Wednesday, 16 June 1999
Elizabeth Bowen: The Death of the Heart (1938)
Review number: 274
Novels as a genre - the most successful genre of literature in English - very frequently deal with growing up and coming of age. This is partly a legacy from the nineteenth century novel, where the desire to begin at the beginning (as opposed to the classical drama, which is supposed to begin in media res - in the middle) meant that many novels start with the birth of their principal characters. (Dickens provides several examples of this.) But the other reason is that adolescence is an experience all adults have gone through, and involved many changes, so it can easily and effectively be used to make a reader look at their own life in a rather different way.
Death of the Heart is another novel of adolescence, detailing the experiences of the sixteen year old Portia over several months. These are told under the headings The World, The Flesh, and The Devil, each part named after one of the sources of deception that God is called upon to save us from in the prayer book. And deception is at the heart of what Bowen wants to say about society and ourselves: her message is that society functions through deceit and we grow up as we buy into that deception. We learn not to say or act as we feel, instead building up a layer of acting between us and the world, and often another concealing our true feelings even from ourselves. (This second distancing of ourselves from our immediate feelings is what prompts the title.) All of this is for self-protection.
The way that Bowen develops this theme is to place an outsider, the innocent Portia, suddenly in London; following the death of her mother, she has come to live with her conventional stepbrother and his wife. Portia soon meets some of their friends, and she keeps a diary filled with painfully honest, meticulous observation of those around her. A total innocent, she believes she has fallen in love with one of the men she meets, failing to understand that almost all he says and does is exaggerated and idealised to throw himself into relief against those around him - a deception. The book basically follows the disastrous course of their relationship, and it is through the contrast between their two natures (even though they are outwardly quite similar) that Bowen explores her ideas about deceit.
The back of this edition, part of the Penguin Twentieth Century Classics series, describes Bowen as providing a link between the Bloomsbury set and later writers such as Iris Murdoch. They share an interest in using an outwardly naturalistic setting to explore a single theme in depth; Bowen does not use symbols in quite the same way as either Woolf or Murdoch but the intention of her writing is similar.