Elizabeth Bowen, “The Short Story in England” (May 1945)

Bibliographical details: Elizabeth Bowen, “The Short Story in England”, in Britain Today, 109 (May 1945), pp.11-16; rep. in Phyllis Lassner, Elizabeth Bowen: A Study of the Short Fiction, NY: Twayne 1991, pp.128-43.

The development of the short story in England has been interesting to watch. As an art form, it is still fairly new - roughly, the child of the twentieth century. Before 1900, short stories-and often, great ones had indeed been written; but there was, I believe, a tendency to regard these as by-products, chance overflows from the brimming imaginations of novelists. Fine short stories, while they might delight the public, were not yet of technical interest to the critic. Kipling - the main body of whose prose work was in this form - was Kipling: unique, unquestioned, with a place of his own.

The freshness and force of his style, the variety of his subjects, his wide knowledge of men and countries, his equal command of the comic and tragic muse - it was those that struck contemporary readers. They did not pause to examine how the stories were told. And Kipling the artist tended to be obscured by Kipling the national institution. Only lately - only, that is to say, since the awakening of artistic interest in the short story form - has there been what one might call a delayed action appreciation of Kipling’s technique. Now, we see him as not only our first but also as one of our greatest artists in that particular fine.

Yes, we took Kipling for granted. Ironically, perhaps, English interest in the short story was to wait to receive its impetus from abroad. Late nineteenth-century Europe had given birth to two outstanding short story writers - French Guy de Maupassant, Russian Anton Tchehov. The Maupassant stories, with their strong Gallic flavour, appealed to only a special public in England: none the less, their reputation spread. As with Kipling, the Maupassant stories’ subjects were, at the time, more striking than was their concealed art. The impact of Tchehov on us was very different: no sooner were his stories translated into English than he began to be felt as an influence. Why? Because the Tchehov stories deal more with mood than with action. To us in England that was something quite new; and it opened infinite possibilities. Mood (though it may be mood of a different kind) is, I think, as strong a factor with the English as with the Russians; the idea of expressing it was fascinating, and the suitability of the short story, for this purpose, soon came to be seen.

The short story promised to do in prose what had, so far, only been done in poetry. Isolating some perhaps quite small happening, it emphasized its significance by giving it emotional colour.

The first, and brilliant, exponent of Tchchov technique in England was Katherine Mansfield - be it clear that she added to her discipleship a genius altogether her own. The work of that young New Zealand woman, settled in England, appeared at a time that could not have been more propitious - the years following the first World War. A swing-back to reflectiveness, a revulsion against action, violence, and any form of systematised energy is, I imagine, characteristic of any post-war period. Individual feelings reassert themselves. Like small spring flowers, personal loves, pleasures, and fancies appear again, after the harsh, repressive winter of war.

Katherine Mansfield’s tragically early death left her not lost to us as an inspiration. Throughout the 1920’s, and into the 1930’s, her imitators, inevitably, were many. What was better, quite independent talents found themselves encouraged, by her achievement, in their own belief in the short story. A. E. Coppard and H. E. Bates, with their lyrical but at the same time virile tales of the English country-side, showed that the English “atmospheric” short story need not stay, only, in the feminine sphere. Another woman short-storyist, Ethel Colburn Mayne - who had, I believe, been writing prior to Katherine Mansfield - began to come into greater prominence; though never quite the prominence she deserved.

William Plomer, before he was twenty, published his first collection, I Speak of Africa. Plomer (who has now much other work to his name) is, I think, still the English short-storyist whose development has been most continuous and most steady: he is now in his prime as a writer, and should be watched. For, more and more, as in the decades between the two World Wars the short story has become a literary cult, one has had to distinguish between the mere good technician (the writer, one might say, for writing’s sake) and the man or woman of first-class imagination, who has something wholly original to say.

High in this class comes D. H. Lawrence; whose short stories are unweighted by any of the redundancies that may slow down his novels. All the vision, the fire, the gentleness, and the sheer observation of which Lawrence was capable come out, pure, in his stories. He was writing during the 1914-18 war; and the stories in the   England , My England and The Ladybird collections seem to me to have captured, as truly as anything in our literature, the psychological atmosphere of that time. And his post-war stories were to show no decline. Arguably (and I could support the argument) Lawrence is our finest short story writer. He is certainly in the rank of the first six. With him I should place Kipling, Somerset Maugham, Aldous Huxley, William Plomer and Katherine Mansfield. But here, I fear, I risk being controversial. Walter de la Mare’s position is indefinable: he belongs more than half, always, in the poetic province. And James Joyce, Frank O’Connor, Liam O’Flaherty, and Seán O’Faoláin, as Irishmen, are outside my present scope.

As the short story has gained in literary prestige, “over-literariness” has become a danger with it. Of this danger, Somerset Maugham perhaps because of what one might call his, in the good sense, man of the world qualities - has steered clear. And Aldous Huxley, in whom the aesthetic exuberance of the 1920’s found high expression, steered clear too - perhaps by sheer mental vigour. But, alas, several writers who showed promise later “bogged down” in over-ambiguities. Their contempt for plot went too far. The Tchehov influence, as I have tried to show, had at the beginning been excellent. But soon a reaction against it must set in.

This reaction showed itself as the 1930’s advanced. The tenseness and seriousness of that decade, in which England could not ignore the troubles of Europe or the storm clouds darkening her own horizon, began to reflect itself in our short stories-as they did in our drama and poetry. Social consciousness succeeded to aesthetic susceptibility. The general feeling that we must begin to act brought action back into prominence in our stories. Charming descriptive passages yielded place to quick-moving dialogue; and characters, instead of being poetically generalised, had to be clear-cut, perhaps prosaic, identifiable by the reader as types in everyday life. I say, “had to be”. The art of the short story showed itself truly to be art in that it felt compulsions from the outside world. And also, in that, like a magic mirror, it was already reflecting what was to come. Spareness, energy, a respect for the fighting spirit (rather than for the luxurious sensibilities) of man, and a tendency to question the social order - all these appeared in the more representative stories written for some years prior to 1939.

Who were writers who showed this immediately pre-war trend? Arthur Calder-Marshall, Leslie Halward, James Hanley, G. F. Green are names that came most immediately to my mind. Hanley’s sea stories have, it is true, a horrific, fantasmagoric quality that entitles them to a place apart. Arthur Calder-Marshall is, in the main, a novelist: his short stories are not many, but are first rate. Several isolated fine piecesoften, for instance, about the war in Spain-came from writers whose output remained small. The short-storyists of the 1.930’s were fired by their subjects, and less concerned with technique for its own sake. Or perhaps one should say, they strove to avoid showing that technique had been used. They were influenced, if at all, by the Americans - principally Hemingway. It may well have been Hemingway who, already admired here in the 1920’s, first threw the slow motion, Tchehov-style story into discredit.

An alternative type of story was, it is true, still produced throughout the 1930’s. Stylish, memorable in theme and highly imaginative in treatment, such stories were most often written by poets. The ever distinguished work of Osbert and of Sacheverell Sitwell shows, for instance, little deflection by world events - though, be it said, Osbert Sitwell’s Defeat has embodied the whole of the tragedy of 1940 France. Peter Quennell, Dylan Thomas, and Stephen Spender (whose collection The Burning Cactus is to be recommended) also made experiments in this form.

Curiously enough - or is it so curious? - the actual outbreak of the long-dreaded war has sent the English short story soaring, with a new kind of hardy exuberance, into realms of humour, satire, fantasy, and caprice. Artistic release could not but follow the long tension. I do not say that tragedy and duress have not, also, imprinted themselves in our war-time stories. Nor do I mean that the short story has contributed, in any unworthy sense, to “escape” literature. No-but is it fair to say that true art never underlines the obvious? In peace-time, our short story artist had for subject those uneasy currents beneath the apparently placid surface. In war-time, the surface being itself uneasy, he plumbs through to, and renders, unchanging and stable things-home feeling, human affection, old places, childhood memories, and even what one might call those interior fairy tales (sometimes, perhaps, ridiculous; often touching) on which men and women sustain themselves and keep their identities throughout the cataclysm of world war.

The Horizon Book of Short Stories offers a fair cross section of short stories written since 1940 - and, I think, bears out my generalizations. These stories, selected by Cyril Connolly, have all appeared in Horizon, from month to month. Very important, since war began, have been the number of periodicals or book-form publications ready to welcome, and make known, new short story writers. Besides Horizon, I instance The Cornhill, Life and Letters, English Story, Penguin New Writing, New Writing and Daylight, Orion and The Windmill. Seldom, in England, can the literary scene have been more propitious for fresh talent. But alas, ironically, few of the young are free to write - or to write much. The Forces, or exacting strenuous war work outside the Forces, have claimed them. Under the circumstances, it is amazing how many MSS (these travelling, often, from the ends of the earth) have reached the London editors. It has been striking, also, how much imagination has been able to add to experiences that might, one would have thought, exceed it. I instance the N.F.S. firemen stories of William Sansom; also The Last Inspection - which, left us by Alun Lewis, shows what a tragic loss this young Welshman’s death in India has been to the art of the short story.

I have said how those two collections of D. H. Lawrence’s captured the time-spirit of the 1914-18 war. It would still appear to me that the short story is the ideal prose medium for war-time creative writing. For one thing, the discontinuities of life in war-time make such life a difficult subject for the novelist. For the novelist, perspective, and also a term of time in which to relate one experience to another, are essential - I suggest that we should not expect any comprehensive war novel until five, even ten years after hostilities cease. The short storyist is in a better position. First, he shares - or should share - to an extent the faculties of the poet: he can render the great significance of a small event. He can register the emotional colour of a moment. He gains rather than loses by being close up to what is immediately happening. He can take, for the theme of his story, a face glimpsed in the street, an unexplained incident, a snatch of talk overhead in a bus or train.

War-time London-blitzed, cosmopolitan, electric with expectation - now teems, I feel, with untold but tellable stories; glitters with scenes that cry aloud for the pen. So must our other cities, our ports and sea-coast, our factory settlements, our mobilised countryside. Already, the first of the harvest is coming in: I foresee a record crop of short stories immediately after the war. Of all the arts being practised in England now, none, I think, respond more quickly to impetus than does the art of the short story. [END]

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