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Fellows Find: National identity’s influence on Elizabeth Bowen’s imagination

By Eibhear Walshe

Eibhear Walshe, a Senior Lecturer in the School of English at University College Cork, came to the Ransom Center in 2014 to utilize the collection of Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen. Dr. Walshe’s publications include Kate O’Brien: A Writing Life (2006), Cissie’s Abattoir (2009), Oscar’s Shadow (2011),  and The Diary of Mary Travers (2014). In addition, Walshe has edited a selection of publications including Elizabeth Bowen Remembered (1999), The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing: Volume 4 (2002), and Elizabeth Bowen: Visions and Revisions (2008). His research was supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Research Fellowship Endowment as part of the Ransom Center’s fellowship program.

 

Elizabeth Bowen. Unknown photographer, May 1953.
Elizabeth Bowen. Unknown photographer, May 1953.

 

My time at the Harry Ransom Center was spent researching the papers of the Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen, who was born in Dublin in 1899, began writing and publishing from the early 1920s, and died in 1973. My project is a full-length study of her fictions and her short stories, and for me, a crucial area of her imaginative work centres on her divided identity as Anglo-Irish. Famously she once said she felt English in Ireland, Irish in England, and only at home on the Irish Sea!

 

My book looks at the formation of her imagination living between these two countries, and the Bowen collection at the Ransom Center was a vital step in my research, particularly in the rich trove of her unpublished letters.

 

My main focus was on Bowen’s place within London literary culture and society in the 1930s and 1940s. The experience of reading letters from her agent Curtis Brown, her U.S. publisher Blanche Knopf, and her many writing friends advanced my project, gave me an immediate sense of Bowen’s professional life, and, more than anything, sounded voices in my head for the kinds of questions I was seeking to answer in my research.

 

The other key aspect of my research was Bowen’s own concept of the short story, often a critically neglected part of her writing. Her notebooks and her manuscripts in the Ransom Center all provided me with first-hand evidence of the care and the delight she took over the production of her many short fictions. Marcel Proust was a key influence, and Bowen’s notes preparing for her essay on the imagined role of the novelist within his fiction were an eye opener, giving me concrete evidence of her close reading of his work. In all, my time in Austin was a profoundly useful one, bringing the North Cork writer closer to me in so many ways and helping me to write about this most original and inventive of modernist writers.

 

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