Issue 4 December
She and The Moral Dilemma of Elizabeth Bowen
James M. Haule
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Colby Library Quarterly, Volume 22, no.4, December 1986, p.205-214
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Haule: She and The Moral Dilemma of Elizabeth Bowen
She and The Moral Dilemma of Elizabeth Bowen by JAMES M. HAULE
Third Programme asked a succession of to the books) that n10st affected them in their
I talk about BBCbook (or Bowen chosehadspeak about She,novelists by formative years. Elizabeth to a novel
Rider Haggard that she read at the age of twelve.! At that time Bowen felt
"bored and hampered" by life. She had "exhausted the myths of childhood," having developed in the course of her education "a sort of grudge against actuality." The historical novel proved superior to the history of actual events. She was "depressed" then "by what seemed the sheer uniformity of the human lot, by its feebleness, arising from some deficiency . . . " ("She" 230). What Bowen encountered in She changed her outlook radically.
Bowen summarizes the opening of the novel in this way:
Horace Holly, forty, a Carrlbridge don, looks ferocious like a baboon, but is mild at heart.
Holly's ward, Leo Vincey, has gold curls and looks like a Greek god. Leo's twenty-fifth birthday is to be marked by the ceremonial opening of a family casket; it is revealed that the
Vinceys, good old stock, trace descent from one Kallikrates, a priest of Isis. This Kallikrates broke his vows to marry, fled to Egypt, was shipwrecked on the Libyan coast, encountered the white queen of a savage tribe, and was by her slain - having failed to return her love for the good reason that he was married already. The vindictive queen, it remained on record, had bathed in the Fire of Everlasting Life. (231)
Leo, it turns out, is the reborn Kallikrates and "She-who-must-beobeyed" takes up with him where she left off (two thousand years ago) with his ancestor. The plan is clear: marriage to Leo, return to England and "absolute rule over the British dominions, and probably the whole world . . ." (235).
All the while, Holly, who is both the narrator and the conscience of the book, is tormented in his sleep by the cry that "Imperial Kor is fallen, fallen!" (232). This is the lost city of the entombed queen, unseen for thousands of years while She awaits the return of her lover and the application of her powers. Holly compares Kor to London indirectly;
Bowen does so directly. Having "seen" Kor before London, Bowen could not help but be "disappointed" by the English capital: "I was inclined to see London as Kor with the roofs still on" (234).
1. Graham Greene also chose Rider Haggard, but agreed to discuss King Solomon's Mines to leave She to Bowen.
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Bowen "read She, dreamed She, lived She for a year and a half" and later in 1947 discovered that though she had not seen the book since her youth, "surprisingly little of what was written [in the novel] has evaporated" (236). What accounts for the powerful impression this Edwardian novel had on Bowen? It was not, she insists, empathy for the strong female so different from the Anglo-Irish ideal. Bowen's denial of identification betrays, however, an appreciation of this woman whose strength and power was all but absolute:
Did I then, I must ask, myself aspire to "She's" role? I honestly cannot say so. "She" was
she- the out-size absolute of the grown-up. The exaltation I wanted was to be…