Books: ‘Death of the Heart’ by Elizabeth Bowen

Irish-British writer Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973)

She has been called the “grand dame” of the modern novel, and so she is, in the full meaning of the phrase, the sense in which it could be said of Jane Austen. Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973) was an Irish-British novelist and short story writer, known for her strong-boned and candid writings that possess a finely bred yet tough sensibility. The refinement of her writing comes from her aristocratic roots – she was the only child of an Irish lawyer and landowner in County Cork, Ireland – and the power of her expression, from a mind which works strongly and perceptively. Two of her most famous books are The House in Paris (1935) and The Death of the Heart (1938), the subject of today’s post.

Death of the Heart is actually two stories in one book: the coming-of-age story of a young girl and the tortured consciousness of an older woman whose period of becoming has come and gone. The story centers around 16-year old Portia, who goes to live with her half-brother and his wife, Anna Quayne after Portia’s father’s death. Quayne resents Portia for her innocence and lack of social graces. Her resentment is heightened by her envy of Portia’s youth, and seething realization that she has squandered her own youth. When Anna discovers and reads Portia’s diary, the portrait of adulthood that emerges stirs a plot in which experience will shock the innocent and innocence will deface experience with equally disruptive force. Like all heartbreaks, the ones explored by Bowen is part domestic tragedy and part emotional farce, and it is a measure of Bowen’s perceptive skills as a writer that she depicts them with such wisdom and penetrating tenderness. Plot aside, the book is a great window into Bowen’s gift of calibrating words to imbue settings with an uncanny presence. Her rooms and houses take on nuances of living usually conveyed by characters. They stand in the plot and memory, not as symbols but as organic and living elements of the story. Take for example, this opening paragraph where one sentence follows another with precision, resonating like the vibrating strings of a viola:

That morning’s ice, no more than a brittle film, had cracked and was now floating in segments. These toppled together or, parting, left channels of dark water, down which swans in slow indignation swam. The islands stood frozen woody brown dark: it was now between three and four in the afternoon… There is something momentous about the height of winter. Steps rang on the bridges, and along the black walks. This weather had set in; it would freeze harder tonight.

Elizabeth Bowen, The Death of the Heart, Penguin Random House edition, 2000 (originally published in 1938)

About Elizabeth Bowen

Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973) was born in Dublin in 1899, the only child of an Irish lawyer and land-owner. She was awarded the CBE in 1948, and received honorary degrees from Trinity College, Dublin in 1949, and from Oxford University in 1956. The Royal Society of Literature made her a Companion of Literature in 1965.

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