The Anglo-Irish writer, Elizabeth Bowen, is remembered for surrounding herself with the most lauded of literary women.
Never allowing her severe stammer to get in the way of her role as a garrulous hostess, she entertained the likes of Carson McCullers, Rosamund Lehman, Eudora Welty and Virginia Woolf.
We were surprised to discover that Iris Murdoch had attended one of the glittering salons at Bowen’s Court since she was twenty years younger than her hostess and has often been mythologised as something of an honorary man. Famously dismissive of her female contemporaries, she refused to read any of Barbara Pym’s novels, despite (or because of) repeated and hearty recommendations from the men in her life.
It turned out that Murdoch and Bowen were first drawn together by their shared Anglo-Irish heritage and admiration for each other’s novels.
The salons at Bowen’s Court, mostly known for their decadence, were, in fact, full of creative ferment. Passages from Murdoch’s The Unicorn are so indebted to Bowen’s style and subject matter that they could almost have been written by the older author. Similarly, Bowen’s Eva Trout is influenced by the ‘demoniac’ subversion that she so admired in the work of her acolyte.
But it was confessions about their romantic relationships that cemented the intimacy of their inter-generational friendship. Murdoch confided her fears about agreeing to wed her lover, the fellow academic, John Bayley: as a married woman, she would be forbidden from continuing in her post as an Oxford don. Bowen, who had felt liberated rather than hemmed in by her own marriage, advised the younger author to embrace the opportunity to spend more time on her novels.
The pair visited each other regularly and commented on each other’s work, developing a deep and mutually influential friendship that lasted for nigh on two decades.
During this time Murdoch’s unconventional marriage endured, in some ways following the example mapped out by the flamboyant Bowen, whose husband was quite an introvert. Indeed, one party guest at Bowen’s Court stumbled into a cupboard in search of the loo only to find him crouched amongst the mops and brooms with a tray of food on his knees. Their successful union was more companionable than erotic, and Bowen sought sexual fulfilment elsewhere – most notably in a thirty year love affair with a Canadian diplomat.
Murdoch was similarly open to extramarital encounters. Most interesting among her affairs, perhaps, was her lesbian relationship, break-up and reconciliation with fellow philosopher, Philippa Foot. And yet, like Bowen, Murdoch was devoted to her husband, as, in both cases, the support of these men helped their creativity to thrive.
Not only did the older author show the younger one how to carve out erotic and creative freedom within a lifelong and nurturing marriage, Bowen also demonstrated by example how to extend wisdom and generosity to the next generation. And so, Murdoch – previously wary of her female contemporaries – ended up taking the young A.S. Byatt under her wing.
This month, Emma Claire will be reading The Unicorn by Iris Murdoch and Emily will be reading Eva Trout by Elizabeth Bowen.