"The Death of the Heart," by Elizabeth Bowen (1938)
(The Death of the Heart, by Elizabeth Bowen)
Let’s get one thing straight: Bowen’s The Death of the Heart concerns a 16-year-old girl getting dumped for the first time—not birdlashes’ typical fare.Hoity-toity websites or reviews (you know, written by “real” reviewers) may claim this novel plumbs the psychological depths concerning our transition from Innocence to Experience, or that it’s an exploration of the chaotic Dionysian soul beneath the Apollonian façade of the upper class, but really: it’s Gossip Girl dressed for an adult party.Am I selling the novel short?Quite likely.The writing, in fact, is brilliant—Bowen is one of the best stylists I’ve read.She is painterly in her descriptions, and her psychological portraiture is spot-on and devastating.I told Audio Input, a fan of Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, that I would be very surprised if Elizabeth Bowen didn’t influence Atwood.Margaret Atwood, if you happen to come across birdlashes, drop me a line and let me know what you think of Bowen!
(..Atwood's unaired episode of Gossip Girl, "Oryx and Blake" has some striking similarities to The Death of the Heart)
Not holding my breath that Margaret Atwood will comment on my blog, I’ll continue: Divided into three sections, “The World,” “The Flesh,” and, “The Devil,” the novel concerns Thomas and Anna Quayne, an advertising executive and his socialite wife, when Thomas’s half-sister, the recently orphaned Portia, comes to stay with them for a year.Portia is shy, and observant—she keeps a diary that Anna soon finds and reads.Her presence disturbs the frigid rhythms of the marriage and dredges up associations from the past.This all happens in the section called “The World.”In “The Flesh,” Portia is sent to a family-friend of Anna’s, to live at a seaside resort in the off-season.Here, she experiences a social awakening.She has been entangled with a friend of Anna’s, a cad in his early-twenties named Eddie, and the relationship tangles up in her soul.There is nothing particularly fleshy in “The Flesh,” as the most illicit and charged moment comes from concealed held hands in a darkened movie theater.In “The Devil” the events of the seaside resort crash back into the staid London world of the Quayne’s house as Portia returns to Thomas and Anna.Bowen’s great theme is the churning underbelly of class and society, but the form this theme takes in The Death of the Heart is in moral vacuity.These characters are stunted in their moral development, and casually destroy one another while, literally, unable to figure out what is “the right thing to do.”
(...birdlashes finds this type of Death of the Heart much, much more interesting...No offense, Bowen).
Last night, I finished The Death of the Heart shortly after the first “results” show for this season’s American Idol—the first three contestants were voted through into the top 12, and I was generally happy with the selections.Herein lies my problem with Bowen: her novel, a day after reading it, isn’t quite as vivid as a throw away episode of a sub-par TV show.Bowen’s writing is certainly gorgeous—but reading it is a bit like walking through the older wing of an art museum.We know the paintings we’re seeing are top-notch, the portraits of the dead luminous and perfect, but all a bit frigid and unemotional—it doesn’t challenge us, or mock us, or infuriate us like the modern art we’ll eventually make our way to.The novel is quiet, and very “English” in the way we yanks often think of “English” when we think of “English Literature”—The Death of the Heart’s been adapted by Masterpiece Theater at least twice, if that tells you anything.