“The pollen count, now that’s a difficult job. Especially if you’ve got hay fever.” (Milton Jones)

Normally I celebrate the end of June thusly:

Unfortunately due to the weird summer we’re having (unseasonably hot/unseasonably cold on repeat) the scourge of my life, the devil’s seed, aka grass pollen, is still in abundance and I am refusing to go anywhere that isn’t made of concrete/steel/brick, or some combination thereof.

Well, I’ll tell you, Leo. You live through books of course, same as always. So this week I’m visiting my favourite London park, Regent’s, via two wonderful novels.

Firstly, The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen (1948), where protagonist Stella lives near Regent’s Park and where the opening scene sees counterspy Harrison flirting with Louie, an ordinary young woman who is open to affairs while her husband is away fighting the war.

“The very soil of the city at this time seemed to generate more strength: in parks outsize dahlias, velvet and wine, and the trees on which each vein in each yellow leaf stretched out perfect against the sun blazoned out the idea of the finest hour. Parks suddenly closed because of time-bombs – drifts of leaves in the empty deckchairs, birds afloat on the dazzlingly silent lakes – presented, between the railings which still girt them, mirages of repose.”

This eerie quality pervades the whole novel. While there is a plot – Harrison wants Stella to spy on her lover Robert, who is spying for the Germans – I felt this was not the driving force of what Bowen is writing about. Instead I think what she is considering is a very specific generation of people at an extraordinary moment in time.

 “Younger by a year or two than the century, [Stella] had grown up just after the First World War with the generation which, as a generation, was come to be made to feel it had muffed the catch. The times, she had in her youth been told on all sides, were without precedent – but then so was her own experience: she had not lived before.”

There is a sense throughout the book of things left unsaid, sentences unfinished, and yet a deep understanding that exists between everyone living through the war.

“So among the crowds still eating, drinking, working, travelling, halting, there began to be an instinctive movement to break down indifference while there was still time. The wall between the living and the living became as solid as the wall between the living and the dead thinned. In that September transparency people became transparent, only to be located by the just dark flicker of their hearts.”

People behave in ways that they wouldn’t normally, but they can barely remember what normal is, or why they would behave that way in the first place. Bowen tends to overwrite, but as with the other novels of hers that I’ve read, this quality didn’t bother me as much as it does usually, and I felt it particularly apt here. I just let the writing and the atmosphere wash over me. Thankfully, I’ve not lived through that type of war, but to me Bowen seemed to have done an incredible job at capturing the heightened yet oddly detached experiences that would have occurred:

“But they were not alone, nor had they been from the start, from the start of love. Their time sat in the third place at their table. They were the creatures of history, whose coming together was of a nature possible in no other day”

The Heat of the Day is about the tragedy of war in the widest sense, where no guns go off and people carry on whilst feeling torn apart. Sad, desperate, quiet, and beautifully evoked.

Behind all those daisies the evil seed is just biding it’s time…

Next, Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925) and my shortest review ever. Here it is: Virginia Woolf is a genius and Mrs Dalloway is pretty much a perfect novel. That is all.

I really don’t think I can review Mrs Dalloway. I find Woolf’s writing so rich, multi-layered and complex I feel I can’t possibly do it any kind of justice. Woolf’s treatment of a day in the life of society hostess Clarissa Dalloway and shell-shocked Septimus Smith is so sensitive and sophisticated, I feel like a gibbering idiot.  Instead here are some passages:

Clarissa: “She could see what she lacked. It was not beauty; it was not mind. It was something central which permeated; something warm which broke up surfaces and rippled the cold contact of man and woman, or of women together.”

Septimus in the park with his wife: “Happily Rezia put her hand with a tremendous weight on his knee so that he was weighted down, transfixed, or the excitement of the elm trees rising and falling, rising and falling with all their leaves alight and the colour thinning and thickening from blue to the green of a hollow wave, like plumes on horses’ heads, feathers on ladies’, so proudly they rose and fell, so superbly, would have sent him mad. But he would not go mad. He would shut his eyes; he would see no more.”

The recurring motif of the chiming of Big Ben: “The leaden circles dissolved in the air.”

Finally: “It was a splendid morning too. Like the pulse of a perfect heart, life struck straight through the streets.”

*Sigh* Even if you’ve already done so, please read Mrs Dalloway. And then read it again.

To end, the most wonderful cinematic ending: Withnail and I, and the wolves of London Zoo viewed from Regent’s Park.

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26 thoughts on ““The pollen count, now that’s a difficult job. Especially if you’ve got hay fever.” (Milton Jones)

  1. I’ve always been a little scared of reading The Heat of the Day as it seems to have garnered a reputation for being a ‘difficult’ novel. That said, it’s very encouraging to hear about your positive experience with it. I think that’s what I need to to do – just allow myself to be swept up by the mood and atmosphere without worrying too much about the intricacies of the plot.

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    • It is odd, to be sure. Sometimes I thought I’d missed something but I hadn’t, it was just part of the odd, elliptical nature of it. I didn’t find it difficult though, so I would say take the plunge!

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  2. Oh, dear, poor you – it really is quite a difficult year for so many people , but I suppose we will have to get used to these strange weather patterns. Hope it eases off soon for you.
    I haven’t read that much Bowen, but I seem to remember this one was my favourite of hers. As you say, she can be a tad baroque at times. As for Virginia Woolf – I couldn’t agree more. (Although my personal favourites also include To the Lighthouse, The Waves and Between the Acts, as well as Mrs Dalloway. Oh, you know what, I should reread Jacob’s Room before I give my final verdict…)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Marina Sofia – I’m hopeful there’s not long now left to endure!

      I agree To the Lightnouse & The Waves are wonderful. I’ve not read Between the Acts or Jacob’s Room – I’m looking forward to the Woolf I have left to discover! Happy re-reading 🙂

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  3. Lovely post Madame B, and I sympathise. I’m struggling a bit too in this heat. Two wonderful authors there, though – isn’t Mrs. Dalloway so perfect it makes you never want to read anything else again? I haven’t read this Bowen yet, and I really must – probably ideal for the summer really!

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    • Thanks Kaggsy 🙂 The heat’s been oppressive, hasn’t it? Hopefully the rest of the week will bring some respite from that at least.

      I had *such* a book hangover from Mrs Dalloway – you’re absolutely right, it ruined me for other novels!

      Bowen’s somewhat overblown prose is perfect for summer – A World of Love is set during summer, so that would be especially apt 🙂

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  4. I felt the same way about reviewing Mrs. Dalloway. And so many people have already done such a wonderful job of it – what more could I possibly add?

    Hopefully your allergies clear up soon!

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  5. I’m in total agreement about Mrs Dalloway – read, reread, then reread again! I do like the sound of the Elizabeth Bowen novel. I don’t have that title but I’m sure I have something of hers on my shelves somewhere that I’ll have to investigate further.

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  6. I will look out the Elizabeth Bowen novel, it’s an oft told tale in my family how my great-great aunt went to prison after the first world war for bigamy, due to her habit of marrying soldiers and receiving money from them. I presume she thought they they’d conveniently die but alas for her, a reckoning came!

    Commiserations on the hay fever, my only pollen weakness is rapeseed, it’s a a monstrous yellow menace! And the weather is so weird my cat had harvest mites in her ears which had to be treated, and the vet was surprised as they’re not due for at least another month!

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  7. Now I have no idea how I missed such an excellent post from you in my reader. Well at least I found it now, and any paean to Ms Woolf gladdens the day. Great quotes. Though I think Richard E. Grant has just broken my heart. The pain in his eyes as looks at McGann is dreadfully lacerating. Thank heavens for the wolf.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I think I should rename you as Queen of Exactly Right, Always Brilliant Gifs. That first one… as soon as I saw it I went into rewind. When I was little, it was my favourite show and I had to have had my bath and be in my pjs in order to watch it. There was one more stipulation – every week my mum would say, “It’s not going to make you cry, is it?” Having checked in with others over the years, it seems I’m the only person who cried at LHOTP every single week.

    Related: I read an interview with Melissa Gilbert who said that the opening credits were filmed in one take and that the fall wasn’t scripted, but was kinda cute so they left it in.

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