Bowen is a very influential figure in the development of the British and Irish short story, and is legitimately claimed by both national traditions. Hunter points out that “Elizabeth Bowen’s is a name to conjure with in the history of short story criticism” (Hunter 2007: 112). Born in Dublin and daughter of the owner (and ultimately the owner herself) of a large southern Irish house and estate in County Cork, she was brought up and educated in England, but maintained a strong connection with her property in the Irish Free State and later the Irish Republic. Bowen is an important novelist. The Heat of the Day (1949) is a remarkable novel about obsession and treachery set in war-time London and southern Ireland. She was also a strong advocate of short fiction throughout her career, and her Collected Stories (1980) contains seventy-nine fictions. She published collections of short stories between Encounters in 1923 and The Good Tiger in 1965.
Most of her stories work within realist conventions, and are social-psychological pieces, usually employing omniscient narrators, often focusing on upper and upper-middle-class lives. She writes frequently of childhood experience, and supernatural stories figure prominently in her output. She is, thus, seen to be at odds with the modernists of the 1920s, although it is hard to see how her work differs radically from that of Katherine Mansfield or Jean Rhys. Her most celebrated stories date from the period of the Second World War and shortly afterwards: “Green Holly,” “Ivy Gripped the Steps,” “Mysterious Kôr,” and the much anthologized “The Demon Lover.”
Several of these combine supernatural motifs with a complex evocation of the sights and sounds of war-time Britain, and human responses to the place and the time. “Mysterious Kôr,” is not a supernatural story, but gives the reader a sense of what that dislocated and disorienting London of the early 1940s must have been like, at least for some. “The Demon Lover” gives the reader some of the sinister qualities of that time of deaths and brief encounters. Angus Wilson insists that there are “only two writers who convey what life in blitzed London was like – Elizabeth Bowen and Henry Green” (Wilson 1980: 7). Bernard Bergonzi claims that “Mysterious Kôr” is “one of the finest of all the stories to come out of the Second World War” (Bergonzi 1993: 44).
Bowen was a vigorous advocate of the short story. The Faber Book of Modern Stories (1937), which Bowen edited and for which she wrote an introduction, is a very important collection of both British and Irish short stories, including stories by Bowen herself, A. E. Coppard, E. M. Forster, James Hanley, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, Walter de la Mare, Frank O’Connor, Seán O’Faoláin, and Liam O’Flaherty. Bowen’s introduction argues for the modernity of short fiction; it breaks with the longueurs of the novel; like the cinema it is free from an over-weighty tradition, and it can cut from scene to scene with rapidity; it is short, taut, and lively. There are “free” stories, not bound by commercial demands; they can be great art. For Bowen, the short story was the true, the modern, form. She concludes: “The present state of the short story is, on the whole, healthy: its prospects are good.” In the short term she was right; the period of the Second World War was good for short stories. In the long term, in Britain at least, she was wrong.
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