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Bowen, Elizabeth (1899-1973)  

Anglo-Irish novelist and short story writer Elizabeth Bowen sprinkled her fiction with people and relationships, usually coded, of either clear or ambiguous homosexuality.

Elizabeth Dorothea Cole Bowen was born on June 7, 1899, in Dublin. According to her biographer, Victoria Glendinning, Bowen came from a long line of Bowens, originally Welsh, who settled in County Cork, Ireland. Elizabeth Bowen inherited the family country house, Bowen's Court, the names of her ancestors, and an Anglo-Irish heritage that would mark her life and work. By the time she died on February 22, 1973, Bowen had led an exciting life and one important to modern literature: She wrote ten novels, several volumes of short stories, and countless reviews, articles, and other journalism.

Glendinning reports that Bowen originally set out to be a painter but discovered fairly early on that her gift was in writing. Her marriage to Alan Cameron in 1923 helped that end since he provided both material and emotional support; Bowen's mother had died when Bowen was young, and her father was emotionally unstable. Perhaps because of the unusual circumstances of her girlhood and marriage--Glendinning quotes an anonymous lover who believes he took Bowen's virginity after her marriage--Bowen was very nonjudgmental of romantic relationships of all kinds, her own and others.

As Glendinning says, Bowen's friends and associates included a number of homosexual men and women, largely literary, and Bowen seems to have prided herself on her own sophistication in accepting such people and their arrangements with little thought to the conventional morality of the day. One might add that she thought equally little of that morality applied to heterosexual arrangements as well; the varied sexual identities or lack thereof of her characters is a significant part of Bowen's work.

Glendinning reports on Bowen's attractiveness to other women and lesbians, and offers an interpretation of May Sarton's brief romantic encounter and long friendship with Bowen, recorded by Sarton in A World of Light. If Bowen herself was almost exclusively heterosexual in her personal life, her vast quantity of fiction is sprinkled with people and relationships, usually coded, of either clear or ambiguous homosexuality.

For example, the novelist St. Quentin in Bowen's best-known novel, The Death of the Heart (1938), is seen easily as homosexual in the Henry James-dispassionate-homosexual-man mode. Similarly, Naomi in The House in Paris (1935) appears to be far more erotically attached to the friend Karen, who steals her fiance, Max, than she does to Max himself. In The Little Girls (1964), one character outright asks another, Clare, if she is lesbian; the question is never really answered, though Clare certainly appears to be.

Other Bowen novels also feature male and female characters who exhibit behaviors associated with homosexuality, but these behaviors are so coded that their definite identification as homosexual is difficult; consider the relationships between older and younger women in The Hotel (1927), The Last September (1929), and The Death of the Heart (1938), to name but three.

The question is complicated by the ambiguity of these relationships: How much of an erotic spark do they contain? They may certainly be interpreted as having and overtones, even if such relationships were never consummated.

Homoerotic pairings are also found in some of the stories published in The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen (1984). For example, "The Apple Tree" is a notable example of an older woman saving, with more than casual interest, the emotional life of a younger one. Another story, "The Demon Lover" might be read as woman's running away from heterosexuality.

Although homosexuality is but one of many elements in Bowen's canon, it makes her fictive world complete. Bowen's fiction was far ahead of its time and place in showing a range of homosexualities, and that element of her work merits far more attention than it has received to date.

Thomas Dukes


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Though closeted, Henry James had a number of intimate relations with young men, and his sexual orientation imbued his fiction.

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May Sarton, who gradually revealed her lesbianism in her writing, worked successfully in poetry, the novel, essays, and the journal.


Austin, Allen. Elizabeth Bowen. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1971.

Brooke, Jocelyn. Elizabeth Bowen. London: British Council, 1972.

Glendinning, Victoria. Elizabeth Bowen. New York: Avon, 1977.

Heath, William. Elizabeth Bowen. Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1961.

Jordan, Heather Bryant. How Will the Heart Endure: Elizabeth Bowen and the Landscape of War. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1992.

Kenney, Edwin J. Elizabeth Bowen. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell, 1974.

Lee, Hermione. Elizabeth Bowen: An Estimation. London: Vision, 1981.

Rule, Jane. Lesbian Images. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1975.

Sarton, May. A World of Light. New York: Norton, 1976.


    Citation Information
    Author: Dukes, Thomas  
    Entry Title: Bowen, Elizabeth  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated January 4, 2005  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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