Rediscover Elizabeth Bowen’s compelling short stories

Brooke Theis
·2-min read
Photo credit: Hulton Deutsch
Photo credit: Hulton Deutsch

From Town & Country

“Writers do not find subjects; subjects find them,” said Elizabeth Bowen, the Irish-British novelist and essayist, whose tales artfully embody this sentiment, encompassing characters that span the breadths of life.

Though best known for her novels, such as The Heat of the Day and To the North, Bowen also wrote copious short stories, a selection of which form a new book from Vintage Classics. Until now, these have only been available as a hefty 900-page complete volume.

Comprising stories from the 1920s to the post-war years that journey across Bowen’s native Ireland and the streets surrounding her London home following the Blitz, she masterfully evokes ineffable emotions of nostalgia, grief and dread – while simultaneously sharing astute psychological observations.

Photo credit: Hulton Deutsch
Photo credit: Hulton Deutsch

In one twisted tale, a teacher dreams of killing her pupil; in another, a bankrupt family has no choice but to sell all their belongings; another begins like the set-up to an old-time joke, with a man walking into a ladies’ hat shop.

Although her last work was published in 1968, Bowen’s writing remains a source of great inspiration to many contemporary writers, including Tessa Hadley, who has written a comprehensive and revering introduction to the book.

“There was something so sensually spiky in her sentences,” writes Hadley. “Something feels right, smells right, in the colour and flavour of the work.”

Photo credit: Hulton Archive
Photo credit: Hulton Archive

“Her writerly passion seems to spring first from the desire to catch in words a particular moment, amid a particular weather and light,” she continues.

Indeed, as Bowen’s work brought inspiration to her contemporaries, including Virginia Woolf, Iris Murdoch and Carson McCullers, so her literary influence continues today. And, as this new edition of stories proves, hers is a legacy that will endure time. As Bowen herself wrote: “I think the main thing, don't you, is to keep the show on the road.”

‘Selected Stories’ by Elizabeth Bowen (£14.99, Vintage Classics) is out 8 April.