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Elizabeth Bowen’s London in The Heat of the Day: An Impression of the City in the Territory of War

Céline Magot

Between 1935 to 1965 Elizabeth Bowen lived mostly in London. During the Second World War she was an air-raid warden and also worked for the Ministry of Information, travelling regularly to Ireland and reporting about the Irish attitude to the war. She lived through the Blitz, and her house on Regent’s Park was bombed in 1944. From this first-hand experience she drew material for her novel The Heat of the Day (1949), which is mainly set in London during the war though has a few scenes in County Cork, Ireland. The novel concentrates on what must be among the most traumatic experiences of the war for Londoners — the Blitz, as well as the 1944 bombings known as the Little Blitz.

The Heat of the Day shows a tumbling down city and recreates the sense of loss that one could feel at a time when familiar areas or buildings could be wiped out in the space of one night. It revolves around the themes of spying, being misled and deceived by reality, as well as losing landmarks and certainties. The plot runs as follows: Stella has had a relationship with Robert for two years. She meets a man named Harrison who claims that Robert works as a spy for Nazi Germany. He promises not to denounce him if Stella is ready to have an affair with him. Stella starts observing her lover, trying to find out whether she should believe what she was told, thus turning into a spy. Elizabeth Bowen does not give an account of the war in action; neither does she depict the visible effects of the bombs falling on the city. The ruins, the homeless people, the shelters seem to be taken for granted. What she tries to capture is impressions — the sensations that Londoners drew from their wounded city and the changes brought about by the bombings in the way the city is felt. She depicts a loss of landmarks and boundaries.

In 1945, Bowen published a collection of short-stories written during the war, The Demon Lover, and explained in a postscript how her fiction may be related to the historical events: “These are all wartime, none of them war stories. There are no accounts of war action even as I knew it — for instance, air raids” (Lee 95). The Heat of the Day proceeds from the same intention: it is a wartime novel, with little description of actual warfare. The only scene which takes place during an air raid occurs towards the end of the novel, when Harrison visits Stella after having vanished for two years. The effect of the bombs falling on London is never described at length and Bowen scarcely alludes to the fire and noise. As Harrison is standing in the street, the flames in the distance are very helpful since they enable him to read Stella’s address written on the envelope he is holding. The fire is depicted with a rather homely image: the “chandelier flare” makes “the street like a mirrored drawing-room” (315). Once in the flat, as the two characters are having a conversation, guns are heard twice. The sound seems to be welcome as it allows Stella to remain quiet for a while (“The guns rested her by opening up once more”) and it soon fades out: “The guns, made fools of, died out again, askance” (319). The concrete manifestation of the war is given little attention: Stella and Harrison are hardly aware of being exposed to any danger, and only the neighbours’ cat is scared. Few elements in the text remind the reader that an air raid is going on. The centre of attention lies elsewhere. Bowen obviously intended to keep warfare in the background, off-stage, to concentrate on the way the characters feel within a city at war.

In Bowen’s theatre of war, impressions are in the limelight. London is described through the characters’ “fleeting impressions registered by fluid states of consciousness” (Timms and Kelley 4). Reality is transformed by the characters’ own visions of the city. In all her novels, Bowen describes places with a particular stress on the season, the time of day, and the quality and orientation of the light, her writing being thus very close to the impressionistic technique. But in The Heat of the Day, the war seems to play a major role in the distortion of reality. As she looks out of a train window, Stella’s perceptions are turned into mystified impressions:

The two stations also, in Stella’s mind, became epitomes of the two most poignant seasons — in spring, in autumn everything telegraphs its mystery to your senses; nothing is trite. And more: in these years the idea of war made you see any peaceful scene as it were through glass. (104)

This passage is a representation of a transfer of reality — a metaphor.[1] Riding on a metaphorical train, Stella perceives reality only through the mist of her senses (“mystery”). The mediated transmission (“telegraphs”) is partly connected to the season, but it is mainly due to the war which stands as a glass filter between the viewer and the world. The “idea of war” acts as an additional distorting element, as a screen veiling the truth, which is symbolised by the train window. [2] Stella is repeatedly said to perceive the world in a blurred and mediated way, “looking at everything down a darkening telescope” (114). Coming back to London after being away in the countryside for a day, she even doubts the reality of the world around her: “The country seemed to have followed her back into London and to be on her tracks like a disaffecting ghost, undoing the reality of the city” (126). The problematic perception can also be expressed in terms of a reduced scope: “Stella Rodney stood at a window of her flat, playing with the blind-cord. She made a loop, through which she looked at the street” (22). Again, the window pane stands as a glass filter between Stella and the world, while the blind-cord emphasises the idea of imperfect vision. By looking at the street through a loop, she also reduces the scope of her perspective. Her blurred, reduced vision is obviously connected to the war: the cord she is twisting between her fingers and through which she is looking at the street is “the harsh black-out blind” which “was pulled some way down, throwing a nightlike shadow across this end of the ceiling” (22).

The war also causes the characters to have a distorted vision of time in the city. Far from being a steady, monolithic metropolis, London appears as subjected to time, whose overwhelming presence enhances the consciousness that the city is flimsy and transitory. London is entirely dependent on time, historical time in the form of the ongoing war, but also the more daily experience of time: the span of a day and the coming of dusk, which announces that more bombs are soon going to be dropped over the city. Time threatens the city, so that its presence becomes palpable, concrete: “the night behind and the night to come met across every noon in an arch of strain” (91). In a Proustian image, Bowen shows a new building rising above the ruins: a monumental cathedral dedicated to the glory of time, to its overwhelming power.[3] Its arches, following the course of the sun, symbolise the span of a day. The planes fly overhead and drop bombs every night, but time has seeped into the very core of the city and rises over its ruins. Time has become the other enemy which the Londoners are faced with and endure, an enemy who has already landed and invaded the capital. One morning, while she is at work, Stella receives a phone call from Robert. The two decide to have lunch together but “the restaurant at which they met most often was this morning, he was sorry to tell her, closed — the street roped off: some nonsense about a time-bomb” (97). The very name of the weapon, “time-bomb”, seems to suggest that time itself is threatening. In this passage, a whole street is no longer accessible although it has not been wiped out, so that the reality of the place becomes problematic. The street is separated from the rest of the city by a thin rope as if the borderline between reality and unreality had thinned out in the space of one night:

To the place he suggested she, it happened, had never been: its name from being familiar in so many of friends’ many stories, had come to seem to be over the borderline of fiction — so much so that, making her way thither, she felt herself to be going to a rendezvous inside the pages of a book. And was, indeed, Robert himself fictitious? (97)

The war undoes reality and causes Stella to experience a sudden loss of landmarks. The boundary between life and fiction seems blurred. The character undergoes what Phyllis Lassner calls “the disorienting experience of the blitzed cityscape” (151). She seems to become part of a palimpsest, but her spatial confusion springs from the war.

In the postscript to her wartime stories, Bowen explains how she experienced the war as a mostly spatial phenomenon: “I see war (or should I say I feel war?) more as a territory than as a page of history” (Lee 95). If war is a territory, it must be seen as a chronotope, a territory which is defined by a different relation to both time and space. When Stella travels to the neutral Republic of Ireland, she leaves the territory of war and seems to be travelling through time: “… in her fatigue she could have imagined this was another time, rather than another country, that she had come to” (163). Inside the limits of the war, London becomes a world where landmarks are lost, a world in which reality becomes uncertain: the characters lose their grasp on reality, hence the slight grammatical twist when Stella feels “around her the unsubstantial darkness was quickened by a not quite wind” (126, emphasis mine). In a territory in which time and space have become uncertain, in which the boundary between reality and unreality has nearly vanished, another essential borderline dissolves: the one that keeps life away from death.

Most of all the dead, from mortuaries, from under cataracts of rubble, made their anonymous presence — not as today’s dead but as yesterday’s living — felt through London. Uncounted, they continued to move in shoals through the city day, pervading everything. (91)

The nightmarish vision of the London streets swarming with the presence of those who have died too suddenly is another expression of the loss of certainties. The war has abolished the clear-cut boundary separating the world of the living from that of the dead so that they linger on in the territory of war. The vision of the dead invading the streets is part of a more general sense of fragmentation. In an essay entitled “London, 1940” Bowen depicts the metropolis as a city broken up into smaller, disconnected parts: “Transport stoppages, roped-off districts, cut-off communications and ‘dirty’ nights now make her a city of villages — almost of village communes”.[4] The need to spare petrol and to cut down on all sorts of expenses is repeatedly alluded to in The Heat of the Day. When Stella travels outside London to attend the funeral of a relative, she is confronted to a restriction on the number of trains for her return journey, which forces her to travel with Harrison, whom she deeply resents. On the way back, as the train is nearing London, the description of the suburbs conveys an impression of disconnection. Space is divided into sections: she sees a large number of hoardings and criss-crossed fences. Ruins are said to “string out along the main line”, which recalls the ropes that were used to cut off bombarded districts from the rest of the city. Even Harrison’s attitude suggests enclosure: “Though they were not alone she had felt gated off from their fellow-travellers by Harrison’s way of sticking a leg across” (86). The whole trip to King’s Cross Station unfolds in that claustrophobic atmosphere. The city is so permeated with the sense of enclosure that the air itself is constantly described as dense and saturated, as if the planes — although they are never seen — had left remains of aggressiveness hanging in the sky, or as if the city had absorbed this feeling of oppression. One evening, as Stella is walking back home, the air is so claustrophobic that she has the impression that “occupied Europe [is] occupying London” (126).

Such a sense of oppression can also have a social connotation in the novel. One evening, Stella meets Louie — a young woman who belongs to a lower social class — who walks her back home. A few days later, Louie decides to go back to Weymouth Street to see Stella’s house in full daylight. The young woman walks across the broken up space of London, she goes beyond the boundaries of her “village” — to use Bowen’s term — and enters an area which is neither hers in terms of geography, nor in terms of social class: “She had no notion Mrs Rodney lived so far from her” (292). The distance is not only spatial, it also refers to the social gap between the two women. Louie is not welcome in that place, and the sudden sense of oppression felt by the character is dramatised by a series of verbs conveying panic and by the personification of anguish, in a metaphoric displacement of the violence of war: “But then instantaneously she was struck, pierced, driven forward into a stumbling run by anguish — an anguish, striking out of the air. She looked round her, vainly, blindly, for her assailant” (292). The city and the buildings in the street have become the very source of that anguish: “The chattering variation of the architecture, from house to house, itself seemed to cheat and mock her — she looked at Dutch-type gables, bronze-grilled doors, leaded casement, gothic projection bays, balconies, discrepantly high parapets, outwitted” (292). The oppressive, rhythmical list accumulating architectural details suggests that the hostility in the air is exhaled by the houses themselves. Bowen had referred to the socially-organised layout of the city in her pre-war novels, sometimes with humour as in To the North, where one character refers to the route of bus No. 11, as “an entirely moral bus” (40). In The Heat of the Day, in spite of the general tightening of relationships among Londoners in a time of trouble and hardship, Bowen points to the fact that the social boundaries have not disappeared. Louie’s senses are tuned to the city and the oppression she feels in the air is part of the novel’s strategy — mapping the metropolis through the characters’ elusive impressions.

The Heat of the Day shows the deep transformation of London in the territory of war. It is a broken-up city in which essential landmarks are lost, whose reality becomes problematic, and which seems to be ruled over by time. Bowen’s London is not a monolithic, eternal metropolis. It is an elusive city, captured through impressions. Though it may seem paradoxical to attempt to depict a city through an abstract series of impressions, Elizabeth Bowen succeeds in conveying the experience of the blitz, and her deliberately toned down glimpses of wartime London may haunt the reader’s memory more than many a graphic description.


[1] Michel de Certeau explains that public transport is called metaphorai in Athens: “To go to work or to go back home, you take a “metaphor” – a bus or a train” (“Pour aller au travail ou rentrer à la maison, on prend une “métaphore” – un bus ou un train” 170).

[2] The connection between public transport and a blurred vision of reality is all the more relevant if one remembers that during the Second World War most buses and trains’ windows in and around London were equipped with darkening veils to reduce the light that might be seen from planes (Poirier, 168).

[3] As he was working on the structure of Remembrance of Things Past, Proust announced that he wanted to build it as a “cathedral of time”.

[4] Collected Impressions, 219.

Works Cited

Bakthin, Mikhaïl. Esthétique et théorie du roman. [1975] Paris: Gallimard, 1978.

Bowen, Elizabeth. The Heat of the Day. [1948] London: Vintage, 1998.

—. To the North. [1932] London: Vintage, 1999.

—. Collected Impressions. London: Longmans Green and Co, 1950.

De Certeau, Michel. L’invention du quotidien, I. Arts de faire. [1980] Paris: Gallimard, 1990.

Lassner, Phyllis. British Women Writers of World War II. Battlegrounds of their Own. London: Macmillan, 1998.

Lee, Hermione, ed. The Mulberry Tree. London: Vintage, 1999.

Plain, Gill. Women’s Fiction of the Second World War. Gender, Power and Resistance. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1996.

Poirier, François, ed. Londres 1939-1945. Paris : Autrement, 1995.

Timms, Edward and David Kelley, ed. Unreal City. Urban Experience in Modern European Literature and Art. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985.

To Cite This Article:

Céline Magot, ‘Elizabeth Bowen’s London in The Heat of the Day: An Impression of the City in the Territory of War’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 3 Number 1 (March 2005). Online at Accessed on [date of access].