The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

The more I read of Elizabeth Bowen, the more I fall in love with her writing. She’s an acquired taste, certainly, but I adore the clipped, stark dialogue of her upper class, early 20th century characters. None of them are made particularly likeable, but they are so evocatively brought to life that they can’t help but mesmerise you regardless. Her books are perfect capsules of their period; large town houses, aproned maids, afternoon tea, dressing for dinner, fur coats and felt hats and never a mention of money.  It’s an odd world, filled with secrets and lies, unspoken emotions, empty, echoing houses and enigmatic, shadowy people who are never quite as they seem. Bowen is magnificently insightful, and unflinching in her portrayals of the darker and more vulnerable sides of the human psyche. Her books are difficult because they are uncomfortable; there is no cosiness about her flower filled, neatly furnished drawing rooms; no softness in the starched bosoms of her brooding servants. However, I can’t help but adore each fantastic, hauntingly beautifully written page. To the North is still my favourite of her novels, yet The Death of the Heart is marvellous at portraying the awkwardness and confusion of the teen years, and the devastation of the first experience of betrayal by those we love.

Portia Quayne is 16 when she is sent to live with her much older, emotionally distant half brother Thomas and his cold, glamorous wife Anna in their luxurious house overlooking Regent’s Park. Portia was the result of an affair, and spent her childhood living in Europe with her disgraced parents, shuttling between cheap and seedy hotels in resort towns, never knowing a real home. After her parents die in quick succession, Portia, innocent, wide eyed and rather fanciful, is shipped off to London, much to Thomas and Anna’s dismay. Childless, they have no idea what to do with her. Her awkwardness is unnerving; she has no notion of what is acceptable behaviour in their superficial social circle, no understanding of how to control her emotions, and is totally unfathomable to Thomas and Anna, who make little effort to decipher her, or make her feel loved or wanted.

Portia is actively disliked by Anna, who views her as a sinister presence, always watching from the shadows. Thomas tries to be kind, but Portia is a constant reminder of his father’s disgrace and is driving a wedge between him and Anna, the only person he has room for in his detached heart. Starved of any affection and feeling like an outsider everywhere she goes, Portia falls in love with Eddie, a protegee of Anna’s. He is a feckless, self centred and affected twenty something, who finds it a fun game to play with Portia’s intense teenage emotions. Portia is so innocent that she drinks in everything Eddie says, believing that he is completely perfect and that he loves her as much as she loves him. When Thomas and Anna go off on holiday and send her to the seaside to stay with Anna’s old governess, Mrs Heccombe, things come to a messy head. Mrs Heccombe’s fast and loose stepchildren, Dick and Daphne, sweep Portia into their bold and brassy ‘set’, where she intrigues and exasperates in equal measure by her innocence and lack of tact. Portia decides to invite Eddie to stay, and when he arrives he shocks Portia by flirting with Daphne. Slowly the scales begin to fall from her eyes, but it is only when she returns to London, and discovers further devastating betrayals by both Eddie and Thomas, does she realise how little she can trust anyone, and how alone she is in the world.

The Death of the Heart is a brilliant portrayal of the struggle the teenage years are, and of how unknowingly cruel adults can be to children, and to one another. Anna and Thomas are self obsessed, and live a life surrounded by vain and meaningless relationships. Their comfortable, tasteful house is empty of any heart, and the only person within it who cares for Portia is the housemaid, Matchett, whose love is somewhat tainted by her jealous possessiveness of Portia’s affections. Eddie is a self obsessed, shallow and deluded wannabe aesthete, who takes advantage of Portia’s innocence and slowly, deliberately and cruelly breaks her heart with no care for the consequences. Bowen’s genius lies in her descriptive ability; not only does she draw living, breathing people, she also perfectly creates the frost bound, echoing, lamp lit streets of a wintry London; the cold, echoing halls of a heartless home; the awkward, uncertain, naive and attention seeking behaviour of adolescent girls. A character I especially loved was Portia’s schoolfriend Lilian, forever on the brink; when Portia asks her what she is doing the next day, Lilian fixes her with a knowing look and says ‘Confidentially, Portia, I don’t know what may happen’, which made me laugh out loud; that sense of melodrama about everyday life is at its height at the age of 16, and Bowen captures it absolutely to the point. Bowen’s worlds are always fantastically heartless; Portia’s surfeit of emotion will not last within it. In a society where no one ever says what they mean, and emotion is kept firmly in check behind a veneer of socially acceptable indifference, Portia must learn to play by the rules. Her innocence is slowly corrupted by those who have been charged with her protection, and sadly, Anna and Thomas realise too late just what damage they have done.

If you’ve never read any Bowen, I urge you to give her a go. She takes some getting used to, and if you’re a fan of plot driven novels, you’ll have to learn to get your kicks from character development rather than action, but the richness of the language and the intensity of the seething emotions rippling under the surface of the page will more than make up for it. She was a genius, and I wish more people would appreciate her talent!

44 comments

  1. I adore Elizabeth Bowen. She is one of the authors I “collect”. I have a copy of her collected short stories and it is one of my top 20 books. If you haven’t read any of her short stories do check them out; I think you’d enjoy them!

    1. It’s so wonderful that she has so many fans…they’re all coming out of the woodwork! I have read some of her short stories and I have a nice vintage copy of a volume of her short stories…must read those soon!

  2. I re-read The Death of the Heart every few years and never fail to love Portia, depise Eddie, be fascinated by Matchett and highly amused by the dreadful Daphne. E Bowen’s genius is in her complete understanding and fine portraits of children and young people – always touching and true.
    Did you know that she based Eddie on a fickle lover of her own, Goronwy Rees? He had betrayed her under her own roof in Ireland with Rosamond Lehmann. Not a decent way to behave as house guests! That was Elizabeth’s revenge.
    So glad you’re having such a good time reading her.

    1. You’re exactly right, Chrissy – Bowen is brilliant at capturing young people. Her insight is remarkable.

      No I didn’t! With Rosamond Lehmann indeed!! I bet Bowen had an absolutely fascinating life, I must get hold of her biography.

      Bowen is such a pleasure to read – I must get to The House in Paris next!

      1. Isn’t that a lovely painting on the cover? My ancient paperback (bought in 1979!!) has a pretty pencil drawing which doesn’t capture Portia’s sad bewildered little face.

  3. Oh, Rachel, you’ve gone and written another enticing review, of Bowen, no less, and tempted me and TBR pile. My heart breaks for Portia as I read your words here. The Death of the Heart is now on my list. Thank you, Rachel.

  4. I read one Elizabeth Bowen book a long time ago – and have no memory of it at all. Not even sure which novel it was. I think it just wasn’t the time for me and Elizabeth Bowen. I am going to try and get hold of some and re-aquaint myself with her.

  5. I’ve meaning to read more of Elizabeth Bowen ever since I finished The House in Paris. That was over five years ago, so there’s really no excuse… thanks for reminding me.

  6. Have not read any Bowen todate. But must admit this cover did catch my attention the other day and now with your review it is definitely on my Book list for this year.

  7. Rachel, I’m relatively new to your blog (though I’ve commented a couple of times), and I’m always astounded by the passion you imbue into each review. Your love of literature is contagious — I often finishing reading your posts dying to get hold of a text of which I had never before heard. My literary comfort zone is the long nineteenth century. However, I’m trying to become better acquainted with twentieth-century British fiction, and your blog has provided me with plenty of titles to add to the TBR list. Thank you!

    1. Hi Diana, it’s lovely to hear from you again! How kind you are – I’m delighted to hear how much you enjoy my reviews! I used to be exclusively Victorian too but branching out into the early 20th century has been a real joy. There are so many fantastic authors – Bowen, Rosamond Lehmann, Rebecca West…you have so much to discover!🙂

  8. I have you to thanks for getting me onto Bowen — I read The Heat of the Day and To the North last year and loved them both. Now I have to read this — can’t wait!

  9. Rachel, you probably won’t be surprised to see where my comment leads you to, again—–Jane Austen! Elizabeth Bowen was a huge Janeite, and Death of the Heart is chock full of veiled allusions to Emma! And the hero’s surname in one of her other novels is Tilney.

    If you read Jane Austen against the grain, as I do, then the following description you wrote, above, of Death of the Heart, applies to all of Jane Austen’s novels perfectly, as well:

    “It’s an odd world, filled with secrets and lies, unspoken emotions, empty, echoing houses and enigmatic, shadowy people who are never quite as they seem. Bowen is magnificently insightful, and unflinching in her portrayals of the darker and more vulnerable sides of the human psyche.”

    Cheers, ARNIE
    @JaneAustenCode on Twitter

    1. Very interesting Arnie, I hadn’t made that connection! I do think her writing style borrows a lot from Austen but I must say I hadn’t spotted an Emma connection…what makes you think that?!

      1. Rachel, sorry to be late in replying. In 2005, I found an intriguing article “Experience Means Nothing till It Repeats Itself”: Elizabeth Bowen’s “The Death of the Heart” and Jane Austen’s “Emma” by Victoria Warren in Modern Language Studies Vol. 29, No. 1 (Spring, 1999), pp. 131-154.

        Warren suggested that The Death of the Heart used Austen’s Emma as an allusive model in numerous significant aspects. It was not surprising then, when I stumbled across Elizabeth Bowen’s name again in my research, i.e., reading her comments at a meeting of the Jane Austen Society in England about 35 years ago (not long before Bowen’s death), in which Bowen spoke glowingly and knowingly about Jane Austen.

      2. Great, thanks for that, Arnie – I’ll see if I can find that article as I’d be very interested in reading what parallels Victoria Warren drew.

  10. I spied your latest post on my blogroll yesterday but wanted to wait until the house was quiet to read it uninterrupted. As you know, I’m wrapped up in The House in Paris at the moment so I was dying to know what you thought of YOUR Bowen! “Bowen’s worlds are always fantastically heartless; Portia’s surfeit of emotion will not last within it.”…LOVED that! Actually, I loved your whole review and can’t wait to meet this Portia.

    I’m totally mesmerized by The House in Paris. Bowen says so much in a paragraph that I’m hyper-alert to catch anything cryptic which means reading quite a few paragraphs twice. Of course, with writing like Bowen’s I’m more than happy to do so!

    1. Oh Darlene, you would just love The Death of the Heart! I am on tenterhooks to hear what you think of The House in Paris…sounds like it’s another winner so far!

      That is just what I love about Bowen – she makes you work as a reader. You can’t get away with being lazy, and you just want to drink up every lovely word…bliss!

  11. I’ve had this book on the TBR shelf for more than five years, since I became obsessed with the Modern Library Top 100 List. I am determined to read it this year and it’s one of the books I chose for the 2012 TBR challenge. I’ve heard so many great things about Bowen so I’m really looking forward to it.

  12. I’m quite certain that my favourite books tend not to be plot-driven, but focused on the inner lives and relationships of the characters. People are always most fascinating! This book sounds slightly devastating though. Perhaps one day I’ll be brave enough to try it!

    1. I think those are the best novels, Lucy! Plot is so often valued above all else and that is a massive mistake in my opinion; true skill lies in bringing characters to life. It is fairly devastating, yes, but still beautiful nonetheless!

  13. Thanks again, for yet another enticing and passionate review! I’ve had her collected short stories, biography and a non-fiction work of hers about a hotel in Ireland for some time now, but I’ve yet to acquire any of her novels. To The North has been high on my wish list ever since reading yours and Darlene’s (Roses Over A Cottage Door) high praises for the book. Will have to add this one to the list as well.

  14. You sold me with “It’s an odd world, filled with secrets and lies, unspoken emotions, empty, echoing houses and enigmatic, shadowy people who are never quite as they seem” that sounds like the perfect book for me. I have this novel too but for some reason haven’t turned to it (will you judge me if I say it is because the lovely old penguin edition I have has the smallest print on earth, if you will judge me on that wipe it from all your thoughts!) I must though, I must.

  15. I am, regrettably, at the last 30 pages of The Death of the Heart and loved it. I read The Heat of the Day several years ago, then for some reason ‘forgot’ about our Elizabeth Bowen! She and Elizabeth Gaskell have become revived favorites of mine. I have been interested in the Anglo-Irish world, and that’s Elizabeth’s background. ‘The Last September” was one of my favorites of hers-the movie was terrific. Try the author Annabel Davis-Goff, of Anglo-Irish heritage- her books are great…The Dower House, Fox’s Walk and her memoir Walled Gardens-Scenes from an Anglo-Irish Childhood. I think The Death of the Heart is due for a really terrific British/Masterpiece Theater remake.

    1. I am so plased that you loved The Death of the Heart! You must read To the North – it’s fantastic. I have never read The Last September – it’s difficult to get hold of for some reason, though I am always on the hunt for it! I haven’t heard of Annabel Davis-Goff so I shall definitely look her up – thank you for the recommendation. I’d love to see all of Bowen’s novels on the screen – they’d be brilliant if done sensitively. You’d need some powerful actors to do her characters justice.

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