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Elizabeth Bowen: The Death of the Heart

I am not sure whether Henry James had much influence on twentieth century writers. I always felt, despite the fact that he did write a few of his books in the twentieth century, that he was essentially a Victorian writer, a writer that looked back, rather than a modern looking forward, which is one of the reasons why you won’t find him on this site. However, if he did influence any twentieth century writers, Elizabeth Bowen is it. This novel is a prime example of a novel influenced by James. This is not to say it is a Jamesian novel but the author has clearly read her Henry James and learned some lessons from him both in terms of the structure – gradual exposition – and themes – innocence facing experience.

The book is semi-autobiographical. Bowen’s father had had a nervous breakdown and been sent to an institution. Just when it looked as though he might be recovering, her mother died of cancer and Bowen was sent to live with various aunts. In this book, Portia Quayne has lived in hotels for most of her sixteen years. When first her mother and then her father die, she is sent to live with Thomas and Anna Quayne. Thomas is her half-brother, the son of her father and his first wife (who divorced Quayne senior when she found out his mistress was pregnant). The Quaynes do not have children and do not particularly like children but do their duty. Portia’s only friend in the house is their housekeeper, Matchett. The Quaynes have various friends that visit but the one that makes the most impression is Eddie, both because he is the youngest and because he is a charmer. When the Quaynes are away, Portia is sent to stay with Anna’s former governess. Eddie followers her (at her behest) but he is just as interested in the governess’ daughter. Things get worse when Portia finds out that Anna has been reading her diary (we know this from the beginning) and she runs to Eddie who, of course, is no longer interested. She runs to another of the Quaynes’ friend who is also – though for different reasons – not interested. Both for Portia but also for the Quaynes, the hidden passions that have emerged (another Jamesian theme) can only lead to disappointment at best and all too often betrayal, a theme that Bowen will use elsewhere. At the end innocence may have been destroyed but, for Bowen, this is what we have to go through and go on as best we can.

Publishing history

First published 1938 by Gollancz