Violet wells's Reviews > The Heat of the Day

The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen
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bookshelves: world-war-two, london

"Out of mists of morning charred by the smoke from ruins each day rose to a height of unmisty glitter; between the last of sunset and first note of the siren the darkening glassy tenseness of evening was drawn fine. From the moment of waking you tasted the sweet autumn not less because of an acridity on the tongue and nostrils; and as the singed dust settled and smoke diluted you felt more and more called upon to observe the daytime as a pure and curious holiday from fear."

Ostensibly The Heat of the Day is a spy novel, a wartime noir.

In the first chapter Stella, the heroine, is told by a shady individual called Harrison that her lover, Robert, is selling secrets to the enemy. Harrison offers to withhold this information from his superiors if Stella agrees to become his lover. To begin with Stella is dubious. If what Robert does is performing an act for her then the implication is that his love too is part of the act. A surface cracks. The habitat of love in which Stella has lived comes to resemble the broken exposed bombed buildings littering London’s landscape. Bowen is brilliant at relating these inward crisis moments to the external world. Every description of place contains psychological insights into her characters. When, later, Stella visits Robert’s home she is horrified by the suffocating deceit of decorum she encounters in his mother and sister, a decorum that has already humiliated and unmanned Robert’s father. Robert calls his mother Muttikins. Enough said! The rot starts at home.

Stella herself is involved in a deceit. She had deceived her son about his father. Contrary to popular belief it was not she who betrayed him but the other way round. When her husband died after betraying Stella for his nurse Stella decides to court the fiction that she was the femme fatale, perhaps for reasons of glamourising her self-image.

Betrayal and deceit are ubiquitous tensions in this novel. The theme of deceit is taken up by another character, the orphaned and disingenuous Louie who is betraying her absent enlisted husband with a succession of casual affairs with men. She does this, paradoxically, to bring her husband closer.

On a deeper level The Heat of the day is a novel about dispossession. About the precarious nature of any habitat, whether it’s a physical habitat like home or an emotional habitat like love. The novel begins in September 1942 when London is being bombed every night. Bowen evokes a landscape in which homes can vanish overnight. “Habit, of which passion must be wary, may all the same be the sweetest part of love.” Habit, dependent on habitat, is a vanishing luxury in this novel. Much of the novel takes place in homes. We have Stella’s flat which is borrowed, we have Robert’s family’s home which is for sale. We have the crumbling house in Ireland that Stella’s son inherits. We have the flat where Louie lives and from where her husband is poignantly absent. And we have the nursing home where cousin Nettie lives. Stella sees homes exposed as she rides the train: “It was striking how listlessly, shiftlessly and frankly life in these houses exposed itself to the eyes in the passing or halting trains.”

Home it’s a precarious structure, both physically and emotionally.
Bowen’s sentences in this novel are as rutted and rubbled as London’s wartime streets. Often cataracted with double and sometimes triple negatives – as if speech itself is hampered, battling against a relentless hostile tide. She plays with idioms too, grotesquely altering them – as if the lynchpins of civilised life are being hacked away. There’s a deliberate forsaking of fluidity in her prose.

The last sentence implies the war is the swansong of an era of western civilisation, not an era Bowen seems to approve of.

Bowen actually wrote this novel during the war and, unlike WW2 novels written later, isn’t trying to impress with the depth of her research. It’s a consideration she is able to ignore because the world she is describing is outside her window. The odd thing is, because we’re so familiar with the way London during the blitz has been portrayed (stagemanaged?) by popular media, Bowen’s depiction can at times be bizzarely less convincing.

It should be pointed out that this is not a work of realism. Robert’s adherence to the Nazis is barely credible as a concrete possibility. Many have wondered, with justification, if Bowen should have had him siding with the Russians. Bowen after all was familiar with Burgess and the Cambridge spies. However this implausible detail doesn’t detract from the novel’s psychological power. It’s not her best novel – I’d award that plaudit to Death of the Heart – but is well worth reading.
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Quotes Violet Liked

Elizabeth Bowen
“Habit, of which passion must be wary, may all the same be the sweetest part of love.”
Elizabeth Bowen, The Heat of the Day

Elizabeth Bowen
“Overhead, an enemy plane had been dragging, drumming slowly round in the pool of night, drawing up bursts of gunfire--nosing, pausing, turning, fascinated to the point for its intent. The barrage banged, coughed, retched; in here the lights in the mirrors rocked. Now down a shaft of anticipating silence the bomb swung whistling. With the shock of detonation, still to be heard, four walls of in here yawped in then bellied out; bottles danced on glass; a distortion ran through the view. The detonation dulled off into the cataracting roar of a split building:

direct hit,

somewhere else.”
Elizabeth Bowen, The Heat of the Day

Elizabeth Bowen
“Everything ungirt, artless, ardent, urgent about Louie was to the fore: all over herself she gave the impression of twisted stockings.”
Elizabeth Bowen, The Heat of the Day


Reading Progress

February 18, 2014 – Shelved
March 6, 2015 – Started Reading
March 21, 2015 – Finished Reading
August 25, 2015 – Shelved as: world-war-two
March 1, 2016 – Shelved as: london

Comments Showing 1-20 of 20 (20 new)

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message 1: by Cecily (last edited Apr 09, 2015 05:35AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Cecily It's a while since I read Bowen, but I like your opening quote and especially, your comments on the "rutted and rubbled" language.


Violet wells Thanks Cecily.


message 3: by Steve (new)

Steve Yeah, I liked the "rutted and rubbled" bit as well. I liked this novel. I read it years ago via a what-to-read list by Anthony Burgess.


Violet wells Thanks Steve (two years too late!)


message 5: by Dolors (new)

Dolors Oh Violet, this review goes so well with my next reading choice, Between the Acts... And again, you make it compulsory that I read Bowen, along with Mansfield (I already got the collection of stories you recommended and ready to go), the sooner the better.


Violet wells Dolors wrote: "Oh Violet, this review goes so well with my next reading choice, Between the Acts... And again, you make it compulsory that I read Bowen, along with Mansfield (I already got the collec..."

Look forward to that. I've been thinking of rereading Between the Acts. I think Bowen, Mansfield and Woolf form a kind of trinity - Bowen is like the little sister.


message 7: by Margitte (new)

Margitte Wonderful review, Violet. So atmospheric in itself!


Violet wells Margitte wrote: "Wonderful review, Violet. So atmospheric in itself!"

Thanks Margitte.


message 9: by Jaline (new) - added it

Jaline Another fabulous review of Elizabeth Bowen's work! Thank you for bringing this author to my attention, Violet - even though I haven't started reading them yet, I have started on adding them to my eReader! :)


message 10: by Agnieszka (last edited Oct 10, 2017 04:08AM) (new) - added it

Agnieszka Great review, Violet. I have this one and Death of the Heart on my list for some time now but still didn't get to it. Your review and mentioning Woolf and Mansfield are enough incentive to me to remedy it asap.


Violet wells Jaline wrote: "Another fabulous review of Elizabeth Bowen's work! Thank you for bringing this author to my attention, Violet - even though I haven't started reading them yet, I have started on adding them to my e..."

Thanks Jaline. Fingers crossed you become a fan!


Violet wells Agnieszka wrote: "Great review, Violet. I have this one and Death of the Heart on my list for some time now but still didn't get to it. Your review and mentioning Woolf and Mansfield are enough incentive to me to re..."

Thanks Agna. Look forward to hearing your thoughts when you get round to her.


Laura I suppose what strikes in this novel is the betrayal of herself. She concedes does she not to the demands of Harrison. She is unable to disentangle herself from her feelings for Robert. A disintegration of self.

Ultimately I think it is a much broader, hence bolder work than The Death of the Heart. I would consider Heat of the Day her best.


Violet wells Laura wrote: "I suppose what strikes in this novel is the betrayal of herself. She concedes does she not to the demands of Harrison. She is unable to disentangle herself from her feelings for Robert. A disintegr..."

That's interesting. I don't think there's much in it regarding which is best, though, like you say, this is more ambitious than Death of the Heart. What's very clever but a bit awkward as well is making Robert a Nazi. By conceding to the demands of Harrison she's being loyal to her country and her son which is a big part of her identity. Maybe the problem is she didn't know about the Nazi death camps when she wrote this - and it's difficult for us now to view Robert's actions without our own hindsight. I recently read her letters and the man she based Robert on loathed communism - that is probably the explanation why she didn't have him spying for the Russians which was far more plausible in those days.


message 15: by Laura (last edited Jan 24, 2018 09:32AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Laura I've read this book several times, but not recently. I must re-read, and mull over a few things. For instance, Stella loves Robert, irrespective of this mind-numbing revelation that he is a spy. Harrison assumes this, which is why he barters sexual favours for his silence, so Stella protects her husband. As I said she's unable to disentangle her emotional connection from him, from Robert, and in doing so prioritizes his over her own self interests; it degrades her self to barter her body to the loathsome H.

I guess I should read again. If Robert is a Nazi, it makes her situation worse - the moral stakes are nudged a degree higher. I think you are probably right about Bowen's incomplete picture of the Nazis.

The book's centre, however is on this question: if you betray the person you love, have you not also betrayed yourself. It's a dilemma; at what point do you say I no longer love because...? The Christian guide says forgive - pull the one who has strayed back to the fold. I presuppose that Robert is not a mercenary, but transgressed as an act of moral belief. Bowen is asking how far can Stella bend over the precipice - before reclaiming her self, her identity - what will her identity allow or not allow her to do. Comprenez?


message 16: by Mark (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mark Super review, Violet. I think the novel is, partly, written to exonerate those women who found wartime separation from husbands and boyfriends, too difficult to endure and so took lovers to ease their loneliness. Louie and Stella, and later Connie, all seem very ‘modern’ in their manner and behaviour enjoying free and easy sexual relationships, showing what life was like for women suddenly abandoned and alone in London during wartime.


Violet wells Laura wrote: "I've read this book several times, but not recently. I must re-read, and mull over a few things. For instance, Stella loves Robert, irrespective of this mind-numbing revelation that he is a spy. Ha..."

Great post, Laura. Sorry I missed it!


Violet wells Mark wrote: "Super review, Violet. I think the novel is, partly, written to exonerate those women who found wartime separation from husbands and boyfriends, too difficult to endure and so took lovers to ease th..."

Thanks Mark.


message 19: by Roger (last edited May 07, 2018 02:55AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Roger Brunyate Indeed a superb review, Violet! I especially like your paragraph beginning "On a deeper level The Heat of the Day is a novel about dispossession," and the observation "habit through habitat" lower down in it. Unlike you, though, I was impressed by Bowen's descriptions of life in the Blitz; check the link to Laura Feigel's The Love-Charm of Bombs in my own review {thanks for your comment] for more. R.


Violet wells Roger wrote: "Indeed a superb review, Violet! I especially like your paragraph beginning "On a deeper level The Heat of the Day is a novel about dispossession," and the observation "habit through habitat" lower ..."

Thanks Roger. I agree with you and disagree with my own statement! I was super impressed by her descriptions of the Blitz - every descriptive passage was an insight into the psychology of the period. She had her finger on the pulse, no question of that and conveyed that pulse with brilliant eloquence.


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