Reading the 20th Century discussion

Elizabeth Bowen, an Estimation
This topic is about Elizabeth Bowen, an Estimation
19 views
Buddy Reads > Elizabeth Bowen - An Estimation by Hermione Lee (Sept/Oct 2020)

Comments Showing 1-45 of 45 (45 new)    post a comment »
dateDown arrow    newest »

Susan | 10019 comments Mod
Welcome to our Sept/Oct buddy read of a biography of Elizabeth Bowen. This can be Elizabeth Bowen Elizabeth Bowen by Hermione Lee by Hermione Lee

Hermione Lee's critical 'estimation' of Bowen's work finds the author's witty, stylish treatment of manners and emotions to have an austere basis in her critique of the English middle classes. Underlying the struggles of will between individuals in her novels and stories is a diagnosis of the dislocation and dispossessin of a whole society. Her preccupation with betrayal and loss, and her interest in conflict (between innocence and experience, egotism and social pressures, memory and the present) are fully considered.

In estimating the value of the whole range of her work, the book pays particular attention to the Anglo-Irish context, to Elizabeth Bowen's extraordinary evocation of war-time London, to her penetration into the minds of children and adolescents, and to her special predilection for the macabre and the supernatural. It also considers her achievement as a critic and a historian.

If you prefer not to read the Hermione Lee biography, you can read any biography of Elizabeth Bowen that you choose. Others include:

Elizabeth Bowen A Literary Life by Patricia Laurence Elizabeth Bowen: A Literary Life or

Elizabeth Bowen Elizabeth Bowen by Victoria Glendinning

If you just want to come and chat and see why some of us are so enthused about this now, sadly neglected, author, you are very welcome. Back in print on kindle, she deserves far more readers and we would be happy to share our enthusiasm.


message 2: by Roman Clodia (new)

Roman Clodia | 5093 comments Mod
I've just opened this discussion thread for chatting about Elizabeth Bowen's life and writing.

I read Elizabeth Bowen: A Literary Life which has the benefit of being modern and up-to-date, but which is written in thematic chapters rather than chronologically. I got the impression that the publisher is planning to sell the individual chapters on scholarly sites, so there is a level of repetition which is annoying to anyone reading the whole book.

That said, knowing little about Bowen, I found it very interesting. She was certainly complex in her allegiances: a die-hard Tory and conservative who yet supported the Spanish Civil War and had a love affair with Seán Ó Faoláin, an Irish Republican.

The author quotes Victoria Glendinning, a previous biographer of Bowen, who was forbidden by Bowen's literary agents from mentioning her affairs with women, a striking level of censorship in the 1970s.


Susan | 10019 comments Mod
As you know, I couldn't get on with A Literary Life, but I may try it again at some point. The Hermione Lee was good, but was an appraisal of her work, rather than her life.

I had read a book, some years ago, about her long running affair with Charles Ritchie, if I recall the name correctly? As such, I knew a little about her life, but it would have been nice if Lee could have tied in her work with her life.


Elizabeth (Alaska) As you know, I abandoned the work by Hermione Lee. I will keep my eyes on this space to pick up information vicariously.


Susan | 10019 comments Mod
I have ordered the Glendinning biography and am hoping it is better.


message 6: by Roman Clodia (new)

Roman Clodia | 5093 comments Mod
Ah, if I'd known that the Lee was so focused on her writing, I might have been more tempted. A Literary Life does talk about the books but doesn't really say anything that we haven't seen for ourselves. I did come away with the resolution to read The House in Paris.

I've got lots of annotations which I'm happy to share: Bowen talking about her writing says that she has a wonderful visual memory but never remembers conversations - that struck me as how I recall her books, images rather than words.

She also said that she regards people as never able to be fully known by others - again, something that seems to feed into her characters who can suddenly surprise us and who don't necessarily make unified sense.

I was also surprised that she had a marriage that was essentially a devoted friendship while Bowen had a series of affairs with men and women, some long-lasting. It reminded me of the Woolf open marriage, and another husband who let his wife pursue other love interests.


message 7: by Roman Clodia (new)

Roman Clodia | 5093 comments Mod
Oh, this is how the Glendinning biog is discussed:

'Even though some taboos were dismantled in the 1960s, Bowen's first biographer, Victoria Glendinning, was subject to sexual censorship in 1973 by Bowen's agent, Curtis Brown. 32 years later, Glendinning wrote a letter to The Times' editor, explaining that the agent had urged her to 'clean up' the Sapphism - that is, omit Bowen's relationships with women - and threatened to withdraw permissions if Glendinning did not.'

It'll be interesting to see what you think, Susan, as I wonder if her many affairs with men might also be cleaned up?


message 8: by Roman Clodia (new)

Roman Clodia | 5093 comments Mod
We wondered about snobbishness in her books: EB's family lived apart from Irish Catholics with whom they didn't mix, sticking to their Anglo-Irish Protestant compatriots; and apparently she had a very patrician voice. She said that reading The Scarlet Pimpernel made her a Tory for life.

She didn't learn to read till she was 7 and loved Louisa May Alcott, Arnold Bennett, Dickens and, later, Proust. Oh and she admired Katherine Mansfield. When she was older, she liked Flaubert, Stendhal, Emily Bronte, Hardy, Henry James, James Joyce - noticeably not Zola!

Olivia Manning hated her books!

More later...


Susan | 10019 comments Mod
Katherine Mansfield seems to appear over and over again, doesn't she? I finally read the short story by the way.

Having read Love's Civil War: Elizabeth Bowen and Charles Ritchie, Letters and Diaries 1941-1973 I thought her one, really serious affair, was with Charles Ritchie. When I read that, she reminded me a little of Nancy Mitford, who had a long affair which, eventually, left them alone.

Interesting that Olivia Manning disliked her books. Was there a reason?


message 10: by Jan C (new)

Jan C (woeisme) | 1218 comments I'll have to look for my copy of the Glendinning book.


message 11: by Roman Clodia (new)

Roman Clodia | 5093 comments Mod
Susan wrote: "Interesting that Olivia Manning disliked her books. Was there a reason?"

Manning hated Bowen's opaque, elliptical style of writing that we've all commented on. This is what she said: 'I cannot stand EB's attempts at Style... what a tiresome writer she is. The attitudes and grotesqueries of style all to say nothing much. It is like someone eating bread and milk with their legs crossed over their heads.'
;))


message 12: by Barbara (new)

Barbara | 27 comments RC.. that's funny!


Elizabeth (Alaska) I have yet to read Olivia Manning. I'm not sure she and I have read the same Bowen titles. I don't think I'd go out on a limb to observe Bowen says nothing much.


Susan | 10019 comments Mod
I like Olivia Manning, but I suppose it is all a matter of taste. It is surprising sometimes, which author's dislike others - I was surprised when I read P.D. James attacks on Agatha Christie, for example. I like both, but I think many of us reading James think that, often, she could condense her novels a little...


message 15: by Roman Clodia (new)

Roman Clodia | 5093 comments Mod
Haha, yes, there are perhaps more similarities between Manning and Bowen than the former would like to admit, just as PDJ couldn't write her books without Christie's prior development of the genre. In both cases, my allegiances are with the writer being criticised: Bowen and Christie.

I have to confess that I couldn't get on with Manning's British imperialist views and her way of despising and being disgusted by Romanians in The Great Fortune. Which is a shame as I was very interested in the topic of Guy and Harriet's marriage.


message 16: by Roman Clodia (new)

Roman Clodia | 5093 comments Mod
That's an interesting comparison, Susan, between Bowen and Nancy Mitford - Ritchie was her most significant love affair for sure but she was also passionately involved with Seán Ó Faoláin and stayed married till her husband died. I get the impression that Nancy was more focused on Gaston P. and never really moved on from him?


Susan | 10019 comments Mod
Yes, Nancy Mitford had a rather sad ending to her relationship and I don't think she ever did get over him.


Elizabeth (Alaska) I'm finding it interesting that Bowen's sex life seems to be emphasized in her biographies. Did she go anywhere, do anything, meet people, get involved in any issues? These are the things that make a person a person. Or so I think.


message 19: by Roman Clodia (new)

Roman Clodia | 5093 comments Mod
Good point, Elizabeth! I guess her class status, gender and the time that she lived preclude her from having what we might think of as a 'career'.

Patricia Laurence repeatedly describes her as a 'public intellectual' and I gritted my teeth every time: she was badly educated (as was the case with many women of her generation) and she did bits of writing, broadcasting and lecturing for institutions like the BBC and the British Council because of people she knew. I'm not implying that she was stupid, of course, she's clearly not just from reading her books, but she had no particular expertise or special interest to compensate for her lack of academic training.

Laurence also describes her as a 'spy' during WW2 - she did travel to Ireland as she still had a house there, and she reported back to the British security services on Irish people she met.

She was on the margins of the Bloombury Group but, as a Conservative, she disliked their left-wing thinking. She had no time for the suffragists or suffragettes and doesn't actually seem to have liked women much.

I will check my book for annotations and post more later.


Elizabeth (Alaska) Thank you! Upthread was the indication that she didn't learn to read until she was 7-years old. But without much formal schooling (apparently) she still must have read rather extensively - or at least without direction.


message 21: by Roman Clodia (new)

Roman Clodia | 5093 comments Mod
Oh yes, so many women throughout history have effectively been self-educated through reading - sometimes with the support of fathers, brothers, husbands, friends.


Susan | 10019 comments Mod
The Mitford's were definitely self schooled. Only their brother went to school. Apparently, Nancy Mitford never forgave her parents and her spelling was always terrible.

I think I read somewhere that Agatha Christie also learnt to read fairly late, but I might be making that up!


message 23: by Roman Clodia (new)

Roman Clodia | 5093 comments Mod
Isaiah Berlin on Bowen: 'she was Christian, she was religious, she liked mostly men, she liked joking and voted conservative and wanted people to be masculine and no nonsense, hated pacifists and vegetarians and that kind of thing.'

I was surprised at the Bowen who emerges from this and she's not at all the person I'd imagine as the author of the books I've read - they're sensitive and have a 'feminine' sensibility.


message 24: by Roman Clodia (new)

Roman Clodia | 5093 comments Mod
Bowen had a major falling out with Rosamund Lehmann (they didn't speak for over ten years) when Lehmann had an affair with a man (Rees) with whom Bowen was flirting and who went on to become her lover: Laurence speculates that this underpinned Friends and Relations with the two sisters in love with the same man, and we noted at the time that Lehmann writes the same scenario in one of her books. Rees might have been the prototype of Eddie from Death of the Heart.


message 25: by Roman Clodia (new)

Roman Clodia | 5093 comments Mod
Bowen was closer friends than I realised with Lehmann, Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Taylor. There's also mention of Ritchie 'partying' with Nancy Mitford and Diana Cooper in Paris 1947, though no mention of Bowen there. She did meet Sylvia Plath but they didn't get on.


message 26: by Susan (last edited Sep 15, 2020 02:06AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Susan | 10019 comments Mod
Surprisingly, I have never read anything by Sylvia Plath. I noted a new biography of her out soon, Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath Red Comet The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath by Heather Clark


Elizabeth (Alaska) Roman Clodia wrote: "Isaiah Berlin on Bowen: 'she was Christian, she was religious, she liked mostly men, she liked joking and voted conservative and wanted people to be masculine and no nonsense, hated pacifists and vegetarians and that kind of thing.'"

No wonder I like her. She was complex and passionate about things. Not that I agree with all of the above, but it annoys me no end that people don't have opinions about things. (Can you tell?)


Susan | 10019 comments Mod
The problem with things these days seem to be that many people have (ill-informed) opinions about everything and the internet gives them a platform to rant in. It's why the only site I use is Goodreads, which is moderated.


Elizabeth (Alaska) Ill-formed opinions - like the ones with which we disagree? Goodreads groups are moderated, but Goodreads itself is only very loosely moderated. There is very little you can't say on Goodreads.


message 30: by Roman Clodia (new)

Roman Clodia | 5093 comments Mod
Elizabeth (Alaska) wrote: "... it annoys me no end that people don't have opinions about things. (Can you tell?)"

Hahaha, you don't say, Elizabeth ;))

As an opinionated person myself, I do agree - but there's also nothing more frustrating than, as Susan says, people who are opinionated *and* ill-informed or downright factually wrong at the same time.

It's interesting that I don't feel Bowen writes her opinions or even really her politics into her books (though, as we've said before, it's not hard to discern certain snobbish attitudes): her novels are more diffuse, multi-faceted, and empathetic with a range of characters. For someone who doesn't seem to have liked women much in real life, she writes female characters who I feel we can recognise.


message 31: by Roman Clodia (new)

Roman Clodia | 5093 comments Mod
Susan wrote: "Surprisingly, I have never read anything by Sylvia Plath. I noted a new biography of her out soon, Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath"

Oh Plath is one of my great heroines! I've also got Red Comet on my watch list, though I've read various biogs about her - they tend to be quite biased either for or against her, and to take sides on the great Plath-Hughes debate.

I'd highly recommend her The Bell Jar, her journals The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath which I need to re-read and which are now on Audible, and I know not everyone reads poetry but her Ariel is just extraordinary.

Needless to say, if we ever want to buddy read anything to do with Plath, I'm in!


Elizabeth (Alaska) Roman Clodia wrote: "For someone who doesn't seem to have liked women much in real life, she writes female characters who I feel we can recognise."

I'm not positive that the opinion you shared by Isaiah Berlin was completely factual with regards "she liked mostly men" and "wanted people to be masculine and no nonsense". She liked "mostly men" doesn't mean she didn't like women, for example. Is it only masculine when people are independent and forthright - 'no nonsense'? Haven't there been women throughout history who were so? Were they not feminine while still being women, able to attract men?


message 33: by Roman Clodia (new)

Roman Clodia | 5093 comments Mod
Yes, you're right - it's a comment out of context (and we're not given the context) - and, as also noted, Bowen did have important friendships with women, especially women writers like Woolf, Lehmann, Taylor. And those definitions of 'masculine' and 'feminine' are always slippery and historically-specific.

In lots of ways, in her marriage it was Bowen who was the sexual adventurer, a role frequently seen as 'masculine', and her husband who was the passive and adoring partner who knew about her infidelities but lived with them anyway.


Elizabeth (Alaska) I used the phrase "completely factual" intentionally, by the way. The rants that people go on on the internet are usually about politics. There is very little factual about people's political opinions anyway. There are at least two sides to every story - and sometimes well more than two. I also don't go to other internet sites.


message 35: by Roman Clodia (new)

Roman Clodia | 5093 comments Mod
Yes, I used 'downright factually wrong' in the same way. People's *opinions*, about politics or anything else, may not be factual as such but they are often based on 'facts' that may or may not be correct.


message 36: by Nigeyb (new)

Nigeyb | 9681 comments Mod
Roman Clodia wrote: "Isaiah Berlin on Bowen: 'she was Christian, she was religious, she liked mostly men, she liked joking and voted conservative and wanted people to be masculine and no nonsense, hated pacifists and vegetarians and that kind of thing.'"

We'd have got on like a house on fire


message 37: by Roman Clodia (new)

Roman Clodia | 5093 comments Mod
Nigeyb wrote: "We'd have got on like a house on fire"

At least you're a man so one out of that list isn't soooo bad :)))


message 38: by Nigeyb (new)

Nigeyb | 9681 comments Mod
She would, inevitably, be extremely attracted by my raw, unfettered, untamed masculinity and then fall hopelessly in love. It's something that happens with tedious regularity. It's the posh women who tend to be most prone to my hyper-masculinity.


Elizabeth (Alaska) Nigeyb wrote: "She would, inevitably, be extremely attracted by my raw, unfettered, untamed masculinity and then fall hopelessly in love. It's something that happens with tedious regularity. It's the posh women w..."

hahahaha LOL (not because I know whether or not this is true - it may very well be - just that you'd say it!)


Susan | 10019 comments Mod
I think it would be your humour and intelligence, Nigeyb. Much more attractive than untamed masculinity.


message 41: by Roman Clodia (new)

Roman Clodia | 5093 comments Mod
Bowen did fall for Sean O' Faolain, one time bomb maker for the IRA so I'd guess she was rather partial to a bit of raw masculinity ;)


Susan | 10019 comments Mod
Oh well, give me a husband like yours, and mine - and Mrs N's - who can cook, every time, RC!


Elizabeth (Alaska) Oh, yes, Susan. It's great being told when to sit down to my husband's cooking!


message 44: by Roman Clodia (new)

Roman Clodia | 5093 comments Mod
Haha, I love this image of us lounging around with a book while the man of the house slaves in the kitchen ;)) So when someone next asks how I read so many books, I'll know what to say!


Susan | 10019 comments Mod
I came across this interesting article about Nicholas Blake
https://crimereads.com/nicholas-blake...

I like links between authors and it is interesting that Elizabeth Bowen said:
The novelist Elizabeth Bowen described his books as “something quite by themselves in English detective fiction.”
Not sure what that means, but it sounds positive!


back to top