The Stories of Elizabeth Bowen

Her fingers below, if not her two elbows without a third, creating the shadowy triangulation…>


I intend to gestalt-review all Elizabeth Bowen’s Stories, and when I re-read them, my thoughts will appear in the comment stream below…

Each story will be linked gradually in alphabetical order here:

My long-term Elizabeth Bowen site, Mysterious Kôr, here:

My previous dealing with Bowen’s novels:

My previous reviews of general older, classic books: — particularly the multi-reviews of stories by William Trevor, Robert Aickman, Katherine Mansfield, Vladimir Nabokov, Edith Wharton, Silvina Ocampo, Anna Seghers, Clarice Lispector, V.S. Pritchett, Truman Capote, Thomas Hardy, O Henry, Daphne du Maurier…


47 thoughts on “The Stories of Elizabeth Bowen

  1. The first of many Bowen stories re-read:


    “She was not the sort of person you’d see anywhere.”

    You must remember this woman with the blue dress sitting on the sudden hotel’s verandah, near the beach with soft sand where the two girls on holiday together were trudging, Edna and the narrator, like any two girls in an Aickman work, and here they did not get on very well together, with the sign saying ‘TEAS’ on the hotel when it didn’t sell teas at all! A bit of a tease I always thought.

    “I wouldn’t mind keeping on noticing Edna’s character if she wouldn’t keep on saying she keeps on noticing mine. […] I often said I did wish the sand wasn’t so soft,…”

    There had been a choice of two walks towards the surprising appearance of this near deserted hotel, the inland and the sea walks. ‘Awful cows’ keep worrying the narrator, almost interminably, if you keep checking back to see. Just like the cows of Bashan (or bulls disguised) that Aickman used twice in two different stories.

    “We looked round but we didn’t see any cows.”

    You and me. We tread this story together.
    Edna thinks the hotel is a ‘loony-bin.’ And when they meet the man inside after seeing “what looked like a row of corpses, all hanging along on the one wall. Later, I noticed these were gentlemen’s mackintoshes.”
    What about you? You noticed the man “rubbed one hand on a table and rubbed some dust off, then stood and watched the dust on his hand.”
    His name is Oswald and tells us the backstory of the hotel concerning the Topes, the woman in the blue dress being Miss Tope. That backstory I shall not divulge — well, you should have at least one thing to read anew in this story before hearing it from me first. Tell me what you think when you have read it. It sounds a real financial tarramadiddle to me. A rum do. But “what can you say when you don’t know what you think.”

    Ah, I see, looking back earlier, the cows were from the Biblical Bashan that Aickman picked up from Bowen, or was he first? I am the first critic to notice this, I guess, i.e. about the nature of these cows and the comparison with Aickman’s cows. And now they do certainly have horns.

    “There were those awful cows, the pack of them, awful black cows, with their horns and everything, coming downhill behind us ever so stealthy ready to spring on us.”

    I think it is a story that teases us as much as the teas do. Question is which way shall we go back, you and I?

    • Also, please compare the two girls in Aickman’s novel: ‘GO BACK At Once.’ (And THE TRAINS)

      My reviews of the two Aickman stories containing these cows or bulls of Bashan, the first one with my already mentioning, I note, Bowen!



  2. ¡Just remembered that Bowen also wrote a story called —


    “Ethel, with the not particularly dainty tray, accordingly entered the back room, this afternoon rendered dark by its outlook into a dripping uphill wood. The aunt, her visage draped in a cobweb shawl, was as usual sitting up in bed.”

    The two girls here, to not so much match those in LOVE as to fit into each other’s envious gloves, are Ethel and Elsie, as orphans overseen by their dotty aunt, but with her dottiness this lady is locked from outside in her back room, with rats in her head, but perhaps real rats that escaped when she arguably passed over! This is a classic Bowen absurdist-horror in her inimitable, accessibly beautiful eccentricity of style, where two girls are coming out and accepting suitors as in Austen, keen to get fashionable gloves unsmelly enough to not deter potential marriageable targets in the military or otherwise. The aunt is in mad cahoots with Ethel with very strange and love-lethal and highly ghostly and ghastly results. This almost out-does Aickman, but these two writers are kindred souls within the same pair of semantic gloves when they write such stories in this vein, thus finger-veined within their part of the literary gestalt. Full of materials, Bowen, and dress stuff. And various hard-to-get keys for various locks, as well as two hands perhaps in the same glove, here untangled and served back at us in our own back rooms.

    ‘Rats in the attic,’ she muttered. ‘I’ve heard them, rats in the attic! Now where’s my tea?’

  3. As it happens, I very recently re-read and reviewed a Bowen story (last May), and this is what I wrote then in the context of one of the Fontana Books of Great Ghost Stories edited by Aickman…


    “You have no time to run from a face you do not expect.”

    Another story, many times read, where I always seem to expect something but always get something else, something ever or even more frightening than I remember it possibly being. Today was no exception. Following this woman, as she returns to her bomb damaged London home, age 44, her life lived, husband, children, and a prior sinister troth to a lover who never returned in 1916 … until, as promised, today. Sleeping till today in some waiting room or gallery of vendettas, I sense, and I somehow find myself acting as her taxi driver for the night. All of this couched in Bowen’s immaculately fractured style of unexpected words and rich covert threat. Tempting the reader to become so involved that words are added that she did not intend but somehow simply knew, if not expected, would be delivered one day. Today. A mysterious core that only rare great stories such as this one can harbour. “To smoke with dark”, the smoke of 25 years, those “creeks of London silence.”


    A portrait of Elizabeth Bowen that I saw for the first time when first writing the above review (now shown at the head of this website page) and I find this quite amazing, as I have never seen her with long hair. And also the finely rendered hands together with her eyes create a combined gesture that seems to speak a message to us across time!

    “You have no time to run from a face you do not expect.” — Elizabeth Bowen

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  5. …from the back room above to the story whose hand fits its glove…


    “Now he saw her leaning back and drawing herself up and narrowing her eyes for utterance,…”

    “In fiction —“

    A lady’s soirée with various characters who all seem to know each other and we now begin to know, them, too, where they talk of what people talked about then, death, survival or time’s tenacity, immortality, telepathy, the soul, memory, love, even music without a score, and spiritualism (tut tut)…

    “…we accept that we may only hope for immortality in so far as we have attracted favourable attention, and become somebody else’s thought-form. We then survive, not by our own tenacity, but by somebody else’s.” — The essence, for me, of a fearless faith ‘in fiction’.

    One character, a “little fair plump man” seems to be plumped at the back of the room like a lost umbrella: someone that nobody seems to know but they all assume one of the others brought him in. He proceeds to tell a ghost story, thus a story within a story like a traditional ghost story, but I have never heard so many interruptions to ‘spoil’ its flow. Poetry, Hardy, De La Mare.

    The little man had gone to a farm in Ireland, and takes a long bike ride. He suffers a flat tyre and is invited by a large house’s gate and then — with an impulse despite not being an impulsive man — invited by its front entrancing entrance to enter and, well, it is a haunting story in its own right if one can leapfrog the interruptions, the story’s sounds and smells, and other sounds of others playing tennis close by, who end up being “quite quiet”. And the woman in the back drawing-room, “She made me feel the end of the world was coming,…”, poignant, transgressed with the troubles, and a later hindsight map with an empty place where the house should have been… and how we should “beat it back”, a phrase that carries meanings here like our troubles today carry troubles we should beat back, I guess.

    “….thick lace curtains – really thicker than one cares for nowadays.” “Even a good death means a world quenched,…” “Those women went about looking green.” Plants one’s pulled up. The man is hustled out, nobody having opened him up fully.
    Like this story, although I’ve tried. It tried, too, to open up. Maybe it did.


    “The house, fingered outwardly by the wind that dragged unceasingly past the walls, was, within, a solid silence: silence heavy as flesh.”

    Despite some wonderful Bowen touches, this, for me, is a rather derivative and ineffective horror story about a ‘modern’ family and group of people invited for a house warming party, (all of whom Bowen obviously disapproves and satirises) after the man of the family had decided to live in this this place where a lot of horrific murders etc had taken place within another family. A sort of co-subsumption.
    The cat was drawing back for enough room to jump house, I guess


    ‘“…’domes of silence’ on yielding carpets:”

    “He (Simon Wing) had been known for years as a likely marrying man; so much so that his celibacy appeared an accident; but his choice of a wife – this mannerless, sexless child, the dim something between a mouse and an Undine, this wraith not considerable as a mother of sons, this cold little shadow across a hearth – had considerably surprised them. By her very passivity she attacked them when they were least prepared.”

    One of Bowen’s more nightmarish possessions as a story – here Myra Wing, 19 year old, new and first wife of Simon, a man who has now taken up his role as ‘squire’ of the village, his friends Miss Bettersley (who, for whatever unknown reason, has referred to a ‘werewolf’ when considering Myra but Miss B is herself described by Bowen twice as wolfish including her appetite) and Lancelot, both staying overnight in the house after the village party that Simon had arranged…and Myra’s guilty visions of an apple tree wherefrom her once school friend Doria had hung by suicide, presumably because of Myra’s nastiness towards her (as young girls have very fickle cruelties and loves between them)… the apple tree even invades the room and I infer others saw it, too, such as Miss B who attempts therefrom to succour Myra toward an anonymous happiness about which as a then unmad if remade non-entity Myra would no longer be interesting enough for a storyteller’s telling, I guess. But did Miss B’s appetite remain wolfish? Shades of Aickmanesque cannibalistic themes?

    “Certainly someone in here was not alone; in here, in spite of the dark, someone was watching someone.”

    It is us, too, who actually see the apple tree in our room wherein we think we are passively reading this work, I sometimes fear. “By her (Myra’s) very passivity she attacked them when they were least prepared.”

    Humility in face of Eve’s apple? More than one apple this time. No longer domes of silence. Sauce for pork and other meats of decay,

    “But the room was a trap, a cul-de-sac; Simon, his face less than a yard away, seemed to be speaking to him through bars. He was frightful in fear; a man with the humility of a beast; he gave off fear like some disagreeable animal smell, making Lancelot dislike and revolt at his own manhood, subject to such decay. […] Silence. Then – he pressed closer – a thud-thud-thud – three times, like apples falling.”

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    “: if it was not that now it was nothing else, for there was nothing else for it to be.”

    This is easily Bowen’s most complexly patterned story as well as being one with disarming quirks inside the ever-spreading and accretive Proustly textured text — quirks that often seem clumsy but somehow miraculously evolve into the most psychologically and emotional appropriate flows of style that seep into the veins, just as the Ivy in Gavin’s last visit to the seaside resort on the south coast, like the Hastings of my periodic Summer’s youthful stays there with my grandmother, a place with different levels of landscape and lifts and handrails that one should grip, but here a place called Southstone towards the end of the Second World War when the war itself is getting easier but Southstone is with difficulty decaying fast, after bombs et al — an Ivy that strangulates, grips, sucks, nay subsumes the old house where he stayed before the first world war as a boy with Mrs Nicholson (with whom he had an unconscious crush) and Rockham the nurse. Does the Ivy nourish the house, or vice versa? A house at right angles to a seaside theatre, where they also have three acts to play, and we start here with the third act … until he overheard Mrs N, when talking to Admiral Concannon, compare him to a pet dog at the end of the second act! Time’s aforementioned gluey Zenoism / Zenonism apparent, for me, in the Ivy, its suck upon the structure of the story itself. So many grips in this story, handrails et al, even a grip on a cigarette lighter at the end when Gavin fails, as an older man, to chat up an ATS girl at the end of the third act as well as the end of the story itself. He thus lost both Mrs N and this ATS girl and now still alone, sent again to bed too early as it were (“When I am here the night seems a sort of waste, and I don’t like to think what a waste it is.”) when Mrs N used to go off to parties, and now with “not a soul” for him to know even today in 1944. “…rusty grass grew up into the tangles of rusty barbed wire”, as if the grass originates the rust. He stalks the house. And there is so much more in this story, on and on, like Zeno’s Paradox, always half an act away. “After all, we live in the present day! History is quite far back; it is said, of course, but it does seem silly. I never even cared for history at school; I was glad when we came to the end of it.’” The end of history, if not of time? And so much life-shortening sickness threatening the climb between the town’s levels, and the levels of society itself including this story’s ‘poor gentry’. “The path and steps up the cliff face had been destroyed; the handrail hung out rotting into the air.” The clockwork of Mrs N’s late husband like that inherited clock wound up and run down as time changes gear even today. The three acts of this story nourishing or draining each other in time. And married Admiral Concannon — with whom and by whom Mrs N must have flirted and been flirted with that Gavin finally realises — had “the air of eating himself.” And so much tactile materials and dresses and parasols, like an orgy of Bowenesque stuff that Gavin is said at one point to caress with a “pretty prettiness”, I recall (cf Aickman’s Ravissante). “Despair, the idea that his doom must be never, never to reach her, not only now but ever, gripped him and gripped his limbs as he took the rest of the path” – litter and trippers, be damned! Fate-lines and air raid blackouts. And two ‘drowned flies’, when Mrs N made the most fateful playful flirt of all with Gavin himself when he ‘squired’ her to dinner. She died when he was 10. Not a plot spoiler as we did read that bit in the third act at right angles right at the start of the story. “…that this existence belonged, by its nature, to any century. It was unprogressive. It had stayed as it was while, elsewhere, history jerked itself painfully off the spool;” Like Lawrence Durrell’s “jerk of death”.

    “‘Time flies,’ she said. ‘You’re no sooner come than you’re gone.’ She continued to count handkerchiefs…”

    • “Gavin, thrown sideways out of his bed, fingered the mousseline or caressed the satin of the skirts with an adoring absorption that made his mother uneasy –“

      “Apparently relaxed, but not supine, she was supported by six or seven cushions – behind her head, at the nape of her neck, between her shoulders, under her elbows and in the small of her back. The slipperiness of this architecture of comfort enjoined stillness – her repose depended on each cushion staying just where it was.”

      Who took this story’s keystone cushion away?

      “The stare and sheen of the cloth directly under the light appeared supernatural.” (my bold)

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