Oh my – did I fall on my feet with this one! Elizabeth Bowen is an author I’ve read *about* for years, and known about and admired but never actually got round to reading the books on my tbr pile. But spurred on by HeavenAli’s wonderful review of “The House in Paris” here, I picked up my lovely old Penguin of “The Death of the Heart” and got stuck in.

The novel tells the tale of Portia Quayne, recently orphaned and sent to live with her half-brother Thomas and his wife Anna in their London house. Portia has led a rackety life, bowling around various European hotels with her mother, and finds the contrast hard to take. She gains a boyfriend of sorts, in the form of Eddie – who is a friend of Anna’s and also works at Thomas’s firm. A trip to the seaside brings about changes in Portia, who starts to grow a little, but things come to a crisis when she discovers that Anna has been reading her private diary.

The bald plot summary doesn’t give any hint of how complex and beautiful this novel is. The first section takes place in winter, and the opening chapter of Anna and her novelist friend St. Quentin walking round a frosty and frozen Regents Park mirrors the coldness Portia is experiencing in her new living environment. I hesitate to call it home, because it isn’t one. Thomas and Anna are an odd, isolated couple – childless, with little obvious connection between the two of them, the offer no love or warmth to Portia who is obviously in need of it. The house is full of secrets – it is revealed that Anna was jilted by a man called Pidgeon years ago and it is obvious she is still affected by this. When an old acquaintance of them both, Major Brutt, appears on the scene, she is thrown off-balance and cannot cope. Thomas meanwhile seems locked into a morose shell and seems removed from life. The only affection Portia receives, if it can be called that, is from Matchett, an old family servant whose care for Portia is demonstrating in an odd sort of harshness.

It’s no wonder then that Portia succumbs easily to the romantic charms of Eddie. Feckless and slippery, he’s a kind of lifeline for her and at least provides some kind of emotional attachment. However, he is ultimately a selfish character with his own interest being in himself. The main reason he seems to want to spend time with Portia is that he does not have to make any effort – she will just accept him as he is and he doesn’t have to worry or care at all about her feelings.

There are sections of the book which quote from Portia’s diary and it is here that we really learn how young and naïve she is. The extracts read like any 16 year old’s diary – a mixture of youth and longing, candour and childishness. They come as something of a shock and reinforce how little Anna and Thomas have done for her in any real sense.

The book shifts when Portia goes away on her seaside break. Spring starts to break through and Portia herself begins to blossom. She meets the Heccomb family and the young people, Daphne and Dickie are in complete contrast to everything Portia has experienced in London. The descriptions of an off-season British seaside town are just lovely, capturing the sense of loneliness and almost desolation. But things go wrong when Portia tries to bring Eddie into this world, where he quickly betrays her.

Things crumble on Portia’s return to the coldness of Thomas and Anna’s home and the bleakness of discovering Anna’s treachery. Her youth and lack of confidence are betrayed by the fact that she is convinced people have been laughing at her behind her back. Portia runs first to Eddie who selfishly rejects her – he is unable to deal with a Portia who might not fit in with his egocentric needs. On finding out that he has discussed her with Anna, she then runs to Major Brutt in desperation and is feeling so lost and homeless that she asks him to marry her. Fortunately, Brutt has enough sense to call Thomas and Anna, who after much (civilised) recrimination and soul-searching, dispatch Matchett to collect Portia. The book ends ambiguously – how will Portia feel once back with the Quaynes? Will Anna and Thomas’s rather formal marriage survive the upheavals? What will become of Eddie? We will never know the ultimate fate of the characters as we have simply been observing Portia’s rite of passage – her loss of emotional innocence and her discovery that those around you, who are supposed to love you, can very easily betray you.

This was a wonderful novel and I can’t praise it enough. The prose is elegant, the descriptions evocative and intense, and the emotions beautifully portrayed. The novel has a lovely array of characters, all well-drawn and involving. I was drawn into the story and involved straight away, and found the book compelling. Bowen was a contemporary of Virginia Woolf and is often bracketed with her by lazy critics, but having read both authors I wouldn’t say there was that much similarity. Although they superficially cover the same class/milieu, their writing styles are very different and Bowen I think is a little harder edged (certainly on the evidence of this book).

Wikipedia says of Bowen: “(she) was greatly interested in ‘life with the lid on and what happens when the lid comes off,’ in the innocence of orderly life, and in the eventual, irrepressible forces that transform experience. Bowen also examined the betrayal and secrets that lie beneath the veneer of respectability. The style of her works is highly wrought and owes much to literary modernism. She was an admirer of film and influenced by the filmmaking techniques of her day. The locations in which Bowen’s works are set often bear heavily on the psychology of the characters and on the plots.”

That’s quite spot on but I would argue with the description of “highly wrought” if it’s used in a negative sense. Certainly the style is elaborate but it’s beautiful too. After struggling with Tolstoy’s ranting and rejecting modern novels, a more complex type of writing really appeals to me – I love to read something well-written. I’m so pleased I finally embarked upon reading Elizabeth Bowen and I’m thinking I might well try some of her short stories next.

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