Elizabeth Bowen's The Death of the Heart is one of the best “diary” novels of the 20th century: this brilliant portrait of a girl's coming of age is drawn partly through a diary and letters, and partly through her guardian brother and his wife's witty, despairing conversations about her awkwardness. The orphan Portia moves to London to live with her chilly half-brother, Thomas, and his arrogant, sophisticated wife, Anna. She is self-conscious in their glittering, too-perfectly decorated house. She records their drawing-room conversations and foibles in her journal. And Anna furtively reads it and complains even more about Portia's invasive watchfulness to two male writer friends than to Thomas.
Bowen's books were not read much during my student days. Viragos were just starting: we were more likely to know Antonia White or Elizabeth Taylor. A professor with a soft spot for me recommended The Death of the Heart during my miserable final year of grad school, when I became notorious for reading novels in my library study carrel between stints of long nail-biting study - I was a nervous wreck.
“Did you read Knox?”
“I can’t do anymore today.” (Swallowing a gummy worm.)
“Oh, then don’t. So you’re reading X? Have you read Elizabeth Bowen?”
In critical reassessments in the future, he thought that Bowen might be considered a better stylist than Virginia Woolf. I'm never sure what people mean when they say such things. The two are so different: Woolf and Bowen are at opposite ends of the spectrum - except that they record feminine experience. But Bowen has her own peculiar lyrical style. Her characters in her early novels sometimes seem wooden in comparison to her oddly shaped sentences - just a poetic word too many -, but it doesn't matter because the writing is so good. That is, if you’re a Bowen person.
Here's an example of her prose from the beginning of her 1932 novel, Friends and Relations:
The morning of the Tilney-Studdart wedding rain fell steadily from before daylight, veiling trees and garden and darkening the canvas of the marquee that should have caught the earliest sun in happy augury. The bride's relations frowned in sleep and were roused with a sense of doom by rain's inauspicious mutter on roofs and windowsills Clouds with their reinforcements came rolling over the Malvern hills. Till quite late, the rooms at Corunna Lodge were dusky as though the morning had been delayed.
It’s the phrases like “in happy augury,” "with a sense of doom," and "clouds with their reinforcements" that mark Bowen as a poet, but some of her beautiful adverbial phrases are excessive in the eyes of her detractors. She underlines and illustrates the augury for the marriage, which turns out to be mixed - the bride, Laurel, doesn't care about the weather, and only wants the wedding to Edward be over - but the sun comes out before the wedding. There are complications: Edward's mother, an eccentric divorcee, prefers Laurel’s sister, the more practical Janet, and is disappointed about her son's choice: she treats Janet as the daughter-in-law. And though Laurel marries Rodney, a wealthy man, the meetings between the sisters and their husbands are awkward, because Edward can't get over the fact that Rodney's uncle had a notorious affair with his mother, which ruined his childhood.
One of the main reasons to read early Elizabeth Bowen is to see how it develops into later-period brilliant Bowen. Friends and Relations is good, but one should start with The Death of the Heart.