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Reading Elizabeth Bowen’s early short stories, those in her first published collection, I experienced a growing irritation. The stories were written in the second decade of the twentieth century, so comparisons of their characters’ lives with our own are difficult. In material terms her upper middle class lifestyles are not so far removed from our average working class ones. Even someone on half the national average wage might manage to eat as well, and dress as well, and be housed as well. Someone on the full national average wage might expect to do so. Many of us will have travelled as far, or further, and as often, though not, perhaps, for so long. We’re unlikely to have maidservants cooking and cleaning for us, at least not full-time. Yet for Bowen’s characters, the phone, the radio and the motor car, though already invented, are virtually unheard of in these early stories. What we take for granted would seem very grand, I suspect, to most of them.

It is not material comforts that make these people stand out for the reader of a century later than the writing. It is the ideas which she puts into their heads, revealed in thoughts and asides. It was these ideas that irritated me, and they must have irritated Bowen too, for they were what she chose to present, rather than take for granted and ignore. They are the ideas that control how the characters behave within the situations she imagines; the ideas that limit the characters’ appreciation of each other, and of themselves.

Sometimes it is only an emphasis, indicated by italics: ‘Gardening?

Sometimes it is more explicit: ‘Cicely was a fool: he’d teach her.’ ‘Damn it all,’ he said querulously, ‘I can’t get used to another woman at my time of life.’

These two are the brother and sister from ‘The New House,’ but the married couples fare no better. In ‘The Shadowy Third,’ Martin’s second wife is introduced to us as ‘The only woman of value to him,’ hardly a ringing endorsement. His thoughts: ‘What a funny little woman she was!’ The petty disparagements – Martin belittles where his wife has planted some flowers, and confiscates a thimble that reminds him of one owned by his first wife, replacing it with one that does not fit – undermine the relationship in a series of verbal eye-rollings.

Written when Bowen was in her teens or early twenties, these stories fix a piercing eye on both the selfishness and the limited vision of the partners, whether they are engaged, newly wed or long married. Even strangers, coinciding rather than meeting at lunch exhibit similar tendencies. Towards the end of the story ‘Lunch’ the animated conversation has drawn to a climax. ‘He turned towards her quickly, his whole face flushed and lighted up for speech.’ But a car has pulled up. In it is the person she had intended to meet. Calling his name, ‘she […..]dived to gather up her sketching things.’ The conversation, and the stranger are instantly forgotten.

What Bowen has shown us, in the thought, speech and actions of her protagonists from a hundred years ago, is not so difficult to compare with the same attributes of our own characters, or of ourselves. Perhaps it’s that fact which is the root cause of my irritation.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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