Exploring the Visual Qualities of Literature
On a recent research trip to London, I seized the opportunity to make a few literature-related pit-stops during my free time. Unsurprisingly, given my thesis topic, these were invariably connected to Elizabeth Bowen (although the Sherlock Holmes Museum on Baker Street was a lot of fun too).
Having visited the Central Saint Martins Museum and Study Collection (Granary Square, King’s Cross), my first stop was at Bowen’s alma mater on Southampton Row. The author had studied at the LCC (London County Council) Central School of Arts & Crafts at the age of nineteen but gave up after only two terms of study. Located at the junction of Southampton Row and Theobalds Road and close to Bloomsbury Square and Holborn Underground Station, this art school has now amalgamated with a number of other institutions under the Central Saint Martins banner. The art training she received here, however, and indeed the School’s location were to remain important for Bowen who would go on to characterise the best of her writing as “verbal painting” and would situate the opening of one of her earliest short stories (“The Evil that Men do –”) at this familiar location:
“At the corner by the fire-station, where Southampton Row is joined by Theobalds Road, a little man, hurrying back to his office after the lunch hour, was run over by a motor lorry. He had been stepping backward to avoid a taxi when worse befell him. What was left of him was taken to hospital and remained for some days unidentified, as no papers of any sort were to be found in his pockets.” (Encounters, 1923)
The fatalism the author humorously attaches to this particular place probably stems from her own failure as an artist at this very location. Place for Bowen, as she reflected in Pictures and Conversations (1974), was something people were seldom curious about when interviewing her but which nevertheless looms large in her writing. While living in London during the Second World War, Bowen looked to Ireland as a place of imaginative refuge in Bowen’s Court (1942) and Seven Winters: Memories of a Dublin Childhood (1943). Although she visited Ireland in an official capacity during the war years, she remained resident at 2 Clarence Terrace. This was the next stop on my Bowen tour of London.
Having consulted the Monks House Papers – and the correspondence between Bowen and Virginia Woolf in particular – at the University of Sussex during my research trip, it was wonderful to then visit the place were so many of these letters had been written. Clarence Terrace became Bowen’s London address in 1935, features in the letterhead of her notepaper and is discussed within her letters. In July 1935 and January 1936, for instance, Bowen gives details of renting the house and the subsequent activities within. In January 1940, she and her husband are the only people remaining in the Terrace but for one other house with “a reputation.” Aside from these letters, the house as location also begins to feature in her fictions.
Bowen had written about London life in a number of her early novels, including Friends and Relations (1931) and To the North (1932) – which have settings in Knightsbridge, and St John’s Wood and Finchley Road respectively – in addition to such short stories as “Mrs Windermere” (Encounters, 1923). It is not until The Death of the Heart (1938), however, that Bowen truly writes about London as livable or as lived in. This was her first novel to be written in London and from its very opening we are in that city. The novelist St Quentin Miller and his friend Anna Quayne walk through a frozen Regent’s Park before returning to Anna’s home, 2 Windsor Terrace. The similarities between the fictional and actual terraces, in terms of location and appellation, would seem to suggest that Bowen is writing her own place into the place of the novel. Indeed, the young protagonist Portia Quayne relates her father’s pride in his son, Thomas, and Anna’s choice of residence:
“‘He told me it had a blue door and stood at a corner, and I expect he imagined the inside. “That’s the part of London to live in,” he used to say. “Those houses are leased direct from the King, and they have an outlook fit for Buckingham Palace.” Once, in Nice, he bought a book about birds and showed me pictures of the water birds on this lake. He said he had watched them. He told me about the scarlet flowerbeds – I used to imagine them right down to the lake, not with the path between. He said this was the one gentleman’s park left, and that Thomas would be wrong to anywhere else.'” (The Death of the Heart)
Elsewhere in the novel, Bowen roots her narrative in not only place but also time when she includes a visit to see a Marx Brothers film at the Empire in Leicester Square and wryly comments on the the musical stylings of the organist, the legendary Sandy MacPherson.
In her later stories collected in The Demon Lover (1945) as well as her novel The Heat of the Day (1948), Bowen blends her experiences of place in wartime – as well as those of others – into her fictions in a manner that renders her writing at once specific and yet universal. Walking past her art school, her home, or through the park she herself walked in or looked at from her window, I felt and saw these stories happening around me in a way that I can’t quite explain. Although she did not consider herself a “regional” writer, having not only set but visualised her stories and novels in such particular locales Bowen ensures that place, and particularly London, really does loom large in her writing and that her writing really does loom large in the places she chose.