Tag Archives: #1938Club

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.

IMG_2750

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

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

When I put together my reading list for the Classics Club back in December, I wanted to include a few light-hearted books, witty novels such as Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women, which I reviewed here, and Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love, which I’ve yet to read. Winifred Watson’s novel, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, also falls into this category of ‘fun’ books. It’s an utterly enchanting take on the Cinderella story, one full of warmth, wit and charm. Also, as it was originally published in 1938, it qualifies as my contribution to Karen and Simon’s 1938 Club which is running all this week – there’s a link here if you’d like some more information about the event.

MissPClassicWebsite

Set in London in the 1930s, Watson’s book captures an extraordinary day in the life of Miss Guinevere Pettigrew, a rather timid, down-at-heel spinster who has fallen on hard times. As the novel opens, Miss Pettigrew is in urgent need of a new job as a governess or a children’s nanny. If she doesn’t secure a new position that day, Miss Pettigrew may well find herself with nowhere to go but the poorhouse as her landlady has threatened to evict her. This next quote perfectly captures Miss Pettigrew’s situation as she sets out in search of a suitable role.

Outside on the pavement Miss Pettigrew shivered slightly. It was a cold, grey, foggy, November day with a drizzle of rain in the air. Her coat, of a nondescript, ugly brown, was not very thick. It was five years old. London traffic roared about her. Pedestrians hastened to reach their destinations and get out of the depressing atmosphere as quickly as possible. Miss Pettigrew joined the throng, a middle-aged, rather angular lady, of medium height, thin through lack of good food, with a timid, defeated expression and terror quite discernible in her eyes, if any one cared to look. But there was no personal friend or relation in the whole world who knew or cared whether Miss Pettigrew was alive or dead. (pgs 1-2)

Luckily for Miss P, the employment agency has a couple of new vacancies on its books: one for a lady’s maid and one for a nursery governess. However, in a mix-up over the details of the two positions, the agency sends our heroine to the home of Miss Delysia LaFosse, a glamorous nightclub singer in need of a new maid. When she arrives at the apartment, Miss Pettigrew finds Miss LaFosse in a bit of a fix. With her own culinary skills being virtually non-existent, Miss LaFosse is in urgent need of someone to fix breakfast for her gentleman friend, Phil; so before she can explain the reason for her visit, Miss Pettigrew finds herself in the kitchen, cooking ham and eggs for the two young lovers. The charming Miss LaFosse is thrilled with her new ‘maid,’ and Miss Pettigrew in turn is delighted to feel appreciated for once, an emotion she has rarely experienced while working as a governess.

She felt strong with compassion and sympathy, though for what she hadn’t the faintest idea. Yet behind her solicitude, rather guiltily, Miss Pettigrew felt the most glorious, exhilarating sensation of excitement she had ever experienced. ‘This,’ thought Miss Pettigrew, ‘is Life. I have never lived before.’ (pg 11)

Miss LaFosse feels so confident in Miss Pettigrew’s abilities to manage a crisis that she asks for some much-needed help in disentangling her rather complicated love life. As it turns out, Miss LaFosse has three lovers on the go: first there is Phil, the kindly chap she needs to keep sweet in the hope he will place her in his new show; then there is Nick, the dashing, influential and dangerous lover who pays the rent on her apartment; and finally there is Michael, the self-made man who wants to marry her. When Miss Pettigrew successfully manages to get rid of Phil before Nick arrives back at the apartment, Miss La Fosse is extremely grateful; in fact she is so impressed that she begins to see Miss P as some kind of miracle-worker, a fortuitous gift from Heaven. In reality, however, Miss Pettigrew is making it all up as she goes along, relying on her knowledge of characters from the movies as a way of managing these tricky situations. What’s more, every time she tries to explain the real reason for her arrival that morning, Miss LaFosse interrupts her flow, promptly cutting her off before she can finish.

All too quickly Miss Pettigrew finds herself drawn into Miss LaFosse’s world, a place of adventure, excitement and new experiences. Despite the fact that she is a little disapproving of her companion’s lifestyle, it’s a world Miss Pettigrew begins to enjoy very much. She knows that her mother and father (a curate when he was alive), would have disapproved of this new behaviour, but what the hell – it’s time for Miss Pettigrew to live a little!

Miss Pettigrew sat savouring to the full a blissful sense of adventure, of wrongdoing: a dashing feeling of being a little fast: a worldly sense of being in the fashion: a wicked feeling of guilty ecstasy. She enjoyed it. She enjoyed it very much. (pg. 97)

As the title of the novel suggests, we follow Miss Pettigrew over the course of a complete day during which Miss LaFosse and her friend, Miss Edythe Dubarry, take our heroine under their wings, transforming her into a lady of distinction.

Another woman stood there. A woman of fashion: poised, sophisticated, finished, fastidiously elegant. A woman of no age. Obviously not young. Obviously not old. Who would care about age? No one. Not in a woman of that charming exterior. The rich, black velvet of the gown was of so deep and lustrous a sheen it glowed like colour. An artist had created it. It had the wicked, brilliant cut that made its wearer look both daring and chaste. It intrigued the beholder. He had to discover which. Its severe lines made her look taller. The ear-rings made her look just a little, well, experienced. No other word. The necklace gave her elegance. She, Miss Pettigrew, elegant. (pgs 98-99)

There is a cocktail party for Miss Pettigrew to attend; there are more romantic troubles for her to fix; and finally there is a glittering trip to the Scarlet Peacock, the nightclub where Miss LaFosse performs as a singer. It all makes for a wonderful story.

This is a very charming novel indeed, the ideal read if you’re in the mood for something light-hearted and vivacious, but with a little substance too. The two central characters are beautifully drawn, and their different personalities complement one another perfectly. Miss Pettigrew experiences life as she has never known it before, namely the excitement, thrills and pleasures that come with new opportunities and adventures. She discovers skills and talents that had remained hidden for many years. Conversations are no longer a problem for her as others seem interested in what she has to say; in others words, they see Miss Pettigrew as a person, an individual in her own right as opposed to someone else’s governess or nanny. For her part, Miss LaFosse also learns something from her new friend, particularly how to make sense of her romantic entanglements. I could say a little more, but I’ll leave it there for fear of revealing too much about the outcome.

The secondary characters are also very well drawn, especially Nick, Michael and Miss Dubarry. Watson is very adept at drawing brief but revealing pen portraits of these characters – here’s how she introduces Nick, the handsome but treacherous matinee-idol type.

Graceful, lithe, beautifully poised body. Dark, vivid looks: a perfection of feature and colouring rare in a man. Brilliant, piercing eyes of a dark bluish-purple colour: a beautiful, cruel mouth, above which a small black moustache gave him a look of sophistication and a subtle air of degeneracy that had its own appeal. Something predatory in his expression: something fascinating and inescapable in his personality. (pg 27)

The dialogue is sharp and witty, very reminiscent of the Hollywood screwball comedies of the 1930s and ‘40s. Even though they come from two different eras, there were times when Miss La Fosse and Miss Dubarry reminded me of Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in the Howard Hawks film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – Watson’s novel has a similar tone.

IMG_2664

Finally (well, almost finally) a note on my Persephone edition which comes complete with a beautiful series of line drawings by Mary Thomson and an excellent introduction by Henrietta Twycross-Martin. It’s a beautiful little book.

I’ll wrap up with a favourite quote from the novel, one that typifies Miss Pettigrew’s transformation from mousey spinster into someone with a zest for life – perhaps it will encourage you to (re-)read the book for yourself.

No longer were the damp November streets dreary. Fairy signs glittered on buildings. Magic horns hooted insistently. Palace lights shed a brilliant glow on the pavements. Avalon hummed, throbbed, pulsed, quivered with life. Bowler-hatted knights and luscious ladies hastened with happy faces for delightful destinations. Miss Pettigrew hastened with them, though much more aristocratically than on her own two legs. Now she, herself, had a destination. What a difference that made! All the difference in the world. Now she lived. Now she was inside of things. Now she took part. She breathed Ambrosial vapour. (pgs 167-168)

Alimadame bibi lophile and Karen have also reviewed this novel.