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#84…The Death of the Heart

February 2, 2010

“Happy that few of us are aware of the world until we are already in league with it.”

Elizabeth Bowen, author of The Death of the Heart, was “greatly interested in “life with the lid on and what happens when the lid comes off.” To make a long story short, Bowen liked to write about what would happen if people didn’t apply filters before acting or speaking, and ended up doing or saying socially unacceptable things. Throw that situation into emotionally repressed 1930’s Inter-War England, and already we have the makings of a fascinating and potentially explosive plot line before even opening the book.

In The Death of the Heart, we are introduced to the Quayne family: Anna and Thomas, who have taken in Thomas’ half-sister Portia after the death of Portia’s mother, Irene. Portia and Thomas have the same father; their father had an affair with Irene, and Thomas’ mother forced her husband to divorce her, marry Irene and have Portia in order to punish him. Mr Quayne eventually dies, and after Irene dies, the dreamy, lonely Portia is sent to live with Thomas and Anna for a year per Mr Quayne’s dying wish. The emotionally stifled Anna is less than thrilled with the arrangement; the book begins with her whining to her friend St Quentin about Portia’s messy room and admitting that she’s read Portia’s diary, which included some unflattering remarks about all of them. Portia also has the misfortune to fall in love with Eddie, a shiftless, irresponsible jerk, who leads Portia on yet keeps her at arm’s length. Portia’s diary and her desperate need to be loved in an emotionally sterile household bring events to a head in the Quayne household.

Anyone who has ever felt different, misunderstood or alone will immediately sympathize with Portia’s plight. A child who was born under socially questionable circumstances, who lived a rather free and unconventional life abroad with her mother prior to moving to England, is then thrown into a situation where the pressure is on to conform and repress how they really feel. How awful that would be. It’s no wonder that Portia befriends Major Brutt, an awkward, unemployed gentleman who sends her puzzles, and falls for Eddie, a morally bankrupt social pariah, because they are ‘different’ like she is, and because she is so desperate to feel understood. Portia’s diary throws the Quayne household into disarray because Portia does not hold back in her writing about how the people around her behave, and what her true thoughts are about them. Rather than understanding that Portia should be allowed to have a private place where she can unburden her thoughts and feelings, and minding their own business, the Quaynes whine about feeling unnatural and spied on. When Anna reads Portia’s diary, she is shown a side of herself that contradicts her own view of herself, which makes her uncomfortable.

The real beauty about the ending of Heart is that Portia’s discovery that Anna has read her diary, and the other characters’ discovery of this as well, forces people to admit things or discuss things that would never have come to the surface. You are left wondering if people will change once these revelations are made, but not with much hope.

Anyone who loves a good comedy of manners will be all about this book. A great read.

Grade: A-

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