The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

I have long wanted to read 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.

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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 and his wife 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 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 36, 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 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). As a consequence of all this, Portia is pretty much left to her own devices most of the time, her closest ally in the house being Matchett, the family’s 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 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 the Heccombs’. 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 Waikiki.

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. Furthermore, once she returns to London, Portia discovers the true extent of the betrayals by those around her, not just by Eddie, but by others close to her as well.

The Death of the Heart is a wonderful novel, a very subtle 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 the reader can invest in. 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 as well, 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, one that illustrates the novel’s 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)

Karen, Ali and Harriet have also reviewed this novel.

The Death of the Heart is published by Vintage Books; personal copy

58 thoughts on “The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely review Jacqui and thanks for linking to mine. Bowen’s writing is just so good, isn’t it? She really deserves much more attention than she gets.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. Yes, Bowen’s another writer I really ought to have got on board with before now. I thought this was superb. In fact, there’s a good chance that both of my 1938 Club reads will end up on my best-of-2016 list! :)

      Reply
  2. Lady Fancifull

    Lovely review Jacqui – I do remember reading this years ago, and that final quote is wonderful. I don’t think it is on my shelves any more, but you have made me want to add Bowen to my getting-longer-list-of-names-to-search-for-in-charity-shops.

    I keep going in and combing through shelves and going out again – my ‘local’ is very organised – all the books are like in a bookshop, in categories and alphabetical.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Lady F. It’s a good quote, isn’t it? I thought Bowen’s descriptions of the London setting were full of atmosphere. Also, she has a real knack for evoking the feel of a house – the look of the rooms, the sounds all around, the way the light falls. You almost feel as though you’re there with the characters, observing their movements and gestures in those surroundings.

      And yes, do keep a lookout for Bowen’s novels in the charity shops – I’d love to hear what you think of her now.

      Reply
  3. Jane @ Beyond Eden Rock

    I remember reading this a long time ago, but many of the details had slipped my mind. I love the way that Elizabeth Bowen writes, but I do feel she demands more attention than many contemporaries, and that makes me less inclined to pick up her books than I should. She does reward that extra investment.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      She certainly does reward that additional investment. It took me a couple of chapters to get used to her prose style, but once I fell into line with it I was fine. I know what you mean, though. She does require a certain level of concentration, more so that Elizabeth Taylor (whose novels feel a bit more ‘accessible’ for want of a better word).

      Reply
  4. Cathy746books

    I really hoped to get to this for Reading Ireland Month but time got the better of me. It sounds so good I don’t think I’ll be able to save it until next year! A lovely review Jacqui.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, read it soon as I’d love to hear what you think! Do you know, I’d completely forgotten that Bowen was born in Dublin until I looked her up on wiki yesterday. If I’d remembered in time, I could have read this in March for your Reading Ireland month. Oh, well…maybe I’ll pick up another Bowen for next year’s event. :)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks! I was pretty blown away by this, to be honest. Not only the characters and the portrayal of their situations, but the structure too – it’s very cleverly constructed. And then there’s the writing…what skill and subtlety. As someone who is well versed in Bowen’s oeuvre, do you have any recommendations for which of her novels I should read next? I have The Heat of the Day, but I’m wondering whether I ought to work up to that one.

      Reply
      1. heavenali

        Hmm hard to say – you could try To the North or The House in Paris. I found The Heat of the Day a challenge. The Hotel is very good though a bit slow. I recently read The Little Girls but would save that for a layer day. The Last September- her first novel is well written but also a little slow.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          That’s great – thanks, Ali. I’ll take a closer look at To the North and The House in Paris. Maybe The Last September as a possible option.

          Reply
  5. Naomi

    What an awkward situation for Portia to be put into. I feel for her, and already am working up a strong dislike for some of those other characters. I hope they don’t completely ruin her youth and innocence! What a great quote describing her awkwardness.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That quote really stood out for me – it comes at a fairly early stage in the story, so it helps to set the scene in some respects. I’m not surprised to hear that your sympathies are with Portia as she finds herself in such a terrible position (I’d better not say anything more about the ending for fear of giving the game away). It’s an excellent book for readers who enjoy unlikeable characters as there’s plenty of material here on that front. That said, I’ve probably been a little unkind to Thomas in my review as he does try to talk to Portia from time to time. Anna, however, is another matter altogether…

      Reply
      1. Naomi

        I was thinking Anna sounded like the malicious one… (reminding me of Fanny in Sense and Sensibility – the wife of their brother)

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          It’s been such a long time since I read S&S that I can’t quite recall all the different characters! Even so, Anna definitely fails Portia here – and then Eddie plays with her affections with no real thought for the consequences. It’s all pretty devastating for Portia.

          Reply
  6. Donald Whiteway

    I so love your reviews. I often find myself eager to read the book after reading your take. This is another example! I’ve read short stories by Ms Bowen and have had her on my list of authors to read further. This title I will seek out. Thank you again for pointing the way!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s really great to hear – thank you! I think I’ll have to try some of her stories as well at some point, maybe once I’ve read another couple of the novels. In the meantime, I hope you get a chance to read The Death of the Heart – would love to hear what you make of it!

      Reply
  7. Caroline

    This does sound so good. She’s a bit hit and miss for me. Her writing is sometimes very awkward and somtimes sublime. Especially her short sories are so beautiful. I chose one of her novels, The Heat of the Day, as a Literature and War readalong title and many hated it. Until that I had up to 15 and 20 people reading along but so many were frustrated with the book, they didn’t even jon the readalong anymore. That said, I’ll read her again. Whenever I liked something she wrote, i liked it a great deal.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s really interesting. Ali was just saying that she found The Heat of the Day a challenge as well (and, as you probably know, she’s a big fan of Bowen’s writing). As far as I understand, The Death of the Heart is one of her most accessible novels, so it could be a good one for you to try. (Ali recommended it to me as a good place to start with the novels.) In fact, the tone and feel reminded me of Elizabeth Taylor’s A Game of Hide and Seek, which I know you loved. It did take me a few chapters to get the hang of Bowen’s style, but once I’d caught it I was hooked.

      Reply
      1. Caroline

        I remember many people, including Litlove having a problem with The Heat of the Day. I still have a few novels, so I won’t read this one any day soon but if it’s like A Game of Hide and Seek, I’d love it.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          I actually have a copy of The Heat of the Day, but it sounds as though I ought to try one or two of her other novels first, just to get a bit more in tune with the style. It’ll be interesting to see how you fare with the ones you have in your pile – I’ll definitely keep an eye out for your reviews.

          Reply
        2. JacquiWine Post author

          PS I meant to say that’s a real shame about the number of dropouts for the Literature and War readalong. It’s little harsh to judge something just on the strength of one book, especially when you’ve been selecting books by such a diverse range of authors.

          Reply
  8. Maureen Murphy ("Moe Murph")

    Hi Jacqui, Oh, how my heart aches for Portia, just from reading this piece! Looking forward to reading some day and am entering The Death of the Heart onto its place on the Tottering TBR pile…. :)

    By strange coincidence, am working on piece of my own about a book just published this past week in the US (“Undone”) by John Colapinto. Last summer, reading the Canadian-published edition, wrote some notes about Chloe, the tragic nymphet who becomes a pawn in a demonic game between the chilling villain, Dez, and his prey, Ulrickson. Won’t go into too many details, but as I read, I remember being vicariously enraged by the failure of a teacher, blinded by the surface charm and youthful good looks of co-worker Dez. The teacher has hopes of lassoing him in as a boyfriend, and rather than recognizing Chloe as an incredibly vulnerable adolescent, she dismisses several ominous signs that something is very “off” between Chloe and Dez (her teacher). For her own selfish and jealous ends, she exercises the choice to not “see” Dez for what he truly is. The theme of “blindness” is one that pervades the novel. A little from my original, “heat of the moment” notes below:

    [CHLOE: Loved narrative device of using the reports from the school and social worker to provide background on the character. Page 13, hated Dez’s guts, Chloe is every pimp’s dream. Sigh. Page 70, heartbreaking phrase: “But her motivation was less about punishing Ulrickson than it was about making Dez happy.”

    Gratifying to see her grow in strength by the end, but sad for her suffering. The terrible vulnerability of adolescents without good parents/parent figures to protect them. I wished there had been a strong and perceptive teacher or counselor at her school, but instead, we have the ninny with a crush on Dez, who is of no use whatsoever when she catches that kiss in the schoolroom. Urk.]

    Lovely job, Jacqui. P.S. If you would like me to keep you apprised on my piece and its (hopeful!) publication, would be happy to.

    Best, Maureen M.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Maureen. I can understand why you were reminded of the Colapinto book when you read my review of this one. Some definite parallels there by the sound of things. As you say, adolescents can find themselves so exposed when there are no good parents or responsible adults to protect them. That’s a huge part of the problem for Portia as her parents are gone, Anna and Thomas fail her, and there’s no sign of a teacher or other responsible adult taking any real interest. Mrs Heccomb has a very blinkered view of Anna, so as far as she’s concerned everything must be sweetness and light for Portia back in London. Matchett is Portia’s closest ally, but even she is a little severe in her dealings with the girl (Matchett is not young, and her approach is rather traditional).

      Yes, please do feel free to keep me updated on your piece – I’d be interested to see it once it’s been published.

      Reply
      1. Maureen Murphy

        Don’t know why, but I am very curious as to whether any of this was inspired by events in her own life. So subtle.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Based on Patricia Craig’s introduction to my Vintage edition, it sounds as though Bowen drew on some of her own experiences to create both Portia and Anna. Bowen was born in Dublin in 1899, but her father’s mental breakdown in the early 1900s drove her mother into exile in Kent. For six years, Bowen and her mother led a colourful and slightly dicey life in Kent, moving from one villa to another – in some respects, not unlike Portia Quayne’s early life with her mother, Irene. Plus, there is the connection between Bowen’s time in Kent and Portia’s spell on the Kentish coast with the Heccombs. Later in life, Bowen moved to London where, in 1923, she married Alan Cameron, an educational administer. Their childless marriage was described as ‘a sexless, but contented union’. In the early 1930s, the couple moved to 2 Clarence Terrace, Regents Park, where Bowen wrote two novels including The Death of the Heart. In the book, Anna and Thomas’ address is 2 Windsor Terrace, Regents Park. So, a couple of parallels there as well.

          Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’ll like it as the characterisation is excellent here. There are some definite parallels between these two writers as they both bring a subtlety and keen sense of observation to their work. Bowen’s prose isn’t quite as easy to read as Taylor’s, but it more than rewards the investment in concentration. I can see this ending up on my list of reading highlights later this year.

      Reply
  9. Elena

    Wonderful review! I bought this book while in Ireland some years ago and I have to admit I haven’t read it yet, but your review has made me search for it on my shelves (and luckily I located it!). I love the idea of a tale of adolescence and pain, as weird as it may sound. Thanks for reminding me of this long-lost book :D

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Elena – that’s great! It’s particularly strong and emotionally truthful on the portrayal of adolescence. A couple of the chapters are presented as excerpts from Portia’s diary and they really illustrate her childlike innocence and naivety. She puts all of her trust in Eddie and he simply plays with her affectations. It’s a brilliant novel – my first Bowen, but I sure hope it won’t be my last.

      Reply
  10. Scott W.

    Once again a review of yours prompts me to want to revisit an author. I’d tried to read something by Bowen many years ago but abandoned it (I don’t recall which, but it was not this cheery title). But obviously I need to have another look.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, do take another look at her, Scott. Her books have a reputation for being challenging, and while some of her prose is rather intricate, it’s worth persevering. Overall, I found this novel to be more accessible than I’d expected, although I gather it’s a good one to start with. I wonder whether the one you tried was The Heat of the Day, set in London during WW2? Quite a few people seem to have struggled with that novel (as you may have seen from Caroline’s comments above).

      Reply
  11. 1streading

    I read The Heat of the Day many years ago and have recently thought about reading more of her work. Your comparison with Elizabeth Taylor makes that even more likely. Perhaps this one would be a good place to start.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think I’m going to have to work up to that one as I’ve heard it’s quite challenging! This was superb, very cleverly constructed and beautifully observed, She shares that quality with Taylor – you know, a keen sense of observation. Yes, I think it would be a good re-entry point for you, especially as Ali thought it would make a suitable place to start with Bowen. I’ve just bought another of her novels, The Last September (her second, I think). Not sure when I’ll get to it, but I’m definitely keen to read more.

      Reply
      1. Donald Whiteway

        Let us know how The Last September goes. I saw the movie version some time ago and have always had that one on my “read sometime” list.

        Reply
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    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, Excellent. Thanks for the link, Seamus – I’ll head over to yours shortly to take a look at your review. Glad to hear you enjoyed The Last September – sounds like I’ve chosen a good one.

      Reply
  14. Emma

    Lovely review and you make me want to try Bowen again. I couldn’t finish the one I started (The Little Girls)
    Reading your review, I wish Portia had some on Undine Spragg’s spunk.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Emma. If anything, I didn’t rave about this novel enough in my review. It’s tremendous – the more I think about it, the richer it seems. The structure is superb, and the central characters feel fully painted. It’s a novel I’d like to revisit at some point, maybe with a book group as there’s more than enough material for a meaty discussion. I think it would a good one to try if you were ever minded to give her another go. Ali suggested it as a reasonable entry point, less challenging than some of her others, although I don’t know how it compares with The Little Girls.

      Udine Spragg, the Wharton heroine (from Custom of the Country?). It’s in my pile of books to read, along with The Age of Innocence. :-)

      Reply
      1. Emma

        OK, sold. I trust your opinion, we usually enjoy the same kind of books.
        Yes, Undine Spragg from Custom of the Country. A tremendous novel.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Great, the story is masterful. The only thing I’d say is that you might want to check if it’s available in French (and readers’ responses to the translation). Bowen’s prose can be quite intricate at times. Not quite as challenging as I’d feared, but still, some sections required a high degree of concentration or re-reading. Other sections are pretty accessible, so the style does vary somewhat.

          I’m looking forward to Custom, especially seeing as you rate it so highly!

          Reply
          1. Emma

            Thanks for the warning about Bowen’s prose. I’v survived James and Hollinghurst but it requires a lot of attention. It would be easier in French (plus I can lend the book afterwards)

            Reply
            1. JacquiWine Post author

              Very welcome, forewarned is forearmed and all that. Henry James is probably quite a good touchstone for Bowen’s style – not the easiest, but one that rewards persistence.

              Reply
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