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“Sight Unseen” – The Visual and Cinematic in “Ivy Gripped the Steps”

Ailsa Cox


Dans son introduction au recueil de nouvelles The Faber Book of Modern Short Stories, Elizabeth Bowen rapproche la nouvelle du 20ème siècle à l’art cinématographique, notant par exemple ses aspects visuels et dramatiques. Une lecture attentive de « Ivy Gripped the Steps » révèle un déploiement de stratégies cinématographiques dans ses propres nouvelles. On remarque un usage particulier de la lumière et, à l’aide de l’analyse de David Trotter d’une « volonté d’automatisme » dans la fiction moderne, un cadrage des personnages par une sorte de regard objectif. L’article aborde également la question de la temporalité complexe de la nouvelle, à la fois le flux bergsonien et l’avancement implacable du temps.

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Studied authors :

Elizabeth Bowen

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1In her Introduction to The Faber Book of Modern Short Stories, Elizabeth Bowen draws a number of parallels between the short story in the twentieth century and cinematic art, writing that “the new literature, whether written or visual, is an affair of reflexes, of immediate susceptibility, of associations not examined by reason” (Bowen 1937: 7). Bowen’s emphasis on instantaneity identifies the short story’s chronotopic affinity with the boundless present, an affinity shared with cinematic form, in which narrative unfolds in the moment of becoming. Despite her insistence elsewhere that “it is not as a writer that I go to the cinema” (Bowen 2010 : 193), her insights into these shared properties extended to her own practice. Cinematic imagery is evident not only in stories such as “Dead Mabelle” (1929) which are overtly concerned with film and film-going, but also in other stories which evoke the cinematic as a way of seeing the world and of framing experience. In this essay, I shall explore the relationship between cinematic imagery and temporality through a close reading of “Ivy Gripped the Steps” (1945).

2The story’s pictorial elements are obvious from the initial scene-setting, describing an abandoned house in a deserted seaside town :

Ivy gripped and sucked at the flight of steps, down which with such a deceptive wildness it seemed to be flowing like a cascade. Ivy matted the door at the top, and amassed in bushes above and below the porch. More, it had covered, or one might feel consumed, one entire half of the high, double-fronted house, from the basement up to a spiked gable ; it had attained about half-way up to the girth and more than the density of a tree, and was sagging outward under its own weight. (686)

3The language itself is dense and luxuriant; a creative writing workshop might suggest pruning, but Bowen revels in stylistic excess, lingering on those long sentences with their multiple clauses. This is Bowen at her most gothic ; the ivy is a demonic force, consuming and, in the next paragraph, “feeding on something inside the house” (ibid.). But when she goes on to locate the house, mapping the fictional south coast resort with topographical precision, the gothic voice is in dialogue with something closer to social realism, configuring Southstone within a specific space and time : “The decline dated from the exodus of the summer of 1940 [...] It was now the September of 1944” (687).

4Some of the other dwellings have been requisitioned by the army, but as the war draws to a close, their numbers have dwindled. The theatre of war has shifted elsewhere. I use the figure of speech advisedly, because the abandoned house is distinguished by its close physical proximity to the theatre. The atmosphere Bowen evokes in the early part of the story suggests a stage set: “Outside the theatre, a very few soldiers stood grouped about; some moodily, some in no more than apathy” (687).

5The proscenium arch of the theatre is implicated in a later description of this once rather exclusive part of town as “a plateau backed by the downs and overhanging the sea” (691). Architect-designed, dedicated to recreational activities and conspicuous consumption, this bourgeois enclave was, in its Edwardian heyday, as artificial as the stage, which it so resembles geologically.

6Theatrical imagery contributes elements of performance, artifice and display, shared by stage and screen alike ; but in her “framing” of the visual, Bowen specifically invokes the camera’s eye. In the story’s opening passage, the eye pans across the scene, beginning with “close shots” of the ivy, then pulling back to the house, and finally encompassing the town with an establishment shot. In her gothic mode, Bowen, anthropomorphizes a house and its vegetation, a tactic she also uses in, for instance, “Look at All Those Roses” (1941). But “Look at All Those Roses” introduces its human characters in the very first line : “Lou exclaimed at that glimpse of a house in a sheath of startling flowers” (512). (Indeed, the very title seems to spring from Lou’s lips before the story has even begun.) In “Ivy Gripped the Steps”, the human presence is withheld for almost two pages. With the eventual introduction of an onlooker - the story’s protagonist, Gavin – what at first appears to be extradiegetic narration is recontextualised by a shift in focalisation, and a transition from ominiscient or disembodied narration to free indirect discourse.

7Gavin is no stranger to Southstone; as a child, before the previous war, he was a regular guest in this house, then owned by a friend of his mother. The story consists mostly of boyhood recollections of Mrs Nicholson, filtered through Gavin’s adult hindsight. But, as a witness, revisiting this changed landscape, he also reconstructs and speculates, authoring the past, skipping the long gap between Mrs. Nicholson’s premature death and the house’s current decay : “He attached himself to the story as to something nothing to do with him ; and did so with the intensity of a person who must think lest he should begin to feel” (688).

8This “attachment” is in fact a detachment. Gavin is an outsider and voyeur, both in the “now” of Bowen’s story and in the analeptic passages describing the past. The narrative is focalised through a perspective which is in many ways analogous to the camera’s gaze. This camera’s eye view is by its nature disembodied and impersonal. The limited attempts of some film makers to reproduce the human sensorium, for instance through the use of a shaky hand-held camera, only serve to remind us of what David Trotter calls “the instrumentality of a nonliving agent” (Trotter 2007 : 5). In his study, Cinema and Modernism, Trotter identifies what he calls a “will to automatism” in modernist writing. In the case of Bowen, and this story in particular, automatism may be linked to her use of a highly mobile and seemingly disembodied narrative viewpoint.

9“Bright light, abrupt shadow, speed” (Bowen 2010 : 192) were some of the things that attracted Bowen to the cinema ; her use of light in this story is characteristic of her work, and, again, suggests the camera’s eye. When, as a child, Gavin first comes to Southstone, the “blazing June” on the streets (689) is contrasted with a “tense bright dusk” inside the drawing room. Mrs. Nicholson makes a grand entrance :

[…] she stood looking down at him – she was tall – with a glittering, charming uncertainty. Her head bent a little lower, during consideration not so much of Gavin as of the moment. Her coiffeur was like spun sugar : that its crisp upward waves should seem to have been splashed with silvery powder added, only, marquise-like glowing youth to her face.The summery light-like fullness of her dress was accentuated by the taut belt with coral-inlaid clasp : from that small start the skirts flowed down to dissipate and spread where they touched the floor. Tentatively she raised her right hand, which he, without again raising his eyes, shook. “Well…Gavin,” she said. “I hope you had a good journey ? I am so very glad you could come.” (690)

10Mrs Nicholson glitters and glows, a creature made of light, like a figure on the screen. The vaguely eighteenth century appearance, bold gestures and enigmatic speech are reminiscent of a heroine from some silent film, perhaps Robert Wiene’s Der Rosenkavalier. Above all, it is the careful composition of the mise-en-scène that makes this first encounter so strikingly cinematic – the positioning of the characters in relation to each other within the visual frame, Mrs. Nicholson poised diagonally above the little boy. For Mrs. Nicholson, reality is projected, and therefore constructed, through the gaze of the other : “she vaguely glanced round her drawing-room as though seeing it from his angle, and, therefore, herself seeing it for the first time” (ibid.). The young Gavin adopts a similar mirroring strategy, at the height of his fixation : “he envisaged their two figures as they would appear to someone – his other self – standing out there in the cold dark of the avenue, looking between the curtains into the glowing room” (699-700). According to Bakhtin, we all “author” ourselves, constructing a dynamic and mutable subjectivity through the gaze of a putative other. In our everyday lives, “we are constantly and intently on the watch for reflections of our own life on the plane of other people’s consciousness” (Bakhtin : 16). In a striking phrase, Bakhtin warns that such reflections may sometimes ossify, acting as “dead points”, and “at times they may condense to the point where they deliver up to us a double of ourselves out of the night of our life” (ibid.)

11A second crucial encounter also frames Mrs. Nicholson cinematically, with a careful use of light. Climbing up from the beach along a steep path, the young Gavin looks up to the cliff top, spying “Mrs. Nicholson’s face above him against the blue” (694) :

The face, its colour rendered transparent by the transparent silk of a parasol, was inclined forward; he had the experience of seeing straight up into eyes that did not see him. Her look was pitched into space : she was not only not seeing him, she was seeing nothing. She was listening, but not attending, while someone talked. (ibid.)

12Gavin desperately tries to make himself seen, leaning dangerously far back from the handrail, throwing flowers up at her, and then racing up to join her - all the more surprising when we remember that Gavin’s poor health is the reason for his visit. Throughout the story, there are constant references to the unseen and to the unseeing. In the present, September 1944, the windows on one side of the house are obscured by the ivy, and the rest “though in sight, had been made effectively sightless : sheets of some dark composition that looked like metal were sealed closely into their frames” (686). The impersonal narrator speculates about what cannot be seen, the inside of the house, and the “something” which in imagination is feeding the ivy.

13The cliff-top encounter is our first glimpse of an intrigue between Mrs. Nicholson and another Southstone resident, Admiral Concannon. As in “The Little Girl’s Room” and elsewhere in Bowen’s fiction, the reader fills in the gaps between a child’s eye view of the world and the adult reading of social interaction ; while the imagery of blindness and vision has an obvious relevance to this aspect of the story, it also relates to Mrs. Nicholson’s subjectivised view of reality. Once again, she refracts her own perceptions through the reconstructed viewpoint of an other. Remarking on how long it has been since they were able to see France through the haze, she says : “I don’t believe Gavin believes it is really there” (695).

14The conversation moves to the threat of war. With the benefit of hindsight, the reader (and, implicitly, the adult Gavin) will see what is actually “on the horizon” in the years leading up to the First War, even if it is not yet visible to the naked eye. Mrs. Nicholson dismisses any possibility of imminent conflict, relegating war to history and “those unfortunate people in the past […] no more like us than cats and dogs” (696); “Once people wear hats and coats and can turn on electric light, they would no more want to be silly than you or I do” (ibid.).

15Mrs. Nicholson “never cared for history at school; I was glad when we came to the end of it” (695). A businessman’s widow, she places her faith in an enlightened present which is completely severed from the past. Gavin’s family, by contrast, belong to an impoverished squirearchy, without access to modern technology, experiencing time as the cycle of the seasons, bound to an unchanging natural world. Their sickly child, Gavin, transfers his allegiance from a family home still lit by oil lamps to the “magical artificiality” of Southstone (693). Electric light intensifies perceptions of a natural world which here is tamed and controlled : “delayed late autumn and forced early spring flowers blazed under artificial light, against the milder daylight outside the florist’s plate glass” (698). While the landscape back home is characteristically monochrome, Southstone is shot through with vivid colours. The visual palate favours red, silver and, especially, blue, which is the colour of Mrs. Nicholson’s eyes and of the sky which provides such a memorable backdrop to that first cliff-top encounter. The three colours are combined in a description of a dinner party which begins with those eyes :

Their sapphire darkness, with that of the sapphire pendant she was wearing, was struck into by the Concannons’ electric light. That round fitment on pulleys, with a red silk frill, had been so adjusted above the dinner table as to cast down a vivid circle, in which the guests sat. The stare and the sheen of the cloth directly under the light appeared supernatural. The centrepiece was a silver or plated pheasant, around whose base the carnations - slightly but strikingly “off” the red of the shade, but pre-eminently flattering in their contrast to Mrs. Nicholson’s orchid glacé gown - were bunched in four silver cornets. (700)

  • 1  Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle’s conception of Bowen’s novels as still lives might also be exte (...)

16It is not hard to visualise this scene in technicolour. It is certainly hyperreal, presenting Mrs. Nicholson along with the pheasant as an element in a still life1. Once again, Bowen lights her tableau with great precision. The repetition of “sapphire” conflates Mrs. Nicholson’s eyes with the jewel in her pendant, rendering the human eye an inanimate object. Mrs. Nicholson’s eyes are unseeing ; throughout the text, they are the object of the gaze, rather than the organ of sight. Even when she turns her attention to the male dinner guests on either side, her “look” is described as “melting ; for it dissolved her pupils, which had never been so dilated, dark, as tonight” (701). Throughout the text, her repertoire of histrionic gestures includes the averted or diverted gaze, as in the passage immediately following the Concannons’ party, when she confides in Gavin. She is using the boy as a substitute for a male partner in a parodic version of adult intimacy, which is also intended as provocation for the Admiral.

17As I have already suggested, narrative structure in “Ivy Gripped the Steps” parallels the temporal fluidity of film. With its extensive analeptic passages, the story as a whole presents time as Bergsonian duration, in which memory and perception, past and present, interpenetrate - contrary to Mrs. Nicholson’s belief in a modernity sharply divided from the past. Her teleological faith in a stable and well ordered present is proved illusory on both a historical and a personal level. Roles are reversed, as she becomes an invalid, while Admiral Concannon’s sickly wife recovers, becoming active in the newly established Awaken Britannia League.

18Overhearing recriminations between the erstwhile lovers, Gavin enters the drawing room. Bowen does not spare us the theatrical attitudes struck by these two figures, once they realise they have an audience. There is even a burst of applause from the theatre next door. But the scene is also framed as through a lens – the room seemingly elongated. Bowen compares this to the effect of looking through a telescope, but we might also picture a cinematic depth of field through the open door.

19As Bergson says, ‘Practically we perceive only the past, the pure present being the invisible progress of the past gnawing into the future’ (Bergson 1991:150); the cinema shows that rapid progression, each moment consumed as it arises. Bowen’s use of light within this story – even the electric light which stands for progress and rationality – suggests the ephemerality of the cinematic image. The dresses which “shimmer” (701) and “flickered” (703) stand for their wearers, the transient figures glimpsed on a screen. By 1912 Mrs. Nicholson is dead, the Admiral’s death following during the first war. Time is experienced as flux, but also as irresistible forward motion. The very closeness of these images reminds us of their distance; the past haunts the present, yet is also irrecoverable.

20In the final section of the story, back in 1944, Gavin watches an ATS girl staring out through the window of what was once the Concannons’ dining room. This voyeuristic encounter is shaped by memories of Mrs Nicholson:

It was thus that, for the second time in his life, he saw straight up into the eyes that did not see him. The intervening years had given him words for trouble : a phrase, “l’horreur de mon néant”, darted across his mind. (710)

21Bowen’s quotation aligns Gavin with Proust’s Marcel and the search for lost time. The similarity of the lighted window to the cinematic screen is implicit in the detailed description of the girl’s actions as she carefully arranges the black-out curtains. Tellingly, the “cracks” of light that must be eradicated echo the “cracks” in the pavement, filled with wallflowers seeded from the garden, an image that recalls the fecundity of the ivy (ibid.). When the girl leaves the house, she tries to ignore him, deliberately not seeing – or hearing – yet another middle aged man looking for a pick-up. In the final paragraphs, there is another shift in focalisation :

[...] what she saw, in that moment before he snapped down the lighter, stayed on in the darkness puzzling her somewhere outside the compass of her own youth. She had seen the face of somebody dead who was still there – “old” because of the presence, under an icy screen, of a whole stopped mechanism for feeling. (711)

22Described as “wolfish”and a “preyer” (ibid.), Gavin is framed by the girl’s perception of him. Or could this be Gavin’s perception of himself as she might see him ? This is another of those “dead points” identified by Bakhtin, where the perception of the self projected through a putative onlooker interferes with the essentially protean nature of individual subjectivity.

23As I have suggested, competing notions of time co-exist in Bowen’s story - the absolute linear time imagined by Mrs. Nicholson ; time as Bergsonian flux ; and the cyclical time of the seasons, associated with Gavin’s family, the Doddingtons. Compared with Southstone in its heyday, their lives seem anachronistic ; yet images of the encroaching power of nature, introduced first of all by the ivy itself, suggest that the Doddington version holds true. Individual lives are subsumed by larger, inexorable forces, beyond human control. Bowen aligns historical events with natural phenomena :

[...] this existence belonged, by its nature, to any century. It had stayed as it was while, elsewhere, history jerked itself painfully off the spool ; it could hardly be more depressed by the fateful passage of armies than by the flooding of tillage or the failure of crops. (697)

24Bridging the first and second world wars, the story reduces both conflicts in scale, by seeing them in the long term. Walking through the bomb-damaged Southstone, Gavin sees an apocalyptic landscape, which he associates, paradoxically, with the cessation of linear time foreseen by the dead Mrs. Nicholson. He himself is excluded from historical significance, a civilian, too young to fight in the previous war and too old for this one ; he lives in a state of suspension, a witness rather than a participant. The earlier image, of history jerking itself from the spool - a literal reference to cinema newsreels - indicates, on the one hand, the relativity of cinematic time, which can be speeded up, slowed down, frozen or stilled ; or can double back on itself, replaying an experience over again. On the other hand, the image anticipates the “whole stopped mechanism for feeling” in the adult Gavin (711), which might be a clock but which might also be the stuttering projector, or indeed any machine which is turned on and off.

25In Cinema and Modernism David Trotter argues that Bowen “associated cinema with death rather than life, or with death-in-life” (Trotter 2007: 176), a notion which recalls the still life or nature morte at the Concannons’ dinner table. The revenant figure of the adult Gavin embodies “death-in-life”. As we have seen, the shifting focalization evokes the disembodied eye of the camera ; and the cinematic framing of the self through that gaze serves, in Bakhtinian terms, as block to psychic growth. Film preserves the dead as seemingly living images – in Bowen’s story, “somebody dead who was still there” (711).

26Film narrative, like narrative in the modern short story, is elliptical and elusive ; meaning often lies in the space between referent and sign. We may recognise the image of the sightless house, with its hidden interior, as a gothic symbol of subjectivity, its metal shutters standing for the “icy screen’” hiding emotions that are stopped dead. But the house is also the text itself ; and it is in what cannot be seen, in the liminal space between surface and subtext, that the story’s meaning lies, impenetrable to the naked eye.


Bakhtin, M.M. Art and Answerability: Early Philosophical Essays. Ed. Michael Holquist and Vadim Liapunov. Trans. Vadim Liapunov. Austin, Texas : University of Texas Press, 1990.

Bennett, Andrew, and Royle, Nicholas. Elizabeth Bowen and the Dissolution of the Novel : Still Lives. London : Macmillan, 1995.

Bergson, Henri. Matter and Memory. Trans. N.M. Paul and W.S. Palmer. New York : Zone Books, 1991.

Bowen, Elizabeth. The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen. Ed. Angus Wilson. London : Jonathan Cape, 1982.

 ---. “Introduction” to The Modern Short Story. London : Faber, 1937, 7-19.

---. “Why I Go to the Cinema.” Listening In : Broadcasts, Speeches, and Interviews by Elizabeth Bowen. Ed. Allan Hepburn. Edinburgh : Edinburgh University Press, 2010, 192-202.

Trotter, David. Cinema and Modernism. Oxford : Blackwell, 2007.


1  Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle’s conception of Bowen’s novels as still lives might also be extended to her short fiction.

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Référence papier

Ailsa Cox, ““Sight Unseen” – The Visual and Cinematic in Ivy Gripped the Steps””, Journal of The Short Story in English, 56, spring 2011, 49-58.

Référence électronique

Ailsa Cox, « “Sight Unseen” – The Visual and Cinematic in “Ivy Gripped the Steps” », Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 56 | Spring 2011, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2013, consulté le 21 septembre 2019. URL :


Ailsa Cox

Ailsa Cox is Reader in English and Writing at Edge Hill University, UK. Her books include Alice Munro (Northcote House Writers and their Work series 2004) and Writing Short Stories (Routledge 2005). She is also the editor of the journal Short Fiction in Theory and Practice (Intellect). She has published essays on Helen Simpson, Alice Munro, Nell Freudenberger and other short story writers. Her collection, The Real Louise and Other Stories is published by Headland (2009).

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