Lovers, Time Bombs, and Viennese Waltzes: Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day
A lovely, sunny day today where I’m at – hope it is the same for all of you!
193) The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen
“War had made them idolise day and summer; night and autumn were enemies.” (p. 3)
Bowen remains a favorite of mine and I was eager to final get to the book many consider one of her finest.
First published in 1948, it has been reissued (with many of her other novels) by Anchor (1976). The novel takes place primarily in 1942, but moves back to the 1940 Blitz of London and, at the end, brings us up to date on the characters and last years of World War II.
Stella Rodney and her lover, Robert, and son, Roderick (Roderick Rodney, really?) form the center of the story, along with Louie Lewis (alliterative mood, Elizabeth?) a young wife whose husband has gone to war and Harrison Robertson who claims to work with the intelligence service. Stella is a classic Bowen female protagonist: a bit at a loss, a bit cold, but beneath it all, quite strong. Harrison enters her life accusing Robert of a great crime.
Although he repels her, Stella and Harrison seem somehow drawn together – again and again he drops by for her insults and coldness, again and again she lets him in and tolerates his accusations. The book asks the question: “What is betrayal?” In answering this question, it takes us through wartime London and Ireland, above all attempting to show us what it FELT like for those experiencing this time.
Many times I was struck by and reminded of Bowen’s painterly writing that brings a reader into a scene so beautifully and gracefully. This is never more true than her use of Regents Park where, in the opening chapter, a Viennese orchestra is playing a free concert on a late summers day. For instance:
The Sunday had been brilliant, without a stain of cloud. Now, the
burning turquoise sky of the afternoon began to gain in transparency as it lost colour:
from above the trees round the theatre there stole away not only colour but time.
Music– the waltzes, the marches, the gay overtures–now began to command this hourless place.
People lost their look of uncertainty. The heroic marches made them lift up their heads;
recollections of opera molded their faces into unconscious smiles,
and during the waltzes women’s eyes glittered with delicious tears about nothing. (p. 4)
One of the themes in the book is the desire to BE and to be SEEN. Louie feels this particularly strongly, partly a result of her lower class self-consciousness. But I think there is something there in the idea that, in the face of the massive, potentially obliterating forces of war, at a time when it was not at all clear who was going to win (the novel documents the point at which the war starts to turn in the Allies’ favor) feeling alive, important, recognized was that much more critical.
I started this book last week and began reading quickly. Then I made myself go back and start over, using Susan Wise Bauer’s methods for taking notes on storylines and character. What a difference that made! In my first attempt, I absorbed only the broad sketch of story. On my reread, I absorbed so much more – Bowen is an author whose ideas are embedded in the details and between the lines – not one who can be fully experienced quickly. I enjoyed this book very much and now want to learn a lot more about World War II more broadly.
The Heat of the Day is one of Bowen’s most popular, beloved books. Many have written about it, including some of my fave bloggers. For more thoughts: Book Snob, Harriet Devine’s Blog, The Reading Life, Reader in the Wilderness, Novel Readings, Heavenali, and A Guy’s Moleskin Notebook.
Last, But Not Least