Category Archives: Bowen, Elizabeth

The Death of the Heart: Elizabeth Bowen

“We desert those who desert us; we cannot afford to suffer; we must live how we can”

In Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart, 16-year-old orphan Portia Quayne moves to London to live with her half-brother Thomas and his wife, Anna. Years earlier, Thomas’s father had an extra-marital affair with a much younger woman named Irene, and after she became pregnant, Mrs Quayne, determined to do the ‘right thing,’ practically packed her husband’s bags for him and had her son, Thomas, deliver him to the train so he could join the pregnant Irene. It would be easy to take this action as a noble deed, but there’s a gleeful zealousness to Mrs. Quayne’s decision. This background, revealed later in the novel, underscores Thomas’s decision to ‘do the right thing’ by taking Portia, a girl he has never met, into his home after the death of Irene.

Poor Portia. It’s a sad situation, and it isn’t helped by the cold natures of Anna and Thomas. They are not cruel to Portia exactly, but they are not warm people. They simply don’t know how to love. Before Anna, Thomas’s only “loves had been married women,” and that means limited engagement. When they met, Thomas liked Anna’s coolness:

He dreaded (to be exact, he dreaded at that time) to be loved with any great gush of the heart. There was some nerve in his feeling he did not want touched: he protected it without knowing where it was.

Anna, for her part, is always emotionally detached. While she appears to move through her life with a sort of serenity, she is annoyed by things that pierce her icy armour: things such as Thomas sitting on her nice bedding. There are hints that she loved another man, but settled for reliable, well-heeled Thomas. The marriage works well and Thomas and Anna certainly ‘do right’ by Anna, but Duty is a poor substitute for love.

The only person in the house to show Portia any affection is long-time family servant Matchett who is full of wisdom, yet she’s inflexible enough she can’t show too much tenderness. Plus there are some rancid undercurrents in Matchett’s relationship with the Quaynes:

“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 can do without. Yes, Mrs Quayne would give the clothes off her back but in the long run, she would never lose a thing.

One day, Anna reads Portia’s diary and she is so angry about what she reads that she confides in family friend and author, Sir Quentin. Anna is really bothered by the diary–although the entries about Anna are mild and certainly don’t justify Anna’s anger, but at the root of the problem, she is jealous of Portia.

Anna is Lady Bountiful, and the many people who visit the house know that she is a power source to be recruited. She persuades Thomas to give a young ne’er do-well named Eddie, a man she met at university, a job at Thomas’s Ad agency. Eddie, who relies on a series of favours and patrons, has a string of disasters in his wake–broken friendships, employers who are glad to see the back of him, patrons who are sick of him, and of course, according to Eddie, it’s never his fault. He has the knack of starting professional and personal relationships well, but it’s hard to keep up the pretense and Eddie always despises his patrons anyway. His shopworn charm still has a hint of glitter, yet while Eddie hits Anna up for a job, he despises her–even as he ingratiatingly sends her numerous bouquets of flowers.

There were times when Anna almost hated Eddie, for she was conscious of the vacuum inside him. As for him, he found her one mass of pretence, and detested the feeling she showed for power.

Eddie, a frequent visitor to the Quayne house, hones in on Portia. Unbeknownst to Anna and Thomas, Eddie develops a relationship with Portia–even going as far as to propose to her. Poor Portia, at 16, can’t see Eddie for the rat he is, and she takes every word he tells her seriously. An older, more experienced woman who see Eddie for empty rotter he is, but inexperienced Portia thinks he loves her. After all, he said so didn’t he? And as for Eddie, he likes having Portia around as she is so adoring. To Portia, every word that falls out of his mouth is a jewel. It’s fun for Eddie for while–until it isn’t:

Darling, I don’t want you; I’ve got no place for you; I only want what you give. I don’t want the whole of anyone. What you want is the whole of me-isn’t it, isn’t it?-and the whole of me isn’t there for anybody. In that full sense you want me I don’t exist.

The Death of the Heart could refer to Portia’s heart here, or it could refer to the collective cold, calculating behaviour of several of the characters. All of the relationships here are based on some sort of use, transactional. No one seems to really like anyone else. Matchett’s loyalty to the family could be seen as devotion (employers often think their servants are devoted), but Matchett dislikes Anna and disliked the late Mrs Quayne. Eddie is just out for what he can get, and he’s so corrupted that ‘giving people what they want’ is his excuse for his shabby behaviour. Another interesting character is Major Brutt, seeking a job, he too is a frequent visitor to Anna and Thomas’s house. He’s drawn to what he perceives is warmth, so he’s in for a rude awakening too. Portia doesn’t understand these sorts of relationships–she doesn’t even identify the underlying transactions–to her people are saying things they don’t mean, showing one pleasant face to an acquaintance while secretly despising them. Portia simply doesn’t get it; she seeks love, warmth and affection and in her new world, it doesn’t exist.

In his own eyes, shutters flicked back exposing for half a second right back in the dark, the Eddie in there.



Filed under Bowen, Elizabeth, Fiction, posts

The Hotel: Elizabeth Bowen (1927)

“An hotel, you know, is a great place for friendships.” 

It’s 1920, WWI is over, and a motley assortment of British travelers find themselves in a hotel on the Italian Riviera. With each new arrival, the guests shift into different formation, adding and subtracting people into various groups. There’s Mrs Kerr whose languid presence and “vague smile” dominate a certain set. She’s always perfectly calm, and young Sydney Warren, who travels with her cousin Tessa Bellamy, spends far more time with Mrs Kerr, observing Mrs Kerr or looking for Mrs. Kerr, than attending her cousin. There’s Miss Pym and Miss Fitzgerald who travel together, room together, and have spats. Then there’s Dr. Lawrence and his three boisterous daughters, a widow the Honourable Mrs Pinkerton and her sister-in-law, Miss Pinkerton, Colonel and Mrs Duperrier, and the Lee-Mittisons. “Nearly everybody here was English.” 

The Hotel

The glamorous Mrs Kerr is an enigma to the other guests. She “took fashion in and subdued it and remained herself.”  She spends her days doing very little: sitting on her balcony enjoying the view for hours on end (much to the disgust of the other English ladies who keep themselves busy with a range of hobbies). Mrs Kerr will occasionally, languidly stroll to the tennis courts to watch the physical activities of others. Nothing ruffles her, and while she seems to expend very little energy on living, she manages to fluster most of the other women who speculate on her marital staus. Sydney is possessive of Mrs Kerr and rather upset when she learns that Mrs Kerr’s only child, Ronald will join her.

Most of the guests are couples or families, but there’s another solo guest, the lonely middle-aged clergyman, Milton who, upon arrival, makes the horrible faux pas of using a hotel bathroom that has been sequestered for the exclusive use of Mrs and Miss Pinkerton. Both of the ladies are horrified by his (inadvertent) effrontery and Miss Pinkerton is “prostrated” by the knowledge that some rogue male is using her bathroom (and seeing her underthings). This early uproar underscores the divisions of the male-female world: “The best type of man is no companion.” Poor Milton’s arrival and departure are both marked with ignominy. Unmoored from his usual position he stumbles into one mess after another. There are more young women in the novel than young men–after all it’s 1920 so just a few years post WWI. One of the guests is Victor who is “unable to find a job since the War” and is “said to be suffering from nervous depression.”

While Colonel Duperrier finds himself plagued with vague longings and fancies, his wife keeps an eye on him from afar. The Lee-Mittisons are a rather bizarre couple who are horribly boring. Sydney certainly finds them tedious, but scratch the surface here and you find Mr Lee-Mittison who marches, literally, all the attractive young girls into his ‘expeditions’ while his wife, rather like a trained sheepdog herds them. “He did not care for young married women, while widows depressed him–poor little souls.” Mrs Lee-Mittison’s job is to be amazed, repeatedly, at all of her husband’s well-worn tales. as he “tell[s] graphically of life in the East, bearing his descriptions out with photograph albums.”  She’s his biggest fan and if any of the young girls try to skip out of the hikes, she pimps for him. She’s “at pains to waylay anybody in whom Herbert might be interested.”

After the underwhelming The Little Girls  which seemed rather pointless in the end, I thoroughly enjoyed The Hotel. While there’s no solid plot, the book follows the shifting relationships of the hotel guests who find themselves thrown together and thus select relationships–sometimes yes by who’d they rather be with but also by who they’d rather avoid.

There are some wonderful descriptions here. One of a trip to a now deserted villa owned by Russians (probably now dead) and another of a cemetery. Both of course underscore the transient nature of life.

The cemetery seemed quite deserted. Gashes of over-charged daylight pressed in through the cypresses on to the graves: a hard light bestowing no grace and exacting such detail. In the shade of the pillared vaults round the walls what already seemed like the dusk of evening had begun to thicken, but the rank and file of small crosses staggered arms wide in the arraignment of sunshine. In spite of the brooding repose of the trees a hundred little shrill draughts came between them, and spurting across the graves made the decorations beloved of Cordelia creak and glitter. A wreath of black tin pansies swung from the arm of a cross with a clatter of petals, trailing colourless ribbons; a beaded garland had slipped down slantwise across the foot of a grave. Candles for the peculiar glory of the lately dead had stuck in the unhealed earth; here and there a flame in a glass shade writhed, opaque in the sunshine.

The opaque quality of The Little Girls is also found in The Hotel, and when I finished the book, I pondered the toxic undercurrents of Sydney’s relationship with Mrs Kerr. One of the many things I carried away from this brilliant book is the letter writing which takes place within the novel. It’s a long lost art these days. Will there one day be a book ‘The Collected texts of  … ‘(fill in the name of a famous author). A bizarre thought.



Filed under Bowen, Elizabeth, Fiction

The Little Girls: Elizabeth Bowen (1963)

“And yet now, this minute, with you sitting there opposite, I quite distinctly see you the way you were. You so bring yourself back that it’s like a conjuring trick.”

Is it wise to revisit the past? This is the question asked in Elizabeth Bowen’s novel, The Little Girls.  Dinah, a woman in her early 60s, assisted by Major Frank Wilkins, constructs a time capsule; she’s “asking people for things.” This all takes place at Applegate, a 1912 “substantial villa“–a splendid dwelling which includes incredible workmanship, “lush green woods,” “the rolling Somerset landscape” and a cave. The process of gathering objects stirs Dinah’s memories back to 1914 when she was 11. Her school friends were Clare Burkin-Jones and Sheila Beaker. But that was fifty years ago. Where are they now?

The little Girls

A rather aggressive series of advertisements, which carry hints and possibly even threats, bring Clare and Sheila from the woodwork. What does Dinah want and how will her two friends react after decades of silence?

The book’s first section brings these three women back together, and it only takes a few minutes in each other’s company for the old relationships to slide back into place. These may be women in their 60s, but suddenly they are 11 once more with all the old rivalries in place–except now there are some nasty comments to toss around.

Sheila has married well but somewhat predictably and she’s immersed and concerned with the appearance of respectability. Clare, who is now a successful businesswoman, hasn’t aged well.

Her forehead, exposed by the turban, was forever scored by the horizontal lines into which it rolled up when she raised, as she often did, her comedian’s eyebrows. Bags underhung her eyes; deep creases down from the broadened lobes of the nostrils, bracketed her mouth. Her pug nose and long upper lip (which she still drew down) should have been recognizable features, had the whole of her not so paralyzed Sheila’s eye. Strictly, she was massive rather than  fat: her tailor-made, tailored to contain her, did not minimize (as she sat at the table) shoulders, chest, bust or rib-cage. Clare had arrived, you might feel, by elimination at the one style possible for herself, and thereafter stuck to it. It did not so much fit her as she it. 

So 3 women who’ve lost touch are now back in the same room, and as you’ve probably guessed it’s a mistake. They don’t want to be reminded of who they were, and yet they find themselves rapidly slipping back into the old groves (including old nicknames). And what is the deal with Dinah’s snoopy servant, Francis?

The book’s first section brings the three women back together and then in the second section, we’re in 1914, and some languid days right before the eruption of WWI. Part 3 brings us back to the present.

The first and second sections of the book were fairly strong, but unfortunately the third section is a disappointment. There are hints of some horrible secret which are never fully realized, and the book is far stronger when it details the relationships between the girls, the women they become, and the poignant scenes of 1914. Of note, however, are the descriptions of the garden which made me see and smell the flowers:

As they mounted the steps, the temperature rose. Above ground, the steamy flower-smells filled the air (more, still, that of a lingering August than of September) as the three followed a spongy serpentine grass path towards the house. On each side, the path was overflowed by a crowded border. Mauve, puce and cream-pink stock, Double, were the most fragrant and most crushingly heavy; more pungent was the blue-bronze straggling profusion of catmint. Magnificently gladioli staggered this way and that–she was an exuberant, loving, confused and not tidy gardener; staking and tying were not her forte. Roses were on enough into their second blooming to be squandering petals over cushions of pansies. Flowers in woolwork or bright chalk, all shades of almost every colour, zinnias competed with one another. And everywhere along the serpentine walk where anything else grew not, dahlias grew: some dwarf, some giant, some corollas like blazons, some close fluted, some velvet, some porcelain or satin, some darkening, some burning like flame or biting like acid onto the faint dusk now being given off by the evening earth,.

That paragraph gives a sense of Bowen’s sometimes convoluted style. But above all, this author must have been a gardener.


Filed under Bowen, Elizabeth, Fiction