Elizabeth Bowen

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Elizabeth Bowen World Literature Analysis

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In Bowen’s novels and short stories, certain subjects and themes are represented, though with a variety of viewpoints and plots. Bowen was interested in the ways in which persons and events from the past can affect, control, and even destroy the living. Her Anglo-Irish heritage gave her a special understanding of this subject. She was particularly sensitive to displacement, a feeling of alienation, a helplessness in the face of what has occurred before. Bowen’s “romances” contained the usual elements of love, conflict, and mystery, but the dramas that unfold in her works contain both tragedy and comedy.

Adolescence is a frequent subject in Bowen’s fiction; many of her characters are young persons struggling to become adults and often struggling with adults, who represent the past. The older generation has usually come to terms with the past and attempts to impose its own worldliness on those who are yet in a state of hope and faith, in the kind of innocence that Bowen describes in The Death of the Heart. At one point, she says that the innocent are “incurable strangers to the world, they never cease to exact a heroic happiness.” That could also be said of Jane in A World of Love and of the young characters in Bowen’s other novels.

Bowen’s use of houses and landscape is a predominant feature of her narratives. The ramshackle house in A World of Love is exactly the right setting for the unfolding of this romance, which is almost a ghost story, in which the past imposes itself on all the main characters. In The Death of the Heart, two sharply contrasting houses form the essential background for Portia’s struggle. The elegantly furnished, immaculate house in London is a place where feelings are unexpressed and where frank, open communication is unknown. In sharp contrast is Waikiki, the seaside house to which Portia has been sent while Thomas and Anna take an April holiday in Capri. Life at Waikiki is noisy, spontaneous, and as common as the life in the London house is formal and aristocratic. In both houses, Portia is an outsider; her separateness is emphasized by the alien atmosphere of each house.

In Bowen’s books, the characters talk to one another rather than act; there is very little real action in her fiction. Rather, through conversations that are often ambiguous and restrained, hiding as much as they reveal, the story unfolds with a delicate subtlety that challenges the reader to discover what the story really means. Irony is another characteristic of Bowen’s style. The wit and humor in her novels depend on the discrepancies between what the characters think and say and what other characters reveal about them. There is irony, too, in what they expect and what they receive. For example, the cruel irony of Eddie’s betrayal of Portia is typical of the way that Bowen resolves her characters’ fates. She does not, however, always use irony to highlight disappointment. In A World of Love, Jane gives up her ghostly lover just before falling in love with a real young man when she least expects that to happen.

Bowen’s style is highly descriptive; her scenes are visible, and the atmosphere in which they take place is palpable. Objects are important images of the emotions being felt but not expressed. At Montefort, the setting of A World of Love, rooms are described meticulously and vividly, not in long passages but in carefully selected and telling details.

Another aspect of Bowen’s style is her occasionally convoluted sentence structure. Her tendency to twist syntax was a delight to some...

(This entire section contains 2519 words.)

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of her readers and an affectation and annoyance to others. For example, inA World of Love, the author, in describing Maud, the younger sister, says, “Nothing, or almost nothing, made Maud not young, not a child throughout.” That is the kind of sentence that may leave the reader confused as to what the author means. On the other hand, Bowen’s work has a poetic quality that many critics and other readers have noticed. Her language is allusive, precise, suggestive, and highly dependent on the implied, the unspoken but intensely felt truth.

The psychological insight that is perhaps Bowen’s most notable characteristic is suggested by a remark made by St. Quentin, a Bowen character and a novelist, quite obviously speaking for Bowen, the novelist: “I swear that each of us keeps, battened down inside himself, a sort of lunatic giant—impossible socially, but full-scale—and that it’s the knockings and batterings we sometimes hear in each other that keeps our intercourse from utter banality.”

The Death of the Heart

First published: 1938

Type of work: Novel

An orphaned sixteen-year-old girl goes to London and, through cruel betrayal, loses her innocence.

Portia Quayne is the sixteen-year-old heroine of The Death of the Heart, which begins soon after she arrives in London. Her father and mother having died within a few years of each other, Portia must now live with her father’s son, Thomas Quayne, and his wife Anna. Thomas is a middle-aged, successful, reserved businessman who is unable to form close personal relationships with anyone, although he does love his wife in his own aloof and undemonstrative way. Anna is a stylish, elegant woman whose principal interest is making herself and her house beautiful. She entertains frequently, but she, too, has no close relationships, though she appears to have a certain cool, impersonal attachment to her husband. Both are embarrassed and uncomfortable at the appearance of Portia, the child of the elder Quayne’s disgrace and second marriage.

Into this house comes Portia, who does everything that she can to please the Quaynes, being obedient, well-mannered, and quiet. She observes them minutely and records in a diary her thoughts about them, as well as the uninteresting events of her life, which consist primarily of attending an expensive, exclusive establishment where French lessons, lectures, and excursions are offered to a small group of girls. Portia does not know that Anna has discovered her diary. Worse, Anna discusses the diary with St. Quentin, a novelist and one of her several bachelor friends. Anna is upset by Portia’s insights and candid observations, but she is too resentful of the slight disruption caused by Portia’s presence to feel any real pity or concern for her.

Portia is bewildered by the lack of open, shared feeling in this household. She believes that she is the only one who does not understand what is beneath the genteel, snobbish surface of the Quaynes’ lives. Two other characters add to Portia’s puzzlement. One is Matchett, the housekeeper, a woman who worked for the first Mrs. Quayne and who knows a considerable amount about the family but who reveals only as much as she chooses to reveal in response to Portia’s attempts to make a connection with the only family left to her. Matchett is a perfect servant—conscientious, discreet, authoritarian, and snobbish. Her principal interest is the house and maintaining it in perfect order as she has always done. Like the Quaynes, she does not open herself to receive the affection of the lonely, seeking girl. The other character who is important to Portia, and who also disappoints her by being too self-centered and manipulative, is Eddie. At twenty-three, he recognizes Portia’s innocence but is unmoved by her need for love; he has too many needs of his own.

Portia encounters a very different household when she is sent to Seale-on-Sea to stay with Anna’s former governess while Thomas and Anna escape to Capri. Mrs. Heccomb is kind and her two stepchildren, young adults Dickie and Daphne, are as cool and self-centered as the Quaynes and Eddie are, but at Waikiki life is full of events, and Portia is allowed to participate in the activities of the family. She shops and goes to church with Mrs. Heccomb; she goes walking, dancing, and to the films with the two young people. When Eddie comes, quite surprisingly, to visit Portia at Waikiki, he is immediately accepted by the others, but Portia is still just an observer. Just as she is imagining that her love for Eddie is reciprocated, she observes him holding hands with Daphne at the movies. Disillusioned, she returns to London, where she is further betrayed by learning that Anna has not only read her diary but also discussed it with St. Quentin; in fact, it is he who tells Portia about this duplicity.

The betrayals by Eddie and Anna push Portia to run away from the Quaynes. She goes to the hotel of Major Brutt, another bachelor friend of Anna; he is an honorable, sensible, responsible man and convinces her that he must let the Quaynes know where she is. Whether or not she will return to them, she says, depends on what they do. They send Matchett in a cab to retrieve her, and the book ends as Matchett arrives at the door of the hotel.

The reader is not told what Portia decides, but one can assume that she will return because she has nowhere else to go. The question of what will eventually become of Portia is also left unanswered. The real point of the story is that Portia’s ignorance of the world—her innocence—has ended. It remains only for the reader to discover the meaning of the novel’s ambiguous title. One can be fairly sure that Portia’s heart is not “dead,” for her sense of hurt and disillusionment is too intense to suggest that she no longer yearns for understanding and love. On the other hand, one can easily see that the adults around her have undergone a “death of the heart.” Each one has shut himself or herself off from others, has refused to acknowledge the deep needs of others, is self-protective and deceitful. These people—Thomas, Anna, Eddie, St. Quentin, and Matchett—have all played a part in what happens to Portia, and one can only speculate on whether the damage that they have done to her through their lack of real concern and caring will result in Portia becoming like them.

A World of Love

First published: 1955

Type of work: Novel

In a small country house in Ireland, five related characters live in a world of illusion and fantasy dominated by a ghostlike presence.

Bowen wrote A World of Love a few years after returning from England to Bowen’s Court, her ancestral home in Ireland. A dilapidated and deserted farmhouse nearby served as a model for Montefort, the setting of A World of Love. The owner of Montefort is Antonia Montefort, a photographer in her fifties, who lives in London and only occasionally visits the house that she inherited from her cousin Guy. Killed in World War I when he was twenty, Guy had been loved by Antonia as well as by Lilia, his seventeen-year-old fiancé, and quite possibly by one or more other women. Out of pity for Lilia, who should have inherited the house, Antonia arranged Lilia’s marriage to Fred Danby, an illegitimate cousin of Guy and Antonia. Feeling responsible for this marriage, Antonia gave Lilia and Fred the use of the “manor” in return for its maintenance, an obligation that Fred diligently though not very successfully tries to fulfill. Meanwhile, Lilia, ostensibly the housekeeper, dreams of escaping from her dull, discontented, and stifling life. The Danbys have two children, both girls. Jane is now twenty and Maud is twelve.

The action of the novel takes place during two days in the summer of the early 1950’s. Life in this isolated, seemingly half-asleep house is dreamy, unreal, and filled with fantasy, especially to Jane and Maud. They are not alike or close to each other, but they share a tendency to live in their imaginations, and the house gives them plenty of material with which to get through the uneventful days. Jane, who has completed her education under Antonia’s sponsorship, is uncertain what she will do next. In the attic one day, she finds a bundle of love letters written by Guy to an unnamed lady. There is also a beautiful Edwardian dress, which Jane wears as she wanders in and out of the house, reading the letters, imagining that she is the one to whom they were addressed. This fantasy is the central “event” of the novel, affecting each of the three women at Montefort in terms of their relation to Guy. Their relations with each other and with the past form the subject of the book.

The sense of Guy’s presence dominates the lives of Antonia, Lilia, and Jane in the days after Jane’s discovery of the letters. Jane’s imagined love of Guy becomes more real to her than the life that actually surrounds her. When she goes to a dinner party at a neighboring castle, she gulps her first martinis and then, seeing a spare place at the table, imagines that Guy is sitting there. To her, Guy is more real than the hostess and the guests, who seem to be merely actors in a drama performed for her benefit. Jane returns to reality when she learns that Guy did not write the love letters to her mother, as she had suspected, nor to her, as she had imagined.

Guy also appears to Antonia, who experiences a moment when Guy seems to be near her, thus restoring to her an awareness of herself; that, in turn, gives her the ability to make her presence felt by the others in the house, restoring to her a sense of importance that she had lost during her years of feeling abandoned by her beloved cousin. She now feels reunited with Guy instead of separated from him. The moment does not last, of course, but its effect does.

Lilia, whose life was made most uncertain and dependent by Guy’s loss, also has a moment when she senses that Guy has returned. The house has been pervaded by this feeling that an apparition is present. When she goes out to the garden to meet him, she finds her husband, Fred, who, by handing her Guy’s letters, makes it possible for her to renounce her dead and faithless lover and accept a real love.

Even Maud falls under the spell for a while. With her ever-present imaginary companion, Gay David, Maud unconsciously parodies the experiences of the three women. By stealing the letters from the place where Jane has hidden them, Maud sets the course of the novel back toward reality, which is fully realized when the two girls are driven by a chauffeur to meet a young man, a friend of the neighboring Lady Latterly, who gave the dinner party. Maud is very much in present reality as she sees for the first time an airplane landing. Yet it is left to Jane to go beyond the present moment and, without realizing it, into the future, as she and the young man catch sight of each other and immediately fall in love.

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