5 July 2013
I don’t think this 1949 novel could have existed had it not been for the stream-of-consciousness narratives of the 20s. Each of the first three chapters focuses on a single encounter or meeting, with every word of the conversation not only presented as direct speech, but almost endlessly gauged and re-appraised by the listener for subtleties of meaning. The point of view slips easily between the two speakers involved in each encounter, so that Bowen gives us an almost impossibly nuanced picture not only of each character, but of what the other character thinks of him or her. It’s not exactly exhausting, but it takes Bowen 60-odd pages to take us through a single evening in September. (Chapter 4 is a flashback, and I’ll come to it later.)
Right from the beginning I was trying to get a fix on the class of these people. We’re in Regent’s Park in wartime – it’s 1942 – and a man, deep in thought on one of the chairs in the open-air auditorium, catches the notice of a woman nearby. We find out far more about her than we do about the man, which turns out to be a kind of signal from the author to the reader: Harrison, as we later discover him to be called, is hard to pin down. The woman, in contrast, is described in detail and her life is neatly packaged up for us over several pages. But, in the end, she could be any young wife left alone in London by a husband away in the army. A recent letter of his asked if she was being a good girl and, well, sometimes she is. But her back-story seems to be all we’ll get of her: there seems to be no reason why Harrison should ever meet her again, and she has found out nothing significant about him.
What he’s deep in thought about is a woman. She has told him she doesn’t want to see him any more, but has agreed to let him call one more time at eight. Cue Chapter 2, the first two words of which are Stella Rodney’s name, and which begins with her waiting for Harrison, uncharacteristically late. She’s renting one of those big-roomed London flats, and its blandly tasteful late 1930s furnishings are not what she would have chosen at all. She doesn’t feel at home there, and this is the first hint of how central the importance of property and money for this particular class will become later.
But this chapter isn’t about things, it’s about relationships. It spins off in an unexpected direction, because Harrison’s proposition is not at all the last gasp of a man who wants to deny that an affair is over. Stella has a long-term relationship with another man and, to summarise the tortuous conversation they have, she will need to give him up. Harrison lets her know, although he can’t come out with it directly, that he works for the secret service. He knows that Robert, the other man, has been ‘playing the fool’ with government information because leaks have been traced to him. The only reason he hasn’t been arrested is in the hope that he might lead them to bigger fish. Harrison can’t stall his superiors forever, and what he does will depend on, well, what Stella does.
She is left with a dilemma. There’s no way of knowing if Harrison is telling the truth, and he points out that if she simply laughs it off and tells Robert, changes in his subsequent behaviour will alert the authorities that he has been tipped off. Harrison speaks almost ruefully: Robert is not a good enough actor to fool them into believing that he knows nothing of their suspicions…. And so on. She is left with a kind of impotent rage, made worse by Harrison’s proposal that they go out for dinner. She is only saved by a telephone call from her 20-year-old son, on 48 hours’ leave from the army, who is at the station.
So Chapter 3 is mother and son, as she gets a sofa ready for him to sleep on. She worries about him, of course, not because he’s in the army during a war but because she’s his mother. He seems too passive to her, a receiver of friendships rather than an instigator. He seems not to have outgrown certain adolescent tendencies… and so on. But, along with some more back-story about Stella – she divorced her husband after three years, and he died shortly after – we find out that Roderick, the son, has recently inherited a large property from a second cousin on his father’s side whom he has never met. It’s a big house with 300 acres – and the fact that it’s in Southern Ireland seems not to deter him at all from enjoying the prospect of ownership. Ok….
Chapter 4 is a flashback to the funeral of this cousin, because that’s where Harrison first insinuates himself into Stella’s life. It takes place in the obscure village in England where he died while visiting his mentally ill wife, and his side of the family are not pleased to meet the femme fatale. Roderick isn’t there – she’d had no idea the cousin would bequeath the property to him – and she feels embarrassed. Harrison only introduces himself to her near the end, as someone who had known and worked with the cousin. The tricky thing is – at least, this is his story – he’s left some of his ‘papers’ with the cousin, and they must still be in the little rest home with the dead man’s effects…. But how, she wonders, did he know where the private funeral was to be held? What does he expect her to do about the papers? Back in London, she gets a tube while he looks for a taxi, thinking that she’s given him the slip forever. Hah. He rings her two days later on her unlisted number. It’s looking likely that he really is a spy.
One last word about Bowen’s conversations. Her characters are so determined to put into words the thoughts that come to them that sometimes there seems no way to read between the lines. There simply isn’t any space between the lines, somehow…. And yet there’s still so much we don’t know, particularly about Harrison. While Stella appears to leave no part of her psyche unrevealed in all its quivering sensitivity – at one stage a folded piece of paper Roderick finds in Robert’s dressing-gown is ‘dynamite between her fingers’ and she endlessly discusses the rights and wrongs of reading it with her son – Harrison is a blank. As to what their relationship has consisted of in the four months between their meeting at the funeral and his visit in September… it’s another blank.
As far as plot is concerned, I’m beginning to think this whole novel is a blank. I’d guess that what plot there is in these four chapters could be summarised in two sentences. Let’s see…. Stella sits on Harrison’s allegations about Robert for about six weeks, although she does go as far as to meet his mother for the first time. Harrison tells her this is ok by him, because he has enough on Robert without any input from her, needn’t have troubled her all those months ago at the funeral, but he’ll carry on visiting occasionally if that’s all right with her. Yep. Two sentences. Which leaves the question of what a novel about the supposed anti-British spying activities of one of its main characters is for if it isn’t about plot.
Perhaps it’s about what life is like for a woman on her own in London during wartime, But it’s more general than that if the long essay on the subject that opens Chapter 5 is anything to go by. It’s about the change in the subtle dynamics of everyday inter-relationships in a city where, every night, there is a real chance of being killed. London almost becomes a character in itself as we learn about life during what is never referred to directly as the Blitz during the autumn of 1940. There are no bombing raids in 1942, but the uncharacteristic openness, or whatever it is – Bowen never refers to the Spirit of the Blitz either – still remains. It has slackened the controls governing the ways that men and women behave towards one another, in public and private.
This is something we’ve already seen evidence of in the back-story concerning Louie, the woman who tried to chat Harrison up in the park in Chapter 1, and Bowen returns to her in Chapter 8. (More about that later.). It’s in another flashback that we see how relatively easy it is for Stella and Robert to meet and sleep together. I don’t know whether the function of the essay that precedes this is Bowen’s reminder to her post-war readers that her characters shouldn’t be judged by peacetime criteria, or whether it’s what genuinely appeals to her as an author. Maybe the plot is just a scaffolding for her to hang her real interests on to.
Whatever. Chapter 6 is the visit to Robert’s mother’s house, and it confirms what I’d decided in the chapter describing Stella’s flat. This class, and this author, are fixated not only on property but on what people’s domestic arrangements say about them. In Holme Dene – these places always have to have a name – Robert’s mother has placed herself strategically at the centre of it all. Stella can’t believe she missed her in her first survey of the lounge – interesting how the snob-value of words can go down as well as up – in her big chair in the middle. She has command not only of all the rooms and corridors around it through the open doors, but of the grounds through the big windows. She seems slightly suspicious of the fact that her visitors arrive on foot, having left the taxi at the gate: she’s been listening out for it. She speaks of their sequestered life as though, really, nothing exists beyond the boundaries.
The visit is odd. There is a bouncing, hyperactive older sister, a childless widow. There’s an unspoken German connection, which would ring alarm bells if this were really a spy novel, first hinted at in the sister’s reference to their mother as ‘Muttikins’. There are a niece and nephew, the boy in particular focused on the presumably imaginary movement he’s part of, which seems to demand a lot of military-style drilling and the wearing of an arm-band that Robert reminds him not to wear in public. (Hitler Youth? Do we care?) And Robert’s bedroom, which contains 70 photographs of him. As Stella remarks, it would be a shrine to him if he wasn’t still alive. (Did I mention that he has a limp, only noticeable if he’s thinking about it, that he received in the retreat from Dunkirk) I’m mentioning it now.)
Harrison knows about the visit, and it’s when he arrives at Stella’s to tell her this, among other things, that he lets her know that she is not at all essential to his surveillance operation. This is in Chapter 7 – Bowen’s chapters are like discrete scenes, as though from a particularly wordy play – and it ends with a kind of set piece between them. He goes to stand in the embrasure between the curtain and the window, and Stella joins him there. It’s another instance of Bowen’s determination to use the features of a room to imbue certain scenes with some kind of significance – but whenever Harrison is involved there’s always ambiguity. He scrupulously doesn’t touch her, but this ‘abstention… was becoming… as powerful as a touch.’ Stella sees that this bizarre closeness is important to him, and how wrong he is to think anything of it, having no clue of ‘the enormous breach, the desert between understanding and where they really stood.’ If I’ve got this right – and I don’t think Bowen is explicit about it – Stella is only offering Harrison a fantasy of closeness for Robert’s sake. As he leaves, he lets her know that he’ll ‘look in again.’ I bet he will.
Chapter 8 is another oddity. Louie, the woman I wasn’t expecting to see again after Chapter 1, has a new friend, Connie. Louie works in a factory, Connie is an ARP warden with nothing to do during her long watches every night, and this seems to be Bowen’s attempt to widen the scope beyond the middle classes she’s most comfortable with. A lot of it ends up reminding me of the railway and station tea-room workers in Brief Encounter (1945). The scene in which Connie is first introduced, with her groceries bouncing down the stairs, is broad comedy, and at first I took her to be no more than comic relief while the posh characters get on with the important stuff.
If so, this isn’t the case with Louie. As in the long introductory section in Chapter 5, there’s a serious point to do with women in wartime. The theme that is given more prominence than almost anything else in the chapter is the ambivalence of Louie’s feelings about Tom, her absent husband. His photograph stares out at her – what is it with Bowen and the photographs women have of their men? – and she dusts it every day. ‘To see, however, is not to look.’ I don’t know whether Louie’s story will eventually connect with those of the main characters… and I’m not sure whether Bowen would see that as the most important thing anyway. As I’ve suggested, she seems more interested in other things.
Could the plot of what is, roughly speaking, the third quarter of the novel be summarised in a couple of sentences? A paragraph maybe… but not just yet. This novel isn’t quite like anything else I’ve ever read, although I’ll stick with my initial impression of its owing a big debt to the stream-of-consciousness novels of the 1920s. I’m thinking specifically of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse in which the internal lives of ordinary people, mostly women, are subject to an almost impossible level of scrutiny. What the characters actually do is secondary to Woolf’s exploration of the kaleidoscope of effects that everyday interactions have on their thought processes – which, I’m coming to realise, is exactly what happens in The Heat of the Day as well.
Which doesn’t mean for a moment that this novel is in the same class. Bowen’s narrowing of the gap between thought and speech continues to generate implausible conversations in which absolutely nothing is left unsaid. This strikes me as a fundamental problem, because one of Bowen’s main interests is the disconnection between people. The tiny bit of plot that there is depends on the impossibility of Stella knowing for sure whether Robert is capable of selling out his country. Their complete openness in their conversations militates against this. Here, uniquely in any fiction that I know of, we have members of the English middle class who always say exactly what they mean, with never a comma or a full stop out of place. One character – it happens to be Roderick – even places part of a sentence in parenthesis at one point, as though reading from a carefully drafted script. It all feels so damned written.
Ok. But it doesn’t stop this being an ambitious and often fascinating project. Some of the most interesting passages don’t depend on conversations at all, as in all those descriptions of women established a domestic context. Almost always, this is to do with where they do, or don’t, feel safe. Stella is out of place when we first meet her in her rented flat, and there’s a moment in Chapter 3 when Roderick is as disorientated as she is, looking for somewhere to put a tray in a room in which he doesn’t know where his mother has established her own trails. (In this room, as in Louie’s in Chapter 8, there is one chair marked out as being associated with a particular man. Its emptiness is almost palpable.) There’s Robert’s mother, knitting in the centre of her domain which, presumably, we are to see as her web.
And most ambitious of all, there’s Mount Morris, the property Roderick has inherited. Stella visits the place alone for a few days in Chapter 9, and her experience there is as disorientating as anything she’s experienced so far. She arrives as the mother of the new master, but her visit is beset by uncertainty concerning proper relationships with the tiny family of servants and the routines of the place she only ever visited once before, on her honeymoon. She’s out of place in the big house, and only feels any kind of kinship with it when she imagines the lives of other women in it. There’s an extraordinary set piece near the end of the chapter, in which she imagines a kind of inter-meshing of the generations. She remembers her own honeymoon there and, having decided that Roderick has not been somehow ‘victimised’ by becoming the new owner, she imagines a future wife of his arriving there. Ok. But this collides uneasily with a picture of the Titanic sinking, apparently one of ‘cousin Nettie’s’. She’s the wife in the nursing home in England, and there’s a whole raft of complications in that connection.
As I think about it, it seems to me that these interconnecting threads concerning women’s lives are what really holds this novel together, and not the supposed plot involving the lives of men. Fast-forward a couple of chapters to another set-piece scene, in which Roderick decides to go and see Nettie in the rest-home. She’s a damaged, closed-down version of Robert’s mother, absolutely comfortable in her little room. Her horizons have shrunk to literally nothing – she sits with her back to the window – and as she talks to Roderick it becomes clear not only that there is no trace of madness in her, but that she chose to close down her own life in this way. Mount Morris just wouldn’t do for her, and she seems to have become convinced that she had a terrible influence on the place. In this novel, such a conclusion is devastating.
She tells Roderick a secret, that Stella was the injured party in the divorce, not her husband. This leads to a long explanation in the next chapter of Stella’s own motives. She allowed a false story to become the accepted truth because it was convenient, it was easier for her. In this novel it seems that a lot of women have to fit their lives around men.
According to first line of the Introduction in the edition I have – I haven’t read beyond it – ‘This is a novel about the War, spying, and London.’ Obviously, I’m not convinced that this is the whole story. But perhaps Bowen decided that she needed some sort of hook for her deep excavations into how relationships between men and women really work, and I should tell you what’s been going on. The main plot upheavals are to do with what Harrison told Stella in Chapter 2, because on her return from Ireland she finally tells Robert of the allegation. He appears as astonished as you would expect, talks endlessly about how strange it has been for her to sit on the story for what is now two months… but it doesn’t stop him proposing to her later in the evening. Fine.
When Harrison comes to see her a week or so later, he tells her that he knows she’s told Robert because his behaviour has altered in exactly the way he predicted. He takes her to an eating-place down a flight of stairs, in which the lights are so bright all shadows are banished. In this room with no hiding-places this is the crunch, apparently. Stella assumes it is going to end with her having to sleep with Harrison in order to protect Robert… but, by a clearly symbolic twist, she is saved by the unexpected presence of – guess. It’s Louie, who recognises Harrison and comes over for a chat that seems to knock him completely off balance. By the end of the scene they have become ‘you two’ to him. ‘You two had better be getting along,’ he tells, them, and Stella is almost too astonished to move. Whether he is telling the truth about Robert – and I still don’t care – his move on her hasn’t worked this time. As the chapter ends, all he can do is pay the bill.
Chapters 13-17 – to the end
So, what is this novel about? Or, as Bowen herself might put it – she’s a great lover of italics for emphasis – what is this novel about? I’ve already said what I think, and a few more chapters – containing the deaths both of one of the main characters and of the unseen husband of another – don’t really change my mind. It’s about the lives of women, about how different these are to the lives of men. It’s about London – or, rather, tiny microcosms of London that come to stand for the whole experience of living there during the war. It’s about where people choose to live – or where they feel they ought not to live – with three moves and one decisive staying-put. And – something I haven’t really teased out yet – it’s about parallel lives. Long before these final chapters I was wondering whether Robert and Harrison are somehow two sides of the same coin. (Perhaps I’ll come back to that, and to Bowen’s decision to have Harrison’s Christian name revealed as Robert.) There’s definitely some overlapping of Stella’s and Louie’s lives (and, for that matter, the life of Robert’s mother in her ridiculous mock-baronial manor), with their domestic focus showing how women attempt to cope with the more outwardly-turned concerns of men.
But that’s not the interesting thing. A few days ago I wrote that this novel ‘isn’t quite like anything else I’ve ever read’…. Then, and increasingly as I read the final chapters, I wondered about what envelope it might be that Bowen is wanting to push. She doesn’t seem to be interested in plot in any conventional sense, but in situations. Relationships are already in place at the beginning, and the two women characters are forced to deal with things that are entirely beyond their control. Stella’s choice is utterly out of the ordinary and, as I’ve already suggested, it kick-starts what plot there is. Louie’s, worked through in only perhaps one chapter in every four, is as commonplace as Stella’s is remarkable. I can only think that Bowen’s motive in creating her as a character – and both the opening of the novel and the paragraphs that end it belong to her – is to broaden the scope of her commentary. It isn’t only upper middle-class women who are faced with extraordinary choices in these extraordinary times. Bowen might be far more comfortable in the milieus she creates for Stella, Robert and Roderick – I haven’t changed my mind about the Brief Encounter low-lifes style of Louie’s chapters – but what she appears to be saying is that women just have to get on with their lives. End of story, literally, for both of them.
What I’m working towards is the idea that Bowen has a subversive agenda, one that a later generation might call feminist. Men have important roles in her novel because, I suppose, she hopes to present a version of the real world. It might be stylised – those impossible conversations carry on right to the end – and sometimes the characterisation is schematic, but in Bowen’s universe, like everybody else’s, men are in charge. This is what suffuses the whole novel, from the generals who wage the wars that take away husbands to the man – Robert’s father, long dead – who bought a house only to put it on the market almost immediately, to the perturbation of his wife and daughter years later. And, crucially, it’s at the heart of Robert’s wrong-headed decision to throw in his lot with a fascist manifesto. It’s the only way, he tells Stella, that he could stop merely pretending to be a man. Any further comment necessary? I don’t think so. Shortly after this conversation he’s dead.
On the other hand, I might be wrong. This novel has survived into the 21st Century with a reputation as a minor classic, which can be accounted for by Bowen’s descriptions of life in wartime London and her ability to create memorable images of people in domestic settings. It seems quite likely that her evocation of the disorientation felt by ordinary people who might lose their home or their loved ones at any time is what gained it a readership in the late 1940s, enough to have it thought of with affection and admiration. But a modern reader is much more struck by its flaws, most of which I’ve listed and don’t need to go over again now… except for that relentlessly implausible dialogue – implausible for different reasons depending on the social class of the characters speaking – which, frankly, alienates the reader from the characters. Not a single one of them, ultimately, is believable and at least one reader – this one – never cares what happens to them.
I’ve been trying to convince myself that this is a modernist device though which Bowen offers a schematic critique of the behaviours that people are forced into by extraordinary circumstances. In fact I think it’s down to her lack of skill. By Chapter 2 it’s clear that this is going to be a novel about betrayal. We see treachery on a national scale being placed alongside the possibility of a personal betrayal, the one that Harrison is trying to force Stella into. In fact, it never becomes the driver of the plot that we expect. Betrayals of this kind in well-written novels lead to gut-wrenching moments of sympathetic feeling on the reader’s part. Deceptions lead directly not only to cataclysmic breakdowns in trust, but to tragic events. I can imagine a version of this novel in which, for instance, Robert’s feeding of information to the enemy brings about the death of British soldiers, including Louie’s husband. Louie’s sense of loss would be profound, and we would be brought close to the palpable consequences of Robert’s actions. Even without such a credibility-stretching twist in the plot, we ought to be feeling a deep unease about him….
But no. We get his self-justifying declaration of his disaffection with spurious ‘freedoms’, supposedly based on his Dunkirk experience, and Stella listens uneasily. It doesn’t seem to change anything. Their purported love – the mutual feeling they have talked about a lot – carries on as before. Except, apparently, this is going to be the end of the affair. He thinks he is about to be arrested, attempts to escape and, as we are told in a subordinate clause at the beginning of the next chapter, falls or jumps from her roof. It’s profoundly unmoving, although I did rather enjoy Stella’s replies, presented verbatim, to the questions she is asked at the inquest. It’s another alienation device, one in which Bowen distances the reader from whatever pain we might otherwise expect Stella to be going through, and it’s one of the things that made me want to read the whole novel as a kind of depersonalised critique.
Have I said enough? Other things happen in these chapters, all equally uninvolving. Roderick spends a chapter on leave, establishing himself as master of his big house in Ireland. Lucky old him – and Bowen resolutely fails to address the issue of English property-owners in Ireland during the decade in which real Independence finally arrives. Harrison, after something like two years – Bowen gallops through the war from victories in Africa and Italy to the D-Day landings and beyond – turns up at Stella’s flat. It’s a different flat, and they talk, and… and so what? She appears to offer him a consolatory shag, but I might be misreading it. Robert’s mother decides not to sell her house. Louie realises she is pregnant, moves out of her little flat to have the baby – I told you there were a lot of moves – and fails to let her husband know. Connie begins a letter to him but doesn’t complete it – and then the telegram arrives. Louie seems to feel, if anything at all, a kind of relief. So does the reader, because all this happens during the last few pages of the novel and the end is in sight.
And then the end arrives as Louie hols up her baby to watch three swans flying towards the west. What I’m ultimately left with is the sense that there is a good novel trying to get out of this infuriating one.