The Heat of the Day (1948) by Elizabeth Bowen

Book Review by George Simmers: The Heat of the Day is a novel set in 1942. The central character is Stella, whose lover, Robert had been wounded at Dunkirk. He now seems to be working in Whitehall. One day a mysterious man called Harrison comes to Stella’s flat and tells her that Robert is passing secrets to the enemy. He says (though never quite in so many words) that he will prevent Robert from harm if she sleeps with him. She puts Harrison off, but just by asking Robert if he knows a man of that name, she alerts him. This brings about the story’s catastrophe.

Stated baldly, the plot belong in a thriller, but as a spy novel this is not really very good – we never get to know exactly what Robert was passing on to the Germans, or how he was doing it, or how they found out about him. But the essential quality of the spy genre that the book has is uncertainty – never knowing who to trust, not knowing what is true. It’s less a novel of action than of mood and atmosphere, and an evocation of wartime London.

By 1942, the Blitz is over, remembered as impressions: of memories and sounds: ‘the ice-like tinkle of broken glass being swept up among the crisping leaves.‘ 1942 is a time of suspense and uncertainty, an in-between time, of waiting for something to happen, for the Anglo-American invasion of France to get ready. Most of the characters are in temporary circumstances, the characters are mostly in a state of being in between in for-the duration lodgings that don’t suit them, There is often a sense of unreality; there are phrases like : ‘The unsubstantial darkness was quickened by a not-quite wind.’

Stella, the heroine; is particularly liable to question the reality of what she is experiencing:

Stella pressed her thumb under the edge of the table to assure herself this was a moment she was living through – as in the moment before a faint she seemed to be looking at everything through a darkening telescope. She, like he, had come unloose from her moorings.

The characters are never quite in harmony together. Bowen sums up Stella and Robert’s relationship when she writes of “their two wristwatches… never perfectly synchronising.”

Harrison, the blackmailer, is a character that Bowen deliberately never allows quite to come into focus. Stella thinks of him at one point:

By the rules of fiction with which life to be credible must comply, he was as a character ‘impossible’- each time they met, for instance, he showed no shred or trace of having been continuous since they last met.

This is a deliberately modernist novel, and Bowen is critiquing conventional cut-and-dried fictional characters. She resists the idea of easily distinguishable heroes and villains. Stella tells Harrison: ‘Below one level, everybody’s horribly alike. You made a spy of me.’

The dialogue is often brilliant – full of menacing understatements and indirections. Early in my reading, I thought: This is like Pinter before his time.

I was therefore intrigued to know that Harold Pinter actually adapted the novel for a television production in the eighties. This can be found on You Tube, and stars Patricia Hodge and Michael Gambon. It cuts the book to its essentials, and greatly reduces the (slightly condescending) sub-plot about two working-class women. I admired the novel greatly. I enjoyed the adaptation even more.

3 thoughts on “The Heat of the Day (1948) by Elizabeth Bowen

  1. I read this some years ago, and whilst it gives a good impression of wartime London, I found it quite frustrating, as everyone speaks obliquely, and no one ever comes to the point. Also, it was quite unclear as to why Robert was passing on information – was he a Nazi sympathiser, a Communist, a pacifist? We don’t know, and no-one ever asks him!

    • In fact, Stella does ask him, and Robert gives a lengthy explanation of sorts (pages 315 to 320 in the Vintage edition). Essentially, he was overcome by his experience at Dunkirk, and came to feel that German might was insuperable, so he chose to identify with their strength. His account of this is rather abstract, and is one of the weaker sections of the novel – but it is there.
      Your frustration with the book is understandable. Post Le Carré we’ve come to expect specifics from our spy novelists – about handlers, and drop-boxes and codenames, and so on, with the ambiguities of motivation and loyalty set within a specifically realised world.
      Bowen doesn’t offer this – just ambiguity piled on uncertainty, delivered obliquely. to enjoy this book, you have to realise that this is what she’s doing. Then you can admire the brilliance of it (though maybe being annoyed by some parts.)

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