I first encountered Elizabeth Bowen when I tried to read ‘Eva Trout’. I say ‘tried’ because it was one of my failures of a few years ago as I was eventually defeated by the long Henry James-style, never-ending sentences. Then I managed to catch a wonderful dramatisation of ‘The Heat of the Day’ on the BBC. I realised that this novel had a plot, and a pacey one at that. Maybe the action of the narrative would counter-balance the slow prose?
Fortunately, this Bowen experiment worked. I’m sure that knowing there was an espionage story-line helped greatly, it allowed me to remain patient and so luxuriate in Bowen’s evocative and carefully measured prose. The similarities to Henry James still hold (I think of James as a writer who came up with really exciting plots that he proceeded to utterly subvert through a beautiful but also stultifyingly slow prose style). While there is obsession, infidelity, threat and a certain amount of madness in this novel, Bowen is clearly much more interested in atmosphere than in action.
This is almost a shame, because there is great potential for fast-paced action in the novel’s premise: it’s World War 2 and the independent, attractive Stella Rodney is happily in love with Robert Kelway. Their cosmopolitan, modern romance becomes complicated when a mysterious stranger tells Stella that Robert is actually a Nazi spy. The uncharming and unremarkable Harrison, it seems, works in counter-espionage and his testimony could damn Robert. On the oher hand, if Robert realises he’s being watched (if Stella asks him to tell her the truth, that is) he will change his behaviour, thereby showing the powers that be that he has been tipped off and leading to his immediate arrest. All Harrison wants is for Stella to ‘give me a break. Me to come here, be here, in and out of here, on and off – at the same time, always. To be in your life, as they call it – your life, just as it is. Except’ – he stopped … picked up the photograph, turned it face to the wall. ‘Except,’ he said, ‘less of that. In fact, none at all of that. No more of that.’ It’s a wonderful set up, playing on fear, trust and integrity.
I’m really pleased I gave Bowen another go. If I hadn’t read ‘The Heat of the Day’ I would have missed out on wonderful contemporary gems such as ‘Younger by a year or two than the century, she had grown up just after the First World War with the generation which, as a generation, was to come to be made to feel it had muffed the catch. The times, she had in her youth been told on all sides, were without precedent – but then, so was her own experience: she had not lived before.‘ And: ‘For a deception, she could no more blame the world than one can blame any fellow-sufferer: in these last twenty of its and her own years she had to watch in it what she felt in her – a clear-sightedly helpless progress towards disaster.’ As the title suggests there is a strong sence of transience about the novel’s characters and action. The war has opened up possibilities at the same time as it has exposed their ultimate futility. If you’ve found any of the sentences quoted here attractive, give the novel a try, and if you have any tips for getting through ‘Eva Trout,’ please let me know. I’m less fatalistic than Bowen’s characters, and I don’t like to feel as if a great work of literature is passing me by…
A final point, don’t confuse the Bowen novel with the wonderful, but very very different, 1967 Poitier film. (Image from https://uk.movieposter.com/poster/MPW-55059/In_The_Heat_Of_The_Night.html)