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The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

The Death of the Heart (1938)

by Elizabeth Bowen

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    WSB7: Both have the feeling of restraint/seil-restraint foregrounded.
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    What Maisie Knew by Henry James (Nickelini)

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"The Death of the Heart" takes place in England, circa 1930’s. It’s the story of Portia Quayne, a typical sixteen year old coming of age. She’s self-conscious, sensitive, innocent, impressionable, and idealistic. And amidst the uncertainty and discomfort of growing up to be a respectable young woman, she has the added burden of suddenly becoming an orphan- sent to live with an estranged step-brother and his snobby, bourgeois wife- Thomas and Anna.

In many ways the turmoil Portia experiences is trivial and trite. Not to say her feelings aren’t important, but rather typical of any teenager. Portia is busy establishing new relationships, falling in love for the first time, and making a sincere effort to fit into a new household where she gets the distinct feeling of not being wanted. Suddenly thrown into new and unfamiliar surroundings, she views everyone and everything through the eyes of an outsider. She badly wants to take people for their word, but Thomas and Anna seem cold and uncaring. She trusts her own instincts, but is shocked to find false sincerity and a lot of hypocrisy.

The trouble begins when all Anna’s single male friends begin to fuss over Portia. Problems escalate when Anna finds Portia’s diary and discovers included in her daily entries some very unkind descriptions of Thomas, Anna, and their superficial lifestyle. Needless to say, within a couple months family relations are turned upside down with disloyalties discovered, secrets revealed, and feelings hurt all around.

"The Death of the Heart" is listed as number 84 on Modern Library’s list of 100 best novels which leads me to believe this list needs to be updated. The plot of the story is fine, though the final outcome is uncertain. It has a very abrupt ending with every character left suspended in time as though the final chapter was never written.

The style of writing is antiquated… long winded and overly descriptive in the fashion of Henry James and D. H. Lawrence. I have nothing bad to say about those authors. Their writing reflected the time frame during which they were published. But Elizabeth Bowen’s out-dated cryptic and slang British dialogue is difficult to decipher. Did everyone really talk like that? Would a young man ever really say on his first date with a nice girl, “There is nothing intellectual between us. In fact, I don’t know why I talk to you at all. In many ways I should so much rather not”? Or was Elizabeth Bowen just exaggerating to emphasize to the reader that the character was simply a pompous cad?

On the positive side, the novel does a very good job of illustrating a variety of characters just trying to get by and make the most of their own lives… all with different levels of experience, intelligence, and integrity. One interesting quote is from a young man lecturing Portia on accountability. He advises her that he judges people by their character. Portia asks if that was “always a good way to judge people, as people’s characters get so different at times, and depend so much on what happens to them”. The young man responds, “What happened to people depended on their character.” This astute observation definitely applies to all the characters in "The Death of the Heart". ( )
1 vote LadyLo | Dec 25, 2016 |
(9) Having just read and absolutely loved 'House of Mirth', I thought I would love this novel which I thought might be a bit of a British version of the same. Written in the 1930's by a writer who was critically acclaimed, this book shows up on a lot of 'Best Novels of the 20th century' lists. It is about a 16 yo orphaned girl, Portia, who comes to live with her rich much older half brother and sister-in-law in London. Her brother, Thomas, and his horrible wife, Anna, don't know what to do with her. They send her to school and feed her, but she is otherwise left to her own devices. She is young and naive and eventually has her heart broken and becomes disillusioned. The ending is quite sudden and cryptic - but I won't say more so as not to spoil.

This novel reminded me of another classic that was widely lauded but that really didn't do it for me - 'The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.' The same schtick about a sweet young girl who goes around and meets odd people who inexplicably pour their heart out to her. Neither book rang true to me; the dialogue just didn't seem believable. I liked it most when Portia got away from horrid Thomas and Anna and went to the seaside - there was some hope there. But then along came Eddie - the overwrought scenes between he and Portia were unbearably melodramatic. The best scene was the portrait of Thomas and Anna and their guest choosing to make the bold move of having dinner brought up during the final subdued crisis.

So just OK for me. Decent prose and some really beautiful sentences - the opening sentence of the novel is one of the most striking I've ever read. And certainly Bowen has pegged the atmosphere of bored rich middle aged people with empty hearts full of self-loathing sitting around drinking tea and smoking cigarettes - spot on. But the ending was abrupt and unsatisfying to say the least and the characters fell flat for me. ( )
1 vote jhowell | Feb 28, 2016 |
Portia suffers for being socially inept and gets pushed and shuffled around by people who really anytime only seem to want to tolerate her [at best]. Bowen is at her best with the things she leaves out and that she makes the reader put in. ( )
  dbsovereign | Jan 26, 2016 |
Didn't take the time to really concentrate on this book the way I should have. Bowen is always a favorite of mine. And my lack of engagement on this most recent read (actually a listen), I tend to chalk up to my inattention at the time. I need to return again to give the book it's due. ( )
  idiotgirl | Dec 25, 2015 |
There was a time in my youth when I fell in love with Elizabeth Bowen. Her gorgeous high baroque prose style ravished me. You know how sometimes a writer announces herself as a soulmate, settles herself thrillingly into your mind and begins to help you see with more clarity an aesthetic of the world you had only previously sensed? Elizabeth Bowen, following Virginia Woolf, did that for me. I felt we were soul mates. And Death of the Heart was my favourite of her novels.

Essentially it’s a novel about innocence. But Bowen adds something new to the standard ideas of innocence. For one thing it’s not necessarily a virtue in her eyes. Just the opposite in fact. Bowen sees innocence as a health hazard for civilised society. And, through the 16 year old orphan Portia, she explores the dismantling havoc innocence can wreak on civilisation’s defence structures – here represented by Anna and Thomas, a somewhat decadent married pair whose life is mostly refined ennui and whose home Portia enters. Portia herself was born outside of civilisation’s defensive ramparts – the child of an illicit affair on the part of Thomas’s father and an abiding source of shame to Thomas. So Portia enters the house as an enemy. And Portia, like most solitary outcasts, is a keen observer. She keeps a diary.

Death of the Heart is also a novel about secrets and betrayal. Both Anna and Thomas have guilty secrets. Most of all perhaps the sham nature of their marriage. And when Anna deviously reads Portia’s diary it’s as if this sham is suddenly and fatally exposed. Portia too feels betrayed - "One's sentiments -- call them that -- one's fidelities are so instinctive that one hardly knows they exist: only when they are betrayed or, worse still, when one betrays them does one realize their power." Portia’s subsequent attempts to find a new home, both symbolically and literally, first with the rake Eddy and then the equally innocent and homeless Major Brunt wreak further havoc.

Bowen’s sense and therefore evocation of place is one of her great strengths as a writer. Few writers can conjure up place with so much haunting pulsing atmosphere – whether it’s the soulless harmonies of Windsor Terrace where Anna and Thomas live, Regent’s Park with its icy lake and, later, blooming roses, the seaside town of Seale or the seedy Bayswater hotel which down at the heel Major Brunt calls his home. Place in her books has agency. In this book place is home - the idea of home as sanctuary being another theme of this novel.

"After inside upheavals, it is important to fix on imperturbable things. Their imperturbableness, their air that nothing has happened renews our guarantee. Pictures would not be hung plumb over the centres of fireplaces or wallpapers pasted on with such precision that their seams make no break in the pattern if life were really not possible to adjudicate for. These things are what we mean when we speak of civilization: they remind us how exceedingly seldom the unseemly or unforeseeable rears its head. In this sense, the destruction of buildings and furniture is more palpably dreadful to the spirit than the destruction of human life." ( )
  wellsie | Feb 18, 2015 |
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That mornining's ice, no more than brittle film, had cracked and was now floating in segments.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0385720173, Paperback)

Five words of advice on reading Elizabeth Bowen: Resist the urge to skim. In The Death of the Heart, Bowen's writing rolls ever onward, accruing the sensations and ironies of conscious living till the final effect is massive. This is not prose for people who like their fiction with a cool, Calvin Klein-like minimalism. Bowen's people are keenly aware, and she seems to catalogue every sweaty moment, every betraying glance. The reader must stay right there with her, because hidden among lengthy descriptions of sea air and drawing-room politics are pithy asides worthy of great humorists: "Absence blots people out. We really have no absent friends." Skimmers miss out.

The Death of the Heart is Bowen's most perfectly made book. Portia, an orphan, comes to live in London with her half-brother, Thomas, and his wife, Anna. A child of sin raised in a series of shabby French hotels, Portia is possessed of a kind of terrible innocence. Like Chance the Gardener in pigtails, she literally can't comprehend evil or unkind motives. Unfortunately for her, she falls in with Anna's friend Eddie, who seems to be made entirely of bad motives. Though the plot follows Portia's relationship with Eddie, the novel's real tension lies between Portia and Anna, as the girl comes to grief against the shoals of Anna's glittering, urbane cynicism. But the book transcends the theme of innocence corrupted. As in Graham Greene's The Quiet American, Bowen inverts the formula to show the destructive power of innocence itself:

Innocence so constantly finds itself in a false position that inwardly innocent people learn to be disingenuous.... Incurable strangers to the world, they never cease to exact a heroic happiness. Their singleness, their ruthlessness, their one continuous wish makes them bound to be cruel, and to suffer cruelty. The innocent are so few that two of them seldom meet--and when they do, their victims lie strewn all around.
Bowen has a fine eye for such shadings of morality, but finer still is her understanding of the way humans bump up against the material world. Her writing on weather, both emotional and meteorological, compares with the best of Henry James: "One's first day by the sea, one's being feels salt, strong, resilient, and hollow--like a seaweed pod not giving under the heel."

Always a sensitive observer of the way we live, in her lesser books Bowen deals in mind games and then delivers trumped-up, bloody endings. In The Death of the Heart, she keeps all the action between her characters' ears, and comes up with one of the great midcentury psychological novels. --Claire Dederer

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:19:44 -0400)

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As she deftly and delicately exposes the cruelty that lurks behind the polished surfaces of conventional society, Bowen offers the piercing story of innocence betrayed at a 1930s British seaside resort.

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