The Death of the Heart offers a penetrating view of English upper-class society between the two World Wars. Though she creates an entertaining comedy of manners, Irish-born Elizabeth Bowen issues a moral indictment of the class as a whole for its material values, exclusivity, and callous indifference to others. The Quaynes of 2 Windsor Terrace are affluent and emotionally repressed, contemptuous of anyone whom they deem vulgar. Their ward, the inexperienced Portia, arrives as a rootless transient who knows nothing of polite society. Thomas and Anna Quayne react to her as an “animal,” while she is thrust into a life of bourgeois privilege and snobbery—the right clothes, school, friends, and behavior.
A favored theme of Bowen’s fiction is that of an unwelcome child, forlornly surrounded by luxuries in a great house. The childlike Portia is on the verge of young womanhood, an astute observer who records Thomas’ and Anna’s weaknesses in her diary. It is Anna’s angry, furtive reading of Portia’s diary that betrays Portia. A childless woman and a motherless girl, Anna and Portia need each other. This unfulfilled need and the pervasive mother-daughter theme give The Death of the Heart its feminist focus.
The book’s three divisions are subtitled “The World,” “The Flesh,” and “The Devil,” corresponding to the action that unfolds from winter to spring. Attention to the seasons parallels the characters’ experiences. The story opens on a frozen January day. The ice on the lake in Regent’s Park has cracked, allowing a swan to glide through the water, much as the cold Quayne household has splintered open to let in Portia. The image recurs of Portia as a bird—vulnerable, in transit, or trapped.
“The World” describes Portia’s adjustment to the Quaynes’ formal lifestyle in the midst of costly furnishings, which Anna—once an interior decorator—has arranged and which are lovingly tended as human beings are not. Suspicions and conflicts arise, the chief of which results from Anna’s reading the diary, unknown to Portia. Portia avidly seeks friends. Major Eric Brutt sends her complicated jigsaw puzzles, emblems of her puzzling...
(The entire section is 901 words.)