‘Unsuspected Meaning in Everything Shines Out’: Broken Objects and Fragmented Selves in the Bowen Imaginary

In the postscript to The Demon Lover and Other Stories, written between 1941 and 1945, Elizabeth Bowen recalls wartime London as a ‘landscape always convulsed by some new change’.1 Disembowelled houses, squares littered with broken telephones and headless dolls, bits of stocking hanging from unlit streetlamps: the city has become a veritable collage of those nightmarish themes Freud had described, thirty years earlier, in The Uncanny.2 The retrieval of those objects is imperative:

[p]eople whose homes had been blown up went to infinite lengths to assemble bits of themselves—broken ornaments, odd shoes, torn scraps of the curtains that had hung in a room—from the wreckage. In the same way, they assembled and checked themselves from stories and poems, from their memories, from one another’s talk (PTDL, 95).

The sight of these strange objects, and the precariousness to which they testify, will continue to haunt Bowen’s work; her fascination with them will reach new heights towards the end of her life, as she looks back on the ravaged past. Perhaps it is the fear that these objects will defy any attempt at either interpretation or reparation that renders these texts disquieting. For what do we do with those signifiers that war, and the passing of time, have rendered meaningless – or with the ‘doubling, dividing, and interchanging’ self that may be beyond repair?3 What new meanings can be fashioned out of these relics?

This paper seeks to understand the productive functions of Bowen’s broken, lost, and unearthed objects, and the important role of the imagination, by examining their manifestation in three texts: ‘The Happy Autumn Fields’ and ‘Mysterious Kôr’, written at the height of the war, and her penultimate novel, The Little Girls, published in 1964. I use Freudian psychoanalysis, with particular attention to Freud’s theories of the uncanny and the death drive, as a main frame of reference. Shafquat Towheed’s geo-spatial readings of Bowen’s texts, and his identification of ‘positive-negative space’ in the narratives – that is, the ‘physical and emotional remainders’ that allow us to trace what has been, and is now gone (or, indeed, what never was), is also useful to my line of enquiry.4 Towheed allows a better appreciation of Bowen’s interest in the mind’s ability to re-inhabit the past, and her identification of the imagination as a ‘shelter’ from which one must emerge in order to move forward. In my concluding remarks I consider the representational function of the broken object as manifest in The Little Girls. Jane Goldman’s study of modern collage will inform this reading, and her understanding of the form as a manifestation of the modern in the course of deconstructing itself – a salient function of the Bowen reliquary.

Bowen’s own experience with psychoanalysis makes attempting a Freudian reading of her work especially appealing: she consulted a specialist in the early 1940s to cure her of her lifelong stammer, and had worked with shell-shocked soldiers at the end of the previous war.5 Dreams and hallucinations, re-visitations of the past, uncanny resemblances and repetitions, and constant allusions to the subconscious: these texts are littered with psychoanalytic themes, while the plots, as Maud Ellmann notes, have a tendency to ‘psychoanalyse themselves, tracing present crises to past causes’.6 Or to quote Bowen herself, ‘[u]nsuspected meaning in everything shines out; yet, we have the familiar re-sheathed in mystery’.7

  1. ‘Postscript to The Demon Lover’ (1945), in The Mulberry Tree: The Writings of Elizabeth Bowen, ed. by Hermione Lee (London: Virago, 1999), 99. Henceforth referred to as PTDL. []
  2. ‘The Uncanny’ in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud: vol. XVII, trans. by James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1955), 228-256. []
  3. ‘The Uncanny’, 233. []
  4. Shafquat Towheed, ‘Territory, space, modernity: Elizabeth Bowen’s The Demon Lover and Other Stories and wartime London’ in Elizabeth Bowen: New Critical Perspectives, ed. by Susan Osborn (Cork University Press: Cork, Ireland, 2009), 113-131 (115). []
  5. Maud Ellmann, Elizabeth Bowen: The Shadow Across the Page (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003), 6. []
  6. Ellmann, 7. Towheed likewise notes that the first recorded use of the word ‘claustrophobic’ occurs in the interwar novel To the North. See in particular 114. []
  7. Elizabeth Bowen, ‘The Roving Eye’, in Afterthought: Pieces about Writing (London: Longmans, 1962), 191-194 (194). []

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