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!