Every Possible Problem in the World: A Review of The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen

by Anita Lahey

Anita Lahey is the author of The Mystery Shopping Cart: Essays on Poetry and Culture, (Palimpsest, 2013) and two Véhicule poetry collections: Out to Dry in Cape Breton (2006) and Spinning Side Kick (2011). She’s assistant series editor for Best Canadian Poetry in English.anitalahey.wordpress.com

The Heat of the Day
Elizabeth Bowen
London, U.K.
1987 (originally published in 1948), 330 pp., 9780140088533

Allow me to present a woman at a window, buffing her nails, her blue blouse gathered softly around her hips, hair set in pleasing curls, loose yet defined. Her head is slightly bowed, her nose and chin drawn into points that soften just shy of harshness. Her focus on her hands masks a determined excavation within: the cloudy, imperiled hunt for clues to a conundrum or perhaps an entire life.

Harold Knight’s 1933 portrait, The Manicure, graces the cover of my 1987 Penguin reprint of Elizabeth Bowen’s 1948 novel The Heat of the Day, set in London during World War II. The image, which caught my eye in a used bookstore before I’d ever heard of Bowen, embodies much of what I’ve come to love about Bowen’s prose: its intricate tension, her way of building a story still life upon still life, portrait upon portrait, until the reader has fallen into its realm so completely, she can no longer reach out and touch the frames.

I’m still waiting for someone to explain why I had to come across the Anglo-Irish Bowen, surely one of the finest English-language authors the last century had to offer, accidentally. When I was a student, even in the not-so-hallowed halls of a journalism school, opinions on Woolf, James and other 20th century giants were traded over pints; of Bowen, nary a whisper. When I finally picked up that old Penguin, I was thirtyish, a writer and reader travelling in literary circles, none the wiser. I was hers from the first paragraph, in which a Viennese orchestra plays late in the season, when “already leaves were drifting onto the grass stage—here and there one turned over, crepitating as though in the act of dying.” Lovers drift toward the music “fatigued by their day alone together” and married couples “draw apart, each recapturing some virginal inner dream.” In this vivid reality Bowen has efficiently drawn, beauty itself threatens: it may drive the day’s “lack of meaning into the heart.

Here was prose of pointed, merciless assessment. I wonder now whether I found relief in Bowen’s telescopic view into the minds of her characters. I was being “raised” in contemporary lit circles on the virtues—indeed, the necessity—of emotional and psychological ambiguity. Of showing, never (not ever!) telling how one’s characters feel: readers must be permitted to draw conclusions themselves, via clues expertly compiled by the author. In this way we trust our reader, who is granted the conditions under which to engage in a literary excavation of their own, in a rewarding partnership with the author. I believe in this, I do. But I also believe in Bowen’s clarity, her piercing insights. They tear a bright gash through the filmy layer of not-quite-understanding under which I normally exist.

I was being “raised” in contemporary lit circles on the virtues—indeed, the necessity—of emotional and psychological ambiguity.

When I first read The Heat of the Day, I loved it for its window on life in the besieged British capital, how it captured the undercurrent of exhilaration and aimlessness that went hand-in-hand with the blackouts and bombs, the Regency terraces “in their semi-ruin, just less pale than the sky,” and the dead, who “continued to move in shoals through the city day, pervading everything to be seen or heard or felt with their torn-off senses, drawing on this tomorrow they had expected—.” I fell hard for Stella Rodney, the novel’s heroine, who’s saddled with a wartime government job, a son in the army, constant air raids, a private shame related to her deceased husband’s rejection of her, and finally the question of whether her lover, Robert, has betrayed his country, and by extension, her. All this, yet soon after the spy called Harrison has put his sordid proposal to her in her rented flat—become Harrison’s mistress and he will not turn Robert in—she simply raises “her head from the sash” and says “Will you go now? I think I must go to bed.” She apologizes for the rain as she sees him out.

The combined languid air and tautness of this scene—how did the author do that?—is typical Bowen. When she directs one of her characters through a fraught moment she transplants her reader into the character’s reality with devastating precision. As poet and journalist Cynthia Zarin put it in a review, Bowen charts “interior weather with the skill of a meteorologist.” I can’t think of another author’s prose in which I find myself so tossed about in that crazy storm of reaction and emotion, where a character’s entire being has leapt in understanding or shrunk in confusion and hurt—or all of this together—while her voice is saying something that may or may not relate to her destabilized core. Bowen sets us smack in the whirl within a character, from where we contend with her inevitable failure to reach through it to those around her. That failure, though often directly stated, is given definition by posture and gesture, by light and footfalls and the click of a door. We know what inspires and inhibits a character’s unspoken words, the consequences of their absence and of those that take their place, and the very temperature of the air in the room (or streetscape, or park), the nature and measurement of its charge.

This tremor she holds on the page … seems so precious, so alarmingly necessary, that I can’t help but ask myself what it cost her, to catch it and pin it there.

Even now, in mid-life, I can barely track, let alone convey, my own rapidly shifting pulse during trying times, nor during everyday encounters that bear some emotional charge. I find Bowen’s ability to replicate this particular confusion—this universal challenge to being human—a literary feat altogether wonderful and confounding. This tremor she holds on the page, this glimmer of clarity, seems so precious, so alarmingly necessary, that I can’t help but ask myself what it cost her, to catch it and pin it there.

A fierce sense of injustice reared up in me when I discovered Bowen. How, I wondered, had I been let to come this far as a serious reader without her? Who or what could I blame? Born in June, 1899 in Dublin, Ireland, Bowen had an unsettled childhood. Her early years appear to have been stable enough, even idyllic, with summers spent at Bowen Court, the family estate in County Cork. But at age 8, as her father grappled with mental illness, her mother brought her to England. In 1912, her mother died, after which she was raised by aunts. She married in 1923, and though the relationship was said to be amicable, she had many affairs. She lived through both world wars and the 1919-1921 Anglo-Irish war, but did not, like a significant number of her contemporaries, consequently lose faith in language and story. Indeed, by the evidence of her work, she set even more store by these arts. She was prolific and accomplished. She published several books of nonfiction, including essays, criticism and the memoir Bowen Court, about the estate she inherited; 9 short story collections, a children’s book and 10 novels, the last of which, Eva Trout, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 1970. (Aside from The Heat of the Day, I’m especially partial to The House in Paris [1935], a gripping story that takes place in a single day, and The Death of the Heart [1938].)

Despite all this, according to British author and critic Jane Miller (in her piece “Re-reading Elizabeth Bowen,” The Raritan, 2000) Bowen was seen, during her time, as a “minor, romantic novelist.” In another piece, from the online journal London Fictions, Miller explains some of the source of this dismissal, quoting critics who’d “savaged” Bowen:

The charges against her were of snobbery, of having “the moral intransigence of the interior decorator” (Hardwick), of “special pleading,” so that “the reality of society is excluded” (Williams), and of inhabiting “the land of the middlebrow” (Wilson). These charges seemed to many of her readers unfair and malicious, and to some extent familiar and typical of how serious novels written by women were often read.

Perusing their reviews of The Heat of the Day, you can almost hear the critics of the day chuckling over Bowen’s potboiler set-up. Jacques Barzan wrote in an early 1949 issue of Harper’s that, “A writer of mysteries would have to give an embarrassed cough or two to help us swallow so lumpy a conception, but Miss Bowen is of course saved by her manner and her power to suggest at every point that she has some deeper intent than has yet been disclosed.” Note the snide implication that Bowen had no deeper intent, merely the talent to fool the reader. There’s a hint of condescension, too: how dare a woman think she can pull off such a worldly scenario?

According to Miller, a long-overdue, fresh look at Bowen emerged after the 1999 centenary of her birth, upon the reissue of several of her books. It was about time. Now the premise and tone of a novel like The Heat of the Day could be considered in another light. Like many women of her era, Bowen was directly involved in the war effort. But she not only served as an air-raid warden, a common duty: she was also tasked with collecting intelligence for the British government on Irish attitudes toward the war (her efforts were later collected in the book Reports on Eire: Espionage Reports to Winston Churchill by Elizabeth Bowen, 1940-1942). These realities and others—including her connection to her lover, the Canadian diplomat Charles Ritchie, and to Goronwy Rees, a former lover, Marxist and possible spy—placed her just on the edge of that underworld of counter-intelligence and betrayal that drives her story. Her double-agent love triangle is a contrivance she herself described as melodrama; she felt it appropriate, given the times. Her biographer Victoria Glendinning writes that to Bowen, “The war had made ‘mere’ sensibility distasteful; she said that ‘these days one feels rather a revulsion against psychological intricacies for their own sakes.’” But psychological intricacies, whatever set them spinning, were still the real meat of Bowen’s fiction. It’s no accident that, as in Rebecca West’s The Birds Fall Down, another psychologically rich novel framed by politically inspired action, The Heat of the Day relegates the motivations and strategies of traitors and secret agents to the sidelines in favour of a close-up view of a character—a woman—thrust into the midst of these all-too-serious games, forced to contend with their consequences.

Bowen’s work is deeply and generously human. It’s less convoluted than that of Henry James, an acknowledged influence, but equally piercing and astute. She’s more tangible than Viriginia Woolf, with whom she often corresponded. She’s as entertaining and sly as Jane Austen, but delves more deeply. She may deftly shift a mood or entire reality on a look, a word, a breath; her tracing of these twists and turns is heady and disorienting. Her parallel illustration of how poorly language suffices to navigate her characters through such moments is devastating and ironic. In her biography, Glendinning notes that Bowen “wrote on, and of, the tightrope between innocence and disillusion.” This leads to fiction that has you on the edge of your seat even when nothing much is going on but the lighting of a cigarette, the pulling down of blinds. By 2015, the Guardian had placed The Heat of the Day at number 69 in its list of 100 Best Novels. Guardian critic Robert McCrum describes it as a novel “of its time and timeless,” and of Bowen, he writes, “More than just a great writer of the blitz, she is the supreme mid-century anatomist of the heart, with a unique sensitivity to the lives of ordinary English men and women in extremis.”

Both Bowen and Mavis Gallant floated somewhere outside the gender wars while making a rock-solid case for the validity—and plot-worthiness—of women’s lives.

The author that most comes to mind when I read Bowen is Mavis Gallant, who came along about two decades later and whose fiction chiefly inhabited Montreal and Paris, but whose sensibility and psychological acuity go hand-in-hand with Bowen’s. When you read either of these authors, you feel them reaching out the window, into the street, into the markets and trams and the secret hearts of strangers passing by, grabbing what they can and tugging it all downward, into their characters, from all directions, all the confusion and detritus of existence. The effect is a bubbling turmoil on the page that looks anything but easy to keep at a simmer. Both authors floated somewhere outside the gender wars while making, by the nature of their subject matter, a rock-solid case for the validity—and plot-worthiness—of women’s lives. Likewise for a woman’s own agency: a Gallant or Bowen heroine is permitted neither leeway nor excuse. Gallant has been accused of being cold to her (usually female) characters, when what she really managed is an acute awareness and unflinching portrayal of their movement within societal norms. Gallant allows these characters, whose lives often veer into quiet tragedy, dignity as well as humour, and a form of power cultivated within the constraints they endure. Miller notes a similar talent in Bowen in her Raritan piece: “Bowen sets her characters within the history and the landscape that produced them and still expects them to take responsibility for who they are.”

When Bowen was writing The Heat of the Day, Glendinning reports in her biography, she described how difficult the work was in a letter to Charles Ritchie: “The thing revolves around and around in my brain … Almost anything that happens round me contributes to it … It presents every possible problem in the world.” She was right; it did. Early on, Stella is visited by her son, a soldier on unexpected leave. Their reunion fails to contain the emotion that is called for. “Where they were concerned, the ban, the check, the caution as to all spending and most of all the expenditure of feeling restricted them. Wariness had driven away poetry: from hesitating to feel came the moment when you no longer could. Was this war’s doing?” And yet, in the next paragraph, we’re reminded of their abiding closeness as mother and son: “Stella and Roderick were too intimate not each to extend to the other that sense of instinctive loss, and their intimacy made them too honest to play a scene.”

Countless literary figures, drawing on humanity’s bottomless range of voices and sensibilities, have grappled—some to great effect—with that paradox within families, of familiarity with strangeness, of fierce bonding paired with irreconcilable distance. For me, though, it’s Bowen who nails it: her restraint and bluntness that combine into frank acknowledgement of what is and isn’t possible between intimates. She translates exactly how the very atmosphere between two people can become so full, so clouded, as to be impenetrable, while that cloudy fullness likewise functions, surprisingly, as a comfort.

As a girl in the 1970s, I was schooled by various adult role models that it was important to “share” my feelings: to be open, to never bottle up. I saw the wisdom in this and dutifully took it up—it was the dominant psychology of our time—but a weariness (or wariness) later set in. I could see how this philosophy might go too far, how endlessly “talking things through” may lead not to better understanding, but more likely exhaustion, even a habit of wallowing. Bowen’s characters are too stoic for the sort of heart-to-heart I was trained for. Nor is soul-bearing necessary in their “reality.” Their emotional temperatures and mental states are monitored so carefully by Bowen, with an exactitude and deep understanding that, I can’t help but suspect, is both clearer and more complex than the characters might manage themselves. We none of us quite know what is in our own hearts and minds. Bowen’s no-nonsense adoption of this responsibility was likely a relief to me, as a reader. But her dignified tones and cool stance may have rankled in the openhearted latter half of the 20th century.

Rereading the encounter between Stella and her son set seven decades ago, I see myself, not so long ago, in the kitchen with my father. My father and I are in the house where I grew up—no war, no London flat, no British class system or spies, just a run-of-the-mill Canadian suburb. The window above the sink is small and half-obscured by foldout wooden shutters. The yard beyond it, a green flatness framed by low fences and a neatly trimmed hedge, is punctuated in the far corner by a rusting set of monkey bars. Here, in the kitchen, there’s so much we could discuss, to do with present or past. But all the wishes, news and questions I had before I arrived hover beyond articulation or even recognition. I’m capable only of asking whether Dad, too, would like a cup of coffee. The truth is, I’m mostly content with that, and, I suspect, so is he. It’s due to Bowen that I can glimpse and nearly—oh so barely—understand this.


Anita Lahey is the author of The Mystery Shopping Cart: Essays on Poetry and Culture, (Palimpsest, 2013) and two Véhicule poetry collections: Out to Dry in Cape Breton (2006) and Spinning Side Kick (2011). She’s assistant series editor for Best Canadian Poetry in English.anitalahey.wordpress.com