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Bare Lives
Part 1 – Spectrality and Hospitality

Humbled Masters in Cracked Structures: Dispossession within Possession in Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day (1948)

Les maîtres contraints à l’humilité dans les structures fissurées : dépossession et possession dans The Heat of the Day (1948) d’Elizabeth Bowen
Laura Lainväe


« Les maîtres contraints à l’humilité dans les structures fissurées : dépossession et possession dans The Heat of the Day (1948) d’Elizabeth Bowen » s’intéresse à la différence spectrale qui hante la notion de possession (le ‘fait de posséder’), à savoir la possession du maître par un fantôme, et montre comment le roman mine ainsi la domination qu’exerce le patriarcat sur l’héritage, le langage, le récit, l’Histoire et la littérature. La hantise prend plusieurs formes dans le roman : celle de fantômes véritables, mais aussi celle de l’excès qui hante l’origine propre et la propriété d’un objet, d’un texte ou d’un mot, etc. En révélant et en déchiffrant l’excès dans un document, des mots, des récits, ainsi que dans la structure du roman, cet article montre comment l’excès non seulement dépossède les maîtres patriarcaux de leur pouvoir, mais donne aussi pouvoir aux personnages féminins. Ainsi, The Heat of the Day apparaît comme un roman qui ouvre un espace littéraire fragmenté où l’on peut penser l’altérité et les marginaux à travers l’excès spectral qui permet la fissuration du patriarcat.

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Texte intégral

I know of no other novelist whose syntax assumes the primary task of both concealing and
revealing the cracks that fissure our emotional composure.
 (Potter 13–14)

  • 1 A metaphor for an invisible obstacle that keeps certain groups, typically women, from rising beyond (...)
  • 2 While Sarah Wood dedicates a whole chapter to the nuclear rhetoric of Bowen’s The Little Girls in h (...)

1Bowen’s wartime London with its broken buildings and fractured social structure has already inspired several feminist readings of The Heat of the Day. Notably, Emma Zimmerman writes about a ‘late modernist portrait of the fractured domestic landscape of 1940s London’ (Zimmerman 42); and Kristine A. Miller about Bowen’s unsafe homes and bourgeois feminism. Following in the footsteps of these attentive readers, I will trace the cracks that appear in the glass ceiling1 of 1940s Britain, but also the cracks that occur in Bowen’s writing. Her language, that Bowen herself has called ‘verbal painting’ (Glendinning 43), mimics the London of the Blitz.2 The Heat of the Day becomes a deliberately broken system where words and sentences victoriously fail to refer to just one thing, without being compromised. Like Alice’s language in the realm of the mad in Wonderland, Bowen’s ‘good English’ grows curiouser and curiouser during the madness of the Blitz. The play with several and sometimes contradictory meanings of a word turns into a deliberate cracking (meaning ‘deciphering’ and ‘revealing’) of words as will be seen with the notion of possession. ‘Possession’, which, according to the OED, refers to ‘ownership, mastery, domination, control, power’, etc., is shown to harbour a form of dispossession through one of its other meanings—‘domination or control of a person by a demon or spirit’ (OED). Focusing on the spectral otherness that haunts Bowen’s language, and particularly the notion of possession, I will examine how the novel undermines patriarchal domination over inheritance, language, story, history, and literature.

Master, Ghost, Testament: ‘He May Care’

2The most evident trouble around the notion of possession concerns an actual possession—Mount Morris, and Cousin Francis’s written testament which names a new landlord—Roderick Rodney. Seemingly it is a familiar scenario about sustaining patriarchal social structures through a legal text that empowers fellow men. However, instead of strengthening patriarchal ties, the effect of the testament is shown to be uncanny. The bliss of owning a house is undermined by the ghostly undertone of the notion of possession, that is, being inhabited by a ghost. Through Francis’s testament, Bowen evokes the ambiguity of a patriarchal legal text, but also the master’s inability to possess property without being himself possessed (therefore, dispossessed of his power). In the case of Mount Morris, patriarchal mastery is doubly undermined: first, by the ambiguity of Cousin Francis’s testament, secondly, by the ghostly presence it imposes upon the new master.

3In the first half of the novel, Cousin Francis bequeaths his Irish estate, Mount Morris, to a stranger—a distant young English relative, Roderick, ‘in the hope that he may care in his own way to carry on the old tradition (Bowen 1948, 87). The transfer of Francis’s idea of patriarchal mastery in Mount Morris is threatened by the haunted language of his testament, particularly the use of may which, among other things, suggests probability. Once transferred to Roderick, Francis’s may become a maybe. Unsure about the meaning of Francis’s phrase, Roderick adds commas to the sentence, asking: ‘Did he mean, care in my own way, or, carry on the old tradition in my own way?’ (Bowen 1948, 88).

4It was precisely such confusion that Francis had tried to avoid by employing legal language and a formula meant to be clear without the use of commas (Bowen 1948, 87). Francis wanted to protect his will from supplementary meanings, but fails. Indeed, according to Derrida, such a thing is impossible: ‘Every term, every germ depends at every moment on its place and is entrained, like all the parts of a machine, into an ordered series of displacements, slips, transformations, and recurrences that cut out or add a member in every proposition that has gone before’ (Derrida 1972, 300). The transferred testament is open to transformations in the act of reading and writing, for the language of the testament cannot be reduced to the patriarchal dream of fixity of the origin that Francis shared with Roderick: ‘It was a matter of continuing—but what, what? As to that, there ought to be a mindless knowledge locked up in rocks, in the stayers-on’ (Bowen 1948, 312). Yet, a mindless knowledge of the patriarchive—Francis’s will, cannot be petrified: ‘[…] the structure of the archive is spectral. It is spectral a priori: neither present nor absent ‘in the flesh,’ neither visible nor invisible, a trace always referring to another whose eyes can never be met, no more than those of Hamlet’s father […]’ (Derrida and Prenowitz 54).

5Like fatherless Leopold in The House in Paris (1926), Roderick, equally fatherless, is nostalgic about the patriarchal order, traditions and Cousin Francis (whom, paradoxically, he never met). His loyalty could be compared to the generalised Freudian idea of deferred obedience—obedience to the authority of the father-figure in his absence. This deferred loyalty meets the document in which meanings are deferred, generating an involuntary disobedience through a more general trouble in the act of reading and writing that Bowen somewhat poetically sums up in her previous novel, The Death of the Heart: ‘To write is always to rave a little’ (Bowen 1938, 7).

6Among other meanings, ‘rave’ signifies, according to the OED: to ‘wander, stray, rove’. It suggests a subtle, yet inevitable, veering from one’s thought-track in the act of writing. Bowen continues: ‘Nothing arrives on paper as it started, and so much arrives that never started at all’ (Bowen 1938, 7), which could be compared to what Derrida wrote in ‘Force and Signification’ about speaking: ‘Speaking frightens me because, by never saying enough, I also say too much’ (Derrida 1967, 9). Both Bowen and Derrida notice the inescapable excess that haunts every use of language. This excess also makes it difficult to communicate one thing only, to give a direct order that could not be voluntarily or involuntarily jeopardised. Language cannot be reduced to ‘a mindless knowledge locked up in rocks’ (Bowen 1948, 312). Instead, by trying to do so, the raving Roderick is involved in an involuntary patricide, in the name of the father.

7First, Roderick’s reading of the testament threatens to overwrite the Irish patriarchal mastery in Mount Morris. Then, as a gesture of loyalty, he promises to name his future son Francis. This means that not only is Roderick unknowingly threatening to change the Irish patriarchal tradition of Mount Morris to the English patriarchal tradition, but he is also threatening to erase what Francis’s name stands for, by reproducing another, possibly quite English, Francis. Cousin Francis is, therefore, dispossessed of his agenda, his name; and the patrilineal inheritance is shown as counter effective as it not only threatens the memory of the father, but also compromises his relations to his symbolic fathers—his patriotism. In other words, Cousin Francis cracks the patriarchal glass ceiling from the inside, with its own tools (the testament), against his wish. As Cousin Francis cannot reduce his testament to ‘a mindless knowledge locked up in rocks’ (Bowen 1948, 312), he is sentenced to be dispossessed of his memory, his name, and his patriotism by his own sentence that suggests Roderick ‘may care in his own way to carry on the old tradition (Bowen 1948, 72).

8The same word, ‘may’, also suggests: ‘I allow’, turning Cousin Francis’s phrase into an order. Living under the patriarchal ‘happy assumption of the power to author the continuing story he has inherited’ (Chessman 70), Roderick first fails to notice the ambiguity of Cousin Francis’s phrase that is nevertheless decrypted by Francis’s dispossessed wife, Cousin Nettie. Nettie questions the authority of Roderick’s decision to move to Mount Morris by saying: ‘Oh, but my cousin decided that for you’ (Bowen 1948, 213). As an embroiderer, she has an eye for patterns, allowing her to point out the patriarchal pattern in which Roderick has been reduced to being a vessel of patriarchal mastery: a signifier instead of a signified. This is furthermore accentuated by another connoisseur of patterns—a knitter named Muttkins who, upon hearing Roderick mentioned, asks: ‘What do you mean by ‘Roderick’?’ (109), instead of a more appropriate question: who is Roderick? The name no longer seems to refer to Roderick, but beyond Roderick, missing the obvious signified, and going beyond it. In his name, the meaning veers, pointing schizophrenically to all the male characters and the patriarchal tie that binds them visibly: through the single letter ‘r’ that crops up in almost all the names of the male characters—Robert, Robert Harrison, Robertson, Roderick Rodney, Christopher Robin, Francis, Fred, Victor, Thomas Victor.

9The mysterious uniting r-sound could be interpreted as a symbol of patriarchy: like possessions in the novel, the letter ‘r’ too is passed on from a man to a man. As a sound with an Irish pronunciation, it could be misunderstood for the word ‘our’: a marker of belonging or a marker of ownership, or ‘are’, from the verb ‘be’. ‘Be’, in the present continuous, turns into ‘being’ which is also a noun for ‘a living person or thing’. Thus, one would arrive at the being that owns, our Roderick—the last heir. However, while Roderick is the last living heir, the tradition of patrilineal inheritance is not only reduced to him, he is also reduced to being a habitat, a vessel of patriarchal mastery.

10This is furthermore highlighted by an actual vessel—Roderick’s boat in Mount Morris. The decay of patriarchal mastery is shown through multiple sinking boats: an image of the plunging Titanic in Cousin Nettie’s old drawing room; the feeble rescue boats in Dunkirk; and a sunken boat in Mount Morris that was pulled out of the river by Roderick, only to discover that she is decayed (Bowen 1948, 313). Roderick is responsible for the restoration of the decaying tradition of patriarchal mastery. He is also a vessel for a net of cousin-forefathers. Therefore, he is not only a possessor, but also possessed: a subject to a will left by Cousin Francis to ‘carry on the old tradition (Bowen 1948, 72). The testament thus turns into an eerie volition of a ghost of Cousin Francis, whose ‘actual death returned him to life again’ (Bowen 1948, 67), that Roderick only notices at the end of the novel: ‘[…] he saw that what worked most on the world, on him, were the inner wills of the dead’ (Bowen 1948, 313). The will of a ghost puts into question the extent to which a master can possess (‘own, control, master, be potent, be powerful’) while being possessed by a ghost that is, in its turn, his master. Thus, the possession of Mount Morris could be seen as dispossessing the new master of his freedom by the uncanny half-presence of his ghostly forbears.

Language, Story, History: ‘A Terrific Dust’

11A similar failure to master without being mastered appears in the absence of an inheritance–in the case of Robert Kelway who has little to no prospects of becoming a master of his father’s estate, since it is governed by his emasculating mother. While the young Roderick fails to decipher a testament, Robert who is fascinated with Hitler’s discourse of an especially eerie patriarchal order, battles with the mastery of language itself: ‘He interprets the abstractions which serve as hallmarks of any cultural order as absolute ends themselves, so that the language of broad philosophical flexibility becomes an absolute weapon of destruction’ (Lassner 129). The reduction of language to absolute ends by Robert refers to the patriarchal desire to possess language, to establish oneness in language, story, and history, that it, to give the patriarchal power the same lack of ambiguity. In other words, Robert needs language to be locked up in rocks, fixated, obedient, but is frustrated to see that language fails to fall in line with his agenda. Words make him look guilty instead, so he wishes to erase what words such as ‘betrayal’ stand for by equating them with absence of meaning: ‘Myself, even, I have needed to immunize myself against them; I tell you I have only at last done that by saying them to myself over and over till it became absolutely certain they mean nothing. What they once meant is gone’ (Bowen 1948, 268).

12However, Robert is not immune to words. He cannot choose to learn or unlearn a language. The repetitive ‘myself’ gets lost in his language that is always already shared and does not obey a singular user’s desires. Thus, his victory over words is short-lived, for he admits that words such as betrayal are still capable of raising ‘a terrific dust’ (Bowen 1948, 268) in his mind, proving that the meanings he crossed out are susceptible to return. His language escapes his patriarchal reductions and it cannot be possessed (‘owned, mastered’) because it is haunted by other meanings and interpretations of words that destabilise the very idea of a fixed origin. In that perspective, his rhetorical question to Stella, his lover: ‘Don’t you understand that all that language is dead currency?’ (Bowen 1948, 268), could be understood in two manners. Firstly, as a reference to words such as ‘betrayal’ that he wants to discredit, erase, so that those words become a dead currency: without value. Secondly, his sentence seems to turn against him through the double meaning of ‘currency’—which also means ‘a flow’. Paired up with the imagery of a failed erasure and ‘a terrific dust’ language can still raise in his mind, ‘dead currency’ seems to make a statement about the nature of language: the disloyalty of words to communicate one thing only, to obey the authority of a clear origin that produces unchanged copies. The origin itself is a ruin, ‘a terrific dust’. Thus, against his will, his language could be seen as dead currency, as a flow of dust, of something which is crossed out, a ruin, yet haunting—the very definition Derrida gives of the trace in Dissemination as composed of diverging copies of copies.

13This treachery of language leads to a larger trouble: Robert’s desire to remodel his past. Robert can neither master nor escape his language just as he cannot control or escape the manifold history of the space he occupies: the London of World War II where ‘their time sat in the third place at their table. They [Robert and Stella] were the creatures of history […]’ (Bowen 1948, 194). In both cases, Robert is a part of a larger trace in which he is confronted with otherness that simply cannot be erased.

14This divergence or otherness is anti-mastery, the very condition that prevents Kelway from mastering language or even recognising in his language his own trace, his footprint. In her essay ‘Calico Windows’, Bowen writes about the otherness of one’s trace in London: ‘So many footprints are in the dust that you lose track of your own; you lose track of yourself’ (Bowen 1944, 184), which in the novel is brought up by the writer figure, Cousin Nettie: ‘We are so mixed up by this time that it’s a wonder we are anything at all’ (Bowen 1948, 207). Similar humbling blindness appears in Michel de Certeau’s text about the circulation of people in the streets of New York City. De Certeau claims that by walking people ‘”write” without being able to read it’ (de Certeau 93), composing a story that has neither authors nor spectators in which each body is illegible. According to de Certeau, this composite trace is the story that in relation to its representations, ‘remains daily and indefinitely other’ (de Certeau 93). In other words, history cannot be possessed (owned, mastered) by anyone and it cannot be reduced to a single separate story, for the trace of history (which is composite) is never entirely legible to anyone.

15The blindness to the multiplicity of stories in history, and the incapacity to recognise the impossibility of creating a single separate narrative of history is shown through Robert Kelway. Working for the enemy, Robert argues: ‘It bred my father out of me, gave me a new heredity’ (Bowen 1948, 273). However, the attempt he makes at replacing his English roots with Hitler’s conception of the Aryan Herrenvolk (‘master race’) amounts to an utter failure, leaving him possessed (‘haunted’) by an English spy, Harrison, instead. Rather than a separate character, Harrison, whose mission is to shadow Robert, could be seen as Robert Kelway’s double, his unshakable repressed opposition within. Harrison (also named Robert), is constantly confused with Kelway, to a point that even Stella wonders whether they are a separate person. Thus, by trying to escape his past and his heredity, Kelway only succeeds in producing more ghosts. Ultimately, there is no escape from oneself. As Thomas Dutoit writes: ‘There is no pure immunity in Bowen because the outside is always the inside of the inside’ (Dutoit 86), referring to the importance of the psyche in Bowen’s fiction.

16Kelway’s desire to rewrite his story using Hitler’s dreams of mastery of Europe, derives from a certain traumatic entrapment and dispossession by his mother. In a way, Robert is a desperate producer-product of patriarchy who unconsciously feeds the source of his own misery. He suffers from the side-effects of patriarchy: notably, from his mother, Muttkins, who has established an eerie grasp over the family’s home, a Gothic ‘man-eating house’ (Bowen 1948, 257) called Holme Dene, where Robert’s presence and ownership has been reduced to a room full of ‘fictions of boyishness’ (Bowen 1948, 116). Robert is dispossessed as a narrator: his story is publicly staged in Holme Dene by his controlling mother and sister through the carefully arranged décor of his old room: an altar of pictures, ‘glass cases of coins, birds’ eggs, fossils, and butterflies’ (Bowen 1948, 116), placed ‘where they must meet the eye’ (Bowen 1948, 116). Even the symbolic remains of his story or history (as he knows it) are wiped out: the room is ‘dustless’ (Bowen 1948, 177). Robert is, therefore, dispossessed of himself: ‘Each time I come back again into it I’m hit in the face by the feeling that I don’t exist–that I not only am but never have been’ (Bowen 1948, 177). It is this cruel dispossession of identity that makes Robert wish for a strong patriarchal order, without realising that establishing an order of that kind through Hitler is counter effective to his own dispossession by his mother—for the patriarchal submission of women has produced the mother-monster Muttkins. Her seemingly supernatural powers over the house are generated by the lack of her influence beyond ‘the white gate’ (Bowen 1948, 110). Robert becomes an advocate of patriarchy as well as its victim by trying to establish a patriarchal oneness in language, in his story, and in history. What is left of these in the novel instead is a terrific dust that cannot be possessed (‘owned, mastered’), for it is haunted by otherness.


17The structure of the novel itself is haunted, composed of multiple stories that are connected to each other and yet also contradicting each other. Bowen’s plot is ‘a diction. Action of language, language of action,’ (Bowen 1945, 35) and therefore it is dependent on various interlocutors. The Heat of the Day does not have a singular dominant storyline; it constitutes a net of stories emerging from Bowen’s world as a writer which, according to the author, is already a mosaic (Bowen 1975, 283). While Jessica Gildersleeve argues that ‘The Heat of the Day works as a trembling narrative of the modern world’ (Gildersleeve 211), I would suggest it is rather a narrative that, having trembled, has exploded into a disseminating multiplicity of interacting stories that haunt and undermine official or dominant storylines. Bowen’s cracked narratives witness the complexity of a story that is always already undermined by its other narrators, and thus, cannot be possessed without being haunted.

18This is made visible first through the narratives handed out by newspapers that do not fit the multiplicity of realities their readers are faced with. Such is the case of Louie Lewis. While her husband is in India, Louie shares her bed with a woman, chases after men in a park, and has a child out of wedlock. She does not correspond to the waiting lasses and mothers the official war-time narratives stage. To fit in, Louie deciphers newspaper articles very creatively–so that they seem to include and validate her choices, thereby undermining the intended messages and the authority of these narratives: ‘[…] every morning and evening she [Louie] was praised. Even the Russians were apparently not as dissatisfied with her as she had feared; there was Stalingrad going on holding out, but here was she in the forefront of the industrial war drive. As for the Americans now in London, they were stupefied by admiration for her character’ (Bowen 1948, 125). By involuntarily empowering the eccentric Louie, patriotic propaganda undermines what it means to establish: patriotic unity, loyalty, the control over women’s sexuality and social roles.

19The other prominent undoing of official narratives is Robert Kelway’s version of the Dunkirk evacuation that in Britain was publicly praised as almost a victory. In May 1940, Kelway was one of the British soldiers miserably trapped on the beach in Dunkirk, France, waiting to be rescued from the approaching German army that was held back by Hitler’s halt order. In his version of this historical event, there is no trace of pride for the Dunkirk spirit of brave soldiers and the captains of civilian ships that helped with evacuation; according to him they were nothing but an ‘army of freedom queuing up to be taken off by pleasure boats’ (Bowen 1948, 272).

20Both Louie Lewis and Robert Kelway undermine official storylines. Through these characters, Bowen evokes the fictionality of history-writing that fails to include the multitude of stories of the powerless; fabricating history from the vanquisher’s singular perspective. In ‘The Bend Back’, she writes: ‘Raw history, in its implications, is unnerving; and, even so, it only chronicles the survivors’ (Bowen 1950a, 57). Against it, The Heat of the Day shows a continuous rereading and retelling of history that haunt official storylines and dispossess them of their power. Through the multiplicity of stories that do not fit the constraints of the official ink, Bowen rethinks the position of the dispossessed underdog.

21One of such underdogs is the ghostly Cousin Nettie, who is perhaps the most dispossessed character of the novel. A curious reminder of Charlotte Brontë’s madwoman in the attic, she dwells in a secluded nuthouse called Wisteria Lodge (‘wisdom’, ‘hysteria’, and ‘logic’ paradoxically linger in the name). She is officially deprived of reason, and therefore, of all authority. Yet, through Cousin Nettie, a new kind of writer appears. The writer who is utterly dispossessed of her story, as imagined by Maurice Blanchot (Blanchot 1955, 13–62). A writer without mastery, and without a pen, the marginal Cousin Nettie is instead the connoisseur of grids, for she is a full-time embroiderer as well as symbolically a ‘net-tie’—representing Bowen’s cracked Blitz-writing. Being a ‘net-tie’, or the unidentifiable haunting ‘net’, ‘nette’, ‘ette’, ‘tte’—broken off from various female names, she represents the untold stories by women as well as the fragmented network-structure of the novel.

22Similar to Nettie’s crazy grids, the structure of the novel resembles Nicholas Royle’s idea of ‘a space of quilted thinking’ (Royle 2010, 159) that requires reckoning with all the meanings of the word, associations and sounds: ‘with all it covers and uncovers, as well as its distance from a world of simple surfaces and depths, concealment or revelation’ (Royle 2010, 159). It also resembles Deleuze’s and Guattari’s idea of a rhizome-structured text, that is, an acentered, nonhierarchical, nonsignifying network without a beginning and an end, but with ‘a middle (milieu) from which it grows and which it overspills’ (Deleuze Guattari 21); a map-like structure that is ‘always detachable, connectable, reversible, modifiable, and has multiple entryways and exits and its own lines of flight’ (Deleuze Guattari 21). Nettie who is not a part of society and seemingly has no authority or credibility, proves that she can nevertheless influence others. By discrediting Stella’s story of her divorce, she shows how in a cracked mosaic novel such as The Heat of the Day, a story cannot be possessed or governed, but instead every story is in a mobile decentralised net of stories, and thus, haunted and influenced by its ties to other stories and other storytellers, such as Cousin Nettie herself. Her brief presence in the novel questions women’s authority, but also questions more profoundly the authority of any author. It rethinks the way of writing and the position of an author who is no longer a master, but rather a humble weaver of linguistic nets, ‘much absorbed in the woolwork’ (Bowen 1948, 203), crafting the plot by cracking (‘breaking, revealing, and deciphering’) and grafting (‘transplanting’) dictions.

23Nettie’s deconstructive way of crafting and grafting is dominated by the ghostly notion of excess that comes haunting the established patterns, such as the purple rose she makes, saying: ‘Nobody believes me, but I could lead you to the very place in the garden and show you the bush. There is only one; it’s not my fault if there are no others in the world […]’ (Bowen 1948, 216). Nettie’s woolwork that recalls the structure of the novel is not only meticulously cracked and strange, as seen through Roderick’s eyes, but it also represents the odd elements that fail to be represented in patriarchal narratives. It embraces oddness and otherness, for: ‘Life, in other words, was always other than it appeared to be; despite our best attempts to marshal it into knowable patterns […]’ (Smyth 124). Cousin Nettie is a passive aggressive rebel, quietly uprooting patriarchal structures, in order to make room for otherness; for a purple rose—even if there is only one in this world; and for herself—even if she were the only woman to be locked up for her lack of desire for a rich cousin-husband.

24Nettie’s disobedience and disloyalty are necessary for what Bowen calls ‘a vital writing’. According to her, a vital writing requires sympathy that is to be obtained by being disloyal to what is most familiar (Bowen 1950b, 60), but also disloyal to the established ways of writing literature. Perhaps ways such as those Maurice Blanchot imagines in his metaphorical temple. He claims that up to the 19th century, a writer’s mission was to ‘write well’, meaning, to participate in rituals that impose a certain knowable pattern to the work: ‘to write is to enter a templum that imposes on us, independently of the language that is ours by right of birth and by physical destiny, a certain number of uses, an implicit religion, a rumor that changes beforehand all that we can say, that charges it with intentions that are all the more effective since they are not avowed’ (Blanchot 1959, 206). He encourages one to question the ghostly constraints of the literary temple, and to ‘refuse to pass over the threshold, to refuse to ‘write’’ (Blanchot 1959, 206). The writer-knitter Cousin Nettie seems to follow this quite literally by crossing no holy thresholds and by refusing to write (to anyone: even her message to her dead husband was fabricated by others). But also, the novel itself represents the disloyalty to such a temple, and rethinks the rites of writing as well as the right to write through a fragmented narrative that embraces a plurality of voices and ghosts, and thereby opens a space for thinking about otherness. Such disloyalty allows the roaming through any human mind, and what should we call such haunting if not empathy? As Nicholas Royle remarks about Bowen’s writing: ‘Novelistic narration is an eerie weave of thought-reading and feeling-sharing, shifting about within and through one body or point of view and another, never at home, never properly “in place”’ (Royle 2011, 126).

25In The Heat of the Day, literary writing becomes a thinking literature, a writing that is never fully at home, a writing dwelling outside any patriarchal law of oikos, outside the temple, a writing that cannot be possessed or mastered, but is open to alterations by its visitors as it also visits the reader. The Heat of the Day is not ‘a ramifying plot’ (Corcoran 168) where stories grow roots and complicated branches, but rather a plot without a trunk, a rhizome-like text where each version of the story, each reading of the word or a story not only completes or complicates the ‘original’ story, but challenges and decentralises it. The novel does not give in to the patriarchal dream of a hierarchical plot, but instead constitutes an expanding crazy net-tie of stories where marginal characters also appear as if central and all remains to be cracked (‘deciphered, revealed, broken’) again and again: ‘[Nettie’s] scissors, out of some impish volition of their own, kept returning to peck, pick, hover destructively over the finished part’ (Bowen 1948, 209).


26Through Bowen’s meticulously deconstructive use of words (‘possession’, chiefly) and the structure of the novel, The Heat of the Day paves the way (or rather cracks) for thinking about otherness in language, in history, in literature, and in society.

27Patriarchal mastery is humbled in its hold over inheritance, language, story, history, and literature, through the uncanny notion of possession in various ways, most evidently, by pointing out the ghost of the old owner of Mount Morris that interferes with the new master’s capacity to master. The possessor becomes the possessed in the sense of being haunted, but also in the sense of being a habitat—a vessel for patriarchal mastery. Due to the constant deferral of the meaning of a word, language fails to fall in line with the patriarchal dream of possessing language. Thus, the idea of patrilineal inheritance in the novel is shown to fail through the testament that is incapable of assuring a fixed, not already haunted, message.

28The Heat of the Day destabilises and decentralises patriarchal rule within language, history and literature. The incapacity to possess language, story or history, without being haunted, and thereby dispossessed, is shown though the character of Robert Kelway, while Cousin Nettie promotes thinking about a modernist author and a new disseminating plot: a network, a net-tie—‘a diction. Action of language, language of action’ (Bowen 1945, 35), where multiple stories are deciphered and transplanted. Bowen’s way of writing goes against adapting literature to certain patriarchal structures only, against fixed hierarchies. It is the building of literature outside Blanchot’s temple, upon the ruins of the tradition of solid narratives of the male-dominated space of literature; across borders; a literature where the master-writer is disillusioned about their mastery, humbled and humbling.

29Bowen’s The Heat of the Day is not only an experience of the outside, but also an experience of the outsiders who now, as the temple turns to dust, speak. Possess. Haunt.

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1 A metaphor for an invisible obstacle that keeps certain groups, typically women, from rising beyond a certain level in a hierarchy. Here used as the patriarchal reduction of women to certain roles; patriarchal domination over women.

2 While Sarah Wood dedicates a whole chapter to the nuclear rhetoric of Bowen’s The Little Girls in her Without Mastery: Reading and Other Forces, several readers have compared Bowen’s use of words with the use of warfare in The Heat of the Day. Dawn Potter notices that in The Heat of the Day, ‘a single word might seem to have the implications of an atom bomb’ (13). Maud Ellmann writes that Bowen’s ‘notoriously twisted syntax’ ‘spares no effort to avoid a “direct hit”’ (166). Phyllis Lassner calls Bowen’s language in the novel ‘an undecipherable noise’ (127) with a potential to become ‘an absolute weapon of destruction’ (129).

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Laura Lainväe, « Humbled Masters in Cracked Structures: Dispossession within Possession in Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day (1948) »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 53 | 2017, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2017, consulté le 20 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Laura Lainväe

Laura Lainväe is a PhD student at Paul-Valéry University (Montpellier, France). Her research focuses on two transnational writers of the 20th century: Elizabeth Bowen and Samuel Beckett. She is especially interested in relations between literature, theory and climate change, but also in animal studies, deconstruction, philosophy, psychoanalysis, and contemporary art.

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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