 1930s which included To the North(1932), The House in Paris(1935), A World of Love(1955), and Eva Trout (1969). In 1937, she became a member of the Irish Academy of Letters.

Her best-known novel is probably The Death of the Heart (1938) which focuses on the threat posed by the innocence of Portia, a 16-year-old orphan, to the precarious, sophisticated London lives of her half-brother and his wife; and the other famous novel The Heat of the Day (1949) centers on the tragic wartime love affair of Stella Rodney and Robert Kelway, and their reactions to the revelation that the latter is a spy. Bowen herself had some experience of the surreptitious, reporting to the Ministry of Information on her frequent wartime trips to neutral Ireland. The war inspired many of Bowen’s best short stories, including ‘Mysterious Kôr’ (1944); other stories subtly invoke the supernatural. Wartime and otherworldly themes come together in the title story of The Demon Lover (1945).

Bowen’s short story collection includes Ann Lee’s and Other Stories(1926), The Cat Jumps and Other Stories (1934), Look at All Those Roses (1941), Ivy Gripped the Steps and Other Stories (1946), and A Day in the Dark and Other Stories (1965).

For her contribution to literature, she was awarded the CBE (The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) in 1948. Bowen writes mainly of the upper-middle classes, but within her narrow social range her perceptions are acute; her works convey a powerful sense of period through their re-creations of detail and atmosphere. Recent commentary has focused on the persistent, subversive presence of Ireland in her fiction.

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