It is war time in the blazing city of London and the beginning of this novel introduces the protagonist Stella and her two male interests. Stella battles between the man she loves, Robert but also the man who seems to feel affection for her, Harrison. Harrison is a spy following Robert as he suspects that Robert is giving information to the enemy: this puts Stella is a very difficult position, where her freedom comes at a price. Therefore, she is required to be Harrison’s lover in order for him not to report Robert for his crimes, however, Stella does not love Harrison, she loves Robert. This unnerving, almost concealed blackmail makes the reader either feel fond of Harrison for loving Stella or feel frustration at Harrison for interfering with Stella’s personal life, where he is being so selfish as to possess her only for himself, to preserve his own happiness.
This complicated situation for Stella isn’t her first, as in chapter twelve the calamity of her first marriage to a man named Victor is revealed. Victor had an affair with a nurse before he died in the last war and this undoubtedly caused Stella great distress. In this chapter Bowen presents the emotional turmoil that Stella felt in that situation, which the modern reader can identify with. The themes of heart break and betrayal portray Stella as a ‘casualty’. In the early and mid-20th century, women weren’t independent therefore her decision to divorce Victor, makes her feel an injured and isolated single woman, with no man to support her.
In the novel, the effects of the war are always present through the theme of death, as when cousin Francis dies from the explosion of a bomb. This distinctive reality should be remembered through the legacy of the novel by the modern reader, to honour the men and women who lost their lives due to consequences of war. These circumstances create sympathy and acknowledgment with the readers of the 21st century who could have lost a family member in the war, or been injured as a soldier. From Cousin Francis’s will, Stella’s son Roderick was left to the estate Mount Morris, this impacted him as all he had ever been accustomed to was his own home with his mother and father. However, Roderick envisaged Mount Morris as a beautiful habitat of his future, a historical heirloom, where he would happily live. This natural blissful place is unlike Roderick’s current lifestyle in chaotic wartime London, where he is a soldier. Roderick’s aspirations are lived in a fantasy in his imagination, possibly to escape his current reality. This leads to the question that Stella and the reader ask: did Roderick like being in the army?
The reality of war in Chapter Seventeen is further explored as Captain Kelway’s mental state has ambiguous interpretations. He is explained to be in an ‘excitable state’, as he lurks on a rooftop, not realising the risk of his behaviour, potentially suffering from hallucinations and delusions. This questions the possibility of Captains Kelway’s mental state, was it the result of war? A man who never seemed to have erratic behaviour in this setting, could have been subject to the delayed effects of shell shock. Was he suicidal, was he trying to escape, or was he engulfed in the delirious reality of his imagination? Unfortunately, the development of psychology in this era couldn’t pinpoint what Captain Kelway was emotionally going through.
In the final chapter, the novel concludes with the return of Harrison, after Roberts death. Harrison pledges his affections for Stella, to where she replies by accusing him of being involved in Roberts death, as he was following Robert because he was aware of him selling information to the enemy. Stella’s dismay without Robert, but relationship with Harrison throughout the novel which develops, suggests that she could she be feeling hurt by Harrison and Roberts death, but still feel affection towards Harrison. This concept isn’t discovered and is left to the reader’s imagination to where Stella perhaps finds comfort and yearning for human companionship. Does Harrison bring her solace, even after he may have been involved with Robert’s death?