In the foreword to her Elizabeth Bowen biography, Elizabeth Glendinning names what she thinks are Elizabeth Bowen’s best short stories:
A Summer Night
The Happy Autumn Fields
Ivy Gripped the Steps
A Day in the Dark
Mysterious Kôr is the first story I read by Bowen and it’s really an amazing story. I read and reviewed Summer Night last year. Unlike so many other short stories I’ve read over the course of a year it has stayed with me or, to be more precise, it’s atmosphere and imagery have stayed with me. The story is somewhat blurred by now. For this year’s Irish Short Story Month I decided to read three stories, each belonging to another chapter in the Collected Stories. Mrs Windermere is among the first stories. The Demon Lover is one of the wartime stories and A Day in the Dark is a post-war story.
When you read Bowen you will always find similarities in all of her stories whether she wrote them early in her career or later. The three stories I’ve read are very different but in each you will find lush atmospherical descriptions and a strong emphasis on emotions and mood. There is also an element of mystery in all three of them. A lot is only hinted at, remains a secret. A Day in the Dark, the most complex of these stories adds something new. It has a strong metafictional element.
Mrs Windermere is the most playful of the three stories. The mystery lies in the character of Mrs Windermere, an elderly independent single woman who meets a young married woman in the streets. They spent some time together in Italy. The young woman is fascinated and intimidated by Mrs Windermere. Mrs Windermere seems to see through people, reads their lives in the palms of their hands. Not only is she very outspoken, she seems to question the way the young woman lives. Why having married if you could have been free? is what she seems to ask. She senses that the young woman’s life is missing something and tempts her to explore something new, maybe have an affair. A very feminist story for its time.
The Demon Lover combines a ghost story with the depiction of war-time London. The result is uncanny. Imagine there is a war and you flee the city, leaving everything behind; your house, your possessions. One afternoon you’re back in London and go to your abandoned house to pick up some things. The house has a ghostly feel, nobody has been there for a long time and it is surrounded by house ruins and other abandoned places. You go from room to room as if you were walking not only through your house but through the life you’ve left behind. And suddenly, someone from you distant past reappears.
After having read The Demon Lover I understand why all of Bowen’s war-time stories set in London are either ghost stories or stories with a ghostly feel. Those abandoned houses exude a great loneliness and seem to be creatures waiting for their life to resume.
The narrator of A Day in the Dark looks back on her teenage years and tells a story that took place one afternoon, a long time ago. She was a young girl, living with her uncle. She has a crush on him and their relationship is very close. It’s never said that they are having an affair but the possibility of it is palpable. On that afternoon she visits a rich woman. She has to give her back magazines her uncle has borrowed. The woman hints at things the young girl doesn’t understand.
It’s a very complex, and multilayered story. The characters are revealed through small hints and descriptions. The way it is written is meta-fictional as the narrator intrudes, points out what could have been described and remembered otherwise.
A Day in the Dark is a very dense and mysterious story. Reading it was like eating an exotic fruit for the first time. It’s nice but so strange that one wonders continuously whether one really likes it and why and tries to put into words how it tastes. It’s one of those short stories you could read again and again and would still have unanswered questions, new possible interpretations. I loved it.
This post is a contribution to Mel’s Irish Short Story Month.