Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Set during the Blitz in the fall of 1942, The Heat of the Day is more than a spy thriller or a war novel. Although it has some elements of both, these genres rarely have a woman as the protagonist. Bowen makes the war a backdrop for Stella Rodney’s ordeal and the issue of Robert Kelway’s treason secondary to his betrayal of her. Stella faces the mutability and dislocation inherent in twentieth century life as she struggles to keep herself intact in a world that seems to be crumbling around her. Amid destruction and danger, class distinctions are broken down and emotions intensified. The people who have remained in London live without a past or a future. Caught in this external atmosphere of chaos, Stella’s story is essentially the narrative of her expulsion from her self-defined Eden and her reconstruction of a new life.

As the story opens, Robert Harrison waits in Regent’s Park for his meeting with Stella. Louie Lewis, a married working girl in the habit of picking up men in the park on Sundays, approaches Harrison. He rudely rebuffs her advances, but Louie’s perception of Harrison as “funny” sets the stage for Harrison’s obscene proposition to Stella. Stella has seen Harrison only once, at Cousin Francis’ funeral, where he appeared looming over tombstones under a darkened sky. She imagines he is either a madman or a salesman. When he comes to her with his proposition that she become his mistress in order to stop or at least postpone her lover’s exposure as a spy, Stella is overcome by uncertainty. She dismisses Harrison without an answer, but she cannot dismiss the seed of doubt that he has planted. The relationship that has sustained her and been the center of her life has been called into question. Stella is not horrified by Robert’s treason so much as by what it reflects about the man she thought she knew perfectly. If Harrison’s accusations are correct, Robert has betrayed more than his country.

The novel traces Stella’s growing knowledge of the man she thought she knew. She...

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The Heat of the Day Context

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Elizabeth Bowen was once heard to observe that when her friend Virginia Woolf discussed her feminist views, she was exceedingly tiresome. While Bowen may have been bored by Woolf’s feminism, she certainly was not the upper-class conservative woman writer she was once thought. Her own life was filled with unconventional relationships, and she voiced repeatedly in her works a suspicion of “normal” conventional morality.

Her reputation as a writer of drawing room comedies of manners is inaccurate when one considers her longer fiction. In The Heat of the Day, Bowen questions traditional assumptions about the roles of women. She chooses the male-dominated genres of the war novel and spy thriller and makes her protagonist a woman. Further, the novel is not plot-centered, as are most novels of these genres. It is instead an examination of the emotional life of the female protagonist. Always wary of convention and normality, Bowen places Stella outside the role of moral anchor for her family. She dwells apart from any male idea of honor, either Harrison’s or Robert’s. Her homelessness is a willful choice, as is her perceived role as adulterer. Moreover, her relationship with Robert is not sanctioned by marriage. Louie, the other female character in the novel, is no more conventional in her behavior than Stella. Bowen may not have voiced active support for feminist issues, but in the case of this novel—as in her final work, Eva Trout (1968)—she shows her concern with women’s issues and a deep understanding of the feminine psyche.

The Heat of the Day Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*London. Great Britain’s capital city that provides the novel’s primary setting. London is the center of the last European Allied country to withstand German conquest, although it endures continuous German bombing attacks. These attacks cause enormous destruction to the city, leaving no area untouched—including the royal Buckingham Palace. Seeking cover in air raid shelters becomes a daily occurrence for Londoners, for whom being roused from sleep by air raid sirens is a nightly ritual. Smoke from each night’s bombs drifts throughout the city, giving off an acrid smell. Melancholy nights filled with the ever-present danger of falling bombs evokes the darkened mood in London and becomes almost surreal.


*Ireland. Island country west of Britain that Stella visits on family business. Ireland remains neutral throughout the war and is depicted in the novel as representing what is still good and innocent as the war rages elsewhere. When she visits Mount Morris, she finds it a pastoral retreat from the devastation of London. Meanwhile, the British are unable to understand why the Irish do not join the alliance against Germany; to prevent Ireland from supporting Germany, Britain blockades Ireland’s main ports. Stella’s son Roderick claims that Cousin Nettie’s madness is a result of Ireland’s decision not to fight against Germany.

Holme Dene

Holme Dene. Foreboding...

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The Heat of the Day Bibliography

(Great Characters in Literature)

Austin, Allen E. Elizabeth Bowen. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1989. Good introduction that discusses Bowen’s style, syntax, use of narrator, and evocative settings. Provides a detailed analysis of the setting, theme, and character in The Heat of the Day, comparing Bowen’s portrayal of three English classes with Forster’s. Helpful annotated bibliography.

Glendinning, Victoria. Elizabeth Bowen: Portrait of a Writer. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1977. Primarily a biography, with some literary criticism interspersed. Often referred to, it provides good background material.

Heath, William. Elizabeth Bowen: An Introduction to Her Novels. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1961. Good introductory source. Provides clear analysis of setting, character, and theme in The Heat of the Day, revealing the novel’s use of the Faust motif and connecting private anguish and public disaster.

Jordon, Heather Bryant. How Will the Heart Endure: Elizabeth Bowen and the Landscape of War. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992. An especially relevant topic when studying The Heat of the Day. Jordan discusses Bowen as an Anglo-Irish writer and the attitudes that she displays toward war as a result of her heritage. Not all the works are discussed, but the book contains a well-researched bibliography.

Kenney, Edwin, Jr. Elizabeth Bowen. Lewisburg, Pa: Bucknell University Press, 1974. Presents connections between the personal world of the Anglo-Irish country house and the larger world of international affairs and between public and privates concerns. Also stresses the importance of Bowen’s setting during the bombing of London, which intensifies the feelings of her characters.

Lassner, Phyllis. Elizabeth Bowen. London: Macmillan, 1990. Analyzes Bowen’s novels in somewhat technical prose with a feminist slant. Included is a brief summary of Bowen’s life and a useful bibliography.

Lee, Hermione. Elizabeth Bowen: An Estimation. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1981. Excellent introduction. Emphasizes the novel’s use of structure, style, and syntactical mannerisms such as inversion, double negatives, and passive constructions, to reveal the emotional state of the characters’ lives and the turmoil of wartime London.

Rule, Jane. Lesbian Images. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1975. Contains a chapter on Bowen but concentrates mostly on her final novel, Eva Trout. Focuses not so much on the literature as on how women writers fit into and influence the society of their times. Useful as background reading.