Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 482
Set in London, England, and Ireland during World War II, Elizabeth Bowen’s novel is concerned with the moral and ethical dilemmas that people face during wartime. Stella Rodney lives in the bombed-out city, contributing to the war effort and earning a living doing coding for military intelligence. Widowed and with...
(The entire section contains 1660 words.)
See This Study Guide Now
Start your subscription to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.
Set in London, England, and Ireland during World War II, Elizabeth Bowen’s novel is concerned with the moral and ethical dilemmas that people face during wartime. Stella Rodney lives in the bombed-out city, contributing to the war effort and earning a living doing coding for military intelligence. Widowed and with an adult son, Roderick, she also has a lover, Robert Kelway. She believes he is a British officer on a secret assignment, but her world is shattered when she is told otherwise. When Robert Harrison, a British intelligence officer, tells her that Kelway is a Nazi spy, she is at first incredulous. She must decide if this is true and what her proper course of action should be.
The novel opens with Harrison sitting on a park bench listening to a concert, waiting for the time of his appointment to pay a visit nearby. Louie Lewis, a poorly dressed woman, tries to initiate conversation, but he rebuffs her. She gives the impression of having an intellectual disability. Harrison then goes to Stella’s flat. She had been thinking about Harrison, whom she has known for a few weeks, and wondering why he was so persistent in his attention to her. After he arrives, he soon tells her an amazing story: Kelway is not, as she believes, a loyal officer, but a Nazi sympathizer who is passing secrets to the Germans. Harrison demands that she leave Kelway and begin an affair with him; otherwise he will turn her lover in.
Stella gets his agreement for some time to think this over, and she then turns her attentions to her son, who is in the army but home for a few days. Her cousin has recently died and left a home in Ireland to Roderick, which he is interested in seeing soon to plan its restoration. A few days later, Roderick goes back to duty, and Kelway arrives. They soon go to visit his family at their country home. When she returns, Harrison turns up, verifying that he has her under surveillance. Stella briefly goes to Ireland to see her son’s inheritance.
Back in London, Stella confronts Kelway with Harrison’s information, which he staunchly denies. He also proposes marriage, but she defers replying. A few days later, dining out with Harrison, Louie approaches and interrupts them. After Harrison leaves, the two women have a conversation. Stella has by now decided to agree to Harrison’s terms. When Kelway comes to her apartment the next night, after they make love, he reveals that the story is true: he is a Nazi. Hearing noises outside, he flees through the skylight onto the roof. The next day, his dead body is found in the street below.
More than a year later, after the Allied victory in Italy, Harrison turns up again, but questioning him seems futile. Stella is already engaged to marry another man.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1178
The afternoon of the first Sunday in September, 1942, finds Harrison sitting at a band concert in Regent Park. He is not listening to the music but is merely killing time until eight o’clock, when he can see Stella Rodney. Thinking of Stella and the awkward subject he must discuss with her, he keeps thrusting the fist of his right hand into the palm of his left. This unconscious motion, as well as his obvious indifference to the music, arouses the curiosity of an adjacent listener, Louie Lewis, a clumsy, cheaply clad young woman with an artless and somewhat bovine expression. Lonely without her soldier husband and entirely a creature of impulse, she offends Harrison by breaking into his reverie with naïve comments that he brusquely rebuffs. Unabashed, she trails after him when he leaves the concert, giving up only when he abruptly leaves her to keep his engagement.
In her top-floor flat in Weymouth Street, Stella wonders idly why Harrison is late. Her attitude of waiting is more defiant than expectant, for she has no love for her expected visitor. She hardly knows how he has managed to insinuate himself into her life; first, he turned up unaccountably at the funeral of Cousin Francis Morris, and, since then, his attentions have steadily increased. There was a subtle shade of menace in his demand that she see him that night, and a curious sense of apprehension prompted her to consent. As she awaits his knock, her glance flickers impatiently about the charming flat, and she recalls the facts that give shape to her existence: her young son, Roderick, now in the British army; her former husband, long divorced and dead; her own war work with Y.X.D.; and her lover, Robert Kelway, who is also in government service.
When Harrison arrives, he receives a cool and perfunctory greeting. His first remarks are hesitant and enigmatic, but he soon launches into words that leave Stella wide-eyed with shock and disbelief. He tells her that her lover is a Nazi agent passing English secrets to Germany. Harrison himself is connected with British intelligence, and he had been assigned to cover Kelway’s movements. There is just one way to save the traitor. Stella must give him up and switch her interest to Harrison. If she does, Kelway’s fate might be averted or indefinitely postponed.
The blunt proposition unnerves Stella. She refuses to believe in Kelway’s guilt, for Harrison does not impress her as a trustworthy man. She plays for time, winning a month’s delay in which to make up her mind. Harrison sharply advises her not to warn Robert: The slightest change in his pattern of action would result in his immediate arrest. As the interview ends, the telephone rings. It is Roderick, announcing his arrival on leave in London. Upon Harrison’s departure, Stella pulls herself together and makes quick preparations to receive her son.
Roderick’s arrival helps somewhat, temporarily depriving Stella of the time to worry. Roderick is young and vulnerable, and his father’s early abdication makes Stella feel doubly responsible for her son. Roderick wants to talk about his new interest in life, the run-down estate in Ireland recently bequeathed him by Francis Morris. The boy is determined to keep his new property; but until the war is over, the task of looking after it will be largely Stella’s responsibility.
The night after Roderick’s leave expires, Robert Kelway comes to Stella’s flat. She gives no hint of her inward agitation, although she casually inquires if he knows Harrison. Gazing at her attractive, considerate lover, Stella silently marvels that he should be a suspect—he, a lamed veteran of the Battle of Dunkirk. Because she knows nothing about his family, she renews her request that they visit his mother and sister in the country. A subsequent Saturday afternoon at Holme Dene reveals nothing strange about Robert’s background. On the night of her return from Robert’s home, she finds Harrison waiting at her apartment; he proves that he has been keeping watch on her by telling her where she has been and why.
Roderick’s interests briefly summon Stella to Ireland. Robert protests at losing her for even a few days, and they part affectionately. In Ireland, Stella’s distrust of Harrison receives a jolt; he had been truthful, she learns, when he told her that he had been a friend of Cousin Francis Morris. She resolves to tell Robert about Harrison’s accusation. When she returns to London, Robert meets her at the station. Minutes later, in the taxi, she reveals what she has heard; Robert, deeply hurt, denies being a spy. Later that night, he begs her to marry him, but Stella, both surprised and disturbed, succeeds in parrying his proposal.
A few nights later, Harrison has dinner with Stella in a popular restaurant. She stiffens with apprehension when he tells her that he knows she has disobeyed him by putting Robert on his guard. Before Stella can learn what Harrison intends to do, she is interrupted by the untimely intrusion of Louie Lewis, who crudely invites herself to their table after spotting Harrison in the crowd. Stella manages to intimate that she will meet Harrison’s terms if he will save Robert from arrest. Angry at Louie, Harrison makes no response; roughly dismissing the two women, he stalks off, leaving them to find their way home through a blacked-out London. Louie is fascinated by Stella’s superior charm and refinement and accompanies her to the doorway of her apartment.
Robert is at Holme Dene, so Stella does not have a chance to warn him of his danger until the next night. In the early morning darkness of Stella’s bedroom, they pledge their love anew, sensing that this is to be their last meeting. When Robert finally reveals that he is an ardent Nazi, prizing power above freedom, Stella finds no way to reconcile their views. Faint footsteps, as of outside watchers, are heard as Robert dresses and prepares to leave. He climbs up the rope ladder to the skylight in the roof and then comes back down to kiss Stella once more before leaving. He tells her to take care of herself as he hurriedly disappears through the skylight. The next morning, Robert’s body is found lying in the street where he had leaped or fallen from the steeply slanting roof.
More than a year passes before Stella sees Harrison again. The Allies have landed in Africa and invaded Italy, and the prospect of a second front being opened in the war grows ever greater. At first, Stella had had questions to ask Harrison about Robert, but when he finally returns it seems pointless to ask them. There is an air of constraint over their conversation and a feeling that Robert’s death has removed any real link between their lives. Harrison makes no romantic overtures; he even seems faintly relieved when Stella tells him that she is soon to be married.