I have long wanted to read the critically-acclaimed Anglo-Irish writer Elizabeth Bowen; her 1938 novel, The Death of the Heart, has been calling me for quite a while. By rights I should have read it earlier, in preparation for Karen and Simon’s 1938 Club (which took place last week), but time got the better of me in the end. Nevertheless, I’m hoping this review might count as a late entrant.
When both her parents die in fairly quick succession, sixteen-year-old Portia Quayne is sent to live with her half-brother, Thomas, and his wife, Anna, in their large house near Regent’s Park in London. It was her late father’s wish that Portia should live with Thomas for a year, after which time she might move on to stay with an aunt. In truth, neither Thomas nor Anna is particularly keen to have Portia, although Thomas, for his part, does feel some sense of duty towards the girl.
Portia, it seems, was born out an affair between Thomas’ father and the woman who became his second wife, Irene. After their marriage, the couple spent their lives in the south of France, moving from one hotel to another with Portia in tow, effectively in a sort of exile from Thomas’ mother and the family. With Portia now living in London, her presence in the house cannot help but remind Thomas of the shame and embarrassment he experienced over the affair, emotions that always came to the fore whenever he visited his father and Irene in France.
In those sunless hotel rooms, those chilly flats, his father’s disintegration, his laugh so anxious or sheepish, his uneasiness with Irene in Thomas’s presence, had filled Thomas with an obscure shame – on behalf of his father, himself, and society. From the grotesqueries of that marriage he had felt a revulsion. (pg. 39)
There is no real warmth or affection in the Quayne household, with very little sense of anyone taking any form of pleasure from their activities. All in all, it’s a rather strange and unwelcoming place for a young girl who has recently lost her parents. At thirt-six, Thomas is much older than Portia; and with no children of their own, Thomas and Anna have no real experience of dealing with adolescents, nor any real appreciation of how to incorporate Portia into their lives. Anna, in particular, is a rather cold, unsympathetic creature, more concerned with taking tea with her own friends than with trying to forge any kind of connection with Portia. She finds Portia somewhat unnerving, convinced as she is that the girl is stealing furtive glances at her and Thomas from a distance — although in truth, Portia is simply curious and somewhat unsure of herself in their company. As a consequence of all this, Portia is pretty much left to her own devices for most of the time, her closest ally in the house being Matchett, the family’s longstanding maid.
Bowen is brilliant at capturing the sheer awkwardness and uncertainty of adolescence. Portia has very little understanding of how to behave around Anna, Thomas and their friends, no real sense of the workings of the adult mind. And why should she? After all, her upbringing was somewhat unconventional and very different from the upper-class world in which she finds herself now. In this scene, Portia is present while Anna takes tea with her friend, St Quentin – I think it’s an excellent illustration of Portia’s situation at the Quanyes’.
Getting up from the stool carefully, Portia returned her cup and plate to the tray. Then, holding herself so erect that she quivered, taking long soft steps on the balls of her feet, and at the same time with an orphaned unostentation, she started making towards the door. She moved crabwise, as though the others were royalty, never quite turning her back on them – and they, waiting for her to be quite gone, watched. She wore a dark wool dress, in Anna’s excellent taste, buttoned from throat to hem and belted with heavy leather. The belt slid down her thin hips, and she nervously gripped at it, pulling it up. Short sleeves showed her very thin arms and big delicate elbow joints. Her body was all concave and jerkily fluid lines; it moved with sensitive looseness, loosely threaded together: each movement had a touch of exaggeration, as though some secret power kept springing out. At the same time she looked cautious, aware of the world in which she had to live. She was sixteen, losing her childish majesty. (pgs. 26-27)
With very little support or affection coming from her half-brother and his wife, Portia falls in with Eddie, an acquaintance of Anna’s who also happens to work in Thomas’ office. Eddie is a rather selfish, uncaring young man with no real sense of integrity or responsibility. Portia, in her childlike innocence, is unable to see this, and so she falls in love with Eddie, believing everything he tells her without question.
Things take a different turn for Portia when Thomas and Anna decide to go to Capri for a month. Instead of taking the girl with them, the Quanyes pack her off to the Kentish coast to stay with Anna’s old governess, Mrs Heccomb, and her stepchildren, Daphne and Dickie, both of whom are in their twenties. The Heccomb household – the house is called Waikiki – represents a marked change of pace for Portia. It is welcoming, lively and somewhat chaotic, full of the sounds of doors banging, plates clattering and music playing away in the background. Quite soon after her arrival, Portia find herself drawn into the Heccombs’ friendly social set and their world of dances, cafés, and walks along the coastline. In some ways, it all starts to feel like a new beginning for the young girl.
However, there is trouble in the air when Portia invites Eddie to stay at Waikiki. From the moment she sets eyes on him, Mrs Heccomb detects something fishy about Eddie and is visibly distracted by his presence. Her view of Anna is rather idealised, and there is something about Eddie’s manner which seems quite at odds with this. In this scene, Eddie has just sat down to tea following his arrival at the Heccombs’.
He could not be expected to know that his appearance, and that the something around him that might be called his aura, struck into her heart its first misgiving for years – a misgiving not about Portia but about Anna. […] A conviction (dating from her last year at Richmond) that no man with bounce could be up to any good set up an unhappy twitch in one fold of her left cheek. Apprehensions that someone might be common were the worst she had had to combat since she ruled at Waikiki. No doubt it must be in order, this young man being Portia’s friend, since Porta said that he was a friend of Anna’s. But what was he doing being a friend of Anna’s? … Portia, watching the cheek twitch, wondered what could be up. (pg 209)
The weekend continues on a note of confusion for Portia as she struggles to understand Eddie’s behaviour around Daphne, especially when the two of them end up sitting next to one another at the cinema. It is a defining moment in the story as Portia finds herself in a world where people don’t necessarily say what they mean or mean what they say — a situation that only worsens on her return to London. Back in Regent’s Park, Portia discovers the true extent of the betrayals by those around her — not just by Eddie, but by those a little closer to home.
The Death of the Heart is a brilliant, psychologically astute novel — an exquisite exploration of the pain and confusion of adolescence, of how easy it is for someone to toy with the emotions of a teenager, especially someone as vulnerable and as trusting as Portia. Eddie is a cruel, insensitive young man who takes advantage of Portia’s naivety and desire for affection, crushing her hopes and dreams in the process. In turn, Anna and Thomas are little better than Eddie, failing to offer Portia the support and protection she so desperately needs.
In some ways, Heart reminds me very strongly of some of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels, particularly A Game of Hide and Seek and At Mrs Lippincote’s (review to come). Both Bowen and Taylor pay close attention to character development, creating complex but realistic individuals who experience conflicting emotions. Like Taylor, Bowen is an acute observer of the social interactions between people, and this novel is full of beautifully rendered scenes, rich with detail and latent emotions. The secondary characters deserve a mention too, particularly Major Brutt, an acquaintance of the Quanyes who finds himself ridiculed by the couple – Anna in particular.
I’ll finish with a final quote that illustrates the novel’s brittle London setting. Bowen’s description of this cold afternoon in January reflects something of the atmosphere in the Quanyes’ house, a cold, brittle, shallow place with little warmth inside.
The circle of traffic tightens at this hour round Regent’s Park; cars hummed past without a break; it was just before lighting-up time – quite soon the All Out whistles would sound. At the far side of the road, dusk set the Regency buildings back at a false distance: against the sky they were colourless silhouettes, insipidly ornate, brittle, and cold. The blackness of windows not yet lit or curtained made the houses look hollow inside. (pg. 9)
The Death of the Heart is published by Vintage Books; personal copy