“Mysterious Kôr” was first published in the 1944 volume of John Lehmann’s Penguin New Writing. The next year Elizabeth Bowen placed the story last in her collection of wartime stories The Demon Lover, which was published in 1946 in the United States as Ivy Gripped the Steps and Other Stories. In the prefaces to these collections, Bowen accentuated the placement of “Mysterious Kôr” by noting “the rising tide of hallucination” in the order of the stories. Set in London during the Blitz, the story explores the psychological impact of World War II on a soldier on leave, his lover, and her chaste flatmate. The lovers, Arthur and Pepita, begin the story near Regent’s Park searching for a secluded place for lovemaking. They grow frustrated, discuss the lost city Kôr, and end their tryst unconsummated at her flat, where her roommate Callie naively welcomes them. Callie, a “brotherless virgin,” at once makes their lovemaking impossible, becomes an object of Arthur’s desire, and displaces her own romantic fantasies onto the couple. Harold Bloom suggests that the story is “almost a novella, complete in its radical incompleteness as an action, as a complex sexual encounter that does not take place” since “[n]othing happens, yet everything takes place that can occur, psychologically and metaphysically” (6).
The hallucinatory effects of the story conflate time and place. Chief among these effects are the processes of psychological displacement and the “[f]ull moonlight” pervading the night landscape. This opening image of “Mysterious Kôr” makes “the futility of the black-out . . . laughable,” since the moonlight exposes the city and creates easy targets for bombers. However, the Londoners do not fear the Germans; they fear “something more immaterial.” Such ambiguous, suggestive descriptions create the air of mystery in the story. Eudora Welty considers “Mysterious Kôr” Bowen’s “most extraordinary story” in which the “deserted other city of Kôr occupies the same territory as bombed out London through the agency of the full moon at its extreme intensity.” In this vein, Clare Hanson finds the story to be surrealist in that it expresses “desire through the kind of dislocated images which occur in dreams” (86).
Often anthologized, “Mysterious Kôr” draws its name from Rider Haggard’s fantasy adventure novel She (1887). Bowen had read the novel when she was 12, and in a 1947 broadcast she explained the persistent intoxication and allure of the novel and its exotic locale in the lost African city Kôr. Despite the preoccupations of working as an air-raid warden during the Blitz, Bowen remembered the escapism and power of words proffered by Haggard’s novel, and she drew on what she found to be the moral of the novel to create her story.
In the first spoken words of the story, Pepita tells Arthur that London is Kôr. Pepita feels that “here’s there” and “now’s then.” She confides in him that she thinks of the city “all the time,” and recites some lines from an Andrew Lang sonnet, also inspired by She, which suggests that the theme of lost love makes the power of She transferable to “whatever spot.” At the same time, Pepita is aware of the divergent historical contexts between the late 19th century and the 1940s. In a comment reminiscent of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, she explains that then “they thought they had got everything taped . . . even the middle of Africa.” Now she realizes how even imaginary places such as Kôr keep endless the possibilities of exploration and enchantment.
Bowen’s wartime stories occupy nearly a singular spot in documenting the effect of World War II on Britain. Along with the work of Henry Green, “Mysterious Kôr” and her other wartime stories convey the persistence of British culture in the twilight of the British. London survives the war, but the empire has gradually dissolved. At one point in Haggard’s novel, Ayesha, the “She” of the title, says that her “empire is of the imagination.” In this sense, Bowen’s story is a significant transitional text in the field of postcolonial literature. The Kôr of British colonial adventure becomes a London whose reach in less expansive but whose people hold promise for the future. At the end of the story, Callie puts her loss of “love for love” into the relative perspective of the “war’s total of unlived lives,” and Pepita dreams of entering Kôr with Arthur as “the password, but not the answer.”
Bloom, Harold. Introducing to Modern Critical Views: Elizabeth Bowen, 1–11. New York: Chelsea, 1987.
Bowen, Elizabeth. The Demon Lover. London: Cape, 1945.
———. Ivy Gripped the Steps and Other Stories. New York: Knopf, 1946.
———. “Rider Haggard: She.” In The Mulberry Tree, 246– 250. London: Virago, 1986.
Haggard, Rider. She. 1887. New York: Modern Library, 2002.
Hanson, Clare. Short Stories and Short Fictions, 1880–1980. London: Macmillan, 1985.
Lang, Andrew. The Grass of Parnassus. 1888. London: Longmans, 1892.
Lassner, Phyllis. Elizabeth Bowen: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Macmillan, 1992.
Welty, Eudora. “Seventy-Nine Stories to Read Again,” review of The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen, New York Times Book Review, 8 February 1981, p. 22.