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Elizabeth Bowen: The Heat of the Day

Bowen stayed on in London during the Blitz and, indeed, her house in Regent’s Park was hit by a bomb. Her heroine in this novel has also stayed on in London, not least because of her work in intelligence. Stella Rodney has a son, Roderick, who is twenty. Her husband had left her after returning home from World War I but had died soon after they divorced. She is now having an affair with a man called Robert Kelway, who is also involved in intelligence work. A man called Harrison comes to see her and suggests that they have an affair. Moreover, he states that if she does not agree, he will be forced to reveal what he knows about Kelway, namely that he is a German agent. Stella is naturally reluctant. I’m to form a disagreeable association in order that a man be left free to go on selling his country, she bluntly tells Harrison. In fact, she does not believe that the man she loves can be betraying his country. Stella challenges Kelway who, of course, denies everything but eventually has to admit that it is true. He goes up on the roof and either falls or slips – Stella is not sure which – but he does seem to be escaping someone who is about to arrest him. Stella is left to reassess her life in the heat of the day.

It is interesting to compare this with a man’s point of view and Graham Greene‘s The Ministry of Fear is an obvious comparison. Greene is obviously much more interested in the spy story aspect. Bowen, despite being involved in intelligence herself, is not but is rather interested in the effect on the relationship of the treachery. Indeed, as a spy story, this is a poor novel but, of course, that is not what it is meant to be. Greene makes much of the Blitz and its effect on the people in London who went through it. Arthur Rowe’s house is bombed (as is Maurice Bendrix’s house in The End of the Affair). While the Blitz is certainly going on and we do see its effect, it is much lower key in Bowen’s novel than in Greene’s and certainly not a key plot driver. Ultimately, Stella takes the view that her personal relationships are more important than the rather undefined values of patriotism, despite the fact that she is working for them. Her son, Roderick, her friend Louie and Robert are what have meaning for her while, for Arthur Rowe, getting the Nazi traitors is what drives him. Getting the girl at the end is merely icing on the cake. Different choices for different people.

Publishing history

First published 1948 by Jonathan Cape