Elizabeth Bowen's "The Happy Autumn Fields"
commentary by rbadac
"The Happy Autumn Fields" is in Bowen's collection The Demon Lover & Other Stories (Jonathan Cape, 1945), which came out in America under the Knopf imprint a year later with the title Ivy Gripped the Steps. The economical course is the easily-available The Complete Short Stories of Elizabeth Bowen which, whether or not it is indeed complete, does contain the contents of this volume. Several are supernatural, & all are excellent.
In the Preface to Ivy, Bowen reveals that these stories have a wartime origin, though none of them is a "war" story. They deal rather with the hallucinatory states experienced by the people who have lived through this period: "The violent destruction of solid things, the explosion of the illusion that prestige, power & permanence attach to bulk & weight, left all of us, equally, heady & disembodied. Walls went down; & we felt, if not knew, each other. We all lived in a state of lucid abnormality."
This theme provides the background against which the various plots of these narratives is displayed; in "The Happy Autumn Fields" we are informed of the cross-currents of a landowner's family, first seen as a walking-party. The younger sons are on the eve of returning to school, the oldest daughter is about to marry, the oldest son is a soldier, & the sisters Sarah & Henrietta share confidences concerning them all.
But these glimpses are soon to be revealed as fugues; Sarah is only Sarah in this world. In another, she is Mary, & her sweetheart Travis is trying to persuade her to abandon the house in which she lives, because the bombs have rendered it unsafe for habitation.
"The unreality of this room & of Travis' presence preyed on her as figments of dreams that one knows to be dreams can do. This environment's being in semi-ruin struck her less than its being some sort of device or trap; & she rejoiced, if anything, in its decrepitude."
Travis finally gets Mary to agree to come with him when he returns in two hours' time, & leaves, taking the box of old letters & photographs Mary inexplicably has chosen as part of what she must salvage from the doomed dwelling. And in that interval Mary re-enters Sarah's world for another brief glimpse of those shadows of things that were, who may in turn gain a glimpse of the shadows of Mary's own world, & be infected by its lucid abnormality.