Elizabeth Bowen's 'Heart' Doesn't Miss a Beat

Saturday, August 27, 2005

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

Elizabeth Bowen turned painful childhood experience into one of the great novels of the 20th century. Born in Ireland in 1899 to a respectable family of the Anglo-Irish gentry, she suffered childhood losses that eventually led her to two powerful convictions: Innocence inevitably must confront and be vanquished by experience, and physical objects, things, provide stability and continuity amid the uncertainties and disruptions of life.

Bowen returned to these themes over and over again in the many splendid books she wrote during her subsequent literary career, almost always with interesting and affecting results, but never with greater success than in what is widely regarded as her masterpiece. "The Death of the Heart," published in 1938, was received at once with near-universal enthusiasm bordering on awe. Its reputation has not faded over three-quarters of a century: "The Death of the Heart" will be found on almost any required-reading list of 20th-century fiction, and anecdotal evidence suggests that it is a popular choice of reading-club members.

I first read it in the 1950s, when I was a teenager, far too young and callow to appreciate it, much less understand it. I read it because it was one of my mother's favorite books, and my mother shaped my reading tastes more than anyone then or since. She had a great love of 19th-century British fiction, which she passed on to me, and she was receptive to 20th-century fiction and poetry of almost any stripe; it was from her that I learned to love the fiction of Eudora Welty and John Cheever, the poetry of e.e. cummings (her favorite) and Ogden Nash. But with "The Death of the Heart" she lost me; Bowen's leisurely, measured, Jamesian prose was too dense for me, her irony and wit were too subtle. I was out of my depth.

Rereading the novel now, five full decades later, is like entering a new and wholly unexpected place, full of wonders and surprises. "The Death of the Heart," like so much of Bowen's fiction, is about a child, but it is a book for adults. A certain measure of experience, of exposure to life's cruelties and compromises, is necessary for a full grasp of it. The destination for 16-year-old Portia Quayne is inevitable from the beginning, yet the path along which Bowen leads her to it is full of unexpected nuances and pleasures. It is a book to be read slowly, to be savored, skills only rarely bestowed upon teenage readers. I realized only a few pages into this second reading that, like the innumerable people who complain about being force-fed Faulkner in high school or college, when they simply weren't ready for him, for me in the 1950s, "The Death of the Heart" was too much, too soon.

Undoubtedly the novel was shaped to a significant degree by people and events of Bowen's own youth, though one should always be skeptical about looking for autobiography in fiction when it is just part of the story. She was the only child of Henry and Florence Bowen, and grew up at Bowen's Court, the handsome if somewhat down-at-the-heels family mansion in the Irish countryside. Her family was of the gentry but scarcely wealthy. Her father, a lawyer, had to work, and when a mysterious mental illness forced him into an institution, 6-year-old Bitha and her mother came upon hard times. Eventually he recovered, but just as he did, in 1912, Florence Bowen died of cancer, leaving her devoted daughter utterly bereft. She was 13 years old.

She was strong, though, and soldiered on. By the age of 20 she was writing, by 25 she was married to Alan Cameron and had published her first book of stories, "Encounters." She had, according to Victoria Glendinning's fine biography, "Elizabeth Bowen" (1978), an "almost vulgar gypsy romanticism which was just as much a part of her as her perfect, ladylike demeanor and beautiful manners," a romanticism that is especially strong in her early work. Her marriage, which lasted until Cameron's death in 1952, was happy and mutually fulfilling but apparently passionless; from time to time she found lovers, but "she was a writer before she was a woman." A contemporary of Evelyn Waugh and Cyril Connolly, a friend of Virginia Wolff, she led a lively social life but sought solitude. Her personal characteristics included "stylishness, vanity, discipline, energy, lack of cant, independence, courage," which enabled her to struggle against the financial difficulties that bedeviled her right up to her death from lung cancer (like most in literary circles of her day, she was a heavy smoker) in 1973.

The sense of being orphaned that Bowen surely felt after her mother's death clearly informs "The Death of the Heart." Portia has lost first her father and now her mother, with whom she had moved rather merrily through a succession of cut-rate European hotels. Bereft and lost, she is shipped off to the handsome house on Regent's Park in London of her half brother and his wife, Anna. Thomas Quayne, two decades older than she, the child of their father's first marriage, is a successful advertising man whom Bowen captures perfectly in just a few words:

"His head and forehead were rather grandly constructed, but at thirty-six his amiable, mobile face hung already loosish over the bony frame. His mouth and eyes expressed something, but not the whole, of him; they seemed to be cut off from the central part of himself. He had the cloudy, at some moments imperious look of someone fulfilling his destiny imperfectly; he looked not unlike one of the lesser Emperors."

The house in which Thomas and Anna live is indeed handsome, but it is "all mirrors and polish," offering "no place where shadows lodged, no point where feeling could thicken." It is a house where "people said what they did not mean, and did not say what they meant." Thomas is vaguely well-intentioned, but distracted and distant. Anna is beautiful but cold and devious. Soon it becomes the house where Portia "has learnt to be lonely," her only friend the housekeeper Matchett, reticent and terse but kindly inclined.

Then into the house comes Eddie, 23 years old, "a bright little cracker that, pulled hard enough, goes off with a loud bang." My old Avon paperback copy of the novel calls him "an astonishing cad," but sleek opportunist is more to the point: "He took an underlyingly practical view of life, and had no time for relations that came to nothing or for indefinitely polite play." He pays court on Anna, who humors him but does not succumb to him, and turns his attentions on Portia, who falls wildly, hopelessly in love with him. He strings her along, and when she's sent to the seacoast while Thomas and Anna go to Europe, he comes for a weekend that turns into a disaster. The precise reason for the devastation she feels will seem tame to many of today's readers, but the devastation itself is utterly real and believable. It is here that she learns the lesson so cherished by Bowen:

"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 centers 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."

Eddie has come close to destroying her, and when, back in London, she comes to his room in a foolish, self-abasing attempt to win him, he repudiates her. She realizes, finally, that, as she tells him, "You like despising more than you like loving. You pretend you're frightened of Anna: you're frightened of me." What he fears is the innocent, unconditional love she offers him, and the possibility of returning it in kind. So she retreats to the hotel room of the decent, feckless Major Brutt -- "Makes of men date, like makes of cars; Major Brutt was a 1914-18 model: there was now no market for that make" -- from which she issues her defiant challenge to Thomas and Anna.

The book's final pages are breathtaking, stunning, yet Bowen proceeds through them as deliberately and steadily as she has brought the reader to them. Ultimately her subject is betrayal, and her final words on it are definitive: "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 only hope is to go forward, but at the novel's final page we cannot know how, or if, she will do so. Instead we are left to marvel at the intricacy with which Bowen has woven this exquisite tapestry, at the wisdom with which she explores the human heart and the places humans inhabit, at the majestic pace of her prose. To call "The Death of the Heart" a masterpiece is simply to speak the truth.

"The Death of the Heart" is available in an Anchor paperback ($14).

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address isyardleyj@washpost.com.

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