By Danielle Gilman
In 1929, Anglo-Irish writer Elizabeth Bowen published her novel, “The Last September.” Set at a country mansion in County Cork during the Irish War of Independence, Bowen‚’ narrative is a time-settled response to the bloody and transitional events of nearly a decade before. In her preface to the novel, Bowen argues for the importance of writing in a ‚”backward perspective,‚” which she believes is the only way to render and understand the mood of a vanished historical moment.
In her lesser-studied critical text, “Collected Impressions” (1950), Bowen also comments on those transitional years in Irish history. Bowen included several essays that explore the relationship between fiction and history. Bowen considers who should be responsible for the writing and keeping of Ireland‚’ history, and she explores how writers can both isolate and contextualize the events of 1919 in their work.
My paper posits that Bowen‚’ critical writings on Ireland were created in part to help her solve what she saw as a mechanical problem of writing about history. Her criticism offers a methodology to writers and readers who wish to analyze Ireland‚’ history through fiction. By complicating how the novelist represents periods of history, Bowen calls for the writer to reconsider point-of-view, narrative past tense, and ways in which character can be informed by a historical moment.
Elizabeth Bowen sought to articulate a critical style that privileged an unusually reciprocal relationship between reader and writer and thus granted a new kind of power to her audience. Ascribing new significance to Bowen‚’ critical work will allow us to better understand her concerted attempts to negotiate the complex relationship between Irish history and literature.