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The Death of the Heart

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The Death of the Heart is perhaps Elizabeth Bowen's best-known book. As she deftly and delicately exposes the cruelty that lurks behind the polished surfaces of conventional society, Bowen reveals herself as a masterful novelist who combines a sense of humor with a devastating gift for divining human motivations.

In this piercing story of innocence betrayed set in the thirties, the orphaned Portia is stranded in the sophisticated and politely treacherous world of her wealthy half-brother's home in London. There she encounters the attractive, carefree cad Eddie. To him, Portia is at once child and woman, and he fears her gushing love. To her, Eddie is the only reason to be alive. But when Eddie follows Portia to a sea-side resort, the flash of a cigarette lighter in a darkened cinema illuminates a stunning romantic betrayal—and sets in motion one of the most moving and desperate flights of the heart in modern literature.

418 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1938

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About the author

Elizabeth Bowen

170 books404 followers
Elizabeth Dorothea Cole Bowen, CBE was an Anglo-Irish novelist and short story writer and short story writer notable for her books about the "big house" of Irish landed Protestants as well her fiction about life in wartime London.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 659 reviews
Profile Image for Ahmad Sharabiani.
9,568 reviews55.5k followers
November 23, 2021
The Death of the Heart, Elizabeth Bowen

The Death of the Heart is a 1938 novel by Elizabeth Bowen set in the interwar period. It is about a sixteen-year-old orphan, Portia Quayne, who moves to London to live with her half-brother Thomas and falls in love with Eddie, a friend of her sister-in-law.

At the beginning of the novel, Portia moves in with Anna and Thomas Quayne after her mother dies. Portia is Thomas's half sister. Mr. Quayne (Thomas's father) had an extramarital affair with Irene (Portia's mother) while married to Thomas's mother.

When Irene became pregnant, and Mrs. Quayne learned of it, she was adamant that he do what was the right thing: so, at his own wife's unyielding insistence, Mr. Quayne divorced Thomas's mother and married Irene. Mr. Quayne, Irene, and Portia then left England and traveled through Europe as exiles from society and from the Quayne family, living in the cheapest of lodgings.

Irene and Portia continued to live in this fashion until, when Portia was 16, Irene died. Portia was sent to live with Thomas and Anna after Irene's death. The plan is that she is to stay with them for one year at which time Portia will leave and move in with Irene's sister (Portia's aunt). ...

تاریخ نخستین خوانش: روز بیست و چهارم ماه اکتبر سال2016میلادی

عنوان: مرگ قلب؛ نویسنده: الیزابت بوئن؛ برگردان: سما قرایی؛ تهران، نشر شور، سال1391؛ در320ص؛ شابک9786009067466؛ موضوع داستانهای نویسندگان بریتانیا - سده20م

در آغاز رمان، «پورتیا» در سن شانزده سالگی، در دهه ی1930میلادی، بسوی شهر «لندن» راه میافتد، تا با برادر و خوهر ناتنی خویش، زندگی کند و ...؛ روایتی از «تلخی برباد رفتن دوران نوجوانی»؛ «هوس»، «سوءِ ­تفاهم»، «ضعف عاطفی دوران بلوغ»، و «تلخی معصومانه ی مورد خیانت واقع شدن»، با «طنز» و «طعنه» است؛

تاریخ بهنگام رسانی 24/10/1399هجری خورشیدی؛ 01/09/1400هجری خورشیدی؛ ا. شربیانی
Profile Image for Jaline.
444 reviews1,586 followers
April 10, 2019
What can any reader say about Elizabeth Bowen’s writing that hasn’t been said? Not a thing. I can only go by my impressions and what reading this novel made me feel.

The story is about a family. Although they appeared superficial and ‘on the surface’ to begin with, gradually through the novel, cracks showed up. As the cracks opened, and particles began to leak through, it became more and more apparent that something was fundamentally askew with this family. The surface civilities and not-so-civil, yet ever-so-subtle cuts began to reveal who they were underneath, and it was often completely at odds with what was presented.

Sixteen is an amazing age for any teenage girl, yet Portia had just been orphaned and had a vulnerability mixed with naivety with some surprising cynicism mixed in. Perhaps due to her upbringing, and perhaps partly due to the family she was part of, she is also needy in her own way. However, when other people cross invisible barriers she has drawn, the cynicism peeps out, sometimes coloured with her own developing philosophy.

Portia is supposed to live with her step-brother Thomas (20 years her senior) and his wife Anna for a year. I am still puzzling why exactly her father left a letter to that effect before he died. In some ways, (again, remembering her young age), she is the child Thomas and Anna never had, despite their efforts to have a child of their own. Maybe her father (and Thomas’) felt Portia could fill that gap. However, what happened instead is that she shed light through the cracks in the relationships of Thomas, Anna, and their crowd that may have helped them to look inward a bit, to talk about more than surface topics, and to resolve some neurosis along the way.

In this novel, Elizabeth Bowen explores deeper and deeper into the minds of the characters in this novel. With some, she even breaks through to their hearts. I found this to be a fascinating search for what is real and authentic beneath a surface that has been gradually crenelated over many years.

On my eReader, I have created folders (or Collections) for each month of the year. Once the last page is tapped, the novel goes back into its folder. For me, the ending happened so abruptly that I had to go back to my April collection, open the novel again, and re-read the last page. Sure enough: that was it – the end. Since then, everything I absorbed from this novel has continued to stir in my thoughts, and I can now see that it ended exactly as it was meant to.
Profile Image for Violet wells.
433 reviews2,891 followers
February 14, 2017
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."
Profile Image for Jaidee .
560 reviews1,023 followers
October 31, 2018
4.5 "restrained and elegantly cruel" stars !

10th Favorite Read of 2015

"Bowen is a major writer....She is what happened after Bloomsbury....the link that connects Virginia Woolf with Iris Murdoch and Muriel Spark." -Victoria Glendinning

Portia is sixteen and orphaned and sent to live with her half-brother and sister-in-law in 1930s London. Portia is extremely sensitive and extremely average. She moves from the bohemian countryside in Switzerland to an extremely elegant, tasteful but cold and aloof home in downtown London.

In her brother's home Portia is slowly maligned, mocked and used by her sister-in-law and her young lover. Portia is defenseless, vulnerable and does not know about the cruelties of society and how due to her status can never measure up.

As I read this book I had a consistent lump in my throat. So very sad. Sad because Portia due to her gender, socioeconomic limitations and most of all naïve and sweet character would not be able to survive in a world where feminine boredoms and cattishness and male dominance and caddishness would chew her up and spit her out and leave her in a most desperate predicament.

This book is psychologically brilliant and written with interpersonal understanding that few writers are able to achieve.
Profile Image for Guille.
728 reviews1,344 followers
April 14, 2022

Portia, la protagonista de esta historia, es como una cámara de uno de esos programas de televisión, tan frecuentes ahora, que impertinentemente irrumpe en la vida familiar de un grupo social muy concreto de la Inglaterra de entreguerras para mostrarnos sus miserias sin que el ojo de la cámara parezca que tenga excesiva importancia: Potria es un ojo adolescente, sin apenas relaciones y desprovisto de puntos de comparación fiables.

La propia Bowen nos explica el tema de su novela:
"Es una dichosa ventaja que muy pocos comprendamos la realidad del mundo hasta que nos hemos confabulado con él. La fantasía infantil, como la vaina que recubre el tierno brote, no solamente protege, sino que además refrena el terrible y floreciente espíritu, y no solamente para proteger del mundo a la inocencia, sino también al mundo del poder de la inocencia."
Pues esa cámara impertinente que entró en la vida de estas familias tan típicamente inglesas no parece que tuviera demasiado bien protegida su inocencia. Portia tuvo que enfrentarse demasiado pronto a lo fácil que es destrozarse la vida en una sociedad cuya oferta era...
“Aburrimiento, mucho aburrimiento ante una especie de sociedad secreta carente de contenido, ante una gente vacía que se pasa la vida haciéndose señas minúsculas...Desprecio por la gente casada que vive en la impostura. Desprecio por la gente soltera, tan cautelosa y susceptible... Ganas de que me preguntasen cómo estoy, y más ganas aún de que lo adivinasen...”
No me digan que la cosa no promete… lástima que la autora no diera con la forma de meterme en la historia, de llegar a conmoverme. Su fallo conmigo se ha debido a esa manera tan típicamente inglesa de no mover una pestaña mientras lentamente les derraman té hirviendo en el regazo, que es muy efectivo cuando son los personajes los que encarnan tal talante (sobre todo si el tono es de comedia) pero que cuando también es el estilo de la narración, y más en un entorno dramático como es el caso, me deja frío.

Lo mejor del libro son las lucubraciones, los discursos al margen de la historia narrada, donde abundan los pensamientos interesantes y las frases brillantes.
"Un dormitorio vacío suele adquirir, al final de la tarde, el aspecto de que en él hubiese muerto el día de pura soledad"

"No se debe sentir pena por quienes se sacrifican. Hay que sentir pena por quienes son el objeto del sacrificio de los demás. Al fin y al cabo, los que se sacrifican siempre salen ganando. La gente sabe de qué cosas puede prescindir."
También me provocan una sonrisa perversa los comentarios que describen perfectamente a algunos de los personajes:
“Cuando el tren arribó a Limly... la señora Heccomb agitó dos o tres veces la mano: la primera al ver la locomotora, como indicándole que debía detenerse; las otras para que Portia no tuviera necesidad de cansarse buscándola. Esto último era improbable porque no había nadie más que ella en el andén.”

“Las muchachas como Daphne, decentes, rudas, satisfechas, son el principal sostén del injusto orden antiguo. Daphne se deleitaba rindiendo homenaje a lo que era perfectamente feliz de no poseer.”

“La habitación de Doris era tan innegablemente de Doris que, de inmediato, Portia cerró la puerta”
No desaconsejo su lectura, la novela es un clásico, solo dejo constancia de los problemas que yo he encontrado y que son absolutamente personales y, con un poco de suerte para ustedes, nada contagiosos.
Profile Image for Fionnuala.
766 reviews
August 3, 2019
The title of this novel could easily be the title of each of the other Elizabeth Bowen novels I've read so far, The Last September, Eva Trout, and The House in Paris. In all of them, young vulnerable people are acted upon by older seasoned people, resulting in change, change that is from then on irrevocable, as when the heart dies. No resuscitation, no return to the previous innocent state is possible.

Bowen records this process as if she were a documentary maker with an artistic eye, catching the full brutality of people's behavior towards one another, but presenting it in a series of softly-lit, slow-motion episodes that render even the cruel beautiful.

Her camera caresses every single thing in this story right from the beginning: a dark hallway, a white apron, a circle of lamplight, a young girl writing in her diary…

Three hundred and fifty pages and many frames later, the young girl has been well and truly acted upon by the people she meets in the house with the dark hallway. But the contents of her diary have caused change in others as well. She may have joined the ranks of those whose hearts are dead, but the spasm of her transformation has sent shock waves through the desiccated organs of everyone around her.

Innocence sometimes makes victims out of its destroyers.
Profile Image for Mariel.
667 reviews1,041 followers
March 23, 2011
This book is one of the reasons why I believe stories are redeeming. Like food, second chances, bringing back to life a deadened heart.

I love this book intensely as if it has some kind of gravitational pull or hold on me that reminds me of it during times of feeling what I cannot put name to. Frame of reference stuff. I found that I love it more as time passes and the life it still lives in my mind takes its place beside some of the most important moments I've had (um or something I've just made into something big by over analysing it to death). The shaping stuff (or just breaking stuff). Some have said it's a "nothing happens" book but those would be the people who don't watch everything around them and turn it into big or little stories that turn into altering events when, really, not much had happened as anything but emotional stuff. If having your heart broken is nothing happened, sure, nothing happened.

I read years ago (closing in on a decade) a comment on amazon that described this book as the dark flip side of Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle (that review led me to another favorite. Thank you, brilliant amazon user!). That's an excellent description. The dark side to noticing too much about the every day stuff. Hating being reminded of the trivial, of being forced to examine the increasingly sameness of the meaninglessness of every day. What if looking outward or inward was akin to a shark stopping his swim? (I'm unable to stop my own painful personal inventory taking, unfortunately.) With knowledge comes responsibility, or something. Portia has come to live with her half-brother, Thomas, and his wife, Anna, for a year out of obligation. They don't know what to do with her, and she doesn't know what to do with them other than watch and hope for some cue. They never do the right thing.
Portia has been keeping a diary to record her observations of life, with them. (I'm too pleased with myself now. Her diary says "I'm in London, with them" and Anna's snooty writer friend St. Quentin says that the comma is style.) (Bring forth the sharks!) Thomas and Anna were quite comfortable with their previous life. Portia is an intruder on that life with her reminder of the affair Thomas's father had, and reading Portia's diary makes Anna unable to forgive or forget those staring eyes that record everything she does, not in judgement, but matter of fact facts. She doesn't like the viewing.

Anna's boy toy buddy Eddie doesn't like the fit of playing entertaining monkey (or whatever else they want) for Anna's stylish crowd. He spies Portia standing innocently in the entrance, holding his hat, and that sparks his interest. He likes knowing nothing to pin his fantasy on (a reflection of himself, no doubt). Portia does not want anything from him, yet. Eddie hates and loves himself, and that pulls him apart. Poor Portia. She cannot see the playing part also feeds his ego as well as shames him.

They meet Col. Brut in the theatre (one of the things that they can take Portia to do. Teenagers in the early twentieth century did not have a market catered to them like today, this book brings home to me). Another reminder of a past Anna would rather forget. There was a passionate side with a former lover, unlike the expected lines of her marriage to Thomas. (Anna doesn't like to do anything she doesn't do well. It's no wonder that relationship failed.) The passage of Col. Brut long carried memory of his forever ago day, with Anna and her boyfriend, is heartbreaking. He fed off it as a light to warm the rest of his lonely life. Bowen's description of this scene is one of my favorites I've ever read. Col. Brut built them up into something they really weren't, as Portia did with Eddie. He didn't have a lot else to grasp in a world that has passed him completely by. Sometimes what we hold onto to get by is tenuous, at best. While we can have it, it is still worth something, like the price of bread to a starving man. Much of this book makes me pinpoint, "Ah, so that's how I felt". I couldn't begin to say how much Bowen's book means to me in that weight. I might inventory, but expressing it as well as Bowen? No way.

Another person that Thomas "inherited" was his mother's maid, Matchett. I loved Matchett's love of Thomas' hapless father (there was something noble about him, if ultimately spineless). I loved how she did the work for the sake of the work, and not to please anyone. (She says that the best work doesn't come out of those who do it to please you. This is true, and it is still true that employers want that kind anyway.) Her love of Portia is jealous and in secret (it is sad that she doesn't allow herself to have more). Bowen comes off as a snob in some biographries written about her. Some things I read made me sad indeed, but her care of Matchett belies that feeling. Matchett does love the work, and it is not a position to please anybody else. The rest is how we can fuck ourselves up with rules. It's one thing to build up love in your mind to get through, and then what next? Matchett does not have the courage to throw herself out there, as Portia did. One could argue that she knew better, was not innocent enough to do so, but if you don't do it sometime, when? One day you're eaten by a shark. I like to think she does finally allow more with Portia, in the end. It'd be the right thing.

Irene, Portia's mother, meant a lot to me as well. The happy life they had in hotels of watching all of the different people, and the lack of hiding that that breeded in Portia. I'd have missed it too. And, I do. It was sad and crazy and I'd love to hide in that fake world of travel more often.

Mrs. Quayne tossed her husband out because she liked herself to feel sorry for Irene. Elizabeth Bowen did not shy away from what people like to think about themselves. It's dangerous to think too much about yourself, too.

I hate Anna. My ex read this and really hated Eddie, Portia's almost boyfriend. I really hated Anna. Eddie is fucked up on how other's see him and what people want. Hers is the unthinking sharklife that resented Portia's innocent eye turned on her for she didn't want to think of herself in any other way that glib society life terms. This is a person I couldn't have been around. How Portia's eye disturbed her, I'd have been disturbed by the gloomy feeling that life is supposed to be like THAT. I cannot stomach the idea.

For a time, Portia is shipped off to the seaside to stay with Anna's former governness, and her children, like slutty Daphne. Thomas and his wife "flee" Portia. I hated them for that. I also related to Portia when the daughter Daphne views Portia with scornful disdain because she doesn't smoke and sleep around. I never, ever understood girls who lorded that over a young me as if they were more mature (I had experiences I didn't want. God forbid I was gonna succumb to pressure from pimply boys on top of it!). Bitchiness is not maturity. Give me a break.
I wanted very much to leap into the pages and take Portia out to the movies, and walks in the park. She'd have fared better with me by her side. I'd have told her straight out those people were stupid bitches and not to worry about them.

Something today made me think back again to The Death of the Heart in my trains of thought. It was something on if innocence is overrated or not, or at least considered too much an important fact. I won't get into an already jumbled review on why I was thinking about that. This book came to mind because of the line about Eddie and Portia's innocence forces combined devastating what it comes into contact with (Bowen's writing is, needless to say, 1000 miles leagues over the sea better than my sentence). Is innocence really that important? It's nothing but a lack of experience or knowledge. Does, for example, not having been in a relationship prepare you, or not, for starting one? Eddie wishes that Portia had been dumped before so she'd know how to behave (the idea that lots of breakups makes someone behave during another one is ludicrous. He wanted cool, society glib Anna). You're yourself, before an experience, and afterward. It's not destructive in of itself to not know what you are doing. Only if you live each and every day exactly as the one before it. I'm more interested in if it is too late. In the point of no return... Redemption. Portia was not a blank canvas, anyway. She just didn't know when to look away to make others comfortable. I still don't know that and no way am I an innocent.

I'm starting to think that I don't believe in coming of age stories that don't end in death. Of the heart? It's like Matchett, what she allowed herself to have. And Eddie, too messed up from what he thought others wanted. It doesn't have to be that way. You pick yourself up and move on because we are built of more than that. The ending is open, and I believe that is what happens. No death! No sharks.
Portia is thought of as one of those children that stare and see too much that you never knew what happened to them later. I feel like I'm one of those. I've got the staring problem down. I'm not very good at fixing my facial expressions to something less emotional. I guess I would really recommend this book to people who have staring problems. You'd really get Portia. I wouldn't recommend it for someone who doesn't watch people and see stories everywhere. Reading too much into everything is a requirement.

I've read most of Bowen's other works, and found something in all of them. The Death of the Heart is the only book this close to my heart, though. Relevance to me personally, this is it, the book. (The Last September was my first, and it is beautiful. I couldn't, however, feel sorry for them losing their way of life.)

I'm still waiting for someone to arrive and do the right thing for me...
Profile Image for Katie.
258 reviews327 followers
June 22, 2018
Death of the Heart is widely considered Elizabeth Bowen's masterpiece. I hadn't previously read any of her work but I didn't quite love this as much as I expected. Perhaps for all its refined sensibility and astutely critical social comedy there simply wasn't quite enough at stake to make it compelling for me.

The concept of home looms large. People either have homes or they don't. Portia, the main character, is a sixteen year old orphan who has lived most of her life in hotels on the continent due to the ignominious nature of her parent's relationship which begins as an extra-marital affair. The novel begins when she is taken in for a year by her much older half-brother and his highly sophisticated and disappointed wife, Anna. Portia only really connects with other homeless people, principally the caddish Eddie, who might or might not be having an affair with Anna. When Anna reads Portia's diary and Portia finds out the façade of middle class proprietary in the household is shattered and everyone begins to feel nakedly exposed.
The characters are all excellently drawn, the writing is often superb but at times the plot felt a bit forced, epitomised by the very stylised unnatural dialogue and the rather unconvincing nature of Portia and Eddie's relationship. I never quite believed Eddie, a handsome twenty three year old who has had a novel published would be attracted to the rather childish sixteen year old Portia. I never understood what relevance it had that he was a published author (especially as there's another published author in the novel). It's a small detail but why could Eddie not have been nineteen and not a published author? On the other hand, Portia's other unsuitable suitor is the elderly Major Brutt who is down on his luck and living in a hotel. He was a fabulous character.

So, not bowled over but there was more than enough I liked to ensure I'll read another Bowen.
Profile Image for Chrissie.
2,651 reviews1,485 followers
December 11, 2022
Here is the story in a nutshell. Portia becomes an orphan at the age of sixteen. She has a married half-brother living in London, Thomas and his wife Anna. He is thirty-six and she twenty-six. Is Portia welcomed by them? No, not really. To one she is an embarrassment. To the other an encumbrance, a nuisance, but of course they agree to take her in for a year. It is the proper thing to do. The plan is to then send her off to a maternal aunt. The story concerns what happens during this year. The behavior of each character reveals their respective personalities. The setting is both London and Seal, Kent.

You can read a story for what happens, OR you can read for quite simply the enjoyment of the words, how an author has drawn emotions and scenes and behavior. How words are strung together can make you smile, laugh, make you sad or make you think. The words of this author do this for me. I quite simply enjoyed how ideas and thoughts and events were expressed. Regency Park in London, the physical presence of a person, a drawing room with its furniture, papered walls, lighting and artwork. The dialogs. What the characters say, how they communicate with each other. I love the writing; you can read this book just for the writing.

I am not sure if taking lines out of context will work, but here are a few that reveal tidbits about some of the characters. First Matchett, the top housemaid in Thomas’ London residence: “In her helmet of stern hair, a few new white threads shown…..” Matchett says to Portia, “Listen. I don’t think. I don’t have the time to do that.” About Eddie, she comments “…trains can wait while some people talk.” This is spoken with sarcasm.

Anna says, “We are home, Thomas. Have some ideas about home!” And she comments that while Thomas may know everything, he knows nothing about the how or the why of the events. About Portia, Anna says, “Well, heaven help her. I don’t see why I should.” Sir Quentin says about Anna, that because he likes her, he “overlooks what she does.”

“Experience means nothing, until it repeats itself.” This is a sentence I like.

The characters are real people, each unique and different. What each one says fits perfectly who they are. What each one says feels absolutely right. One reads this book for character portrayal.

Portia falls in love with Eddie. He is a cad. He will annoy you to such an extent that at times you will want to slam the book shut to escape him. Portia is awkward, overly naïve, thoroughly obtuse, baffled by what others say and do. Anna and Thomas are busy, concerned only with themselves. Matchett is my favorite character. She is the quintessential nursemaid and house servant, that essential person who knows her place, knows everyone’s role in the family, is staunch and loving and holds every aspect of the household together. Without her, everything would fall apart. Everyone realizes her value. We meet Sir Quentin, a frequent visitor and well-known author. Major Butt sends jigsaw puzzles, carnations, is a laughing stock to some, kind and sweet to others.

We observe class stratification in England, between the wars, in the 1930s.

I love the ending—because it is so real. Life as it really is.

The book’s humor fits me to a tee. I see humor in people talking, but completing failing to understand each other. I see humor in how people of different social classes view each other. I see humor in how husband and wife communicate. I laugh at their miscommunication because it is so darn typical.

Two things could possibly have been improved. That Portia is as naïve as she is, is hard to explain. Before becoming an orphan, she had traveled around Europe with her parents. She must have been exposed to all sorts of people, cultures and circumstances. Wouldn’t this have the effect of making her mature, given her understanding and knowledge of people’s behavior? A reader must simply accept that she is as she is, even if this is not logical. Secondly, the author goes off on philosophical tangents occasionally. Here I found the writing sometimes too florid, too lyrical, too overdone. In these sections I found it difficult to make sense of what is being said.

The audiobook is narrated by Katherine Kellgren. She uses different intonations for different characters, and all are well done. Simple to follow and the speed is perfect. The narration I have given four stars.

I knew nothing of this author, before having read the book. It is considered one of Elizabeth Bowen’s best. I really enjoyed it. I cannot know if you will react as I have, but I advise you to give the novel a try.

*The Death of the Heart 4 star
*The Last September 4 stars
*The House in Paris 3 stars
*The Demon Lover 2 stars
*The Heat of the Day TBR
*A World of Love TBR
*The Little Girls TBR
Profile Image for Jenn(ifer).
159 reviews926 followers
August 1, 2013

The Death of the Heart -- a pretty melodramatic title, don't you think? I mean, I was expecting a torturous, ruinous love affair. Instead I got a sixteen year old whose auntie read her diary. Still, I enjoyed the story a great deal. The recently orphaned Portia goes to live with her half-brother and his disapproving wife. There she meets a cruel character who wins her heart then tosses her out with the rubbish once she has become too needy. It doesn't take much to win her heart, however. Needy girls are ripe for the picking by filthy little scoundrels like Eddie. But in his defense, he did tell her again and again and again that he was no good. She just refused to hear him, even when he showed her the snips and snails and puppy dog tails dirty little social climbers are made of.

Poor sweet Portia. I hope she finds her place in the world, but something tells me it will be an uphill battle.

Here are some songs for you, Portia

Foo Fighters - Dear Lover - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fKPt3a...
The Courteeners - Please Don't - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MSdRDG...
Arctic Monkeys - Bigger Boys & Stolen Sweethearts - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_BATj0...
Libertines - Can't Stand Me Now - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BEDtVF...
Profile Image for Sarah.
533 reviews
August 31, 2016
Portia observes with a young girl's receptiveness. Elizabeth Bowen observes Portia with a woman's cool, discerning eye.

This book demonstrates how a predatory man will tell you, and tell you, and tell you that he's predatory...and how a lonely, young girl will refuse to see it. It demonstrates how a jaded, older woman can resent a young girl's innocence with inexplicable venom. Bowen shows all this and more with beauty, wit, and grace. Her book is about innocence, corrupted. But Bowen, herself, is a great defender of innocence. Armed only with turn of phrase, she gives all concerned their due comeuppance.

Though it was written (and set) in the 1930's, the book has a very Victorian, hearthside feel. It's a warm, dry, quotable novel. You listen quietly, or laugh low, as shadows play on the drawing room walls…

"This dread had haunted her tardy sleep, and sucked at her when she woke like the waves sucking the shingle of the terribly quiet morning air."

"She enjoyed being in the streets--unguarded smiles from strangers, the permitted frown of someone walking alone, lovers' looks, as though they had solved something, and the unsolitary air with which the old or the wretched seemed to carry sorrow made her feel people that at least knew each other, if they did not yet know her, if she did not yet know them. The closeness she felt to Eddie, since this morning (that closeness one most often feels in a dream) was a closeness to life she had only felt, so far, when she got a smile from a stranger across a bus. It seemed to her that while people were very happy, individual persons were surely damned. So, she shrank from that specious mystery the individual throws about himself, from Anna's smiles, from Lilian's tomorrows, from the shut-in room, the turned in heart."
Profile Image for Laura .
352 reviews118 followers
September 5, 2021
Very Victorian. I'm struggling with all 3 of the vile characters: Anna, Eddie, Thomas. I suppose the struggle lies in my distance from the social mores and principles of this time, late 30s.
Profile Image for nostalgebraist.
Author 2 books414 followers
September 1, 2013
This took me forever to finish. When I started reading it, it actually felt like a breath of fresh air -- I had been reading Angela Carter, William Gass, transhumanist SF, all of this mordant and grotesquely unreal stuff, and here was a work of plain old psychological realism, with people doing people stuff and thinking people thoughts and a careful author with a minimal, unflashy persona to relate it all.

Yet I slowed down around around p. 200, put the book aside for a long time, and after I picked it up again it took me a number of grueling weeks to force myself through the remaining half. This was for two reasons, which might actually be one single two-faced reason (more on that in a moment). First -- why phrase it delicately? -- this book is really, really boring. I can deal with books that have little or no plot, and indeed there is a plot in The Death of the Heart. It's just that it's doled out in small dollops spread sparingly between gigantic loaves of polite chit-chat.

It's possible that this has nothing to do with the book and everything to do with me. You know, I write these reviews on here as though I know what I'm talking about, but really I'm just a provincial sorta guy who reads science fiction and blokey classics like Joyce, and I guess in trying out books like this that are about all the vaguely tense nothing that goes on in fancy English houses, I'm trying to branch out. I try to branch out in a lot of ways -- I'm always curious what I'm missing -- and some experiments fail. Maybe I just demand a sort of action that this book, simply by virtue of its genre, can't provide.

But then I'd like to say that I am satisfied with purely psychological action, which is what this book feels like it's selling, and doesn't quite deliver. As I said, I originally categorized the book as "psychological realism," but the further along I got, the less apt that descriptor seemed. Bowen actually doesn't delve directly into her characters' thoughts, at least not in any straightforward way. Instead, much of the book is filled with descriptions of gesture, motion, and countenance, as though thoughts and emotions were mere implications of visible signs and not real entities in their own right. Rather than a growing acquaintance with the characters, I felt a growing unease with them, almost an "uncanny valley" feeling, as though they were machines or marionettes. Much of Bowen's description has the oddly physical, almost medical sound of the following passage:

When they came to the crossing, Lilian grabbed Portia's bare arm in a gloved hand: through the kid glove a sedative animal feeling went up Portia's elbow and made the joint untense. She pulled back to notice a wedding carpet up the steps of All Souls', Langham Place -- like a girl who has finished the convulsions of drowning she floated, dead, to the sunny surface again. She bobbed in Lilian's wake between the buses with the gaseous lightness of a little corpse.

This passage is an ideal transition point to the second of the two flaws I mentioned earlier, because it exhibits that one too. Notice the startling morbidity of the latter two sentences. They cry out -- in an obvious, almost melodramatic fashion -- to be interpreted as an indication of Portia's mental state (we know from context that she's having a bad time). Yet Bowen is actually not usually like this. Most of the time her prose is understated and her plotting minimalist. You read 20 pages of people sitting around making minute social gestures and asking each other whether they might like to go for a walk later on (while sending sedative animal feelings up each others' elbows and making each others' joints untense), and then suddenly one of these really lurid comparisons hits you and you have no idea what to make of it. It's like when some asshole musician starts out a recorded song real quiet to get you to turn the volume up, and then gets ear-shatteringly loud all of a sudden. You could say Bowen's book has a problem with "dynamic range."

The book is a tiny story about an angsty teenager getting burned in a bad first relationship, the kind of thing anyone reading the book has likely gone through (and, long ago, recovered from!). It is grandiosely titled "The Death of the Heart" and, although it isn't really concerned with sin or theology, it is divided like some Bosch triptych into three sections called "The World," "The Flesh," and "The Devil."

See what I mean?

I'm left feeling like I didn't really "get" this book, but I'm not sure what there was to get. I'm willing to assume that everything that unnerved me about it was a deliberate effect, but if so, why? Maybe it's all a way to try to get the reader into the teenage mindset -- that mindset where your minor personal drama really does seem that thunderingly huge. But if so, I think it can be done, and has been done, much more effectively.
Profile Image for Alex.
1,419 reviews4,279 followers
December 6, 2019
"There is no ordinary life" is what our poor naif Portia learns about society. She's like that Nell lady, born in the wilderness and sent suddenly into society without even a language to speak. Her education is brutal.

Upon her parents' death, she's sent to live with half-brother Thomas, 20 years her senior, and his wife Anna. They are sociopaths. Portia doesn't know what society is like, but society doesn't know what humans are like. "However much of a monster you may be," says Thomas to monstrous Anna, "I feel more natural with you then I feel with more natural people - if there are such things." They're joined by their hanger-on Eddie, who is also a sociopath. "I may be some kind of monster; I've really got no idea," he says. "The things I have to say seem never to have had to be said before. Is my life really so ghastly and so extraordinary?" Thomas again: "What proof have you that much nicer people do really exist?" Everyone despises Portia, who has this awful tendency to be nice.

No one knows anything. The answer to every question is I don't know. People are often described as animals. They're defined in negatives. Anna "only was not hostile from allowing herself no feeling at all." That word "not" appears a lot.

As you can imagine, none of this works out well for Portia, who's "like one of those children in an Elizabethan play who are led on, led off, hardly speak and are known to be bound for some tragic fate which will be told in a line." (And this does feel like a play, with a play's need to say everything. We can't just show it or imply it or hint at it: everyone's got to make some big Tennessee Williams speech where they lay it out. They're excellent speeches though.) And what will Portia's fate be?

It's a frigid novel, with touches of modernism, and some people find it off-putting. I found it fascinating. Portia herself is a bit of a drip, but the sociopaths are terrific: Anna in particular is a complicated bag of awful, a sort of bloodless Lady Macbeth. "Life," we're learning, "is so much more impossible than you think."
Profile Image for Susan.
2,575 reviews601 followers
July 4, 2020
Elizabeth Bowen is an author who deserves to be far more popular than she is. Her writing is sharp, sensitive and intelligent. This novel, published in 1938, sees young orphan, Portia Quayne, sixteen, spending a year with her half brother, Thomas and his wife, Anna. The fact she is to spend a year says everything. This is not a visit that either Thomas, or Anna, are comfortable with. Portia is the result of an affair by Thomas’s father, who was virtually forced from his married home and packed off, ‘to do the right thing,’ preferably abroad where his humiliation and, down at heel, exile, would be complete.

Now orphaned, nobody really knows what to do with Portia. Still, Thomas is expected to do his part, and his father hoped that Portia could live with him, so she is sent to London and enrolled in ‘lessons.’ Anna, childless and bored, is exasperated with the situation. Portia is the innocent, whose pure innocence is betrayed. By the embarrassment of her half brother, the jealousy, of her sister in law, by the rash and rakish Eddie, by her situation and her predicament of being unwanted and drifting. Of wanting what everyone wants, to be loved, to belong.

This is a novel which explores the casual cruelties we all inflict upon each other – Anna upon Thomas and Portia, on Cecil, a thoughtful young man, on the outside of the group of young people that Portia is befriended by when she is sent to the seaside, so Thomas and Anna can go abroad, by Anna on the kindly Major who reminds her of her past. At one point, Thomas says, ‘“you don’t much like anything do you?” “No, nothing,” said Anna smiling her nice, fat, malign smile.’ It tells of the spite, boredom, the social, or economic, necessity of being pleasant to those you may not care for, the way we idealise those who may not deserve it and of the loss of innocence.

Bowen takes us from a London street, through a park, a school, a seaside holiday and a run-down hotel. Everything is very clear; her sense of place is brilliantly done. I found this extremely moving – with the family servant, Matchett one of the best written characters and probably my favourite in this book. Meanwhile, Bowen is clear that Portia’s innocence is not a charming, fairy tale kind. Rather, it is there to be exploited, wondered at, laughed at. Portia is innocent, but she is not in an innocent world and there is always this sense of how she is viewed as an encumbrance, an embarrassment. A wonderful read.

Profile Image for Cecily.
1,094 reviews3,836 followers
July 14, 2008
Portia, 16 year old orphan, moves to stay with her adult half-brother and his wife. She's on the cusp of adulthood, but very naïve. Almost everyone is cold and detached. Mostly written as a novel, but with sections of diary and several letters - a contrast that feels a little odd.

Profile Image for Mark.
393 reviews300 followers
March 25, 2013
Happy that few of us are aware of the world until we are already in league with it

The story covers a period of some six months in which a newly orphaned 16 year old comes to live with her half brother and his wife. There she keeps a diary, becomes infatuated with another slightly older but still youngish lad, finds he is not quite the boy she had hoped or imagined and gets a bit upset.

Not much more happens then this really and yet i find myself giving it four stars, encouraging you to read it and then standing in the breach against all the rest of my bookclub chums here in Poole and say that i loved it in the face of their, almost universal dislike of it or at least severe boredom. It is because Elizabeth Bowen has constructed a novel of quite heartbreaking simplicity. Portia, the young girl is innocent and naive and thus, Bowen would have us see, supremely dangerous. She has none of the protective apathy of Anna, her horribly selfish sister-in-law, none of the vicious disregard of some of the more worldly wise young people, none of the self-absorption and miraculously preserved lack of self-knowledge of her 'admired', none of the hard cynicism of Anna's writer friend and sadly none of the beaten down acceptance of the perenially ignored Major Brutt.

Every character struggles with seeing and being seen. A common refrain is of invisibility but not as a disguise but as a depression; as a point of loss or sadness.
People talk on whilst not noticing being not noticed

or again but she only looked through him, and Thomas felt the force of not being seen

or again whether St Quentin really did not see her, or did see her and wished to show that he did not

and again He could look right through her, without a flicker of seeing, without being made shamefully concious of the vacuum there must be in his eyes

Throughout the book Bowen elaborates on this sense of the ethereal nature of any individual. Of their disingenuous facing of the society in which they exist. Each has a false view of his/her position in society or of the way they are pictured by others or they have a faulty view of others with whom they interact. Sometimes the ignorance is a blameless naivety but more often it is a carefully contrived and shamefully maintained "re-ignorance" as if they have worked at hiding the truth from themselves, a truth they once knew but have submerged in artifice.

This cascade of incomplete or damaged images swirl around the innocent and seemingly inconsequential outlook of Portia. It is as if her standing in the story reveals the brutality and skewed nature of those around her. She trusts and invests too much in these worthless natures and when they are shown to be worthless they react not by recognizing their frailty and fault but by assuming she is at fault, she is in error, she is to blame. Bowen paints people of vivid horror, all the more horrendous because they float and waft along so elegantly, so socially acceptable. On four separate occasions four people who have behaved badly towards Portia succeed in making her feel she is in the wrong. the manipulation involved is frustrating for the reader because we sit and watch it happening and are powerless to cry out as we would like, powerless to set her free from the endless sadness.

Towards the end of the novel, when hopes might have begun to appear the two people who might offer her help and a clearer path through the undergrowth and out into some sort of freedom, the only two characters who are sympathetic, are shown to be caught up with their own misery or at least recognition of their own inadequacies. It is a soberingly sad ending, left unresolved, left grey and forlorn. Not a charnel house of death or torture but instead a well bred cul de sac whose gated entrance you feel is gradually closing in.

Bowen has a brilliant turn of phrase and is one of those writers who can, with a sentence, paint a clear vision

Daphne never simply touched objects, she slapped down her hand on them; she made up her mouth with the gesture of someone cutting their throat

or again For Portia, Daphne and Dickie seemed a crisis that surely must be unique: she could not believe that they happened every day

In pauses that could but occur in the talk, Portia could almost hear Mrs Heccomb's ideas, like chairs before a party, being rolled about and rapidly rearranged

or the future sadness prefaced in

relentlessly, the too great day was poured out, on the sea, on her window sill.

Even the fire only grinned, like the fire in an advertisment

This last sentence captures the vacuity, the horrible falseness of so much of the interaction which sadly Portia comes to realize and it is deeply sad.

Caveats to my praise are few but present. Bowen has her characters thinking and reflecting and whereas some of these 'streams of consciousness' type excerpts work well, Matchett's extended soliliquy in the taxi towards the end of the novel being a good example, I sometimes struggled to work out whether it was Portia or Elzabeth Bowen I was listening too.

Allowing for poetic licence I still found the inner trawlings of the 16 year old's mind rather high flown sometimes. Were we hearing her struggles and conclusions or were we being treated to extended patches of the author's purple prose? This tendency to 'over-word' passages was a tendency from which Ms Bowen did not often avert her quill. She is a beautiful writer but sometimes less could have been more.

If you have never read this and might like a Woolf-cum-Brookner-cum-Ishiguro mash-up then I would recommend this most highly. You will not like many of the characters, it is one of those novels where I long to have the ability to enter into them and give the heroine a good talking to, the anti heroines a good shaking and at least two of the male characters a good pasting but I was genuinely saddened by the painful awakening of one who you see being hurt on the page. A truly goodread.
Profile Image for Mir.
4,780 reviews4,984 followers
March 16, 2012
Poor Portia. Poor everyone.

In real life I'm rarely this sympathetic to horrible people. Maybe I should be.
Profile Image for Lisa.
1,379 reviews518 followers
September 4, 2018
[4.5] The Death of the Heart struck a chord in me. The novel, set in 1930s London, is about a 16 year old orphan, sent to live in a loveless household with her older brother and his wife. Bowen writes with sharp insight, compassion and wit about Portia's struggle to find her place. All of the characters, even the minor ones, are so incredibly well drawn and so real they could walk off the page. This is a subtle, stunning novel - the action is all in the heart.
Profile Image for Roman Clodia.
2,357 reviews2,287 followers
July 13, 2020
I think this is the most merciless book by Bowen that I've read, perhaps even one of the most cruel books about innocence that I've come across: Bowen, at times, is absolutely brutal.

While the focus is ostensibly on 16-year old Portia ('she had been born docile'), the ripples of her presence spread far more widely: for Portia is catalyst as well as victim, and her entry into the home of her stolid half-brother Thomas and his increasingly spiteful wife, Anna, exposes them, their frigid marriage and their whole social world with chilling precision.

This is also the funniest of Bowen's books (that I've read to date) but it's an icy, cutting humour articulated in the most elegant prose: think Jane Austen at her bitterest (Persuasion?) times a factor of ten. At various times, I was reminded of Edith Wharton and Henry James, but Bowen doesn't sentimentalise innocence and inexperience: she makes Portia herself complicit with her cruel disillusion (' 'You'd be wrong to trust him,' she said'), so that she's partly a Marianne Dashwood figure rushing headlong into her romantic tribulations no matter how often warned to take care and not trust so completely, so soon.

Not that that lets off her would-be lover whose final truths are breathtaking in their lacerating power:

The ending is left open, and we never know from Bowen what will happen to Portia after this most callous introduction to the world of adults. But I have a horrible feeling that she might turn into a wounded and impaired version of Anna. Which is tragic.
Profile Image for Kimberly Dawn.
163 reviews
April 11, 2019

The book was worthwhile reading for its social insights. I did enjoy some of the social commentary, and I enjoyed Eddie as a character study. He knew himself and his true intentions all along as he deceived an innocent, lonely girl, Portia.

It is too bad the Eddies of this world charm and deceive until the object of their affection begins to take them seriously; it is then they show their true selves and limitations.

The book is somewhat dated in many ways, but human nature is the focus and it remains unchanged and timeless.
Profile Image for Sara.
Author 1 book447 followers
December 8, 2017
This was a sadly cynical and very aptly named novel. Portia, a sixteen year old orphan who is just beginning to search for understanding of what love means, finds herself living with her half-brother, Thomas, and his wife, Anna. While Portia studies Anna to see what being a woman should be, Anna dislikes Portia, primarily because Portia is too honest an observer. All the adults in this book live in a kind of masquerade of life, with a cloud of dishonesty hovering over them constantly, while Portia is unschooled in deception and fails to understand that almost no one can be taken at face value.

Along the way, Portia opens her heart to a young man who has been present because of his attempts to woo Anna. This is English society at its worst, a world of sexual innuendo and flirtatious games in which everyone is hurt. Poor Portia is like a lamb at slaughter, and everyone seems to feel free to play with her feelings and sensibilities. There is the added sorrow of knowing this girl has just lost her mother and is in a strange place that makes some of their actions seem excessively cruel and unfeeling.

Portia’s encounters with life living in hotels with her mother, Irene; living in London with Thomas and Anna, and living for the spring at the beach in Searle with Anna’s former governess, give her an overview of different classes and strata and seem to indicate to the reader that love is fairly non-existent. You trust others at your own peril.

This book had moments in which I was sure it would be a 5-star read for me. But, in the end, the ending was somehow unsatisfactory. I understood the point being made, and perhaps it could not have ended differently, but it felt somewhat abrupt and incomplete. I have been mulling it overnight and this morning, and I think we are meant to feel the bleakness of Portia’s position and perhaps that this is life and more story would yield no different outcome.

I have perhaps said too much in this review. I never like to give away too much. But, I am sincerely wishing I had read this with at least one other person because there is so much here to grapple with and I’m unsure that I have skimmed the surface, let alone plumbed the depths. If you like a book that makes you puzzle over life, this one will.
223 reviews195 followers
February 27, 2012
I need to solve a mystery: all conspiracy theories welcome. Where exactly is the Kentish seaside town of Seale-on-Sea? It features in three of Bowen’s novels, prominently in ‘The Death of the Heart’ and not at all on Google maps. The only Seal in Kent has these are its coordinates:

With the best will in the world, there is NO way Mrs Heccomb and Portia leave Waikiki House on the shore and trundle onto THIS Seal High Street for Bisureated Magnesia Tablets and a bottle of gravy browning at ten, have a spot of tea, and make it back to the ranch for twelve noon. 60 odd miles and all that, brisk walkers though they are.
And so what of it? Is Seal/Seale/Seale-on-Sea all that important in the scope of things? (the death of hearts and all ‘a that’). Well, why not? Ultimately, in a novel about nothing at all, why should I not bother with the pastiche of Seal, where much ado about said nothing transpires.

This is not meant as a criticism. In fact, there is nothing more blissfully sublime than flipping pages in a salty trance where nothing happens on a soggy Sunday when nothing happens , the silence interrupted mellifluously only by the effervescent fizz dissipating the head of a spritzer. (my type of snap crackle and pop).
Of course that type of thing requires panache: and Bowen has spades of it. Here is what she does:

She sketches out a blank doodle of a 16 year old orphan girl Portia: doodle, I say, because Portia is such a blank canvass, so devoid of any materiality, backbone, sentiment and character in general that it made me squirm in my fauteuil (and to think before this book, I never even thought I owned one!) and shake some spine into her (although a few sips of the fizz mellowed me out substantially). There is a very good reason for this doodle diddling though. So, Portia is set as a work in progress in amidst. Well. Here, in a superb, sublime novel of manners etiquette, Bowen takes out her artistic chisel and plies it ruthlessly into what is easily the most breathtaking vivisection of Great Britannia I have come across.

Finding purchase in the rich texture of stratiated social layers, she pares back and unwinds the mass of committing entanglements which define British social conventions and exposes the underbelly of the class system. Each layer: underclass, servant class, provincial bourgiousie, upper crust, unfurls in duress and emaculated, surrenders its pungent tempest into a cotillion of moral and social husks: debris of a failed pursuit.

It now becomes apparent why Portia must be so utterly senseless: she is a void canvass in order to enable and channel the unfolding of social layers. Where she steps, worlds collide: she is the faultline where social classes meet and greet: and in this meshing, a constellation of supernovas explode. Portia is the catalyst for the storm of unabatement when a crossover crystallises between the British caste system, testing the grounds of moral, social, economic and cultural franchises in a collision course for advent in the twentieth century.

And ultimately this is the raisonn d’etre of the novel: a cacophony of class voice seeking recontextualizing.
In amongst the heady spirals of hedonism I was also arrested by an antiquated yet mesmerising use of language, which made me rearrange: not so much the world at large, but my mind, in order to perceive the world at large. More as a note to self than anything else, here are the gems which made me pause, breathless:
Is it possible to envy MYSELF?

‘There are moments when it becomes frightening to realise you are not, in fact, alone in the world’. For so many reasons, this quote goes against the norm today, doesn’t it? Page 157 for the intrigued. I do so like seeing the flip side of the coin.
‘Life mitigates against the seclusion we seek’: again, against the grain.

‘Propriety is no serious check to nature-in fact, nature banks itself up behind it’ (phew. Salvation. I was never very proper to begin with). Of course, page 158 will remind me of the true meaning here one day.

My favourite exchange in the book:
‘Why did you hold Daphne’s hand?’
‘When do you mean?’
‘At the cinema’
‘Oh that. Because you see, I have to get off with people’.
‘Because I cannot get on with them.’


Profile Image for Colleen.
372 reviews18 followers
June 6, 2009
I had a difficult time getting started with this downer of a book because Bowen's writing style is dense and, at times, confusing. From time to time she would lapse into sermons or analysis and my eyes would glaze over and I'd lose my focus. But eventually I got into the story and decided it was OK. There's not much of a plot and there's certainly little action or excitement. It's mainly a psychological story. There are lots of characters playing head games with each other. They're primarily wealthy, lacking a moral compass and worthwhile activities to spend their time on. And then there's Portia...poor Portia... so innocent, so naive, and so trusting. And, God help her, she's inadvertently gotten on the wrong side of her guardian, Anna. Anna is the most self-centered and manipulative woman. She thinks Portia is "on to her" so she's going to underhandedly make her suffer. Actually, I don't think Portia is "on to her" at all; I think she's too naive. But Anna doesn't like herself and she sees in Portia all that she could have been. She's in a loveless marriage, she's materialistic, she sleeps around, and she's nice to people to their faces, then bashes them when they aren't around. Poor Portia is just trying to figure out her place in the world and Anna makes her her target. And she's certainly jealous of Portia's relationship with her "boy toy," Eddie. She makes them both pay. You would hope that an evil woman like Anna would get comeuppance in the end but it's unclear to me what happens. Instead Portia pays with heartbreak and uncertainty about her future. Not a very satisfying ending.
Profile Image for Jill.
198 reviews70 followers
October 23, 2016
A beautifully written book from another time and place!

It was a difficult transition for me from contemporary fiction back to this slower & subtler style where so much is written but very little actually happens. It required me to read a lot between the lines.

Portia, a 16 year old orphan, moves to London to live with her half brother and sister-in-law resulting in emotional upheaval (repressed as it may be) for all. I especially enjoyed the relationship between Portia and her sister-in-law Anna which showed Elizabeth Bowen's wicked sense of humor. My favorite line from Anna is " Well, thank you for listening: you have been an angel. It's fatal", she concluded, holding her hand out, "to be such a good friend to a selfish woman like me." Exactly.
Profile Image for Elizabeth (Alaska).
1,255 reviews405 followers
July 16, 2020
I loved the beginning of this. The ending in some ways got to where I thought the beginning was taking the reader. Unfortunately, for me, the middle 350 pages or so weren't fulfilling. If I said I hoped for a different book, that would be misleading. My problem is that I was lost most of the time. I felt as if Bowen wrote as if we all had a similar world view and that she was writing "for the choir" (as in speaking to the choir). A sticky on a page says "I think this is key but she's talking over my head."
Innocence so constantly finds itself in a false position that inwardly innocent people learn to be disingenuous. Finding no language in which to speak in their own terms, they resign themselves to being translated imperfectly. They exist alone; when they try to enter into relations they compromise falsifyingly - through anxiety, through desire to impart and to feel warmth. ...
Not to be argumentative, but it seems to me this implies some sort of intention to be false or disingenuous. Can an innocent do that? So, yes, over my head. There is another such discussion or two which I think I simply failed to take in.

The other problem I had with this was Bowen's characterizations. I simply didn't find them believable. I am willing to admit this may be my own inadequacy. For example, Portia observes ... for what reason people said what they did not mean, and did not say what they meant. She felt most certain to find the clue when she felt the frenzy behind the clever remark. If Portia is an innocent (and that's the way I interpreted things) then how did she know people didn't mean what they said and how did she feel any frenzy behind a clever remark? It just seems to me you'd have to be more cognizant than innocent to make such observations.

Anyway, I'm not sorry to have read another Elizabeth Bowen. I have not read other reviews, but I suspect I'm an outlier. This wasn't as awful as what I've said here might indicate, but I can't come up with more than 3 stars.
Profile Image for Bethany.
602 reviews55 followers
June 20, 2011
From the back description, I was expecting this to be a major seduction story like, er, well, I can't think of any examples, though they are a dime a dozen. Anyhow, it wasn't; it was about the seduction of the mind: mental, not physical. It was Portia's mind, of course, that was seduced and inevitably, betrayed. (Is that why this is called a psychological novel?)

I rather liked Portia. She wasn't obnoxiously pathetic as I thought she would be. She wasn't when she was away from Eddie, that is. Parts without him she was a dreamy loner type which I identify with since I am one. But she was extremely guileless, captivated by Eddie whose faults and inconsistencies she was blind to. I don't suppose I can cast the first stone, though; the attractions of girls are mysterious things and there is little I wouldn't do for someone who shows me kindness at a time when I'm feeling sadly at loose ends.
Eddie was indeed a Cad (with a capital 'C', yes.) who was in love with the sound of the words coming out of his mouth. Actually, he was not present in the flesh as often as I assumed he would be. Anna was the antagonist more than anyone.

Elizabeth Bowen told the story somewhat indifferently, I thought. Just in the sense she never tried to make you love (or hate, even) any of her characters. She just told it like it was, so to speak. Though she mostly portrayed her character's pettiness and absurdities, she also showed them during moments of worry, vulnerability, and insecurity. Those moments really resounded with me.
And her prose! She wrote little masterpieces of sentences and paragraphs full of brilliant imagery which made my little writer's heart pitter-pat with admiration and, of course, envy. Though some of her thoughts were dense and required more concentration on my part to grasp their meaning.

I suppose there were greater nuances and themes to this novel that I missed, as I am far from being the most discerning reader, but still I enjoyed this book and that is what matters most, in my opinion. Perhaps I shall read this 30 years from now and see what I get out of it. (Sometimes youth feels like a ball and chain.)
Incidentally, I enjoyed this a lot more than I thought I was going to and I cannot think, or express at least, what it was that I liked. I know I really enjoyed Elizabeth Bowen's writing. She deserves all the praise she gets in that respect.

Sorry Sarah, this isn't much of a coherent or compelling review - The Death of the Heart may be doomed to languish on your bedside table a bit longer. ;)
Profile Image for Kusaimamekirai.
642 reviews214 followers
August 10, 2017
This is a tricky review simply because I don't think I've ever been so fascinated and drawn into a novel where nothing happens. There are some minor events, diaries read, summers at the sea, starts and ends to relationships, but even in these strands, there's never any one decisive moment of resolution or something that takes your breath away. Rather there is a lot of sameness, a lot of meanness, a LOT of unhappiness.
The genius of this novel lies instead I'm the interior worlds of these characters who are all very unique and at the same time (for me) extremely unlikeable.
What is someone to do with Portia's guardians, Thomas and Anna?
These two are some of the unhappiest people in their marriage and life in general you're likely to come across. Thomas seems almost resigned to the sameness while Anna responds by gossiping, backbiting, and badmouthing pretty much every character in the story.
Portia just kind of floats through the story in a kind of innocent haze, refusing to believe that the people who don't hate her, think she's a fool.
Overall this is a novel of bad people doing bad things to each other. Their lives are train wrecks but it's written so perfectly that it's hard to turn away from it

Profile Image for Teresa.
1,492 reviews
July 10, 2016
De vez em quando, vou às "catacumbas" procurar livros que há anos esperam para serem lidos. Por vezes encontro alguns tesouros e zango-me comigo por os ter esquecido; mas não foi o caso de A Morte no Coração, que começou por ser uma leitura agradável mas, pelo tema ou pelo desenvolvimento, acabou por se tornar monótona.
É um romance da época em que as mulheres, de uma certa camada social, viviam para procriar, apajear o marido, orientar a criadagem e organizar festas. Quando ficavam órfãs antes de casarem - porque uma menina de família não podia viver sozinha - tinham de ir viver com outros familiares, que nem sempre as aceitavam bem.
Esta é a história de Portia que, com a morte dos pais, é "deixada em testamento" ao irmão e à cunhada. A vida na alta-roda e as pessoas que conhece, desencantam-na e desiludem-na, tornando-se uma jovem triste e solitária.

"Nós somos mesquinhos em tudo menos nas nossas paixões."
Profile Image for Roger Brunyate.
946 reviews631 followers
May 23, 2017
The Unkindness of Civility

First off, let me say that the Anchor paperback edition is a pleasure to read, as are all the Bowen novels in this series. It has clean generous type, a binding that stays open, a cover that feels good in the hand, an attractive and totally relevant illustration, typography that captures both Bowen's elegance and her modernity, and—wonder of wonders—a back-cover blurb that brilliantly encapsulates the essence of this elusive novel. For example: "As she deftly and delicately exposes the cruelty that lurks behind the polished surfaces of conventional society, Bowen reveals herself as a masterful novelist who combines a sharp sense of humor with a devastating gift for divining human motivations."

Not for nothing does the book-jacket writer compare Elizabeth Bowen to Henry James. For this is a very Jamesian subject. The recently-orphaned 16-year-old Portia, Bowen's heroine, is significantly older than James' Maisie ( What Maisie Knew ) and younger than his Isabel Archer ( The Portrait of a Lady ), but like them she is thrust into sophisticated society as a naive observer, and the book is mainly taken up by the author's razor-sharp dissection of that society and sensitive exploration of the heroine's feelings.

What is surprising here, even in comparison to Henry James or to the other Elizabeth Bowen novels that I have read ( The Last September and The House in Paris ), is that so little actually happens. Everything seems to point to a premature sexual affair which will proves disastrous for Portia, especially once she falls for the charms of the caddish Eddie, whose previous dalliances we have already seen described. Portia herself is the offspring of her father's late-life affair, which has forced him to leave his life of English respectability and to live abroad; there is a sense of unreliability in the bloodline. Even the title of the book, The Death of the Heart, and the subtitles of its three major parts—"The World," "The Flesh," and "The Devil"—all seem to be leading in this direction.

And yet, while sexuality is always present in the subtext (another Jamesian quality), it never tips over into action. This is a book in which so simple an event as a boy's holding the wrong girl's hand at a movie can have traumatic significance; there is no need to go farther. I can only think that Bowen's misdirection is deliberate. In the course of waiting for something to happen, the reader finds that he has absorbed countless details and impressions of everyday life that, taken cumulatively, have an even more devastating effect. This book is like a timed-release drug capsule; you may feel comparatively little after you have finished reading it, but it continues to work in the mind long after you have put it down.

In her three-part structure, Bowen contrasts two different strata of English society. The outer sections are set in the upper-class world of Portia's half-brother Thomas and his wife Anna, who live in an expensive house in one of the Nash Terraces fronting Regent's Park. Thomas is withdrawn and remote; Anna leads a busy social life with many male friends; they communicate only superficially with each other and hardly at all with Portia, who is forced to turn to the housekeeper, Matchett, as the nearest thing to a confidante. It is no wonder that she falls for Eddie, whom she sees as an outsider just like her. Meeting him at first assuages her loneliness, but his eventual small betrayals only serve to heighten it.

Contrasting with London society is a month that Portia spends with Anna's former governess Mrs. Heccomb, in an off-season seaside resort. Having been brought up in a similar resort town myself, I found Bowen's description of the wind-battered setting and the cheerfully rowdy life of the young people whom Portia meets there one of the most vivid sections of this excellently-observed book. While the apparently free-and-easy quality of this middle-class setting can be seen to have its own limitations and proprieties, it sends Portia back to town with an unbearable sense of the shallow frigidity of her life with Thomas and Anna. And the events of the weekend when Eddie comes down to join her, although slow to make their full effect, eventually alter their relationship (and Portia's view of herself) irretrievably.

One of the most poignant aspects of the book is its awareness of transience. Thomas and Anna are eminently settled in their house, their work, their society; even the constant motion of the Heccomb young people and their set is based on an underlying stability. But Portia's life has always been rootless, moving from one European hotel to another, staying out of season and in the cheapest rooms—rootless with one vital exception: the security of her parents' love. Eddie's rootlessness is of a more dangerous variety, coming of having rejected the life of his still-living parents without creating anything significant of his own to replace it, but it takes Portia time to realize the essential difference between them. The theme is further reflected in one minor character who will become important at the end: the sad Major Brutt, who "had a good war" but has been rattling around since, growing rubber in Malaya, and now staying in a seedy London hotel waiting for something to turn up; it is a touching portrait, albeit a frightening one.

And what will happen to Portia? Will her heart remain dead? Is it indeed her heart that dies? The book ends on a spiritual and psychological crisis, but it offers no resolution. Perhaps it is wishful thinking on my part, but I do not see her life ending in either tragedy or pathos, despite the book's title. Portia's first innocence has been dispelled, certainly, but there is an energy in her, a drive towards the good which I believe will enable her to learn from her experiences and ultimately rise above them. Not the least of the qualities of this admirable edition which I praised at the beginning is the cover painting, which goes far to contractict the implications of the title and declare that this wonderful novel is not, after all, depressing.
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