Elizabeth BOWEN (1899–1973)
The Coach House (formerly Waldencote), The Croft, Headington, Oxford
Elizabeth Bowen is recognised as a distinguished novelist and writer of the mid twentieth century. She wrote ten novels, over eighty short stories, as well as memoirs, travel literature, criticism, and literary journalism. She enjoyed critical and commercial success and was appointed CBE in 1948, C.Litt. by the RSL in 1965. She was a member of the Irish Academy of Letters, received an honorary D.Litt. from Trinity College, Dublin, in 1949 and from Oxford in 1956.
Elizabeth Dorothea Cole Bowen was born into an Anglo-Irish family. Her parents were Henry Charles Cole Bowen, barrister, and his wife Florence, of Bowen’s Court in County Cork. Her early childhood was spent there and in Dublin. After her father’s breakdown in 1905 and her mother’s death in 1912, she was brought up mainly by her aunts and was educated at Downe House School in Kent.
In 1923 she met the educationist Alan Charles Cameron at Bloxham in Oxfordshire and married him. In 1925 he became Secretary for Education for Oxford and they came to live at Waldencote, now the Coach House, in Old Headington. Here her circle of friends included luminaries such as David Cecil, Maurice Bowra and John Buchan and here she wrote her first novels: The Hotel (1927), The Last September (1929), Friends and Relations (1931), To the North (1932) and The House in Paris (1935). She also played a leading part in the local W.I.
In 1935 Alan Cameron became Secretary to the Council for Schools Broadcasting and they moved to London, to 2 Clarence Terrace, Regent’s Park. Elizabeth became a notable literary hostess in London, and also entertained at Bowen’s Court, inherited from her father in 1930. Among her guests here were Isaiah Berlin, Rosamund Lehmann, Virginia Woolf, Goronwy Rees, and at a later period, Iris Murdoch. When war came, the Camerons continued to live in London and both served as ARP wardens. They narrowly escaped when their own house was hit in 1944. The highly charged atmosphere of the time produced perhaps her finest novel The Heat of the Day (1949), a suspenseful story revolving around romance and espionage and vividly evoking the privations and insecurities of life in the war torn city.
In 1952 Elizabeth and her husband settled at Bowen’s Court but Alan died quite soon after. She was unable to maintain the house and had to sell. She was devastated to witness its destruction by the new owner in the following year. In 1960 she returned to Old Headington where she lived for five years in a spacious flat in White Lodge and resumed old Oxford friendships. The Berlins were now close neighbours at Headington House. Her final home was in Hythe where she had lived as a girl and she published her last novel Eva Trout in 1968. She is buried near her husband and her father in Farahy churchyard, County Cork.
- Sources: Elizabeth Bowen: portrait of a writer, by Victoria Glendinning; Oxford Dictionary of National Biography article by Deirdre Toomey
- Photographs: unveiling of the plaque by Professor Dame Hermione Lee; and group in front of the plaque: the Lord Mayor of Oxford (Mohammed Abbasi); the owners of the Coach House (David & Bryony Rowe), and Dame Hermione
- Speech made by Professor Dame Hermione Lee at the unveiling (PDF)
The plaque was unveiled at The Coach House, The Croft, Old Headington, on 19 October 2014 by Professor Dame Hermione Lee, FBA, FRSL, President of Wolfson College, Oxford, and an authority on Elizabeth Bowen’s work.
Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board