‘The Death of the Heart’ by Elizabeth Bowen (1938) – 418 pages
I am happy I listened to ‘The Death of the Heart’ on audio because the dramatic and comedic qualities of the dialogue are clearly apparent that way. Each of the characters comes vividly alive as they interact with each other. It is the talk which makes ‘The Death of the Heart’ an exceptional novel.
This is a coming-of-age story that takes place in the England of the 1930s between the wars. It centers on sixteen year old Portia Quayne, recently orphaned.
First there is the entertaining back story of Portia’s upper class father Mr. Quayne who in his late fifties has a dalliance with young woman Irene – ‘Irene, you know, was not what anyone would want at all’ – and gets her pregnant. Mr. Quayne’s wife forces him to do the right thing in divorcing her, leaving his settled life much to his chagrin, and marrying Irene. Portia is the outcome of this affair. Mr. Quayne dies when Portia is only four years old, and Irene and Portia move from hotel to hotel for the next twelve years at which time Irene dies. Then Portia has nowhere to go so her much older half brother Thomas and his wife Anna agree to take her in for a year.
During that year Portia meets ‘the astonishing cad’ Eddie, a 23 year old friend of Anna’s, and falls hopelessly in love.
Here we are in the home of Thomas and Anna, an upper class mansion with three maids. Anna feels stuck with Portia, doesn’t really want her in the house. Thomas just wants to withdraw from any emotional scene. There is cruelty just under the surface of the polite genteel conversation.
For those minutes of silence, Thomas fixed on her (Anna) his considering eyes. Then he got up, took her by one elbow and angrily kissed her. “I’m never with you,” he said.
“Well look how we live.”
“The way we live is hopeless.”
Anna said, much more kindly: “Darling don’t be neurotic. I have had such a day.”
He left her and looked round for his glass again.
Can we speak of the comic energy of a novel with the melodramatic name of ‘The Death of the Heart’? Each of the characters except Eddie is portrayed in a somewhat positive light, but that doesn’t stop Elizabeth Bowen from exposing each one’s flaws in the full light of day. Mainly through the back-and-forth of sharp dialogue, Bowen nails each one of these people. You laugh at them even as you loathe them.
This is a story of the betrayal of an innocent girl in a mad scene in a movie theatre while on holiday. It is also the betrayal of an adult reading her secret diary. The betrayals seem rather tame compared to the betrayals possible in modern-day romances, but they are devastating betrayals for Portia nonetheless.
As in so many of the great novels, there is an energy in the writing, both tragic and comic, that sets this apart from lesser works.