Book review

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Elizabeth Bowen: a Literary Life

by Patricia Laurence

Palgrave Macmillan, 2019

reviewed by Richard Pine

It gives me no pleasure to state emphatically that this is one of the most inaccurate and irresponsible publications on Anglo-Irish literature to have appeared in many decades. It is, in fact, shamefully embarrassing for both its author, a professor emerita at City University New York, and its publisher, Palgrave Macmillan, who have included it in a lengthy series of “Literary Lives”. I had, in fact, approached it eager to welcome it, since advance publicity suggested that, unlike previous biographies of Elizabeth Bowen (beginning with Victoria Glendinning’s, published in 1977, only four years after Bowen’s death), it would provide greater insights into Bowen’s private – and especially sexual – life and her “espionage” in neutral Ireland during World War 2. In fact it does neither.

A review should primarily set out the strengths of the book in question, and only secondarily find any faults it might contain. In this case, however, I would be irresponsible myself if I did not warn readers – and especially students of Anglo-Irish literature – of the gross defects in the book, consisting mostly of factual errors which reveal the author’s almost complete lack of understanding of Ireland and Irish history, and a lamentable ignorance of English society and academic life.

Let us, therefore, abandon protocol and start with the errors.

Bowen’s father, we are told, became “a respected judge of the Court of General Synod, Dublin Diocese”. Prof. Laurence bases this on the fact that Henry Bowen was expert in ecclesiastical law – which he wasn’t: his specialism was land law. On several points Laurence is wrong: while each diocese has a “court”, the General Synod is a synod of the whole Church of Ireland, not diocesan; but the greater fault is in assuming that the “Court” is a legal entity: it is not. Henry Bowen may have been a solicitor, but he was a lay member of the Court of the General Synod, not a judge, since it was a “court” in a quite different sense of the word. Laurence’s ignorance on this point suggests that she is not familiar with the background occupied by the Bowen family – namely, the Church of Ireland and its relations with the other Christian denominations in Ireland. One might as well assume that the ancestral home, Bowen’s Court, was also some kind of legal establishment.

Another classic error: “Bowen wrote of a gathering at one of the big houses, Mitchelstown Castle, Cyril Connolly’s family estate”. Connolly’s only connection with Mitchelstown lies in the fact that his great-aunt Anna was married to its owner, the Earl of Kingston, and, after his death, to its next owner. Although Connolly visited the ruins (unlike Bowen’s Court, it was burned down in 1922), to describe the place as his “family estate” not only argues a much closer family connection than is warranted but implies that Connolly had some personal lien on the place. This level of surmise suggests that the author has not undertaken sufficient research to justify her views on Anglo-Irish society and its history.

A local dairy farmer, Jim Gates, is “descended from the eminent Kildorrery family of “Cow and Gates” that ushered in baby nutrition”. Laurence blithely states this, despite the fact that “Cow and Gate” (not “Gates”) was conceived in Britain as a visual marketing slogan by two brothers called Gates who had no connection whatever with Mr Jim Gates until their company absorbed his, much later in the story that Laurence is telling. The point is a small one, but indicates that Laurence, or the unfortunate research assistant Raya Dimitrova (unfortunate because she is named in the Acknowledgements), could not bother to chase up a rumour.

There are also meaningless statements: “Anglo-Irish from all over northeast County Cork assembled to hold their position in Ireland”. This suggests not only a siege mentality (such as that described by Barbara Fitzgerald in her novel We Are Besieged of 1946) but a siege in physical terms. (The fact that the assembly took pace in what Laurence alleges was Cyril Connolly’s “family estate” piles the ignorance of Pelion on the fiction of Ossa.)

The acme of Laurence’s errors is the statement that “Taoiseach” is the Irish word for Parliament: “Bowen spoke with politicians (members of Taoiseach the Irish parliament)”. “Taoiseach” is the title of the Irish prime minister. Any Irish reader encountering this shameful display of ignorance not only of the Irish language (forgivable perhaps) but also of Irish public affairs would put down the book and indulge in a bout of lachrimose laughter.

To be fair, Laurence is not the only American to make unwarranted assumptions about Ireland or to make erroneous statements: Megan Specia, writing in the New York Times (24 March 2020), stated that “the Irish wake [is] rooted in Roman Catholic tradition”. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Irish wake is similar to that in many societies (such as the Greek) which are fundamentally pagan, and only superficially Christian.

The conclusion one is forced to reach is that Prof. Laurence regards Bowen as a “British” writer who happened to be born in Ireland, rather than an Anglo-Irish writer who happened to become a celebrity as a writer in the English language. Nothing else seems to explain Laurence’s almost wilful ignorance of the Irish background, which, to an Irish reader is, of course, the foreground.

What then of Laurence’s attention to the English milieu in which Bowen flourished as a writer? As the author of a work on Virginia Woolf (who is much quoted here) one would expect Prof. Laurence to be on safe ground. In Oxford Bowen befriended Maurice Bowra, “then a fellow of Wadham College and later its don”. Oxfordians, please stifle your hilarity. Bowra was, indeed, a fellow of the college (and therefore, by definition, a “don”), but what Laurence means is that he went on to become its Warden (that is, the head of the college) 1938-1970.

What are we to make of the (correct) statement (on p.5) that the “Wolfenden Act” of 1967 decriminalized homosexuality”, when, on pp. 160-1 we discover that 1967 also featured “the repeal of the Wolfenden Act, a law that criminalized homosexual acts in England”? (The Sexual Offences [“Wolfenden”] Act of 1967 decriminalised homosexual acts between consenting male adults in private.) An indication that Laurence is drowning in confusion comes two pages later when she asks if a possibly anti-homosexual episode in Eva Trout (1968) was “a response to the repeal of the Wolfenden Act”. Possibly there are two people at work in this book, one of whom almost gets her facts right, while another is intent on subverting those facts. We meet this again in the contradiction between text and caption where the author correctly refers to St Columba’s College, but where the caption of the relevant photograph calls it “St Columba’s School” – a slipshod carelessness that mars the overall effect.

The best bloomer, as far as captions goes, is that to a photograph of Bowen’s dining-table: six people are seated, but seven are identified in the caption, the ghostly presence being, we are told, the “second Duke of Westminster”. Since Glendinning has the same photograph, with the Duke omitted, it’s strange that no-one in Palgrave Macmillan bothered to check it for accuracy. And since the Duke does not make any other appearance in the narrative, his non-presence in the photograph is doubly ghost-like.

Bowen’s lover, Charles Ritchie, was a Canadian diplomat. They first met, we are told, in 1941 “at the christening of a daughter of John Buchan who was then governor general of Canada and later, a successful writer of adventure fiction”. While Prof. Laurence may lack indepth appreciation of Irish affairs and the nuances of Oxford academe, she should however have known, firstly, that John Buchan had died in 1940 and therefore wasn’t in a position (except of course if he was in absentia keeping company with the Duke of Westminster) to attend his daughter’s christening – she, presumably, being posthumous – and, secondly, that Buchan’s career as a “successful writer of adventure fiction” had begun twenty-five years earlier, in 1915, with the publication of The Thirty-Nine Steps. The irony is that Glendinning (pp.133-4) correctly reports the meeting and its occasion: the christening was of the deceased governor general’s grandaughter,Perdita, and Bowen was godmother. (Ritchie, by the way, is an “eminent Canadian diplomat” on page 164, but has slumped to “junior Canadian diplomat” on the following page.)

What of the so-called “espionage”? Laurence cleverly draws attention to Bowen’s own reference to her childhood as walking through Dublin when “I looked at everything as a spy”; Laurence links it to the expression “secret agent”. But this is merely playing with words, since “spy” is here a literary metaphor, not an admission. As Nicola Darwood observes in her study of Bowen’s novels (which is not to be found in Laurence’s bibliography), The Heat of the Day “could (should one so desire) be read as a wartime novel of espionage and love”. Clearly, Laurence does so desire, but other critics do not. The fact that a character in The Heat of the Day is involved in counter-espionage does not permit Laurence to call it “spy writing”: The Heat of the Day is a book “about” wartime London, but it is also a book “about” love, in which espionage has a place, but one subordinate, melodramatically, to the main themes.

Laurence states unequivocally that Bowen and her friend William Plomer “were both intensely involved in espionage activities during the [second world] war”. She makes the classic mistake of equating “intelligence gathering” with “spying” or “espionage”. Espionage is, essentially, covert, and there was nothing covert – or “intense” – about Bowen’s visits to Ireland during the war, to gather information which she would then pass on to some branch of British intelligence. There is no evidence whatever that Plomer or Bowen was engaged in “espionage”; Plomer in fact, like many other writers, including Ian Fleming and Charles Morgan, worked in naval intelligence along with the librarian of the House of Commons.

Laurence states that Bowen “joined” the British ministry of information and that “she was enlisted”. This suggests that she was an employee, whether paid or unpaid. This is blatantly untrue. As Glendinnning reports, Bowen offered her services to the ministry. Laurence acknowledges that “she became part of a system of intelligence”, but prefers to call Bowen an “agent”, a member of “a shadowy corps” involved in propaganda. It is an untenable stretch of the imagination to equate intelligence-gathering and propaganda with a “spy network” of “agents”, which suggests covert operations and subterfuge. Her “intelligence missions” in fact involved gauging Irish attitudes to neutrality: she reported that Irish politicians (members of the “Taoiseach” no doubt) feared breaching neutrality since it would mean almost certainly incurring German bombs. Bowen, having experienced the blitz in London, was acutely aware of the likely effect on Dublin and other Irish cities. Bowen stated unequivocally “I regard myself as an Irish novelist” yet she saw the need for England to win the war against Germany. For an Anglo-Irish person this involves no dichotomy. Yet Laurence blithely states: “She lent herself as a writer to what she was enlisted to do, to spy on neutral Ireland […] Historically, she joined a cadre of women on the edges or between cultures who were both spies and writers”. This is so absurd as to defy rebuttal.

Implied in both the publicity and in Prof. Laurence’s own introduction is the idea that this book reveals details of Bowen’s lesbian relationships. She points, correctly, to the “censorship” encountered by Glendinning when writing about this aspect of Bowen’s life – in this case on the part of her agent, Curtis Brown. Laurence cites Michael Holroyd’s biography of Lytton Strachey (1967) as “groundbreaking” in that it avoided the taboo of sexuality, yet his work appeared a decade before Glendinning’s, so the point she makes seems to be immaterial. As it is, Laurence does devote several pages to Bowen’s relationship with the American poet May Sarton, but then merely states, “she had […] as yet unverified relationships with other women at various times”. For the prurient, there is nothing here. And Glendinning devotes almost as much space to Sarton as does Laurence, so why the fuss? Why the vague innuendo?

What, then, are the strengths of this biography? Laurence has been astute in drawing our attention to Bowen’s technique of suggestiveness – so that her novels “have an undertone of the unsaid, the hidden”. These “narrative conventions for concealment” invite “the reader to restore wholeness”. Yet this is not a unique insight on Laurence’s part, since it was first mooted by John Bayley. Bowen’s skill as a narrator is to draw the reader in by means of linguistic seduction, and to invite the reader to participate in the telling. As a much-discussed aspect of the writer-reader relationship today, the topic deserves more attention here, but doesn’t get it.

Laurence makes much of Bowen’s status as an outsider – she described herself as “a born stranger”. The condition of the Anglo-Irish – not merely in the era of the violent nationalism which is celebrated in The Last September but ever since their arrival in Ireland – had been that of outsiders, both in Ireland and in their country of origin. That they created their own society and culture which was quite different from “English” social or cultural mores, is a conundrum that somehow escapes Laurence. The fact that, as she says, Bowen “lives on borders”, immersed in “Otherness”, is of course a trope of twentieth-century fiction. (Displaced writers such as Lawrence Durrell, George Orwell, V S Naipaul and Salman Rushdie have made it an integral part of their work.) Bowen’s statement, that “love […] has no home” is one that Laurence fails to pursue – how valuable it would have been to follow her into an exploration of the symbiosis of exile and love!

Bowen’s childhood, with its withdrawal from the adult world, is hardly a characteristic we should associate exclusively with Bowen: indeed, many writers, as children, sought consolation in books and a self-imposed set of fictions, creating a metaphorical and metaphysical – indeed, a metemotional – world in which to live a life more bearable than the real one.

When Laurence states “Bowen went to England as a child, never to leave”, she is either ignoring the facts of Bowen’s life (her constant commuting between England and Bowen’s Court) or suggesting that Bowen’s mind remained in England from childhood onwards, which again denies Bowen’s own statements about her ancestral home which Laurence quotes at length.

Perhaps the most valuable section of the book is “When prose has to do the work of poetry”. Here we learn of Bowen’s deliberate sentence-construction in order to achieve a psychological impact. While she declared “I hate ‘poetic’ prose”, she nevertheless recognised that prose, doing the work of poetry, can “do more than words can achieve through reason” [Bowen’s emphasis]. She says “I write for sound, rather than for the eye […] as one might test out a line of poetry”.

Copy-editing (not necessarily the author’s responsibility) is dire, perhaps non-existent. Faulty punctuation, grammatical mishaps, the appearance of figures rather than numbers spelled-out, litter the text. Prof. Laurence interviewed Nicholas Grene, but couldn’t get his name right. And if Georgia O’Keeffe, Rider Haggard and Stendhal are to be invoked, at least let their names be spelled correctly. There is much that is fanciful: we are told that an ancestor, Jane Cole, was “related to Old King Cole of nursery fame” but no evidence whatsoever is adduced to establish this bizarre statement. “Royal Holloway Council” should be “Royal Holloway College”. And “Un Affaire du Tête” is a curious error in a study of a woman writer. But then, if love has no home, perhaps in this transgender age its affairs are masculine. Why, when reading the section on Bowen’s approach to prose writing we should be directed to a photograph of three European kings and their wives, is an abiding mystery – possibly some surrealist effect is being attempted.

These are not merely infelicities but major blemishes on the work as a book. Possibly Palgrave Macmillan imposed a formulaic structure on the work, which would be more in keeping with a Twayne series than one we expect from a publishing house of this reputation. A conscientious editor would have pulled up the author on these aggravatingly minor points as well as on the gross factual errors. A scholar who displays a lack of insight into, or understanding of, the milieux in which her subject lived and worked cannot claim expertise or authority. It is only when one realises this lack that one sees the book as a whole as superficial and shallow. Professor Laurence has not penetrated to the admittedly elusive core of Elizabeth Bowen which is the fact of her hybridity – the fruit of a hyphenated culture. The extant works by Glendinning, Patricia Craig, Hermione Lee and others remain more dependable. This one should be withdrawn from circulation.

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