Book #84-The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

This read left me somewhat puzzled.  While reading, and upon completing The Death of the Heart, I paused to ponder my overall impression and then, as now, I’m still unsure.  At times it seemed a silly tale of a naive orphan and her unwelcoming family and then struck me as brilliant writing with keen insight into various psyches.  I’m still not sure…

A young little lassie is suddenly orphaned and sent to live with the half-brother, Thomas Quayne, whom  she barely knows and his self-absorbed wife, Anna.  They clearly don’t want her, a servant stirs up trouble for her, a cad entices her, a trip to the seaside enlightens her and two family friends disappoint her.  Whew…didn’t realize so much was happening in what appeared to be an uneventful tale.

The little naif, Portia Quayne had been living with her sheltering mother in a variety of shabby hotels in Paris.  She is just 16 when her mother dies unexpectedly.  She is sent to London to live with a brother she does not know and is trying to understand her place while in the throes of adolescent angst.  Her conversations with the enigmatic cad, Eddie conjured up some personal unpleasant pubescent recollections.  Pity I do have for this young lady.

The irksome Anna Quayne had a subtle familiarity not easily defined.  She is rarely alone and seems in need of round the clock male companionship.  Nevertheless, she has no hesitation in shunning her sister-in-law Portia and eventually alienates her after she is discovered to have read her diary.  We learn she has suffered miscarriages and remains childless and that she had an affair before marrying that left some scars, but we never learn those details.  What jumps from the pages is a comfortable woman suffering from ennui.  Perhaps if more details were forthcoming I’d have empathy here, but I simply did not.

The meddlesome servant Matchett came to live with Thomas and Anna when Thomas’ mother dies.  She has a knack for stopping a conversation dead in its tracks upon entering a room.  Those just slightly familiar with her know to steer clear, but poor Portia is not so quick to catch on and falls under her spell.   A lonely and judgmental woman whose depth was only hinted at.  Not sure I’d want to get into that head…

Eddie, Eddie, Eddie…what a scoundrel.  At 23, he seems destined for a short life as he manages to alienate most everyone he encounters.  He is intelligent and can be rather charming when the mood suits him and it often does suit him at such times with Anna, Portia and other young ladies.  His ability to turn any conversation away and around was rather creepy.  A hot and cold temperament hinted at some possible mental condition, but was never directly alluded to.  One could almost imagine his striking a woman and then having her blame herself for the abuse…eww, this guy was a real scoundrel, be sure to keep away from the likes of him.



“Sacrificers,” said Matchett, “are not the ones to pity.  The ones to pity are those that they sacrifice.  Oh, the sacrificers, they get it both ways.  A person knows themselves what they’re able to do without…”

The most stubbornly or darkly drawn-in man has moments when he likes to impose himself, to emerge and be a bully.  

Only in a house where one has learnt to be lonely does one have this solicitude for things.  One’s relations to them, the daily seeing or touching, begins to become love, and to lay one open to pain.  

To remember can be at times no more than a cold duty, for we remember only in the limited way that is bearable.  We observe small rites, but we defend ourselves against that terrible memory that is stronger than will.  We defend ourselves from the rooms, the scenes, the objects that make for hallucination, that make the senses start up and fasten upon a ghost.  We desert those who desert us; we cannot afford to suffer; we must live how we can.

Not quite knowing what to expect, I’d suggest tea with Ms. Bowen and let her steer the conversation.  Her reported infidelities contrasted with her  conservative political views would surely make for interesting conversation, but I’d tread lightly in the hopes of tapping in to her ability to transcribe her human insight so deftly.

My rating for The Death of the Heart  is an 8 out of 10.

To see the entire list, visit Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels.

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Next up, Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim…


1 Comment

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One response to “Book #84-The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

  1. yeast infection Hi dee hi, I absolutely enjoy this domain. So much usefull insight. Bless you for sharing that with us. Take care!

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