Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart
The painting on the cover is an amazing match for the story, it seems like they must have commissioned it specially for the book. But it wasn’t. It is a painting entitled “Portrait of Marguerite van Mons” painted in 1886 by Theo van Rysselberge.
The girl in the painting looks so much like Portia, the heroine of the novel. I’ve talked about the book in another post so here’s just a brief recap: Portia is 16 and orphaned. She has come to live with Thomas and Anna Quayne. Portia is Thomas’ half and much younger sister. The Quaynes are not excited to take her on – they are both pretty caught up in their own petty little lives: Thomas working as a lawyer and trying to get by while married to a woman who cares very little for him. Anna focused on entertaining herself with lovers, first Robert Pigeon who seems to have thrown her over right before she turned to Thomas and married him (Elizabeth Bowen’s life had a parallel story). Who knows what came in between, but most recently, she has been entertaining herself with a 23 year old cad named Eddie.
Portia enters the Quaynes’ lives as Eddie seems to be showing his true colors… The other key figures are Sir Quentin, a despicable novelist; Major Brutt (does someone in all English novels of a certain time have to be retired major?); and Matchett, the Quaynes’ housekeeper who also kept house for Thomas’ and Portia’s father.
Portia is poised on the edge of her sexuality, having lived an unusual life with her recently dead mother, moving from hotel to hotel. She loved her mother very much and they seem to have been happy. But Portia is sheltered in her way, not really having had friends other than her mother. The Quaynes don’t want her – Portia is eager for their love and care, but although Thomas seems almost capable of caring, he never quite crosses over… Anna is jealous of Portia’s youth and Eddie’s attraction to her and Anna doesn’t seem like the kind of person who ever willingly gives up the spotlight. Matchett and Major Brutt are the only people in the book who really care about Portia, but they aren’t central enough to be able to help her move forward in a positive manner, at least for most of the book.
The novel seemed to sag some in the middle and I had trouble keeping interested in it. It picked up for me again when Eddie is visiting Portia while she is staying with Anna’s old governess on the seashore (Anna and Thomas have gone abroad for a several week’s holiday). There is a scene with Eddie and Portia which is fascinating – sex is an undercurrent, but doesn’t surface completely (it was 1938). On one hand, Eddie is holding back physically, but on the other, he is toying with Portia quite ruthlessly and narcissistically (all the while that he is being a cad he is blaming Portia for making him one). Portia is honestly floundering… she doesn’t know enough to recognize a cad, she is desperate for love, yet has some self-preservation in her. I suppose the novel is her development into someone who can stand up for herself in the face of so many people who are not going to stand up for her.
I suppose it is best not to give away the end, I’ll just say that it does follow the Bowen pattern I’ve noted earlier where it is the act of a good person (or two) that offers promise in the face of despair. I think the most striking thing for me was how Bowen captures Anna and Eddie’s self-involved nastiness, taking them through subtle, but true twists and turns where they shift their lack of conscience off onto the innocent people around them. Bowen is a master at dissecting and illuminating the minutia of fraught human emotional encounters, all of her presentation couched within the language of the time where people had to say everything while saying nothing.
I wasn’t sure about this book as I worked my way through it and it therefore took awhile to do so. I know that others have loved it – I don’t know if I love it, although I think it is very good. I think it is the presentation of the character of Eddie that is most amazing: such a diabolical, self-absorbed person, I find it hard to imagine that any other author has painted a cad with such fine but powerful and honest brushstrokes as Bowen has in this book.
If you have read it, what do you think? It is often talked about as her finest work next to Heat of the Day (which I have not read and don’t own). Do you agree?
Happy Reading, Ruby
I refer to books by the number in which they were first mentioned in my blog and HC indicates “hard copy.”