All are criminals. War does this to people. It stretches the moral order until it breaks. The rituals of peace being lost, the ideas linked to them disappear, freeing the inhabitants to build their own lives out of the rubble that remains. So much liberty! And love is its symbol. Love. The biggest, most sustained raid to hit London during the 1940s.
This was the new society of one kind of wealth, resilience, living how it liked - people whom the climate of danger suited, who began, even, all to look a little alike, as they might in the sun, snows, and altitude of the same sports station, or browning along the same beach in the south of France. The very temper of pleasures lay in their chanciness, in the canvas-like impermanence of their settings, in their being off-time - to and fro between bars and grills, clubs and each other’s places moved the little shoal through the noisy nights. Faces came and went. There was a diffused gallantry in the atmosphere, an unmarriedness: it came to be rumoured about the country, among the self-banished, the uneasy, the put-upon and the safe, that everybody in London was in love - which was true, if not in the sense the country meant. There was plenty of everything in London - attention, drink, time, taxis, most of all space.
The comfortable claustrophobia of respectable life has been blown wide open. There is space to do so many things. The opportunities are endless… to find new friends, sleep with dodgy lovers, enter the risqué underworld of the poor, the bohemians, the real-life criminals. In London everything is possible. Those that remain are free. For the more conservative - the lower orders tied to familial loyalties and rituals - this freedom produces loneliness and longing; Louie going out with many men, and sleeping with some of them, only because she misses the physical presence of her husband, who is serving in India. Like a cat who climbs the fence to find the sun-soaked flagstones of a neighbour’s garden, Louie roams around the city to feel the heat of another man’s personality. It is an animal need, set loose by the collapse of the old morality, which, with its guardians gone away, has lost its normative force. Feelings dominate. The passions erupting like water out of a burst mains, the old moral precepts remain merely as spectators; standing by, struggling to keep their feet dry.
The Blitz creates new experiences; they give rise to new ideas that destroy the old order, often in subtle and unforeseeable ways. Louie meets Stella in a basement club. It is the first time she has met a rich woman on a level of equality, and she is overcome by the glamour and sophistication; Stella’s charisma redeeming the atmosphere of this seedy bar. The encounter confirming Louie’s clichés about the upper classes, Stella becomes her ideal; a goddess blending beauty with the highest respectability. The classes may mix in the Blitz, but class relations do not disappear; at most they are blown out of shape, distorting the relationships and increasing their intensity. At first this may only exaggerate the existing notions and the feelings associated with them, as here; but such changes produce instability; the new ideality (because it is so extreme) liable to quickly fall apart; Louie losing faith in Stella when she reads about her sins in a newspaper. Boom! Social respect has taken a direct hit. The very fact that Louie met Stella, and in this club, should have warned her… But Louie is still clothed in pre-war ideas, which confuse social prestige with moral purity;1 the natural tendency of the uneducated mind is to think in integrated wholes, moralising all actions and beliefs. To be beautiful and rich is, Louie thinks, to be a respectable person. But now she discovers that Stella brings men back to her flat, and has a lover who is a traitor… The tautology is broken; Louie realises that to be rich is not the same as being good; the war breaking this link in the minds of the lower classes (it hardly existed in actuality).2 Intimate contact has given Louie an insight into the real nature of her social superiors;3 though the fact she read about Stella in the newspaper suggests the limits of this understanding; which overplays her bad character; and says nothing of the sociology of war, its effects on the haute bourgeoisie, with its sensitiveness to feelings and atmosphere.
Stella is in love. She is consumed by it. In London, where war injects pleasure and recklessness directly into the bloodstream, and everyone is suffused with wild and uncontrollable feeling, love is inevitable, and overpowering. So much space! Of course Bowen is writing about a moral dimension; this novel a symbolist poem, the words invoking moods. We imagine the pre-war moral code as the wreckage of Paternoster Row; its now empty spaces filled by wild parties and drunken couplings - the emotions unrestrained; the raids are too many, the life too free, for the old moral ideas, those bricks and mortar of present constraint and future timidity, to contain them. Stability has gone. Living in other people’s accommodation - Stella rents a luxurious flat - working in unfamiliar surroundings - Robert is working for a government department - increases the dislocation, which in turn accentuates the climate of impermanence. No-one can settle down. Everything changes all the time, the senses coming to monopolise these characters’ lives. Only now matters. Tomorrow does not exist. There is little point repairing the old ideas when will they be bombed again during the night. Life, it is one long day at the funfair; intoxicating, shocking, delightful.
It is only the soldiers who think of the future - Stella’s son Roderick enthralled by the legacy of a country estate in Ireland.
This new life is intensely private, and is largely insulated from that of employment. Enjoying a bacchanalia into the late evening; Stella and Robert are in the office by nine the next morning. This split adds to the craziness of it all. Free time really does become free. And yet the work does not suffer; a more lively emotional life encouraging more commitment to office routine; the personality more switched-on, electric with excited living. Stella would not usually allow a conflict between work and her feelings, but…
Feelings are not so easy to control. The atmosphere a heady one, it is unstable, and is open to the darker influences of the underworld; whose dangers, because there has been a revolution in values, are welcomed, even mocked. The life of the Blitz a topsy-turvy place where the nightly revelries easily leak into what remains of day-time respectability; the transgressive tendencies of a drunken party spilling over into the staid bureaucracies of work.
She had had the sensation of being on furlough from her own life. Throughout these September raids she had been awed, exhilarated, cast at the very most into a sort of abstract of compassion - only what had been very small indeed, a torn scrap of finery, for instance, could draw tears. To be at work built her up, and when not at work she was being gay in company whose mood was at the pitch of her own - society became loveable; it had the temperament of the stayers-on in London. The existence, surrounded by one another, of these people she nightly saw was fluid, easy, holding inside itself a sort of ideality of pleasure. These were campers in rooms of draughty dismantled houses or corners of fled-from flats - it could be established, roughly, that the wicked had stayed and the good had gone.
So intoxicating! But such a life is dangerous, Harrison turning up like a devil in a medieval morality play to demonstrate the consequences of excess. A man of no charisma, who believes himself unattractive to women, Harrison uses blackmail to climb into Stella’s bed. There is a telling irony behind his actions - he ignores Louie, a woman more suited to his needs and class,4 who wants him. Class! As always! in this period. Harrison is captivated by Stella’s beauty and poise, her elegance and sophistication; he has fallen in love with a model, a myth, an impossible dream; and war, he believes, makes it possible for him to capture this modern Aphrodite. Now he will cross the class divide, and grab the spirit of aristocratic grace.
She made a sweeping turn and went through to the other room, contemptuously leaving the door open behind her. Behind the mirror the curtains were still undrawn; there was an ashy glimmer of window - she went round the foot of the bed to sit at the pillow end, her back to the scene she had left behind. In the dark she took up the receiver with the unfumbling sureness of one who habitually answers a telephone at any, even the deepest, hour of the night. Her hand would have reached its mark before her eyes opened; before her brain stirred her ear would be ready, so that the first word she heard, even the first she spoke, would be misted over by some unfinished dream. This mechanical reflex of hers to a mechanical thing suggested to Harrison, standing there aware in the other room, the first idea he had had of poetry - her life. Enflamed by the picture he could not see, he could but think, ‘So that’s what it can be like!’ Meanwhile, feet planted apart in the lamplit drawing-room, he looked about like a German in Paris.
The real enemies live in Britain. The borders are not geographical but social, and they have already been invaded; the old decorum, blasted away by the drink and late night fondling, has disintegrated, to leave Stella and her class defenceless against the likes of Harrison; while Louie and the rest of the hoi polloi are taking a good look round, “like [Germans] in Paris.”
It is not just sex that Harrison wants - Louie would have satisfied that need. No. It is the transgressive sexual act that excites him, his desire is to consume - and so inadvertently destroy - the feminine ideal he has previously seen only from a distance. Corrupted by the war, which has given him too much power - he belongs to the secret services - he uses it badly; for he is not conditioned by birth and education to use it well.5 For such a man, to have power is to exercise it; Stella a wonderful opportunity to control and dominate another person (and one, to boot, from the upper classes).6 And anyway, a beautiful lady is surely his by rights. Not that he articulates such feelings, Harrison is no sophisticate.
He thinks he can have Stella by threatening to expose her lover as a German spy. It is all so crude and sordid; Harrison a bad man because he is so cheap. And with one of those terrible ironies that this author delights in - Elizabeth Bowen is a magician who can render the meaning that exists between the words (of especially intelligent individuals)7 - we come to believe that Harrison is the villain; not Robert, who is actually sending secrets to the Nazis. Vulgarity is a form of evil.
Robert is animated by an idea; albeit his articulation of it is poor and incoherent - he spouts the sub-Nietzschean stuff that once intoxicated the pseudo-intellectuals in the bierkellers of Munich and Berlin.8 Not that the quality of his thought matters. Simply to believe in an idea and to work for its implementation is to transcend oneself, Robert becoming a Romantic through his beliefs.9 His immorality ideological, his actions are elevated above the seven deadly sins, so that he is guilty of stupidity and moral crassness only.10
Harrison is not driven by an idea; a man of his senses, it is only lust and the feelings of power that excites him, that drives him on. Lacking a faith, and sexually obsessed with Stella, he has no loyalty to country, class; to anyone. Harrison is spiritually empty, the source of his wickedness.11
Love! Such a dangerous emotion, especially when it is so ubiquitous; Stella “gay in company whose mood was at the pitch of her own”. It wrecks a moral order that requires subservience to abstract rules that are maintained only when the sober are in the majority, and in charge. Love is too physical, too immediate, too passionate, to be controlled by formal and ritualistic ideas; and anyway the Blitz has removed most of those; “the wicked had stayed and the good had gone”. Once the old culture, with its established controls, is severely damaged, anything can happen…12
Stella cannot break with Robert, even though Harrison has seeded doubts into her soul; patriotism unable to compete with love, which has its own ideals and sense of honour. When the tension reaches a climax Stella at last gives in; she will try to have it both ways - she informs Robert of Harrison’s investigations, and decides to sleep with this horrible detective.
‘You must not blame him,’ said Stella, ‘it has been my fault. He’s in trouble, too - I am telling her that you are in trouble,’ she said to Harrison, then went back to Louie. ‘Nothing ever works out the way one hoped, and to know how bitter that is one must be a worker-out - you and I are not. This evening was to have been a celebration, the first of many more evenings. It may still be the first of many more evenings, but what will they be worth? This is the truth,’ she said, looking round her at all the other people apprehensively staring into each other’s faces. ‘He cannot bear it; let’s hope he will forget it - let’s hope that; it is the least we can do; we’re all three human. At any time it may be your hour or mine - you or I may be learning some terrible human lesson which is do undo everything we had thought we had. It’s that, not death, that we ought to live prepare for. - What shall we do?’ she said to Harrison. ‘What would be least impossible, do you think? Where shall we go next?’
The overpowered Louie glanced from man to woman, heaved about on her chair as though bound by ropes to it, got herself free, stood up. ‘I ought to be getting home.’
‘But you said your home - ?’
‘I ought to be getting back where I am. Tell him it’s as you were,’ she said. ‘People must fly off sometimes.’
‘Say good night to him.’
‘Me? I don’t know his name.’
‘Harrison - You must congratulate me before you go,’ said Stella, her hand still on Louie’s arm. ‘I’ve good news, I think.’
Stella nodded. ‘A friend is out of danger.’
Harrison’s unfolding of his arms, on which he had been leaning heavily, let the table restore itself to equilibrium with a bump and a flash of cutlery. He was changing his attitude, apparently, only in order to minister to a smarting eye, which a fume from his heap of stubs must at last have caught. He scrubbed at this eye, the left, with a finger-tip, raising and lowering his eyebrows. ‘Why not you two both go along together?’ he said, looking at the finger when it had done. ‘Don’t you hear what I say?’ he asked in a louder, less absent voice. ‘You two had better both be getting along.’
Stella, pale again with stupidity, touched a spoon in a saucer. At last she brought out: ‘But…’
Stella looked at Louie, as though she might take a turn. ‘But - she and I have no idea where we are.’
‘Turn right, at the top of the steps; keep on; first left, keep on again. One of you ought to know when you’re in Regent Street.’
‘And then, I don’t know where she lives.’
He rose and pulled back the table; Stella under compulsion got slowly up. ‘I don’t understand,’ she said. ‘What has been decided.’ What are you going to do now?’
‘Get the bill. Do you think a bill pays itself.’
Harrison wants love. A sexual contract offers no attraction; for it smashes the icon, and removes his power - by articulating her submission much too clearly Stella has reasserted her authority; and hurt his feelings, made him feel small. Stella, by turning an act submission into a grand gesture, has recovered her superiority; she is treating Harrison with a terrible condescension - like the elegance of her telephone technique, she dismisses both her seducer and her own body as worthless trinkets that can be thrown away without thought, without care. It is her manner - such nonchalance! - that defeats him, and which he now resents. Always he will remain a member of the lower classes; Stella always to be above him; she belongs to a different species. He refuses her offer.
Stella’s stupefied response shows that she has misjudged this man, hasn't quite grasped the Harrison’s nature, the quality of his strange desires. Love. It makes everything unpredictable. Suddenly there is shift and change; a charmless man refusing to sleep with a beautiful lady because… Love needs the respect of the loved one; which his crass behaviour denies. Like Stella, Harrison hasn’t grasped the realities of “these September raids”; they have given him power but taken away his humanity; they bring him in contact with his superiors, where he reveals his true self, which repulses them.13
Social distance is maintained. Stella is not touched by Harrison’s “unwashed” hands. After all the destruction, and its concomitant moral decay, something still remains of the old ways of life; the attributes of class are extremely resilient. The brute power of the working classes, here embodied in Harrison, cannot overcome Stella’s elegant phrases and her graceful slight of hand; although she comes very close to falling: the death of Robert leads to a complete collapse, and she needs the company of the man responsible for his demise. Luckily for them both Harrison is posted to a different town, giving Stella time to recover. She ends by contemplating marriage to a conventional middle class gent.
When the party ends, the old ways return, although with much of their surface glitter knocked off;14 Louie to have a different perspective on the upper classes; Harrison ruing his missed opportunity - if only he had seen Stella in the days immediately following Robert’s death… For a little while he became part of Stella’s world, and only chance, or so it appears, has removed him from it.
Harrison represents a theme common to many books written in the 1940s: it is the feeling of missed opportunities.15 This feeling is so pervasive that it suggests a wider cultural meaning; it sounds the zeitgeist; of the atmosphere of the post-war years, when a time of social collapse, with its promise of rebirth, the expectation of something brilliantly new, came to a sad end; the old regime returning, normality is once again established, but more grimly than before. The late 1940s, the long hangover after the all-night party.
Harrison is a symbol of a time when the music quietened down just enough for the party-goers to hear the consequences of their wild behaviour. He represents Stella’s conscience, and the conscience of all respectable people; Louie’s marital infidelities due only to a weakness caused by the circumstances of war - the prolonged absence of her husband. It makes her feel sad. Louie has been given too much space in which to live; although in a wonderful final scene Bowen turns this idea on its head, and transports Louie down to her home village, on the North Kent coast, where she is radiant before the vast open sky. Louie has left London. She has a baby. She is returning to small town life, with its family responsibility and social conformity. She is to follow the rules once again: comfort not freedom is what this woman needs.16 For all their enjoyment these women feel they are doing wrong. Conditioned not to sleep around, to prefer the stable and ordered life, both Louie and Stella are disturbed by Harrison; the former attracted to him because he represents her old class-settled life; the latter because he is an alien presence; a figure of evil, of moral retribution. Harrison, a man made by this war, doesn't want the old ways, it is why he rejects Louie; to slide in-between the sheets of a lady is his goal now. Yes. Robert Harrison has invaded the British elite, and seems certain to conquer it; Stella and her class, with their freewheeling ways, having given him his chance; they have allowed him out, into the night.17
Harrison is what happens when the old culture breaks down, and the desires are set free. War creates liberty, but at a price. In this novel Stella is forced to pay the cost: it is the physical presence of a coarse man. It is why Harrison shares the same christian name as her lover: great love produces its equivalent in hate; our wildest freedoms enslave us; love produces the finest feeling, and destroys it in equal measure.
Oh! how these characters can talk, Elizabeth Bowen a virtuoso of the verbal nuance, which produces conversations where the overall feel is more important than the overt meaning of its individual words. It is what you imply, not what you say, that marks you out as one of us. The talk seemingly vague is yet full of significance; Harrison only grasping these subtleties at the very moment he has Stella under his control; at last he really understands what she means… “You two had better both be getting along.” For a few brief moments he is inside the club. But once there he finds that the members all look down on him - his clothes, his accent, even his gestures give him away. Confronted with such contempt, and in full knowledge of its meaning, he has to let Stella go; to keep his self-respect he must refuse the offer of her body. It is not wise to join the elite when you haven't been educated in its mores. Tact is the real power of this class. Harrison has very little; though the small amount that he does possess (exhibited in their last scene together) is the reason why Stella, although she has fallen way down, will survive. She has had a lucky escape. Saved by the remnants of the old culture, that while badly damaged is not completely wrecked. The Edwardian age lives on, especially amongst the working classes.
(Review: The Heat of the Day)
1. In the late 1950s a similar pattern emerged, when working class men and women began to encounter the middle classes on equal terms, only to then discover, to their surprise, the lax morals of their supposedly social betters (e.g. Room at the Top or A Take a Girl Like You; the latter adding another social layer to the mix - between the North and the South of England).
2. See Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate.
3. Seeing only the public spectacles, which encourage public ritual and social restraint, the lower orders are not privy to the concupiscence of the wealthy’s private lives, and so misjudge their characters.
A wonderful comment on this mismatch between ascetic appearance and the luxurious reality is Pascal’s The Provincial Letters, which satirises the Jesuits’ attempt to adapt Christianity to a worldly and commercial culture. Unable to moralise the lay population the Church came to reflect the immorality and hypocrisy of its rich patrons.
Pascal’s satire is a description of what occurs when a sect of the few becomes the church of the many, the Catholic Church forced to water down its doctrine and its rituals to survive as an international institution. Religion will always sink into a community's culture, and be absorbed by it. Ideologies and strict moral codes flounder on the rich.*
* Euan Cameron notes that the Reformation message was especially attractive to those classes immediately below the most wealthy and powerful in particularly the cities; the poor and the peasants were attracted to it for other reasons (The European Reformation).
6. He hasn’t the cultivation to have absorbed Nietzsche’s lesson that self-control is the essence of the truly powerful person; the greatest power of all is not to use the power we have.
8. See J.P. Stern for a good description of the type: Hitler: The Führer and the People.
9. Nicely defined by Isaiah Berlin in the preface to H.G. Schenk’s Mind of the European Romantics: An Essay In Cultural History.
10. It is possible that Robert is more acute than others in his milieu; unlike them he is aware that the greatest conflict is a social one, between the classes. The spirit of the ruling elite is more important to him than the nationality of the victors, the British working class a threat to a continental aristocratic culture.
Harrison’s treatment of Stella suggests that he may be right, although such a view overlooks the peculiarity of the situation - both Stella and Harrison are formed by events; when peace comes back the old mores will surely return.
And they did! according to Enid Bagnold (The Loved and Envied) and Nancy Mitford (Love in a Cold Climate), though in markedly different forms.
11. See Mary Midgley’s definition of evil in Wickedness.
12. What is so well evoked in this novel is the specificity of the situation; the odd nature, the unique atmosphere, of an event, of the Blitz. Events, this novel shows, create their own reality, which then follow their own logic.
One of the mistakes of social analysis is to try and trace the details of an unfolding event - a major crisis such as the French Revolution or the Reformation - in the time before it takes place; for example, using as an explanatory guide, the pre-existing tensions between social classes, the rulers and the Church. This overlooks something important and very obvious, yet something that is easily missed - the initial dramatic change happens extremely fast, and is cataclysmic.
In a major crisis there is a causal break. There is a divide - a great ditch - between the causes leading up to and creating the crisis and the causes operating in the crisis itself. In a masterly overview of The European Reformation Euan Cameron gives what he regards as the most plausible explanation for its success: the reformers flattered the layman. Or to put it into my terms: the cause is internal to the Reformation crisis. There is a lot of truth to this view (which may reflect the time it was written: a right-wing government using populism to discredit the liberal elite), and yet it doesn't go quite far enough. The most likeliest explanation for the spread of the Reformation is… there is no explanation at all. Once a crisis begins, it sets off a cyclone of passion (the passion of feeling and thought) that acquires and then follows its own momentum. The only explanation of an event are its actual details, the narrative of its growth, stabilisation and decay. This is not to say there are no extraneous factors that effect its course (such as a ruler’s desire for church property); but they are secondary to the power, to the force, of the event itself; this is its determining factor.*
The most likely culprit for the Reformation, the one who rolled the first stone down the snowed-covered mountain, is the Catholic Church at the moment it decided to confront Luther directly over his attack on indulgences. This decision detonated an enormous explosion, captured by A.G. Dickens, in his Martin Luther and the Reformation.
* Thomas Carlyle seems have recognised this truth, in his The French Revolution.
13. Compare with Bert Pye in Caught. The Blitz enables both Pye and Harrison to cross class lines; but in doing so they lose the respect of the women they meet. Only distance can maintain that respect; for manners will hide their essential vulgarity.
14. This seems to be the moral of Love in a Cold Climate, where a society beauty marries an old lech.
15. This is wonderfully captured at the end of Elizabeth Taylor’s A View of the Harbour.
16. The contrast is between moral and physical space, Louie happy in both wide open spaces and the claustrophobic intimacies of family life.
17. I don’t believe Stella ever sees Harrison during the day. In a brilliant opening scene, set in Regent’s Park, Louie sits close to Harrison in the gathering dusk, and this is very evocative of his threatening intent (and reminds us of the twilight scenes in William Sansom’s sensational Various Temptations). Is Harrison a sort of Mr Hyde? There are suggestions he is Robert’s doppelgänger; and a friend of mine is a convincing advocate for this view. Although plausible, I’m not sure: which Robert is Dr Jekyll? No. We need a different approach. It is the delicate strands of symbolism that will uncover this character’s significance; gothic horror too clumsy a device to explain such a subtle evocation of dread and nemesis.