Summer Night by Elizabeth Bowen, 1941
by Elizabeth Bowen, 1941
The wartime London of 1940 forms the background of several of Elizabeth Bowen's best stories. "Summer Night," collected in Look at All Those Roses in 1941, has an Irish setting, with the war a distant presence. The main structure of the story, which is unusually complex, is created by the use of two houses, Emma's home and the scene of her adulterous surrender, which is never described. They are linked by her awareness of leaving one and approaching the other and by the telephone ringing in each as she calls. A series of unobtrusive indications shows her uncertainty and regret. When she telephones her prospective lover—we gather that the arrangement of the meeting has been casual and impulsive—she is repelled by his calm, self-satisfied acceptance of her approach. When she says sardonically, "You're a fine impatient man," she is implicitly pleading for a keener recognition of the enormity of her sin and the greatness of her sacrifice. When he asks after her husband, as if all three could remain friends in the face of the contemplated betrayal, he shows himself unaware of her feelings.
When Emma telephones home but is unable to reveal the cause of her unease, her husband, who has seen her off a few hours before, is puzzled. But the reader understands her feeling of guilt, her wish to assure herself that the scene of her normal life is still there, and her absurd, contradictory wish to atone by words of affection.
The calls prepare us to visualize the scene within each house. In one house Robinson, the lover who is separated from his wife, visits with his unwanted guests, the deaf Queenie and her brother Justin. Robinson fears an embarrassing encounter with the approaching Emma. At Emma's house her husband is the only person not affected by the hidden influence of her guilty unease. The children are affected, and one wanders around the house and displays herself, anointed with colored chalks, before the mirror in her mother's bedroom, feeling "anarchy all through the house." "This is a threatened night," reflects Aunt Fran, unconsciously making the link between aerial conflict on the other side of the Irish Sea and Emma's night of passion.
Emma feels "the shudder of night, the contracting bodies of things," and this, too, is proleptic. Looking at photographs of Robinson's children, she projects her sense of betrayal of her own children onto his: "I wish in a way you hadn't got any children." Her request to go into the garden is like a useless gesture of defense against the bedroom to which she will soon be taken. They are near a wilderness belonging to a castle burned down years before. Emma's vague awareness of this forms a link with the consciousness of the deaf Queenie, alone in her bedroom, who is thinking of another summer night 20 years before when she had wandered in the garden with a man she had never seen again and whose face she had forgotten.
The sexual encounter at the heart of the story is omitted from the narrative, and even the couple's anticipation of it is present only by implication. By showing with such delicacy the shock waves it produces, the author suggests that the adultery is far more important in its consequences than in itself. Adultery is seen as a social, or antisocial, act despite its triviality as experience. Robinson's character is one of virtual nullity, for he is unable to understand feelings, whether Justin's or Emma's, or to respond to them. Although he is the cause of complex feelings, he is the gap of incomprehension subtly expressed in the story's other characters.
—A. O. J. Cockshut