August is a strange time of year, especially in the city. It is the listless countdown to the end of summer: leaves droop tired and tawdry on dusty trees; a whiff of something subtly off-key hangs in the air. School holidays bring exodus and an emptying out for a few weeks until a new, brisker season returns: on the Continent, the great urban destinations such as Rome and Paris sensibly shut up shop, ignoring hordes of tourists descending like greenfly onto roses. In culture, August gives a sense of playing truant from reality and from the self, such as in Jacques Rivette’s 1974 film Celine and Julie Go Boating, a cult classic about two young women who swap identities and tumble down a phantasmagorical rabbit-hole one languid Paris summer.
I first saw it at the old Renoir cinema in London’s Brunswick Square, the same August I started my first ‘proper’ job – at the British Library, then part of the British Museum on Great Russell Street. My job, as a researcher on a seemingly endless project to digitise the library’s vast holdings of 19th-century books, allowed me to wander freely among the book stacks and dust motes. Here, on stiflingly hot afternoons, I read prodigiously – and not only three-decker Victorian volumes. At some point I discovered the wartime writings of the Anglo-Irish author Elizabeth Bowen – The Heat of the Day, her superb novel of the Blitz and betrayal – and short stories of forsakenness shot through with horror.
The most uneasy of these is ‘The Demon Lover’ (1941), in which the backdrop of a bombed-out London sets the scene for a fatal promise extracted during an earlier war. Bowen rapidly creates an atmosphere of claustrophobia and menace: late one sultry August day, with the weather about to turn, a middle-aged woman, Mrs Drover, makes a brief foray to her family’s boarded-up London house in a quiet square to pack up a few essential items before returning to the country where they have been evacuated away from the bombs. Though Mrs Drover is alone, we and she sense that she is being observed by someone, or something: “a cat wove itself in and out of railings, but no human eye watched Mrs Drover’s return”.
The emphasis here is on the ‘human’. Inanimate objects have taken on the suffering and disappointment of the war years and all is weirdly askew: “in her once familiar street, as in any unused channel, an unfamiliar queerness had silted up.” As “the unwilling lock” on Mrs Drover’s front door relents to her key, Bowen gifts us the entire arc of the story in the last, leaden sentence of its opening paragraph: “Dead air came to meet her as she went in.” The ensuing ghostly tale is as much about the psychological trauma of war (a period of “lucid abnormality” according to Bowen) and the passing of time, as it is conventionally supernatural. In the house – to which only she and a part-time caretaker have a key – a hand-delivered letter awaits Mrs Drover, apparently from the barely known soldier fiancé who has been missing presumed dead since they last set eyes on each other on a gloomy August evening in 1916, exactly twenty-five years before. It curtly reminds her of a promise made, an hour of meeting, an appointment which must be kept.
In a 1944 postscript to the first publication of The Demon Lover and Other Stories,Bowen explains how in these “between-time stories” “the past discharges its load of feeling into the anaesthetised and bewildered present.” The individual is all but smothered in an atmosphere of confusion and upheaval, where every positive has its reliably sinister negative. Thus Mrs Drover recalls “with dreadful acuteness” the “complete suspension of her existence” during the final days she had spent with her former lover, a passive deferment similar to the annihilating torpor of war. A long impasse has a way of turning against those who cease to be watchful: for, as it turns out most terribly for her: “You have no time to run from a face you do not expect.”
First published in The Listener, November 1941. Collected in The Demon Lover and Other Stories, Jonathan Cape, 1945 and The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen, Vintage Classics, 1999. Chosen by Catherine Taylor, who is a critic, editor and writer. A former publisher and deputy director of English PEN, she has been a judge on prizes from the Guardian First Book Award to the Jewish Quarterly-Wingate and is part of the team behind the new Brixton Review of Books. She is writing a non-fiction book about the dark side of South Yorkshire in the 1970s and 80s. You can read Catherine’s full Personal Anthology here.