The Demon Lover by Elizabeth BowenElizabeth Bowen was an Anglo-Irish writer who died in 1973 at the age of 73. She is, perhaps, a little like her contemporary V.S. Pritchett; a writers’ writer, whose books are sometimes still in print and are admired by the cognoscenti, but wouldn’t now be widely read. Her atmospheric 1949 novel of wartime London, In the Heat of the Day, is an exception, and was superbly adapted for TV by the late Harold Pinter in 1989. For the most part, however, she is one of those writers we all acknowledge to be excellent; we give a slight mental bow as we see their books in Foyles or Blackwell’s, in tasteful covers from Vintage or Virago; we remind ourselves to read them; and we never do.
I think we should. If we don’t, we’ll miss gems like Bowen’s short story collection, The Demon Lover and Other Stories (known in the US as Ivy Gripped the Steps). It was published at the end of the Second World War, in which the stories were mostly set. Most had been published during the war in various magazines that were then famous but have long disappeared, though they did include The New Yorker. In theory, it’s been out of print for years. In practice, it actually makes up the 1940s section in The Short Stories of Elizabeth Bowen, which is very much in print – and, in fact, a bit of a bargain.
Bowen’s skill lies in scattering clues through a story that allow us to infer character, or glimpse a larger story, through the agency of our own imagination. The first of these stories, In the Square, begins with a taxi arriving in a bomb-damaged London square at sundown; a man, Rupert, alights and calls on a woman, Magdela, in a house where he sometimes used to dine in peacetime. Little of note happens in nine or ten pages – he is admitted, there is a disjointed conversation, a nephew of the woman appears and disappears – but there is a powerful sense of lives disrupted. The household arrangements are ad hoc; there is dust; the parquet no longer shines. It becomes clear that much that was, is no longer. But that is not stated and does not need to be. He looked at the empty pattern of chairs around them and said: Where are all those people I used to meet? Whom do you mean, exactly? she said, startled. …Oh, in different places, different places, you know. I think I have their addresses, if there’s anyone special? The nephew, sixteen, wears slippers, smokes openly, and goes out in search of food: “I expect I’ll pick up something at a Corner House. …When he went out he did not shut the door behind him, and they could hear him slip-slopping upstairs. He’s very independent, said Magdela. But these days I suppose everyone is?”
In one of the shortest stories, Careless Talk, Joanna arrives from the country and has lunch with friends in a crowded restaurant in which “every European tongue struck its own note, with exclamatory English on top of all.” The male friends arrive late and in uniform. The conversation is disjointed. Joanna is told she is missed in London; why does she not come back? She explains she has nowhere to come back to. “Oh, my Lord, yes, he said. I did hear about your house. I was so sorry. Completely?”... Nothing more is said of this. Brief references are made to absent friends who are involved with Poles or Free French. “I hope it didn’t matter my having told you that…” It is careless talk, but not really in that sense; it is bright, brittle and inconsequential, and the men leave early to attend to business, while the women worry about three eggs that Joanna has brought from the country, which they have given a waiter for safekeeping. Bowen herself worked through the war and the scene would have been familiar to her.
In another story, Green Holly, several individuals are gathered together in a house in the country; it is Christmas, they have been together some time, and they are bored with each other; indeed they are unprepossessing (one has a large boil; another has baggy, shapeless trousers). But we are told little about them, or the reason why they have been cooped up together in the country for so many months. We learn only that they are experts (“in what, the Censor would not permit me to say”); and now and then one or other is called away, it seems to decode an incoming transmission. Their work is secret but their lives are drab. As they irritate each other, one sees a ghost. The ghost’s provenance would appear to be a crime of passion committed in the house some years earlier and it is thus a counterpoint to the drabness of the living. The whole thing is done with a strong sense of the absurd – it would scarcely work otherwise. The story is meant to, and does, amuse, but it also conveys a strong sense of the dislocated boredom of war – especially in its later stages, which is when one senses this was written.
Not all these stories are set wholly during the war, but two that are not are of times seen in retrospect from wartime. Ivy Gripped the Steps sees a middle-aged man visit an empty house in a South Coast town. The town is in a restricted defence area and the house has not been lived in since early in the war. The man remembers his time there as a child just before the first war, when he played an unintended role in adults’ affairs. This story is especially interesting because it reads as if it may have been the inspiration for L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, published six or seven years later.
But the high point of this book is its final story, Mysterious Kôr. Pepita meets her soldier on a night when London is flooded by moonlight. It is clear that they have only tonight. They must spend it in the two-room flatlet that Pepita shares with Callie, another young woman but one with which she plainly has little in common, and who has not troubled to leave for the one night. Instead, Arthur will sleep on the sofa where Pepita normally sleeps, and she will share a bed with Callie. They are in no hurry to go there; but Callie, needy, and filled with a sense of occasion, has set out cocoa for them and is waiting up. As they stand in the bright moonlit night, Pepita recites to Arthur fragments of a poem about a pristine abandoned city, Kôr:
Mysterious Kôr thy walls forsaken stand,
Thy lonely towers beneath a lonely moon...
Bowen does not say where the poem is from, but she does not need to, for her readers would have known. Kôr is a lost city in H. Rider Haggard’s She, then still very popular; it influenced the young Bowen greatly, and she was to name it in a 1947 BBC interview as a favourite book. The poem Mysterious Kôr was not in fact by Rider Haggard himself but by his friend the Scottish folklorist Andrew Lang. However, it was printed in several editions of She, and 70 years ago a young woman like Pepita might certainly have known it.
The night does not really end well. They make a late and awkward entry to the flatlet; there is no privacy; they have not even been able to sit quietly during the evening, as every bar is very full and the very pavements so crowded that they are jostled. Wartime London is packed with the soldiers of every nation, and there is no room at the inn. As Pepita finally falls asleep she imagines them walking through the pristine deserted city, untroubled by other humans:
With him she looked this way, that way, down the wide, void, pure streets, between the statues, pillars and shadows, through archways and colonnades. With him she went up the stairs down which nothing but moon came...
Bowen’s narrative and descriptive skills are considerable and her sense of place superb. In Songs My Father Sang Me, for example, there is a nightclub that is “not quite as dark as a church... what lights there were were dissolved in a haze of smoke... on the floor dancers drifted like pairs of vertical fish.” She also has a gift that she shares with another distinguished exponent of the short-story form, V.S. Pritchett – that of equipping her reader with the information they need for the story and no more; there is not an ounce of fat in any of these. A few sparse keys are enough. Arthur may soon be dead but we don’t need to be told that, and we’re not – it is Pepita’s yearning for Kôr that tells us, far more vividly, how they feel. In Careless Talk, Joanna’s London house is a smoking ruin but that is not discussed; her friend frets that the three eggs she has brought her from the country will be stolen, and somehow that tells us more. In In the Square, Magdela and her caller say little, but it is clear that their relation was in a time and place that is gone, and it is now hard for them to communicate. Bowen is a master of allusion.
There is much to enjoy in Bowen’s stories, but for me their strength lies in their universality. To be sure, her work is not modern; the short stories are written in the English of their day, and are rooted in a world that no-one under 80 would remember, and no-one under 50 would understand. But they bring that world very much alive. They do it not through “powerful” descriptions of air raids or bereavement, but through the agency of quite trivial shared human experience. A writer who can do this deserves to be read in perpetuity.
The Demon Lover (Short Film)
The Demon Lover
Elizabeth Bowen In , just as she and her family were to be reunited, her mother was diagnosed with cancer and died shortly afterwards. While in London, she began to work seriously on her writing. In she married professor Alan Charles Cameron and published her first collection of short stories, Encounters. In she and her husband moved to Oxford, bringing Bowen into contact with a literary circle that included the scholars C. Bowra and Lord David Cecil.
In The Demon Lover by Elizabeth Bowen we have the theme of conflict, fear, commitment, control and innocence. Narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator the reader realises after reading the story that Bowen may be exploring the theme of conflict. Kathleen after reading the letter realises that her past has caught up with her. Despite the passing of time twenty five years K. The reader aware through the narrator that Kathleen did not love K. However it may be a case that Bowen is suggesting that with a promise comes consequences.