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As I work towards the end of Elizabeth Bowen’s Collected short stories, I’ve reached The War Years section. The bulk of the collection is behind me now, written during the twenties and thirties. The last two sections combined are smaller than The Thirties, and I’m struck by a sense of her trajectory being on a downward curve. That isn’t to say that the individual stories are not strong, but that the sense of an ending coming is so much stronger.

The second story in The War Years section is departure though, an experiment in storytelling that appears nowhere in any of the preceding sections. Oh, Madam… is a true wartime story, far more than the preceding Unwelcome Idea, set in an oddly British, rather than foreign and neutral, Dublin. It’s not the time and place that make Oh,Madam…  so innovative in Bowen’s work. It is the choice of narrative voice, and perspective. This story is in effect a monologue. Not merely a first person narrative, it is one half of a dialogue spoken between a housemaid and her returning mistress.

 

‘Oh, madam……..Oh, madam,here you are!’

 

Even the opening is radically different, for the title is echoed twice in the first four words. I can’t remember seeing another story in this collection, or indeed any other, where this technique is used. To reference a title tends to ‘use it up’ rather than emphasise it. It is often a revelation to reach the reference that will throw the title into sharp meaning, but here is a repetition that we must be reluctant to categorise as ‘mere’. It’s worth noting too, that the title includes those three dots that will come to signal the mistress’ words, and their implied meanings.

The house has been blitzed, and Bowen, in the maid’s, not the mistress’ voice, speaks. Rows of dots mark where unrecorded replies are made, and from the responses to them we guess, perhaps with less certainty than people who lived through the blitz would have guessed, what has been said.

 

‘I don’t know what you’ll say. Look, sit down just for a minute,

Madam; I dusted this chair for you. Yes, the hall’s all right really;

You don’t see so much at first-only, our beautiful fanlight gone.’

 

The subtle introduction to what has happened is remarkable. Only at that fanlight do we get an inkling, which makes us revise our understanding of what we have previously been told, about why, for example, the chair needs dusting. Bowen winds us in to a fuller understanding of what has taken place, exactly as madam is wound in, with the words of her maid. Even that comma, after ‘only’, signals the hesitation that comes before the revelation.

There is nothing remotely like this in any of the earlier stories: not the perspective, not the voice, and of course, not in the subject matter. In a Bowen short story context, this is a shot in the dark, an experiment in form, and a response to entirely new circumstances in the world around her. If short stories truly are about situation, as Florence Goyet suggests, then here is an actual situation unfolding before the writer. If the earlier stories are reflections upon what is, and has been the norms of Bowen’s life, her class perspective, here is a story about what is happening now, a response rather than a reflection. In that sense it is a journalistic, as much as a literary story.

Yet the detail of the content, as opposed to its location and ambience, is still the same. Bowen is looking at the minutiae of daily life in the sort of middle class household that employed staff, and travelled extensively, and had connections that would allow them to move to the country to live with ‘her ladyship,’ as the unvoiced mistress does here.  She is also examining the relationship between the two women, and the relationship between them and the house that has been blasted.

 

‘Oh, I’m quite all right, madam. I made some tea this morning. …..Do I? Oh well,

that’s natural, I suppose.’

 

The unreported comment is implied by the question that follows it, but Bowen becomes more overt as the maid talks about other houses that have been hit.

 

‘Little houses aren’t strong, madam.’

 

She is talking of her sister’s house, and of the poorer houses throughout the city. Yet what is more striking, is Bowen presentation of their differing attitudes to what they must do next.

 

‘But you couldn’t ever, not this beautiful house! You couldn’t ever….

I know many ladies are.’

 

The thought precedes the outburst, but her lady is abandoning the house. It is the maid, who has already offered, referring to the fallen plaster, to ‘have it all off in a day or two.’ Her lady is made of less stern stuff though, and after the discussion of what needs to be removed, it is the maid who offers to stay to whatever bitter end will follow: ‘That really is what I’d rather, if you have no objection.’ This is the strongest indictment so far in the collection, I feel, that Bowen has levelled against her class, and though we perceive it through the maid’s words, it is not an indictment brought by the maid herself. Perhaps because neither is named, they become representative, rather than being characters, yet the maid’s voice is not stereotypical, nor a caricature. Angus Wilson,though, in his introduction, cites it as an example of a ‘fault’ in Bowen’s ear:

‘…on the level of the H.M.Tennent matinee performance that it became.’

 

I’m not familiar with this, but, if he’s suggesting the maid’s voice is lacking credibility, then perhaps there’s a fault with my ear too. Perhaps the passage of time has blunted both the voice and the hearing, but however accurate, or stereotypical the voice may be, it is what the maid has to say that makes this story worth our attention; not necessarily because of its meaning, but because of its method of approaching the content.

What the house, and the life within it, has been is obliquely probed, as well as what it has become.  Coming to a story like this, at this moment in a collection, and perceiving it to be so different makes it like a mirror, for mirrors show what stands behind us. The stories that stand behind, that went before this one, seem homogenous in their differences. But if we go on beyond Oh, Madam, we get to Summer Night, and it is as if the mould has been broken, for here again, Bowen is trying a form that we have not seen before anywhere in the collection.

Is it that the war, destroying much, has enabled her to break free of the writer she has been? Is that trajectory I began with still, in fact, on the rising curve?OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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