Collected Stories

Elizabeth Bowen

Everyman’s Library, £18.99

By Rosemary Goring

Until she was seven, Elizabeth Bowen spent her summers at Bowen’s Court, the family estate in County Cork, and the winters in Dublin, where her father was a lawyer. Those early years, as part of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, were crucial in the making of Bowen’s extraordinary imagination. In his adulatory but succinct introduction to this substantial edition of Bowen’s Collected Stories, novelist John Banville suggests that the tragedies which were to follow, while terrible, might also have been the making of her as a writer.

In 1906, Bowen’s father had a nervous breakdown and was committed to a mental institution. On doctors’ advice, her mother left for England, where she and Elizabeth lived a peripatetic but contented life in various seaside resorts. Then, in 1912, when she was 13, Bowen’s mother died. For much of her life thereafter Bowen lived in England, initially in the care of aunts, and later as the serially unfaithful wife of the war veteran, Alan Cameron. Most notable, because of its influence on her work, were her years in London, during the second world war.

Bowen was steely, in the way of writers who put their work first. It is something for which future generations will be thankful, for although she was to become a good novelist, it was the short story at which she excelled. As Banville says, “There is not a story in this substantial volume, from the first to the last, that is not brought off beautifully.”

Arranged chronologically, from the 1920s through to the post-war years (Bowen died in 1973), her stories are remarkable in countless ways. For a start, the earliest of them, such as Daffodils, are as good as those when she was at the height of her powers. Daffodils encapsulates the author’s intensely feeling view of the world, showing a teacher eager to bring her pupils to a richer understanding of life. The girls, meanwhile, find their yearning, enthusiastic schoolmistress embarrassing and a little sad, blissfully unaware that this label was made for their own necks.

A brittle, fearful awareness pervades many of these stories, their characters sensing the hazard of invisible lines that, once crossed, will have irrevocable consequences. In The Parrot, a young woman lets her employer’s pet out of its cage and chases through the neighbouring gardens in pursuit. The set-up is masterly, Bowen using the bird’s escape as a way of introducing the hapless girl to thrilling new worlds right on her doorstep yet far beyond her ken.

In Joining Charles, a youthful wife learns a hard lesson in suffering as she leaves her mother-in-law’s happy home for life with her unloved husband. As in so much of Bowen’s work, heightened emotions shape the story, as does an uncanny apprehension of those fleeting moments which prefigure the rest of your life: “she had turned her head and was looking out at the lawn with its fringe of trees not yet free from the mist, and at the three blackbirds hopping about on it. The blackbirds made her know all at once what it meant to be going away; she felt as though someone had stabbed her a long time ago but she were only just feeling the knife.”

Bowen’s language is opaline and mesmerising. Overwrought characters play out their part against a backdrop conjured with painterly style, the fall of light through an evening window or shadows against a wall, almost as significant as the storyline itself. A Love Story, one of several gnawing portraits of discontented couples, opens in a luxury hotel: “Brilliantly, hotly lit by electric light, it looked like a stage on which there has been a hitch.”

Few short stories could match Mysterious Kôr, set in war-time London under a pitiless full moon. You’d have to look to James Joyce or Chekhov for so powerful and resonant a vignette. Using imagery from the novel She, by Rider Haggard, with its lost African city of Kôr, Bowen shows a soldier on leave, with his girlfriend, heading for a chaste night at her shared flat, wherein waits a kindly, virginal but far from stupid house-mate.

What follows is unearthly, capturing the spirit of impending doom that hung over London during the Blitz. Scrupulous realism, combined with a sinister dimension of make-believe, is unsettling. Here, as elsewhere, Bowen ruthlessly plumbs psychological depths. This is not done coldly, but with needle-sharp precision. It is tempting to wonder if her happy early childhood were the bedrock from which she was to observe and measure a world that her characters, mean or decent, careless or sensitive, must negotiate all alone.