two words: terminally dotish
Elizabeth Bowen was a remarkable individual: she was the first woman in her family to inherit property; she rolled with Virginia Wolff; she took younger lovers, female lovers too; she was multi-talented – she gave up art to pursue writing; she was not only a prolific writer, but a staunch political activist; she’s Irish-born, towering, fearless.
Bowen’s fifth novel The Death of the Heart, in the vein of Henry James, author of The Portrait of a Lady, is about the baptismal loss of innocence in a cold and cruel world. Lilian, a passionate young woman at a boarding college, is expelled after a debilitating infatuation with her cello mistress… wait…. No, that’s what I wished the novel was about. Bowen thought Portia’s story was more compelling. Right….
The Death of the Heart is about Portia, a gauche melodramatic sixteen year old, sent to live with her older brother, Thomas, and his cynical wife, Anna. (Lilian, sadly, is just Portia’s friend from lessons.) Portia falls tragically in love with Anna’s friend, Eddie, a Lothario type who once smiled at her after she fetched his hat. Eddie sees Portia’s innocence as a safe haven from his otherwise corrupt life, so he reluctantly shakes her off when she demands more than friendship. Devastated, she throws herself at another of Anna’s friends, Major Brutt, who once gave her a jigsaw puzzle – she mistook that gesture for ‘love’ too. He won’t take advantage of her simple-mindedness either and marry her as she suggests, so she gets dumped twice in one day. She refuses to return home, however, because St. Quentin, another of Anna’s friends, has told her that Anna has been secretly reading her diary. A servant is dispatched to retrieve Portia from Major Brutt’s room.
Are you waiting for something novel-worthy to happen? Too bad.
Now I’ve read a lot of nothingness in my time, but this is a special class of nothingness, the kind that biblical overtones, orphaning Portia, and seasonal reification can’t save. It’s poorly executed nothingness.
The lack of action was to be offset by Portia’s ‘stormy inner world’, embodied in her diary, and the nuanced interaction of the more sophisticated characters. But Portia’s diary entries, pitched as “distorted and deeply hysterical,” p.10, are on the contrary, inane, impersonal and indistinguishable from the narrator’s monotonous voice.
I am back here, in London. They won’t be back till tomorrow. p.228 (Portia’s diary entry)
Thomas and Anna would not be back from abroad till Friday afternoon. p.229 (Third-person narrator)
The older characters’ conversations strike an equally weak and false note. They soliloquize in each others company or, with very few exception, talk in a sort of rehearsed improvisation, revealing very little of themselves, even when congenially frantic.
‘We know what we think we’ve done, but we still don’t know what we did. What did she expect, and what is she expecting now? It’s not simply a question of getting her home this evening; it’s a question of all three going on living here … Yes, this is a situation. She created it.’
‘No she just acknowledged it. An entirely different thing. She has a point of view.’
‘Well so has everybody. From the outside we may seem worthless, but we are not worthless to ourselves. If one thought what one felt, one would go mad. It does not do to think of what people feel.’
‘I’m afraid in this case we may have to. That is if you are anxious to get her home. Her “right thing” is an absolute of some sort, and absolutes only exist in feeling. There they both are waiting in Kensington. Really you will have to do something soon.’p.308
Then there’s the technically riddled exposition.
I felt repeatedly shat upon from a great height with character development. Portia’s ‘unfortunate’ background was first delivered in pages and pages of stilted conversation between Anna and her ‘old family friend,’ St. Quentin, self-consciously interspersed with “Have I told you all this before?” p.17 and “Does this bore you?” p.19, as if not even Anna (or Bowen, for that matter) is convinced that this is the way to expand Portia’s character. Matchett’s suspiciously detailed and intimate chats with Portia are equally convenient. They were woefully obvious literary devices and instant ‘fail’s.
the majestic elizabeth bowen, 1953
I’m still struggling to reconcile my image of Bowen and Portia, her creation. If The Death of the Heart was written by a man, I’d call him a misogynist, Portia is so terminally silly and melodramatic. More Lilian may have helped, but the technical problems make me doubt it.
I like Bowen, so I really wanted to like this novel; alas, though she was remarkable, The Death of the Heart is terrible.
My regard for Grossman and Lacayo’s Top 100 just took another body blow.
father lucifer-tori amos