Elizabeth Bowen: the Sleuth Who Bugged Tea Cups

Elizabeth Bowen must have felt off duty when having her picture taken. For some of them she even dispensed with a cigarette, the smoke screen that customarily veiled her disabused eyes. Book jacket portraits vouch for the most widely displayed of her personae, a high-spirited, mondaine London hostess primed for tea at Harrods. That calculatedly outsize jewelry probably distracted companions while she fed morsels to her memory. A longer peek at the lean profile, not comely in the fashion magazine sense yet serenely riveting, conjures up a dressing room: she might be rehearsing fresh bits of gesture or intonation for Macbeth. If one does not break cover, a new surmise edges closer: now one faces no West End actress but a close cousin—a superbly practiced undercover agent.

Her habitual duty station was dinner parties where stylish married couples, civil servants, debutantes between rival beaux, an Oxford don or two could be observed and queried. Despite her myopia, the spurning of glasses was a choice, no crutch. What she drew from the subtext in a neighbor's voice supplied all the data she needed. She sent no traitors to the Old Bailey: her patria transcended national boundaries. She served that unarmed, if loquacious, commonwealth we designate as high art during decades when she watched terror mount from midnight ambushes on the back roads of her native Ireland to air raids that pummeled major cities.

The first County Cork Bowen, one of Cromwell's colonels, had come over from Wales. Covetous of land, he was duly rewarded. Two and a half centuries later his more altruistic descendant praised a number of co-workers on behalf of her other more peaceable commonwealth, among them Henry James and E.M. Forster. Yet her most impassioned fealty was reserved for a Norman Frenchman. What drew her was Flaubert's wrestling with projects that for others might have seemed banal (Madame Bovary) or cripplingly esoteric (Salammbo), his monastic zeal in welding style with subject, most of all his pride in the vocation of storyteller. In an essay that gives off a whiff of incense she sums up: "Live and write?—the two were synonymous. A sin against art, for him, was a mortal sin" (Collected Impressions). She might have been reciting her own credo.

Her undercover work was not exclusively in the service of her craft. During the Second World War she eavesdropped in Eire for the British Ministry of Information. Such stints could be coordinated with furloughs at Bowen's Court, her ancestral estate. Candid, often witty, her reports gauged reactions in the republic to the mortal threat then menacing England: she advised Whitehall to keep hands off. Yet this temporary phase entailed no major shift: it gave official status to what had already become ingrained habit. Nowhere can this investigative bent be traced with more compactness, more revealingly, than in her short fiction.

Her early habitat discouraged questions. Born in Dublin as Victoria's tightly lidded matriarchy dozed to its close, growing up among the Anglo-Irish landed gentry during Edward VII's naughty interlude, shuttling back and forth across the Irish Sea for school and visits to kin, she lived in a maze of contradictions that would have crazed any gardener. Over the years in her nonfiction—personal essays, her history of Bowen's Court, book reviews—she set down what now read like a sheaf of aide-mémoires. Sometimes clan pride wins out. "They had begun as conquerors," she concedes about her Cromwellian forebears, "and were not disposed to let that tradition lapse" (The Mulberry Tree). Elsewhere she sympathizes with the Anglo-Irish self-image as guarantors of civilized living, setters of standards. To the end of her life words like "demesne" would preserve the hallowed status of Mecca for a Moslem. At moments, though, she sounds adrift between Dun Laoghaire and Holyhead, acknowledging the Crown as potent symbol while too honest to stifle a doubt as to how far from Buckingham Palace its sway should reach. Then her phrasing apes the stammer that sometimes besets her. "The security that they had, by the eighteenth century, however ignobly gained, they did not use quite ignobly. They began to feel, and exert, the European idea—to seek what was humanistic, classic and disciplined" (TMT). Such dispatches—to herself as much as to readers—attest to the strain of reconciling a legacy at once supportive yet suspect with the candor she demanded of herself. She was as much shadowed by her past as William Faulkner. At first she paddled in a lily pond, pretending to swim. The Millicents, Esmées, and Penelopes who dawdle through her apprentice work waste whole afternoons sniffing heliotrope as they muse, limply lyrical, over tea cups. They move like student performers in some parents' night entertainment. Their flurried stops and starts grow nerve-racking; drooping shoulders imply a disenchantment not yet earned. One waits for a member of the audience—a drowsy father whose firm makes fire extinguishers—to leap on the stage and spray the wall of their bewitched garden, proving it was gauze all along. As she grew braver she ventured from pond to seashore: salt water proved energizing, if bitter to the tongue. Early on genuine hazards began to trample her neatly mowed lawns. While still in her twenties she set down (in "Recent Photograph") one of the most hair-raising sentences in 20th-century fiction: "One spring evening Mr. Brindley, returning from business, cut his wife's throat with a razor, and afterwards turned in for the night with his head inside the gas oven, having mitigated the inside's iron inclemency with two frilly cushions" (Collected Stories). In time she would learn that the most insidious peril need not depend on gore: it strikes at the heart, not the jugular vein, yet leaves no trace of blood.

One of her little boys watches the outside world with "a passion of observation" (Stories). A similar compulsion quickens her own accounts of a face or landscape that subtly coalesce, rousing us by cryptic hints, not frontal explanation. Sometimes we have to squint, as when reading on a beach suffused by sunlight. But the diligence exacted pays off. She warrants the approach of a critic such as Cyril Connolly when he said: "I stay very close to the text—no soaring eagle, but a low-swung basset who hunts by scent and keeps his nose to the ground" (Pritchett). Yet her range of people remained modest: children whose relation to their elders is commonly that of escapees to pursuers, girls like apprentice subversives, mature men and women writhing to give asylum to their clandestine needs without jettisoning the safeguards of public decorum. As if admonishing herself, two of her best performances from the 1930's weigh the cost of entrapment by one's elders or, worse yet, by oneself. In "Reduced" we enter a suburban English scene. The Carburys have managed to attract a manifestly superior governess for their two daughters. Given the atmosphere of their home, their coup is remarkable. Already Bowen's rapt attention to place carries special weight. Their dim (in several senses) dwelling betrays Mr. Carbury's failure to mask his stinginess. "The house looked dedicated to a perpetual January. . ." (Stories). Indoors, oil lamps affect the picturesque: the owner balks at having electricity installed. A nosy woman guest ferrets out the governess' past from her timid hostess. Henrietta Post, as she then was, had been the accused in a lurid trial, charged with killing her aging, lecherous employer. Acquitted for lack of evidence, she was persuaded to relocate where she would not be traced. When the visitor whispers about possibly baleful influences, Mrs. Carbury panics.

Our attention ultimately fixes on the children. Another guest, an obtuse young man, ventures upstairs where Miss Rice, as she now calls herself, supervises her charges: the girls have to skip rope to keep warm. Having overheard the downstairs whispering without grasping its real significance, the intruder seeks further details. With suppressed terror Miss Rice summarizes the case as if drawing on newspaper accounts, then speaks her choked appeal: "". . .she disappeared, hoping to be forgotten."" We have already recognized the youngsters' readiness for insurrection. "What they thought of being alive their parents would never know; their characters were like batteries storing something up." As they watch the two adults, a conjecture chillier than the temperature in the room immobilizes them. "They sat stone-still, clasped hands thrust down between their knees; you could not possibly tell what was going on in their heads, which were both turned intently away from their governess." Those clasped hands, those averted eyes, as of one unable to face another's pain, tell all we need to know. When their mother discloses that Miss Rice will be dismissed, they react with icy composure: they, too, will leave. Whether or not they make good their unlikely escape, they have become orphans twice over.

In "Look at All Those Roses" plants traditionally prized as symbols of devotion, arbors of safety, assume an unexpected role: they burn like warning lights. Here nature breathes on events like a mute, sardonic chorus, unwilling to tell what it knows. Two young lovers are driving back to London from a querulous rural weekend. When their little car stalls they seek help at a nearby cottage. In the front yard mammoth clusters of roses beckon as to a shrine. Lou pauses while her companion hunts down a garage. She feels ill-at-ease lest he be planning to rejoin his wife. Lou carries no school girl's burden: hers is sexual jealousy. ". . .her idea of love was adhesiveness. . ." (Stories).

Mrs. Mather, a large, rough-hewn woman, dispenses tea. Lou distracts herself with the daughter of the house, a cripple. Stealing glances at her wristwatch, she learns about the teenager's accident, caused six years earlier by her own father. Afterward, so the child claims, he ran away. Against her will, Lou becomes absorbed by thoughts of the absentee parent, why he took himself off. Affecting a self-command her past behavior has not verified, she reminds herself that "men dread obstinacy, of love, of grief." Later she lies on the grass, with her mystifying mentor nearby on a portable stretcher. Apparently what Lou has been told has stirred a more objective view of her own problem. "No wonder I've been tired, only half getting what I don't really want." On his return her lover insists that they get away. In town he has learned that the child's mother may have exacted a fierce revenge, By now a reader knows better why those flowers, unnaturally robust, earlier "glared at the strangers, frighteningly bright." Yet the text ends with no comfortable moment of knowledge reinforced, selfhood shored up. What lurks longest in the mind are misgivings. Lou's passion always to be in control will probably strike again. The oracle's voice in a child's body may have spoken obliquely, even disingenuously, but for an adult listener to react in kind, even to herself, foreshadows grim possibilities. As she leaves Delphi, Lou remains at risk.

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