A Literary Tour of London: Elizabeth Bowen's Marylebone

A Literary Tour of London: Elizabeth Bowen's Marylebone
Celebrated Irish writer Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973) is famed for her novels, short stories and ghost tales. Born in Ireland, Bowen moved to England with her mother in 1907. She was active as a writer between the 1920s and the 1960s, and is most well-known for capturing the spirit and essence of life of wartime London during the Second World War.

Bowen’s In The Heat of the Day (1948) is a novel which is located for much of the narrative in Marylebone. It follows the wartime experience of Stella Rodney and her lover Robert Kelway during the Blitz, as well as the interfering presence of Harrison, a British agent convinced that Robert is a German spy. Its themes revolve around the experience of the war, trust, betrayal, love and displacement.

The novel opens in Regent’s Park, located on the fringes of Marylebone, on ‘the first Sunday of September 1942’. The action within In The Heat of the Day revolves around the battered London landscape, partially destroyed by the heavy bombing of the Blitz. Stella’s own house, on the edge of the park, has been bombed, and so she exists now as a ‘camper in rooms of draughty dismantled houses’, drifting between apartments as the war slowly progresses.

The London in In The Heat of the Day – particularly Marylebone, around which much of the action revolves – is bruised and beaten. The psychological drama of living within a bombed-out city, amidst the threat of more bombings every night, is mirrored by the confusion and misapprehension felt by the characters at the centre of the plot, as they navigate a web of treachery, espionage and mistrust.

‘Out of mists of morning charred by the smoke from ruins each day rose to a height of unmisty glitter; between the last of sunset and first note of the siren the darkening glassy tenseness of evening was drawn fine. From the moment of waking you tasted the sweet autumn not less because of an acridity on the tongue and nostrils; and as the singed dust settled and smoke diluted you felt more and more called upon to observe the daytime as a pure and curious holiday from fear.’

Tension and fear are shown to be central to both life in London during the war, and the relationships of the characters with each other. It is suggested, however, as in the passage above, that such tension does not diminish sensory experience, but instead heightens it. The love that Stella and Robert have for one another is made vivid by their never truly knowing one another.

Air raid damage map of Marylebone © SMBC/WikiCommons

The impermanence of Stella’s home, and of life itself under the threat of the Blitz is also paralleled by Bowen’s portrayal of the dark glamour and giddy nature of life in London at the time:

‘The very temper of pleasures lay in their chanciness, in the canvaslike 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 rumored that everybody in London was in love.’

Marylebone, with its grand faded houses half destroyed, is an apt setting for this war novel. The dusty, bombed streets provide the perfect backdrop to the glamour and treachery depicted within In The Heat of the Day. Bowen’s characters navigate the streets of London, forever caught between vivid life and violent death.