The wartime setting of The Heat of the Day is no more than incidental, for the story, dealing with contrasting faiths and loyalties, is timeless. Though the general atmosphere is electric with danger, Elizabeth Bowen muffles the sound of bombs and antiaircraft guns so that they provide only background for the drama of Stella Rodney, Robert Kelway, and the enigmatic Harrison. The problem of Stella Rodney is that of a woman asked to question her own judgment of the man she loves. Bowen is at her best in dealing with complex personal relationships, and here she inspects some barriers to emotional and intellectual harmony that are embodied in a conflict between patriotism and love. Like Henry James, she is interested in the collision of finely grained personalities, and the very nature of her subject matter demands a style that is sensitive and involved.
Bowen often expressed her concern for the disintegration of tradition and value in the twentieth century by depicting the discrepancy between modern women’s changing aspirations and their felt desire for traditional roles. In The House in Paris (1936) and The Death of the Heart (1938), Bowen’s heroines are restless and dissatisfied in the roles of wife or mother; in The Heat of the Day, Stella tests “free womanhood.” This novel combines the portrayal of a woman’s dilemma with two other representations of Bowen’s concern—the neglected family estate and the events of World War II.
Stella Rodney is Bowen’s “free woman.” She is a professional working in military intelligence, a longtime divorcée, and the mother of a grown son. She has a lover whom she has known for two years, but she dates and knows other men. Still, her relationship with Robert is her most important. Stella is sensitive, strong, and articulate, not only about others but also about her own problems. She has let her son and others believe for years that she left her husband, that she was the femme fatale, the self-sufficient one. In fact, she was divorced by her husband, who left her for his nurse. Stella’s son Roderick discovers this fact and confronts his mother, saying it puts “everything in a different light.” She admits that her lie was a matter of saving face; when most people believed that she was the guilty party, she let the story go on. She says to Harrison that it is better to sound like “a monster than look a fool.” That remark suggests the paradox in Stella’s psyche: She craves to be identified as a free woman, capable of anything, but her inner self is not quite in concert with that image. Therefore, she lies about the circumstances of her divorce. In her relationship to Roderick, she...
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