The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

“Whatever do you expect?” Elizabeth Bowen’s Queer Gothic

Lauryl Tucker
The University of the South

Bowen’s most discussed gothic stories are read “straight,” earnestly reflecting widespread anxiety and making an apt literary home for all the damaged and unsafe homes of the interwar moment. But these stories form a queer counter-pattern in Bowen’s short fiction, in which gothic can be an awkward or funny habitation. Bowen’s parodic gothic stories kick us out of the generic illusion of a familiar space, and they also trouble the usual coupling of the gothic and the queer. Combining these elements in the stories, Bowen does not conflate them or rendering the queer as an aspect of gothic terror. Rather, she gives us a queer parody of the gothic, representing the genre as a kind of utility that provide queer protection or pleasure. This essay touches on several stories in this pattern, but focuses particularly on a neglected story, “Love,” in which the gothic is done well by one queer character and done badly by another. Foregrounding the labored production of gothic style by two queer characters (only one of whom succeeds), Bowen also challenges the heteronormative and generic assumptions that make conventions feel like a home.


Keywords  gothic / queer / genre / parody / Bowen

In the introduction to Elizabeth Bowen’s Collected Stories, Angus Wilson observes that “[g]hosts make sense of life not nonsense” (10). Of course, ghosts and other gothic elements can only “make sense” of a certain kind of life, and we have learned to expect their literary resurgence around wartime. The familiar genre feels like a container that can be readapted to carry the threats particular to the day, rendering a chaotic modern scene strangely recognizable.1 Modernist writers, John Paul Riquelme argues, “participate in the domesticating of the Gothic” by fusing its conventions with the form of the modern novel, but the gothic was also a means of bringing a chaotic world to heel (595).2  Paul Saint-Amour looks back to the nineteenth-century gothic sensation novel, which had “fus[ed] trauma with the quotidian” in literary fiction even before the interwar moment that he argues was both haunted and hunted by history (96). What Saint-Amour calls Woolf’s “war gothic” reflects the daily experience of “the apprehensive subject caught in a split or paradoxical relation to the imminent. She is prepared to be taken unawares” (93). The gothic’s paradoxical preparedness for the unexpected structures what Kelly Sullivan calls “the textual architecture of Bowen’s fiction.” The gothic is an ambivalent, compensatory space, one that expresses the anxiety of its moment and contains it with generic conventionality. Bowen devised what Rachel Mayrer calls “a new Gothic for a new age,” and critics have paid careful attention to texts like “The Demon Lover” or “The Inherited Clock,” in which the “new gothic” seems to emanate inevitably out of the “new age,” making a sound generic home for all the damaged and unsafe houses of interwar and Blitz London (40).

This essay will focus not on those signature gothic masterpieces that successfully accommodate the new pressures of interwar and wartime life, but on a counter-pattern in Bowen’s short fiction in which the gothic space is an awkward, funny, or campy habitation. Stories like “The Cat Jumps” (1934), “The Apple Tree” (1934), “Her Table Spread” (1941), and “Love” (1941) are less straight examples of the gothic, both in the sense that they seem less earnest in representing gothic affects and in that there is something queer about their dubious conventionality. Further, though the gothic works toward queer ends in these stories, Bowen makes no attempt to conceal that this is work; she parodies the conventional association of the gothic and the queer and mocks the use of genre to make the truly strange look familiar, expected.

In her short fiction, Bowen most clearly explores the capacity of narrative either to domesticate gothic anxiety or let it run wild. While the novels certainly contain gothic elements, Bowen distinguished the “rational” novel, “with its calmer, stricter, more orthodox demands” from the short story’s focus on “what is crazy about humanity” (“Preface” 130). The constraints of the form concentrated what Bowen calls “the primitive sense of fear,” and an “atmosphere for magic [that] would be difficult to sustain throughout a novel” (“Introduction” 15). As Luke Thurston puts it, the stories were the “deviant Mr Hyde to the novel’s sober Dr Jekyll – a figure or zone of the implausible, the disturbing, the illegitimate, the asocial” (10). Victoria Stewart has shown Bowen’s interest in “whether . . . literature or other forms of art can themselves act as a form of containment” (140). Stewart identifies a strain in Bowen’s short fiction that thematizes the risk of circulating representations of violence: sensationalistic media accounts spilling grisly criminal mayhem into domestic life can “confuse figurative and literal” dismemberment, “indulging in horrors when the intention is to critique” (155; 151).

Because the short fiction skews toward representations “of oddness or deviation, of solitude, crisis, forlorn hope or, at least, eccentricity,” we might expect a special resonance there between queer and gothic signs (“Introduction to The Observer Prize” 319). The gothic’s conventional use of uncanny, menaced home-spaces has always been an apt container for anxieties about the imagined threats to family and domesticity. Fear of queer desire and sexual perversity interleaves with social fears about Catholicism, immigration, and degeneration throughout the gothic canon—The Monk, Frankenstein, Melmouth the Wanderer, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Dracula, Turn of the Screw. George Haggarty declares that gothic “terror is almost always sexual terror, and fear, and flight, and incarceration, and escape are almost always colored by the exoticism of transgressive sexual aggression,” noting that influential queer theorists Eve Sedgwick and Jack Halberstam cut their teeth on the gothic, with many other critics following suit.3 Ellis Hanson explains the affinity: “The Gothic often reproduces the conventional paranoid structure of homophobia and other moral panics over sex, and yet it can also be a raucous site of sexual transgression and excess that undermines its own narrative efforts at erotic containment” (“Queer Gothic” 176). Royce Mahawatte adds, “when is the Gothic anything but queer?” (56; emphasis original). Sedgwick notes that the gothic accrues “habits of reading, habits of recognizing and responding to fictional character and plot, habits of knowing” (x-xi). These habits have formed an expectation that makes gothic queerness look—natural? Normal?  With the enthusiastic blessing of queer theory, the gothic and the queer have practically married, by which I mean that their coupling has become powerful, naturalized, easy, domesticated.

Too much so, if I read Bowen’s short stories aright. Bowen, whose work has sparked excellent queer readings and illuminating discussions of the modern gothic, does nothing to promote this generic habit of yoking the queer and gothic together. These elements spin apart in both her fiction and the critical conversation about it: the queerness and the gothic are deeply explored, but in largely separate silos, because Bowen does not represent queerness as part of gothic chaos. Thurston reads the “ghostly” qualities of the short fiction as “reach[ing] toward . . . a point of radical otherness lying beyond the legible surfaces of ‘belonging’, be they those of nation, class identity, or heterosexual legitimacy” (9). Yet he leaves these departures from “heterosexual legitimacy” largely unexplored in his discussion of Bowen’s ghostly critique of rational modernity—a decision that is understandable because the queer notes tend to jangle against the gothic mood of the stories.

The queer and gothic are more apt to mingle in the novels (in particular, Eva Trout) but as reneé hoogland observes, the presence of “radically subversive desire” in Bowen’s novels serves as a “counterpoint” instead of a direct threat to the marriage plot (301). Building on hoogland’s argument, Patricia Juliana Smith shows that the “lesbian panic” in Bowen does not perform its usual narrative “function as a disruptive mechanism in the contest of the courtship plot. Indeed heterosexual courtship here becomes the element of narratability that disrupts the homoerotic plot” (77). Where readers like Margot Backus locate Bowen among those “strands of Anglo-Irish literature [in which] those aspects of family life that dare not speak their name never shut up,” queerness invites sympathy for illegitimacy and ways of existing between categories (17). Jane Rule concludes that “Bowen finds nothing unnatural in love between women, a great deal that is hostile in the world in which they try to survive” (125).4

If the gothic genre lends a kind of recognizable framework for the modern world’s hostility and conflict, then the queer elements in Bowen’s gothic short stories displace that generic familiarity. Dense with what Phyllis Lassner calls “isolated and unexplained comic moments” which kick us out of genre’s wonted illusion of a familiar space, these are stories where characters queer the gothic by laying its forms and investments bare, lending the genre a parodic aspect (7). Halberstam tells us that “the appeal of the Gothic text . . . lies in its uncanny power to reveal the mechanisms of monster production. The monster, in its otherworldly form, its supernatural shape, wears the traces of its own construction. . . . And the artificiality of the monster denaturalizes in turn the humanness of its enemies” (106). A similar effect characterizes Bowen’s stories, in which queer characters see and manipulate genre’s machine, the conventionality of the gothic, while characters who never question their naturalness or humanity cannot. Where Bowen’s work foregrounds the artificiality and labored production of gothic style, she also hauls into view and challenges the assumptions that make us feel at home in its conventions. In her queer parodies of the gothic, Bowen blocks access to the normative gothic shudder, offering instead a pleasurable alliance with the queer genre parodists.

Something Funny

The difference between the straight gothic—earnest about its hair-raising tropes—and its parodic double can be difficult to mark; both versions lay claim to that shifty category, the funny. In the strain of stories I’m identifying, Bowen trades on the ambiguity of the category “funny,” a term which can mean humorous or mysterious or queer; throughout, she connects queer and parodic sensibilities to question the gothic’s tendency to graft the queer onto fear. For example, “The Apple Tree” opens on a man and woman gossiping privately as they approach the home of an old friend, recently married to a young woman named Myra. The woman claims to know something scandalous about Myra’s past, and indeed it turns out that Myra is haunted, psychologically, by shame about her public disavowal of an adolescent queer attachment, a rejection that resulted in her classmate’s suicide. (This psychological trauma regularly manifests as the titular tree, visible not just to Myra but to other characters as well.) The first line of the story—“‘Frightened?’, exclaimed Lancelot”—implies that Lancelot has just been asked whether he is afraid of meeting Myra. When he balks, offering this interrogative denial, his companion rules out the other conventional source of fright: “Obviously there’s nothing funny about the house” (462). The narrator immediately parrots this observation—“Obviously there was nothing funny about the house”—rendering the unfunniness funny through ironic repetition. Bowen’s narrative self-consciousness unsettles the  connection of queer desire and gothic terror so that the all-too-dutiful repetition of something funny-queer-scary tips the text into parody. The queer hauntedness of the bride is never earnestly aligned with gothic terror, and the visitors’ sense that a mild fright might be amusing marks them as queer tourists in a gothic world that takes heteronormative anxiety seriously.

Bowen follows a similar pattern in several of these stories: a queer-coded guest or tourist enters a heteronormative gothic world and there is something funny about what normed characters find frightening. Mr. Alban in “Her Table Spread” is invited to an Irish castle as part of a doomed matchmaking venture, hopeless in his case because, as the opening line relates, he “had no opinion on marriage [and] his attitude toward women was negative” (418). We have promising ingredients: the setting, the presence of a vulnerable heroine—Miss Cuffe “was . . . still detained in childhood”— a precarious inheritance, a stormy night, bats, and in lieu of a deathly menace in the house a literal “destroyer” moored outside it. If there is a sense of dread in the story, it derives solely from the excessive interest of the would-be bride and her inept matchmakers in the English officers who command the destroyer. After a free indirect discourse reverie by Miss Cuffe during which she signals the ship with a lantern, the narrator resumes with a devastating deflation: “Inconceivably, the destroyer took no notice” (422). Their poor guest, whose “attitudes remained negative about women in general” and whom the women find too physically slight and “fussy” to be attractive, finds himself tramping around in the rain to fetch Miss Cuffe, more concerned that his shoes are being ruined than for the moral peril of the ingenue (423). His sulk is suddenly interrupted:

Bat!’ Alban squealed irrepressibly, and with his hand to his ear—where he still felt it—fled from the boat-house . . . he had been warned, he had been warned. He had heard they were all mad; he had erred out of headiness and curiosity. A degree of terror was agreeable to his vanity: by express wish he had occupied haunted rooms. (423; emphasis in original)

The queer gothic tourist gets what he deserves; instead of “haunted rooms” providing a pleasurable “terror” he experiences a mundane and comic assault by that avatar of gothic vermin: bats. Alban’s comic misrepresentation continues through the end of the story, in which Miss Cuffe mistakes him for an English naval officer and they return to the house with Alban figuratively posing as the heteronormative hero: “For the moment, without moving or speaking, he stood, in the dark, in a flame, as though all three [women at the house] said: ‘My darling . . . ’” (424; ellipses in original). In even briefly occupying the pose of a rescuing hero, he becomes mere adornment, one of the pathetic half-casualties of the gothic world, unthreatening and ineffective in rescuing the trio from their perverse love of the destroyer. Alban feels neglected throughout the story, a casually disappointed gothic tourist, but not a character who could be ennobled or enabled by a gothic scene altogether too bent on its destructive marriage fantasies.

Matchmaking and gothic terror also go horribly awry in “The Cat Jumps,” in which a rational, modern family, the Wrights, invite five friends for the weekend to celebrate the purchase of a new house, exorcise its gothic past, and then make a match between two of the guests. The house was the site of a grisly murder in which the previous owner, Harold Bentley, dismembered his wife. Things go south: the intended couple, Muriel and Edward, immediately detest each other, and Muriel terrifies everyone with stories about the murder. Even Jocelyn and Harold Wright are overcome with gothic terror at the climax of the story, when everyone, locked into their rooms, fears a repetition of murderous history. It turns out that over-anxious Muriel has locked everyone into their bedrooms—just in case. Diana Wallace reads this story as an earnest representation of the potentially fatal clash between “the Male and Female Gothic” (64), before it “tips over into farce” in the revelation of Muriel’s paranoia (65). Conversely, Thurston suggests that an “arch quasi-Wildean playfulness” characterizes Bowen’s style until the very end, when the story unmasks “Bowen’s view of modern life [a]s radically pessimistic” (20). This kind of interpretive impasse, in which skilled readers agree that something funny is happening but not on what or when—arises from a habitual critical desire to see the gothic as a good (earnest) generic home for managing anxieties about sex and gender.5 When we expect the gothic to describe identities and desires outside the norm, linking the unnatural and the supernatural, we miss Bowen’s parodic distance from gothic conventions. Bowen’s, and Muriel’s, appropriation of the Bentleys’ grisly story gives Muriel the pleasure of flustering her female listener, who “lick[s] her lips” with excitement, edges closer until their “thighs are touching,” struggles to steady herself to light a cigarette after the story (367), and finally allows Muriel to lock herself into a room with another woman under the pretense of being terrified of marriage. The sexual innuendo is broad, and there is something funny going on, but the queerness of the scene is advanced without being achieved.

Muriel is not a sign of the gothic, or subject to its power, but rather master of it. Muriel’s gothic elaborations within the narrative lend her a kind of narratorial authority, and she also, like supposed readers of the gothic, takes vicarious pleasure in someone else’s terror. She cannot be affected by a gothic mood that she finds and adapts for her own purposes. Jocelyn and Harold, by contrast, are affected in ways predetermined by their very specific anti-gothic stances. The Wrights (Rights?) and their ilk are most vulnerable to the gothic because the world being threatened belongs to them in what they see as its natural order. Muriel might be, as Jocelyn later reflects, “not . . . the sort of girl to have asked at all,” but she is not a natural gothic provocateur and does not introduce a queer threat to this harmless married couple (364). The call is coming from inside the house: Muriel merely reads the signs of the Wrights’ own latent dread of reproducing the Bentleys’ violent scene, brings it to light, and improvises a new purpose for it. The queer character, working the genre and its predictable effects, takes and provides a pleasurable campy distance from the immediate terror, which really takes hold in a straight way only when we are alone with husband and wife. This contrast does not signal a special affinity between queerness and gothic horror, a case of the heteropatriarchal family momentarily menaced by deviant desire. Rather, Muriel’s detached, strategic deployment of the gothic parodies the genre rather than giving it legs (the late Mrs. Bentley being the regrettable alternative).

“Love,” a critically neglected story that blurs “funny” and frightening elements, might be said to let readers inside Muriel’s head. This story uses a first-person narrator to renegotiate the relationship between the gothic and the queer on two levels.6 When our narrator opens the story promising to relate a “funny experience,” she further specifies its unreal or “dream[like]” quality (539), but Bowen implies that this story will be funny in other ways too. A brief plot summary will prepare for the extended discussion below: the unnamed narrator and her traveling companion, Edna, take a long beach walk at the end of dismal seaside vacation and come upon a dilapidated hotel with an old sign advertising tea service. After debating whether to investigate, they intrude on the seclusion of a young man and an older woman, Oswald and Meena, relics of livelier days at the hotel now in hiding to evade relatives who wish to commit Meena to an asylum. Oswald, the owner, asks the women not to reveal their presence to anyone. After a perfunctory tea, the pair leave and the narrator resumes her complaints about Edna’s “funny manner” and refusal to discuss their strange experience at the hotel.

The narrator feels she must tell someone, but to do so she must also explain how and why she and Edna happen to be together. These two stories—the first covering the second—are linked by latent and vestigial queerness, the potential exposure of which is the narrator’s main, if unadmitted, anxiety. Each pair in the story is in a kind of hermetic system powered by a dialectic of “noticing” and avoiding notice, and both involve one storyteller (Oswald and the narrator) and one subject who motivates the telling (Meena and Edna). Meena Tope and Oswald are the progeny of a queer world and share its terror that their domestic arrangement will be discovered, stigmatized, and destroyed. The narrator of “Love” is at similar pains to “make sense” of her attachment to Edna to her narratee because she feels/fears a queer desire beneath it (545). The more she denies any affection for Edna, the queerer the relationship becomes, and the harder it is to explain their companionship. Without ever identifying anything interesting or appealing about Edna, the narrator insists that she nevertheless “didn’t like to be left” by her, even when their interests diverge (540). Both storytellers invoke gothic tropes to mitigate that risk of exposure, and their stories are rife with irony, calculated and strategic in Oswald’s case and unwittingly revealing in the narrator’s.

Oswald’s Queer Inheritance and Gothic Love Story

Oswald and Meena inherited a queer bequest from the fathers who raised them together in the same household: the burden of secrecy, the dread of bad futures, and a range of unconventional parenting roles. As Oswald explains to the narrator: “her and my fathers, they were so thick . . . Where Major Tope came, in those days, his crowd used to follow him. Ever so many gentlemen, and Miss Meena” (545). Their family is queered by its precarious investment in a futures market, and the “crash” that exposes the fragility of their situation is attended, in Oswald’s telling, by a strangely tender image: Major Tope’s crowd “melt[s] away like snow” and Tope commits suicide. Oswald’s father “wasn’t left long after” Major Tope’s suicide and, in the absence of any other cause, Oswald’s story suggests his father seems to die as much of being “left” as anything (545). Oswald and Meena embody this position at a generational remove, and the threat to their relationship—again, never precisely delineated—feels tied to their fathers’ unconventional family arrangements. Echoing his father’s state, Oswald reports being “left this place,” and Meena, who has either been driven mad by loss or who is developmentally disabled (“like a child,” as Oswald describes her), is nevertheless the elder of the pair as she “could have been [Oswald’s] mother—as years go” (544, 543). Yet the inconsistencies of this not-really-May-December couple accumulate: When Oswald speaks about Meena, the narrator observes, “You might think he was a mother just had her first [child]” (544). To protect her, he pretends that Meena is his guardian: “I’m always safe…while you keep watch” (544). The simultaneous infantilizing and parenting across genders here recalls Tyler Bradway’s descriptions of queer narrative kinship and the “queer potentiality of rerouting kinship through other modalities of similitude, such as a shared ambivalence about, and disidentification from, gender normativity” (159).

Oswald forges a gothic narrative kinship through the story he tells to keep Meena safe in the gothic hotel, but Edna—reading their situation with rational pragmatism—cannot see any future for these characters. Her forward-looking orientation does not encompass queer bequests, or the impossible continuation of impossible family structures; for Edna, the future is tied to commerce and circulation. You might sell the gothic, but you cannot dwell in it: She departs warning her host that, with “no custom” to support them, “you can’t keep on” (545). This pronouncement exposes a point of intersection between capitalist and narrative conceptions of the future.7 Insisting that the hotel cannot “keep on,” then, Edna admits only one kind of story, propelled by the desire for capital and children, and she relegates the characters in this queer literary afterlife to some zone beyond narrative.            

Edna accomplishes this relegation by refusing to speak about the pair with the narrator. Edna, in denying a revelatory conversation to the narrator, deploys strategies similar to what Robyn Warhol terms a “narrative refusal,” a narrator’s visible choice not to tell something, indirectly pointing to whatever is not made explicit (“Narrative Refusals” 259).8 Warhol observes that the not-narrated is where genre’s limits are discovered and challenged as authors and readers bristle at the constraints on what may be told. Although Edna is not the narrator, her refusal to help the narrator tell the story  points to the heteronormative limits of genre and the narrator’s anxious investment in these borders. From within the story, Edna signals that there is no way that the story can stay here with the queer family in their gothic hotel, no future for these characters unless they market the place to tourists. The capitalist act that would secure financial security (opening to tourists) would frustrate the very purpose of the gothic cloaking device: shielding this queer enclave from the predatory acts of heteronormative policing. As the hotel requires clientele to survive financially, the gothic requires visitors who can generate a story out of it precisely because—like our narrator—they come and go. Edna links genre and commerce by their shared interest in production and reproduction—“keeping on”—but, as a fugitive caregiver who has seen the calamitous collapse of the futures market, Oswald knows that “custom” can in no sense secure their precarious life together. Bowen shows us Edna’s stonewalling to indicate a use of genre that is conventional but not customary: a queer-produced gothic world that does not serve dominant-narrative ends.

The gothic atmosphere protects its inhabitants from the reach of capitalism’s unstable futures, which destroyed their fathers and threatens to destroy Meena. Oswald invents a violent history for himself—“She thinks I did a murder”—to prevent a future of truly gothic character, Meena’s bewildered suffering and death in captivity: “Her people are all on to get her shut up. They don’t care what she might suffer, wouldn’t care if it killed her” (544). His love story is a lifelong devotion to Meena that must remain hidden behind a narrative gothic screen. Appropriately, nothing about this gothic façade is as it seems: he can only keep her safe by pretending to be a murderer and he protects her by pretending that she must protect him. Conventionally, the powerful madwoman in the attic (her hands “strong as strong” [544]) endangers the genre’s heroine, but Oswald collapses this dyad, recasting Meena in both roles at once. Both the violent past he spins for Meena and his love story engage his audiences’ pity, which he exchanges for their silence. At the heart of “Love,” then, we find a storyteller whose gothic setting is a refuge for a queer afterlife, not because queerness is already kin to the violent, the mad, and the desolated, but because these features are the repressed terrors of the future-oriented institutions of modernity, and as such they can be produced to frighten away the men in white coats. Oswald turns the gothic pattern of anti-queer violence against itself and uses it to secure and shield a fragile world that is isolated but benign.

Narratorial Borrowings: Bad Gothic, Wrong Love

Oswald is an inhospitable host on purpose, but our narrator is inadvertently so: her idiosyncratic and contradictory storytelling distracts from her version of events. Alternately casting herself as the heroine of a gothic tale and the heroine of a love story, she not only passes on the secrets Oswald discloses but also reappropriates his gothic narrative strategies. She wants the pity and sympathy Oswald gleans as the long-suffering companion of an oblivious beloved, and much of the story invites us to admire her selfless forbearance with difficult Edna. But the narrator also wants to baffle any concrete discovery of something “funny” about her relationship with Edna, so she borrows the gothic’s admonitory aspect to retire into privacy and obscurity. The pleasure of the story is less in her successful performance, but in Bowen’s ironic distance from the narrator’s awkward, excessive, and incoherent bids for pity and attempts at gothic mood.

The narrator’s off-kilter versions of gothic tropes and details make her fears look strange and forced. From her first description, the narrator represents the hotel as a frightening space, but her efforts go wrong. She observes that the building’s lone unshuttered window “looked like a dead person winking at you. I never did like being stared at” (539). That winking corpse, much more campy than creepy, suggests a joke at this unselfconscious, inexperienced narrator’s expense. Rather than sinking into vicarious discomfort, the narrator’s stated aversion to surveillance might rebound on an implied audience metaphorically gazing at the narrator. Everyone is uncomfortable as the narrator applies gothic tropes too thickly. When Edna comically suggests that they’ve come upon a gothic setting—declaring that “it’s a loony bin” when Meena tries to repel them with forbidding gestures—the narrator takes her suggestion seriously, likening Meena to a portrait whose gaze seems to follow you: She was “as still as an image. Only her eyes kept moving, following us” (540). Daubing one trope over another does not so much deepen the effect as show a narrator urgently converting the mundane into the strange.

Strange effects continue when the pair circle to the hotel’s inland entrance in search of the advertised “Teas.”  Conventionally, pressing fears or unfriendly conditions corral characters in a gothic space (e.g., haunted house, convenient castle). In this case, mild hunger is the motivator, followed by the appearance of what the narrator invariably refers to as “the awful cows” (540). The narrator’s fear of the animals has kept the women to the coast during their walk, and their reappearance enables entry into the forbidding hotel. Oswald tries to close the door to them, but then “something made [the narrator] turn” and “There were those awful cows, the pack of them, awful black cows, with their horns and everything, coming downhill behind us ever so stealthy ready to spring on us.” Shocked, they push in past the young man, Edna explaining: “My girl friend doesn’t like cows” (541). Cows, such a prosaic feature of  an agricultural landscape, fail as the danger that springs the gothic trap. The narrator’s fear of cows may be a real fact in the story, but when the narrator recruits this idiosyncratic dread into the gothic scene, it becomes funny as an inept invocation of gothic conventions.

The “funny” production of gothic terror continues when the duo’s eyes adjust to the dark interior of the hotel and the narrator sees “what looked like a row of corpses, all hanging along the one wall” (542). Peculiarly, she follows this statement with, “Later, I noticed these were gentlemen’s mackintoshes. I should have told that first go off, by the smell. There they all hung, not moving—why should they move?” (542). The imprecise time sequencing of her observations advances and then withdraws terror: How much “later” does the narrator realize she’s not in a room lined with corpses, an impression which she manages to imply is less frightening than the cows? The word “later” suggests not so much a quick double-take as a distinct first impression that persists too long before it is amended. The ambiguity of the question raises concerns about the narrator’s reliability because the source of her nervousness is not apparent, but she is working hard to make the audience nervous too. The ineffectiveness of her labors makes the narratorial work more visible, more risible, and more suspicious.

The Gothic Heroine (Over)Act

If she wants to borrow Oswald’s gothic atmosphere to distract from her own motives and actions, the narrator aims to borrow something, too, from the sentimental love story within his gothic tale. Oswald is admirable, after all, as the devoted companion to someone who cannot appreciate his sacrifice. The narrator wants to represent herself in a similarly noble, self-sacrificing light, as one both bestowing and deserving pity, but the effect is uneven. Bowen flags the narrator’s self-characterization much as Joyce does with Gerty MacDowell in the first half of Ulysses’s “Nausicaa” episode. Gerty’s projection of herself as a selfless domestic angel thins in the presence of actual children, when her petty grudges against her peers grow more and more visible. Likewise, the narrator of “Love” highlights her forbearance with Oswald, especially in contrast with her less forgiving companion Edna: “I do not think he meant to cheek us, that was just his manner” (542). Oswald’s request that they remain silent about the hotel offends Edna, but the narrator “piped up (I could see no harm in it, really) and said, how Edna and I always kept ourselves to ourselves” (542). Yet her sympathy cracks occasionally into resentful parenthetical remarks like “(he said to us like an emperor)” (542). Moreover, her performance of tenderness toward Oswald and Meena—“‘Poor soul,’ I said” (545)—is belied by the very telling of her tale.

The dreadful aspects of that day, she would have us believe, arise both from the unsettling discovery of Oswald’s world and from Edna’s appalling conduct. The second source of dread amounts, on the surface, to a kind of social anxiety about Edna’s sudden  intrusion with “flat out” demands for tea and information. Sure enough, Edna sounds extremely difficult, even volatile, at various points. Among the narrator’s observations of Edna are the following: “she got quite red” (540), she spoke “ever so sharp” (541), “Edna shrilled up” (542), “she did flush up” (544), and “Edna [was] ready to fire up” (544). Her opposite is our tactful, forbearing narrator, suffering through Edna’s lack of sympathy: “I often said I did wish the sand wasn’t so soft, and Edna’d say, ‘Whatever do you expect?’” (540). Edna’s brash insistence on expectations being reasonable, and reasonable expectations being satisfied, makes her an extremely awkward companion for the narrator, who repeatedly casts herself as a more restrained, demure, ladylike person.

Edna does not perceive the silent social torment that our narrator endures, but the narrator certainly emphasizes her own sacrifice. Implicitly likening herself to Oswald, she unwittingly foregrounds how mean and paltry her martyrdom looks beside his; much as her appropriation of his gothic tale involved too many cows, her story of noble self-sacrifice involves too much tea. Despite having wanted her tea for some time, for instance, the narrator cannot say so, lest “Edna start picking at [her]” (540). Edna’s anticipated jibe (“You’re always on about tea”) feels particularly unjust, since it is Edna’s own stubborn insistence that drives them to the door of the broken-down place: “If they say teas, they’ve got to serve teas” (540). Whereas the selfless narrator “would have ten times sooner gone missing my tea” than cause a scene (541), the possibility of false advertising drives Edna to the entrance of a building she believes is an asylum for the mentally ill, demanding her tea. When Oswald relents, the narrator claims to be so ashamed of Edna that she cowers: “I’m sure I was glad to keep my face in my cup” (544).

Much as her companion’s intrusiveness bothers the narrator, Edna’s turn from brashness in the hotel to absolute silence afterward is even more vexing. “It’s like Edna to put the whole thing on me,” the narrator complains, “she does that by keeping on saying nothing. So of course I can never refer to it. And I don’t know that I want to—not to Edna” (539). The narrator’s petulance contradicts all her earlier assertions that she would happily keep to herself. What the narrator calls Edna’s “funny manner” of not talking ironically echoes the narrator’s opening promise to turn “a funny experience” into a story (539). Edna’s present state of being “shut up, like a clam” recalls the narrator’s description of the hotel as “shut up”; she is a cypher who incites excessive speech. The narrator reads Edna’s opacity much as Edna read the hotel’s contradictory signs, as a kind of intolerable teas(e), and she also feels compelled to respond, as Edna did, by violating the private world of Oswald with a spate of inappropriate speech. The degree of her annoyance at Edna’s silent departure from the hotel suggests that Edna cannot win with the narrator, whether she pushes in and demands answers, or shuts up and follows Oswald in “keeping on saying nothing.” More to the point, if Edna cannot make herself an agreeable companion either way, why is the narrator traveling with her at all?

A Queer Double-Bind

These awkward questions expose the fundamental problem in the narrator’s attempt to take a page from Oswald’s love story in order to represent herself as a selfless companion to Edna. The love Oswald feels for Meena explains his self-sacrifice, but the narrator’s attachment to Edna is  unexplained. After deducing that Edna wants tea by the way she “whacked the sand out of her skirt,” the narrator hastens to relate how she has come to know Edna so well: “You can’t help getting to notice a person’s character when you work in the same office and go on holidays with them” (540). She goes on in a more ambiguous vein: “If you asked me how I liked Edna I wouldn’t know how to answer, but a girl on my own like I am has to put up with some things…” (540). The locution “I wouldn’t know how to answer” often implies that the direct answer would breach rules about tact, but the narrator imagines her interlocutor—the “you” who stands in for the readers—asking not “why I liked Edna” or “how well I liked her,” but “how I liked her,” a phrase that anticipates curiosity about the kind of affection rather than its degree. This strange hypothetical reply, then, could gesture toward affection that is more unspeakable than frank dislike. She notes that “Edna and I aren’t like some other girls in business, always off where you can pick up a boy. For one thing, Edna hasn’t got much appeal—and I was always one to keep myself to myself” (540). The narrator protests too much; moreover, this cruel assessment of Edna continues earlier protests about Edna’s infuriating character. The more the narrator condemns Edna, the more she implies that “Edna hasn’t got much appeal” for her or anyone else, the less credible her assertions seem. Why, if Edna is so irritating, does the narrator remark that she “didn’t like to be left” by Edna?

Without a stated explanation for the narrator’s difference from those “other girls” who pursue boys, there remains something funny about this pairing. Queer potential fills the gaps in this narrative, offering explanatory power that is both plausible and ephemeral. The generic clash between the gothic tale and the love story points to contradictory anxieties around the figure of Edna. The narrator appropriates the gothic sensibility from Oswald for the same reason he deploys it: to cover a love story that cannot be disclosed to the outside world. But she does a poor job of enacting the ruse; her dread and her attention are focused much more on Edna. The bad gothic does not conceal, but rather flags, queer desire. Bowen signals this effect early in the story as the light changes the scene on the beach, where the “glare” with “no sun, made everything look unnatural” (539). The narrator’s storytelling, likewise, does not illuminate characters and relationships in a way that seems natural. Indeed, her off-kilter narration, figured in the unnatural “glare,” makes us see not clearly but queerly: “In the glare out there her blue dress looked ever so queer” (543). A repressed queer desire in the narrator would explain the story’s contradictions and generic oddities.

What also looks “ever so queer” in the narrator’s account of her relationship with Edna is her continued defense of how she came to know Edna’s character so thoroughly: “I wouldn’t mind keeping on noticing Edna’s character if she wouldn’t keep on saying she keeps on noticing mine” (540). This dense assertion, Steinian in its circularity, offers a conditional kindness (something generous she would not mind doing), recast as defensive retaliation in response to Edna’s persistent remarks.9 The repetition of phrases, which teases at a tidy symmetrical assertion (If she didn't X, I wouldn't X), never really delivers clarity. The temporal confusion introduced by the gerund-clotting “keeping on . . . noticing” makes the whole assertion a bizarre muddle, a private economy surrounded by defensive shields. This convoluted explanation looks, in other words, like the enclosed scene  at the hotel, a self-sustaining but precarious hermetic system. By their improbable loop of “keeping on,” Edna and the narrator mirror the queer domesticity of Oswald and Meena, who, according to Edna’s earlier warning, cannot “keep on” without customers.10 The narrator’s pose of weary familiarity (“of course” she is doing this), belies her alarm at “being left.” The roles are reversed—the narrator here is in the dark about the mysterious “shut up” manner of Edna, and the narrator is, uncharacteristically, the one trying to get back inside the loop.

The narrator has been content to let signs not really point to anything. She, for example, does not share Edna’s compulsion to turn the teasing advertisement into actual “teas.” Her desire for Edna would explain her willingness to follow Edna, “slogging along in that loose sand” (539) and then barging into this secret place making signs refer to things. The clearer things are, though, the more visible the love story becomes, and Edna’s rational transparency worries our narrator more than the gothic world she invokes to deflect from the real story. Her narration is marked everywhere by this ambivalence—needing the gothic to seem dangerous, using its affects to screen herself. When Edna makes herself the site of ambiguity, however, the narrator must make sense out of what looks “funny.” The narrator’s claim to be “one who keeps herself to herself” is continuously undermined by her compulsive story-telling, a compulsion apparently driven by reasonableness and sense-making. But the more the narrator claims transparency, the more contradictory and incoherent her story becomes. Her apparent investment in rationality is a mask she wears to keep from being crashed in on, puzzled out, deemed queer.

In borrowing the narrative strategies of Oswald’s story, the narrator exposes herself as a covert queer subject who—in an ironic attempt to hide—claims to demand openness. Edna, therefore, has put her into a kind of double bind: She needs to seem like one who both demands sense but accommodates non-sense. The narrator says in closing, “Because what can you say when you don’t know what you think. And what can you think when a thing doesn’t make sense?” (546). This story is precisely what you say when you don’t know what you think because the thing doesn’t make sense. The narrator obsesses not about the hotel and its inhabitants but about her own relationship that “doesn’t make sense,” and she uses the terms she finds in that generic hybrid, the gothic-wrapped love story, to try to work it out. She does not tell the love story coherently because she omits the love, and she does not tell the gothic well because her fear is not of corpses but of a love she cannot explain. In two ways, then, “Love” gives us the gothic as a possible mode of queer self-protection rather than a quality inevitably produced by queerness. Its generational remove—Oswald and Meena from their fathers—separates the queer scene from the gothic scene thematically, and narrator’s inept appropriation of the gothic style to conceal queerness reveals that the titular “love” is hers as much as it is Oswald’s.

Bowen’s story brings us into its world much as we would expect, but then its bad telling shifts us back out again, puzzling at the teller and laughing at her failed attempt to make her anxious attachment to Edna seem clear and normal. Queerness does not turn a bad storyteller into a good one; the risible appropriation of the gothic is one of the ways that this story belies any natural alliance of the queer and the gothic mode. Pleasure arises from moving among these different narrative frames, a sense that the narrator has said too much to “you” who, with Edna, are safer guardians of the secrets she has exposed. As the narrator accidentally reveals what she intends to hide, different pleasures erupt in reading a text whose gothic character otherwise perfectly captures or expresses the very real anxieties of the interwar and wartime eras: the threat to houses from sectarian and global war, the demolished structures—both physical and social—that gave shape to English lives.

Queerness, which gothic texts have so often recruited to figure war-related threats, has a different role in Bowen’s work. It is not organically part of a menacing space, but instead the queer finds a new kind of domesticity there. And when it becomes a kind of queer utility, the gothic emerges not as an inevitable quality demanded by the atmosphere of its historical moment, but as a sometimes awkward container for difficult matter. In observing Bowen’s success in producing “a new gothic for a new age” (Mayrer 40), critics reveal an assumption about the so-called straight work of genre, namely that its virtue is in its mimetic aptness, the literary capacity to contain and carry the right thing in the right case. Despite including several well-fitted gothic expressions of interwar and wartime terror, Bowen’s gothic short fiction as a whole does not settle into a generic home: periodically, this work suggests that the gothic can be a ridiculous dwelling place. The parody does not make light of the lives at risk, but it mocks the complacency of conventions, the habit of squatting in another older form to accommodate yourself in the present.


1 See Phyllis Lassner and Paula Derdiger, who observe Bowen’s use of the gothic to represent the “primitive brutality of fascism” in the 1930s (206). Sara Wasson argues that Bowen’s Blitz stories draw on the gothic to capture an uncanny wartime domesticity in “temporal confusion,” bereft of narrative and meaning (128). Lara Feigel observes that Bowen’s ghosts, “were an unrealistic detail used realistically” to show what Bowen saw as waning division between the living and the dead (1301).

2 See also Sam Wiseman, who argues that British modernism itself is far from indifferent or opposed to gothic ideas and tropes; on the contrary, he claims the gothic occasions an understanding of modernity that includes both its rural and urban aspects.

3 Haggarty, Queer Gothic 2. In Between Men, Sedgwick studies the genre’s characteristic motifs of confinement and unspeakability, identifying these motifs as expressions of paranoid homophobia. Halberstam identifies the gothic as a “technology of subjectivity, one which produces the deviant subjectivities opposite which the normal, the healthy, and the pure can be known” (2). For other queer-theoretical approaches to gothic literature, see Castle; Palmer; Hanson, Decadence and “Queer Gothic”; Backus; Haggarty, Gothic Fictions/Gothic Form.

4 Declan Kiberd argues that Bowen represents the Big House of rural Ireland in a pose of Anglo-Irish nonchalance, and that there is a dandyish quality in how it “sustain[s] itself by the inner force of its style” (138).

5 Stewart reads “The Cat Jumps” as a story in which the Wrights’ desperate attachment to rationalism is a sign of their vulnerability to sensationalistic accounts of violence and the “more disturbing aspects of consciousness.” Stewart notes that other Bowen stories featuring gruesome murders dissolve the divide between rational and irrational, literal and abstract (158).

6 Lassner touches on this story briefly in her survey of Bowen’s short fiction, placing Meena in a category of female characters who, despite confinement in Bowen’s “wasteland” settings and patriarchal plots, defy the gendered boundaries they inherit (73).

7 Elizabeth Blake expands the question of queer narrative representation by asking how queerness can be woven into even the straight marriage plot. Bracketing the specific question about the narratability of queer characters’ lives, she observes that “to marry otherwise, to enjoy otherwise, to read otherwise” are middlebrow ways of locating queerness within the confines of narrative convention (“Queering” 125; emphasis in original).

8 In another essay, Warhol breaks down Gerald Prince’s concept of the unnarratable into four kinds of narration that do not rise to the level of telling, parsing the distinctions between, for instance, subnarratable details that are too insignificant and paranarratable details that a given genre precludes from being reported (“Neonarrative” 221-22). The unnarrated and disnarrated parts of the story, she argues, are the contested borders of genre (Warhol, “Narrative Refusals” 259-60). Bowen’s story, so much about what is told badly, what kind of telling is desired, and what cannot be told, stretches the gothic—and its narrative habits—in new directions to include queer potential.

9 The relativism seen here in “Love” resonates with Janice Ho’s discussion of character in Bowen’s work; Ho sees Bowen’s characters as unstable in a world that talks about character as a permanent moral fixture.

10 For an insightful discussion of how queerness works its way through and into conventionality, see Elizabeth Blake, “Domesticating Gertrude Stein,” which considers a model of domesticity as making a home space for its subjects rather than being the site where norms are reproduced.

Works Cited

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Blake, Elizabeth. “Domesticating Gertrude Stein, or, “Banal Queerness”: Reading “Lifting Belly” Alongside What Happened and a Play Called Not and Now.” Feminist Modernist Studies, vol. 2, no. 3, 2019, pp. 243-62.

---. “Queering the Marriage Plot: Gale Wilhelm’s Middlebrow Modernism.” Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers, vol. 37. no. 1, 2020, pp. 109-131.

Bowen, Elizabeth. “Introduction to The Observer Prize Stories,” in People, Places, Things, edited by Allan Hepburn, Edinburgh UP, 2008, pp. 318-320.

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Bradway, Tyler. “Inchoate Kinship: Psychoanalytic Narrative and and Queer Relationality in Are You My Mother?The Comics of Alison Bechdel: From the Outside In, edited by Janine Utell, UP of Mississippi, 2020, pp.148-64.

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Davis, Thomas. The Extinct Scene: Late Modernism and Everyday Life. Columbia UP, 2016.

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Haggarty, George. Gothic Fictions/Gothic Form. Penn State UP, 2004.

---. Queer Gothic. U Illinois P, 2006.

Halberstam, Jack. Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters. Duke UP, 1995.

Hanson, Ellis. Decadence in Catholicism. Harvard UP, 1998.

---. “Queer Gothic.” Routledge Companion to the Gothic, edited by Catherine Spooner and Emma McEvoy, Routledge, 2007, pp. 174-82.

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hoogland, renée. Elizabeth Bowen: A Reputation in Writing. New York UP, 1994.

Kiberd, Declan. “Elizabeth Bowen: The Dandy in Revolt.” Sex, Nation, and Dissent in Irish Writing, edited by Eibhear Walshe, Cork UP, 1997, pp. 135-149.

Lassner, Phyllis. Elizabeth Bowen: A Study of the Short Fiction. Twayne, 1991.

Lassner, Phyllis, and Paula Derdiger. “Domestic Gothic, the Global Primitive, and Gender Relations in Elizabeth Bowen's The Last September and The House in Paris.” Irish Modernism and the Global Primitive, edited by Maria McGarrity and Claire A. Culleton, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, pp. 195-214.

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---. “Neonarrative; or, How to Render the Unnarratable in Realist Fiction and Contemporary Film.” Blackwell Companion to Narrative Theory, edited by James Phelan and Peter J. Rabinowitz, Wiley-Blackwell, 2005, pp. 220-231.

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