‘Life would be insufficient’: Sampling Bowen’s Essays

I couldn’t find Bowen’s “Notes on Writing a Novel” online so I went to the actual library to get it (funny how rare this has become!). It turns out to be kind of rambling and not particularly illuminating, at least for my thinking about The Heat of the Day, but I have been having fun browsing the volume I found it in, The Mulberry Tree: Writings of Elizabeth Bowen (selected and edited by Hermione Lee). After the careful convolutions of the prose in The Heat of the Day, it’s interesting how direct and frank her critical writing is (including about her own work). This confirms, of course, that her fictional style is deliberate, purposeful. Here are some samples:

From “Out of a Book,” about the influence of childhood reading:

Readers of my kind were the heady ones, the sensationalists–recognizing one another at sight we were banded together inside a climate of our own. Landscapes or insides of houses or streets or gardens, outings or even fatigue duties all took the cast of the book we were circulating at the time; and the reading made of us an electric ring. Books were story or story-poetry books: we were unaware that there could be any others.

Some of the heady group remained wonderfully proof against education: having never graduated these are the disreputable grownups who snap up shiny magazines and garner and carry home from libraries fiction that the critics ignore. They read as we all once read–because they must: without fiction, either life would be insufficient or the winds from the north would blow too cold. They read as we all read when we were twelve; but unfortunately the magic has been adulterated; the dependence has become ignominious–it becomes an enormity, inside the full-sized body, to read without the brain. Now the stories they seek go on being children’s stories, only with sex added to the formula; and somehow the addition queers everything. These readers, all the same, are the great malleable bulk, the majority, the greater public–hence best-sellers, with their partly artful, partly unconscious play on a magic that has gone stale. The only above-board grown-up children’s stories are detective stories.

From her ‘Afterword’ to Woolf’s Orlando:

We, in our twenties during the ’20s, were not only the author’s most zealous readers, but, in the matter of reputation, most zealous guardians. Her aesthetic became a faith; we were believers. . . . We regarded [Orlando] as a setback. Now, thirty-two years later, I wonder why this should have been so. . . .

Most of us had not met Virginia Woolf; nor did we (which may seem strange) aspire to. She did not wish to be met. Her remoteness completed our picture of her, in so far as we formed a picture at all. . . . We visualized her less as a woman at work than as a light widening as it brightened. When I say, ‘She was a name to us,’ remember (or if you cannot remember, try to imagine) what a name can be, surrounded by nothing but the air of heaven. Seldom can living artist have been so–literally–idealized.

Malevolent autumn of ’28–it taunted us with the picture of the lady given to friends, to the point of fondness, and jokes, to within danger of whimsicality. . . . What we loathed was literary frivolity. So this was what Virginia Woolf could be given over to, if for an instant we took our eye off her–which, to do us justice, we seldom did? . . .

That Orlando was beautiful nobody doubted: what we now see is that it is important–and why.

It was important to the writer. She was the better, one feels certain, for writing it; in particular, for doing so when she did. More irresponsible than the rest of her work in fiction, it has the advantage of being less considered and more unwary. This book corresponds with a wildness in her, which might have remained unknown of–unless one knew her. This was a rebellion on the part of Virginia Woolf against the solemnity threatening to hem her in. Orlando is, among other things, rumbustious; it is one of the most high-spirited books I know. . . .

I have a theory–unsupported by anything she said to me, or so far as I know, to anyone–that Virginia Woolf’s writing of Orlando was a prelude to, and in some way rendered possible, her subsequent writing of The Waves, 1931. Outwardly, no two works of fiction could be more different; yet, did the fantasy serve to shatter some rigid, deadening, claustrophobic mould of so-called ‘actuality’ which had been surrounding her? In To the Lighthouse (coming before Orlando), she had reached one kind of perfection. This she could not surpass; therefore, past it she could not proceed. In Orlando, delicacy gives way to bravura, to rhetoric. It was a breaking-point and a breathing space at the same time, this fantasy. She returned to the novel, to The Waves, with–at least temporarily–a more defiant attitude to the novel’s ‘musts.’

Finally (for now, at least!), from the thought-provoking comparison of Victorian and Edwardian fiction that leads off her review of Ivy Compton-Burnett’s Elders and Betters:

The great Victorian novelists did not complete their task, their survey of the English psychological scene. One by one they died; their century ended, a decade or two before its nominal close. then–as after one of those pauses in conversation when either exhaustion or danger is felt to be in the air–the subject was changed.

There came, with the early 1900s, a perceptible lightening, if a decrease in innocence: the Edwardian novelists were more frivolous, more pathetic. their dread of dowdiness and longwindedness was marked; content to pursue nothing to its logical finish, they reassured their readers while amusing them, and restored at least the fiction of a beau monde. They were on the side of fashion: to shine, for their characters, was the thing. Competent, nervous, and in their time daring, they redecorated the English literary haunted house. Their art was an effort to hush things up. Curiously enough, in view of that, almost all the novels I was forbidden to read as a child were contemporary, which was to say, Edwardian. They were said to be too ‘grown-up.’ (To the infinitely more frightening Victorians, no ban attached whatsoever: a possible exception was Jane Eyre.) When, therefore, I did, as I could hardly fail to, read those Edwardian novels, I chiefly got the impression of being left out of something enjoyable. Here was life no longer in terms of power, as I as a child had seen it, but in terms of illusion for its own sake, of successful performance, of display.

Even aside from the foolish pleasure I always get from the word “rumbustious” (I think A. S. Byatt uses it to describe George Eliot somewhere, which I love for the sheer surprise of that!) there’s a lot here that makes me want to jump into conversation with her. This is the same effect that, say, Elizabeth Hardwick’s criticism has: not that I’m persuaded to her view of things, but that her view is well-informed, specific, and a little unexpected, so I want to know more about it, maybe argue about it (is it true that the Victorians’ primary “task,” in their fiction, is ” a survey of emotion as an aggressive force, an account of the battle for power that goes on in every unit of English middle-class life”?).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.