Of the many Irish writers that emerged over the course of the twentieth century, Elizabeth Bowen is one of the most well-known. Keenly aware of her position as being part of the last generations of Anglo-Irish Protestants, and one of the most prominent female writers in Ireland, her awareness of the world changing around her is reflected in her work.
What stands out for me with Bowen’s work is the way she experiments with her writing. She was one of the last writers of “Big House” fiction, a subgenre of Irish literature that was written about the Anglo-Irish in Ireland for the Anglo-Irish and English in England. She was also a very Modernist writer, so she experimented with the subgenre of Big House fiction in various ways.
Bowen spent the first seven years of her life in Ireland. She lived mostly in Dublin, though she spent summers in Bowen’s Court in Cork. When she was seven she was moved to London, and for the rest of her life experienced a sense of displacement. She was, as she she said, like the rest of the Anglo-Irish in that regard; “Too English for the Irish and too Irish for the English.” I found her sense of displacement is clear in books such as The Last September, in which the main character, Lois, is caught between different binaries, including:
- adulthood and childhood
- English and Irish
- The traditional Anglo-Irish lifestyle, and the coming of a new age in Ireland.
Lois felt alienated at her home in Danielstown, and, unlike her elder relatives, was aware of the changing world around her. I believe Bowen felt a similar way, as she wrote for the Anglo-Irish with a knowledge that the world they knew was changing, and the lifestyle they had unsubstantial. This was unlike her peers at the time, as, like Lois’ relatives in The Last September, they chose to ignore the significance of the War of Independence, knowing it marked the end of the lives they had led in Ireland.
Elizabeth Bowen’s critique of the chosen ignorance of the Anglo-Irish, and modernist style of writing, makes her an intriguing writer, and it’s no wonder she is one of the most well-known female writers from the beginning of the twentieth century.
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