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Elizabeth Bowen and 1916: An Architecture of Suspense

On Easter Monday, April 24, 1916, in the midst of World War I, fifteen hundred volunteer troops staged a violent uprising in the Irish capital of Dublin and in strategic positions across the then-British colony. In retaliation, the English deployed ground troops and sailed the gunboat Helga up the Liffey River. In the ensuing fighting, Dublin’s main thoroughfare, Sackville Street, was almost utterly destroyed, and over three hundred buildings were damaged in the city, including many major landmarks.[1] Public reaction to the uprising was mixed, but it did, without a doubt, help precipitate the subsequent War of Independence and Irish Civil War, and the establishment of the Irish Free State. Elizabeth Bowen’s best-known Irish novel, The Last September, takes place during the War of Independence and does not mention Easter 1916, yet its repercussions, and the significance of the violent destruction of architecture, pervade this novel and all her subsequent work.

The Shelbourne Hotel, Dublin City, c. 1800–1900, photograph by Robert French.
Fig. 1. The Shelbourne Hotel, Dublin City, c. 1800–1900, photograph by Robert French. Image courtesy the National Library of Ireland, Lawrence Photographic Collection, L_Roy_00757.
Ruins of the interior of the General Post Office following the 1916 Rising.
Fig. 2. Ruins of the interior of the General Post Office following the 1916 Rising. Image courtesy the National Library of Ireland, Edward C. Chandler Photographic Collection, NPA CHA23.

This precipitating event of the Easter Rising, while nowhere overtly present in Bowen’s novels, contributes to a powerful connection in her writing between the ongoing urban warfare of the twentieth century and images of threatened or destroyed architecture in Ireland. “Yes, ruins stand for error or failure,” she says in Bowen’s Court, “but in Ireland we take these as part of life.”[2] Bowen’s work suggests that those living through the early decades of the twentieth century in Europe must also take ongoing warfare as “part of life.” This generative anxiety rooted in 1916 and in the subsequent violence in Ireland and across Europe provided for Bowen a long-term anticipation and a set of potential outcomes, real or imagined; these events provide a narrative architecture of suspense that undergirds all her subsequent fiction, especially her novels written between 1929 and 1955. In many cases, this anxiety also directly engages with architecture itself, either through the anticipated destruction of houses and cities, or through the figurative language by which she describes a perceived breakdown in “civilization” in the 1920s and beyond. Perhaps most tellingly, it is the suspense of the non-catastrophe—the anticipated event that never happens—that most urgently permeates Bowen’s writing. Her fiction typifies a pervasive anxiety in all late modernist work, one that reacts to and anticipates the ongoing threat of violence.[3]

The destruction of architecture during Easter 1916 found a mirror in the destruction of Anglo-Irish estates during the subsequent reprisals in the “Troubles.” Nearly two hundred Anglo-Irish “big houses” burned during the War of Independence and the Civil War.[4] So significant was the destruction of houses in Bowen’s imagination that she connects architecture literally and figuratively to almost all moments of violence in her writing.[5] In describing her memory of the outbreak of World War I, for example, her historical sense leads her to compress the Anglo-Irish garden party at which she heard the news in August 1914 with the ensuing violence in Ireland; it was, she describes, “a more final scene than we knew. Ten years hence, it was all to seem like a dream—and the Castle itself would be a few bleached stumps on the plateau. To-day, the terraces are obliterated, and grass grows where the saloons were” (Bowen, Bowen’s Court, 436).[6] In 1921, during a period of intense fighting in Ireland in which “[f]ire followed shootings, then fires, fires” Bowen—traveling in Italy—read a letter from her father commanding she prepare for the inevitable destruction of their home (Bowen’s Court, 439). She trained herself “to imagine Bowen’s Court in flames,” she recalls: “Perhaps that moment disinfected the future: realities of war I have seen since have been frightful; none of them have taken me by surprise” (440). If this moment of imaginative formation inoculated her against further trauma, it also imbued her work with a consistent expectation of disaster. Central to all of Bowen’s Irish-set novels of architectural suspense is her own imaginative preparation for coming catastrophe.

Looking north up Sackville Street (later O’Connell Street) with a view of the General Post Office and Nelson’s Pillar, c. 1907.
Fig. 3. Looking north up Sackville Street (later O’Connell Street) with a view of the General Post Office and Nelson’s Pillar, c. 1907. F. Von Bardeleben, New York and Germany. Postcard from the collection of the author.
Abbey and Sackville Street (O’Connell Street) shelled, rubble remaining.
Fig. 4. Abbey and Sackville Street (O’Connell Street) shelled, rubble remaining. Keogh Bros. Limited, photographers. Image courtesy the National Library of Ireland, Keogh Photographic Collection, KE119.

Bowen’s architectural structuring and figurative language provides a surface for conveying suspended and suspenseful time, the medium for this imminent annihilation. These delineated narrative outcomes derive from the all-pervasive sense of war Bowen references in her 1949 radio play “A Year I Remember,” where she remarks, “I can’t imagine myself without a war—can you, honestly?” (68). Writing about literary reactions to World War II bombing, Paul Saint-Amour outlines the possibility of “one of two futures: one culminating in the nonevent of preservation, the other in the limit event of catastrophe.”[7] In Bowen’s work, these two possibilities manifest themselves both in the architecture she describes, and in the structural architecture of her plots. In The Last September (1929), we see the ongoing conditional waiting characters endure in the build-up to the limit event of violence. In A World of Love (1954), the architectural preservation of the Montefort estate signifies nonevent which is, for its inhabitants, an even more difficult state of limit than a catastrophic final happening. Saint-Amour describes a condition of total war that aptly applies to Bowen’s spatial use of time: “No longer a passive field within which violence unfolds, time—and anticipation in particular—has become a new medium for delivering injury” (Tense Future, 7).[8] Bowen’s attention to the careful disclosures of time through space is no accident; she claims, in her late preface to The Last September (1952), that “I am, and am bound to be, a writer involved closely with place and time; for me these are more than elements, they are actors.”[9] Her use of architecture as both literal and figurative trope within her work indicates the equal connectedness of anticipated violence and architectural chronotopes.[10] Thus she uses narrative architecture to build a readerly suspense in the anticipated—even the known—outcome, one made more anxious through the air of decorum and sociality in her novels.

Bowen once claimed she was fascinated by “the maintenance of the surface” at times of duress, and her novels chart and stylistically mimic this surface-level stability while simultaneously revealing the anxiety of coming action fundamental to a post-1916 Ireland and Europe at war.[11] Like the stately façades of buildings in the midst of urban conflict, superficial stability masking anxiety becomes the textual architecture of Bowen’s fiction. The Last September is perhaps the most agitated of Bowen’s works in that there is a constant threat of violence; yet as the character Marda remarks, the Anglo-Irish position is one of actively refusing to notice this threat.[12] The superficial display of propriety at Danielstown shows the crosscurrents of realness and violence acting on the text. It is this pervasive, low-level threat of violence contained within a “sense of life” that becomes the subject of the novel and formulates, in all of Bowen’s work, an architecture of suspense. Its muted presence functions like the architectural frame of a house: it provides narrative stability and forward movement, but it is clothed in the dressings of “civilization”—a surface-level maintenance that mirrors Anglo-Irish life in Ireland during the Troubles.

Like the Ascendency blithely ignoring violent threats under a surface of stability, Bowen’s fiction is carefully constructed. We are carried along in crafted, anxious advance, even as the prose seems to belie such movement. The structural architecture of The Last September evinces Bowen’s absolute narrative precision. The novel’s three sections first highlight the arrival, the duration of visit, and the departure of visitors, showing in their very section titles (“The Arrival of Mr. and Mrs. Montmorency”; “The Visit of Miss Naylor”; “The Departure of Gerald”) the narrative arc of travel to and away from a house, and the anticipatory impetus built into such an act. But the structural precision of the work goes beyond this tripartite rhythm of hospitality. Each of the sections comes organized in eight chapters of similar length, making the three sections almost exactly one hundred pages each, a spatial ordering akin to the pleasingly regular bays of a Palladian house. As if we might miss the precision of the narrative arc and the architectural stability of the novel, Bowen highlights her work’s structural echoes in striking opening and closing paragraphs. In the first line of the novel the sound of a car engine “collected out of the wide country and narrowed under the trees of the avenue,” its spatially delineated sonic effect calling forth the members of “the household,” thus alerting us to the importance of the house, and to the presence of it within the landscape (Bowen, The Last September, 3). In the novel’s conclusion, “the sound of the last car widened, gave itself to the open and empty country and was demolished” (303). The penultimate lines thus undo the narrowing perspective at the start, and simultaneously establish the narrative razing Bowen has completed. Just as the architectural monument central to the novel is destroyed, so too the narrative architecture meets its anticipated full stop.

In A World of Love, the contemporary setting and the architectural structure of the narrative emphasize suspended animation. The novel is so stylized as to be dismissed by some readers as stilted and arch—itself a descriptor whose etymology affirms an architectural foundation.[13] Perhaps some of this archness comes in the novel’s insistence on troubling the spatial and temporal expectations we have in reading it as either a big house novel or a companion to The Last September.[14] Instead of delineating grand sections, the novel seems to tumble from one slim chapter to the next, architecturally replicating the way Montefort and its connected outbuildings have “gone down” in the world. Although the novel is likewise preoccupied with the sustained and anxious presence of a big house, nearly all of the action takes place outside its much-diminished rooms. Characters and conversations occur in its walled gardens, on the demesne, in neighboring houses and in town, forcing us to see Montefort as the center of narrative and spatial gravity. Yet this world moving to a still point maintains an overt surface-level façade, even “a ghost of style.”[15] The architecture of Montefort equally causes anxiety because, unlike Danielstown, “the door no longer knew hospitality” (Bowen, World of Love, 9). From the outset, Bowen tells us that for all its careful differences, this “new world”—like the Ascendency world in decay—was “painted, expectant, empty, intense” (9). A World of Love implies that the archness we first sense is, like architectural embellishment, a façade belying the anxiety underneath. Each of these novels invites us to consider its controlled narrative and surface as one of suspense.

The Shelbourne: Reassessing History and Narrative Architecture

Elizabeth Bowen’s only direct connection to the Easter Rising of 1916 in Dublin was an unfortunate genealogical one. She was living in England when her father, a Dublin lawyer, received a request for legal advice from a cousin in the days immediately after the Irish nationalist rebellion.[16] The cousin’s son was the now notorious John Bowen-Colthurst, a captain with the British Army who was involved in rounding up suspects after the Rising and interrogating them. One was the Republican sympathizer and writer Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, who had been involved in the Easter Rising only insofar as he attempted to stop vandalism and looting of damaged shops—but Bowen-Colthurst had him executed. The captain also shot a young boy walking after curfew, seemingly confirming his commanding officer’s claim that he was a “neurotic bigot” (Glendinning, Bowen, 44).[17] Bowen’s father could only refer his cousin to a lawyer more suited to the defense, because, as Bowen explains, “his specialization in Land Purchase hardly qualified him to deal with this fevered and ghastly breach of the rules of war” (Bowen’s Court, 438). Bowen’s typically elliptical prose allows us to read her cousin’s actions as egregious and unforgivable (as indeed they were), but her statement might just as easily apply to the Easter Rising itself. Many historians see her cousin’s reckless action and the subsequent criminal trial as the first “tragic demonstration of what martial law might mean” for Dublin, and of the “slow-burning public relations disaster for the army—and indeed for the Union” that the Rising and the British military retaliation to it would be.[18] Thus the Easter Rising became, as Victoria Glendinning aptly describes it, “another peripheral Bowen burden” (Bowen, 45).

St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin City, showing the Shelbourne Hotel, c. 1880–1900.
Fig. 5. St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin City, showing the Shelbourne Hotel, c. 1880–1900, photograph by Robert French. Image courtesy the National Library of Ireland, Lawrence Photographic Collection, L_CAB_02263.

The “breach of the rules of war” had a profound impact on the architectural urban center of Dublin. The aftershocks of this breach resound in all of Bowen's work, yet the only book in which she directly addresses 1916 at length is her 1951 history of a landmark Dublin hotel located on St. Stephen’s Green, The Shelbourne. This short nonfiction work bears evidence of Bowen’s postwar reassessment of the violent first half of the twentieth century. In her recognition of 1916 as a key moment of urban conflict in a major European city, she offers us a way to read her novels set in Ireland in relation to uprising, world war, and ongoing violence—the conditions of both revolutionary Ireland and modern Europe. Bowen’s recreation of the atmosphere of April 1916 at the hotel catering primarily to a wealthy Anglo-Protestant class begins with that same farouche disinterest in events just beyond the doors that she uses to characterize Lois Farquar in The Last September and Jane Danby in A World of Love. Guests who arrive at the hotel for their traditional tea refuse to dine away from the front windows which look out across the Green, one of the rebel strongholds occupied by Con Markiewicz and her nationalist Irish Citizen Army troops. When a bullet enters through a window and clips a feather on a woman’s hat, guests reluctantly acknowledge the fighting long enough to move their tea party to a more secluded dining room. One early reviewer from the Spectator suggests that the problem with the book—it was generally poorly received—links directly to event and action:

What is wrong becomes clear if one compares the treatment of the Easter Rising and the Troubles in this book with that in Miss Bowen's novel The Last September. All the intensity and muffled passion in her novels come from what did not happen. To the novelist the bloodshed and upheaval in Ireland were things which, from a distance, slowed up life, and even stopped it; house and heroine are left empty shells, alone. But the historian Miss Bowen has no heart for grappling with what did happen, with many people who did many things instead of one person to whom one thing did not happen.[19]

“What did not happen” provides intensity and passion in The Last September—until the ultimate catastrophic event, the burning of Danielstown, arrives. The novel charts the anxious waiting for expected action. And “what did not happen” similarly provides a set of anxieties for the inhabitants of A World of Love who, having survived political reprisals during the Troubles, now remain preserved in a state of constant apprehension. Bowen draws power from the anticipation of event; thus it is precisely what did happen in 1916 and after that runs like a wire through all of her subsequent work, linking that early precipitating event to the violence in Ireland and the more catastrophic slaughter of World War I, through the anxious 1930s and into the culminating violence of World War II. In The Shelbourne, she draws direct parallels between London during the Blitz and Dublin during the Rising by connecting the sensation of claustrophobia and distress experienced by citizens of both populations. Yet even more importantly, she marks a significant change in warfare from the battlefield to the urban environment as originating in this moment in 1916. The Rising thus marks, for Bowen, a distinctly modern shift—in culture, in warfare, and ultimately in literature itself.

Cover of Elizabeth Bowen’s The Shelbourne (1951).
Fig. 6. Cover of Elizabeth Bowen’s The Shelbourne (1951) (London: George G. Harrap, 1966).

Sarah Cole points out that Virginia Woolf carefully places the moment when “human character changed well before the [first] war,” thus fraying any direct connection between violence and modernism.[20] But Bowen pinpoints the Easter Rising in Dublin as the precise marker of a monumental and violent change in European society. Bowen describes the Rising in the language of aerial bombardment, “like a missile out of another world.”[21] Even the first two years of the Great War had not yet shifted what she describes as “the Edwardian concept of civilization,” which “still stood unshaken, firm. It was held still that things would know where to stop—and also where not to begin” (Bowen, Shelbourne, 153). Dublin marks the first modern city in which violent conflict breaks into the lives of a civilian population; as a “modern city,” Bowen writes, “she was destined to be the first to see the modern illusion crack. The illusion more than cracked, it shivered across; not again to be mended in our time” (154). Writing from the vantage of 1951, Bowen can authoritatively link the events of 1916—with its bullets through the plate glass windows of the Shelbourne Hotel—with thirty years of violence in which “the European capital not either bombed or fought through, or both, was to become exceptional” (154). Her language seems a satiric echo of Chamberlain’s “peace for our time” and implies a continuum of violence connecting the Easter Rising to 1938 and beyond.

Bowen’s sense of 1916 as the first violation of a “concept of civilization” anticipates the much larger scale violation to come in World War II, in which the aerial bomber becomes known for what Saint-Amour calls “its capacity to leap over conventional military fronts and strike the enemy’s cities, the wild imprecision of its targeting” (Tense Future, 6). The damage to Dublin streets may have foreshadowed the effects of the 1940-41 London Blitz, but contemporary accounts also made striking comparisons to the ongoing annihilation on the Western Front. In The Insurrection in Dublin (1917), for example, James Stephens writes, “The finest part of our city has been blown to smithereens, and burned into ashes. Soldiers amongst us who have served abroad say that the ruin of this quarter is more complete than anything they have seen at Ypres, than anything they have seen anywhere in France or Flanders.”[22] As Clair Wills observes, these juxtapositions were politically malleable, and “comparisons with Ypres and Louvain came from both sides, to prove either the criminality of the British, using heavy guns in the centre of the city, or the criminality of the rebels for starting the thing.”[23] Bowen herself remains ambivalent in her attitude toward the Rising in The Shelbourne, and her postwar assessments of the Irish situation reveal her recognition of what she elsewhere calls the “inherent wrong” of the circumstances from which the Anglo-Irish derived their power (Bowen’s Court, 453). The Anglo-Irish big houses and many of the monumental buildings in Dublin literally and figuratively represent colonial power. It is for this reason that the architectural violence in Ireland in the War of Independence undergirds Bowen’s critical sensibility of the First World War as well as her later ambivalence about Irish participation in the Second.[24]

The shelling from the gunboat Helga on the Liffey and from field guns in Trinity College left massive devastation, but, as Bowen recognizes, part of its shock effect was in how easily visible it was in contrast to the fighting in the trenches. Wills argues, “it was the ease of access to information and to photographic images that made the difference in reporting events in Dublin. There was just so much of it: reports, tales of lucky escapes, photographs” (Dublin 1916, 90). In the Illustrated London News, for example, “the double-page spreads of the devastation in Dublin, and portraits of key personalities, contrasted sharply with the usual indistinct and puzzling photographs of blasted landscapes in France” (90). Much like war-torn urban environments on display across Europe in the 1940s, the shopping thoroughfares of Sackville (now O’Connell) and Abbey Streets lay in ruins for many years. Work to rebuild the GPO did not begin until 1924.[25] For Bowen, who once said she would have liked to be an architect, the post-Union ruin of Dublin city landmarks would have remained a striking image of “uncivil” urban warfare, and further charged her later experience of blitzed London with the resonance of memory. In The Shelbourne, the connection back and forward grows fully clear when the hotel itself serves as a hospital and barracks for a regiment of the British Army sent to quell rebels in Stephen’s Green. This uncomfortable blending of private and public space, and military and civilian use of urban architecture, comes to its most radical literary apex during the London Blitz, and Bowen makes this connection abundantly clear. At the Shelbourne, “[p]eople took to sleeping out in the corridors; which soon resembled, I understand, an Underground railway platform during a London air-raid” (Bowen, Shelbourne, 161). The pointed aside, “I understand,” distances the author from the hotel guests but not from the air raid shelter, a sight she certainly knew.[26]

Throughout Easter week in Dublin, the Rising made life at the Shelbourne increasingly difficult and claustrophobic. In Bowen’s rendering, guests and even some staff first found the developments an exciting diversion, and carried on the traditions of an aristocratic class almost untouched. Her description of this week is any of her social novels in miniature, with characters continuing to act in a play of manners in the face of destruction of both of a way of life and of the architectural monuments that have come to symbolize it. But tongue-in-cheek satire in The Shelbourne is juxtaposed with more subtle political and architectural readings. Bowen finds time to chart a now-disrupted sense of Irish building history. When she tells us that the rebels choose to occupy the General Post Office as their “centre of operations,” she notes that earlier “we had cause to cite [it] as an outstanding piece of post-Union architecture” (155). And yet, although it is tempting to read houses and significant buildings in Bowen’s work as “an allegory for the nation and for the threatened human body,” she avoids too simple a connection between nation and structure (Cole, Violet Hour, 187). The post-Union architecture of Dublin signifies one particular manifestation of British-ruled Ireland, to be sure, but Bowen’s later celebration of the tricolor flying over the GPO and—much later—over the Shelbourne itself, indicates her relationship to the politics of 1916 and Irish nationalism is more complicated than a pro- or anti-colonial stance. As Allan Hepburn lucidly notes, for Bowen “buildings can elaborate virtues such as civility, independence of thought, and responsibility toward others.”[27] Thus we must read Bowen’s architectural preoccupations not simply as allegorical or political, but instead as ethical. Architecture registers the anxious state of anticipated violence done to established social and civil order, both for better and for worse.

“Positive Futurelessness”: The Last September

The Last September charts a seemingly uneventful summer at an Irish big house, Danielstown, where two young charges, Lois Farquar and Laurence Naylor, stay with their aunt and uncle, mingle with British troops garrisoned nearby, and host a series of visitors. Vaguely curious about the skirmishes, Lois asks one of these visitors what the rebels mean by “freedom,” to which he replies, “I suppose . . . some kind of a final peace—stability” (Bowen, Last September, 86). With a wise naïveté, Lois surmises, “Then to fight’s absurd; the more one keeps on, the further from it one is. It’s a hopeless kind of beginning” (86). Lois exists in a state of constant anticipation for some future happening.[28] Similarly, we read with constant anticipation of what may happen—just as Lois lives with the desire for eventfulness, we desire narrative action. That the big house burns at the end of The Last September comes as no surprise to us: the prose drives us on in our expectation of disaster so that the promise of the event becomes less bearable than the event itself. The violation of rebellion—“a hopeless kind of beginning”—undergirds this novel of a declining class and a world fracturing in two, “shivered across.” Bowen is emphatic in situating this novel as historical, and part of the importance in its backward glance lies in the fact that we know the catastrophic conclusion. Thus the novel plays with readerly anxiety and anticipation, enacting, in us, the state of suspense in which much of the civilian population of Ireland and of Europe existed in periods of war. By figuring her preoccupation with a coming event in architectural plotlines, Bowen signals her concern for the fate of “civility” and “responsibility toward others” as well as an ethical engagement with past social and political event as it shapes the future (Hepburn, “Architectural London,” 112).

Lois’s desperate wait for something to happen to her structures one layer of narrative movement which works in tandem with the second, that of architectural violence. Both of these plots (in the loosest sense) feed into the novel’s portrayal of a social world blithely awaiting extinction. Marda, a visitor to Danielstown, describes Lois as a child anxiously late: “like someone being driven against time in a taxi to catch a train, jerking and jerking to help the taxi along and looking wildly out the window at things going slowly past. She keeps hearing that final train go out without her” (Bowen, Last September, 118). (It’s hard not to see an early germ of Bowen’s Blitz story “The Demon Lover” in this image of panicked taxi travel.) Marda concludes, “Awful if nothing happens to her!” (118). As they listen to dinner party conversation about marriages and life in colonial outposts, Lois and her cousin Laurence feel “this all had already a ring of the past. They both had a sense of detention, of a prologue being played out too lengthily, with unnecessary stresses . . . while, unapproachably elsewhere, something went by without them” (170–71). The drawing room comedy feeds on the tension between minute social codes and a persistent IRA threat. Marda asks another guest, “How far do you think this war is going to go? Will there ever be anything we can all do except not notice?” (117). Yet Bowen’s prose notices, and through it we do too.

Both the Anglo-Irish and their houses betray an anxiety that they are hunted, even as they do their best to ignore it: Danielstown “seemed to be pressing down low in apprehension, hiding its face” (92). At a garden party at neighboring Mount Isabel, Bowen hints at the coming arson the buildings face, describing them as flimsy and confident without merit: “the cream façade of the house was like cardboard, high and confident in the sun—a house without weight, an appearance, less actual than the begonias’ scarlet and wax-pink flesh. Begonias, burning in an impatience of colour” (167). Lois and the characters of her generation also burn “in an impatience” and simultaneously feel the risk of coming events. Narrowly avoiding a run-in with a British army vehicle, Lois and her friend Livvy feel “exposed and hunted” (108). Lois arrives home late and, “[a]pprehensive, she strained for the throb of the dinner-gong, a shriek of reproach from a window,” language anticipatory of the pulse and wail of blitzed London as described in wartime propaganda (108).[29] At the center of the novel, Laurence wakes to think “there seemed proof that the accident of day, of action, need not recur. And from this blank full stop, this confrontation of a positive futurelessness, his mind ran spiderlike back on the threat spun out of itself for advance” (Bowen, Last September, 153). This anxiety about future action pervades the novel like a dream.

Yet the narrative thrust of the novel portends not “positive futurelessness” but negative future, the limit-event of catastrophe. That Lois, desperate to make something happen, may be indirectly responsible for both catastrophic final events in the novel—the “departure of Gerald” and the burning of Danielstown—only heightens the tense shiver running just beneath the façade of civility. While the violence of the war everyone attempts to ignore culminates in what Bowen calls Danielstown’s “execution,” Lois’s story truncates in a thwarted marriage plot (Bowen, Last September, 303). Her flirtation with and eventual (very short) engagement to the English soldier Gerald provides as much foreshadowing of coming catastrophe as do hints of the big house’s demise. When Lady Naylor secretly meets with Gerald to call off the marriage (which she finds unsuitable for reasons of class), he feels “[a]n unusual pendulum [swing] in him, he was ruined—resolute—ruined” (266). The twinned potential outcomes of Bowen’s big house novels similarly swing to an “unusual pendulum” between resolution through preservation, or ruin through conflagration. Yet in Gerald’s conversations about love and marriage, he seems to predict his own downfall, indicating a subconscious anxiety about future event. At their first kiss he says, “You know I’d die for you” and later, defending his love to Lady Naylor, he asserts he has not misunderstood Lois: “I’d have died sooner” (128, 267). When the young couple meet for a final talk which ends their engagement, Gerald declares, “I’d rather be dead than not understand” (279).

The novel’s narrative climax converges with the marriage plot to offer some of the clearest links between the violence of 1916, the presence of the big house, and a narrative architecture of suspense. Bowen’s praise for the architectural quality of a building now headquartering an insurrection in The Shelbourne bears an echo of Hugo Montmorency’s truncated commentary on the abandoned mill we encounter in The Last September. The mill is first “[t]he ghost of a Palace Hotel” and then “[a]nother . . . of our national grievances” (178). The narrative voice affirms Montmorency’s claims, telling us the “dead mill . . . entered the democracy of ghostliness, equalled broken palaces in futility and sadness” (179). The women enter the mill to encounter an IRA man who warns them, after Lois mentions Danielstown, “yez had better keep within the house while y’have it” before shooting at them (181). There is no mistake in the simultaneity of event in this passage: during the action inside the mill, Hugo remains outside because “[t]he mill behind affected him like a sense of the future” (182). The “democracy of ghostliness” marks Bowen’s concern with social change: as she writes over and over in her essays and fiction, destruction of architecture by violent means also destroys class structures. The sense of the future Hugo feels translates Bowen’s own anxieties about inevitable and ethically necessary shifts in class — what she elsewhere hyperbolically calls a “democratic smell” on the rise.[30]

The architectural destruction of 1916 connects to the coming chaos and ruins that obliterate so much of Europe in the 1940s. In Bowen’s estimation, through architectural chaos everything equally reaches its limit: “All destructions make the same grey mess; rich homes, poor homes, the big store, the one-man shop make the same slipping rubble . . . we could not see what we see as we do see it without feeling the force of a revolution in Britain that has already started and must accomplish itself.”[31] Of course the revolution about which she speaks is not the same as that of Easter 1916, but her choice of words indicates the tense connection between Irish revolution and the continuous violence of the twentieth century. That the gothic space of the mill first takes on the air of a Palace Hotel and then, coupled with political violence, portends the future, is just one of many indications that architecture—in grandeur and in destruction—symbolizes the presence of past destruction as an uneasy haunting for the future. The mill’s “high façade of decay . . . roofless, floorless, beams criss-crossing the dank interior daylight” emphatically recalls the destruction of 1916, left as evidence in postcards, photograph books, and as a kind of architectural hanging corpse for almost eight years in parts of Dublin (Bowen, Last September, 178). In this respect, the ruined mill and the ruined big houses it foresees also symbolizes and even allegorizes revolution and threats to a way of life about which Bowen felt ambivalent. Her ambivalence heightens the tense state of anticipation for the reader; the violation of urban life in Dublin in 1916, and the destruction of countless cities and the loss of life in the world wars, also contributed to ethically charged changes in class, not least of all Bowen’s own Anglo-Irish one.

In an exchange between Laurence and a British soldier, Bowen explicitly links a breakdown in civilization to architecture. Laurence, the Anglo-Irish Oxford student with an Irish nationalist bent, asks Gerald what he thinks about the Irish conflict. The soldier explains it is right from the point of view of “our” civilization because, after all, “we do seem the only people” (133, emphasis in original). In reaction, Laurence carefully and ironically distances himself from the English, drawing the callous, middle-class values of the soldier in sharp relief next to his own complicated sense of identity and society. If it was Easter 1916 that first cracked the surface appearance of civilization, Bowen suggests that this dismantling might not be entirely a negative one, even for the Anglo-Irish; Gerald, made ridiculous in this conversation, proves himself representative of a new egalitarian anti-intellectualism Bowen abhors more than she does the violence of revolutionary action. To the soldier, Laurence was full “of a wrongness that was the outcome of too much thinking”; more subtle in his reasoning, Laurence recognizes “that there was a contrariety in the notions they each had of this thing civilisation” (134, 133). Laurence sees civilization as “an exact and delicate interrelation of stresses between being and being, like crossing arches” (133). These “crossing arches,” unmistakably architectural, hint at the structural feat of a Gothic cathedral, or the careful balance of decorum and suspense that formulates British and Irish society at a time of internal and external conflict. As Maria DiBattista argues, “the envisioned structure is proto-novelistic, relating as it does to the stresses between being and being” (“Elizabeth Bowen’s Troubled Modernism,” 242). But the crossing arches also viscerally recall the “criss-crossing” beams of the ruined mill, and the shelled hulls of destroyed buildings in Dublin (Bowen, Last September, 178). They connect back through the ruined mill in Cork to the post-1916 ruins of Sackville Street, where war first shocks the modern city and leaves it, bombed and in shambles, the crossing arches fallen. To impose civilization upon a place, Bowen reminds us, means we must wait in suspense for the expected catastrophic conclusion.

In The Last September, the haunting violence of 1916 and the Troubles underpins the narrative propulsion toward action. The limit-event of the thwarted marriage plot culminates in Gerald’s death in an IRA ambush, and the ultimate event of the novel, the burning of Danielstown, forces the Anglo-Irish to see “too distinctly” their obsolescence (303). Lois’s reaction to Gerald’s death brings to consciousness the anticipation central to all life: “She went into the house and up to the top to find what was waiting. Life, seen whole for a moment, was one act of apprehension, the apprehension of death” (297). Bowen’s descriptive “apprehension” serves double duty: first, implying the constant state of anxiety of action; and second, a coming to terms with this anxiety and the final event, death. That Gerald’s death links to the architectural death everyone anticipates comes clearest when Sir Richard, recognizing the bad news a fellow officer brings, looks “into the dining-room at the chairs and plates and table, incredible in their survival” (297). Thus all the plots seem to push on toward non-event, a kind of suspended suspense.

It is not for long that Danielstown survives. In the final moments of The Last September, Bowen’s prose calmly recounts the horror of the houses’ destruction, describing the glow of fire as “an extra day” (an echo of Laurence’s proleptic “accident of day") that comes “to abortive birth that these things might happen” (303). Yet the happening of these “things” is carefully built into the narrative. Bowen’s description of the landscape on the night of execution just as readily details the careful architecture of suspense shaping her prose and the architecture of civilization shaping the Anglo-Irish world: everything played a role, “not a cabin pressed in despair to the bosom of the night, not a gate too starkly visible but had its place in the design of order and panic” (303). The tension at coming event in The Last September is itself panic, one carefully delineated through the novel’s architectural design.

At the Still Point: A World of Love (1955)

A World of Love deliberately and self-consciously reengages themes of anticipation and annihilation to illustrate the anxiety of seemingly endless waiting the non-event of preservation engenders. It is not too much to call the novel Bowen’s rewriting of The Last September, this time as a world in which architectural preservation pervades the plot so the novel seems stopped in time. As Clair Wills succinctly puts it, “What happens . . . when the house doesn’t burn?”[32] The question itself gestures to Bowen’s formula for an “impossible future” (Bowen, World of Love, 138). This impossible future is both the continuance of an Anglo-Irish way of life—something Bowen charts, “as a cold-eyed chronicler of their historical doom”—and also the fairy-tale modernity of an Ireland adapted to the 1950s, with newly built Shannon Airport as the ultimate no-place (Esty, Unseasonable, 181). Indeed, if the limit-event of conflagration creates imaginative tension in The Last September, the preservation of the big house in the 1955 novel perpetrates a near violent peace akin to what Bowen describes of the conclusion of World War I in “A Year I Remember”: “I remained at the window, searching the empty landscape to see if it looked different. I was terrified by the vacuum, the absolute full-stop, in my thoughts, in my being, in my soul . . . the last of the light faded—behind bare trees . . . Peace came as such a tremendous shock. It felt like nothing on earth before. It was frightening” (74–75).

In The Last September, Lois’s reaction to a death is to go “into the house and up to the top to find what was waiting” (Bowen, Last September, 297). The precipitating event that provides the narrative architecture in A World of Love is precisely this same journey to the top of the house to find what awaits. Jane Danby, the young Anglo-Irish protagonist in 1950s Ireland, retrieves from the attic of the preserved big house a packet of similarly preserved love letters. If the characters in The Last September await the catastrophic and violent end of their way of life, the characters in A World of Love find themselves caught in a “majestic pause” of preservation, anxiously stuck in a world that was “caught by a spell in the act of opening” (Bowen, World of Love, 104, 43). What is it that has wound up this world to its tense “still point” from which it awaits release? The discovery of the letters unleashes two generations of unspoken animosities. Written by Guy, the former owner of the house, the letters are addressed to no one, but seem to endlessly circulate and disturb long-since-ignored private and even political disgruntlement. After Guy’s death in World War I, his first cousin (and sometime lover) Antonia marries off his fiancé Lilia to an “illegitimate cousin,” Fred (15). Fred and Lilia have two daughters, and it is the older, Jane, who sets the “world of love” in motion, awakening the stagnant Montefort from its state of constant apprehension—wound up to a point of unbearable suspension upon its monumental obelisk. The big house, located at the end of an “extinct avenue,” has gone down in the world but its obelisk remains, punctuating the present as a stinging architectural reminder of earlier glory: “how much had shrivelled to this little? Then the word ‘obelisk’ caught [Jane’s] eye” (30, 34).

As in all of Bowen’s fiction, in A World of Love it is the house itself that registers anticipation and non-action: the drawing room chairs are pushed back as if “there had lately been a catastrophe” and the room “seemed to be waiting, perhaps for ever, for its dismantlement to be complete” (31). The end point of preservation, the ever-threatening consequence of non-event, anxiously pervades the novel, haunting the present and the house with what did not happen in the past and but persists as possibility. At a party hosted by the nouveau riche neighbor Lady Latterly, the only other genuine Anglo-Irish guest says to Jane, “Montefort? Pity that place has gone” (64). Jane asserts it has not, but the novel constantly reminds us that the anticipation of what might have happened eclipses what did not. As if having been thought to have burned is as damning a conclusion as annihilation, Jane seems to live the possibility. She drunkenly feels "the absolute calmness . . . with which one could imagine fighting one’s way down a burning staircase—there was a licking danger, but not to her; cool she moved down between flame walls” (65).

When Antonia, Lilia, and Fred argue over Guy’s discovered letters they discuss the constant threat of fire posed by the attic’s contents: “so inflammable day and night” (40). Jane admits she wanders around up there with a candle, but argues, “if I’d started a fire, you’d know by now” to which Antonia retorts, “[w]e think we can smell burning; or at any rate the beginning of burning, smouldering . . . You have an igniting touch” (40). Jane has lit the past’s threat of violence. But Bowen also suggests that the Anglo-Irish need this state of anxiety: the continuous threat of action in fact guarantees their ongoing existence. As Jane observes while “smelling bracken charring” from an out-flung match, “so long as there’s fuel there’s no extinction!” (72). That this fuel is at once Montefort, its descendants, and the emotional connections they harbor with the past comes clear in the repeated references to the “extinct” drive of the big house and the constant anxiety that something might yet burn. Indeed, Bowen suggests this charged image of burning from the first pages, where Lilia announces to Antonia, “I lie sleepless, sometimes, picturing you in flames,” an echo of Bowen’s premonitions: though Bowen’s Court survived “often in [her] mind’s eye did [she] see it burning” (12; Bowen, Mulberry Tree, 126). The historical threat of the immolated big house provides an imagined outcome not just for the author but for her characters and readers: the anxiety of potential action, even a potential long since outlived, still threatens to extinguish the Anglo-Irish world of the present.

The point of stasis in the novel is a deeply uncomfortable one for everyone at Montefort. Jane feels “an instinctive aversion from the past . . . there lay the root of all evil!—this continuous tedious business of received grievances, not-to-be-settled old scores” (Bowen, World of Love, 35). Yet sensing the contemporary world “was in a crying state of exasperation,” she simultaneously feels indifferent to her future. Her suspension is symptomatic of the predicament Bowen so often sets her characters: the past releases its hold into the present, but unless it can be acknowledged, it withholds the future, leaving characters at a still point on the cusp of potential change (34). Along with the letters, Jane unearths an Edwardian muslin frock—so that in the novel’s opening scene she appears to dress as Troubles-era Lois. But for older characters in the novel, the present reveals only the persistent non-event of the past: Lilia, awakened again to the wartime death of her fiancé Guy, seems to pause on an “austere point” of wonder: “[c]ould there have been an otherwise, an alternative?” (50). This sense of alternative spikes the novel with an uneasiness reminiscent of and influenced by the anxiety pervasive in Anglo-Ireland during the Troubles. Lilia, marooned in the preserved big house in its tattered demesne, feels “her mistrust of Ireland”; “the uncanny attentiveness of the country” keeps her “besieged, under observation or in some way even under a threat” (53, 52). The house’s mere existence in a country no longer open to an Ascendency class after the violence of 1916 and the War of Independence creates in her a “neurosis about anyone standing outside a door” (52). Unlike the anxiety-inducing hospitality of Danielstown, Montefort exists in a world long past the making and receiving of social calls.

Although Bowen makes it clear we have opened onto a place paused at a still point, it is a point as climax, waiting for the fall. The house itself holds this anticipation; it is “great with something” but recognition of this “something” requires characters and readers alike to acknowledge the weight of historic annihilation (27). The still point, the point of the obelisk about which the novel winds, pauses, and awaits release, comes couched in the same language of surface and shattering that Bowen uses in describing the effects of 1916 in The Shelbourne. Antonia plays at enjoying the Hunt Fête, a mainstay of Anglo-Irish life, until “[l]ike a bullet-hit pane, the whole scene shivered, splintered outward in horror from that small black vacuum in its core” (29). This vacuum, produced in the novel by the presence of the love letters from Guy, reveals the losses of the war, and echoes Bowen’s 1949 recollection of the suspended sense of self endemic to peace, “I was terrified by the vacuum, the absolute full-stop, in my thoughts, in my being, in my soul” (Bowen, “A Year,” 74). Yet a narrative vacuum also reveals the constant threat of action, the “horror beneath the surface” (Bowen, “A Conversation,” 283). The illusion of life at the Hunt Fête, splintering outward, figuratively links to Bowen’s assertion that Dublin was “destined to be the first to see the modern illusion crack. The illusion more than cracked, it shivered across” (Shelbourne 154).

That this theme of a violent shock to a civilized surface still persists into a novel published in 1955 indicates the deep trauma first precipitated by the events of 1916 and present through decades of warfare in Ireland and England. In a 1950 conversation, Bowen recounts her childhood horror at the threatened arrival of Haley’s Comet as anticipation of an event that would end everything. For her, she recalls, it “forever exhausted her fear of impact,” (much like imagining Bowen’s Court in flames); but her interviewer, Jocelyn Brooke, ties this fear to the contemporary Cold War, remarking that is “rather the position we’re all in nowadays. We’re all sort of waiting for the disaster, but the grown-ups won’t tell” (“A Conversation,” 284). Yet

Bowen insists it is “the maintenance of the surface” under catastrophic threat that fascinates her. “In fact,” she says, “the more the surface seems to heave or threaten to crack the more its actual pattern fascinates me. What do I mean by the surface? Civilisation, any kind of control” (283). If the surface and control in The Last September betrays the decline of the Ascendency post-1916 as well as implicitly the aftereffects of World War I, the unwinding and recalibrating post-preservation in A World of Love speaks to the unease and global change after World War II, as the United States and Europe faced into the coming tense decades.

Ultimately, the love letters Jane finds compel the characters to confront their history. The past, everyone feels, hasn’t yet been completed: “No longer could [Lilia] abide the waiting to know” (Bowen, World of Love, 98). This still point of preservation opens, like the letters themselves, so that each of the Danbys may confront the “majestic pause” and the plot unravels to the novel’s inevitable (if unanticipated) conclusion. What happens in a world preserved past its point of expectation? What is it we anxiously desire? When Fred Danby beats his younger daughter Maud to regain the letters and return them to his wife, he begins what Maud sees as the decline of patriarchal rights at Montefort. For Lilia and Fred, who finally acknowledge their tattered marriage, what they experience is “an event”—“an act of love” (104, 105). And yet, like the non-event of Montefort’s preservation, it signals the ongoing anxiety of potential action. Their lives together will go on, and so “what could be their hope but survival?” (105). Perhaps real action—modeling for us the act of reading—comes in observation. Jane observes Lilia and Fred together at the apex of the novel, and for the first time “she perceive[s] [them] to be her father and mother” (105). This recognition of genealogy acknowledges a happening in the past, and thus brings the past as event in the present. Jane couples Anglo-Irish lineage with the anticipation of the inevitable and wonders, “couldn’t it be a destiny to be someone something had once happened to?” (92). One senses Bowen means this a gloss on the entire declining Anglo-Irish structure of power. Indeed, Lilia and Fred's reunification and Jane’s recognition of it gestures to Bowen’s innate conservatism even as it indicates no real change can occur in the architecturally preserved world of Montefort. In bringing the couple together, she reifies a genealogical and cultural birthright, even if it is a corrupted one.

The unlikely obelisk further encodes a sense of birthright. When at the conclusion of the novel Lady Latterly’s driver casually asks who erected the monument, Antonia both remembers the ancestor’s name (no one has dredged up this information before) and explains he “[m]arried the cook . . . went queer in the head from drinking and thinking about himself, left no children—anyway no legits. So this place went to his first cousin [Guy]” (137). With Fred and Lilia linking arms “maritally” nearby, Antonia inadvertently offers the event of “destiny” in Fred’s supersession to head of household (137). Earlier described as “illegitimate cousin, byblow son of roving Montefort uncle,” it is no stretch to read him as the fated heir to the estate, with more genealogical claim (if illegitimate) to the house than Guy ever had (15). Antonia’s arrangement “had done no more than implement waiting nature—they were to marry, whether or not” (140). The obelisk’s pointed architectural presence thus holds together not just the genealogical arrangements of the past and the letters that started the mess, but also the suspended state of preservation. It pins through the novel’s historical and temporal layers as a receipt spike does, linking everything in one charged, suspended pyre. It is significant that this architectural symbol of imperial power provides the clue that solidifies the “natural” progression of event. Revolutions bring about “the same grey mess,” but also enable “waiting nature” and a global, postimperial and post-ascendency future.

After Jane recognizes her father’s patriarchal birthright, the novel must enact the anticipated destruction of Anglo-Irish “civilization” in favor of something modern. Antonia acknowledges the house’s anticipatory stillness: “emptiness reigned throughout the historic house — all was suspended, except the question” (Bowen, World of Love, 115). Montefort, suddenly and for the only time in the novel “historic,” registers its anxious state of suspense just before opening to change. Antonia descends downstairs and finds that the front door, “standing as it had stood last night, open, let the afternoon’s bright shadows into the hall” where still lingers the “reek of last-midnight’s burned-out lamp” (115). The preserved Montefort stands open just as did Danielstown in The Last September, letting in executioners. Montefort’s dissolution—for it is clear both novels ultimately model the inevitable change Bowen anticipates—has been a slow accumulation: “hardness of many seasons, estrangement, dulledness, shame at the waste and loss” (104). Yet the house itself persists. As a chauffeur arrives down the “extinct drive” in his Daimler, “nothing was to tell him that the disaster had not been all at a blow.” His question “If I go on, what happens?” comes posed to Jane but ultimately queries the narrative action of the novel itself (116). “Our house” is her answer.

That “what happens” in the novel might be “our house” signals to us the threat of architectural catastrophe. A World of Love builds to a cathartic action in burning, only this time what burns is the stack of letters. Antonia tries to incinerate them in the stove where the maid Kathie comes up on her “as though surprised in the act of murder” (121). In The Last September there is a curious civilized politeness to exchanges between the IRA and the Anglo-Irish, even to the house’s destruction. In an ironic rewriting of this violence in A World of Love, it is the Irish maid who politely offers to do the burning. “Who said I was going to burn anything?” retorts Antonia, to which Kathie ominously responds, “Fire’s the finish” (122). In the end, it is Jane who executes the letters, recognizing in the act and in the chiming of Big Ben on the radio that “[s]omething has happened” (130). Big Ben marks the novel’s culmination, an almost self-conscious use of architectural chronotope. This one is not a conflagration, but “repetition, fall of stroke after stroke . . . demanding finally the reckoning” (129). Bowen sets this revelation in the language of historical violence: “the term had been set, and the term extended, again, again and again, while useless the fate of nations went on preparing: and for what culmination, and for what?” (129). Like the dissolution of the big house in The Last September, the letters must burn in order to absolve history. Their destruction releases the preservative hold of the past so Jane and her sister Maud can journey to the future—Shannon Airport.

At new-built and architecturally modern Shannon, Jane reasons, “A wait is something being done to you” (147). Although she is awaiting a passenger arriving from the United States, her words encapsulate the problem posed by Bowen’s architecture of suspense. Her novels are anxious precisely because the agency of making event subverts into the text; the wait is done to characters and to readers, keeping all of us in a constant state of anticipation. But Jane complicates this reading too, arguing “you do not wait for what has already happened” (147). Neil Corcoran describes A World of Love as “redolent of an even more terminal kind of interim” than that of the Anglo-Irish awaiting a definite end during the War of Independence.[33] But the novel’s conclusion comments on our desire for narrative action as much as on the dissolution of the Anglo-Irish. In its bold concluding paragraphs, Jane Danby finds herself freed of waiting as the novel’s narrative architecture releases her to love at first sight, a sudden happening. Thus a work that promises only preservation “opens welcomingly to the future” (Corcoran, Enforced Return, 74). For readers made uncomfortable by the suspense of waiting, the sudden ending reminds us that waiting for catastrophe was the defining characteristic for many decades in the twentieth century. Yet even this futuristic surface reveals an ominous ripple. The new-built airport seems made of “barricades and attrition . . . [and] the dust which was never quite to be vacuum-cleaned from the settees and chairs” (147–48). The detritus of civilization at war litters the future.

Many critics before me have suggested that A World of Love serves as a fictional coda on an Anglo-Irish world Bowen witnessed come to extinction. In structuring her novel around the unearthing of letters from the attic of a big house and culminating the action with their burning, Bowen enacts the anticipated event, the end-point that characters and reader alike expected of Anglo-Irish literature that begins with the violence of 1916. Yet the action—and sometimes the equally violent suspension of action—initiated in the Easter Rising continues to ripple out, connecting 1916 to all “modern” warfare, and to the very form of modern novels themselves. A World of Love’s abrupt turn to the west—through Jane’s falling in love with an American at Shannon Airport, site of the first commercial transatlantic flight in 1945—shifts our focus to the United States after the culmination of the Second World War, a moment many critics view as marking another “persuasive end point” and epochal change in both literature and culture.[34] Yet if the end of the war is, as Leo Mellor argues, “part of a preparatory shift to a democratisation of literature,” it is also the start of a new kind of tension through the Cold War, the ultimate anticipated—and unrealized—catastrophe (Mellor, Reading the Ruins, 4).

The architecture of suspense in Bowen’s fiction reveals that the tension of violence inexorably announces “there [is] due to be a crisis,” but both event and non-event promise only “one is never quite quit of what one has done” (World of Love, 129, 140). In a postscript to a 1945 volume of her wartime stories, Bowen goes to great lengths to explain for her American readership what it was like to experience that war in London. She descries her inability to capture “the tottering lace-like architecture of ruins, dark mass-movements of people, and the untimely brilliance of flaming skies” (Bowen, Mulberry Tree, 99). She claims she herself cannot describe the general effects of war, but that she has instead given us individuals’ experiences of claustrophobia, of urban destruction, and of the changed nature of the spaces they once trusted. The stories, for her, “are the particular. But through the particular, in wartime, I felt the high-voltage current of the general pass” (99). The general is not only the interconnected sense of people under siege, but also the ethical awareness of history and of social structures signaled by constant images of architecture. Bowen’s late modernist novels of tense, anticipated violence require that we consider what has happened in the past as it shapes both social life and novelistic form, making history not a burden, but a catalyst for future action.


[1] See Tom Bartlett, Ireland: A History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 391.

[2] Elizabeth Bowen, Bowen’s Court and Seven Winters: Memories of a Dublin Childhood (1942, revised 1964; 1943) (London: Vintage, 1999), 17.

[3] Claire Seiler argues for the importance of suspension in Bowen’s midcentury novel, The Heat of the Day, connecting this idea of “middle” as central to what Seiler’s describes as the novel’s “insist[ence] on its suspension ‘in the middle of nothing’” (“At Midcentury: Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day,” Modernism/modernity 21, no. 1 [2014]: 125–45, 127). Although related to my readings of big house novels located before and after mid-century, Seiler’s argument hinges on the importance of midcentury as a stopping point, a moment for consideration (and our reconsideration), of the “critical narrative of modernism” itself (“At Midcentury,” 140).

[4] See Vera Kreilkamp, The Anglo-Irish Novel and the Big House (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1998), 5–6.

[5] For a careful argument of the importance of the Irish War of Independence in Bowen’s modernism, see Maria DiBattista, “Elizabeth Bowen’s Troubled Modernism,” in Modernism and Colonialism: British and Irish Literature, 1899–1939, ed. Richard Begam and Michael Valdez Moses (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), 226–45.

[6] Such connections come often in Bowen’s nonfiction writing. For example, in her 1949 radio play, “A Year I Remember,—1918” she describes the year in which she worked in Ireland in a military hospital located in “[a] gimcrack house in the country, overlooking a river . . . On top of it all, they said the house was haunted” (Elizabeth Bowen, “A Year I Remember,—1918,” in Listening In: Broadcasts, Speeches, and Interviews by Elizabeth Bowen, ed. Allen Hepburn [Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010], 63–75, 67).

[7] Paul K. Saint-Amour, Tense Future: Modernism, Total War, Encyclopedic Form (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 3.

[8] For an important assessment of the “spatial grammar” of Bowen’s The Last September, see Siân White who argues that The Last September’s “poetics demands to be read in terms of the intersections of space and time not just because it features shared spaces where ownership, boundaries, and divisions are contested, a spatial politics, but also because of Bowen’s tendency to use spatial images and metaphors, a poetics of space, to stage the relationships and tensions in the text” (Siân White, “Spatial Politics/Poetics, Late Modernism, and Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September,” Genre 49, no. 1 [2016]: 27–50, 30).

[9] Bowen, preface to The Last September (American edition, 1952), in The Mulberry Tree: Writings of Elizabeth Bowen, ed. Hermione Lee (London: Vintage, 1999), 122–26, 123.

[10] Mikhail Bakhtin defines a chronotope as “the intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically expressed in literature” (“Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel: Notes Towards a Historical Poetics,” in Narrative Dynamics: Essays on Plot, Time, Closure, and Frames, ed. Brian Richardson [Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2002], 15–24, 15).

[11] “A Conversation Between Elizabeth Bowen and Jocelyn Brooke,” in Listening In, 274–86, 283.

[12] See Elizabeth Bowen, The Last September (New York: Anchor, 2000), 117.

[13] Typical recent critical responses include Lis Christensen on the “arch reference” to The Heat of the Day that opens the novel in Elizabeth Bowen: The Later Fiction (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2001),91; Hermione Lee’s “extremely mannered” in Elizabeth Bowen (London: Vintage, 1999), 183; Vera Kreilkamp’s “stilted,” “strained," and “awkward and mannered” (Anglo-Irish Novel, 172); and Maud Ellmann notes its “strangulating mannerisms” in Elizabeth Bowen: The Shadow Across the Page (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003), 189.

[14] Bowen’s novels set in Ireland join an important tradition of big house novels charting the rise and fall of Ascendency families. We can trace the genre back to Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent (1800), and forward to contemporary iterations like John Banville’s Birchwood (1973), Jennifer Johnston’s How Many Miles to Babylon? (1974), and Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour (1981). See Kreilkamp, The Anglo-Irish Novel.

[15] Elizabeth Bowen, A World of Love (New York: Anchor Books, 2003), 9.

[16] See Victoria Glendinning, Elizabeth Bowen (New York: Knopf, 1978), 44–45.

[17] Bowen-Colthurst’s actions are now so notorious that he is the subject of a 2016 biography by James W. Taylor. Bowen-Colthurst’s execution of Sheehy-Skeffington, as well as two other journalists and the young boy “became seen as one of the most damaging episodes of British oppression in Ireland” (Roy Foster, Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland, 1890–1923 [New York: W. W. Norton, 2014], 237). As Foster elaborates, “by tricks of legal chicanery at the highest level, Bowen-Colthurst was tried by court martial rather than in the civil courts, the latter course having been relentlessly blocked. Judged ‘guilty but insane’, he served a few years’ incarceration in Broadmoor and emigrated to Canada” (Vivid Faces, 237).

[18] Charles Townshend, Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion (London: Penguin Books, 2006), 194.

[19] “Shorter Notices,” anonymous review of The Shelbourne, by Elizabeth Bowen, The Spectator, December 21, 1951, 28.

[20] Sarah Cole, At the Violet Hour: Modernism and Violence in England and Ireland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 12.

[21] Elizabeth Bowen, The Shelbourne (London: Harrap and Co., 1951), 151.

[22] James Stephens, The Insurrection in Dublin (New York: Macmillan, 1917), 96.

[23] Clair Wills, Dublin 1916: The Siege of the GPO (London: Profile Books, 2009), 105.

[24] Although Bowen worked for the Ministry of Information during World War II, sending back “war reports” on Irish attitudes and activities, she also, in those same reports, defended the Irish right to neutrality. She called it “Eire’s first free self-assertion” (Elizabeth Bowen, Elizabeth Bowen’s Selected Irish Writings, ed. Eibhear Walshe [Cork: Cork University Press, 2011], 56). Many of these war reports have been collected in Bowen’s Selected Irish Writings, 47–120.

[25] See John Byrne and Michael Fewer, Thomas Joseph Byrne: Nation Builder (Dublin: South Dublin Libraries, 2013), 75.

[26] Bowen worked as an ARP warden during the Blitz; in the summer of 1944 her house on Clarence Terrace was repeatedly bombed and she and her husband moved out. See Glendinning, Elizabeth Bowen, 183; and Hermione Lee, Elizabeth Bowen, 149.

[27] Allan Hepburn, “Architectural London: Elizabeth Bowen in Regent’s Park,” in Irish Writing London: Volume One, Revival to the Second World War, ed. Tom Herron (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 112–26, 112.

[28] Jed Esty refers to the novel’s “antidevelopmental plot” and counters it to the traditional novel of bildung, or development (Unseasonable Youth: Modernism, Colonialism, and the Fiction of Development [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011], 191).

[29] See, for example, London Can Take It!, directed by Humphrey Jennings (London: GPO Film Unit, 1940) which describes the “wail of the banshee” of the air raid sirens and the pulsing drone of German bombers.

[30] Elizabeth Bowen, The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen (London: Vintage, 1999), 616.

[31] Elizabeth Bowen, “Britain in Autumn” (1950), in People, Places, Things: Essays of Elizabeth Bowen, ed. Allan Hepburn (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008), 48–55, 54.

[32] Clair Wills, “‘Half Different’: The Vanishing Irish in A World of Love” in Elizabeth Bowen, ed. Eibhear Walshe (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2009) 133–49, 138.

[33] Neil Corcoran, Elizabeth Bowen: The Enforced Return (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 63.

[34] Leo Mellor, Reading the Ruins: Modernism, Bombsites and British Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 4.