"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

January 28, 2012

Classic Fiction: "The Death of the Heart" (1938) by Bowen

"The Death of the Heart" (1938), by Elizabeth Bowen, is an extraordinary novel, written in dense Jamesian prose and excellently observed. It is also an almost plot-less book, everything in this psychological novel takes place between the ears. The theme is "innocence" - not only how innocence can be lost to experience, but even more so the effect of true innocence on experience and sophistication.

The story is simple. A sixteen year old orphan, Portia Quayne, has come to live with her prosperous half-brother Thomas and his reluctant wife Anna, who is also the embodiment of urbane cynicism. Raised by her mother in a series of hotels on the Continent, Portia is possessed of a sort of devastating innocence: she literally can not understand unkindness or false motives.

In the polite but cruelly sophisticated world that is the house of Thomas and Anna, Portia encounters the attractive, carefree Eddie, who just lives by the moment. While Eddie indulges himself in playing with the child-woman, to Portia he seems the only real person in the cold atmosphere enveloping her.

Contemporary readers might expect some sexual denouement (innocence lost), but nothing of the sort happens. Portia's childish love comes to grief in a much more subtle way, when she is vacationing in the windswept cottage of Anna's former governess at the seaside. Eddie has followed her for the weekend - of which Portia is proud -, they visit the cinema with a group of acquaintances  and there, during the chance flash of a cigarette lighter, she sees him holding hands with another girl. That is all. But it is enough to end her state of innocence.

At the same time, Portia's real adversary is not the faithless Eddie, but Anna - worldly sophistication and childlike innocence don't go very well together. Anna will see herself reflected in the mirror of Portia's innocence and what she sees there is not very nice. In the end, we could well ask: whose heart has died?