London in the blitz influenced the creative lives of many important English writers, from Graham Greene to Rose Macaulay. But none captured wartime London as memorably as Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973), an Anglo-Irish writer who first attracted critical attention with a collection of short-stories in 1923.
Like The Death of the Heart, her prewar masterpiece, The Heat of the Day opens in Regent’s Park, on “the first Sunday of September 1942”, with the sinister figure of Harrison, a counterespionage agent posing as an airman, chatting up a woman at an open-air concert. He’s killing time till his evening “date” with Stella Rodney, the novel’s protagonist, an attractive, independent woman “on happy sensuous terms with life” who works for a government agency called XYD and is described as a “camper in rooms of draughty dismantled houses”.
Stella is dispossessed, but she has in her lover Robert, a Dunkirk survivor, someone with whom she can share mutual passion and “the continuous narrative of love”. But even this is in jeopardy. Harrison, who has been watching Robert, advises Stella that her lover is suspected of passing information to the enemy. He offers Stella a bargain: his silence about Robert’s treachery for an impossible price – herself. Once Robert confesses, his love will be doomed.
Trapped between spy and spycatcher, Stella struggles to keep her life in balance while recognising she’s adrift in dark times. Occasional passages of great beauty capture the atmosphere of the nightly bombing of London: “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.”
Like many writers who come to the novel through the short story, Bowen’s fiction is highly symbolic and tightly wound with acres of meaning crowded into the disjunctions and silences of everyday conversation. Harold Pinter was a natural for the screenplay of the 1989 TV version of the novel. The Heat of the Day is both of its time and timeless. A spy story and a haunting love story. Bowen catches the provisional, precarious atmosphere of a society facing the threat of imminent destruction. More than just a great writer of the blitz, she is the supreme mid-century anatomist of the heart, with a unique sensitivity to the lives of ordinary English men and women in extremis.
The best account of this subject, in addition to Victoria Glendinning’s important biography of Bowen, is Lara Feigel’s The Love Charm of Bombs, an exploration of the blitz as a metropolitan trauma. Feigel’s absorbing and well-researched group portrait of five prominent writers caught up in the nightly routine of sirens and barrage includes Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene, Rose Macaulay, Hilde Spiel (an Austrian writer trapped in wartime Wimbledon) and Henry Yorke (better known as the novelist Henry Green). Nevertheless, the blitz remains a comparatively under-explored literary terrain. Sarah Waters’s 2006 novel The Night Watch is a rare example of a serious attempt to make popular literature out of this crucial episode from the second world war.
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