Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 12, 2016

The Heat of the Day, by Elizabeth Bowen #BookReview

The Heat of the Day

There are six novels by Elizabeth Bowen listed in the 2006 edition of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.  a distinction awarded to no other woman writer of the 20th century except for Iris Murdoch and Virginia Woolf (and not too many men either).  Bowen’s listed novels are, in order of publication

  • The Last September (1929);
  • To the North (1932); 
  • The House in Paris (1935);
  • The Heat of the Day (1949);
  • A World of Love (1955); and
  • Eva Trout (1968) (This one was nominated for the Booker in 1970, but it baffled me when I read it in 2005 which put me off Bowen a bit.  I see now that 1001 Books calls it ‘elusive’ and ‘adrift from the shores of fictional realism’ so perhaps I was not alone).

But even though it is written in a modernist style, The Heat of the Day is only too realistic.  It is Elizabeth Bowen’s  most celebrated novel and it’s brilliant.  As the introduction by Roy Foster tells us, it was written even as the bombs were still falling in 1944 with completed chapters sent out of London for safe-keeping.  The sense of impending catastrophe includes fearing on top of everything else that the hard-won pages of a novel might not survive the next torrent of bombs.  My parents lived through that insecurity, my father having been bombed out of his London home when he was a child.  Amongst all the losses – of friends, colleagues and loved ones; of family homes, cherished institutions and  historic buildings; and of irreplaceable cultural artefacts – a half-finished novel might not seem so important to some, and yet if these chapters had been lost to the doodlebugs of 1944, (after the Allied Landings), a great novel would have been lost…

The Heat of the Day begins with an image that is arresting for those of us reading it decades later.  It is of an outdoor concert in wartime London in September 1942 when war had made them idolize day and summer; night and autumn were enemies.  The worst of the Blitz is over by 1942, but the Blackout is still in force and the war is far from over even though turning points of the war occur during the two years of the novel.  The audience at the concert are stoic, but for many to be sitting packed among other people was better than walking about alone.  The novel is imbued with this sense of life on the edge; of mourning for the lost, of evil just 22km away across the channel in France,  and of the ever-present likelihood of imminent death or loss of loved ones.  Even in 1942 the air the characters breathe is dusty with the aftermath of the Blitz.

The concert in the park is also notable for something else.   It is attended by ‘all sorts’, not the rarefied crowds one might expect at a Covent Garden concert.  Among the exiled foreigners – refugees and Czech soldiers, some of whom were so intimate with the music you could feel them anticipate every note  – there are shabby Londoners.  Factory-worker Louie Lewis is there in her imitation camel-hair coat, her work-roughened hands and her never-depilated bare legs.  Her presence at this concert signals a further shift in the cultural and social superiority of the English upper class, and her subsequent naïve reaction to meeting, and being impressed by the ‘refined’ Stella Rodney is challenged by events later on in the novel.

The central focus of the novel is the dilemma in which Stella Rodney finds herself.  A British intelligence agent called Harrison has made the claim that Stella’s lover, Robert Kelsey, is selling secrets to the enemy.  Harrison muddies the waters by being attracted to Stella; his motives are too easy to suspect, and she finds it easiest to dismiss him by believing that everything he says must be a lie.  But she cannot shake him off.  He is a persistent visitor to her flat and although she repudiates him each time he keeps coming back.

Should she ask Robert about this accusation of espionage?  In what way could she do that without destroying the trust that lies at the heart of their relationship?  It would be a bit like asking a lover if there is another woman: if you need to do that then there is something wrong with the relationship anyway.  And this question of espionage is more loaded than any love affair: it means, do you love this country – this Britain – that we are all desperately fighting to defend?  Do you instead love the ones who are bombing us night after night?  Is your love not for us, but for those who threaten us and our values with annihilation?

And what answer could he possibly give to this impossible question that would not destroy things between them?  Whether a spy or not, what can he say that could be convincing enough?  Bowen’s novel does not invoke Shakespeare, but this knowledge that Stella now has, and cannot cast off, is as odious as Leontes’ spidercup.

Alack, for lesser knowledge! how accursed
In being so blest! There may be in the cup
A spider steep’d, and one may drink, depart,
And yet partake no venom, for his knowledge
Is not infected: but if one present
The abhorr’d ingredient to his eye, make known
How he hath drunk, he cracks his gorge, his sides,
With violent hefts. I have drunk,
and seen the spider.

(Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale Act 2 Scene 1)

As the poison works in her mind, the complexity of her dilemma is revealed.

Stella herself is in an ambiguous position socially.  She does not belong anywhere really.  Contrasted with the naïveté of Louie Lewis, the half-hearted good-time-girl adrift in London, Stella is wealthy but she has defied the conventions of her class.  She married into an old Irish family, but divorced Victor who died very shortly thereafter.  This sanctifies him, entrenching the estrangement and cementing her dubious respectability.  Her adult son Roderick (see my Sensational Snippet) inherits the Irish estate after the death of Cousin Francis, but it is Stella who has to go to Ireland to sort out estate business because Roderick can’t get leave from the army.  Donovan and his daughters have done their best to get things ready for her, but the days of full staff are over because the grand estate has no money.  But there in neutral Ireland, the lights are still shining:

Mary Donovan bore in the second lamp more breathlessly than her father: evidently she had not played this part before.  She glanced at Donovan for a cue, got none, so stood her lap down by the first.  The ceremony was concluded.  No one making a movement to draw the curtains, the two globes, the Donovans, Stella remained reflected in what had become jet-black panes. (p.165)

It is in Ireland that Stella discovers that Harrison was telling the truth about one thing, at least.  This makes it harder for her to believe that everything he has said is a lie…

Stella exemplifies the fluidity of social status at this time: having lost her reputation unfairly through her divorce; and at least in the eyes of her son, regained it through the intervention of Cousin Nettie, she then loses her respectability once more through the media.  For Louie, reading about it in the newspaper, this is more than a disappointment; it is a melancholy passing of something she thought she could rely on:

It had been much to find in the world one creature too good for the world.

[Stella] had not been too good.  Here, and not in one paper only, was where it said about her, the bottles, the lover, the luxury West-End flat.  She had had other men friends; there nearly had been a fight.  It all only came to a matter of expensiveness; there was no refinement.  A nicer look and a nicer voice, but there she was with someone she was not married to [… spoiler removed…] She had seemed so respectable […] There was nobody to admire; there was no alternative. (p.307)

Louie’s friend Connie never suffered from such illusions.  She’s an Air Raid Warden with an eye on the main chance; she’s glad she volunteered for a good wage rather than wait to be conscripted into some mine or be bossed around in the A.T.S.  Louie places blind trust in the newspapers and believes them when they say that the British will win because they have ‘character’.  She believes that Germans ‘swallow anything they are told’.

I know I saw where it said they do have papers but not like our ones with ideas.  It said how to get them through the war they have to kid them along, but how the war makes us think. (p.154)

But Connie says that she didn’t need a war to make her think, and she’s not impressed by the idea that the risks she takes in her war work might in the future form part of learning from the lessons of history.

‘What – Napoleon came to no good, nor did the Kaiser, neither will Hitler do.  What we are not told is, who derived the benefit?  – and if posterity’s half sharp that’s what they’ll want to know, too.  What satisfaction is it to have someone else coming along learning a lesson of history off me?’ (p.155)

I became quite fond of this cynical Connie, and found myself hoping that time mellowed her so that she came to appreciate the gratitude that London owed her!

The Heat of the Day deserves its accolades.  Highly recommended.

BTW it is not the only typo in this classic reprint, but Harison with only one ‘r’ on page 225 is really sloppy.  Not good enough, Vintage/Random House!  You’ve had decades to get the proof-reading right!

Author: Elizabeth Bowen
Title: The Heat of the Day
Publisher: Vintage/Random House, 1998
ISBN: 9780099276463
Source: personal library, purchased from Readings.

Available from Fishpond: The Heat of the Day


Responses

  1. I used to read a lot of Elizabeth Bowen and I don’t agree with the list of the 6 best. Take out Eva Trout and add The Death of the Heart and To the North.

    Did you enjoy the chapter where Stella goes to visit the family who are trying to sell their house? (Sorry – don;t remember names.) It was a parody of the certainty and awfulness of the upper middle class and it was a nervy thing to include in a novel with a theme of survival during war. Also, an interesting contrast to the worldview of Louie.

    • Oh, yes, I forgot to mention the humour in this novel! I also loved the chapter with Connie and Louie, the author gently exploring certainty versus doubt.
      I certainly plan to read as many as I can lay my hands on, now that I’ve got a different view of her writing.

  2. I have not read anything by Elizabeth Bowen. Thank you for bringing her to my attention, Lisa.

    • It’s so nice when we discover a ‘new’ author, I find. This is where 1001 Books is a great resource (even though I get distracted from it all the time).

      • I see the name ‘1001 Books’ pop up a lot–especially on goodreads.

  3. I have a different copy of this (perhaps w/o the typo); this is an author I’ve had in my sights but have yet to get to. Good to hear that you liked it.

    • LOL I would hope without the typo. I hope that thousands of irate readers have visited their outrage on Vintage and that they have hastily fixed it up for successive editions.

  4. You’ve persuaded me, I must give Bowen a try, better anyway to read about the war from people who were there.

    • Yay! I hope you like it as much as I did:)

  5. I hear about Elizabeth Bowen here and there — and only faintly. In actuality, I know nothing about her works.

    Wonderful review — What a skillful author Bowen seems to be! All this scope in just 330 pages! (I just checked goodreads)

    • I feel vaguely guilty about neglecting her. I’ve read Woolf and I’ve read Murdoch, (not everything, but enough to know how good they are) and now I know that I need to catch up on Bowen…

  6. I’m reading The Death of the Heart at the moment for Reading Ireland Month and am embarrased to have never read her before. This one sounds great too. Please do feel free to post the link to your review on the Reading Ireland Month page!


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