The Death of the Heart (1938) by Elizabeth Bowen

By LMC
Written by Elizabeth Bowen, The Death of the Heart (written in 1938), is one of her best known novels. The novel focuses on the main protagonist, Portia, who goes to stay with her half-brother, Thomas and his wife, Anna, due to her being orphaned. However, Portia is considered to be unusual by Anna, who attempts to make things work, but could never be fond of her. The novel presents the idea of false love and hope, as can be shown through the situation with Eddie and Portia. Eddie has been smitten with Anna in the past, but Portia believes that herself and Eddie love one another, which shows her naivety. The theme of individualism also runs through the novel, as people were extremely self-conscious at the time, as is shown in the novel. Anna appears to worry too much about what Portia thinks of her, rather than the reasoning behind what she is thinking.
The main protagonists in this novel are Thomas, Anna, Portia and Eddie. Even though there are four main characters, the novel centres around Portia, however, the others play an important role within her live, and so the novel too. For example, Eddie is Portia’s love interest, whereas she lives with her half-brother Thomas and his wife Anna, making them important within her life. Anna is portrayed as being an unsympathetic character, and is especially unsympathetic towards Portia. Thomas, similar to Anna, struggles to get on with Portia, as he cannot ignore the fact that Portia was the reason his family was split. Eddie is portrayed as a lady’s man, and has an interest in Anna, but tries in on with Daphne, a friend Portia makes whilst she is in Seale-On-Sea. Portia is shown to be a rather strange teenage girl, and innocent of the world that she is in, as can be shown through the relationship she has with Eddie. The innocence that Portia has ends up scaring Eddie off, as she does not realise that Eddie is a lady’s man, but believes that they love each other. This links to the tragedy that the novel presents.
During the second section (‘The Flesh’) of the novel, Thomas and Anna go to Capri, and so Portia has to go and stay with Mrs Heccomb in Seale-On-Sea. During her stay, Portia receives letters from Eddie, stating that he would like to come and visit her whilst she is in Seale-On-Sea, and so it is agreed that Eddie should come to stay. However, Eddie begins to show his true colours, as he holds Daphne’s hand, which Portia sees. Daphne tries to warn Portia about the person Eddie really is, but she refuses to accept anything negative about him.
Moving on to the final section of the novel (‘The Devil’), Portia returns to London, with Thomas and Anna returning shortly after. Eddie betrays Portia by telling Anna that Portia is aware of her having read her diary. Anna becomes furious, and confides in Major Brutt, asking him whether he believes Portia is happy or not. Portia is then convinced that Eddie has told Anna about her diary, and Eddie gets upset as Portia confirms that she did indeed write about their relationship. Eddie tells Portia that he does not want a relationship with her anymore, and so Portia runs off to a hotel where Major Brutt is staying. She tries to convince him to marry her, but he phones the Quayne’s household, and the novel ends with Matchett going to pick Portia up from the hotel and take her back home.
What I find interesting about the novel is how it fluctuates between present day and the past. This helps to contextualise the plot, for example, we never meet Mr Quayne or Irene in the present day, yet we are given enough background information to know the characters, and find out about how Mr Quayne ended up marrying Irene. Not only this, but I found it interesting how some chapters were mainly contextual with some dialogue, however, chapter 8, where Portia and Eddie go for dinner, is mainly dialogue. This could suggest the change in atmosphere, as scenes with Anna, Portia and Thomas would need more description, as we know that Anna and Thomas find it difficult to talk to Portia.
Nevertheless, there were aspects of the novel that I was not keen on. What I least liked about the novel was the scenes with St Quentin and Anna, where they almost completely ignore Portia, as the reader feels as though it is unnecessary for Anna to behave the ways she does, and thus we feel sympathetic towards Portia. The ending of the novel was also not what I expected it to be. Even though it was expected that there was hopeless love between Portia and Eddie, it was unexpected when Portia ran off after Eddie claimed that he was Anna’s lover, which was known to be a lie. Even though, as the title suggests, this novel portrays the idea of love tragedy, it still comes across as a shock to the reader, as you don’t expect or want Portia to be in the situation she is in.
This novel appears to be aimed at those who potentially have a wider literary understanding, and an interest in the pre-war years in Britain. When this book was initially published, it would have appealed to the middle-class and upper-class, as this book represents the life in a middle-class household. Not only this, but the working class would not be intellectual enough for this novel, and it wouldn’t appeal to them either.
This novel should be remembered as it represents the period between the First World War and the Second World War. It allows the audience to understand the ways in which people at this time thought, especially the upper classes, which was, more often than not, self-consciously. This novel may not appeal to the whole audience of modern readers, as it could be considered to be dated due to the type of language used. However, it definitely deserves to have more readers, and could be of interest to those who want to look at pre-war Britain.

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