ACIS Logo Quiet Madness: Miniature Big House Narratives in the Elizabeth Bowen’s Modernist Novels

By Tara Werner

The Anglo-Irish big house looms large even in Ascendancy writer Elizabeth Bowen’s categorically non-Irish novels. Two mid-career novels set in England and on the continent include miniature big house narratives embedded inside larger, non-Irish plots. These big house mini-narratives take the form of self-contained visits to Ireland by the novels’ protagonists, which are mostly sectioned off into their own chapters and do not directly propel the novel’s central plot towards resolution. These two novels, The House in Paris (1935) and The Heat of the Day (1949), have been of major interest to scholars interested in the intersection of literary Modernism and Bowen’s Irish writings, but have attracted less attention from Irish studies scholars. In consequence, these mini-narratives are viewed as useful subplots constructed by Bowen to create a contrast between a globalizing Europe and the Ascendancy estate, while often ignoring what is manifestly Irish in her Modernist work. I propose that by re-locating these big house narratives to the structural center of their respective novels, they are revealed as the crux of their plots, and the fulcrum on which these novels turn. They are not ancillary but fundamental, as the novels’ anxieties of the big house permeate their cosmopolitan spaces. Bowen uses these big house narratives as opportunities for reflection by her protagonists, who experience epiphanies of their doomed cultural position in the unsettling mirror of a fading Anglo-Ireland.

Published on: April 2, 2020