Keeping Calm and Carrying On: ‘The Heat of the Day’ by Elizabeth Bowen (1948)

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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…

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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)

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18 Responses to Keeping Calm and Carrying On: ‘The Heat of the Day’ by Elizabeth Bowen (1948)

  1. MarinaSofia says:

    You might do better with her short stories, then? I vaguely remember also the novel The House in Paris wasn’t bad, but it’s been a while…

  2. Sarah says:

    It’s funny how some writers’ novels need a ‘way in’, isn’t it? When I started reading Proust I really couldn’t hack the prose, it was so dry, but I found that when I switched my reading speed from 45rpm to 33rpm, suddenly I was in the groove and have never looked back. I shall keep an eye out for Bowen (but maybe not ‘Eva Trout’), as those quotes really are wonderful!

    • In fairness, it took me ages to find my way into Henry James and now I love at least some of his novels. Maybe I’ll be in the right zone for Eva Trout at some point – I’m sure there’s a lot of great writing and humour if only I can get to grips with it.

  3. pigeonel15 says:

    I was introduced to Bowen’s writing after I had read all of Henry James’s novels, so my taste was certainly influenced by that experience. I read The House in Paris and Death of the Heart. To me, the similarity had to do with the murder of the soul of the child. I also read Eva Trout and found it quite different than the first two, but enjoyed the early feminist perspective. More recently I read The Last September and didn’t like it as much, but it stayed with me. The ending is unsettling. I am now motivated to read Heat of the Night; it sounds very intriguing. I enjoy your blog.

    • Thank you! And thank you very much for the details of Bowen’s other novels. It sounds like ‘The House in Pais’ and ‘Death of the Heart’ should be higher on my to-be-read list than ‘Eva Trout’, so maybe it was really my own fault for trying with the wrong book first!

  4. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Bowen’s prose is dense but really rather wonderful. I’ve only read a couple of her works, but I reall intend to read more!

  5. JacquiWine says:

    Even though I try to avoid buying more than one book by an author I’ve yet to read, I seem to have this one together with another Bowen (The Death of the Heart) on my shelves. It sounds wonderful, very atmospheric. I’ve not had the best of luck with Henry James in the past, so I’m hoping to fare better with Bowen.

    • Maybe one will be an entry into the other. I’m taking heart from how hard I found James when I first encountered him, then, spotting the similarities between the two writers got me much further into Eva Trout than I would have otherwise managed. If Bowen works for you, you might want to give early James another try?

  6. Elizabeth Bowen does seen to be one of those authors who needs exactly the right book at exactly the right moment, so I’m glad that you tried her again and that this one worked for you.

  7. May says:

    Hey, I nominated you for The Lovely Blog Award because I think your blog is awesome, details at https://sunsetsandbookfests.wordpress.com/2016/01/26/the-lovely-blogger-award/

  8. Stefanie says:

    I’ve not read Bowen before, have only been vaguely interested but since you say she is Henry James-like and I love James I am seriously going to have to get her into my reading pile! Thanks for the review!

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