Published in 1938, The Death of the Heart is Elizabeth Bowen’s most well-known and popular novel. She was a prolific writer, and by the time she had published this, her sixth novel, her writing career had been fifteen years in the making. By this time, Bowen had nine other published books, the Irish Academy of Letters had elected her a member, and critics were comparing her to such celebrated writers as Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, Henry James, and Jane Austen.
The Death of the Heart is the story of an orphaned sixteen-year-old girl, Portia, whose halfbrother and his wife reluctantly take her into their luxurious but emotionally sterile London home after the deaths of her parents. Bowen exposes a segment of English society between World War I and World War II that is stifling and almost completely lacking in compassion. Portia is lost in Thomas and Anna Quayne’s world so she seeks solace and love in Eddie, Anna’s ne’er-do-well friend and protégé. Her innocence and naiveté are a challenge to the Quaynes and their friends, who find her eagerness to fit in and her keen observations unsettling.
Critics note that Bowen’s background is reflected in many of her books, including The Death of the Heart. She was born in Ireland but to landed gentry with strong ties to Protestant England and spent much of her childhood moving from place to place and living with a variety of relatives. Her formative experiences as an outsider gave her a platform from which she could tell, with particularly keen perception, the story of a girl who is never quite at home.