Saturday, 5 September 2009

The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

I've come late to Elizabeth Bowen. Apart from a few short stories, the first thing of hers that I read was A House in Paris. That was odd and interesting enough to tempt me to more, and I've been picking them up in secondhand bookshops ever since. The Death of the Heart revolves around sixteen-year-old Portia, billeted on her half-brother Thomas and his wife Anna in their elegant home overlooking Regent's Park. Thomas's father was, messily, divorced from Thomas's mother and obliged to marry his mistress Irene; after his death Irene and Portia lived in hotels around Europe, staying in cheaper north-facing rooms, until Irene too died and Portia arrived at Windsor Terrace. Portia, naive and awkward, uncomfortable at her day-school for young ladies and at home, takes solace in the company of Matchett the housekeeper and in her diary. Portia falls for Eddie, a rather camp young flirt who has been rebuffed by Anna, and who can only ever disappoint her. Discovering that Anna has read her diary precipitates Portia's inevitable crisis.

This book, too is odd and interesting. It's a slippery narrative, shifting between characters' points of view and between a third-person narrative, stream of consciousness, and extracts from Portia's diary. The prose is very densely packed with meaning; the events of the plot cover a few months at most, but we learn a great deal about the histories of the major characters; Bowen seems to excel in concentrating meaning in fleeting memories and snatches of conversation. Every character is rounded out, including those who never appear such as Portia's late father and mother, by a range of views and opinions, thoughts and memories. We learn along with Portia, of course, puzzling her way through various alien environments, but we learn more that Portia, being privy to the internal monologues of other characters.

The claustrophobia of Portia's environment, at Regency Terrace and at school, and also at the seaside villa owned by Anna's former governess where Portia is sent for a few weeks while her guardians are abroad, makes her attempts at escape through her diary and her relationships with Eddie and with Matchett believable; once Eddie has let her down and the secret of her diary has been lost, her flight from her uncomfortable family to Major Brutt, an acquaintance of Anna's who has been kind to her and lives in the hotel environment she knows well, is entirely credible. Portia is clear-sighted and quite tough, standing up to Eddie's criticisms, for example, but she cannot see any way out of her situation beyond appealing to a kind stranger for rescue.

Other than Portia, the women in the novel seem to me to be constrained by loyalty rather than love. Anna is loyal to the memory of her first lover, which unsurprisingly compromises her relationship with Thomas, and also seems to be a late but passionate convert to social convention. Matchett is fiercely loyal to Portia's late father and this locks her into a relationship with his children and to employment by Anna, who she finds less than congenial. Mrs Heccomb, Anna's old governess, remains loyal to her former charge, even when this disrupts her own houshold. Her stepdaughter Daphne is loyal to a peculiar local moral code, in which outward jollity and disinterest is all; flirting may take place but this must never be acknowledged publicly. This rigid network of loyalties forms part of the claustrophobic atmosphere and emphasises Portia's awkwardness; she has grown up in a world where the cast of characters changes daily, and enduring loyalties and their associated conservatisms are unknown.

Nicola Humble has written about The Death of the Heart in The Feminine Middlebrow Novel; the contrast between Regency Terrace and Mrs Heccomb's seaside house, in terms of decor, inhabitants and entertainments, delineates quite clearly the highbrow home from the middlebrow one. It is interesting that only Eddie, a young man with a lower-class background who has become socially acceptable in upper-class circles through education, is able to move freely between these worlds and to mock them both; but then Eddie is at home nowhere.

I've thought a lot about this book since I read it and it is still mysterious to me. I can understand why people become slightly obsessive about Bowen's work; it has an elusive quality combined with a frankness and an intensity which makes for very unusual and unsettling reading. Sylvia Townsend Warner's novels can be similar, although I find her more affectionate towards her characters. I still have The Demon Lover and The Heat of the Day on my unread pile, so look forward to further opportunities to explore Bowen's odd and interesting world.

1 comment:

  1. Wimbledon Bookclub will be discussing Elizabeth Bowen's "The Death of the Heart" on June 6th 2011 and June 20th 2011.

    Any and all are welcome but places are limited.