Elizabeth Bowen, The Demon Lover & Other Stories (1945)

Postscript by the Author

The stories in the collection entitled The Demon Lover were written in wartime London - between the spring of 1941 the late autumn of 1944. They were written for the magazines or papers in which they originally appeared. During the years, I did not always write a story when I was asked for but I did not write any story that I was not asked for. For at the same time I have been writing a novel; and sometimes I did not want to imperil its continuity. Does this suggest that these Demon Lover stories have been in anyway forced or unwilling work? If so, that is quite untrue. Actually, the stimulus, of being asked for a story, and the compulsion created by promised to write one were both good - I mean, they acted as releases. Each time I sat down to write a story I opened a door; and the pressure against the other side of that door must have been very great, for things - ideas, images, emotions - came through with force and rapidity, sometimes violence. I do that these stories wrote themselves - aesthetically or intellectually speaking, I found the writing of some of very difficult - but I was never in a moment’s doubt as to what I was to write. The stories had their own momentum, which I had to control. The acts in them had an authority which I could not question. Odd enough in their way - and some now seem very odd - they were flying particles of something enormous and inchoate that had been going on. They were. from experience - an experience not necessarily my own.

During the war, l lived, both as a civilian and as a writer with every pore open; I lived so many lives, and, still more, [196]  lived among the packed repercussions of so many thousands of other lives, all under stress, that I see now it would been impossible to have been writing only one book. I want my novel, which deals with this same time, to be enormously comprehensive. But a novel must have form; and, for form’s sake, one is always having to make relentless exclusions. Had it not been for my from-time-to-time promises to Write stories, much that had been pressing against the door might have remained pressing against it in vain. I do not feel I “invented” anything I wrote. It seems to me that during the war the overcharged subconsciousnesses of everybody flowed and merged. It is because the general subconsciousness saturates these stories that they have an authority nothing to do with me.

These are all wartime, none of them war, stories. There are no accounts of war action even as I knew it - for instance, air raids. Only one character - in “Mysterious Kôr” - is a soldier; and he only appears as a homeless wanderer round a city. These are, more, studies of climate, war-climate, and of the strange growths it raised. I see war (or should I say feel war?) more as a territory than as a page of history: of its impersonal active historic side I have, I find, not written. Arguably, Writers are always slightly abnormal people: certainly, in so-called “normal” times my sense of the abnormal has been very acute. In war, this feeling of slight differentiation was suspended: I felt one with, and just like, everyone else. Sometimes I hardly knew where I stopped and somebody else began. The violent destruction of solid things, the explosion of the illusion that prestige, power and permanence attach to bulk and weight, left, all of us, equally, heady and disembodied. Walls went down; and we felt, if not knew, each other. We all lived in a state of lucid abnormality.

 Till the proofs came, I had not re-read my stories since they were, singly, written. When I read them straight through as a [197] collection, I was most struck by what they have in common. This integrates them and gives them a cumulative and collective meaning that no one, taken singly, has by itself. The Demon Lover is an organic whole: not merely a collection, but somehow - for better or worse - a book. Also, the order in which the stories stand - an order come at, I may say, casually - seems itself to have a meaning, or to add a meaning, I did not foresee. We begin with a hostess who has not learned how with grace to open her own front door; we end with a pair of lovers with no place in which to sleep in each other’s arms. In the first story, a well-to-do house in a polite square gives the impression of having been organically dislocated by shock; in the last, a pure abstract empty timeless city rises out of a little girl’s troubled mind. Through the stories - in the order in which they are here placed- I find a rising tide of hallucination. The stories are not placed in the time-order in which they were first written - though, by chance, “In the Square”, placed first here, is the first in the book I wrote, in a hot, raid-less patch of 1941 summer; just after Germany had invaded Russia.

The hallucinations in the stories are not a peril; nor are the stories studies of mental peril. The hallucinations are an unconscious, instinctive, saving resort on the part of the characters: life, mechanised by the controls of wartime, and emotionally torn and impoverished by changes, had to complete itself in some way. It is a fact that in Britain, and especially in London, in wartime many people had strange deep intense dreams. “Whatever else I forget about the war”, a friend said to me, “I hope I may never forget my own dreams, or some of the other dreams I have been told. We have never dreamed like this before; and I suppose we shall never dream like this again.” Dreams by night, and the fantasies - these often childishly innocent - with which formerly matter-of-fact people consoled themselves by day were compensations. Apart from them, I do not think that the desiccation, by war, of our day-to-day [198] lives can be enough stressed. The outsize World War news was stupefying: headlines and broadcasts came down and down on us in hammer-like chops, with great impact but, oddly, little reverberation. The simple way to put it was: “One cannot take things in”. What was happening was out of a proportion to our faculties for knowing, thinking and checking up. The circumstances under which ordinary British people lived were preposterous - so preposterous that, in a dull way, they simplified themselves. And all the time we knew that compared with those on the Continent we in Britain could not be said to suffer. Foreign faces about the London streets had personal pain and impersonal history sealed up behind the eyes. All this pressure drove egotism underground, or made it whiten like grass under a stone. And self-expression in small ways stopped - the small ways had been so very small that we had not realised how much they amounted to. Planning fun, going places, choosing and buying things, dressing yourself up, and so on. All that stopped. You used to know what you were like from the things you liked, and chose. Now there was not what you liked, and you did not choose. Any little remaining choices and pleasures shot into new proportion, and new value: people paid big money for little bunches of flowers.

Literature of the Resistance has been steadily coming in from France. I wonder whether in a sense all wartime writing is not resistance writing? Personal life here, too, put up its own resistance to the annihilation that was threatening it - war. Everyone here, as is known, read more: and what was sought in books - old books, new books - was the communicative touch of personal life. To survive, not only physically but spiritually, was essential. People whose homes had been blown up went to infinite lengths to assemble bits of themselves - broken ornaments, odd shoes, torn scraps of the curtains that had hung in a room - from the wreckage. In the [199] same way, they assembled and checked themselves from stories and poems, from their memories, from talk. Outwardly, we accepted that at this time destiny had to count for nothing: inwardly, individual destiny became an obsession in every heart. You cannot depersonalise persons. Every writer during this time was aware of the personal cry of the individual. And he was aware of the passionate attachment of men and women, to every object or image or place or love or fragment of  memory with which his or her destiny seemed to be identified, and which the destiny seemed to be assured.

The search for indestructible landmarks in a destructible world led many down strange paths. The attachment to these when they had been found produced small worlds-within-worlds of hallucination - in most cases, saving hallucination. Writers followed the paths they saw or felt people treading, and depicted those little dear saving illusory worlds. I have done both in The Demon Lover stories.

You may say that these resistance-fantasies are in themselves frightening. I can only say that one counteracts fear by fear, stress by stress. In “The Happy Autumn Fields”, one finds a woman projected from flying-bombed London, with its day-and-night eeriness, into the key emotional crisis of a Victorian girlhood. In “Ivy Gripped the Steps” in the a man in the early forties peers through the rusted fortifications and down the dusty empty perspectives of a seaside town at the Edwardian episode that has crippled his faculty for love. In “The

 Inherited Clock”, a girl is led to find the key to her own neurosis inside a timepiece. The past, in all these cases, discharges its load of feeling into the anaesthetised and bewildered present. It is the “I” that is sought - and retrieved at the cost of no little pain. And the ghosts - definite in “Green Holly”, questionable (for are they subjective purely?) in “Pink  May”, “The Cheery Soul” and “The Demon Lover” - what [200] part do they play? They are certainties. The bodiless foolish wanton, the puritan other presence, the tipsy cook with her religion of English fare, the ruthless young soldier lover unheard of since 1916: hostile or not, they rally, they fill the vacuum for the uncertain “I”.

I am sorry that my stories do not contain more “straight”  pictures of the wartime scene. Such pictures could have been interesting: they are interesting in much of the brilliant reportage that exists. I know that, in these stories, the back-grounds, and sometimes the circumstances, are only present by inference.  Allow for the intensely subjective mood into which most of the characters have been cast. Remember that these impulsive movements of fantasy are by-products of the non-impulsive major routine of war. These are between-time stories mostly reactions from, or intermissions between major events. They show a levelled-down time, when a bomb on your house was as inexpedient but not more abnormal than a cold in your head. There was an element of chanciness and savageness about everything - even, the arrival at a country house for Christmas. The claustrophobia of not being able to move about freely and without having to give account of yourself - not, for instance, being able to visit a popular seaside resort, within 70 miles of London, between 1940 and  1944 - appears in many: notably, in “Ivy  Gripped the Steps”. The ghostly social pattern of London life - or, say, the conventional pattern one does not easily break, and is loath to break because it is “I”- saving - appears in the vacant politeness of “In the Square”, and in the inebriate night-club conversation, and in “Careless Talk”. These are ways in which some of us did go on - after all, we had to go on some way. And the worthless little speaker in “Pink May” found the war made a moratorium for her married conscience. Yes, only a few were heroic purely: and see how I have not drawn the heroic ones! But everyone was pathetic more than they knew. Owing [201] though, to the thunder of those inordinate years, we were shaken out of the grip of our own pathos.

In wartime, even in Britain, much has been germinating. What, I do not know - who does, yet, know? - but I felt the germination; and feel it, here and there, in these stories now that I read them through. These are received impressions of happening things; impressions that stored themselves up and, acquired force without being analysed or considered. These, as wartime stories, are at least contemporary - twenty, forty, sixty years hence they may be found interesting as documents, even if they are found negligible as art. This discontinuous writing, nominally “inventive”, is the only diary I have kept. Transformed into images in the stories, there may be important psychological facts: if so, I did not realise their importance. Walking in the darkness of the nights of six years (darkness which transformed a capital city into a network of inscrutable canyons) one developed new bare alert senses with their own savage, warnings and notations. And by day one was always making one’s own new maps of a landscape always convulsed by some new change. Through it all, one probably picked up more than can be answered for. I cannot answer for much that is in these stories, except to say that I know they are all true - true to the general life that was in me at the time. Taken singly, they are disjected snapshots - snapshots taken from close up, too close up, in the middle of the mêlée of a battle. You cannot render, you can only embrace if it means embracing to suffocation-point - something vast that is happening right on top of you. Painters have painted, and photographers who were artists have photographed, the tottering lace-like architecture of ruins, dark mass-movements of people, and the untimely brilliance of flaming skies. I cannot paint or photograph like this - I have isolated, I have made for the particular, spot-lighting faces or cutting out gestures that are not even the faces or gestures of great [202] sufferers. This is how I am, how I feel, whether in war or peace-time; and only as I am and feel can I write. As I said at the start, though I criticise these stories now, afterwards, intellectually, I cannot criticise their content. They are the particular. But through the particular, in wartime, I felt the high-voltage current of the general pass.

October 1944.

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