Saturday, 5 February 2011

The Demon Lover by Elizabeth Bowen

This collection of short stories was published in 1945; thematically, the stories concern the psychic, social and material damage inflicted by the Second World War.  Many of the stories centre around houses changed by bombing, requisition, or disuse, and on the effect of these changes on the people who move around and through these houses.  A crack in a wall may act as a conduit to another world; disturbing memories and dreams are summoned by rediscovered objects; social structures are as cracked as the masonry.  Some of the stories are deeply sinister in effect - the title story in particular - and Bowen is very good at showing how close to the boundaries of madness her protagonists come.  Other stories deal, more humorously, with the frustrations that arise from the limitations of wartime, and in more than one story Bowen skewers the self-importance of the war-worker with great effectiveness.

This collection left me with the general impression that civilian life in wartime, with its dreary constraints, deprivations and shocks, allows long-buried sorrows to surface, almost as if one trauma calls up another, older one; and that war service required a mask, a persona, not just for the purposes of national security but also to sustain individual endurance of the intolerable.  It is these masks that slip, or are knocked askew, in Bowen's stories.  Being Bowen's stories, they are exquisitely written: there are some elegiac descriptions of the lost past, imbued both with beauty and with a deserved sense of unreality, as they are invariably the products of dreams or hallucinations.  Beauty can be read as another casualty of war, only to be accessed if one is prepared to peer beyond the limitations of sanity.

Bowen tends to focus on her particular milieu and class; if you are interested in fiction about the Blitz in the East End, you won't find it here.  There is even an Irish country house setting for one of the stories.  However, as with The Death of the Heart, the voices of the servant class and the lower-middle class do break through, and in some stories are symptomatic of the social disruption occasioned by the war.

The Demon Lover is no longer in print as a collection, although there are second-hand copies about - mine is a rather elegant volume that the title page tells me was "produced in complete conformity with the authorized economy standards" prevailing in 1945.  However, Vintage offer a volume of Bowen's collected short stories which includes 79 of her stories, including the stories in this book.


  1. I love Elizabeth Bowen (through Death of the Heart) and am always so happy when other people write about her! I have her collected stories, but have only read a few, maybe I'll have to look into them further.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Carolyn. I also have the collected stories - I only realised this after I'd bought The Demon Lover, of course - and am planning to use it as a bedside book for the rest of the year.