Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A Woman Without a Country

Olivia Manning, in recounting her childhood split between England and Ireland, described it as having left her with "the usual Anglo-Irish sense of belonging nowhere." This sentiment animates the short fiction of another Anglo-Irish author, Elizabeth Bowen, who frequently presents characters unmoored from any sense of social identity at a tumultuous period of European history. In contrast to Modernism's liberating rejection of national identity, this state inspires angst and loathing in Bowen's characters.

Several of Bowen's characters exemplify this dislocation, in particular Justin of her short story "Summer Night." Though a man in his early forties, he has no close connections save for his deaf sister and the equally unmoored Robinson, whom he inflates in his own imagination. Justin moves listlessly between different cities in England and Ireland, and even different nations on the Continent, without ever setting down roots or moving outside his own closed, celibate, solitary way of life.

However Justin yearns for human connection, as demonstrated in his relationship with Robinson. He inflates the other man, declaring him a genius, thus concentrating the whole of social life from which he finds himself bereft in this single figure. Robinson, eager to be done with Justin so as to entertain his soon to arrive mistress, rebuffs such exultation and drives Justin deeper into himself. Both characters, in attempting to connect, merely find themselves turning further inward.

Even Emma, Robinson’s mistress, cannot shake escape this atomization. Indeed, she experiences it more as Robinson at least has genuine, if fickle, friends to occupy his time while she has a hollow family life and no joy except the limited freedom of her automobile. A rarity and sign of upper class wealth at the time, Bowen further uses Emma’s automobile to show her utter disconnect from surrounding society, stopping at a public house to use the telephone and have a drink but interacting with others no more than is necessary for this rudimentary market exchange. Other people are as phantoms in Emma’s life, as are the places they inhabit which she speeds through seeking some form of human connection in the shallow Robinson.

In “A Love Story,” Bowen presents similar characters but rather than yearning for connection, they actively drive each other away. Frank and Linda’s interactions ring hollow and sterile, Teresa and her mother all but despise each other, and their interactions together display a reluctance to engage with other human beings. Even Clifford and Frank all but say to each other that they do not care for one another and are both quite happy when they are done talking. This resistance to socialization reveals the deep psychic scaring of being a national orphan, of having never developed the skills for interacting with others and establishing a sense of belonging.

Bowen further generates a sense of dislocation through the structure of her narratives. Both "A Love Story" and "Summer Night" follow several separate characters whose individual plots do not come together until the very end, emphasizing their separation between each other. The reader is instead presented with these unmoored individuals, worrying over their own private dramas such as Justin with his awkward infatuation with Robinson. By switching between a third-person singular style for each of her characters, Bowen permits the reader only brief and limited glimpses on her broader narrative.

This dislocation of both characters and narrative reflects the Anglo-Irish experience following the Irish Revolution and into the outbreak of World War II. With British rule thrown off and a new society defined by both Irish tradition and the Catholic Church, the Protestant Anglo-Irish found themselves suddenly citizens of no nation, being too Irish for England and too associated with the old regime for Ireland. Though Modernism with its critiques of the nation-state pursued such a disconnect, Bowen and other Anglo-Irish had such an existence forced upon them and, despite the intellectual orthodoxies of the time, World War II demonstrated national identity remained very much relevant. Without such an identity, the Anglo-Irish found themselves not just disconnected from their nominal homelands but undefended against the territorial and martial ambitions of other nations.

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