Elizabeth Bowen’s Life and The Death of the Heart

Dear Reader:

I am reading the following books now:

11) The Death of the Heart (1938, Anchor Books Edition 2000)

12) The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen (1981, Ecco Edition 1989)

15) Elizabeth Bowen: Portrait of a Writer. Victoria Glendinning. (1977 Penguin)  This is one of the major Bowen biographies – it is fairly short.

16) Elizabeth Bowen. Patricia Craig. (1986, Penguin)  Another major Bowen biography, also short.

I added the Craig biography, which is shorter and published not long after the Glendinning one, to see if that would give me a new view.  I think Craig writes more about Bowen’s writing, but I’m not really seeing new events.

Elizabeth Bowen’s Life

In the 1930’s Bowen and her husband Alan moved to London to the posh 2, Clarence Terrence house in Regent’s Park – reputedly one of the most beautiful neighborhoods in London, at least pre-World War II when it suffered a lot of damage.

If you would like to see what it looks like you can at going to this Flickr site. That’s a huge building that must have been divided into different “houses” (they are fully attached) she and Alan leased the corner house.  Alan was high up with the BBC and both of them took to World War II like ducks to water.  They chose to stay in London through nearly all of the war.

Elizabeth volunteered as an air raid warden and Alan volunteered with the Home Guard.  Although largely content to fade into the background when Elizabeth was entertaining, Alan came into his own when helping people deal with the threats of war.  Both were quite brave and contributed a great deal to people living out the war in the city.  However, they also enjoyed the feeling of camaraderie and espirit de corps felt in the city during this awful time.

At this point, Bowen’s affairs are ongoing – probably Alan was aware of them and tolerated them, he was very in love and awe of her.  And she was, in her way, very devoted to him.  She had her heart broken more than once, but, especially once she was of a certain age, seemed to move on with equanimity.  There was never a question of leaving Alan.

Elizabeth is increasingly famous, although not making a fortune as an author.  She came into her own as Bloomsbury was fading, but became a good friend of Virginia Woolf in the last years of her life.  Woolf remarked that Bowen copied her style (too much) and was affectionately critical of her work also telling her that she imitated Henry James overly.  I have not read enough Woolf to see the similarities, but I guess this makes me want to read her that much more.

I’ve thought about whether I would like to have dinner with Elizabeth…  I’m not sure.  On one hand, she was an amazing hostess, very charming and solicitous.  On the other hand, she did not suffer fools gladly (nor do I).  She did not enjoy the added attention that came with fame and felt that people thought that they could “make free” with well-known writers, demanding their time and attention in ways that impressed her as rude.  Bottom line, I would have liked to spend time with her, but would definitely be on my A game with her.

The Death of the Heart

I’m a couple of chapters into this book.  It is the story of Anna Quayne, a comfortably well-off woman married to Thomas Quayne.  In many respects, these characters mirror Elizabeth and Alan.  Anna is a self-involved society woman who attracts a diverse set of good friends whom Thomas seems to try to avoid.  Thomas’s half sister, Portia, has been orphaned and it was Thomas’s father’s dying wish that Portia come to live with Thomas.  Again, echoes of Elizabeth’s childhood.

The biographies give hints of the overarching plot, but I’ll focus just on what I’ve read.  Portia is 16 and bereft.  Neither Anna nor Thomas as extremely excited to have her join them.  Portia was very close to her mother (it is is actually her mother’s death that was most recent and caused her to move in with the Quaynes).  Poor Portia is carefully treading between  remaining true to herself and her mother and doing her best to please the Quaynes.  Anna entered Portia’s room to hang up a dress and got frustrated in the flotsam typical of a 16 year old.  In the middle of moving some piles of paper, she finds Portia’s diary.  And, yes, reads it.  There is nothing too damning,  but of course, there is discussion of Anna and Thomas.  Anna’s primary complaint seems to be that Portia is “spying” on her – by this she means always watching.

As you gain a sense of Portia’s view, you begin to realize that this watching is likely primarily aimed at trying to figure out how to behave and to get the Quaynes to care about her.  Neither Anna nor Thomas give the impression of caring about much other than themselves.

I have mentioned before that Bowen frequently juxtaposed two very different women in her work.  Glendinning sees her as constructing Anna and Portia as different parts of herself.  I love the quality and intelligence of Bowen’s writing, but would it kill her to create more likeable characters (actually, the innocents, like Portia, in her stories are often the only likeable ones).  I’m enjoying this novel and look forward to continuing.

Happy Reading, Ruby


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2 Comments

  1. Hi Ruby, glad to see you are enjoying a Bowen-fest too. She is so fantastic, isn’t she? If you haven’t read To the North yet, read it as soon as you can – it’s the best of hers I’ve read yet and I’ve stormed my way through three in about six weeks! The House in Paris will be next…

    • Hi Rachel: Thanks for stopping by. I have read To the North, but years ago so it is on my re-read list. Have you read The Hotel? It was her first novel and it was the first Bowen book I read. It’s what got me so excited about her. It is very funny – more on the social comedy side than her later novels. Happy reading, Ruby

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