Elizabeth Bowen is most often at her best as a writer when she is writing from the perspective of the marginalized—in Eva Trout (1968), Bowen writes from the margins of madness. In The House in Paris (1935) and The Death of the Heart, the marginalized experience is depicted through the eyes of a commonly peripheral period of experience, through the perspective of the child and the adolescent. Portia Quayne is the observing consciousness through which the adult world is revealed for the hypocrisy and shallowness that marks the relationship between Thomas and Anna Quayne.
Portia, the half sister of Thomas, is brought to live in the Quayne household after being orphaned. Her presence in the house brings to a head the many tensions that were brewing there before her arrival. Bowen’s use of the child’s consciousness gives perspective to the adult world. This emphasis on the “fallenness” of adult perspective is reinforced in the titles of the three sections of the novel, “The World,” “The Flesh,” and “The Devil.” These three section titles relate to the baptismal rites of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, and, more generally, signify the three obvious sources of spiritual temptation that mark the Quaynes’ dispirited lifestyle and Portia’s own falling into the world of the adult.
The title of the story has a double resonance: It relates to the condition of the Quaynes in their marriage, and, perhaps more important, it serves as a caveat for Portia, whose heart, or center of feeling, is being systematically worn down throughout the novel.
Bowen’s writing often captures the fading era of the stout British character and the passing of the world of manners that attends the era’s demise. The novel’s title thus also relates in a general way to the fatal end of an entire empire’s place in the world. The death of the heart of British character is at stake throughout the novel, as it is seen to reside at last in the type of people that the Quaynes represent. The world of British manners about which Bowen wrote so clearly had suffered a double blow as a...
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