"Even a Shelter's Not Safe": The Blitz on Homes in Elizabeth Bowen's Wartime Writing
Miller, Kristine A., Twentieth Century Literature
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. Even as Bowen employs domestic imagery to represent the collapse of stereotypical gender roles, she also relies on specific, class-based assumptions about the home in order to make those presentations. The Heat of the Day illustrates how bourgeois feminism depends on an exploitation of working-class female experience, but this can be understood only if the reader differentiates among the various wartime experiences of different classes of women.
A closer look at the intersection of gender and class ideologies in British culture before and during the Second World War will help to contextualize my reading of The Heat of the Day. Since the nineteenth century, middle-class English culture had conceived of the home as a private haven from the economic and political aggression of the public sphere.1 These private and public spaces were clearly gendered: while the male head of a household typically ventured into the public sphere as the primary wage earner and provider for his family, the housewife remained safe within domestic space, acting as a caretaker for the rest of her family. Despite an accelerating shift toward sexual equality since the Victorian era, conceptions of public and private space remained gendered in the early twentieth century. British women could vote beginning in 1918 (although not on equal terms with men until 1928), and they attained the legal right to enter almost any profession with the Sex Disqualification Removal Act in 1919. However, women were still largely excluded from the public world of work.(2) As Taylor writes about the 1930s,
In practice, most women remained dependents, particularly in the working class. Wives were lucky to be given a housekeeping allowance. Very few knew what their husbands were earning. In almost every occupation women were paid less than men for doing the same work. (166-67)
Although legislative advances did change conceptions of domestic space to some extent, the home continued to be the primary responsibility of the housewife, while the world of commerce remained a predominantly male domain.
During the Second World War, however, traditional notions of the home's seclusion and security crumbled with the walls of townhouses, flats, private homes, and air raid shelters. As Axis bombers blitzed London, Coventry, and other British cities, civilians experienced a violence previously known only by soldiers on the front line. A civilian conversation about the dangers of bomb shelters illustrates the growing realization that homes and shelters were no longer safe retreats:
Woman, 50: "Who is it?"
Man, 45: "Chap and his wife and kid, from Bermondsey Street. Shelter fell in."
Woman: "My God, even a shelter's not safe."
Another man: "Of course they ain't. Did you see that one up Walton Street? Smashed to bits it was."
Older woman: "They say eight hundred people were killed in one, Sunday."
Older man: "It's bloody awful." (Harrisson 64)
Like soldiers, civilians could not escape the violence of the Second World War. As one working-class man exclaimed, "We're in the front line! Me own home - it's in the Front Line" (Harrisson 76). The war's bullets and bombs, invasions and incendiaries, dive bombers and doodlebugs placed soldiers and civilians alike in the line of fire.(3)
For many middle-class civilians, the convergence of the home front and the front line posed an ideological challenge to traditional gender roles. As the walls of their homes collapsed around them, women suddenly found themselves thrust into the political arena. In a diary entry from Sep. 9, 1940, one young woman celebrates the way a bomb blast has freed her from daily routine, transforming her from domestic angel to political agent:
I lay there feeling indescribably happy and triumphant. "I've been bombed!"I kept saying to myself, over and over again - trying the phrase on, like a new dress, to see how it fitted. "I've been bombed! . . . I've been bombed - me!" (Harrisson 81)
The woman writes about the blitz as a way of exploring her emerging political identity; rather than perceiving the blitz solely as an attack on physical space, she views it as a liberation from rigid gender stereotypes. She tries on her new political role instead of trying on a new dress, seizing the opportunity to …
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Publication information: Article title: "Even a Shelter's Not Safe": The Blitz on Homes in Elizabeth Bowen's Wartime Writing. Contributors: Miller, Kristine A. - Author. Journal title: Twentieth Century Literature. Volume: 45. Issue: 2 Publication date: January 1999. Page number: 138. © 1999 Hofstra University. COPYRIGHT 1999 Gale Group.