Elizabeth Bowen Stories (3)


My huge Bowen story review (3)

As continued from the second part of this review of all Elizabeth Bowen’s stories here: https://elizabethbowensite.wordpress.com/my-huge-bowen-story-review-2/

My previous reviews of general older, classic books: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/reviews-of-older-books/ — particularly the multi-reviews of William Trevor, Robert Aickman and Katherine Mansfield.

“She never had had illusions: the illusion was all.” — EB in Green Holly


23 responses to “Elizabeth Bowen Stories (3)


    “They were Experts – in what, the Censor would not permit me to say.”

    “She never had had illusions: the illusion was all.”

    And perhaps for the first time ever I reveal this INCREDIBLE ghost story to the wider public? I am seriously excited by this particular re-reading, and, let me admit, it has not haunted me as it should have done since I first read it years ago — because I have been haunting myself, as a man does within it. The most remarkable ghost story ever written, one that makes you believe in ghosts, because they may be you. Here, a group of singular characters on secret work with undescribed installations ringing for attention to the staff member on duty, the others playing pingpong, others rectifying the berryless holly for Christmas Eve that audibly scratches the walls, one piece falling off the portrait of General Montgomery, well-characterised staff members who are moved from house to house, currently Mopsam Grange. One man as staff member has met his trans ‘inverse’ as ghost woman with a feather boa, the backstory of a man’s suicide at her feet, a way that transgender works as haunting oneself as ghost, and there are implicit sexual jealousies between the staff members themselves and I could go on and on! I shall just leave you with some crucial quotes below as my blatant and unforgivable unveiling of this story like an unseemly flaunt, without even more unforgivably quoting the whole of it! Just suffice to say that this story alone proves to me that, as rough contemporaries, Bowen and Aickman were great mutual literary spirit influences as synergy upon and from each other, but without letting the literary world know. Or the literary world has kept wartime secrets about it, by not mixing apparent horror genre with literature? Till now.
    A clandestine affair now beyond such censorship.

    “There are moments when I don’t quite know where I am.”

    “Death had left her to be her own mirror; for into no other was she able to see.”

    “Her own person haunted her – above her forehead, the crisped springy weight of her pompadour; round her feet the froufrou of her skirts on a thick carpet; in her nostrils the scent from her corsage; up and down her forearm the glittery slipping of bracelets warmed by her own blood. It is the haunted who haunt.”

    “‘My bath, my bath!’ ‘Then may you freeze in it, Carla!’ returned the scrawniest of the defeated ones. The words pierced the ghost, who trembled – they did not know!”

    “Now the mills of death with their catching wheels had stripped her of semblance, cast her forth on an everlasting holiday from pretence.”

    “She was left with – nay, had become – her obsession. Thus is it to be a ghost.”

    “She was more than waiting: she set up a sort of suction, an icy indrawing draught. Nor was this wholly psychic, for an isolated holly leaf of Miss Bates’s, dropped at a turn of the staircase, twitched. And not, you could think, by chance did the electric light choose this moment for one of its brown fade-outs: gradually, the scene – the hall, the stairs and the gallery – faded under this fog-dark but glass-clear veil of hallucination. The feet of Winterslow, under remote control, began with knocking unsureness to mount the stairs. At their turn he staggered, steadied himself, and then stamped derisively upon the holly leaf. ‘Bah,’ he neighed – ‘spectacles!’”

    “You? – no, I saw your enchanting inverse.”

    The birds had eaten the berries, you see. And one lost white pingpong ball remains to be found.


    “let there be no prickly holly.”

    Another EB story title this morning pulled from a hat from among folded-over slip of papers mixed with countless other such titles, and this story also has a scene of a character called Angela folding over slips of paper for later pulling out of a hat, here the names of potential godmothers (all the many ‘best’ friends she had known over the years and to whom she had faithfully promised such a role) for her new baby Nona, whose christening event synchronises with Christmas…. And I think I have (re?)discovered an EB classic, because, but not only because, there are so many other synchronicities attaching to it. It is also eventually pure uplifting fantasy translated by or into darksome Bowenesque…

    “Now and then from swags of holly a berry dropped.”

    “Across the snow ran tiny prints of birds’ feet…”

    You couldn’t make it up! Holly depicted on the Christmas Tree, marks in the snow resonating with other marks in the snowy Toase story I read and reviewed yesterday HERE but here they are fairies not angels (even if the mother’s name is Angela!), later, the comic battles between father and mother about the numbers of godfather and godmother, and how many women she had promised this role throughout her life, including one woman who becomes literally the Unknown or the Shadowy Third (“the skulking little Third”) at the Christening, the third name out of the hat, not echoing Macbeth’s witches, but certainly completing the requisite number! Some pact or plan? Some communal-vivid dream? No one could remember what was said and no one came, amid overpowering candles, to the cradle upstairs with the baby, the Nurse reported, no one came for Nona. But Nona received the uplifting message about the virtue of welcoming ‘inconvenient people’ into her life …shadows like three gigantic heads. An ‘unearthly intimacy’ toward silence,

    “But the dementing thing was that, though there and everywhere, she was never ‘here’.”

    “Remember there is always magic in the world.”


    “There was a marble clock, but it had stopped.”

    “In memory, the moment before often outlives the awaited moment.”

    That moment when one finds at last the pure Zeno’s Paradox in a Bowen story! And this 15 year old ‘Barbie’ girl narrator, who has come to stay with her uncle is frozen between those moments of being a simple girl (“Arms thin, no sign yet of a figure.”) and a sexual one, having been sent by him to borrow the thistle cutter from the Aunt who had somehow killed the other brother, I gather, and his food stains still on the Blackwood’s mag that she was returning to the Aunt from him. Thistles are illegal to be left alone…

    “Time after time, it’s the same story.”

    The setting is Moher in Ireland

    “The little place prospers – a market town with a square, on a main road. The hotel is ample, cheerful, and does business. Moreover Moher is, and has been for ages, a milling town. Obsolete stone buildings follow you some way along the river valley as, having passed through Moher, you pursue your road. The flour-white modern mills, elsewhere, hum.”

    Barbie resents the Aunt talking about the uncle with her bad breath. A roomful of photographs and paintings.

    “Naturally growing into love I was, like the grass growing into hay on his uncut lawns.”

    “She could be novelist’s material, I daresay – indeed novels, particularly the French and Irish (for Ireland in some ways resembles France) are full of prototypes of her: oversized women insulated in little provincial towns. Literature, once one knows it, drains away some of the shockingness out of life. But when I met her I was unread, my susceptibilities were virgin.”

    …her Aunt in Literature, that is. A passage that is crucial to all of it! And talking about such things, it is good to find a story that is the finest apotheosis of another writer all of whose stories I have recently gestalt real-time reviewed in detail on-line (alongside of Katherine Mansfield and Robert Aickman) — viz, WILLIAM TREVOR.

    When she first arrived at her uncle’s place, to take his charity in offering to look after her, they had stood ‘elbow to elbow’, on a balustrade over the river. Today she stood in the same place watching “a paper boat – this, travelling at uncertain speed on the current, listed as it vanished under the bridge. I had not the heart to wonder how it would fare.” Like time itself. And today, the bus having escaped taking her back to an empty house she yearned for as quietus (was it her father who was the brother that had been killed, I wonder?) and that was because her uncle was nearby anyway in a hotel now to take her back in his car…

    “He opened the car door and touched my elbow, reminding me to get in.”


    “Every fibre of her quivered with hostility to these invaders who were the owners of the house.”

    And ever fibre of Lydia was split between self and a matching companionable self, much unto any companion set in any hearth or heart? — such equilibrium now disturbed by the long mismatched marriage of Mr and Mrs Tottenham returning home as owners and thus removing her ‘ownership’ not only of the house but herself. The owners being effectively their own visitors from Porlock? And it is tellingly asked whether Porloch, the gardener, had sold the apples while they’ve been away!
    Mr T, while they were on holiday, Mrs T was said to look like his daughter, and she in denial, a denial soon to be shattered by the end of this story, she believed it now coming home to a letter from a certain man she’d once known, a man now living nearby in Sevenoaks…
    Mr T’s falsetto giggles seeming ironic in this father-daughter observation about himself and his wife. Mrs T ‘crumbling her cake.’ And there is some insect on a pin. Until, by burning a photo she had kept of the man now in Sevenoaks, gives birth to the metaphorical child they might once have had together? Strangely both Mr T and Lydia have the word ‘furtive’ used in their connection, but separated by pages. It is Bowen being furtive, I guess, in disguising any patterns she had planted so early in her writing life. He own second self furtive, the shadowy third yet unborn? A crime of a story with no crime within it to become a whodunnit. “She felt, revoltedly, as though Mrs Tottenham were stepping out of her clothes.” Mrs T having ‘pawed’ her on the stairs….an easy burn, then?

    ‘Oh, you unhappy house,’ thought Lydia. ‘They have broken into your silence and given you nothing in return.’

    • I have now looked up the previous review I made of this story here: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2014/12/16/encounters-early-stories-by-elizabeth-bowen/ and this what I said about it in 2014…

      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.”


    “Other people have that sinister advantage over one of being able to see the back of one’s head. For the first time in her life she had the uncomfortable sense that somebody had done so, that somebody had not only glanced but was continuously staring.”

    “Your husband and your children have intruded on you.

    The handbag at the end – an immaculately, meticulously Bowen-detailed object that takes precedence over a whole longish paragraph about itself – and where this woman, who goes to poetry meetings without understanding the poetry, and wears longish fashion gloves for Bowen-boned hands, and lives in a marital ‘cage’ amid “sweet ruched satin cushions”, and she receives a letter, like Mrs T in the previous story above, from a man, a man now openly stalking her after the poetry meeting and needing reciprocation from her, and her likewise mismatched husband whom that man calls inimical in the letter to her, including references to her cold children with ‘unfamiliar faces’… all so Aickman-like about marriage and objects, things and thoughts, this time without overt Aickman sexual absurdism except some subtle disarming absurdism of clandestine epistolary communication methods.
    Is Fate just Clandestiny, I wonder? The handbag gift from her husband transcends the back-of-the head paranoia and saves the day for him, as she realises he’s not so bad after all. But who has escaped the worst fate among these three, one a shadowy third? Shedding her Solicitor husband for an insurance man, sounds like a rock and a hard place to me! Maybe we should read Voltaire about making do with small mercies as the best possible in an indifferent world rather than grappling with smug impenetrable or, at best, allusive modern poetry? Or exploring, at near impossibly best, the backbrain-of-the-head prose works of Bowen and Aickman? We all need literary backbone.

    “Fancy living at 28 Abiram road, West Kensington.”

    • I have now looked up the previous review I made of this story here: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2014/12/16/encounters-early-stories-by-elizabeth-bowen/ and this what I said about it in 2014…

      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.

      • An elbow quote! –

        From ‘The Evil That Men Do –‘ 1923
        She stared first at a row of backviews of eaters perched, packed elbow-to-elbow, along a counter. A zip fastener all the way down one back made one woman seem to have a tin spine. A dye-green lettuce leaf had fallen on to the mottled rubber floor…

  6. LUNCH

    “You see, generally I talk in circles;”

    …just as Bowen often writes in Zeno’s Paradox circles, I guess. Here a random meeting of married strangers (both without their better halves), a woman, seemingly half egoist, half egotist, and a bicycling man; the weather is hot with ice-cold spring water, strawberries, the waitress at this wayside establishment clearing up the jealous dining room inside, as they sit on the verandah outside, the exact nature of the woman’s own assignment there unclear, even when her real male assignment apparently turns up late at the end. Meanwhile, she has described brainstorming in conversations perfectly even though she does not use the word ‘brainstorming’, nor does Bowen herself. But what her brainstorming itself described, about selfishness, egoism, egotism and other semi-intellectual abstracts, travelled in circles, not exacting anything at all — till she seems to threaten breaking the ‘conversational egg’ that she had laid. I wonder what happened to the ladybird in the end?

    “‘I love views,’ she said, ‘when there isn’t anything to understand in them.’”

    • I have now looked up the previous review I made of this story here: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2014/12/16/encounters-early-stories-by-elizabeth-bowen/ and this what I said about it in 2014…

      “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!

      • Laid to Lady Lade


        “Maria was forbearingly swamped by the family; she felt as though she were trying to box an eiderdown.”

        A story about a motherless 15 year old girl Maria with a “slight tendency to curvature” (in her whole figure, that is, not just her intransigent spine, I guess!) and her physical cat-fight with a young curate without such a curvature! “Postcards of arch white kittens stepping through rosy wreaths arrived for him daily; once he had come in to find a cauliflower labelled. ‘From an admirer’ on his sitting-room table.”
        And the circumstances that led up to this cat fight…
        “‘Shut up, you little hell-cat! I’ll teach you to pull my hair —’ […] ‘I should chivvy you round the garden and send you up a tree every day.’”
        …was Maria having been farmed out, because of her Aunt, Lady Rimlade, going on a sea cruise, into the care of a married couple, who lived in the Rectory, and their two daughters. A place with endless visitors. And Maria’s attempts to spite everyone so they would kick her out and return her to the Aunt, but ending up spiting herself, as well as any Alsatian dogs, perhaps! The story might have ended differently if the letter she sent to her aunt about her ‘love’ for the curate had not been blown away and ended up in the sea, after only one sentence had been read! And any Bolsheviks or Socialists, notwithstanding.
        And do cauliflowers often have slugs? And do curates often giggle?

        “…an experience for Maria, who had never till now found anybody who could stand her when she didn’t mean to be stood.”

        [As inspired by Evadne Price’s Jane Turpin, the female equivalent of Just William? Still, William was eternally younger than 15, I guess. No half measures there.]

    • From LUNCH

      “He smiled at her with embarrassment, then leant his elbow on the warm rail of the verandah and looked down on to the road.”

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