Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Spring 2008 Newsletter

War in the Archives: Elizabeth Bowen

Portrait of Elizabeth Bown. Click to enlarge.

Unknown photographer, Elizabeth Bowen, May 1953.

On November 27, 1942, Elizabeth Bowen signed a memorandum of agreement with the Strand Film Company, based in London, "to write in cooperation with others the story of a film to be produced by the Company and based upon the resistance of the Trades Union and schools to the Nazis in Norway." The managing director at the Strand Film Company acknowledged receipt of Bowen's write-up in December. He wrote to tell her that the company would decide after the Christmas holiday whether the making of the film would go ahead or not. (I do not yet know whether this film was ever made, but I do know that Bowen scholars are unfamiliar with this aspect of her career.)

Bowen was no stranger to cinema, or radio broadcast for that matter. In 1938, she wrote a cheerful essay called "Why I Go to the Cinema," in which she emphasized the pleasures of escaping into a darkened theater amid strangers. The writing of a scenario about Norwegian resistance to the Nazis, however, falls under the category of propaganda rather than entertainment. In 1940, the British navy had laid mines in Norwegian fjords to prevent the shipping of Swedish iron ore along those channels to Germany. Out-maneuvering the British and their mines, the Nazis moved over land through Denmark and invaded Norway in April 1940. The Norwegian government capitulated. Making a film about the resistance of Norwegians to Nazism, therefore, might bolster the cause of the Norwegian government-in-exile based in London during the war.

Bowen's The Heat of the Day is recognized as one of the best novels about World War II. Materials at the Harry Ransom Center amplify understanding of the extent of Bowen's wartime activities and journalism. She wrote, for instance, an essay called "Folkestone" in July 1945. This essay was published in a volume called Collected Impressions in 1950. The published version ends with a sentence that evokes the hazards of war as they affect children: "For the child of 1945 Folkestone bristles with barbed wire." The draft in the archives ends with a variation on this idea: "For the child—even of several decades back—Folkestone, as seaside, bristles with frustrations." Bristling with frustration is quite different from bristling with barbed wire. In the draft, another paragraph follows this sentence: "So what now? Potentially Folkestone, with her theatricality and space, is more beautiful than Brighton. The plateau only cries out to be better architected—its plan, with the planted perspectives, is admirable. Aesthetics apart, the existent buildings are impracticable from the hotel or resident point of view. The uncertain future of private boarding schools sets a term to the last usefulness of the large houses." Instead of ending with an image of the war—barbed wire—the draft version opens up possibilities for the future of the coastal town.

Similarly, an essay called "London, 1940," also published in Collected Impressions, exists in a draft version called "Britain in Autumn." Revising this essay for publication, Bowen lopped off several pages of passionate discussion about democracy: "We have almost stopped talking about Democracy because, for the first time, we are a democracy. We are more, we are almost a commune."

The Ransom Center archives contain masses of material—short stories, correspondence, essays, translations, adaptations—that indicate Bowen's extraordinary versatility as a writer. Magazines commissioned articles from her on everything from Queen Elizabeth's coronation to the psychology of disappointment. I am using material in the Ransom Center archives to create separate critical editions of Bowen's uncollected short stories and uncollected essays. By picking my way through Bowen's correspondence, I have been able to locate several previously ignored essays and stories published in British or American magazines. Archival material also demonstrates Bowen's aptitude for canny insight into world events that make their way into her fiction and essays.

When she was asked by interviewers in 1959 what the relation of writing to the world was, Bowen replied: "Just as in an air raid, if you were a warden, which I was, you stump up and down the streets making a clatter with the boots you are wearing, knowing you can't prevent a bomb falling, but thinking, ‘At any rate I'm taking part in this, I may be doing some good.'"  

Allan Hepburn is an Associate Professor of English at McGill University in Montreal. He has published the book Intrigue: Espionage and Culture (Yale, 2005) and edited a collection of essays called Troubled Legacies: Narrative and Inheritance (University of Toronto Press, 2007). He also has edited Elizabeth Bowen's uncollected stories, which will appear under the title The Bazaar and Other Stories (Edinburgh University, 2008). A collection of Bowen's essays, previously ungathered, will appear under the title People, Places, Things: Essays by Elizabeth Bowen (Edinburgh University 2008). His work on Bowen at the Ransom Center was funded by a Mellon Fellowship.

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