HEROES & VILLAINS
ELIZABETH BOWEN by John Bayley
Saturday 01 April 1995
It greatly amused Elizabeth Bowen, the Anglo-Irish writer and novelist, who once observed of the Anglo-Irish that they were Irish when it suited them and English when it did not. I remember her roaring with laughter about John Osborne's play Look Back in Anger, and wondering why he found it necessary to "look back". He seemed to her to be looking very shrewdly forward to a new fashion. She admired the rhetoric of the play, but found it impos-sible to take seriously. Everyone, she felt, likes to be told, or taught, how to be angry; and she maintained that the English, who always delighted in following an Irish lead, were intoxicated to find that they too could experience the giddy joys of a rage and persecution mania. She argued, with what justification I do not know, that Osborne had picked it all up from Ireland, and from the Irish theatre.
Nobody less enrage than Elizabeth Bowen herself could be imagined. I think she felt her own marvellously witty, poetic and socially perceptive novels were undervalued, as they are still today; but she never complained about it. She delighted in writing, and in the world as she found it, and she was a sharp but kindly critic of the books and novels she voraciously read. I remember her much enjoying John Fowles's The Collector, but observing that while the symbolism in it was quite beside the point, the observation of the "hero's" speech and manner was impeccable. She loved humour in fiction and found it in unexpected places. She thought that Somerville and Ross's The Real Charlotte was one of the most quietly original novels ever written, and also one of the funniest.
Her own fiction is uneven, but at its best as good as anything this century. She hated being told how wonderful The Death of the Heart was; and yet it is perhaps her masterpiece, and for a revealing reason. She can identify totally with all the people in it - the snooty childless society woman in Regents Park, the comically vivacious seaside family, the waif of 16 looking for a man to love, and most of all with the gaily amoral Eddie, the brilliant young man from nowhere who lives on his wits and his unscrupulousness. He was suggested by the real life personality of Goronwy Rees, with whom Bowen had a brief fling, and who abandoned her for another woman novelist, Rosamond Lehmann. But I know of no novel which is kinder to all its characters and at the same time more just about them. It makes EM Forster's efforts to be fair to all parties in Howards End appear pompous as well as laborious.
Bowen is less successful when she deliberately planned a more ambitious work, such as The House in Paris; but she is bang on form with the Heat of the Day, a war-time novel which owes something to Goronwy Rees and the spying business (he also produced a novel on the theme which is less good) and some of her last novels, like The Little Girls and Eva Trout, exhibit even more fully than the earlier ones her extraordinary originality. There was nothing remotely second-hand about her. She was amused when the enrags, as she always called them, wrote pompous and politically correct novels about "the state of the nation", a subject about which she intuitively knew more than they did.
In the last year of her life, when she was living near Oxford, she asked if she could come to some lectures I was giving on Jane Austen. I was petrified at the idea of this grande dame at the back of the class, but she could not have been kinder and more self-effacing, occasionally raising a fascinating point or bringing out something a student had put forward. She would have been a superb teacher.
Her gift of phrase was incomparable, and was enhanced when she spoke by a pronounced stammer which gave an unexpected timing. She once described the first wife of Cyril Connolly (a great admirer) as "a big soft crook", the words each seeming to surprise in turn and so to become a kind of affectionate aggregate. She could be disconcerting though. David Cecil, to whom To the North is dedicated, was once told when he asked her to dinner at his home: "David, I think you should know by now that I want to see you either alone or at a large party." Anthony Powell in his memoirs describes her as standing in her kitchen in Regents Park and saying she had never found a cockroach there, while the animals were crepitating over their feet.
I doubt she would have cared much for last year's Booker entries. She loved novels that were genuinely unusual or experimental, but had little time for the sort that demonstrate an obligation to be sexy or obscene, an anxiety to be in all ways with it, the crowning folly of too much self- satisfaction.
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