Elizabeth Bowen went to my school. I only discovered this recently. It was not mentioned to me that we had a pre-eminent twentieth century novelist amongst our alumni. I don’t know why we weren’t going on about her – after all, at the time, there was no other alumnus to be proud of. There was one rather obscure lesbian who did some sports reporting on Channel 4, but back in the 1990s it seems that short-haired sports-focussed lesbians were not the PR opportunity that girl’s boarding schools were looking for.
Then the Olympics happened and general societal enlightenment happened and Clare Balding became a national treasure and – bam! My school had an alumnus to bark on about. Poor Elizabeth Bowen; her chances of a commemorative fountain, or even a plaque, poor love, have probably shrivelled to nothing thanks to Clare’s professional, intelligent, friendly sports reporting. (Love you, Clare. You are the sports equivalent of David Attenborough on Natural History. It’s DEAD to me unless you present it.)
Anyway, poor old Elizabeth Bowen. I’d read the somewhat obscure The Last September at university and loved it, so I thought it was my duty to read apparently her greatest, The Heat of the Day – a spy-novel set in the Blitz. Sure winner, right? Nothing too taxing?
Wrong. This puppy is DENSE. It’s not long, but the going is heavy. A few months ago I wrote about my battle to simplify my writing. Let’s just say that this is not a battle that Bowen has fought. The dialogue, circuitous to a major fault, is probably the biggest struggle. At times its glancing nature is rather effective; a fiction version of TV’s Mad Men with its curling cigarette smoke and lines that imply everything while admitting nothing. But more frequently, you don’t have a clue what they’re banging on about, and not in a Catch-22, where-am-I-the-human-condition-is-crazy way, in a God-this-dialogue-will-never-end way.
The novel tells the story of Stella, who is told by a British spy that her lover is a spy for the enemy. It’s the time of the Blitz, and despite sorties to the countryside and Ireland, there’s a tense urban claustrophobia. It’s a novel of doubt. Is Robert, the lover, really a spy? We don’t quite trust Harrison, the British intelligence officer, who is offering to overlook Robert’s activities in exchange for a relationship with Stella.
It’s highly atmospheric and theatrical. The novel unfolds in a series of highly staged set pieces. Two of these, near beginning and end respectively, form mirrored climaxes; Stella with each of the two men – at first being told about Robert’s suspected crimes by Harrison, the last with Robert himself as the issue is driven to a head. These scenes are strong, memorable: you can see the lamplight, the strand of grey in Stella’s hair, the close, restrictive swaddle of the blackout, the love, the lust, the tension, the held breaths. They’re almost visual.
But too much of the novel is not up to this standard. There’s a whole character, Louie, who only seems to exist to make some thematic points and is unconvincingly woven in to the main triangle. There’s a whole plot about Stella’s son inheriting a house in Ireland which has moments of power amidst extended bouts of pointlessness. Everything is carefully placed and manipulated and mirrored and symbolised within an inch of its life. It’s too highly wrought by half, because the effort shows. The greatest works of art are endlessly complicated, but written so as you barely even notice it.
It rather makes my heart sink to read ANOTHER twentieth century woman’s book which has been forgotten but which I cannot with pure heart recommend to you all. But hey – the atmosphere, the intensity, the climax – there’s some gold in this book. Give the woman a plaque, at least.