British and Irish Literature Elizabeth Bowen
Eibhear Walshe
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 July 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0032


One of the most important novelists of the 20th century, Elizabeth Dorothea Cole Bowen (b. 1899–d. 1973) was born in Dublin on 7 June 1899, the only child of Henry Charles Cole Bowen and Florence Colley Bowen. Her family life was disrupted when, in 1905, her father suffered a nervous breakdown and Bowen and her mother moved to live on the Kent coast in England. By 1912, Henry Bowen had recovered but Florence Bowen then tragically died of cancer and Bowen was sent to boarding school, first, to Harpenden Hall, Hertfordshire, and then to Downe House in Kent. Later Bowen briefly attended the LCC School of Art in London, but, abandoning her studies, she spent some time travelling in Italy. In 1923, Bowen married Alan Cameron and her first short-story collection, Encounters, was published in the same year. In 1925, Bowen and her husband moved to Oxford, where, in 1927, she published her first novel The Hotel. Her Irish War of Independence novel, The Last September, appeared in 1929. In 1930, her father died and she inherited Bowen’s Court, spending her summers there for the next few years. Her novels continued into the 1930s, by which time Bowen and Alan Cameron had moved to London, where they lived in Regent’s Park. In 1938, she published her most successful novel, The Death of The Heart. When the Second World War broke out in 1939, Bowen volunteered for secret reporting for the Ministry of Information on Ireland’s neutrality. A flood of writings on war, memory, and Ireland followed, with Bowen’s Court in 1942, Seven Winters in 1943, and The Demon Lover and Other Stories in 1944. She was awarded the CBE in 1948 and, in 1949, her wartime masterpiece The Heat of the Day was published. She and her husband retired to live in Bowen’s Court in 1952, but Alan Cameron died suddenly and Bowen struggled to keep her home. In 1955, she published her second Irish novel, A World of Love, and, in 1956, she was awarded an honorary degree from Oxford. Unable to survive financially, in 1959 she was forced to sell Bowen’s Court and the house was demolished the next year. She moved back to England, and in 1965 she bought a house in Hythe in Kent, where her mother had died. Bowen died in 1973 in London and was buried in Farahy in north County Cork, near the site of Bowen’s Court.

Primary Works

Bowen’s most influential creative texts, her novels, and her short story collections are cited in this section. Her career spans several decades, from the early 1920s until the late 1960s, and her novels and short stories have continued to attract readers and critics since her death. A crucial figure in 20th-century fiction writing, Bowen was, in her lifetime, commercially successful as a writer while at the same time she drew critical and scholarly interest and attention. Thus, her works appealed to both popular and avant-garde tastes. Connected with modernist writers and critics such as Woolf, Eliot, Lehman, and many others, nevertheless she has been a difficult writer for scholars to categorize. Thus, her works fell into something of a critical limbo in the years after her death. The inability to neatly situate her works within 20th-century writing has become more recognized and celebrated in critical studies since the early 1990s and that fact is now seen as one of the most interesting aspects of her writing. Her books have remained in print since her death and her novels and stories have been adapted for radio, Television, and film, and they continue to be widely anthologized. Her imaginative settings are set firmly within the world of the English upper middle class and the Anglo-Irish ascendancy and the themes and preoccupations of her imagination are distinctive: the fragility of personal identity, the fracturing of external perception, the vicissitudes of adolescence, the comedy of social class and interchange, the diffuse nature of sexuality, and the varied possibilities of erotic selfhood. In her writings Bowen displays a keen interest in the uncanny nature of perception through her highly developed sense of the visual and her interest in social interaction. While connected to high modernism, as shown by her interest in Woolf, Proust, and Joyce, she nevertheless adhered in all but her last two novels to the narrative techniques of classic realism. Bowen experimented with various literary styles and forms, and she tested language beyond the bounds of conventional construction and acceptable syntax, which reflects her admiration for these high modernist writers. However, her best writing dramatizes clashes between literary forms, and her great gift lay in her ability to fictionalize oddness. In drawing on her Irish Gothic tradition, Bowen’s most characteristic trait as a novelist is her uncanny ability to represent dispossession, apartness, and un-belonging. Her fine-honed sensibility continues to engage her many readers and critics.

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