Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Death of the Heart

Finished The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen. Published in 1938, today it appears on lists of the best 100 books of modern fiction from Time Magazine and The Modern Library. I chose to listen to an audiobook recording of the novel and I'm glad I did. Some years ago I read Bowen's The House in Paris and found it heavy going. Now I know why. Bowen writes with the kind of attention to miniscule detail that Robert Post's Child would call Laurencian. Knowing my own impatience, I decided it would be wiser to listen to someone else plod through the pages. For much of the novel I wondered just why it appeared on these revered lists. It was not until the last third of the book that this became apparent.

Portia is an awkward 16 year old who having recently lost her mother is now an orphan. She goes to live with her half brother Thomas and his wife Anna in London. Portia and Thomas have the same father. Up until this time, Portia and a her mother had lived a nomadic life, moving from one cut rate European hotel to another. She had no real home and no lasting relationships. She is innocent of the dangers of having faith in other people.

All the adults in the novel seems to lack the capacity for outward emotion. Thomas is vaguely aware of Portia's presence in the house. Anna is plainly put out by it. Portia is not so innocent that she does not perceive this. She records her observations of life in the house in her diary. Anna finds the diary and of course reads it. She then discusses it with her friend St. Quentin. Anna doesn't seem to have any female friends. Her other friend, Eddie, who has been openly flirting with Anna for years, seems to take notice of Portia for the first time when she hands him his hat in the hallway one day. Charmed by her gesture and sensing an easier quarry, he writes Portia a note thanking her for her thoughtfulness and calling her a darling. This of course sets Portia on the road to unhappy romance with Eddie, and Eddie being the despicable cad that he is, let's it happen for the sake of amusement.

The crisis of the novel comes when Portia learns that Anna has read her diary. She goes to Eddie for solace, but he pushes her away, now afraid of her ernest affection for him. He implies that Anna is his lover and that he and she discuss Portia often. This mammoth betrayal is too much for Portia. She then runs away to Major Brutt, a sad, dull, penurious hanger-on of Anna's, who himself lives in cut rate hotels. He has been kind to Portia and sent her puzzles to do. She confides in Major Brutt that they two are the same, unwanted and laughed at by Anna. She begs him to marry her. She is sadly trying to recreate the secure existence she had with her mother, but with a father figure instead.

Major Brutt refuses. He insists on calling Thomas and Anna to let them know where Portia is. Portia agrees to this, but says she will base her decision on whether or not to return to Thomas and Anna's house on how the two respond to the situation.

Meanwhile Thomas and Anna are vaguely aware that Portia has not turned up for tea. Thomas finally has some brotherly concern for her which Anna dismisses. Thomas, Anna and St. Quentin sit down to dinner without her and Thomas questions Anna whether anything in particular has happened between her and Portia. The truth comes out that Anna has read Portia's diary and that St. Quentin has told Portia. Thomas is disturbed by all this and questions further. Anna complains that Portia was writing about them, but the truth is that what Anna read in the diary reminded her far too much of her own awkward girlhood. It is the cause of Anna's contempt for Portia. When the phone rings, the three supposed adults all hesitate and look at each other, unsure of who should answer it. Finally Anna takes the call from Major Brutt. She returns and explains the situation and the three analyze what's to be done.

In the end they decide to send the housekeeper, Matchett, as an envoy to fetch Portia from Major Brutt's hotel. Matchett was Thomas' mother's housekeeper. He inherited her along with his mother's furniture which Matchett polishes within an inch of it's life. She is Portia's only link to the past. She has told Portia stories about her father in the days when he was still married to Thomas' mother. Matchett seems the obvious olive branch to extend, but sending her is another example of them shirking their responsibility towards Portia and their fear of getting emotionally involved. Portia is all emotion, especially at this point in the novel. She is too righteous for them to face.

Bowen ends the novel with Matchett looking through the beveled glass door of the hotel, waiting for someone to open it. We are left to fathom the outcome of Portia's death of the heart on our own.

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