Published first in the Listener and reprinted in Elizabeth Bowen’s collection The Demon Lover and Other Stories (1945), the title story is based on a traditional “border ballad” or folksong of the same title, the oldest version of which, “A Warning for Married Women,” collected by English diarist Samuel Pepys in 1703, has much in common with Bowen’s tale: A married woman is carried away by a vengeful lover who returns from the dead to punish her for breaking a vow. Bowen sets her version in London during the Blitz of World War II. Kathleen Drover has come up from the country to gather some belongings from the shut-up family home. The eerie atmosphere of the bombed city and the silent house creates rising tension. Mrs. Drover finds a letter that cannot have been delivered by post: It is from “K,” her soldier fiancé who died during World War I. The letter reminds her of a promise she made him and announces his arrival later that afternoon. Terrified, she remembers parting from him, his cruelty, and her mother’s warnings. She felt overwhelmed by the promise, which is never specified but seems to involve staying true to each other through eternity. She did not grieve much at his death, and in her 30s she married an unremarkable man with whom she lived an ordinary life. She cannot even remember her soldier fiancé’s face. Not sure if the part-time caretaker is in the house or not, Mrs. Drover gathers her things and leaves in a waiting taxi, heartened by the presence of the driver. In a shocking ending, the taxi speeds off before Mrs. Drover can give directions, and as she is thrown against the partition between the seats, she sees the driver’s face and screams. The last glimpse of her is her hands beating against the windows as the taxi drives into the twilight.
“The Demon Lover” lends itself to multiple interpretations. On one level, it is a modern ghost story, with its sinister revenant. The story has many features of a ghost story, or even of gothic: the atmospheric setting, seemingly supernatural coincidences of timing and place, a woman in peril, and the startling ending. Others have seen it as a more straightforward work of realism; the soldier, who somehow has survived World War I, is a psychopathic stalker who has been triggered by the current war into tracking his former lover. Thus the story leaves open the possibility that the caretaker is actually the fiancé in disguise. Another reading suggests that the soldier is a figment of Kathleen’s imagination. There are a number of hints in the story that she is not an emotionally strong woman; there is something almost childlike about her, and she seems uncomfortable with powerful feelings. In this reading, the stress of the war has brought her to a nervous breakdown. Nonetheless, by bringing a character from World War I into the setting of World War II, Bowen is also asking readers to make some connection between the wars, to find similarity in the inescapable dislocation and transformation of the familiar during war. The domestic setting also raises questions about the home and security: War is destroying Mrs. Drover’s comfortable, upper-middle-class existence. In the postscript to The Demon Lover and Other Stories, Bowen notes that her stories are about wartime rather than warfare. As such, they are about impressions and psychological states rather than concrete war experiences. “The Demon Lover” is typical of her work in this and in its fascination with the darkness beneath the ordinary surface.
Bowen, Elizabeth. The Demon Lover and Other Stories. London: Chatto and Windus, 1945.
Calder, Robert L. “ ‘A More Sinister Troth’: Elizabeth Bowen’s ‘The Demon Lover’ as Allegory,” Studies in Short Fiction 31 (1994): 91–97.
Coates, John. “The Moral Argument of Elizabeth Bowen’s Ghost Stories,” Renascence 52, no. 4 (Summer 2000): 293–309.
Reed, Toni. Demon-Lovers and Their Victims in British Fiction. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1988