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July 18, 2011

On Victoria Glendinning's biography, and my own journeys with Elizabeth Bowen

I’d never heard of Elizabeth Bowen until I read Susan Hill’s Howard’s End is on the Landing when we were in England in 2009. Hill refers to Bowen as “one of the writers who formed me” and writes about how her novels are difficult but not obscure, and so when I had a ten pound note to get rid of at WH Smith at the airport, I sprung for a gorgeous Vintage Classics edition of Bowen’s The House in Paris. I read about 25 pages on the plane journey home (a fantastic achievement, actually–I had a five month old at the time) and it dawned on me that I hadn’t read a decent novel in ages, that I’d forgotten what literary was, what it meant to be challenged (in ways other than those presented by five month olds).

Back in Canada a few weeks later, I picked up Victoria Glendinning’s biography Elizabeth Bowen: A Writer’s Life. There it languished on my shelf until last summer when it was joined by two of her novels which I knicked (for a small fee) from a dying woman’s house. I finally read one of them, The Heat of the Day, during the last few days of 2010 which I was ill and didn’t want to be challenged. By the end of the novel, I was convinced of its worth, but the convincing had been hard-won and the book was so weird in inexplicable ways. And then I mightn’t have ever read Elizabeth Bowen again, except that I’m reading my shelves in alpha order now, and Bowen starts with B. And then The Last September was so extraordinarily good, that I couldn’t wait to get to the Glendinning G, and my anticipation was not for nothing.

I don’t read enough literary biographies, and should really change that, because what a remarkable way to discover a writer who’s still new to me. To get a sense of Bowen’s historical context (Glendinning writes, “She is what happened after Bloomsbury; she is the link which connects Virginia Woolf with Iris Murdoch and Muriel Spark”), and to get also a context for her weirdness, the weird convolutedness of her sentences and the daringness of her subject matter (she was just totally weird. But also amazing). And to understand her wider context too, which I’d begun to learn through reading The Last September–the Anglo-Irish tradition, and what that meant, and how it changed with the 1920s.

Anyway, I’ve come away entrenched as a Bowen devotee (what Susan Hill started two years ago!). I am looking forward to rereading The House in Paris, and Bowen’s The Little Girls, and some of her short stories. I’ll be keeping my eye out for more Bowen at the college booksales in the Fall. And for more Victoria Glendinning biographies too, and also Hermione Lee, who I’ve never read before.

Two important things about the Elizabeth Bowen bio: this was first published in the late ’70s, reprinted in the ’90s with an author bio explaining that Glendinning is married to “the Irish writer Terence de Vere White”. Which was kind of weird because White is referenced several times in the book, never in familiar terms (obviously) but so often that it was sort of conspicuous. I consulted Wikipedia later to learn that Glendinning wasn’t married to White at the time she wrote Elizabeth Bowen’s bio, and all’s I can say was that anyone could have seen that they were going to end up together.

Also, that the Igor Gouzenko case features in Elizabeth Bowen’s lifes story! (Bowen was close to the novelist John Buchan, who became the Governor General of Canada, and through him she met her lifelong intimate friend Charles Ritchie, who was a Canadian diplomat.)It would have better had Glendinning and her editors known how to spell Ottawa, but this last is only the one small point that sullied my reading of this wonderful book.

2 thoughts on “On Victoria Glendinning's biography, and my own journeys with Elizabeth Bowen”

  1. judy pollard smith says:

    A must read for you is LOVE’S CIVIL WAR: Letters and Dairies 1941-1973.
    The book documents the love affair between Charles Ritchie and Elizabeth Bowen using journal entries and letters.
    It will rivet you to your chair.

  2. theresa says:

    Yes, I thought of Love’s Civil War, too — an amazing chronicle of that relationship. EB is such a fine writer and I revisit her novels every few years for the pleasure of her sentences.

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