"Even a Shelter's Not Safe": The Blitz on Homes in Elizabeth Bowen's Wartime Writing

Article excerpt

In the wartime memoir Bowen's Court, Elizabeth Bowen remembers her ancestral Irish home as a private sanctuary: "Like Flaubert's ideal book about nothing, it sustains itself on itself by the inner force of its style" (21). Bowen employs the same image in The Heat of the Day to describe Stella Rodney and Robert Kelway, whose relationship, "like the ideal book about nothing, stayed itself on itself by its inner force" (90). Flaubert's "ideal book" is "about nothing" because it tells no story other than that of its own form; it merges form and content in a closed fictional system that becomes a world unto itself. As an upper-middle-class woman living and working in London during the Second World War, Bowen both clung to and questioned the notion of such a safe, hermetic world, whether architectural or emotional. London was bombed every night from September 7 to November 2, 1940, and the city suffered 13 major attacks by V-1 and V-2 rockets between January and March of 1944. In total, the blitz damaged or destroyed over 3 1/2 million homes (Taylor 502). Recognizing the devastation that the blitz wreaked upon British homes, Bowen employed domestic metaphors to explore war's parallel assault on the gendered categories of public politics and private emotion. She experimented with Flaubert's idea, linking the ideal book metaphor to two images of home: the "habitat" that Robert and Stella create in their relationship (90) and her family estate in Ireland. These two images represent two kinds of security - the sexual security generated by a traditional romantic relationship and the social security created by upper-middle-class land ownership. Although Bowen perceived the blitz as an opportunity to interrogate sexual security by challenging traditional gender ideology, she accepted and even valorized the social security grounded in class ideology. An analysis of Bowen's wartime writing must therefore account for an ideological conflict within her use of domestic imagery: on the one hand, the blitzed home represents a radical, feminist challenge to gendered categories of public and private space; on the other hand, the home represents a conservative, elitist retreat from the problems of war.

Despite the interdependence of gender and class ideologies in Bowen's work, critical discussion has focused primarily on issues of gender. Phyllis Lassner has argued that the war offered Bowen and other women writers the opportunity to revise stereotypical gender roles by questioning "the political ideology of war and its relation to domestic ideology" (89). Reacting against Lassner, Gill Plain contends that

the historical record may reveal war's offer of increased mobility to women, but the history of the postwar period records its repeal.... This is the pessimistic scenario that emerges from the contradictions of Bowen's narrative

in The Heat of the Day (179). These arguments about Bowen's war writing reflect a broader historical debate about the impact of the Second World War on women: on the one hand, historian Arthur Marwick has argued that the social upheaval of war created opportunities for women; on the other, feminist historians such as Dorothy Sheridan, Penny Summerfield, and Shelley Saywell agree that ultimately "challenges to women's subordination were contained within an overarching nationalist rhetoric which positioned woman at the heart of the family in her idealised role as wife and mother" (Sheridan 3).

Although their focus is not on the Second World War, Cora Kaplan and Angela Woollacott both offer models for complicating these polarized notions of gender with a concurrent analysis of class ideology. Kaplan has argued that nineteenth-century bourgeois women defined themselves through a manipulation of working-class feminine identity, while Woollacott has insisted on recognizing the class differences that shaped women's writing of the First World War. Extending Kaplan's analysis of the nineteenth century and Woollacott's explication of the First World War, I contend that it is essential to recognize the intersection of class and gender ideologies in Bowen's writing during the Second World War. …