Random Reading (#1): Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day (1948)

An overdue research project has kept me from my “slow readings” for a few weeks, but I have had some time in my mornings to work my way (randomly) through some summer reading. I thought I would just jot down a few observations.

My first summer novel — unrelated to my research projects — was Elizabeth Bowen’s 1948 novel The Heat of the Day. This is actually the first Bowen I’ve read, though I have had her novels on my “read soon” shelf for a few years. The central conflict is unexpected but straightforward: the main character, Stella Rodney, finds herself caught in an intriguing erotic triangle. In the second chapter of the novel, a man known only as “Harrison” (until the end of the novel) reveals [1] he is in love with Stella and [2] that he is a “counterspy” (40) who has been surveilling her current lover, Robert Kelway, who has been providing “the enemy” (i.e., the Germans) with state secrets from “the War Office,” where he is employed (35). Though this conflict provides several interesting moments—including the long conversation in which truths and consequences become fully disclosed—there are other, odder components of the novel’s characterology, setting, plotting, and narration that, together, compose a compelling territory or landscape for the unfolding of this central conflict.

For instance, the novel does not begin with Stella and Harrison’s conversation but, rather, with an encounter at a public concert in Regent’s Park between Harrison (who is not yet known to be a counterspy, just abrasive, brooding, and condescending) and a woman named Louie, whose husband is, as it were, out-to-war, leaving her isolated and in search of intimate contacts. Louie interests me because she is a major character and a peripheral one. She is not involved in the primary action, but she does collide with it once in a while, peskering it as an outsider and disclosing a point of view from which other characters can often appear petty, privileged, and even violent. Chapter 8 is the first chapter to focus exclusively on Louie (it is also the first to mention her since her initial encounter with Harrison in Chapter 1), and in it we learn of her friendship with Connie (who is realist, wise, skeptical) and of her struggles with loneliness and her odd affair with newspapers. Here is just a snippet:

For the paper’s sake, Louie brought herself to put up with any amount of news—the headlines got that over for you in half a second, deciding for you every event’s importance by the size of the print [. . .] [H]ow inspiring was the variety of true stories, which made the war seem human, people like her important and life altogether more like it was once. [. . .] Louie, after a week or two on the diet, discovered that she had got a point of view, and not only point of view but the right one. [. . .] Dark and rare were the days when she failed to find on the inside of her paper an address to or else account of herself. Was she not a worker, a soldier’s lonely wife, a war orphan [her parents had been killed in the blitz], a pedestrian, a Londoner, a home and animal-lover, a thinking democrat, a movie-goer, a woman of Britain, a letter-writer, a fuel-saver and a housewife? [. . .] Louie felt bad only about any part of herself which in any way did not fit into the papers’ picture: she could not have survived their disapproval. They did not, for instance, leave flighty wives or good-time girls a leg to stand on; and how rightly [. . .] Could it be that the papers were out with Louie?—she came over gooseflesh, confronted by God and Tom. She did not begin to rally till next evening, when her paper came out strongly in favor of nonstandoffishness—it appeared that we [i.e., the English] were becoming less standoffish; the Americans had been agreeably surprised. War now made us one big family. [. . .]

[. . .] Louie came to love newspapers physically; she felt a solicitude for their gallant increasing thinness and longed to feed them; she longed to fondle a copy still warm from the press, and, in default of that formed the habit of reading crouching over her fire so as to draw out the smell of print. (168-69)

I am not going to comment on the deliciously ironic dimensions of this passage (I leave that for other readers), but I do want to suggest that the novel undergoes a kind of auto-critique here. The central conflict of the novel, after all, concerns a love affair (between Stella and Robert) that softens, dissipates, and obfuscates the horror and violence of the blitz and the war on the continent (the novel takes place in 1942). Couldn’t it be said that this sort of conflict in this sort of setting might also produce a similar newspaper “effect”? A sense that “nothing was so bad as it might look” (168)? As Louie exclaims, “What a mistake, to have gone by the look of things!” (168). I’m not sure I’m really getting at what I want to say here, but it does seem to me that Louie operates here as an unconscious agitator of the central characters’ ideas about what matters and to what they should give attention. What has happened to the form of life that the blitz had created in London, the feeling that “[t]o work or think was to ache” and the sense that “the dead, from mortuaries from under cataracts of rubble, made their anonymous presence—not as today’s dead but as yesterday’s living—felt through London” (99)? The attacks might not be nightly anymore, but “yesterday’s living” are not so far away . . .

What I am trying to articulate is that the novel’s most precious moments may not actually be central to the main plot at all, not found in the crisis or climax or inciting incidents or resolution. Rather, what I find so thrilling are the moments in which the narrator or the narrator’s accomplicea (Louie, Roderick, etc.) draw the reader’s eye away from the central conflict to some sort of adjacent position or perspective. For instance, one side plot involves the death of an Irish relative from whom Roderick (Stella’s son) has inherited some land in Eire. During a trip to this property late in the novel (during which Stella ponders what to do about the difficult position into which Harrison has coerced her; she should believe him? confront Robert?), we get the following passage:

Stella had assumed there to be no shortages of any kind in Eire [as there were in London]. The exciting sensation of being outside war had concentrated itself round those fearless lights [of the candles]—though actually, yesterday night as her ship drew in, the most strong impression had been of prodigality: around the harbour water, uphilll above it, the windows had not only showed and shone but blazed, seemed to blaze out phenomenally; while later, dazzling reflections in damp streets made Dublin seem to be in the throes of a carnival. Here, tonight, downstairs, those three yellow oblongs cast unspoilt on the gravel by the uncurtained windows had spelled ease, yes; but still more had set up a barbaric joy, as might wine let run soaking into the ground. Now, for a moment to have to ask oneself whether after all there might not be at Mount Morris unbroached packets of candles, drum on drum of oil, became a setback, a small but deep shock. Could the house be short, the Donovans [i.e., the caretakers] rationed—or had they simply neglected to lay in stores? She must ask tonight—or perhaps tomorrow. The inquiry, with its just possible hint of fault found, should be put off, or at least ideally times. In the end she never remembered to ask the question—what she had not cared to suspect was in fact true. Up here in her bedroom, down there in the library, she was burning up light supplies for months ahead. Well on into the winter after Stella’s departure the Donovan family went to bed in the dark. (185-86)

The narrator does not return to these days and weeks and months of darkness. It simply asserts this darkness and moves on with Stella’s reminiscence of her deceased cousin (who had bequeathed the property to her son [who is himself a solider]) and reflections on what she should do about her spy/counterspy situation upon returning to London. What gets left out of our purview when this latter situation occupies our readerly attention? When it snaps back into primary focus? The Donovans’ darkness. The long development of Louie’s freedom. The slaughter on the continent. The “yesterday’s living” in the years to come.

One last thing: the novel resonates profoundly with Woolf’s writings, especially texts like Mrs. Dalloway (1925), The Years (1937), and “Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid” (1940). It might be worthwhile exploring some of these resonances someday (as I’m sure others have already done…). Until then, I read on.

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