Orphaned Unostentation: The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen
By Francis Booth | On October 4, 2021 | Updated January 28, 2024 | Comments (0)
The Death of the Heart (1938) by Elizabeth Bowen is in many ways a traditional English 1930s novel, and a comedy of manners — the manners of pre-war, upper-middle-class London which Bowen (1899 – 1973) knew well. This analysis of The Death of the Heart is excerpted from Girls in Bloom: Coming of Age in the Mid-20th Century Woman’s Novel by Francis Booth, reprinted by permission.
The Death of the Heart is a coming-of-age novel, and its heroine, Portia Quayne, undoubtedly belongs in the literary realm of adolescent girls and their sexual experiences.
Portia does, in her way, come of age in the course of the story though she does not have the novel to herself. She is just one of a cast of unappealing characters examined in forensic detail by the witty, sardonic, and ruthless Bowen in this darkly witty chamber piece.
Among her many novels, Bowen had already included girls as central characters in at least two others: The House in Paris (1926) is about a day in the life of eleven-year-old Henrietta Mountjoy — not a long enough period to see Henrietta coming of age –—and one of the major characters in The Last September (1929) is eighteen-year-old Lois Farquar, whose coming of age is just one of the stories in this vast, sweeping novel about an upper-class family during the Anglo-Irish troubles of the time.
Sixteen-year-old Portia Quayne is a recent orphan and is being brought up, like Jane Eyre, Fanny Price (of Mansfield Park), and other girls in coming of age novels, by unsympathetic relatives who make it clear that they do not want her. These girls are still better off than the likes of an orphaned and abandoned Fanny Hill or Moll Flanders with only their virtue left to sell.
After Portia’s mother has died, she has been sent to live with her much older half-brother Thomas and his snobbish wife Anna in their stylish central London home.
Thomas’s father had much earlier left his mother for a woman of a much lower social class, who then gave birth to Portia; the father then died and Portia continued to live with her feckless mother, moving around and living in cheap hotels. Thomas and Anna have no children of their own and Anna clearly does not want Portia cluttering up her pristine house.
Portia’s only ally is the older female servant Matchett, who was in service with her and Thomas’s father and was left to Thomas in his father’s will, like a chattel, along with ‘the furniture that had always been her charge.’ Portia seems to realize that she is in the house but not of it; even though she is hardly a mousy Cinderella/Jane Eyre character she tries to make herself as unnoticed as possible with her ‘orphaned unostentation’.
“Getting up from the stool carefully, Portia returned her cup and plate to the tray. Then, holding herself so erect that she quivered, taking long soft steps on the balls of her feet, and at the same time with an orphaned unostentation, she started making towards the door. She moved crabwise, as though the others were royalty, never quite turning her back on them – and there, waiting for her to be quite gone, watched …
Her body was all concave and jerkily fluid lines; it moved with sensitive looseness, loosely threaded together: each movement had a touch of exaggeration, as though some secret power kept springing out. At the same time she looked cautious, aware of the world in which she had to live. She was sixteen, losing her childish majesty.”
As the novel opens Portia is being discussed by Anna and her friend, the novelist St. Quentin. Anna has recently found Portia’s diary in which she has written about her host and hostess – it is not that Portia has written unkindly that has upset Anna, just the fact that she has written about her at all. Anna claims that she was not looking for the diary or searching Portia’s room, just entering to hang up a dress that had come back from the cleaners.
Her room looked, as I’ve learnt to expect, shocking: she has all sorts of arrangements Matchett will never touch. You know what some servants are – how they ride one down, and at the same time make all sorts of allowance for temperament in children or animals.’
‘You would call her a child?’
‘In many ways, she is more like an animal. I made that room so pretty before she came. I had no idea how blindly she was going to live. Now I hardly ever going there; it’s simply discouraging.’
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Nothing but trouble?
Portia is, by any normal standard, a polite, intelligent, and respectful girl but by the standards of Anna’s finicky fastidiousness Portia is a rogue element in her otherwise immaculate house; especially in the way she keeps her room.
‘I really did feel it was time I took a line. But she and I are on such curious terms – when I ever do take a line, she never knows what it is. She is so unnaturally callous about objects – she treats any hat, for instance, like an old envelope.’
Anna has given Portia a ‘little escritoire thing’ that had been Thomas’s mother’s with locking drawers, hoping it ‘would make her see that I quite meant her to have a life of her own.’
The symbolism of this object seems to be lost on Portia. ‘Nothing that’s hers ever seems, if you know what I mean, to belong to her.’ Anna should not be surprised at this, as Portia has grown up moving around from one hotel to another.
One of the things that has most upset Anna about Portia’s diary is the quality of the book it is written in: unlike several of the diary-keepers in Girls in Bloom, Portia does not write in a beautiful leather journal but ‘One of those wretched black books one buys for about a shilling with moiré outsides.’
Anna is clearly horrified to have such a seedy object in her house, but she has never liked Portia – or her late mother, who may have been pregnant with Portia when Thomas’s father ran off with her – even before Portia moved in.
‘She’s made nothing but trouble since before she was born.’ St Quentin replies: ‘You mean, it’s a pity she ever was?’ Anna agrees that that is how she feels. Thomas also seems to have resented Portia, and especially her mother, from before her birth. ‘From the grotesqueries of that marriage he had felt a revulsion. Portia, with her suggestion – during those visits – of sacred lurking, had stared at him like a kitten that expects to be drowned.’
St. Quentin’s interest
St. Quentin, as a writer, is interested in the style rather than the content or physical form of Portia’s diary; his dialogue with Anna allows Bowen to have some authorial fun.
‘Was it affected?’
‘You’ve got to allow for style, though. Nothing arrives on paper as it started, and so much arrives that never started at all. To write is always to rave a little – even if one did once know what one meant, which at her age seems unlikely. There are ways and ways of trumping a thing up: one gets more discriminating, not necessarily more honest. I should know, after all.’
‘I am sure you do, St. Quentin. But this was not a bit like your beautiful books. In fact it was not like writing at all.’ She paused and added: ‘She was so odd about me…’
‘A diary, after all, is written to please oneself – therefore it’s bound to be enormously written up. The obligation to write it is all in one’s own eye, and look how one is when it’s almost always written – upstairs, late, overwrought alone.’
This is, of course, a good point about diaries purporting to have been written by young girls: they are indeed written alone and at night in the privacy of their own room where their thoughts can run free. Bowen has more fun with the idea of diaries as a form of fiction later on in the novel; Portia is talking here to St. Quentin.
‘Now what can have made me think you kept a diary? Now that I come to look at you, I don’t think you’d be so rash.’
‘If I kept one, it would be a dead secret. Why should that be rash?’
‘It is madness to write things down.’
‘But you write those books you write almost all day don’t you?’
‘But what’s in them never happened – it might have, but never did. And though what is felt in them is just possible – in fact, it’s much more possible, in an unnerving way, than most people will admit – it’s fairly improbable. So, you see, it’s my game from the start. But I should never write what had happened down… I dare say,’ said St. Quentin kindly, ‘that what you write is quite silly, but all the same, you are taking a liberty. You set traps for us. You ruin our free will.’
‘I write what has happened. I don’t invent.’
‘You put constructions on things. You are a most dangerous girl.’
Writing, of course, is about the most dangerous thing woman can do.
A school for “delicate girls”
Like Rosamond Lehmann’s heroines, Portia does not go to a normal school but attends a small, special private institution for ‘delicate girls, girls who did not do well at school, girls putting in time before they went abroad, girls who were not to go abroad at all.’ But this seems to be quite an intellectual finishing school, not one designed to turn out dim, obedient, marriageable girls.
According to Portia’s diary, a typical day is: ‘today we began Sienese Art, and did Book Keeping, and read a German play.’ She has only one friend there: Lilian, whom Anna does not think ‘very desirable, but this could not be helped.’
Lillian ‘walks about with the rather fated expression you see in photographs of girls who have subsequently been murdered,’ after she had ‘had to be taken away from her boarding school because of falling in love with the cello mistress, which had made her quite unable to eat.’
Although ten years later than Rosalynn Lehmann’s Dusty Answer, this is one of the first coming-of-age novels to explicitly mention lesbianism, though not in relation to the principal character and only in relation to a schoolgirl crush on a teacher.
Portia does not do well at the school, she cannot concentrate, cannot ‘keep her thoughts at face-and-table level; they would go soaring up through the glass dome.’
Because of her upbringing so far, Portia is ‘unused to learning, she had not learnt that one must learn.’ She is also socially out of place with all these future debutantes; while they had been learning art, languages and social graces, Portia and her mother Irene:
‘… had been skidding about in an out-of-season nowhere of railway stations and rocks, filing off wet third-class decks of lake steamers, choking over the bones of loups de mer, giggling into eiderdowns that smelled of the person-before-last. Untaught, they had walked arm-in-arm along city pavements, and at nights had pulled their beds closer together or slept in the same bed overcoming, as far as might be, the separation of birth. Seldom had they faced up to society.’
But now, Portia must face up, alone and motherless, to not only society, but older male attention; Anna is entirely incapable of acting in loco parentis. Anna’s shiftless friend Eddie, like an impecunious and disrespectable member of Bertie Wooster’s Drones Club, and the slightly seedy, older hanger-on Major Brutt both seem to have feelings for her, though neither of them seems particularly eager to turn them into physical form.
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Facing society and male attention
At first, it seems that Portia has set her cap squarely at Eddie. ‘Portia’s life, up to now, had been all subtle gentle compliance, but she had been compliant without pity. Now she saw with pity, but without reproaching herself, all the sacrificed people — Major Brutt, Lilian, Matchett, even Anna – that she had stepped over to meet Eddie.’
Eddie refuses to let her write about him in her diary, but she tells him that, now she has him, she may not need the diary anymore. Nevertheless, she still writes down thoughts and deeds, some of which Bowen gives us, in a style not entirely unlike that of her friend Virginia Woolf.
But things with Eddie do not work out: he is not the settling down type. ‘I used to think that we understood each other. I still think you’re sweet, though you do give me the horrors. I feel you’re trying to put me into some sort of trap. I’d never dream of going to bed with you, the idea would be absurd.’
Towards the end of the novel, on the rebound from Eddie, as it were, Portia tries to give her virgin self to the Major, who has been sending her presents of jigsaw puzzles. She visits him at his down-at-heel hotel and proposes marriage to him.
‘I could cook; my mother cooked when we lived in Notting Hill Gate. Why could you not marry me? I could cheer you up. I would not get in your way, and we should not be half so lonely… Do think it over, please,’ says Portia calmly.
With a quite new, matter-of-fact air of possessing his room, she made small arrangements for comfort – peeled off his eiderdown, kicked her shoes off, lay down with her head in his pillow and pulled the eiderdown snugly up to her chin. By this series of acts she seemed at once to shelter, to plant here, and to obliterate herself – most of all the last… ‘I suppose,’ she said, after some minutes, ‘you don’t know what to do.’
But the Major turns out to be a confirmed bachelor – though not necessarily in the sense that ‘confirmed bachelor’ was used in those days to connote homosexuality. She looks at the rows of his military-shiny shoes and offers to clean them for him. ‘For some reason, women are never so good at it.’ He picks up the brushes and begins to clean the shoes himself.
Portia, watching him, had all in that moment a view of his untouched masculine privacy, of that grave abstractedness with which each part of his toilet would go on being performed. Unconscious, he could not have made plainer his determination to always live alone. Clapping the brushes together, he put them down with a clatter that made them both start. ‘I’m sure you will cook,’ he said, ‘I’m all in favour of it. But not for some years yet, and not, I’m afraid, for me.’
And that is that; Portia returns ‘home.’ But it is only home in the sense of Philip Larkin’s famous definition: ‘home is where, when you have to go there, they have to let you in.’
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Contributed by Francis Booth, the author of several books on twentieth-century culture:
Amongst Those Left: The British Experimental Novel 1940-1960 (published by Dalkey Archive); Everybody I Can Think of Ever: Meetings That Made the Avant-Garde; Girls in Bloom: Coming of Age in the Mid-Twentieth Century Woman’s Novel; Text Acts: Twentieth Century Literary Eroticism; and Comrades in Art: Revolutionary Art in America 1926-1938
Francis has also published several novels: The Code 17 series, set in the Swinging London of the 1960s and featuring aristocratic spy Lady Laura Summers; Young adult fantasy series The Watchers; and Young adult fantasy novel Mirror Mirror. Francis lives on the South Coast of England.