The Death of the Heart, by Elizabeth Bowen

19599946.jpg I thought I might fall in love with this book, and it turns out I didn’t, but I don’t want to hold that against it. It is a very good novel; I’m glad I read it, and I’d like to read more Bowen. There’s something cold about the book, though, that made me admire more than love it. Its subject matter is rather depressing, and although I generally like depressing books, this one … well, it left me sad and didn’t dazzle me in a way that would make me feel better. But, really, I do admire it, and I believe I don’t need to fall in love with a book to recognize that it’s quite good.

It’s a story of lost innocence; Portia, a 16-year-old girl who is newly-orphaned comes to live with her much older half-brother Thomas and his wife Anna, and while she is there she learns some harsh lessons about the world. Her new family doesn’t really want here there; they took her in because it was Portia’s dying father’s request and because it seemed like the right thing to do. But Anna particularly resents having Portia in her home — the opening scene reveals that Anna has secretly read Portia’s diary and found that Portia has written some unflattering things about her and her friends. It’s as though Anna feels like she is competing with Portia; we learn that Anna had a love affair when she was much younger that ended disappointingly and it’s implied that Anna has never really recovered — now she sees Portia with her youth and beauty and attractiveness and resents the life she has ahead of her.

Portia meets a young friend of Anna’s named Eddie and the plot gets more complicated from there. The two quickly begin a relationship, but this relationship means something quite different for each of them. Portia in all her innocence believes she has fallen in love, but it’s clear that Eddie is merely interested in having some fun.

Poor Portia. She doesn’t fit in anywhere, and she clings to Eddie as the one she feels she can trust the most. She attends what sounds like a dreadful school and makes one friend there, but this friend doesn’t really satisfy, and she only gets in trouble while trying to make it through the school day. In the book’s second section, Anna and Thomas head off to France and leave Portia behind at the house of Anna’s old governess. Here, too, Portia feels like an outsider, and when she invites Eddie to visit her there, events head in a direction she never anticipated.

It’s Portia’s innocence that causes so much trouble, or, rather, it’s the world around her that causes the trouble, not knowing what to do with her innocence. Portia isn’t trained to deal with proper London society or with boys who make rash promises or with the isolation she endures. Anna and Thomas live dull, sterile lives; they have carefully cordoned themselves off from any real interaction with other people or even with each other:

Callers were unheard of at Windsor Terrace. They had been eliminated; they simply did not occur. The Quaynes’ [Thomas and Anna’s] home life was as much their private life as though their marriage had been illicit. Their privacy was surrounded by an electric fence — friends who did not first telephone did not come.

In this atmosphere Portia dries up; it’s no wonder she turns to other people, even harmful people, to try to find some liveliness and love.

Bowen is very much interested in psychological states. The back cover describes her style as Jamesian, and I think that claim holds true; Bowen describes her characters’ inner lives in depth, capturing the ebb and flow of their feelings and responses. It’s a thoughtful book, one that moves slowly — although not in a way that might bore — and tells its story with pleasing thoroughness. If you like books with emotional and psychological insight — ones that capture the complexity of character, then you may like this book.

On another note entirely, I began James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner last night and am enjoying it so far — the first 20 pages at least. I may begin another novel soon — The Road, most likely. I am also enjoying Mavis Gallant’s Paris Stories. So it looks like my indecisive period may be over — which is a relief.

Cross-posted here.

13 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

13 responses to “The Death of the Heart, by Elizabeth Bowen

  1. I’ve always wondered how Bowen fit in with the rest of the Bloomsbury crowd but I’ve never read any of her. You know, that’s not a bad idea for a reading challenge–a Bloomsbury Group read-a-thon!

  2. verbivore

    I read Gallant last year and enjoyed them. She seems to be fairly overlooked yet she writes so well. I am curious to hear what you think! And hooray to the end of indecision.

  3. I think it is entirely possible to admire and appreciate a novel without necessarily loving it. I read this and remember liking it, but it’s been so long that I can’t remember details–I’d like to reread it. I read one Mavis Gallant story at the end of last year and liked it (Across the Bridge) and will have to read more. I’ll be curious to hear what you think of The Road. People seem to either really like it or really not! I keep thinking of reading it, but never quite get around to picking it up. Glad to hear you’re into some good books again.

  4. I’ve not read any Bowen, but I do know that a number of her contemporaries found her hard to get to know, so your comments about the coldness are interesting. I keep saying when I read about books on blogs “I’ll add it to the pile” but somehow that doesn’t guarantee I’ll read them. However, if a copy comes my way I must try something by her.

  5. Oh, what a relief to find someone else didn’t fall in love with Bowen. I’m in the midst of Friends and Relations, having thought, like you, that I would fall in love. Instead, I keep finding myself thinking, “I must have chosen the wrong Bowen,” hopeful that maybe she wrote something else I might like more. It may just be possible, though, that she is an author I don’t like (I will give her at least one more chance before I make that decision, but I don’t think this one will be her second chance).

  6. I read this years ago so my memory of it is quite dim, but Bowen is a cool writer, elegiac, distanced, very beautiful but in a way that gemstones are beautiful. If you can face it, try another one of hers. I liked The House in Paris better, and A World of Love. Anyway, you write a lovely review of it!

  7. I still have hopes of reading this one for the Outmoded Authors challenge. And, glad to hear the indecision wore off and you’ve found some good stuff!

  8. I’m so glad you mentioned Bowen because I have been wondering what to read for Kate’s short story challenge and Bowen wrote short stories as well as novels. Maybe later I’ll get around to her novels, keeping in mind litlove’s suggestions. Thanks, Dorothy!

  9. Snackywombat — that challenge would be fun! And I’d like to know more about Bowen’s life; at present I know very little (nothing, really).

    Verbivore — so far I’m enjoying Gallant, although not all the stories hold my attention equally. But many of them have been quite good — I’ll post on them I’m sure!

    Danielle — I’m glad you said that about admiring and loving a novel, because I don’t want people to think I’m being negative about the book, when I’m really not. I’d definitely read more Bowen. I haven’t started The Road yet, but I’m still considering it … maybe this weekend.

    Ann — interesting what her contemporaries thought of her — I’d like to know more! And I have added so many books to the TBR list, it’s highly unlikely I’ll get to them all — but it’s nice to have a long list anyway!

    Emily — interesting about Friends and Relations; I’d never heard of it. I’m gratified, too, that we are having similar reactions. I’ve got The Last September on my shelves — perhaps that one would do as Bowen’s second chance to make me fall in love.

    Litlove — thank you, and I think that’s a beautiful (and very positive) way of describing Bowen’s writing — it makes perfect sense. I will keep an eye out for the books you mention.

    Iliana — I’d love to know what you think (that’s the benefit of the Outmoded Authors challenge — so many of us are reading some of the same authors!).

    Jenclair — now I wonder what I’d think of her stories. I didn’t know she wrote them, but then I don’t know anything about her, really.

  10. Poor Portia. The book does sound very sad. Is there any sense at the end that things might get better or is it all just plain grim?

  11. I finished this last month and found it oddly offputting. It wasn’t the subject — which is very interesting — but more her choice, or rather refusal to choose, between an interior, Jamesian narrative and a more passionate, frank exploration of love and sex. She hints at the latter rather too much for it to be a satisfying narrative.

  12. Stefanie — well, it’s just plain grim, in fact. I don’t think I should say more :) But don’t let the grimness put you off if you are interested in reading it!

    Bloglily — interesting point about her refusal to choose; you’re right that it does hover between the two forms you describe, although I will say that this is something that didn’t bother me as I read. I suppose I read it as falling more into the Jamesian camp and so the hinting was just about what I expected. It certainly would be interesting, though, if the story were more frank and love and sex!

  13. Elle

    I am one of the readers who did fall in love with this book so I thought I’d pipe up. To me Bowen captures the way that passion can be felt quietly but still intensely. I think of the novel as a beautiful, warm, black and white photograph. If you are expecting color you might find it cold and lacking but many people will find it just lovely.

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