In which I review The Heat of the Day, Elizabeth Bowen’s 1948 novel about a woman living in through the London Blitz during World War II who suspects that her lover may be a spy.
What it’s about: London, the early 1940s. Stella Rodney, an upper-class woman, lives in a rented flat in war-torn London. She is visited by an acquaintance named Harrison, who hints that Stella’s lover Robert is a spy, but promises to stay silent if Stella will become his mistress. Stella refuses him, and continues seeing Robert, deciding not to tell him of Harrison’s suspicions. Stella’s adult son Roderick visits her on overnight leave from the Army. He has recently inherited an Irish country estate, Mount Morris, from his father’s cousin Francis. Stella had attended Francis’ funeral a few months before, where she first met Harrison, who claimed to be Francis’ friend. Stella and Robert visit Robert’s eccentric family in the countryside, and ponders how well she knows him. She goes on alone to Mount Morris, a house she last visited as a young bride, and reflects on her earlier life. On her return to London, she tells Robert about Harrison’s accusations, which Robert angrily denies. Meanwhile, Roderick visits Francis’ widow Nettie, who has lived in a nursing home for most of her adult life. Nettie reveals that she feigned mental illness to get out of her marriage and live on her own terms. She also tells Roderick that that his father initiated his divorce from Stella because of his infidelity, contradicting the family’s view of Stella as the guilty party. Roderick and Stella have a terse phone call in which Stella confirms Nettie’s news. Harrison takes Stella to a down-at-heel restaurant, where she admits she lied about her role in the divorce to avoid looking like a fool. Harrison says that he knows she has spoken to Robert, who has since changed his behaviour to avoid detection, and that Robert will soon be arrested. Stella hints to Harrison that she will sleep with him if this will delay Robert’s arrest. They are interrupted by Louie, a young married woman who once met Harrison at an outdoor music concert in Regent’s Park. Stella latches onto Louie, using her as an excuse to mock Harrison. Visibly hurt, Harrison suggests that both women leave without him, and Louie walks Stella home. Robert appears at Stella’s flat, admitting that he is a spy and is now close to capture. Stella is repelled by his treachery but loves him too much to abandon him. Robert insists on leaving via Stella’s roof, and falls or jumps to his death. Stella lies at Robert’s inquest to support a finding of accidental death, and keeps his spy activities secret. Harrison visits Stella again, who realises she has missed seeing him, as her only remaining link with Robert. Harrison explains that his first name is also Robert, and that he still loves her. On the day that peace is declared, Stella visits Roderick at Mount Morris and admits the truth about Robert’s death. The story ends with Louie becoming pregnant after an extra-marital affair; after her husband is killed in battle, she moves back to her seaside hometown, intending to raise her son as the widow of a dead war hero.
Why it’s a classic: Elizabeth Bowen published The Heat of the Day in 1948, just a few years after the time period it describes. By this point, she was already an established writer, having success with earlier novels The Last September, The House in Paris and The Death of the Heart, all featuring lives upended by war and a forensic interest in the decline of the land-owning upper classes. She mixed with members of the Bloomsbury Group and became friends with Virginia Woolf (whose diary entries about Bowen described her as “a very honourable horse faced, upper class hard constricted mind“) and became famous as a literary hostess at her flat near Regent’s Park during the 1930s.
Unlike the Bloomsbury Group, Bowen didn’t move too far from her comfortably upper-class origins. She inherited a stately house in Ireland in 1930 and clung onto it until the mid-1960s when she was forced to sell it (after which it was promptly demolished). Her personal life was a little more Bohemian – she lived in a sexless marriage of convenience with Alan Cameron, an educational administrator, had a seven-year relationship with Charles Ritchie, a Canadian diplomat seven years her junior (to whom The Heat of the Day is dedicated) and a number of shorter affairs with men and women including Seán Ó Faoláin and May Sarton.
World War II inspired Bowen’s greatest period of political and writerly activity, much of which finds its way into The Heat of the Day. Like her characters, she was adept at subterfuge, working for the British Ministry of Information and filing confidential reports on political conditions in Ireland. Her politics were generally conservative and pro-British – she supported Irish neutrality and didn’t seem that impressed with the Irish Free State – but her writing shows a cool forensic understanding of Englishness that only tends to come from an outsider. Her wartime work appears to have equipped her well for describing the pressures of leading double lives and withholding key information – something that’s evident in her portraits of Robert and Harrison as well as Stella.
The Heat of the Day is now praised as one of the best evocations of life in wartime London, both for its vivid descriptions of blackouts, air raids and closed-off parks, and for Bowen’s acute understanding of the psychological experience of living through war. The book was made into a television film in 1989, with a script by Harold Pinter, starring the well-cast Patricia Hodge as Stella, Michael York as Robert and Michael Gambon as Harrison. Bowen’s many contemporary admirers include Sarah Waters, whose wonderful novel The Night Watch, also set in London in World War Two, is heavily influenced by The Heat of the Day.
Bouquet or Brickbat: A massive bouquet, though since there’s a war on, nobody has much time for anything as sentimental or déclassé as flowers. It’s taken me rather a long time to get around to Elizabeth Bowen, though now that I’ve found her, I plan to become a devoted fan. When I was doing an MA in Creative Writing a few years ago, one of my fellow students, an eccentric American named Bill, would regularly rave about Bowen’s work, usually to a chorus of eye-rolls from the class, most of whom had never heard of her, let alone read her. I used to tease Bill about his Bowen obsession, assuming that she was yet another tweedy, fox-hunting blueblood in the manner of Nancy Mitford, writing droll sentimentalised portraits of English country house life that fed his rather old-fashioned Anglophilia.
Readers, how wrong I was (and what a huge apology I owe to Bill). I fell on The Heat of the Day hungrily and consumed it like a starving man. Like many of its characters, the novel works on you in stealthy ways, making you utterly hooked on something you didn’t know you needed, and feeding you in ways you didn’t realise you have to be fed.
What’s so puzzling about The Heat of the Day is how gripping a read it is, when so few of the conventions of plot-driven narrative are followed. The characters, with the exception of Stella, aren’t especially well-drawn, functioning either as ciphers or as tartly-sketched caricatures. What plot there is feels incidental to the story – the eleventh-hour revelation that Robert is actually a spy is something of an anti-climax – and aren’t as propulsive as they could be in other hands (like, say, Agatha Christie). The crumbling autumnal upper-class milieu is something we know from Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford and Anthony Pole – all of it reeking a very British form of emotional repression and stiff-upper-lippery that can be interesting to watch when performed in a play or film, but doesn’t always make for compelling reading.
And then there’s Bowen’s language, densely and cryptically written, that rivals Henry James for its elaborate syntax and maddening inability to come to the point. Early in the novel, Stella and Harrison have a long conversation in which they speak in a kind of code. On and on it goes for about 30 pages, both of them avoiding any kind of declarative statement, until at last, Stella rather abruptly summarises things: “You attempt to use what you know to implement blackmail. You propose that by becoming your mistress I buy out a man, in whom I have an interest, who is by your showing dangerous to the country” – which is about as close as the novel gets to any kind of conflict.
So why, then, would anyone want to spend time with this novel? Because it’s so phenomenally well-written. I’ve read plenty of books about and set in London during World War Two, but few writers of any generation can write as dazzlingly well about the heightened emotional texture of war as Bowen does here. Her writing is frankly astonishing: I found myself underlining passage after passage, then copying them out and texting them to friends saying “YOU HAVE TO READ THIS!”
This indirectness and lack of action is to some extent Bowen’s modus operandi. She’s interested in the consuming atmosphere of secrecy and anxiety in wartime London that makes its way into her characters’ minds and saturates their relationships. Every scene, whether it’s in a park, a dusty attic bedroom or a dimly-lit library lit by candles, serves to personify and amplify the characters’ emotional states. “War had made them idolize day and summer; night and autumn were enemies,” Bowen writes, where even “the Sunday’s beauty – for those with no ambition to cherish, no friend to turn to, no love to contemplate–drove its lack of meaning into the heart.”
“To release any kind of feeling could be to release it all” Stella thinks, and so she and the others draw protective layers about themselves like black-out curtains, suppressing their desires and cloaking their true motivations, until they are nearly mummified. “Wariness had driven away poetry: from hesitating to feel came the moment when you no longer could. Was this war’s doing? By every day, every night, existence was being further drained–you, yourself, made conscious of what was happening only by some moment, some meeting such as tonight’s.”
So far, so English: war, repression, secrecy, stiff upper lips for miles. Yet Bowen also takes pains to describe the sense of hedonism among those living daily with the possibility of their own death. “[A]mong the crowds still eating, drinking, working, travelling, halting, there began to be an instinctive movement to break down indifference while there was still time. The wall between the living and the living became less solid as the wall between the living and the dead thinned.” Stella and Robert’s affair exists not only in spite of the war and as a distraction from its horrors (“The lovers had for two years possessed a hermetic world, which, like the ideal book about nothing, stayed itself on itself by its inner force“), but also exists because of it. “It was a characteristic of that life in the moment and for the moment’s sake that one knew people well without knowing much about them“, Bowen tells us, and “[w]ar time, with its makeshifts, shelvings, deferrings, could not have been kinder to romantic love.” Stella, for all her intelligence and sophistication, is no different, reflecting that for the first few weeks of her affair with Robert, “they did not know how much might be the time, how much themselves.”
In another writer’s hands, Stella’s doubts about Robert, and Harrison’s exploitation of her doubts for his gain, would create a noirish wartime thriller. Bowen treats the material very differently, using the idea of subterfuge and double lives as an extended metaphor for romantic relationships. Stella chooses for much of the story to say nothing to Robert about her suspicions, just as she stays silent about the truth of her divorce. While some of this is clearly about British emotional reserve and stoicism (qualities still cherished by many modern-day Britons), it’s also about how other people can never truly be known, and the elaborate stories we tell ourselves and the deceptions we weave to make life bearable. Stella’s determination to not know the truth about Robert is perhaps what keeps their relationship alive. “For naturally they did not tell one another everything,” Bowen relates. “Every love has a poetic relevance of its own; each love brings to light only what is to it relevant. Outside lies the junk-yard of what does not matter.”
This idea of other people being undecipherable creeps its way through every character. As critic Maud Ellmann notes, everyone in the novel “seems trapped in someone’s else’s story.” Robert is viewed through Stella’s rose-tinted view and Harrison’s more cynical one, but he has so little actual time on the page that he never appears fully distinct. Similarly, Louie initially views Stella as a woman of honour and sophistication, until she reads of Stella giving evidence at Robert’s inquest and her views are shattered. These misunderstandings, exaggerated by the characters’ unwillingness to tell the truth, turns the drama into a hall of mirrors. For all its elaborate Jamesian language and painstaking recreation of country house life, there’s quite a Modernist feel to the novel, in which narrative omniscience is withheld and people are largely what they are perceived to be.
The book’s most fascinating relationship, and an excellent example of two people failing to see each other clearly, is between Stella and Roderick, a mother-son bond rendered with ruthless unsentimentality and just a hint of Freudian dread. When Roderick visits Stella overnight, he studies her to “suppl[y] himself with some way to behave, look, stand–even, you might say, be…. [tracing] his way back by these attitudes, one by one, as though each could act as a clue or signpost to the Roderick his mother remembered, the Roderick he could feel her hoping to see… It was his unconscious purpose to underline everything he and she had in common.” By contrast, Stella views her son as a curious circus exhibit she just happens to be related to: “It had been clear, since Roderick was a child, that friendship with him would have to be one-sided. Not minding if he saw a person or not had been as far, apparently, as he would ever go…. His motives were too direct to be called ulterior; he liked going out to tea with families who had a brook through their garden, hypothetical snakes in their uncut grass, collections of any kind in cabinets, a haunted room, a model railway, a funny uncle, a desk with a secret drawer.” Bowen also has a lot of fun with Robert’s horrible middle-class family, including one deliciously written scene in which the family argue about the correct etiquette for answering the telephone, which carries on even after the phone stops ringing.
As these last passages show, there’s a great wit and sophistication about the book that’s a welcome astringent, given the rather melodramatic plot. Stella, for all her insularity and self-deception, is a wonderfully complex character: a cool customer who accepts the ambivalent freedoms of being a fallen woman and sustains a long and dangerous chess game with Harrison, a man who’s both a threat and an obsequious pest, “slipp[ing] round the door behind into the hall with the unobtrusive celerity of a normally outdoor dog“. Even a walk along a footpath late at night provides an insight into her practical, no-nonsense character: “the actual nerved-up briskness of her step, the tingle up from her heels as they struck the pavement, brought back what seemed to be common sense.”
While it’s difficult to describe The Heat of the Day as a feminist novel, Bowen’s intense focus on three women who choose independence in various ways, and her quietly subversive take on the “feminine” spheres of marriage, motherhood and romantic love feels far more progressive than many novels of the same period. There’s a very unsatisfying not-niceness to the female characters that also feels quite modern. “Generous and spirited to a fault, not unfeeling, she was not wholly admirable,” Bowen says of Stella, adding “but who is?“, providing a neat manifesto of the book’s sexual and relational politics. No one is wholly admirable, but no one is without feelings, even when it’s too risky, both personally and politically, to express them.
If there’s an area where the book really falls down, it’s when Bowen drifts outside of her beautifully evoked upper-class milieu and attempts to speak for the unwashed masses. The novel is bookended by Louie, who’s meant to signify the new post-war future of independence for women, but on the page, she reads more like a caricature of a working class woman than a fully-rounded character. Bowen even attempts to write in Louie’s register – an embarrassing display in which she leaves behind her wit and largesse and sounds like she’s mocking her character’s naïveté. I wish that Bowen had scrapped her as a character and focused on Stella, who we leave in a state of annoying suspense, unclear whether she and Harrison will develop some kind of relationship.
Despite our distance from these characters and their situation, there was a weird relatability to Bowen’s portrait of fractured London that resounded with me at the end of a year of lockdown. I nodded in recognition at descriptions of “[p]arks suddenly closed… drifts of leaves in the empty deck chairs, birds afloat on the dazzlingly silent lakes“, and shivered with recognition as Stella described herself as “the onlooker with nothing more to lose – out of feeling as one can be out of breath“, with “the sensation of being on furlough from her own life.” Obviously a year of staying inside isn’t the same as living through the bombing of a city in wartime, but Bowen understands like few other writers how deeply affected humans are by their environment, and how world crises are absorbed into our emotional lives. “That autumn of 1940 was to appear, by two autumns later, apocryphal, more far away than peace,” Bowen writes. “No planetary round was to bring again that particular conjunction of life and death; that particular psychic London was to be gone for ever; more bombs would fall, but not on the same city.” How I wish I didn’t understand so well how quickly a city can change, but how strangely reassuring it is to know that Bowen, writing 73 years ago, understood this too.
Quotable Quote: “They had met one another, at first not very often, throughout that heady autumn of the first London air raids. Never had any season been more felt; one bought the poetic sense of it with the sense of death. Out of mists of morning charred by the smoke from ruins each day rose to a height of unmisty glitter; between the last of sunset and first note of the siren the darkening glassy tenseness of evening was drawn fine. From the moment of waking you tasted the sweet autumn not less because of an acridity on the tongue and nostrils; and as the singed dust settled and smoke diluted you felt more and more called upon to observe the daytime as a pure and curious holiday from fear.”