23 thoughts on “Encounters – Early Stories by Elizabeth Bowen

  1. All stories were first published in 1923, when Elizabeth Bowen would have been aged 24.

    Breakfast
    “‘Behold, I die daily,’ thought Mr. Rossiter, entering the breakfast-room. He saw the family in silhouette against the windows; the windows looked out into a garden closed darkly in upon by walls. There were so many of the family it seemed as though they must have multiplied during the night; their flesh gleamed pinkly in the cold northern light and they were always moving. Often, like the weary shepherd, he could have prayed them to keep still that he might count them.”
    …as we do, as we try to count the many different things happening in this otherwise static realistic tableau of a breakfast, a feast of gossip, a recounting of last night’s dream (worth a whole surreal story in itself), the loss of collar studs, relationships pregnant with innuendo, plus much more – and that passage I quote above is the start of this amazing story and, alone, it takes up nearly half a page of a 12 page story. Why else ‘amazing’, you ask? Well, be there, and see. The language, paradoxically fractured yet smooth, meticulously picks images out of a pixelated painting of deeper and deeper things that you begin to feel and, yes, want to count or itemise. Plus a jabbing Ivy Compton-Burnettish dialogue. Eventually, you, too, leave this breakfast room, along with its characters, dissatisfied but equally full up.

  2. Daffodils
    “Why can’t they see things for themselves, think them out? […] I wonder if any of you have ever used your senses; smelt, or seen things–“
    …as Bowen always does for us via the words’ worth she gives them, here by the objective correlative of some daffodils, and then she deploys daffodils for real (ones she’s just bought) in the story as a a similar lesson for others – because, as a strait-laced teacher (one with ‘Titian hair’) living just with her mother, but often walking along the road pretending she has wings, this lady invites some of her pupils in for an ad hoc tea and a lecture about ‘associations’ and their essays about daffodils. It doesn’t really come off as an enduring connection but a mere passing ‘association’, but all learn a lesson – girl pupils and teacher, and we readers. What lesson? It may be different one for each of us.
    As with the previous breakfast story, breaking one’s fast of undiscovery often ends with a ‘dying fall’ (representing an interlude or an ending?) as both the stories themselves do.

  3. The Return
    “…at each ease with each other, me and myself and the house. Now we are afraid…”
    The paid companion, Lydia, feels the desolation when her employer and husband return to their house where Lydia had built up ‘associations’ of her own during their absence and her continued residence there. An explicit association with her own Proustian self. It is as if the house has been betrayed again by its owners, this husband and wife who have also betrayed each other. I felt tears spring to my eyes as I reached the oblique ending of the story, another ‘dying fall’ ending that still resonates even now with its possible meanings. Breakfast, daffodils and, now, an echo of this story’s earlier “shuffling, furtive steps.”

  4. The Confidante
    “Unconsciously she had been drawing her imaginations in upon herself like the petals of a flower, and her emotions buzzed and throbbed within like a pent-up bee. / The room was dark with rain, and they heard the drip and rustle of leaves in the drinking garden.”
    A pent-up bee like an issue of ‘allusions, insinuations and double-entendres’, as one woman craftily brings a couple together, for a sort of dangerous match-making, but with dark undercurrents like those in much Ivy Compton-Burnett dialogue in her fiction, and the room is earlier given ‘point’, I recall, by an otherwise ‘unnecessary fire.’ The fire is now in the words, and the abandonment from three people to two, towards a deeper fire, I infer, at the story’s end. Some fires burn things, other fires weld things together. But which fire is this? As weird as Robert Aickman, but without any weirdness.

  5. Requiescat
    “Afterwards will come of itself.”
    There is a theme in later Bowen fiction of the ‘shadowy third’, a sort of semi-detached and timeless troilism without any explicit consummation. This book’s ‘early stories’ include the beginning of that theme, and we follow an extrapolated audit trail from this bereaved meeting of two out of three on the Italian Lakes as a sort of retrocausal rhapsody.
    “‘A third is never really wanted. […] his harshness no longer cast a shadow in her world,…”

  6. All Saints
    “Evensong was over, and the ladies who had composed the congregation pattered down the aisle and melted away into the November dusk.”
    In hindsight, a still ever-increasingly haunting story. Dialogue in Bowen often feels crafted yet constipated, while prefiguring an onrush of words later off-stage. Here in a conversation between a lady newcomer to town (someone who gives the impression of being a spiritual maverick) and the apprehensive vicar after the service, the former wants gratuitously to donate a window to the church… Yet, she wants to fill it with all the saints doubling as her friends. Each a recurring shadowy third?
    “Nobody was ever meant to be a go-between,…”

  7. The New House
    “…the air of startled spirituality that had become her as a girl now,sat grotesquely on her middle-aged uncomeliness.”
    A middle-aged unmarried sister and brother, following the death of their mother, move to a new house. He is set in his ways and we get a humorous glimpse into his obsessions with habits and creature comforts, until a Bowenesque ‘third’ affecting his sister surprises and distresses him, until it gives him an even more surprising glimpse into his own future…
    Meanwhile, that sororal ‘third, indeed, had a telling “shadow gesticulating behind him on the wall.” Another masterstroke from the mistress of literature.

  8. Lunch
    “You see, generally I talk in circles; I mean, I say something cryptic, that sounds clever and stimulates the activities of other people’s minds, and when the conversation has reached a climax of brilliancy I knock down my hammer, like an auctioneer, on somebody else’s epigram, cap it with another, and smile around at them all with calm assurance and finality. By that time everybody is in a sort of glow, each believing that he or she has laid the largest and finest of the conversational eggs.”
    Marcia speaks at a diarrhoeal gallop like that – as if she is the personification of Bowen fiction but without the constipation. It goes without saying the setting of the hotel here is a gem of Bowenesque description, words chosen immaculately for appealing to our five senses, the sixth being that, within such a setting, this conversational attack (comparing selfishnesses) by Marcia upon a male stranger, a sort of ex-marital chatting up by a female of a man, is heading towards a closed intestine of repartee, halted by the arrival of a ‘third’, and so it was. I know which selfishness won and who had the luckiest escape!

  9. The Lover
    “Richard had insisted on consigning the coal-scuttle that Herbert had given them to the darkest corner of the study.”
    This turns out to be a sequel of ‘The New House’, where what the modern eye would see as unpolitically correct marriages ensue for the brother and sister. But dialogue rolls like water off the duck’s back of consciousness while, from ‘Lunch’, Marcia’s concept, of how ‘selfishnesses’ compete and eventually win out for each self, comes true. If ‘The New House’ was emblematic of Richardson’s Pamela Volume One (without the lust), ‘The Lover’ is Volume Two (still without the lust). A lunch without lust.

  10. Mrs. Windermere
    “She dived suddenly, her bag on the floor. She reappeared with it, and its mauve satin maw gaped…”
    Here Mrs Windermere fortuitously meets, while shopping in the West End of London, a young girl she had ‘helped’ while on holiday in Italy. The girl is still ‘twirling’ while Mrs W tries to fix the girl’s Proustian ‘self’, an unmatch-maker, a sort of retrocausal conjuror of focus from the emotional mix-up of a later novel written after Bowen died, Hotel du Lac (cf Windermere) by Anita Brookner.

  11. The Shadowy Third
    “You shouldn’t play with dreadful thoughts.”
    A masterpiece by Bowen and so very early in her life, too. I have read this story elsewhere before, of course, but in this edition, pages 134-135 were still uncut and thus unread by whoever had owned this secondhand book, which seems rather appropriate. It echoes this book’s ‘houses are people’ theme, except here a previous wife ‘haunts’ it (and we gradually gain a picture of her and the circumstances, but not completely) as he and his young new wife consciously optimise their time together but worry about how very happy they are, bearing in mind that happiness is rationed for the world, and they are taking too much of their share…

  12. The Evil that Men do–
    “‘I know you so well,’ the letter continued, ‘Before you drew your gloves off I knew that you were married. You have been living on the defensive for years. I know the books you read, and what you see in the streets you walk in of that town with the terrible name. You live in a dark house looking over a highway. Very often you stand in the light of the windows, leaning your head against the frame, and trees with dull leaves send the sunshine and shadow shivering over your face. Footsteps startle you, you start back into the crowded room. The morning you get this letter, go out bareheaded into your garden, and let the wind blow the sunshine through your hair. I shall be thinking of you then. / Your husband and your children have intruded on you. Even your children hurt you with their little soft hands, and yet you are what you always were, untouched and lonely.”
    The letter goes on… Imagine, as a lady in 1923, receiving that letter, a letter seemingly becoming a premonitory Internet stalking — or of a stranger (another shadowy third) wooing or trolling you or predetermining your actions by some form of insidious craft — or of someone you met fleetingly at a poetry group and you almost welcome his creepy attentions, setting in a new light, as he does, your current stilted married life… Or, more likely, a blend of all these things. Or a synchronous catalyst for something quite surprising?
    This is one amazing story that will creep up on you like the letter itself creeps up on the character within the story.

  13. Sunday Evening
    “What’s the good of being sincere when there’s nobody to be sincere at?”
    The best argument (from 1923) against the current fashion of Anti-Natalism that I’ve ever heard!
    A Socratic conversation between ladies and one man in an informal free-for-all about life, the universe, everything – a conversation that has the remarkable quality of being innocent and complex, simple and confusing, all at the same time. Both Ivy Compton-Burnett and Bridget Jones.
    The Adam and Eve topic – that they cover – seems to take on a new slant when you think of Adam and Eve’s ‘Shadowy Third’… You heard it here first.

  14. Coming Home
    “An actual occurrence was nothing but the blankness of a shock, then the knowledge that something had happened; afterwards one could creep back and look into one’s mind and find new things in it, clear and solid.”
    That seems to be the essence of dreamcatching books…
    Rosalind’s Essay that she took back so proudly from its monumentalising at school, took it back home to show her Darlingest Mother, who has gone AWOL… at least temporarily…
    “Life’s nothing but waiting for awfulness to happen and trying to think about something else.”
    Yet…
    “This was the mauve and golden room that Darlingest had come back to, from under the Shadow of Death expecting to find her little daughter…”
    So, if that Essay is mother and daughter’s Shadowy Third, then this very Book of Encounters is ours.
    “…smiling at the daffodils.”
    Coming home.
    end

  15. Pingback: Shadowy ‘Encounters’ of a Third Kind | THE DES LEWIS DREAMCATCHER REVIEWS

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