In his introduction to a collection of criticism on the Anglo-Irish author Elizabeth Bowen, Harold Bloom wrote, “What then has Bowen given us except nuance, bittersweet and intelligent? Much, much more.” Born in 1899, Bowen became part of the famous Bloomsbury scene, and her novels have a much-deserved place in the modernist canon. In recent years, however, her work has not been as widely read or written about, and as Bloom points out, her evocative and sometimes enigmatic prose requires careful parsing. Yet in addition to providing a fertile ground for criticism, Bowen’s novels are both wonderfully entertaining, with rich humor, deep insight, and a tragic sense of human relationships.
Bowen’s first novel, The Hotel, is a wonderful introduction to her disarming, perceptive style. Following a group of British tourists vacationing on the Italian Riviera during the 1920s, The Hotel explores the social and emotional relationships that develop among the well-heeled residents of the eponymous establishment. When the young Miss Sydney falls under the sway of an older woman, Mrs. Kerr, a sapphic affair simmers right below the surface of Bowen’s writing, creating a rich story that often relies as much on what is left unsaid as what is written on the page. Bowen depicts an intense interpersonal drama with wit and suspense, while playing with and pushing the English language to its boundaries.