The Heat Of The Day, by Irish writer Elizabeth Bowen, was first published in 1948. It focuses on the interwoven lives and relationships of three main characters, and their political roles, in the years following The Blitz. I know I’ve told you all that I’m a bit “over” fictionalised accounts of WWII, but I’ve had a bit of a break from them now, so I can come at this one with a fresh eye. Plus, The Heat Of The Day was written so close to the conflict, I suspected it might have a different approach (and I was right, as always).
My edition doesn’t have an introduction, or any prefatory material; even the blurb and the author bio are surprisingly bland. I only mention this because Penguin editions almost always offer up some delicious tid-bit that I faithfully relay back to you. I’m not sure why they didn’t bother in this case?
So, straight to the story, then: our female lead is Stella, a divorced middle-aged woman (though she is “young looking”, readers are repeatedly assured). She lives alone in London, and holds – shall we say – some deeply ingrained class prejudice. She has a lover, Robert, who was wounded in Dunkirk, but he basically only limps when he feels like it so everyone knows he’s having them on. Stella also has a son, Roderick, who’s off at some soldier training school, or whatever they call it. He signed up for the Army purely because it seemed to be the “done thing”, so he’s pretty loosey-goosey with his patriotism. He also seems to be in love with his comrade Fred, but no one says that out loud.
There’s also Harrison, a British intelligence agent, and let’s just go ahead and call him the source of all conflict in this novel (aside from, y’know, the war). He’s got a huge boner for Stella, and also – conveniently enough – believes her lover Robert to be a German spy. Harrison takes any chance he gets to worm his way between them. He tells Stella outright of his suspicions. When she doesn’t believe him (and fall instantly into his arms), he says he’ll hold off on reporting Robert to the authorities if she ends their relationship (and, he implies, gets her kit off). She declines that kind offer… but she thinks about it for a minute first.
Roderick comes home to visit Stella on leave, and finds out that he’s inherited Mount Morris – an Irish estate that formerly belonged to his father’s cousin. He’s got his hands full with this army business, though, so he sends Stella over there to take care of affairs for him (good on you, Mum). Her time in the Isle gets her all nostalgic, reminiscing about her youth and her first marriage, to Roderick’s father. She decides that when she gets home, she’ll just ask Robert straight to his face whether he’s a German spy. Good plan!
Naturally, Robert vehemently denies the accusation, and he throws her plan all off-kilter with a proposal of marriage. I think it was around that time that The Heat Of The Day devolved into a super-weird side plot, an argument where Roderick demands to know the truth of his parents’ divorce. For years, Stella has let everyone believe that she was cheating on Roderick’s father, because she found it less shameful than the fact that he actually left her, for an army nurse. Roderick seems satisfied with that new explanation, and then… we just return to the regularly scheduled programming? Weird!
Anyway, Harrison tells Stella off for giving Robert the heads up. She offers herself up as a bribe, in exchange for Robert’s life and freedom, but Harrison’s over her (or he just puts his love for Queen and country first, whatever). He tells Stella to bugger off.
Things are looking pretty bad for Robert by this point. He goes ahead and makes things worse for himself by confessing to Stella that he did spy for the Germans, at some point. After she offered herself up like a leg of Christmas ham, and everything! She’s (rightly) cranky, and kicks Robert out of the house. He sure shows her, though: he proceeds immediately to her roof, and jumps off of it, killing himself.
Now that the action has come to a head, Bowen seems to get bored of her own story. She gives us a rushed overview of what happens for each of the characters over the next few years, just to wrap things up neatly. Roderick moves to Mount Morris after the war, and decides not to look for his father. Harrison visits Stella and starts hitting on her again, but she knocks him back – still, the reader can’t be sure whether they wind up together or not. And, finally, a side character that was barely mentioned throughout the book has a love-child and runs away to the country. The end!
I feel like The Heat Of The Day would quote beautifully. Pluck any random sentence from any random page, and it would sound fucking profound. At a sentence level, Bowen’s writing craft was exquisite. But the book, as a whole, was a little Henry James-y. In fact, Raymond Chandler once said that The Heat Of The Day was a “screaming parody” of James. I’m not sure what that means, exactly, but the story was really hard to follow. For me, James represents the epitome of getting high off your own fumes, thinking more about what you can do with language than the story you’re trying to tell – anything that resembles that is going to get me off-side, guaranteed.
I guess what I liked about the book was that it seemed, for the most part, a lot more realistic than most contemporary WWII fiction. No one was trying to kill Hitler (ahem, Life After Life). No one was shielding a priceless jewel from the Nazis (ahem, All The Light We Cannot See). It wasn’t narrated by Death as he tried to bump children off the mortal coil (ahem, The Book Thief). The war was present in The Heat Of The Day, but in the background, while the regular romantic and familial dramas played out in the foreground. The violence of the conflict was mostly removed from the narration. It’s a circumstance of the story, not the focus of it. Bowen does describe the London bombings, but really only in passing. You can see and feel the effects of the war, in food rations and black-out curtains and the suspicion of strangers, but life goes on: real life, everyday life, as it did for many who lived through that era. Anthony Burgess was once quoted as saying that no other novel has better captured the true atmosphere of London in WWII, and I totally believe that. I commend Bowen for the way she depicted the gnawing desperation of those times, and the cruel irony of loving someone who (it turned out) was on the side of the fascists, without getting gimmicky or overblown. Stella is just trying to keep calm and carry on (ha!), while the men around her play their own ridiculous game of Spy Vs Spy.
Still, The Heat Of The Day was a slog to read. I didn’t really care all that much about any of the characters, truth be told. I even found it hard to keep them straight at times. I’d say it’s comparable to E.M. Forster and Henry Green (as well as James, as mentioned) – I didn’t particularly love either of them, either, so it makes sense that this one didn’t start my engines. If you’re a historical fiction devotee looking for something different, a more realistic take on WWII, give it a go. Otherwise, save your eyeballs.
My favourite Amazon reviews of The Heat Of The Day:
- “A hard slog to get to an interesting story.” – Granny
- “Can not recommend. Book is stated as a thrilling story. Not! Verbose.” – Phyllis