Occasionally, the stars align and you are presented with the exact book you were in that moment needing. Or, as Arthur Koestler put it, “I have always believed that in the administration of Divine Providence there is a special department entirely concerned with seeing that the right book comes into the hands of a reader at the right moment."
I started reading Elizabeth Bowen on the train from Dublin to Cork, my first return trip in seven years to a city where I had once lived. I don't remember what made me pack – or even buy – The Death of the Heart. All I know is that the rhythm of her words matched the rhythm of the train car's sway, and the cluttered, stuffy atmosphere of the book matched the atmosphere of my overactive little brain. Bowen's was a world of nostalgia overdose, of rootlessness, of trying hard to hold onto something that has already slipped away. Her story of a girl placed in a real home after a life of wandering through hotels and boarding houses and the pain that comes with the sudden stop etched itself onto me, and those two things are forever linked: a failed homecoming and the story of an involuntary homecoming.
After that, I gorged. I read all of the in-print Bowen novels, one after another. I found them brilliant in their emotional ruthlessness, in their precision. The way she zeroes in on a character and illuminates them in a single phrase: "He had the cloudy, at moments imperious look of someone conscious of fulfilling his destiny imperfectly." (The Death of the Heart) "All over herself she gave the impression of twisted stockings." (The Heat of the Day) "Cecilia did not like women to whom the diminutive could be applied." (To the North) With one sentence, you see the character before you, and you know what lies in their past, what they keep in their dresser drawers, what kind of fate might await them.
What amazed me, then, was that the world at large did not widely acknowledge her brilliance. I always thought she should be named alongside Graham Greene or her friends at Bloomsbury. Her legacy was neglected and several of her novels were allowed to languish out of print. Perhaps it was because while many of her peers were reimagining the potential of the novel with fragmented narrative and stream of consciousness, Bowen was simply telling a story from start to finish. Or maybe it's her focus on girls and women – even her wartime novel about a suspected traitor chooses to follow alongside his girlfriend. Whatever the case, it seems like an injustice.
Perhaps now is time for a re-appraisal, as the University of Chicago brings two of her novels back into print. The Hotel, Bowen's confident debut, and Friends and Relations, are certainly worthy of sparking a new interest.
Despite being early Bowen, both novels are identifiable as hers. Both are interested in the dynamics of women – a group of tourists at The Hotel, and a pair of sisters in Friends and Relations. Both have a way of vivisecting their subjects, revealing their inner workings with a pitiless stroke of the pen. And in both, Bowen is examining a topic she would master in later novels: cruelty. The cruelty between the sexes, the cruelty between women, the cruelty with which we lash out after being knocked around a bit ourselves. And, of course, the way we turn the knife on ourselves. We do, of course, know already the best places to stick it in for maximum effect.
And perhaps that is the real reason Bowen has not found universal acceptance. One can easily confuse the cruelty in the novel for Bowen's own. Because even when her subjects squirm and beg, Bowen with her steady hand peels back another layer and fixes it with a pin. Which is not to say she is a sadist, but she does not back off, does not fix everything with a wedding or a convenient death. From the opening of The Hotel, we see two pairs of women – the once close but suddenly estranged Miss Fitzgerald and Miss Pym, and the older, glamorous Mrs Kerr and her (much younger) intimate companion Sydney. And they continue to do damage to one another throughout the book as unsavory motivations are revealed. Bowen never releases the pressure with anything other than humor and prose so thick you want to go down on your knees and lick the upholstery. She does not introduce a male figure to interrupt these homoerotic tangles and realign everyone's desires to their rightfully intended masculine subjects. As a result, the reader can feel a little like they're up on that dissection table, too.
And yet there is something to be said for the unforgiving reading experience. Bowen will never be a cuddle-ready writer like Jane Austen or merciful like George Eliot, writers who may put their characters through the paces but will be guaranteed to grant reprieve by the end. Bowen is a tough old bird. And once you're on her side, it's going to be a loyal alliance. Because it's nice to have a writer who will never lie to you. Not even to make you feel a little better.