The Modern Library List of Books

AvatarThoughts on reading the top 100 English-language books of the 20th century

84. The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

I don’t know how to judge my indifference to this book. Sometimes books are like calf leather gloves in August: sumptuous wonders of craftsmanship and texture that we’d appreciate if only we weren’t too tired, too harried, too dull, too careless, too immature, too hot, at that moment. Sometimes the problem is simply being second act to an indisputable star: I read the astoundingly moving Stoner by John Williams immediately before I read this book. And sometimes books are lauded out of habit – some suitably distinguished person said something wonderful thing about it once and intellectual insecurity have caused people to sing undue praises ever since. Whatever the reasons, The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen left me utterly numb.

                Sixteen and orphaned, Portia Quayne is sent to live with her half-brother, Thomas and his socialite wife, Anna, in London. Condemned to wander up and down the Riviera, from back facing rooms to ski chalets in August, it’s the first time Portia will live in a proper house, weighed down by solid furniture and thick draperies, the first time she’ll have a room of her own.  Thomas’s father was a spineless sort, and when it became apparent his affair with Portia’s mother would produce a child, he went groveling to his wife, who promptly donned her mantel of moral sacrifice, putting Thomas’ father on the first train to Portia’s mother.    Ashamed he lost the home he’d loved, Thomas’ father couldn’t bring himself to make a second one, and so he dragged his misfit family around Europe until he died, and Portia’s mother soon followed.  
                Portia’s arrival shocks the bourgeois rhythm of Thomas and Anna’s childless Regent’s Park townhouse, and although Thomas is not a cruel man, Portia reminds him of all that unpleasantness surrounding his father.  Anna, on the other hand, resents Portia’s naivete, and after reading Portia’s diary, can’t shake the moral weight of Portia’s judgment. Aware she’s unwanted, Portia tries to mourn her parents as inconspicuously as possible while learning all she can about her new world.
                With few people to talk to beside Matchett, a maid inherited with Thomas’ mother’s furniture who Portia puts to good use filling in blanks about her father, Portia’s inordinate attachment to Eddie, a shiftless opportunist whose flirtation with Anna lead to his employment at Thomas’s firm, is supposed to be understandable.  As Portia’s new guardians, Thomas and Anna treat their friendship with grudging amusement: Portia can be trusted and Eddie is harmless.
            Unable to accompany Anna and Thomas on their trip to Capri, Portia is sent to the seaside to stay with Anna’s old governess, Mrs. Heccombe. Portia enjoys the seaside and free and easy manner of Mrs. Heccombe’s children, Daphne and Dickie, who let Portia tag along with them even though they’re quite a bit older. However, when Eddie visits her for a weekend, he’s often drunk and inconsiderate, and he hits on Daphne right under Portia’s nose. When Portia confronts him about it, he brushes her off, and she begs him to forgive him.
                Which brings us to my problem with this book: Portia’s inexplicable attraction to Eddie is alienating, so much so that her innocence with respect to  him almost reads as pathological. This is made all apparent when presented against the other moral innocent slinking around Thomas and Anna: Major Brutt.
Major Brutt is an old friend of Anna’s ex-boyfriend, Pidgeon. When she runs into him outside of the cinema, she invites him home with the family for a drink and he accepts with pleasure. Just back from the war, he’s in London looking for work. Comfortably installed in the Quaynes’ drawing room, he’s openly thankful for their invitation. He speaks freely of his loneliness and the difficulty he’s been having securing work, seemingly unaware that for them his troubles are little more than an unwelcome appeal for help. When he takes Anna’s offer to drop in anytime at face value, we blush for him, while hoping he finds his way; when Portia takes Eddie’s half-hearted marriage proposal to heart, we can’t help but shake our heads, baffled.
Eventually all artifice is exposed when Portia learns Anna has been reading her diary and Eddie has known  all along. She runs off to Major Brutt’s hotel, refusing to return until Anna and Thomas make some grand gesture; they send the maid to fetch her.  
Portia’s story should be moving, but there is an dissonant airiness to this book; episodes are layered one over the other, like translucencies, without ever generating weight, at least not for this reader. Perhaps one day, when I’m feeling particularly affronted by the cruelty of polite society or nostalgic for a time when I was innocent in the ways of men, I’ll pick it up again and give it a second go. Until then, I won't just it too harshly; just another case of calf leather gloves in August, I suppose.          


January 31, 2012 at 6:56 PM Bookwurm said...

Hmmm...I have to disagree. The elegaic sadness that permeates this book really moved me. But the book I read before was Postwar by Judt so maybe European ennui was right up my reading alley. Love having someone else on this reading journey!

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