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Elizabeth Bowen: The Little Girls

Dinah, Clare and Sheila had been best friends at St. Agatha’s School when they were eleven (they even had girlish nicknames, Dicey, Mumbo and Sheikie, respectively). At that time (1914 – just before World War I) they had buried a box containing a personal item and note (details unknown to the other two). Dinah, now in her sixties, decides that she wishes to unearth the box with her friends. However, she has not kept in touch with them and has no idea where they might be. She puts an advertisement in the paper, writing in a way that she might have done when she was eleven, causing some embarrassment to her former friends. However the women do get together and even start using their childhood nicknames. They even, after some resistance, find the box but it is empty. This has a profound effect on Dinah, if not the other two. The rest of the novel describes how she struggles with this huge symbolic loss, i.e. the fact that her past is lost and cannot be recovered and how her present is solely conditioned by her past. She is helped by family and friends, including her newly recovered schoolfriends, to deal with the situation though, of course, the box is found with its not entirely expected contents.

Recovering the past and how the past affects the present has been a theme of literature forever – from Proust to Ian McEwan, via L P Hartley. Bowen’s contribution in this novel is certainly interesting, particularly the effect on Dinah of the initial failure to find the box, but it does not have the panache of her earlier works.

Publishing history

First published 1963 by Jonathan Cape