What might Jane Austen have said to Elizabeth Bowen about ‘The Heat of the Day’: A writer must be wary of introducing circumstances of apparent consequence which lead to nothing

March 12, 2013 § Leave a comment

A new intimacy evolves among those who have not fled, and the carelessness of people with no future flows through the evening air. Stella is part of this society. Living in strange rooms, she holds on to the past and weaves the present around Robert, her lover, and Roderick, her son.

Then she discovers that Robert is suspected of selling information to the enemy and that Harrison, who is trailing Robert, wants to bargain, the price for his silence being Stella herself. Slowly, the flimsy structures of Stella’s life begin to break into pieces around her. Extract from Vintage Classics blurb of The Heat of the Day.

Elizabeth Bowen is excellent at scene setting and making interesting relations between characters. One such scene is Louie’s encounter with Harrison in the park. Yet the full significance of the various characters and how they relate to each other is not made clear to me. Various scenes in the book appeared portentous. Of what did they portend? What did the hints and implications amount to? Here is a list of some things that puzzled me:

1. Why have the two disparate stories of Louie and Stella been put together?

2. Nettie, wife of the deceased Francis, is apparently mad and is confined to a home. What form did her madness take? Something dark seems to be hinted at, but it is never elucidated.

3. Why does Robert a grown man address his unmotherly mother as ‘Muttikins’?

4. We are to understand that the Kelways are an odd family: is their oddness responsible for Robert’s supposed treachery? The Kelways don’t seem at all like real people. And as novel people, I don’t understand their function.

5. Mrs Kelway gives a parcel (containing socks, I think) to Stella. She is insistent that it be posted from London as there is no Sunday evening collection where they live. Stella gives this parcel to Harrison to post. A lot of attention is drawn to this parcel: are we supposed to draw some deduction?

6. Roderick is uncomfortable about inheriting Mount Morris in which Nettie (the deceased’s wife) is given no share. He visits Nettie to appease his conscience and to discover if she is as mad as it suits people to think. Their meeting doesn’t throw enough light on anything but seems only to present more unanswered questions. Have bad things been done to Nettie?

7. Louie’s thinking is too involved for someone who often behaves in a perversely stupid manner.

8. Why did Elizabeth Bowen give Stella the married name of Rodney.  Her son’s name is Roderick, so he is Roderick Rodney. Her lover is called Robert. ‘Rodney’ and ‘Robert’ and ‘Roderick’ is a confusing list. Harrison’s name is also Robert. But as we only discover the duplication towards the end of the book, it does not matter.

Elizabeth Bowen, no doubt, worked much into The Heat of the Day in the time (1944-1949) she wrote it which the casual reader does not perceive. Elizabeth Bowen was not a casual writer who wrote words for the sake of filling up her pages. The following two quotations from her ‘Notes on Writing a Novel’ indicate the purposefulness of what she intended to write:

The weak novelist is always, compensatorily, scene-minded. (Jane Austen’s economy of scene-painting, and her abstentions from it in what might be expected contexts, could in itself be proof of her mastery of the novel.)

What must novel dialogue . . .  really be and do? It must be pointed, intentional, relevant. It must crystallize situation. It must express character. It must advance plot.

I accept that as a reader I am often deficient. I may read carelessly, and not take in the literal words never mind their meaning. But even allowing for my deficiency, it seems there is some deficiency in The Heat of the Day. I supposed everything mentioned had significance but I did not know what the significance of some characters’ actions were. There seemed to be a foreshadowing of some revelations about the shady doings of cousin Francis.  Our appetite was whet for disclosures that never materialised.

Elizabeth Bowen could hardly have be unaware of introducing circumstances “of apparent consequence, which will lead to nothing.”* So what was going on in The Heat of the Day?

Jane Austen to Anna, 1814: Jane Austen Selected Letters 1796-1817 edited by Chapman

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