14 May 2013

The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

'But after all, death runs in that family.  What is she, after all?  The child of an aberration, the child of a panic, the child of an old chap's pitiful sexuality.  Conceived among lost hairpins and snapshots of doggies in a Notting Hill Gate flatlet.'

Poor Portia Quayne.  With the naiveté of youth all she has ever known is the safe environment provided by her parents.  Moving from one hotel to another on the Continent is a way of life and to ask her she would tell you it's because her parents like living that way.  The truth is far from it.  Her father is living in a sort of exile since being caught in an affair with a women from lesser means.  Cast adrift to lie in the bed he made, so to speak.  The speed with which the first Mrs Quayne sorts out the details leave me to wonder whether she was happy for the excuse to be out of things or had the stiffest upper lip known to a Brit...

'Mrs Quayne was quite as splendid as ever, she stopped Mr Quayne crying, then went straight down to the kitchen and made tea.  Thomas, who slept on the same landing, woke to feel something abnormal - he opened his door, found the landing lights on, then saw his mother go past with a tray of tea, in her dressing gown, looking, he says, just like a hospital nurse.  She gave Thomas a smile and did not say anything: it occurred to him that his father might be sick, but not that he had been committing adultery.'

When Portia is orphaned at sixteen she is sent to live at 2 Windsor Terrace with her half-brother, Thomas, and his wife, Anna.  Eight years of marriage has failed to produce children but that really comes as no surprise as the atmosphere could not be more staid.  Anna passes many evenings sipping drinks and sharing conversation with male friends while Thomas works in his study.  Let's just say you could cut the apathy with a knife.  Portia bonds with the housemaid, Matchett, who sits on the edge of her bed in the night sharing stories about the senior Mr Quayne during happier times. 

Anna is a sort of 'Queen Bee' so the idea of another young woman simply glowing with the look of innocence landing in her sphere chafes a bit.  Awareness blooms when Portia develops a relationship with Eddie, a narcissistic cad, who plays up to Portia's blush of first love only to report back to Anna.  Unbeknownst to Portia, Anna has rooted out her diary to both live vicariously through her experiences and laugh at her ignorance.  My copy of The Reader's Companion to the Twentieth Century Novel states that Eddie's character was 'based upon Goronwy Rees, with whom Bowen had fallen in love only to lose him to her fellow novelist, Rosamond Lehmann.'  It must have been an accurate portrayal as were it not for E M Forster stepping in the situation very nearly became a lawsuit.

As ever, Elizabeth Bowen's writing is absolutely beyond sublime.  I must admit there are times when the story becomes secondary to the writing...

'But London, these nights, has a provincial meanness bright lights only expose.  After dark, she is like a governess gone to the bad, in a Woolworth tiara, tarted up all wrong.  But a glamour she may have had lives on in exiles' imagination.'

I'm not one to quote passages for entertainment but lines such as that beg to be remembered and why I simply refuse to rush through one of her novels.  A heartbreaking story of love, betrayal, disappointment, and leaving youthful innocence behind...but told in the most beautiful of ways.

Harold Harvey
'A Study in Green'

12 comments:

  1. I read my first Elizabeth Bowen earlier this year when one of my book groups selected 'The Heat of the Day'. I really enjoyed it, but haven't yet got round to trying anything else. What would you suggest as a next step?

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    1. To the North was my first Bowen, the writing took my breath away and I was hooked. The House in Paris is another favourite - you can't lose with either one, Alex! The Hotel was Bowen's first novel and I adored it but, while excellent, there is a certain 'depth' missing that you will find in the other titles I gave you. It's probably the 'beach read' of Bowen titles but that just may fit the bill. All the best!

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  2. I need to try Bowen again. My first few attempts at her weren't successful and usually I'm happy to say 'that's that' but reading that last passage you quoted makes me think she is deserving of another chance.

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    1. Oh she is, Claire! Bowen's novels are chock full of such phrases - you just have to take the time to savour it all. Think of Charles Ritchie...he enjoyed her company so much, you can too!

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  3. The Death of the Heart was the first and only Elizabeth Bowen novel I've read...and I can't say that I loved it or that it made a very strong impression. That was many years ago, though, and I've since seen her praises sung by several bloggers I like, so I'm determined to give her work another try.

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    1. How about giving The House in Paris a try for your next Bowen read? The Death of the Heart is ideal for the reader who has already settled into her prose style of writing but let's face it...not a lot happens! My first Bowen novel 'To the North' sat on my shelves for a whole two years before I read it and then I kicked myself for letting it languish so long.

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  4. I adore Elizabeth Bowen. She is one of my favorite writers. The beauty of her writing takes my breath away Thank you for giving us these beautiful passages!

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    1. I am so glad you enjoy her writing as much as I do, Sunday!

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  5. I need to read more Bowen. I've read Death of the Heart and I did like the descriptions of the frozen London Park. What would you recommend next?

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    1. To the North or The House in Paris but if you feel like something with a bit of humour then try The Hotel; it was her first novel and reads like a bit of Bowen-Lite if I may be so bold. Have a lovely day, Nicola!

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