Elizabeth Bowen, 1938
“How can you know what she’s like when she’s alone?”
This short quotation encapsulates the novel. How can we know what any other person is really like – when they are alone, inside the privacy of their own mind and heart? It is the story of characters struggling to come to terms with the fact that everybody we interact with has a private world inside them which we can never access – and that others have an impression of us, built up from many observations – and there’s nothing we can do to stop that.
Plot-wise, action-wise, not much happens at all. A 16-year-old orphan, child of a scandalous affair, comes to stay with her older half-brother and his wife for a year. While there, she meets and falls in love with an egotistical, artistic young man who is too self-centred to deserve her deep love. She keeps a diary and is upset when she finds out that someone else has read it.
That’s pretty much it. And yet, the novel is so emotionally intricate, so meticulous, so tense, that it captures your imagination. As I write this review, I already want to dive back in and reread it. I feel that it’s a novel to reread many times over the course of your life.
“There are years and years – some can be wonderfully long.”
“You are finding this one is?”
“Well, it seems so since yesterday.”
Both writer and protagonist are hyper-observant. If you like action, this book isn’t for you. But if you are fascinated by emotions – the workings of the mind and heart – then this book is most certainly right up your street. To get anything out of this book, you, the reader, must also be hyper-observant. Once you begin unpacking the characters and their relationships, you won’t be able to stop.
It’s called The Death of the Heart, but ‘The Death of Innocence’ would more accurately describe the emotional conflict. Portia, having lived a nomadic life with her mother in a series of hotels, never developing an understanding of interpersonal connections, is completely innocent. The two older, more experienced women, Anna and Daphne, are confused and frustrated by her complete lack of social understanding. Portia’s main confusion is why anyone would say things they don’t mean, or mean things they don’t say. Bowen’s world – like the real one – is full of duplicity, and anyone who doesn’t know this is doomed.
What would be left to say by the end of the first week? She had yet to learn how often intimacies between women go backwards, beginning with revelations and ending up in small talk without loss of esteem.
In a Goodreads review, Jaidee writes that ‘feminine boredoms and cattishness and male dominance and caddishness would chew her up and spit her out.’ Violet Wells agrees: ‘Bowen sees innocence as a health hazard for civilised society.’ Bowen’s characters use social skills to navigate their world, and Portia, devoid of these skills, is not offered the kindness, the helping hand she needs. She is set loose without a protector, ripe to be emotionally exploited and hurt by the adults she encounters.
“You’re the only person I ever-”
“That’s what’s the devil; that’s just what I mean. You don’t know what to expect.”
Not taking her anxious eyes from his face – eyes as desperately concentrated as though she were trying to understand a lesson – she said: “But after all, Eddie, anything that happens has never happened before. What I mean is, you and I are the first people who have ever been us.”
Eddie, the first man who comes along and shows an interest in her, gets the devotion of Portia’s whole heart. He enjoys the attention but is put off by her unashamed devotion. He is alarmed, scared – perhaps even because he knows he could never love so deeply himself.
“They all try and pervert you, but no one but me could really do it, darling. I suppose one day you will have ideas of your own, but I really do dread your having any. Never be potty about me: I can’t do anything for you. Or, at least, I won’t: I don’t want you to change.”
Sometimes when reading old books, we can be confused as to how the author intended us to feel. Are we supposed to like x character? Because they’re just so annoying! One wonders if attitudes have changed since the book was written. This book is an example of when how you really feel is how you should feel. If Eddie annoys you, he should. If Portia at once enchants and infuriates, endears and frustrates, then she should.
Bowen herself described The Death of the Heart as ‘a novel which reflects the time, the pre-war time with its high tension, its increasing anxieties, and this great stress on individualism. People were so conscious of themselves, and of each other, and of their personal relationships because they thought that everything of that time might soon end.’ We see this anxiety in Anna, the cold-hearted socialite. Her concern over appearances indicates her inability to exist independently of society. Though hating Portia’s watchful eye, she obsesses over how she is perceived. She at once desires and resents others’ observation and judgement. The novel is full of people watching other people; one of my favourite lines was that somebody was ‘not noticing being not noticed.’
“Well, here we are back.”
“What did you say?”
“I said, we are back again.”
Thomas looked all round the room, then at the dressing-table. He said: “How quickly Matchett’s unpacked.”
“Only the dressing case. After that, I turned her out and told her to come back and finish later. I could see she was going to say something.”
Thomas left the letters and sat leaning forward. “Perhaps she really had got something to say.”
“Well, Thomas, but what a moment – really! Did you hear me say just now that here we are, back?”
“I did, yes. What do you want me to say?”
“I wish you would say something. Our life goes by without any comment. I like to feel some way about what happens. We’re home, Thomas: have some ideas about home…”
The novel articulates the paradox of the desire to observe others and the uncomfortableness of being observed oneself.
Seeing anything move, even an animal, he thought: What is this meant to lead to? Or a gesture would set him off: Oh, so that’s what he’s after… Oh, then what does he want? Society was self-interest given a pretty gloss. You felt the relentless pressure behind small-talk. Friendships were dotted with null pauses, when one eye in calculation sought the clock.
Anna, an older, jaded woman, resents Portia and the innocence and naivety she stands for, without ever putting it into words herself. Does she envy Portia, or just find her deeply irritating? Charlotte Freeman brilliantly articulates Bowen’s skilful handling of this antagonist: ‘There is neither hero nor villain. Anna is cold, and manipulative, but she’s not the enemy who must be banished in order for Portia to prevail. She simply is what she is, a person with her own limitations and quirks, who has come up against another person whose limitations and quirks are incompatible. Could she be better? Of course, but who among us could not?’
Bowen’s evocation of place was extremely skilful. Shiver in the breeze of the city park, settle down for afternoon tea at Windsor Terrace (listening to the ticking of the clock and brushing your hand against each mirror-like polished surface), brace yourself against the wind at the coastal Seale, huddle in the cloakroom at Miss Paullie’s, quietly work on a jigsaw puzzle in the sunroom while trying not to overhear a conversation in the next room…
She had watched life, since she came to London, with a sort of despair – motivated and busy always, always progressing: even people pausing on bridges seemed to pause with a purpose; no bird seemed to pursue a quite aimless flight.
The Death of the Heart was exquisitely structured. The pacing starts off very slow, but very gradually it speeds up and up. The tension ramps up exponentially – and the ending, the last 40 pages, is thrilling.
I would highly recommend this novel, but you do need to commit to it. Though masquerading as a typical Victorian-style romance, it is very modern, with a complex sensibility that will haunt you long after the final page.
“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’s created it.”
“No, she’s just acknowledged it. An entirely different thing. She has a point of view.”
“Well, so has everybody.”