Elizabeth Bowen

My goddaughter, Sophia, was at Downe House. She was confirmed by the then Bishop of Oxford who delivered such a good sermon that I remembered every word when he repeated it at a subsequent Confirmation.

It was unfortunate that part of it stressed that he never repeats a sermon. Richard Harries did not seem especially pleased when I pointed out that he just had. He had the honesty to say that I might hear it again if I had a godson at Eton. I did, but he never got Confirmed. This is almost entirely off the point but I fell to musing …

Another former pupil of Downe House is Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen. I can hardly say that her novels are conventional as I haven’t read any but anybody can consult Wiki and read of her unconventional private life favouring both male and female long-term extra-marital partners. Well the butcher and baker don’t compete so it shouldn’t have been a problem, except perhaps for her husband. Frankly, I wouldn’t have mentioned her if I couldn’t think of anything else to write about and she has cropped up twice recently.

She was at Princeton when Kingsley Amis was teaching Creative Writing there and they became friends. He admired her for liking large tumblers of bourbon on the rocks – not sure what she saw in Kingsley. So I have met her on the pages of his Memoirs and coincidentally I am reading The Shelbourne by Elizabeth Bowen. It is a monumentally boring history of the hotel that she churned out in 1951. Praise from The Irish Times is limited to one word; majestic. I hope they paid her well for such drudgery.

A friend of my grandfather who had supposedly forsworn drink used to lunch in the hotel with his wife. Like Mr Salter at dinner at Boot Magna in Scoop, a clear and chilling cascade of water was poured but that gave him an excuse to go down to the gents. There a line of glasses of whiskey had been laid out by the barman, who knew his form, for rapid consumption. I might add that Kingsley’s Memoirs are rich in drinking stories. He takes particular pleasure in describing atrocious behaviour by guests in Visitors’ Rooms; one gets sick in the sock drawer. I was once sick in a waste paper basket. While I was appraising the situation from my bed at about midday my former Head Master accompanied, like something out of HMS Pinafore, by his wife and daughter appeared in the doorway. I hoped it was a nightmare. It wasn’t – well it was.

7 thoughts on “Elizabeth Bowen”

  1. I would never have expected to see “drudgery” used in connection with Elizabeth Bowen. “A Time in Rome” is far from drudgery, in any case. If you do not know Rome, you will want to, and if you do, you will be forever grateful to Bowen for keeping such a lucid record of her rambles across the Eternal City.

    1. Your recommendation is very welcome and I wish I’d known about it before I went to Rome last month. It sounds as if it is in the style of Venice by James Morris. Another reader has recommended The Heat of the Day, published in 1948. I don’t think The Shelbourne, commissioned by the hotel, does her justice.

  2. You could read her short stories as a way in. Then ‘The Hotel’, amusing and light, and move on to ‘The Heat of the Day’, set in the London blitz and rather more serious. Also her biography by Victoria Glendining, plenty of Anglo- Irish interest for you.

    1. Thank you but I have just ordered The Heat of the Day and A Time in Rome so think I will hold my horses in the Bowen short story dept for now.

  3. Patrick Hennessy painted her captivating (if rather severe) portrait at Bowens Court. It now forms part of the collection at the Crawford Gallery, Cork. A splendid small gallery well worth visiting if one is ‘Leeside’.

    1. Thank you for steering me to Patrick Hennessy. I like the look of his work and now just need to find an excuse to visit Cork and the Crawford Gallery.

  4. Prompted by your blog, I went into The Shelbourne yesterday to check if they had a copy of Bowen’s book about the hotel in their small museum. Alas no, but I discovered that The Shelbourne has a Bowen Suite. She joins other luminaries such as Prince Grace and JFK in having suites named after them.

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