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It was published in 1981 and claims to be the first place that her complete stories are

.published. It also has some nice illustrations

Maria is an odd little story about a teenaged orphan girl who is sent to live with
strangers when her aunt and uncle go on vacation. The family she stays with is
strangely nice to her despite her rudeness, so Maria tries to find ways to get attention.
The story follows Maria as she attempts some minor ways of bad behavior, but then
ends rather abruptly when Maria nearly misses getting into a huge scrape. I found this
story charming but vague and rather directionless. It does, however, have that
.fantastic prose that I love and that Elizabeth Bowen writes so well

Encyclopedia of World Biography on

Elizabeth Bowen
The British writer Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973) dealt with the strivings of the
individual will to fulfill itself in an alien and hostile world. She is considered a major
.British novelist of the 20th century

Born in Dublin on June 7, 1899, Elizabeth Bowen lived in Ireland until the age of
seven, when her family moved to England. Her education completed, she returned to
Dublin in 1916 to work in a hospital for World War I veterans. Two years later she
moved back to England and enrolled in the London County Council School of Art. In
1923 she married Alan Charles Cameron and published her first collection of short
In 1925 Bowen and her husband moved to Oxford, where she became friends with
many literary intellectuals, among them Isaiah Berlin and Lord David Cecil. There
she wrote her first four novels: The Hotel (1927), The Last September (1929), Friends
and Relations (1931), and To the North (1932). The first two concern the dawning of
romantic love in the young, innocent heroines, who eventually become aware of its
.futility, while the last two concern the destructiveness of illicit love
In 1935 Bowen and her husband returned to London, where her friends included Cyril
Connolly, Virginia Woolf, and many of the Bloomsbury group. In that same year she
published her fifth novel, The House in Paris. Again the theme is the destructiveness
of romantic excess. It depicts an affair which results in pregnancy, the suicide of the
lover, and the heroine's rejection of her child, though in the end she begins to
reconcile herself to the reality of her situation. In 1938 Bowen published her best-
known and perhaps finest novel, The Death of the Heart, about an idealistic young
.girl whose demands for honesty and openness are met with hostility by her family
During World War II Bowen worked as an air raid warden and wrote for the Ministry
of Information. In her seventh novel, The Heat of the Day (1949), the society which in
earlier novels was seen as inimical to romantic illusions has disappeared entirely in
the chaos of war, and the protagonists float in a sea of their own confusion. After the
death of her husband in 1952, Bowen returned to Ireland. Except for numerous trips to
the United States as a lecturer, she remained there and continued to write, publishing
A World of Love in 1955. The story concerns three women who become aware that
their romantic fantasies about a man dead for many years have kept them from living
.in the present
In 1960 she returned to Oxford. She published The Little Girls in 1964 and Eva Trout,
or Changing Scenes in 1968. The latter concerns a heroine whose romantic passion
blinds her to the reality of other people, causing them pain and bringing about her
questionably accidental death at the hands of her illegitimate son. In addition to her 10
novels, Bowen published several collections of short stories, numerous reviews, and
.many other critical pieces. She died in 1973

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note to authors•
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Time, Memory, and the “Uncertain I”:

Transtemporal Subjectivity in Elizabeth
Bowen’s Short Fiction
by Doryjane A. Birrer
September 22, 2008

English Department

College of Charleston
Charleston, SC


articles by this authorread bio


Key to the psychological realism of Elizabeth Bowen's short fiction is her insight into
human subjectivity via depictions of what I term "transtemporal subjectivity": the
destabilized "I" as existing in a fluid realm comprised simultaneously of past
(memory), present (experience), and future (expectation), accessed both consciously
and unconsciously, predictably and unpredictably by each individual. Bowen's fiction
thus imaginatively enacts and extends visions of subjectivity explored in the concept
of nachträglichkeit or "deferred action" as established by Freud and developed by
psychoanalytic theorists Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok and literary critic Peter
Nicholls. Drawing on this psychological concept, as well as on Abraham and Torok's
metapsychological discussion of Reality versus reality, this essay argues that Bowen's
psychological realism and representations of transtemporal subjectivity comprise a
vision of the human subject that, though not necessarily comfortable, offers increased
.scope for human agency in a radically destabilized social world

The dream of human agency, of the transcendent subject whose personhood precedes
—even exceeds—history, society, language: a dream that dies hard. However much
we are or feel bounded by social forces external yet somehow internal to our “selves,”
however often we are or feel determined by an inexorable logic of cause and effect set
in motion by an indeterminate past, we may yet act in the world as if we are indeed
people and not merely subjects: people who can take action, make choices, play an
integral part in the construction of our own subjectivities, write the narratives of our
own lives. The rhetoric of the myriad self-help books that flood contemporary
bookstore shelves—such books surely a more widely read genre than postmodern
deconstructions of the self—everywhere implies this potential: to “find yourself.”
The self is lost. It has become, in Elizabeth Bowen’s evocative phrase, the “uncertain
I” (MT 98). That the “I” is destabilized in part by external forces is everywhere clear
in Bowen’s fiction, from her depictions (to give just two representative examples) of
the terrible impact of world war, to her engagements with the troubles/Troubles of
Irish national history. And certainly, despite significant shifts in critical attention
(most strikingly in the case of Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle), it has been
through attention to the classic realist aspects of her novels and stories that Bowen’s
insights into the relationship between individuals and the social realities of the
material world most often have been framed.1
Key also to Bowen’s insight into human subjectivity, however, is her non-material
vision of temporality: for Bowen, time is not linear, but a realm of simultaneously
existing past and present—at times, even future—accessed both consciously and
unconsciously, predictably and unpredictably by each individual. Such a vision
makes for a complex relationship between human subjectivity and lived experience,
for while a subject moves through the material world, or what I’ll still call reality, in
what feels like a temporally linear and empirical fashion, the human mind allows for a
much freer movement through time, particularly through such mechanisms as
memory and expectation. While this often considerable and pervasive disjunction
between the physical experiences and details of, for example, a lived day versus
where one’s mind is in time at any given moment may seem self-evident (even
granting the existence of those with more single-minded focus), theorists such as
Lyotard in The Postmodern Condition and Ricoeur in Time and Narrative have
explored the complexity of this temporal instability as it dramatically affects our
experiences of history, of narrative, and indeed of reality itself. Add to this
complexity more specifically psychoanalytic considerations of time/space,
reality/memory disjunctions impelled in part by memory-traces and wishes in the pre-
and unconscious as they impinge on present experience, and the potential for a
.radically unstable ego with regard to temporality becomes increasingly clear
Bowen addresses the dynamic and often startling interactions between temporality
and subjectivity in her reflection on the short stories collected in The Demon Lover.
Of “The Inherited Clock,” “Ivy Gripped the Steps,” and “The Happy Autumn Fields,”
she says, “The past, in all these cases, discharges its load of feeling into the
anaesthetized and bewildered present. It is the ‘I’ that is sought—and retrieved at the
cost of no little pain” (MT 98). There is, then, for Bowen an “I” that can be sought
and retrieved, a “self” that might be found. Yet given that Bowen’s short stories are
replete with temporal disruptions in both characters’ lives and the fictional narratives
themselves, if retrieval of the “uncertain I” means to situate subjectivity in a stable
present, such a task seems manifestly impossible. How, then, to conceive of these
characters’ realities, dispersed, as they must be, across time, yet still connected, as
they must also be, to lived experience in the ostensibly linear and empirical time of
the phenomenal present? From a perspective of poetics, the blurred boundaries in
Bowen’s stories between physical/somatic/lived experience and the vicissitudes of the
mind as it moves both consciously and unconsciously through time parallels a central
tension inherent in competing accounts of fictional realism: that between
social/classic realism’s devotion to versimilitude and historical particularity, and
literary modernism’s interest in a more psychologically oriented and inward turning
realism. The fact that Bowen has been called a “less experimental [read: more classic
realist] heir to Virginia Woolf [sine qua non experimental modernist]” (Kershner 68)
similarly points up the slippage between social and psychological realism in Bowen’s
fiction—not to mention the kind of problematic hierarchical comparison Bennett and
Royle argue has constrained Bowen’s literary reputation.2 Bowen’s work is riven not
only with temporal instability and uncertainty of the ego, but with generic instability,
for she rings provocative changes simultaneously on traditional social realism and
quasi Jamesian and Proustian psychological realism3 that resonate unsettlingly in the
.atmosphere of her narratives
The “I” is lost in Bowen’s fiction, and lost, too, is any stable understanding of reality,
fictional or empirical—if the two can be separated, if the latter exists. Yet replete as
literary and philosophical history are with often incongruous, if not outright opposed,
inquiries into the natures of reality and subjectivity, the desire to better understand
human experience in the “real world” has continued to haunt both readers and writers
of fiction. Long before the rise of postmodernist and poststructuralist inquiry, proto-
modernist Henry James found “the measure of reality . . . very difficult to fix” (15).
In his most famous discussion of realism, “The Art of Fiction,” James consistently
emphasizes the provisional nature of human experience and suggests, “[a]s people
feel life, so they will feel the art that is most closely related to it” (18). If Bowen is, in
part, a disciple of James, it is in such emphases on the opacity and provisionality of
lived experience that she most closely echoes him, for it is an underlying current
throughout her short fiction: “Up against human unknowableness, I made that my
subject—how many times?” (Bowen, Afterthought 94). Further, according to Bowen,
“The writer who rates above all things versimilitude and the all-around view . . . does
better to leave the short story alone” (CI 154). Combining, then, Bowen’s
unconventional realism (by any definition) with her pervasive explorations of
subjectivity, temporality, and reality, I would argue that an analysis of characters’
temporal negotiations in Bowen’s short fiction is crucial not only to understanding
how the “I” might be retrieved in the often bewildering and tragic realities of her
characters’ lives, but also to assessing the interplay between her vision of reality and
.her intricate fictional realism
Although any number of Bowen’s short stories could be discussed in terms of
temporal negotiations, three of these stories—“The Inherited Clock,” “Ivy Gripped
the Steps,” and “The Happy Autumn Fields” from The Demon Lover—form a
particularly useful selection in terms of the varying perspectives they provide on
human subjectivity in a complex and increasingly disjointed wartime and postwar
world. Bowen herself, as I mentioned above, grouped these stories in terms of their
shared concern with temporality and subjectivity, and certainly all three narratives
involve complex interactions among past, present, and future as characters attempt to
ground themselves in the realities of their respective lives—to enact, as Bowen puts it,
“I-saving strategies” (MT 98). Because Bowen consistently wrote about her interest
in the relationship between past and present (in fact, each of the essays I cite here
mentions connections to the past at least once), numerous studies take up at some
point the nature of this relationship in her short stories and/or novels. Many critics,
however, have struggled with what W. J. McCormack describes as the haziness of
“the nature or even status of the relationship between eruptions of the past and the
uncertainty of the ego” (233), and turn in the end to variations on the theme of
indeterminate fiction as reflecting the indeterminacy of reality and human experience4
—a move that sells Bowen’s contributions to the realm of fiction (if not human
.experience) far too short
Bennett and Royle turn more thoroughly and productively in their groundbreaking
work to an intriguing and multifaceted discussion of “dissolutions” in Bowen’s novels
“at the level of personal identity, patriarchy, social conventions and language itself—
up to and including the language of fiction and criticism” (xix). They establish these
dissolutions and “the dissolution of the novel”—the subtitle of their monograph—as
broad contexts within which to value Bowen’s novels (a description of their approach
that does little justice to the force and ingenuity of their various analyses). Yet both
the style and narrative logic of their approach demand that their work, too, end in
what becomes for them, quite literally, “A DISSOLUTION”: “mobile, fluid and
uncontainably still, uncontainable still” (157; their caps). While I am a thoroughgoing
fan of their book, particularly as my allegiances lie strongly with postmodern theory, I
want to wax humanist for a moment (setting aside with some discomfort the
ideological baggage associated with the term) and think about how the uncertain “I”
might be retrieved in the service of human agency, even if subjectivity tends more
toward dissolution than transcendence. Bowen herself asserts that there are “ways in
which some of us did go on—after all, we had to go on some way” (MT 98; emphasis
hers), and one significant element in “going on” in Bowen’s stories is related, as I
have suggested, to the nuanced interplay of temporality, reality, and subjectivity
Bowen both depicts and enacts in her short fiction. To retrieve the “I” is not to
stabilize it with regard to time, but to make full use of the nature of what I want to call
transtemporal subjectivity, which, though not necessarily comfortable, offers
.increased scope for human agency in a radically destabilized world
”I. The Delusory Future in “The Inherited Clock
Eudora Welty, in her 1981 review of Bowen’s Collected Stories, comments on
Bowen’s “close touch with the passage, the pulse, of time,” and points out that “there
was a clock in every story and novel she ever wrote” (22). This concern with time is
readily apparent in “The Inherited Clock,” particularly as the skeleton clock takes on
nearly the status of a main character, at least in the mind of Clara. Clara continually
projects herself forward in time to what she foresees as the fulfillment of her life via
her presumed inheritance of a substantial legacy from Cousin Rosanna. Her life
“hinged on the prospect of this immense change” (“IC” 630), most specifically in the
hope that her eventual prosperity will shake up and advance her static situation as
regards her nine-year affair with Henry. Far from beginning her hoped-for future,
however, Clara’s inheritance of Rosanna’s skeleton clock as part of her legacy
threatens to bind her to a limiting past through her sudden memory of her disturbing
.childhood experience
Initially Clara, who otherwise has an excellent memory—she can remember, in her
cousin’s abandoned ante-room, “which picture used to hang in each oblong” and “the
names of the books in the bookcase under the sheet” (628)—significantly can
remember neither the clock nor any incidents involving it, despite the fact that Paul
and Aunt Addie seem to think she has an inordinate interest in it. Not even when she
sees the clock itself at Rosanna’s is her memory triggered. Her strange reaction to the
:clock, however, merits quoting at length
The skeleton clock, in daylight, was threatening to a degree its oddness could not
explain. . . . Clara tried to tell herself that it was, only, shocking to see the anatomy of
time. The clock was without a face, its twelve numerals being welded on to a just
visible wire ring. As she watched, the minute hand against its background of nothing
made one, then another, spectral advance. This was enough: if she did not yet feel she
could anticipate feeling her sanity being demolished, by one degree more, as every
(sixtieth second brought round this unheard click. (628
The threatening effects of the clock are to some extent explained when Paul forces her
to stare into its works, which releases the buried memory that is central to the story.
Particularly significant is Clara’s memory of the language with which Paul tempted
her to try and “hold” a piece of time: “‘Have you ever SEEN a minute? Have you
actually had one wriggling inside your hand? Did you know if you keep your finger
inside a clock for a minute, you can pick out that very minute and take it home for
your own?”” (639; italics Bowen’s). The young Clara, of course, discovers that she
cannot keep hold of time; instead, as she wedges her fingers into the clock, they are
“eaten up by the cogs” (639) and stop its motion, an action that is rendered more
dramatic in that the clock is said to have been ticking ceaselessly for more than a
.(century (624
Given Bowen’s particularly psychological depiction of the mechanism of memory in
tying past to present, Freud’s concept of nachträglichkeit —“belatedness” or
“deferred action”—is helpful in assessing the significance of the adult Clara’s relation
to time more fully, and with it a terror of the clock that seems out of proportion to her
early experience. Despite Bowen’s stance as a “professed anti-Freudian” (Lee 150),
her stories are rife with psychological insight (Freudian and otherwise) and certainly
“The Inherited Clock” captures the working of nachträglichkeit in an manner that
imaginatively complements, if not surpasses, Freud’s discursive explorations of the
concept—particularly as he never comprehensively delineated it in his corpus.5
Nachträglichkeit involves the idea that the psychological impact of an experience has
resonance for a subject at a later time, and that the affective force of an experience
arises not so much from the experience itself as from how a person perceives that
experience at some later time. According to Laplanche and Pontalis, it can be inferred
from Freud’s theory that “consciousness constitutes its own past, constantly
subjecting its meaning to revision in conformity with its ‘project’” (112). This re-
vision(ing) of the past is exactly what Clara is doing with her memory of the clock.
The threat Clara initially feels from the clock is the first evidence of the affective
force of her early attempt to grasp and fix time, although she does not yet fully realize
the source of her reaction. Clara’s present association of the clock with her static
existence acts as a second step toward the release of her childhood memory with its
newly acquired resonance. Finally, when Clara’s memory is triggered, her dread of
the clock makes sense in the context of unfulfilled expectations: whatever reasoning
lay behind her attempt to grasp and control time by reaching into the clock as a young
.girl, the clock now has meaning only as it relates to her present stagnant situation
In this latter context, Bowen writes that the clock, “chopping off each second to fall
and perish, recalled how many seconds had gone to make up [Clara’s] years, how
many of these had been either null or bitter, how many had been void before the void
claimed them” (631). Clara is unsure of whether Henry will ever leave his wife,
though she had hoped her inheritance would speed a divorce; worse, Clara realizes
how much “the tissue of her being had been consumed” (631) by waiting—both for
Henry and her inheritance. In this respect, Bowen’s admittedly heavy-handed
symbolism clearly reads, as Lassner suggests, as “a ghostly reminder of a past that
augured much but delivered little” (Study 23). For Lassner, “[f]orgetting the incident
is Clara’s effort to ignore the way she relinquishes responsibility for her life.” True,
but Lassner makes this point prefatory to stating that “Living as though there are no
boundaries between past and present, obsessed with time and inheritance, Clara is
doomed to replay the past” (23), an assertion that doesn’t adequately account for the
operation of time in the story. Clara perceives, in fact, a clear boundary between past
and present, evidenced by both the unconscious boundary between Clara and her
memory of her attempt to grasp time, and the conscious boundary Clara establishes
between present and future, with the inheritance marking the dividing line where one
will stop and the other begin. It is not the lack of temporal boundaries, then, that
causes Clara’s problems; rather, her distress arises from the fact that she attempts to
.establish unnecessary and deleterious boundaries
This understanding of temporality in “The Inherited Clock” has considerable
implications for human subjectivity. Bowen, in a statement highly reminiscent of
Freudian nachträglichkeit, states, “[e]xperience is the reaction to what happens, not
the happening itself. And in that sense, experience is, like environment, to a degree
selected” (Afterthought 208). Bowen seems to be suggesting that we have control to
some extent over our subjective experience, since experience lies in how we decide to
react to—and by implication, reframe—the events of our lives, and as such Bowen’s
statement highlights her exploration of the degree to which people can be agents of/in
their own realities. For Bowen, a significant aspect of potential human agency lies in
acceptance of the implications of a transtemporal subjectivity that involves the
reciprocal interplay of past, present, and future experiences. The Latin preposition
trans- in English usage contributes as a prefix the sense of “‘across, crossing,’ or
‘beyond, on the other side of’ or both senses,” or alternatively “‘beyond, surpassing,
transcending,’”6 but it is all of these senses that I want to encompass in transtemporal:
the feeling of movement across lived experience, crossing time, beyond/on the other
side of lived experience, while simultaneously transcending any perceived borders
.among past, present, and future
Transtemporal subjectivity affords the possibility of freedom from an inexorable logic
of cause and effect that determines our present and future actions based on
inescapable early actions or experiences; as deferred action suggests, the present is
just as capable of reframing the past as the past is of circumscribing the present or
future. And if this is so, then experiences in/through time are capable of being
reframed in ways that allow the possibility of acting differently, choosing differently,
imagining differently—toward creating a future, not merely expecting one to be
created for us. Blake wrote of “mind-forged manacles,” and certainly just as we
consider those social forces that threaten to and often do constrain us, we should
explore those constraints with which we shackle ourselves. Here I don’t mean in the
more world-oriented theoretical senses of, for example, Gramscian domination by
consent or Foucauldian self-discipline and punishment, but in the more psychological
—personal? affective? spiritual?—sense of subjecting ourselves to the tyrannies of
.our own minds
Clara erases the past and ignores the present as she lives each day only for the future;
Bowen exposes the weakness of this “I”-saving strategy. She depicts Clara’s life as
stagnant and unfulfilling, haunted by the ticking of the clock that measures—note that
Clara thinks in terms of the “seconds” and “years” of empirical time—the span of a
.life over which she has exerted little if any control
Rejecting transtemporal subjectivity and creating debilitating boundaries with respect
to time, memory, and (in this story) expectation are also equated with being out of
touch with reality. Abraham and Torok’s metapsychological discussion of Reality
versus reality (they purposefully eschew quotation marks in favor of capitalization)7
further illuminates Clara’s situation, Bowen’s vision of subjectivity, and ultimately, a
significant aspect of her fictional realism. Though consistently critical of Freud
themselves, Abraham and Torok expand on Freud’s concept of nachträglichkeit and
theorize a place within the psyche where an early event or desire is located and
preserved; they identify this place as Reality (“Topography” 63).8 Reality is “defined
as what is rejected, masked, denied precisely as ‘reality’; it is that which is, all the
more so since it must not be known.” “The past,” they conclude, “is thus present in
the subject as a block of reality” (63, 65; both emphases theirs). In “The Inherited
Clock,” then, Clara’s reality consists of the “clement air” (630) of her anticipated new
life; Clara’s Reality, however, is the fact of her “suspended life,” as embodied in her
memory of the clock. The end of the story depicts Clara attempting to come to terms
with Reality as she tells Paul, “‘I shall sit with my memories. I expect to spend some
time getting to know them’” (640). Yet hers is a limited negotiation, given, for
example, that she asks Paul to take the clock from her flat. When Paul declines to do
so, we are left with Clara’s unconvincing statement that other than the clock’s not
being particularly useful to her, she would “never know it was there” (640). Based on
the fact that she has already twice taken the clock to the window to throw it out and
destroy it, and has at least once stayed out walking all night to keep from listening to
it tick, it is doubtful that the clock will not continue to affect her at some level. For
Bowen, what level that is is now more fully Clara’s choice. To the extent to which
Clara is able to recognize and exploit the relationships among past, present, and future
—instead of continuing to try to erase time/deny the past or leap forward in time/live
in a hypothetical future—she will be able, as Bowen would put it, to retrieve her lost,
uncertain “I” and improve her capacity for human agency. Further, if the
transtemporal subjectivity Bowen’s stories in part address is conceived of as, for her,
central to both material and psychological realities, then characterizing and depicting
such relationships can be seen as an implicit but important aspect of her fictional
”II. The Deterministic Past in “Ivy Gripped the Steps
The temporal and psychological aspects of subjectivity and reality in “The Inherited
Clock” are most specifically related to memory, a topos in Bowen’s fiction generally,
and particularly in the memory-laden “Ivy Gripped the Steps” with its extensive
analepses related to Gavin’s childhood. Turning again to poetics, Bowen’s
conception of memory is influenced, as she discusses, by Proust (MT 21), and in fact,
though Joseph Frank’s focus in his study of time and spatial form in fiction is Proust,
much of what he says of Proust is strongly evident in Bowen as well. Consider
:Frank’s seminal discussion of representing time in narrative
To experience the passage of time, Proust learned, it was necessary to rise above it,
and to grasp both past and present simultaneously in a moment of what he called
‘pure time.’ But ‘pure time,’ obviously, is not time at all—it is perception in a
moment of time, that is to say, space. And, by the discontinuous presentation of
character, Proust forces the reader to juxtapose disparate images of his characters
spatially, in a moment of time, so that the experience of time’s passage will be fully
(communicated to their sensibility. (68
Bowen also seems interested in this ability to “grasp both past and present
simultaneously” in order to better convey her vision of human subjectivity. The
narrative depiction of “pure time” gained by juxtaposing images, evident in “The
Inherited Clock” when Clara flashes in and out of the past through her deferred
memory, is also central to the narrative and psychological realities of “Ivy Gripped
the Steps.” In this story, Bowen presents another character, Gavin Doddington, who
must negotiate with transtemporal subjectivity. When Gavin begins his “tour of
annihilation” (708) vis-à-vis his past by revisiting Southstone in order to “draw a line”
through it (709), he is consciously trying to erase a past that he has already allowed to
damage his present and future. Unlike Clara’s encounter with the clock, the adult
Gavin’s experience with Southstone is immediately and consciously connected to his
most powerful—and disillusioning—childhood memories. In a manner similar to the
story of Clara, however, Gavin’s attempt to sever the past from the present is clearly
.exposed as a faulty “I”-saving strategy
The story begins in the present, but, as in “The Inherited Clock,” the past is
immediately in evidence as well in the dramatic (and revealing) comparison Gavin
makes between Southstone as he currently sees it and how he remembers it. The
house where he once spent his holidays has been “consumed” by ivy in a “process of
strangulation,” and a “vacuum [has] mounted up” in the town (686-7). Characterized
by “desuetude and decay,” “Southstone’s life . . . now had nothing but an etiolated
slowness” (687). Ironically, this outward description correlates more than Gavin
realizes to the inward state of the town when he was there as a child; it was a “town
without function,” a world of “polished leisure” (691). Not only do the intangible but
omnipresent ideologies associated with the aristocratic world of Southstone come to
reflect it as an (imagined) community, they come to be materially reflected in the state
of the town itself. Gavin, however, appears to be blind to truth of this situation as he
.(is too much wrapped up in what “had long ago been branded into his memory” (688
The focal point of Gavin’s past, as we view it through his memory, is the time he
spent at Southstone with Mrs. Nicholson. For Gavin, time in Mrs. Nicholson’s world
stands in sharp contrast to the “brutishness” of his own family’s life as “poor gentry”
(691). “Everything was effortless; and, to him, consequently, seemed stamped with
style” (690); all he sees becomes part of an extended “fairy tale” (691). Gavin
idealizes this world, and lives in it as reality in stringent denial of the Reality, to adapt
Abraham and Torok’s language,9 of his family life where “poverty could not be
laughed away” (692). While Gavin is lost in Southstone’s “magical artificiality”
(693) and his childhood love for Mrs. Nicholson, his reality is hers—and hers is one
that is completely severed from history and the passing of time. Her belief, for
example, that history is over—“‘I was glad I had stayed at school long enough to be
sure that it had all ended happily’” (695-6)—and refusal to believe the Admiral’s
prediction of war essentially place herself and Gavin outside time and into a world of
illusion. Gavin, however, moves from reality to Reality whenever he returns home.
When with his family, he can acknowledge the possibility of war: the “dead weight of
existence” of his family’s world contributes to history its “repetitive harshness and
power to scar. This existence had no volition, but could not stop; and its never
.(stopping, because it could not, made history’s ever stopping the less likely” (697
Bowen’s juxtaposition of images of Gavin with relation to reality/Reality
demonstrates the inherent I-saving strategy the creation of a fictional reality is. Yet
fictions can be exposed for what they are and the “I” again lost, as is ultimately the
case with Gavin. As a child, he doesn’t “feel” anywhere but at Southstone (705), and
this investment of all feeling in a fictional world only sets him up further for the
strong impact of his ultimate disillusionment upon overhearing Mrs. Nicholson’s
conversation with the Admiral. More devastating than his sensing the undercurrent of
attraction between the two is his discovery that Mrs. Nicholson sees him as her “little
dog”; she has no real feeling for Gavin, a thought that is reinforced when the Admiral
chastises her as a flirt and for “making a ninny of that unfortunate boy” (707).
Immediately after this moment we are flung again into the present, and in a readerly
version of nachträglichkeit, suddenly comprehend Gavin’s relationship to Southstone
as it is re-signified for us in the context of his (for him) traumatic memories. His
illusory reality at Southstone has, in effect, become its own threatening Reality to be
denied—his desire for such a burial already indicated by his determination to “draw a
line” through his past. Gavin does not meet the “deadline for feeling” (689) he set by
visiting Southstone; he is, as is seen in his encounter with the A.T.S. girl, a
“mechanical amorist, a wolfish preyer.” While the narrative places some blame for
Gavin’s loss of feeling on Mrs. Nicholson, Gavin clearly “is also his own victim” (9),
as with Clara in “The Inherited Clock.” In Gavin’s case, he has constrained his
subjectivity by allowing himself to be defined solely by his past, and, given Bowen’s
temporal logic, has undercut his possibility for agency by attempting to obliterate his
past rather than coming to terms with it. This is particularly tragic considering that
memory’s “subjective haze” (Bowen referring to Proust, MT 21) inherently suggests a
malleability of the past that might be adopted in the service of a reconceived
.subjectivity in the present
At the end of the story, we see in Gavin “the face of somebody dead who was still
there” characterized by “the presence, under an icy screen, of a whole stopped
mechanism for feeling” (711). The addition that “[t]hose features had been framed,
long ago, for hope” (711) reveals the extent of the damage done when Gavin allows
himself to be tethered to the past, for he is clearly dead to both present and future. He
has rejected the chance to free his capacity for feeling by releasing the past, not in
terms of erasure (as he attempted), but in terms of its power to be a primary
determining force in his life. If an analysis of “The Inherited Clock” reveals the
psychological disaster of attempting to live divorced from transtemporal subjectivity
in the unreality of false expectations for the future, the emphasis of “Ivy Gripped the
Steps” is on the converse tragedy of allowing oneself to be too rooted to experiences,
.allowed to take the status of inescapably formative, in the past
”III. Fixed or Absent Present(s) in “The Happy Autumn Fields
In both “The Inherited Clock” and “Ivy Gripped the Steps” the stories are in many
ways traditionally verisimilar—we are given clear descriptions of the places where
each character spends time, we know and can believe in the possibility of their life
circumstances—yet Bowen’s temporal disruptions are just enough to jolt us out of
complacency with a reality familiar through its linearity and “naturalistic detail”
(Frank 70) into one that points up the importance of our relationship with time, that
demands, in Frank’s terms, our “spatial apprehension.” Similarly, Bowen’s realism
demands that we not only recognize but also become comfortable with, even take
advantage of, the continuous subjective interplay of past, present and future. Bowen’s
temporal/spatial representations of both reality and subjectivity are particularly
demanding in “The Happy Autumn Fields.” Most critics have of necessity explored
the relationship between past and present in the story, but many are “left with only
questions” (Lassner, Study 106).10 For reviewer William Trevor, “It is enough that the
story is charged with the connection between past and present” (131), but as with the
previous stories, it is the nature of that connection that is highly significant in
.Bowen’s fiction
The story derives its spatial form through the juxtaposition of scenes from the life of
sisters Sarah and Henrietta in the Victorian past, and the life of Mary, the “modern,
destabilized heroine” (Lassner 109). Critical attention has been fixed primarily on
Mary, but characters in both past and present refuse to accept the realities of temporal
instability that are echoed in the story’s form. While Clara allows herself to become
overly invested in the future, and Gavin to be determined by while attempting to deny
the past, Sarah and Henrietta refuse to relinquish the present. Their relationship is
depicted as an idyllic reality of two, as when they manage to lag behind the rest of
their family on a walking party: “The shorn uplands seemed to float on the distance . .
. There was no end to the afternoon . . . hardly a ripple showed where the girls
dwelled” (673). These are the “happy autumn fields” of the title, in which they
attempt to fix their shared present. “‘You and I will stay the same,’” asserts Sarah,
“‘then nothing can touch one without touching the other’” (672). It is when the
specter of change appears in the form of Eugene that Bowen’s narrative shifts to what
we realize is the present of the story, and to Mary, who evades the war-torn present by
leaving her “normal senses” and living in the world of Sarah and Henrietta. When
Mary’s connection with the past assumes the status of reality, both Travis and her
surroundings become part of an “unreality”—what we recognize as Mary’s denied
Reality of the Blitz—that “preyed on her as figments of dreams that one knows to be
.(dreams can do” (677
Mary’s uneasy recognition of the instability of her experience of the past (here, unlike
with Clara and Gavin, a past not even her own) is reinforced with the next temporal
shift to the life of Sarah and Henrietta. The world of the sisters has shifted from one
in which “[n]othing would fall or change” (680)—note that change here is associated
with the notion of a fall, rather than of any positive imagined change—to Sarah’s
“dislocation” and “formless dread” associated with her impending marriage to
Eugene. This dread impels a more conscious effort on Sarah’s part to remain fixed in
the present: she tries with “vehemence . . . to attach her being to each second, not
because each was singular in itself, but because she apprehended that the seconds
were numbered” (681). When Sarah begins to fear that “something terrible may be
going to happen,” both Eugene and Henrietta try to reassure her, but ironically, their
assurances signify antithetical meanings. Eugene asserts, “‘There cannot fail to be
tomorrow’” and Henrietta insists, “‘I will see that there is tomorrow’” (682; emphasis
Bowen’s). We quickly realize what the difference in the two statements is, as
Henrietta cries out to Eugene, “Whatever tries to come between me and Sarah
becomes nothing. Yes, come tomorrow, come sooner, come—when you like . . . . It
is you who are making something terrible happen” (683; emphasis Bowen’s). For
Eugene, tomorrow is a key part of the change of the new life he hopes for with Sarah,
but for Henrietta, the “tomorrow” she wants to ensure is in fact just another version of
“today.” While the three women in Bowen’s story differ in their desires to stabilize
their “I”s in relation to time (Sarah and Henrietta by fixing themselves in the present,
Mary by absenting herself from the present in favor the past), all three live in dream
.(states, whether actual (Mary) or metaphorical (the sisters
The final temporal shift to the modern scene combines both heavy symbolism—the
final blast to the house and Mary’s stopped watch, indicating her loss of touch with
time—with the psychological effects of Mary’s failed “I”-saving strategy. Not only is
the Victorian past “lost in time” to her, her attempt to sever herself temporally from
the present and from Reality has in fact also severed her self from herself, or the “I”
from the “me” (Abraham 19): now identified as “the woman” rather than Mary, she
“no longer reckon[s] who she was” (683). It is hinted that death—presumably the
ultimate escape from time—is in fact the only means for Mary to maintain contact
with the past, for the “one way back to the fields was barred by the fall of the ceiling”
in Mary’s home (683). Returning to the notion of deferred action, we can see Mary’s
experience of the past being interpreted in light of her present situation. She is numb
to her relationship with Travis and to the Reality of the war. Because of this, she sees
the charged emotions of Sarah and Henrietta’s lives as somehow better than the
blankness of her current subject position—as Travis tells her, she doesn’t even know
what is happening around her (677). Comparing modern life to her (literal) vision of
the past, she asks, “‘how are we to live without natures?’” For Mary, the “I” appears
truly lost. “‘So much flowed through people’” she continues; “‘so little flows through
us.’” Especially significant in this context is that her “memories” of the past are
likely impelled by the Victorian characters’ letters (found in her house), which serve
as Freudian screen memories for her, or what Lacan calls, more usefully (at least
metaphorically) for my purposes, “archival documents.” As Christopher Lane
outlines, “Although these memories can be recalled, they are not simply preserved:
their recollection is in fact part of their composition” (17; emphasis his)—an
understanding of memory and subjectivity directly related to nachträglichkeit.
Because consciousness acts as a “distorting agent” with regard to memory (Lane 21)
—Proust’s and Bowen’s “subjective haze”—Mary’s visions of the past are necessarily
.influenced by her experience of/in the present
Mary’s elevation of the past over the present, then, is rooted in the idea that it offered
an intense existence that renders her own subjectivity lifeless: “‘I am a person drained
by a dream. I cannot forget the climate of those hours [her ‘memories’]. Or life at
that pitch, eventful—not happy, no, but strung like a harp’” (684). This speech seems
almost incomprehensible given the tension-ridden and certainly eventful temper of
wartime London that Mary is experiencing directly as her house is blasted and
crumbling around her. Mary’s “rather strident speech” has been said to strike a
“jarring note” on the grounds that the comparison of past and present should have
remained implicit (Quinn 321). Yet the speech is not ventriloquism on Bowen’s part,
for although it is clear that Mary does idealize or privilege the past, Bowen most
certainly doesn’t. Given Bowen’s now apparent pattern of refusing to give primacy to
any temporal mode—the past cannot be empirically any better or worse, more or less
important, than the present or future—it is clear that there are problems in Sarah and
Henrietta’s world that vivid feelings will not solve. These problems do, as Lassner
suggests, stem from family life (109), but also from the ways in which the sisters
attempt to control time. Each desires a reality that will not change, but though Sarah
says that they will “stay the same,” they cannot stop the passage of time. When
change appears imminent, Henrietta believes she can insure a “tomorrow” that is in
line with her (and presumably Sarah’s) wishes—and it may be that, on one level, she
does so. Bowen’s story hints at the possibility that Henrietta’s version of insuring that
there is a tomorrow was to eliminate Eugene by causing an accident that led to his
death.11 Yet this possibility aside, it is unlikely that any attempt to root oneself rigidly
in time in a Bowen story could have positive consequences. Certainly the marriage
was stopped, but Bowen hints that the sisters died young (684), ironically fulfilling
Sarah’s wish that “Rather than they [she and Henrietta] cease to lie in the same bed. . .
they might lie in the same grave” (672). Just as Mary’s loss of subjectivity, of feeling
with regard to time and experience renders her reality unfulfilling (similar to though
differently inflected than the flat affect revealing Gavin’s emotionless subjectivity),
Henrietta and Sarah’s surplus of feeling leads to the Reality that only death can stop
.the mutability associated with time
IV. Realism as Transtemporal Subjectivity
Psychic development, and by extension, the construction of human subjectivity, is for
Abraham and Torok, a “forward-looking quest for individuality” (Rashkin 37). The
theorists, contra most postmodern conceptions of subjectivity, effectively “credit the
ego with a basic capacity for coherence” (Lane 6); as Torok puts it, “the removal of
repression brings with it strength, self-esteem, and especially confidence in one’s
power and becoming” (qtd. in Lane 8; emphasis hers). Bowen’s depictions of the
relationship between temporality and subjectivity similarly allow for an “I” that, if
lost, can be saved or retrieved via transtemporal subjectivity. Further, much as
Abraham and Torok see an important part of their therapeutic work as “making
Reality acceptable” by “eliminating the psychological weight of a Reality that has
existence solely through its repudiation” (“Topography” 67; emphasis theirs), for
Bowen, any “I”-saving strategies that deny Reality and the importance of healthy
relationships among reality, temporality, and subjectivity are doomed to failure. Such
a vision is also, in a literary sense, a significant aspect of the stories’ realism; it is one
”.way in which Bowen, as James would say, “feels life
In addition to the more personal and inward-turning considerations I have focused on
so far, it is, I think, significant that considerations of psychology, subjectivity, and
temporality also continually surface with regard to the historical and outward-turning
aspects of her realism. Bowen, for example, avers that the short fiction collected in
The Demon Lover has “an authority nothing to do with me” (MT 95), and (in
unequivocally psychological terms) that the stories are permeated by “the general
subconsciousness” of those writing during the decade encompassing World War II
(during which all three stories just discussed were written). “During the war,” she
states, “the overcharged subconsciousnesses of everybody flowed and merged.”
Elsewhere, in her discussion of the short story in England, she asserts that “[t]he
tenseness and seriousness” of wartime experience “began to reflect itself in our short
stories,” whether intentionally or not (“Short Story” 12). And it is true that echoes of
war reverberate throughout the three stories, from the strangely dissociated walk Clara
takes during the black-out, to the change in Southstone after two world wars, to the
.bombing of Mary’s home
Those critics who comment on the influence of Bowen’s biography and dual national
heritage on her writing also tend to address at least briefly the relationship between
temporality and subjectivity. As Lassner points out, Bowen “links the theme of the
past to her understanding of Anglo-Irish psychology” (EB 148) and cites Bowen’s
assertion that “‘[i]n Ireland, if you do not know the past you only know the half of
anyone’s mind’” (qtd. in EB 148). Terry Eagleton, in his discussion of Anglo-Irish
writers (including Bowen), highlights what he sees as the “difficulty of totalizing a
coherent tale from the ruptured course of Irish history itself” (212). For Eagleton,
Ireland’s “present is not identical with itself, fissured and hollowed as it is by its
relation to a past which at once nutures and disrupts it” (183). This idea of a fissured
present is further complicated by the fact of England’s undeniable influence on
Ireland, resulting in the idea that “Irish society was stratified . . . made up of disparate
time scales. Its history was differentiated rather than homogeneous, as the anglicized
and the atavistic existed side by side” (278). This latter juxtaposition is evident in
“Ivy Gripped the Steps” in the contrast between Southstone society and the quasi-
feudal existence of the “poor gentry.” And Bowen’s placement in either realm is
.complicated by her being neither fully English nor Irish
With regard to these more historical considerations, Peter Nicholls’ discussion of
nachträglichkeit in the service of what he terms “postmodern historicity” is
particularly useful. Reading Freudian deferred action alongside Derrida’s notion of “a
past which has never been present,” Nicholls characterizes postmodern historicity as a
construction parallel to “the time of the unconscious,” rather than conscious,
empirical time. Nicholls elaborates on this idea with the support of arguments by
Lyotard and Althusser related to non-linear temporal experience, and asserts that
postmodern historicity “is precisely that particular present of contemplation which is
torn by the intrusion of a different time.” This intrusion causes the subject to be
“shaken out of its secure metaphysical time and exposed to the shock of a temporality
which is always self-divided” (55-6). While my characterization of Bowen’s
transtemporal subjectivity is clearly related (and indebted) to Nicholls’ formulation of
postmodern historicity, Nicholls’ use of “historicity” seems to me to signify
particularly, and perhaps even primarily, the relationship between past and present
(i.e., not intrinsically the future), and to connote more specifically historical events
and/or cultural moments (such as, for example, the horrors of the Middle Passage and
of slavery in the American South that are the focus of Nicholls’ analyses of two Toni
Morrison novels). In this sense, the language related to his adaptation of
nachträglichkeit for postmodern and historical/historiographic literary-critical
purposes (for which he sets a critical precedent) would be especially suited to an
analysis of the relationships among subjectivity, temporality, and the more historical
aspects of Bowen’s fiction. For my purposes here, however, I prefer the more fluid
and multivalent connotations of trans- in “transtemporal subjectivity” to the
bifurcation evoked in Nicholls’ description of a “self-divided” subjectivity, as well as
to the potential for limiting periodization/categorization (intentional or not) of the
term “postmodern.” “Transtemporality,” because less specific as regards its
referent(s), also perhaps better encompasses those memories and experiences—as
well as expectations and desires—that exist on an individual psychological level that
may conceivably be distanced from particular historical moments (I’m allowing for
.(this last in my provisionally humanist mode
Semantics aside, Nicholls celebrates in nachträglichkeit, as I do in Bowen’s vision of
transtemporal subjectivity, the potential inherent in Freud’s theory to “gain access to a
new level of meaning and . . . rework earlier experiences” (Laplanche and Pontalis
112)—and, I would add, the potential to negotiate more therapeutically with the
Realities/realities of past, present, and future. In short, the potential to shift from an
uncertain “I” to an “I,” in Abraham and Torok’s words, more “confident in one’s
power and becoming.” While Bowen doesn’t offer a series of narratives that depict
characters realizing this potential, she does explore consistently what not to do:
namely, to try in any way to ignore, escape, or cling to past, present, or future at the
expense of a more productive and fluid transtemporal subjectivity. Bowen is no
moral realist, and the implications of her fiction for human subjectivity in the context
I’ve just proposed are oblique rather than laid out in a tidy fashion—à la, for example,
the close of Dickens’ quintessential social/moral realist novel Hard Times: “Dear
reader! It rests with you and me whether, in our two fields of action, similar things
shall be or not” (398). If the positive implications of her often poignant fiction seem
too hard won, so they should be. Life is hard. As Tim Dean memorably put it in the
context of Freud’s work, “[t]here is something fundamentally incurable in being
human” (qtd. in Lane 5). But reading Bowen’s stories in light of the “I”-saving
implications of transtemporal subjectivity does suggest, more positively, the ultimate
possibility of being freed from determination by the past, which is “loosed from
fixity” and “can contain the promise of a future which will be . . . an open question”
(Nicholls 67).12 This, for example, is the opportunity available to Clara, when she at
last understands the impact of the clock in the context of her suspended life; to Gavin,
when he revisits experiences in Southstone that he does not have to allow to define
him; and to Mary, when she has her vision of two sisters who died in their attempts to
exist apart from time. Though none of these characters takes advantage of the
possibilities for newly imagined human agency, this does not erase the fact that the
possibilities are there. “Get real,” Bowen’s stories say. “Find yourself”—seek and
retrieve your “I”—though this means locating subjectivity not in a stable present, but
instead perceiving it as diffuse with the possibilities of an “I” that has no permanent
Granted, accepting and acting on the possibilities of transtemporal subjectivity is not
an easy task, as evidenced by the characters in “The Inherited Clock,” “Ivy Gripped
the Steps,” and “The Happy Autumn Fields” who all fail at it. Like those subjects of
Abraham and Torok’s analysis, their narratives are those “symbolically telling the tale
of what and why they could not be” (Raskin 50). A great deal of contemporary theory
tells additional tales of what and why we cannot be—the socially constructed nature
of subjectivity and the inescapable nature of ideology being two recurring obstacles in
such tales. As a card-carrying constructionist, I’ve told a number of them myself,
both professionally and personally. But recently, just as many academics have been
reevaluating the impact of postmodern theory on possibilities for individual or
collective political action, I’ve wanted to believe that people (not merely “subjects,”
but “people”) in fact can have agency, and don’t just delude themselves into thinking
they do—or worse, as in Bowen’s stories, thinking they don’t. We are situated in a
tension between our own desires to retrieve, to save our uncertain “I”s and the impact
of those social, and historical forces we have increasingly been told serve to shape us.
Perhaps one step to take toward human agency, one thing shared by “real” people and
those characters in Bowen’s fiction, is the chance to recognize how implicated the
personal is in losing or limiting the “I,” to take advantage of the liberatory potential of
transtemporal subjectivity, and to strive for agency in the present as we free ourselves
from denied, deterministic, or illusory pasts and write the narratives of more open and
self-determined futures. That Bowen’s complex fictional realism can help reveal the
urgency of such a step is just one of many reasons for her continuing relevance within
contemporary literary study, as well as to what—dropping the ironic punctuation—I’ll
.unabashedly call the real world
See, for example, Heath, Jordan, Bloom, and those critics mentioned by Lassner in .1
.EB 141
Bennett and Royle posit that to pigeonhole Bowen as a “novelist of manners or .2
sensibility” within the broader category of realism leads to both misreading and
misjudgment of her novels “according to the protocols of such fiction,” which
.(perforce relegate Bowen to the status of minor novelist (xvi
Even in the heyday of criticism reading Bowen as a social realist, Harriet Blodgett .3
refers to Bowen as a “psychological realist” (8). N.b. I use quasi here not in the sense
of quasi-/faux, but in the sense of seemingly or apparently to indicate a fictional
realism that involves Bowen’s own style, to be related to rather than seen as merely
.derivative of these more established canonical figures
See especially Trevor and (to some extent) Hildebidle. Blodgett criticized this tack .4
in early Bowen criticism and reviews (with the exception of Austin) more than three
.decades ago; see Blodgett 8n3-4
.See Laplanche and Pontalis 111 .5
These definitions from the OED are usefully accompanied by a list of Latin and .6
Latinate words that also indicate the kind of movement I want to suggest, especially
”.translimitanus, “beyond the boundary or frontier
They capitalize Reality to indicate its status as a metapsychological concept which .7
“all other forms of reality presuppose and derive from” (“Topography” 68n2); see
.also “The Ploy of Capitalization” in Abraham 18
Abraham and Torok’s discussion of Reality is closely related to their concept of the .8
“crypt,” on which Royle draws, in a precursory presentation to his work with Bennett,
for his analysis of “impossible mourning” in Bowen’s novels, and the haunting of
characters by lost love objects entombed unconsciously in such crypts (Royle doesn’t
mention the related metapsychological concept of Reality). Though differently
inflected than my arguments here, Royle’s analysis (along with its reworking in the
later book) also addresses Bowen’s complex vision of temporality: memories of lost
love objects (his example is Guy, the absent/dead but still central character in
Bowen’s A World of Love) are in fact linked to expectation in what he terms a logic of
“remembering the future” (144). In Elizabeth Bowen and the Dissolution of the
Novel, this paradoxical characterization of temporality is even more closely associated
with the “memory” or “dread” of death (see, for example, 26-27 and 70), which is not
my interest here (with the slight exception of the final part of my reading of “The
Happy Autumn Fields”). But Bennett and Royle’s attention to the intricacy of the
interrelationships among past, present, and future in Bowen’s novels further suggests
.the importance of temporality to an understanding of Bowen’s fictional realism
Abraham and Torok typically characterize Reality as entombing a denied “crime” .9
(including “unacceptable” unfulfilled wishes and desires) or trauma that might well be
violent and/or sexual in nature, as in the case of the Man of Milk (see “Lost Object”
226-9), but their conception of trauma allows for a more inclusive definition of the
term that might prove more broadly useful in literary-critical applications. Here is
Rashkin summarizing Abraham and Torok: “The manner in which an event is ‘lived’
or experienced psychically by an individual renders it a trauma. This perspective
removes trauma from external moral or ethical taxonomies to situate it as a function
.(of the specific mental configuration and psychic history of an individual” (49
.See, for example, Wilson, Church, Allen and Quinn .10
I’m thinking of the letter in which Sarah and Henrietta’s brother writes that “he .11
will always wonder what made [Eugene’s] horse shy in those empty fields” (685).
Perhaps due to Henrietta’s bracelet, which we’ve earlier seen her cause to flash in the
Nicholls derives this last idea from John Forrester’s discussion of nachträglichkeit .12
in which he states, “the past dissolves in the present, so that the future becomes (once
again) an open question, instead of being specified by the fixity of the past.” See
.(Forrester 206; qtd. in Nicholls 65 (Forrester’s italics
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Trevor, William. “Between Holyhead and Dun Laoghaire.” Times Literary
.Supplement 6 February 1981: 131. Rpt. in Lassner, Study 168-73
Welty, Eudora. “Seventy-nine Stories to Read Again.” New York Times Book Review
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To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Doryjane A. Birrer "Time, Memory, and the “Uncertain I”: Transtemporal
Subjectivity in Elizabeth Bowen’s Short Fiction". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. December 15, 2009.
Available http://www.psyartjournal.com/article/show/a_birrer-time_memory_and_the_uncertain_i_transtem. September 22, 2008 [or
.[whatever date you accessed the article
Received: March 13, 2008, Published: September 22, 2008. Copyright © 2008 Doryjane A. Birrer

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A Woman's Place in 19th Century Victorian History

A Woman's Place is in the Home•
A Woman's Qualities•
Mistresses for Men•
Married Woman's Property Act 1887•
Social Differences Between Classes of Women•

A Woman's Place is in The Home

The Victorian era seems like another world to us. Yet the late Victorians were very
familiar with many of the things we use everyday. The one thing that was different
was the place of women in society. There were of course perceptive women of
independent original thought, but for the huge majority life was easier if they accepted
that a woman's place was in the home. To lump all women of the Victorian era as one
body would be wrong. The era spanned 64 years and changes in attitudes were
.gradually shifting as the century closed
Above in the heading we see a picture of the young Queen Victoria at 18. If you look
at her in the top page of the Victorian Era you will see how she changed with the
Whether or not you agree with the facts today, the attitude of men toward women in
the Victorian age was highlighted by Tennyson who wrote of women staying by the
.hearth with their needles whilst men wielded their swords
A Woman's Qualities
The accepted reasoning was that the career for women was marriage. To get ready for
courtship and marriage a girl was groomed like a racehorse. In addition to being able
to sing, play an instrument and speak a little French or Italian, the qualities a young
Victorian gentlewoman needed, were to be innocent, virtuous, biddable, dutiful and
.be ignorant of intellectual opinion
Right - Taking tea wearing lavish Victorian gowns in 1854. Fashion history images
we see today are usually of beautifully gowned women, yet many working women as
.opposed to ladies such as these wore rags
The dresses show typical excessive style elements such as V waists, layering of trims,
.bell sleeves and engageantes

Whether married or single all Victorian women were expected to be weak and
helpless, a fragile delicate flower incapable of making decisions beyond selecting the
menu and ensuring her many children were taught moral values. A gentlewoman
ensured that the home was a place of comfort for her husband and family from the
.stresses of Industrial Britain
.Right Beeton's Book of Household Management edited by Mrs. Isabella Beeton
A woman's prime use was to bear a large family and maintain a smooth family
atmosphere where a man need not bother himself about domestic matters. He
.assumed his house would run smoothly so he could get on with making money
In his book The Cut of his Coat published in 2006 Brent Shannon argues that middle-
class men also participated vigorously in fashion and you can read the book review of
.The Cut of His Coat here
Mistresses for Men
Even in high places Victorian men kept mistresses, but they still expected their wives
or mistresses to be faithful whatever their own misdemeanours. If a women took a
lover it was not made public. If it did become public knowledge she would be cut by
society. But men could amble along to one of their gentleman's clubs and always find
.a warm welcome
Married Woman's Property Act 1887
It was a hypocritical period when relationships were quite artificial. Until late in the
century in 1887 a married woman could own no property. Then in 1887 the Married
Woman's Property Act gave women rights to own her own property. Previously her
property, frequently inherited from her family, belonged to her husband on marriage.
She became the chattel of the man. During this era if a wife separated from her
husband she had no rights of access to see her children. A divorced woman had no
.chance of acceptance in society again
Social Differences Between Classes of Women

A wealthy wife was supposed to spend her time reading, sewing, receiving guests,
going visiting, letter writing, seeing to the servants and dressing for the part as her
.husband's social representative
For the very poor of Britain things were quite different. Fifth hand clothes were
usual. Servants ate the pickings left over in a rich household. The average poor mill
worker could only afford the very inferior stuff, for example rancid bacon, tired
vegetables, green potatoes, tough old stringy meat, tainted bread, porridge, cheese,
.herrings or kippers
By the end of the Queen Victoria's reign there were great differences between
members of society, but the most instantly apparent difference was through the
.garments worn
The Victorian head of household dressed his women to show off family wealth. As
the 19th century progressed dress became more and more lavish until clothing dripped
.with lace and beading as the new century dawned
A wealthy woman's day was governed by etiquette rules that encumbered her with up
to six wardrobe changes a day and the needs varied over three seasons a year. A lady
.changed through a wide range of clothing as occasion dictated
Fashion history and photographic records clearly illustrate there was morning and
mourning dress, walking dress, town dress, visiting dress, receiving visitors dress,
travelling dress, shooting dress, golf dress, seaside dress, races dress, concert dress,
.opera dress, dinner and ball dress
Left - Fashion plate of wealthy women in an open carriage which enabled them to
.display their clothes and elevated position in society
Fashion plates were hugely successful in this era giving ladies supposed to women
.visual clues on how to dress for their new found status
Yet change was happening everywhere. Many women adopted the tailor made
garment that showed their more serious concern to be recognised as thinking beings
.with much to offer society beyond being a social asset for a husband
By 1900 the railway, the typewriter, telephones, the post, the camera, the sewing
machine, artificial rayon fibres and the bicycle became normal for many. For some
gas, water, electricity and even the motor car were already in use. New inventions
and how to use them led to new thinking and women of all classes felt the dynamic
.atmosphere of change as much as men
.Right -A Victorian woman using a Singer sewing machine C1850
Reform was in the air as intellectual female thinkers began to state their case. Many
joined the Fabian Society, a group of non revolutionary thinking socialists. Others
sought reform for more practical dress, better education, the right to take up paid work
if they wished and better employment prospects if they were poorly paid women.
Most importantly brave women campaigned for votes for women and birth control
.information even though many never lived to see the changes they fought for
You can read how to find out more about some very informed material about
occupations of ordinary women on my book review page of Helena Wojtczak's
publication called WOMEN OF VICTORIAN SUSSEX - Their Status, Occupations
and Dealings with the Law, 1830 ~ 1870. Helena Wojtczak's latest publication. I also
.have some information on women seamstresses in my Edwardian section