Elizabeth Dorothea Cole Bowen CBE, Anglo-Irish novelist and short story writer notable for her fiction about life in wartime London, is born at 15 Herbert Place in Dublin on June 7, 1899.
Bowen is baptised in St. Stephen’s Church on Upper Mount Street. Her parents, Henry Charles Cole Bowen and Florence (née Colley) Bowen, later bring her to Bowen’s Court at Farahy, near Kildorrery, County Cork, where she spends her summers. When her father becomes mentally ill in 1907, she and her mother move to England, eventually settling in Hythe. After her mother dies in 1912 she is raised by her aunts. She is educated at Downe House School under the headship of Olive Willis. After some time at art school in London she decides that her talent lay in writing. She mixes with the Bloomsbury Group, becoming good friends with Rose Macaulay who helps her seek out a publisher for her first book, a collection of short stories entitled Encounters (1923).
In 1923 Bowen marries Alan Cameron, an educational administrator who subsequently works for the BBC. The marriage has been described as “a sexless but contented union.” She has various extra-marital relationships, including one with Charles Ritchie, a Canadian diplomat seven years her junior, which lasts over thirty years. She also has an affair with the Irish writer Seán Ó Faoláin and a relationship with the American poet May Sarton. She and her husband first live near Oxford, where they socialize with Maurice Bowra, John Buchan and Susan Buchan, and where she writes her early novels, including The Last September (1929). Following the publication of To the North (1932) they move to 2 Clarence Terrace, Regent’s Park, London, where she writes The House in Paris (1935) and The Death of the Heart (1938). In 1937, she becomes a member of the Irish Academy of Letters.
In 1930 Bowen becomes the first (and only) woman to inherit Bowen’s Court, but remains based in England, making frequent visits to Ireland. During World War II she works for the British Ministry of Information, reporting on Irish opinion, particularly on the issue of neutrality. Her political views tend towards Burkean conservatism. During and after the war she writes among the greatest expressions of life in wartime London, The Demon Lover and Other Stories (1945) and The Heat of the Day (1948). She is awarded the CBE the same year.
Bowen’s husband retires in 1952 and they settle in Bowen’s Court, where he dies a few months later. Many writers visit her at Bowen’s Court from 1930 onwards, including Virginia Woolf, Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, Iris Murdoch, and the historian Veronica Wedgwood. For years Bowen struggles to keep the house going, lecturing in the United States to earn money. In 1957 her portrait is painted at Bowen’s Court by her friend, painter Patrick Hennessy. She travels to Italy in 1958 to research and prepare A Time in Rome (1960), but by the following year she is forced to sell her beloved Bowen’s Court, which is demolished in 1960. In the following months, she writes for CBS the narrative of the documentary titled Ireland the Tear and the Smile which is realized in collaboration with Robert Monks as cameraman and associate producer. After spending some years without a permanent home, she finally settles at “Carbery”, Church Hill, Hythe, in 1965.
Bowen’s final novel, Eva Trout, or Changing Scenes (1968), wins the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1969 and is shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 1970. Subsequently, she is a judge that awards the 1972 Man Booker Prize to John Berger for G. She spends Christmas 1972 at Kinsale, County Cork with her friends, Major Stephen Vernon and his wife, Lady Ursula, daughter of Hugh Grosvenor, 2nd Duke of Westminster, but is hospitalised upon her return. Here she is visited by Cyril Connolly, Lady Ursula Vernon, Isaiah Berlin, Rosamund Lehmann, and her literary agent, Spencer Curtis Brown, among others.
In 1972 Bowen develops lung cancer. She dies at the age of 73 in University College Hospital in London on February 22, 1973. She is buried with her husband in St. Colman’s churchyard in Farahy, close to the gates of Bowen’s Court, where there is a memorial plaque to the author at the entrance to St. Colman’s Church, where a commemoration of her life is held annually.