There was a time in my youth when I fell in love with Elizabeth Bowen. Her gorgeous high baroque prose style ravished me. You know how sometimes a writer announces herself as a soulmate, settles herself thrillingly into your mind and begins to help you see with more clarity an aesthetic of the world you had only previously sensed? Elizabeth Bowen, following Virginia Woolf, did that for me. I felt we were soul mates. And Death of the Heart was my favourite of her novels.
Essentially it’s a novel about innocence. But Bowen adds something new to the standard ideas of innocence. For one thing it’s not necessarily a virtue in her eyes. Just the opposite in fact. Bowen sees innocence as a health hazard for civilised society. And, through the 16 year old orphan Portia, she explores the dismantling havoc innocence can wreak on civilisation’s defence structures – here represented by Anna and Thomas, a somewhat decadent married pair whose life is mostly refined ennui and whose home Portia enters. Portia herself was born outside of civilisation’s defensive ramparts – the child of an illicit affair on the part of Thomas’s father and an abiding source of shame to Thomas. So Portia enters the house as an enemy. And Portia, like most solitary outcasts, is a keen observer. She keeps a diary.
Death of the Heart is also a novel about secrets and betrayal. Both Anna and Thomas have guilty secrets. Most of all perhaps the sham nature of their marriage. And when Anna deviously reads Portia’s diary it’s as if this sham is suddenly and fatally exposed. Portia too feels betrayed – “One’s sentiments — call them that — one’s fidelities are so instinctive that one hardly knows they exist: only when they are betrayed or, worse still, when one betrays them does one realize their power.” Portia’s subsequent attempts to find a new home, both symbolically and literally, first with the rake Eddy and then the equally innocent and homeless Major Brunt wreak further havoc.
Bowen’s sense and therefore evocation of place is one of her great strengths as a writer. Few writers can conjure up place with so much haunting pulsing atmosphere – whether it’s the soulless harmonies of Windsor Terrace where Anna and Thomas live, Regent’s Park with its icy lake and, later, blooming roses, the seaside town of Seale or the seedy Bayswater hotel which down at the heel Major Brunt calls his home. Place in her books has agency. In this book place is home – the idea of home as sanctuary being another theme of this novel.
“After inside upheavals, it is important to fix on imperturbable things. Their imperturbableness, their air that nothing has happened renews our guarantee. Pictures would not be hung plumb over the centres of fireplaces or wallpapers pasted on with such precision that their seams make no break in the pattern if life were really not possible to adjudicate for. These things are what we mean when we speak of civilization: they remind us how exceedingly seldom the unseemly or unforeseeable rears its head. In this sense, the destruction of buildings and furniture is more palpably dreadful to the spirit than the destruction of human life.”