The Death of the Heart

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The Death of the Heart
Elizabeth Bowen

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading


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 half-brother 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.

Author Biography

Elizabeth Bowen's early years—while not quite as grim as those of Portia, the main character in her most well-regarded novel, The Death of the Heart—were unstable. She found herself at various times being raised by a group of aunts. On occasion, Bowen moved from house to house, similar to the treks from hotel to hotel that Portia and her parents make across France and Switzerland.

Bowen was born June 7, 1899, in Dublin, Ireland, into a wealthy and socially prominent family with ties to England. She was her parents' only child. When Bowen was seven, her father was hospitalized for a mental condition. She and her mother moved to England and spent the next five years moving from villa to villa on the Kent coast. While this could have been a lonely existence, both her parents came from large extended families, and an Anglo-Irish network of adults and children surrounded Bowen during this period in her life. One of her closest relatives was Audrey Fiennes, a cousin about her age. Together with Fiennes, Bowen began to express her imaginative gifts, creating stories about make-believe families.

By 1912, Bowen's father had recuperated enough that he was making regular visits to Kent to see his wife and daughter. Later that year, however, tragedy struck the family when Bowen's mother was diagnosed with cancer and died. Once again, the extended family helped take care of Bowen.

In 1918, Bowen's father remarried, and his new wife's brother, who was in the publishing industry, gave Bowen insight and help with her nascent writing efforts. In 1923, she published her first collection of short stories, Encounters, to high praise and married Alan Cameron. Bowen and Cameron's marriage was, by all accounts, caring but not passionate, and she allegedly engaged in a number of affairs during her twenty-eight-year marriage. In 1925, the couple moved to Oxford, where Bowen met a number of intellectuals, as well as the novelist Rose Macaulay, who took the young writer under her wing and introduced her to editors, publishers, and literary agents. In 1926, Bowen published a second volume of short stories, and by 1929 Bowen had published her first two novels.

By the early 1930s, Bowen was well on her way to a hugely successful literary career. She became friends with such luminaries as Virginia Woolf, and in 1937, the Irish Academy of Letters elected her to its ranks. By the time The Death of the Heart was published in 1938, critics were comparing Bowen to such celebrated writers as Woolf, E. M. Forster, Henry James, and Jane Austen.

After her husband's death, Bowen spent much time in the United States, teaching at universities and lecturing. During the last years of her life, she suffered from various respiratory illnesses, and on February 22, 1973, she died in London of lung cancer.

Plot Summary

Part One: The World

In the opening of The Death of the Heart, Anna and her good friend St. Quentin walk through the park in the winter while Anna relates the story of how sixteen-year-old Portia has come to live with her and her husband, Portia's older half-brother, Thomas. Anna is especially vexed because she has found Portia's diary and read some of it, and it is not complimentary to Anna. The arrangement made by Portia's father, Mr. Quayne, that Anna and Thomas should take care of Portia, is not going well.

Portia's background is then revealed. She is the love child of Mr. Quayne and his former mistress, Irene. When Mr. Quayne told his first wife about Irene and the child, she insisted that he marry Irene. He did so, and they moved to southern France, where Portia was born.

Anna and Thomas take Portia out to watch a Marx Brothers film. Portia does not find it very amusing but is grateful for the evening out with them. As they wait for a taxi home, they run into Major Brutt, a friend of Anna's former lover, Robert Pidgeon.

Portia and her classmate Lilian walk to school together, as they usually do. At the school, Portia secretly reads a letter given to her by Eddie, a friend of Anna's. The school head disciplines her when she is caught reading the letter. Portia obviously feels out of place at this school and worries about making mistakes. Lilian shows Portia the letters she still gets from the cello teacher, Miss Hebner, with whom she fell in love the previous year.

Anna has convinced Thomas to give Eddie a job because she feels that it will help to settle him. But she has to tell Eddie to stop sending her flowers and coming by the house, especially now that he is working for Thomas' firm.

The servant Matchett goes up to Portia's room, after she's turned off the lights, to talk with her and say good night. She tells Portia about the day Portia was born, and that Mrs. Quayne meant "to do right" as opposed to doing good when she kicked Mr. Quayne out of the house and made him marry Irene. Matchett finds Eddie's letter under Portia's pillow and warns Portia that Eddie is usually up to no good.

Major Brutt is lonely, so he decides to drop by Thomas and Anna's. They are not the type to encourage drop-ins, so Thomas is quite taken aback when he sees Brutt in his front hall but invites him in anyway. Portia and Eddie come home from a trip to the zoo together; they have started seeing each other but are trying to keep this a secret. Thomas notices their demeanor but says nothing.

Portia and Eddie go to have tea after running into Major Brutt and Thomas at the Windsor Terrace house. Eddie stresses to Portia that no one should know of her relationship with him. She gives her diary to Eddie at tea. He makes her promise never to write anything about them in her diary because he knows that Anna reads the diary.

In her diary, Portia writes mostly of her school and of the various things that happen around the household. She leaves out a few visits with Eddie but includes the time she goes over to his flat and shares dinner with him. Matchett acts coolly toward Portia probably because of her relationship with Eddie. Thomas asks Portia a few probing questions about Eddie, but she doesn't say much.

Thomas and Anna are leaving soon for a vacation in Capri, but they wait awhile before telling Portia about it because they don't want her with them and haven't figured out what to do with her. Eventually, Portia hears from Matchett that she will be staying at the seashore with Anna's former nanny, Mrs. Heccomb, while Thomas and Anna are in Capri, and the staff spring-cleans the house.

Part Two: The Flesh

Portia arrives in Seale-on-Sea where she will stay with Mrs. Heccomb while Thomas and Anna are in Capri. Mrs. Heccomb's seaside house is called Waikiki, and the household is comprised of her stepson Dickie, stepdaughter Daphne, and their many friends.

Portia receives three letters her second day at Seale-on-Sea, one of which is from Eddie, who says he misses her and muses about coming to see her at the Heccombs' house. Portia goes shopping with Mrs. Heccomb and enjoys herself immensely. She investigates which room in the house might be suitable for Eddie if he comes to visit. She writes him to say she has found a good room and will ask about his visit in the next day or so. On Saturday night, the family holds one of its frequent parties. Portia dances with a number of men—something new for her.

Portia becomes aware of how stifling London and her half-brother's home are. Waikiki seems to be filled with "spontaneous living." She asks Daphne, while a group is out walking, if she may invite Eddie to Seale-on-Sea for the weekend. The group is immediately impressed that she has a boyfriend, and Daphne agrees to ask her mother about the arrangements. Mrs. Heccomb agrees and begins to fix up a room for Eddie. Eddie's letter to Portia tells her that he is unsure about when he can make it to Seale-on-Sea and that he will not be sure until the last moment.

On Friday morning, Portia receives a letter from Eddie saying that he will be there Saturday. When he arrives, Mrs. Heccomb has tea ready; she is obviously a bit disappointed in Eddie's countenance, but he is polite and charming. He and Portia take a walk, and he reports that she should be frightened of him because of his bad behavior. Later that evening, Portia and Eddie accompany Daphne and Dickie and their dates to the movies where, when Dickie ignites his cigarette lighter, they can all see that Eddie and Daphne are holding hands.

The next day, Portia asks Eddie about the night before when he was holding Daphne's hand. He responds that it didn't mean anything. They have an argument, but Portia tries to make up with him, apologizing for being a "disappointment." Later, Portia talks with Daphne about Eddie's behavior at the movies. Daphne is intent on warning her about just what kind of person Eddie is, but Portia does not want to hear this. Later, Portia and Eddie take a walk in the woods. They have a conversation about how they feel about each other. He says he has been accused of being a vicious person, and she immediately begs him not to feel that way. She begins frantically to kiss him, and he warns her about himself, that he will "drown" her.

They take a bus to the Pavilion for tea where they meet with Daphne and Dickie and all of the friends Portia has made while at Seale-on-Sea. Eventually, Eddie gets very drunk and must figure out a way to get back to Waikiki to get his luggage and then find his way back to the train station. Dickie becomes angered by Eddie's behavior, and gathers everyone up to leave. Eddie follows Portia out onto the balcony where he begins to sob uncontrollably. In her diary, Portia relates that Waikiki is tense after Eddie's departure. She asks Dickie what he thinks of Eddie, and he replies that he is "something of a Lothario."

Part Three: The Devil

Portia returns from Seale-on-Sea to London. Matchett comments on Portia's "color" and that she seems to be speaking up more than before she went away. Portia is frantic when Matchett tells her that Eddie called the day before.

The next afternoon, Anna and Thomas return from Capri. Anna thinks about the cache of letters she still keeps from when she and Robert Pidgeon were lovers. Also, she thinks about how Portia makes her feel "like a tap that won't turn on."

A week later, Portia comes home to find Eddie and Anna having tea. They invite her to join them and bring up the subject of her time spent at Seale-on-Sea, but she spends the tea daydreaming and remembering when she ran into St. Quentin Miller on the street a few days prior. Miller let drop that Anna has been reading Portia's diary, news that stunned Portia. Ever since then, she has not been able to "confront anyone with candor."

Eddie calls Anna to say that Portia has told him that Anna has read her diary. Anna is furious, primarily because she is entertaining Major Brutt and a couple she thinks might be able to help him find a job. After the couple leaves, she confides in Major Brutt her concerns about Eddie and his becoming close to Portia, asking Major Brutt if he thinks Portia is happy. He says yes but suggests that Anna might have a word with Portia about Eddie and tell Eddie to leave Portia alone.

Later that same afternoon, Eddie and Portia meet at Covent Gardens. Portia is upset that Anna knows about her diary and is convinced that Eddie is the one who told Anna about it; Eddie says he did not. He is upset because Portia admits that the diary does contain some writing about their relationship, and Anna has probably read about them.

After Eddie tells Portia that she has changed and that he is no longer happy being with her, she flees his apartment and ends up at the Karachi Hotel where Major Brutt is staying. She tells him that she is never returning to Anna and Thomas' household. She asks Major Brut if she can marry him, stressing that she could cook and clean for him, and that they would not have to live in a hotel. He says he is flattered, but convinces Portia to let him call the Quaynes to arrange for her to return to them.

Back at the house, Anna, Thomas, and St. Quentin Miller are having dinner, aware that Portia is late. Anna takes a call in the middle of dinner from Major Brutt, who tells her that Portia is with him but does not wish to come home. The three adults continue to sit around the table, arguing about Portia, until St. Quentin admits telling Portia about Anna reading her diary, and Anna admits reading the diary as well as discussing it with Eddie. They must decide what is the best way to pick up Portia and eventually hit upon the idea of having Matchett fetch her from Major Brutt's hotel. Matchett leaves in a taxi, and the book ends with her entering the Hotel Karachi to bring Portia back home to the Quaynes.


Cecil Bowers

Cecil is a friend of the Heccomb family who is brought to Daphne and Dickie's Saturday night party for Portia. Cecil and Portia become good friends while Portia is at Seale-on-Sea.

Major Eric "E. J." Brutt

Major Brutt is a lonely, retired soldier. Anna, along with Thomas and Portia, runs into him after the movies, and he mistakenly calls her Miss Fellowes, her maiden name. Major Brutt remembers Anna from before her marriage when she was with her lover, Robert Pidgeon. The family invites him back to the house for a drink, and he visits them on a number of other occasions although both Anna and Thomas are snippy about him behind his back. Portia likes him a great deal, and he gives her puzzles as gifts. After Eddie rejects her and she runs away from home, Portia ends up at his hotel.


Eddie is twenty-three, charming, self-centered, a heavy drinker, and a ladies' man. He can swing from one emotional extreme to the other in a matter of minutes. He encourages Portia to fall in love with him even though he has no intention of honestly returning her affections. Early in the novel he claims to be in love with Anna and constantly visits the house to flirt with her. Anna finds a job for Eddie in Thomas' advertising firm because she believes him to be clever but in need of something to settle him down.

Eddie first encourages Portia's affections when he writes a letter to her, thanking her for an insignificant courtesy and adds that he is lonely and wants to be her friend because he sees that she is lonely, too. They begin to meet secretly because they know that no one approves of the two of them being together. Portia feels that no one understands Eddie. She begins to fall in love and shares her diary with him. She invites him to the seashore while she is there but is shocked when she sees him holding hands with Daphne in the movie theater. He tells her he no longer cares for her, primarily because he is simply overwhelmed by her innocence and eagerness for love. This statement prompts her to run away to Major Brutt's hotel room.

Daphne Heccomb

Daphne is Mrs. Heccomb's stepdaughter and has a job at a library. She lives at home with her brother and Mrs. Heccomb to help with the expenses. She is popular and full of spontaneity. Portia discovers Daphne and Eddie holding hands at the movie theater, but Daphne assures her that it was nothing—although she warns Portia to beware of Eddie.

Dickie Heccomb

Dickie is Mrs. Heccomb's stepson. He has a job at a bank and lives at home, helping his stepmother with the expenses. It is his cigarette lighter that illuminates Eddie holding hands with Daphne at the move theater.

Mrs. Heccomb

Mrs. Heccomb takes care of Portia at her home in Seale-on-Sea while Thomas and Anna are in Capri. She was once Anna's governess. She married a physician, who died and left her very little to live on. To make a little extra money, she paints lamp shades and rents out her house in the summer. The family life at Waikiki, Mrs. Heccomb's seaside villa, is lively and unrestricted—in stark contrast to Anna and Thomas' grim home in London. Mrs. Heccomb's two children, Daphne and Dickie, are popular and energetic and often have large spontaneous dance parties at the villa.


Lilian is Portia's schoolmate, her only friend close to her in age. She has already started to get a womanly figure and to attract looks from men. She is at Miss Paullie's school because she fell in love with the female cello teacher at a previous school.

Media Adaptations

  • In 1985, Granada Television (United Kingdom) produced a television movie version of The Death of the Heart, starring JoJo Cole as Portia, Wendy Hiller as Matchett, Patricia Hodge as Anna, and Miranda Richardson as Daphne.

R. Matchett

Matchett is a servant in Thomas and Anna's house, coming from the first Mrs. Quayne's household after her death. She is very proper and runs the house with a sense of the absolute. But she is also sympathetic to Portia's situation. On evenings when Thomas and Anna are out, Matchett comes up to Portia's room to tuck her in for the night and to share stories about Portia's father when he lived with the first Mrs. Quayne.

One night, Matchett finds one of Eddie's letters to Portia under Portia's pillow. While she does not read the letter, she makes clear to Portia that she disapproves of Eddie and thinks he is nothing but trouble for a girl as inexperienced as Portia. Because of her relationship with Portia, Thomas and Anna choose Matchett to bring Portia back after she has run away.

St. Quentin Miller

St. Quentin Miller is a close friend of Anna's and a writer of some fame. He is aloof and somewhat cold and counts Anna one of his few friends. He makes vague references to the fact that he is so distant from others because in the past he has found that becoming intimate with another person is too painful. He is responsible for inadvertently telling Portia that Anna has read her diary.

Miss Paullie

Miss Paullie is the head of the school Portia attends. It is a very expensive school but seems to be especially for girls who have not done well at other schools. Miss Paullie holds classes in her father's huge house, where he also sees patients as a physician. She is strict and has very rigid codes of conduct for the girls.

Robert Pidgeon

Robert Pidgeon was a lover of Anna's before she married Thomas. She keeps his letters to her, of which Thomas is aware. The reason for Robert and Anna's breakup is not clear but has something to do with both his and Anna's inability to be truly intimate. Anna and Major Brutt see Robert as exceptionally capable, and he is well thought of. Anna still reads his old love letters.

Anna Quayne

Anna is Thomas' wife and is currently thirty-four. She and Thomas tried to have children but she miscarried twice, and she has now decided that she doesn't want children. Their relationship seems tense, and she is in control of just how close they are to each other. Anna does not like Portia and is almost cruel to her, but puts up with her living at their house because this is the right thing to do. She is unsympathetic toward everyone, most of all Portia, and is unable to imagine herself in anyone else's place. Both she and Thomas speak ill of many of their friends behind their backs. One of her closest friends is St. Quentin Miller, but she is also very attached to Eddie and has found him a job at Thomas' firm.

Irene Quayne

Irene is Mr. Quayne's second wife, considerably younger than he is, and Portia's mother. She and Mr. Quayne had an affair after being introduced to each other by mutual friends, and they married once she became pregnant with Portia. She dies in Switzerland after Mr. Quayne's death, and her sister sends the letter about Portia to the Quaynes in London. Portia has many memories of moving from one cheap hotel room to another in Switzerland with her mother and of the closeness they shared.

Mr. Quayne

Mr. Quayne is Portia and Thomas' father. He once ran a small business, but the first Mrs. Quayne had money, and she urged him to retire early to a house she had bought. Mr. Quayne is depicted as a weak man who has been led around by his wife. He was about fifty-seven and living a very orderly life when his affair with Irene began in London. At that time, he had had his first child, Thomas, with the first Mrs. Quayne, who, upon being told of the affair, calmly insisted upon a divorce and upon Mr. Quayne's marriage to Irene. Before he dies, Mr. Quayne writes a letter asking that, if Irene should also die before Portia becomes an adult, Anna and Thomas take care of Portia, at least for a year.

Mrs. Quayne

Mrs. Quayne is Thomas' mother and Mr. Quayne's first wife, and she has a substantial amount of money. When Mr. Quayne tells her of his affair with Irene, and that Irene is pregnant, she very calmly arranges the entire series of events that follows: her divorce from Mr. Quayne; the packing of his bags; Thomas' driving him to the train station; and even Mr. Quayne's marriage to Irene. When Matchett speaks of her former employer to Portia, she notes that Mrs. Quayne meant "to do right," as opposed to doing good when she kicked Mr. Quayne out of the house and made him marry Irene.

Portia Quayne

Portia is the sixteen-year-old love child of Mr. Quayne and Irene Quayne (the second Mrs. Quayne), and was born in France soon after their marriage. Her childhood has been spent traveling around Switzerland from one cheap hotel room to another. After her father and mother die, Portia moves to the London house of her half-brother, Thomas, and his wife, Anna. The childless couple takes in the orphan Portia because it is the right thing to do, but they take no joy in her company and find her a disruption to their sterile household. She is as eager as a puppy to fit in and learn the ways of their world, but her innocence startles them.

Portia keeps a diary, which Anna reads, learning that Portia has portrayed her and others in a less than flattering light. Realizing that Anna has read her diary is one of the events that precipitates Portia's running away from home toward the end of the book.

Portia falls in love with Eddie, a friend of Anna's who is a callous, self-centered Lothario (a man who likes to seduce women). He encourages her to consider him the focus of her life, but her innocence and eagerness for love frighten him, and he eventually tells her that he no longer loves her. His rejection of her is one of the other events that launches Portia's desperate attempt to run away.

Thomas Quayne

Thomas is Portia's older half-brother, the son of Mr. Quayne and the first Mrs. Quayne. He has few brotherly feelings toward Portia because he is still hurting from the fracture Portia's birth created in his family. He has been married to Anna for eight years, lives in a nice house in London, and is a partner in his own advertising firm, Quayne and Merrett.

Thomas' marriage to Anna appears, on most occasions, to be very cold and passionless. As well, his character gives the impression of being weak when dealing with his wife. For example, when St. Quentin Miller, a friend of Anna's, comes for tea, Thomas feels that he is not welcome and stays down in his library until Miller has left the house.


The Outsider

Anna and Thomas Quayne live in an insular world, comfortable knowing what will happen from one day to the next. Into their lives comes Portia, the daughter of Thomas' father and his mistress (later his second wife), Irene. Portia's very presence is a source of discomfort to the couple, and she enters their house as the consummate outsider. She is an orphaned love child in a childless household where two miscarriages have occurred. Even before she came to London, Portia was an outsider, banned to the continent by her father's first wife, doomed to wander from cheap hotel to cheap hotel.

In Anna and Thomas' eyes, Portia is in need of housebreaking, like a young puppy, unschooled in the ways of their society. When Matchett asks Anna where Portia will eat, Anna responds that Portia will eat downstairs with the rest of the family. "Surely. She's got to learn to," Anna says, as if Portia must be trained in how to eat in a familial setting after so many years eating in hotel dining rooms.

Throughout the book, Portia is a keen observer, always on the lookout for clues as to what is the right thing to say and do. Often, she is confused about her position in the Quayne household and is overly deferential in her struggle to know what is correct behavior. For example, when Anna and St. Quentin arrive for tea, Portia behaves almost as though she is the maid, offering to take coats and put away hats. She is desperate to find a place for herself in this new world.

Even the language people speak in London is foreign to Portia. She asks herself, "for what reason people said what they did not mean, and did not say what they meant?"


Portia is an orphan from a family that is barely legitimate, wrapped in shame. Her first sixteen years are hardly what most would call normal, moving from hotel room to hotel room, never attending school or making a steady set of friends. She is more like a mother to her own mother, offering tea and comfort after Irene has a crying spell and helping her mother to the hospital when she becomes ill.

Living with Thomas and Anna does not make Portia part of their family even though Thomas is her half-brother. Bowen describes the Quayne's house in intimidating terms, a large home with gleaming marble and ivory-painted walls, and a fire in the hearth that casts a "hard glow." Portia is glad when she comes back to the house and no one is home yet. Anna, as the woman of the house, could go up to say good-night to Portia, but this small sign of compassion is left up to Matchett, the crusty old servant who knew Portia's father before Portia was born.

Offering normal familial attention and love to Portia is simply beyond the capabilities of Anna and Thomas. Thomas is still stinging from the shame he first felt sixteen years ago when his mother kicked his father out of their house, forcing him to marry Irene, then pregnant with Portia. And Anna never feels close to the girl, asking Thomas, "would you really like me to love her?… No, you'd only like me to seem to love her." Instead of taking her with them on their trip to Capri, Anna and Thomas pack her off again, only a few months after she has arrived at their house, to stay with Anna's former nanny at the beach. And their concern about her relationship with Eddie is slight. They seem only to be concerned about how it affects them, and think nothing of her sneaking off to see him. When Portia is very late the final evening of the novel, their response is negligible. Anna responds more forcefully to a perceived slight by Lilian's mother, and the couple is truly baffled as to who should go get Portia when she has been discovered at Major Brutt's hotel.


Portia and the adults around her seem to be from two distinct countries, but this sense can be attributed primarily to their different generations. Portia has seen little of the world while the Quaynes and their friends have lived through World War I, which left millions dead and changed how people thought about society and humanity altogether. Anna does not quite know how to treat Portia, so she enforces her opinions and choices on Portia without much consultation. Surprisingly, Matchett chides Anna when she decides that Portia should not wear the dark clothes she owns when she comes to London and selects brightly colored clothes for her. She also stands up to Anna when she questions the condition and contents of Portia's room.

Portia is struggling to grow up but without much guidance from most of the adults around her. Lacking this guidance, she falls for Eddie, the one person who pays her any attention. Even though he is twenty-three, Eddie is barely an adult himself. He is self-centered and moody, but Portia so desperately wants to please somebody that she ignores this and sees only that Eddie, like her, seems to be misunderstood. This bonds them and fulfills her immature image of what love should be—a relationship that creates an exclusive world of fantasy, away from the realities of the day-to-day. "Oh no!… You are my perfect Eddie," she tells him when he begins to talk about his bad side.

Topics for Further Study

  • In The Death of the Heart, Anna has a job doing interior design before she is married to Thomas. Research the status of British women in the 1930s and whether it was typical for a young woman from a wealthy background to have a career. What kinds of work did women do in 1930s England? How did this compare to the United States in the 1930s?
  • In the novel, Portia comes to London with little or no formal education. Anna and Thomas put her in a school that appears to be for wealthy girls who have not done well at school. Investigate how women and girls were educated in England in the 1930s. Were there publicly supported schools for girls or only private and church-supported institutions? What subjects did the schools teach? How many girls continued their education at universities and colleges?
  • Choose one chapter from The Death of the Heart that you find particularly interesting; adapt this chapter as a scene in a play. Act out the scene with a group of students. What insight can be gained about the characters and their dynamics from this exercise? In what ways are the events of this chapter significant to the novel as a whole?
  • In The Death of the Heart, Portia runs away because she is upset by how Anna, Eddie, and others have treated her. Choose another literary work that features a teenage runaway and compare and contrast the works. Possible choices include The Catcher in the Rye, by J. D. Salinger; Rite of Passage, by Richard Wright; and A Girl Named Disaster, by Nancy Farmer. Present your findings in a Venn diagram or an essay.

As well, Portia is trying to develop her own sense of who she is. Even though Eddie demands that she never change, Portia still has a sense that this cannot be true. "I feel everyone waiting;… I cannot stay as I am. They will all expect something in a year or two more." She feels the pressure to become an adult even as she struggles to find her place as an adolescent. And she does change, as Matchett notices, when she returns from Seale-on-Sea more talkative and with more "color."


The Death of the Heart is filled with symbolic deaths, as well as actual deaths. Both of Portia's parents have died, and the first Mrs. Quayne, Thomas' mother, has died, allowing Matchett (who was her servant) to move in with Thomas and his wife as their housekeeper. The novel's title indicates that something will die in the story; indeed, critics have noted that, through the deception of the adults around her, Portia's naiveté and innocence are dead by the end of the book. In one of the novel's final scenes, Portia asks Major Brutt to marry her, assuring him that she can cook and keep a good house. Her romantic ideals of love have been reduced considerably, even killed. At the start of the novel, even nature is pictured as dead. Bowen uses words such as "brittle," "pallid," and "black walks" to describe the park near the Quayne's house, setting the stage for a society where emotion has frozen and died.


Secrets play a critical role in The Death of the Heart. Portia's life is launched by a secret love affair between Mr. Quayne and Irene, and their marriage remains a secret of sorts due to the fact that they are banished from England and never allowed to establish roots as a real family might. When Anna tells St. Quentin of Portia's origins, she does so in a conspiratorial manner, away from the house. And when Major Brutt asks about Portia's family ("Can your people spare you?"), she stumbles and can't get out the words to describe her situation.

Portia keeps a diary and is horrified when she discovers that Anna has read it and has discussed its contents with others. Her writing was to remain a secret, except to Eddie, to whom she trustingly gives the diary. But even with Eddie she thinks twice about exposing her background and history and wonders what he would think of her unusual vagabond life before she arrived in London. And, of course, her relationship with Eddie is a secret, and he demands that she not include one word of it in her diary, lest Anna discover their secret liaisons at the zoo, the park, and his apartment.

Anna keeps secrets, as well. Thomas knows that she still keeps Robert Pidgeon's letters, but he most likely does not know how she still thinks of him. And her relationships with St. Quentin and Eddie are strictly out-of-bounds for her husband; he is not even welcome to have tea with Anna and St. Quentin and stays hidden in his library until her friend leaves. Questions arise, in fact, about whether these two men are her lovers or have been at some time, but Bowen is somewhat vague about the status of these connections.



The story in The Death of the Heart is told from numerous viewpoints. The primary narrator is generally omniscient, as if looking over the story from above, and speaks with an authoritative voice. This narrator sets the stage, for example, when each of the three parts of the book begins, describing the park in parts one and two, and the Quayne's house in part three. As well, this narrator describes characters' thoughts in a way that is clearer than the characters themselves could. Daphne's first impression of Portia is negatively colored by her association with Anna, and the narrator comments, "It was clear that her manner to Portia could not be less aggressive until she had stopped associating her with Anna." Daphne's thoughts and feelings are available to the narrator, perhaps more so than to Daphne herself.

Much of the story, as well, is told directly through the eyes of many of its characters. For example, parts of the book are Portia's diary entries where the story is told completely through her eyes; everything is filtered through her sensibilities and feelings. Here, Bowen can dabble in a bit of irony, as when Portia writes of Thomas asking her about Eddie. "I hope he is polite…. does he try it on" Thomas asks her. She has no idea that Thomas is asking, in a veiled way, whether Eddie has tried to kiss Portia, or attempted more fondling. Thomas drops that line of questioning when she says she doesn't know what he means.

Occasionally, the narration shifts suddenly from the third-person into the first-person narrative point-of-view. At one point, when Anna is alone, thinking about how she cannot seem to understand people, the story is narrated from the third person omniscient point-of-view: "There seemed to be some way she did not know of by which people managed to understand each other." Then, suddenly, in the next paragraph, the reader is in Anna's head, and the writing has shifted to the first person point-of-view: "All I said to Thomas was, get off my quilt."


Bowen's descriptions of the novel's various settings contribute to the tone of the story, and she is careful to offer detailed pictures of the characters' surroundings. The house the Quayne's live in is a huge, grand house on Windsor Terrace, filled with the best furniture, drapes, and rugs. Anna is attentive to every detail of how the house looks, complaining when Portia does not maintain her room as Anna believes it should be maintained, and reprimanding Thomas for placing a glass in his library where it does not belong. Everything is "set" in the Quayne household, always in its proper place. Portia is used to the noise of a hotel, and the house is almost too quiet for her.

In contrast, Mrs. Heccomb's house in Sealeon-Sea, named Waikiki, has a much more fluid atmosphere. Its name is informal and exotic, and her children are forever involved in moving the furniture around for a party or other event. The house is right on the beach, with many windows, and is filled with lampshades hand-painted by Mrs. Heccomb and comfortable but aging furniture. A radio is usually playing loudly, and Mrs. Heccomb's two adult children are as rambunctious as puppies, tumbling up and down the stairs. Portia can hear the household in the morning, bathing and getting ready for the day.

Hotels as homes appear in the novel in two important ways: the different hotels that Portia and her parents lived in, and the Karachi Hotel where Major Brutt lives. Portia thinks fondly of the hotels she has lived in even though they offered her a less physically comfortable lifestyle than she now has at the Quayne's. "We used to make up stories about people at dinner, and it was fun to watch people come and go," she tells Thomas. And, when Portia is overwhelmed by Anna and Eddie's deceptions, she ends up at Major Brutt's hotel, maybe because hotels are the settings she knows best and in which she feels the most comfortable.


The Death of the Heart is divided into three parts of similar length, and each of these parts is, in turn, divided into chapters. Each part takes place where Portia is during a season: Part one is set in London during the winter; in part two, Portia moves to Seale-on-Sea for the spring; and in part three, she is back again in London with summer coming.

The three parts of the book are entitled, "The World," "The Flesh," and "The Devil," considered among Christians to be the three things humans must fight against if they are to remain virtuous. In fact, these three things appear in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. The world signifies those things not associated with religion; the flesh stands for the pursuit of sensual pleasures; and the devil represents temptations to evil, such as theft and lying.

In the novel's three parts, Portia undergoes experiences that can be associated with these three titles. In "The World," she first comes to London, a new and strange world for her. In "The Flesh," she first kisses Eddie and, as well, witnesses him holding hands with Daphne. In "The Devil," further deception is exposed when she finds out about Anna reading her diary and sharing its contents with others.

Historical Context

The Inter-War Years

The period between World War I and World War II (1918–1939) was an era in which many people became disenchanted with society, politics, and traditional institutions. The carnage of the First World War had disillusioned many British, who once felt that the new century would be the start of a fresh and prosperous period for humanity in general and the United Kingdom specifically. This may be one reason why, in The Death of the Heart, the Quayne household seems isolated from most of the local and world events occurring in the 1930s.

In the 1930s, under Hitler, Germany was rearming itself in preparation for aggression against its neighbors. But Britain's foreign policy became stagnant and the government was unwilling to address the coming international crises; there were simply too many problems to worry about at home. The working class had begun to unionize, and labor relations had deteriorated. In the 1926 General Strike, two million workers had struck over plans to reduce wages and lengthen working hours. The General Strike itself failed, but the trade unions did realize that winning at the ballot box would give them real power to change the country.

The Depression

The worldwide economic depression, which began with the stock market crash of 1929, had a debilitating affect on Britain's economy. Even though there were signs of recovery by the mid-1930s, Britain still had an unemployment crisis and was experiencing a decline in its traditional export industries, making it difficult for the country to pay for its imports of foods and raw materials. But, while these traditional export industries, such as coal mining and cotton manufacturing, remained depressed, other industries, such as electrical engineering, automobile manufacture, and industrial chemistry, were strengthening.

The City of London

In the 1930s, the depression and the growing unease about what was happening in Germany had a sobering effect on the atmosphere of the city of London. Dance halls, which were so popular during World War I and immediately afterwards, became less prominent. The skyline of London had changed only gradually since the 1600s, giving London a sense of permanence and history. Public transport expanded a great deal in the first quarter of the century in and around London with the establishment of tramlines and omnibus routes. After World War I, a great expansion in railway lines occurred, making access to London easier for those who lived in the suburban and rural regions around the city.

Struggles over Women's Rights

The 1920s introduced major social changes in Britain, including equal rights for women—but only after a long period of struggle.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1930s: Women in England, like Daphne and her friends, are enjoying the first decade of equal voting rights with men, granted to them in 1928.

    Today: With the 1997 general election, 120 women are now Members of Parliament, double the number elected in the previous general election in 1992. There are currently 12 women in the Prime Minister's Cabinet and 16 women in ministerial positions.
  • 1930s: Women are just beginning to see the possibilities of working outside the home in England. During World War I, more than a million women took over jobs left vacant by men who were fighting, but the government was under pressure by the unions to see that these jobs reverted to men when the war was over. The 1920s and 1930s, however, saw the increased acceptance of women working in shops, offices, factories, and light industry. By the 1930s, it is common to see young working women, such as Daphne, out on the town for an evening of dining and movies.

    Today: Women make up 45 percent of the workforce in the United Kingdom, and Britain employs more women than any other European country. Not only are women in positions throughout government, education, medicine, business, and other professions, but they account for about 35 percent of new business ventures.
  • 1930s: Upper-class women such as Anna regularly have "low tea" with friends in the after noon each day, a small meal to tide one over until the larger evening meal. In addition to drinking tea, participants eat thin crustless sand wiches, shrimp or fish patés, toasted breads with jams, and pastries such as scones and crumpets. Commercial tea rooms are also increasingly popular, especially among young women such as Portia, who meets with Eddie early in their relationship at Madame Tussaud's for afternoon tea.

    Today: Teatime still is observed in England and Commonwealth countries, and the popularity of tea rooms in the United States has blossomed—although many label the small afternoon meal incorrectly as "high tea," which is actually a heavier, later meal, meant to pose as dinner. While tea and scones are still served at these tea rooms, some are expanding their menus to include champagne and strawberries, considered an American touch to the meal.
  • 1930s: Only well-to-do families can afford the time and money spent on vacations abroad, such Anna and Thomas Quayne's trip to Capri.

    Today: Six in ten British residents take at least one long holiday a year, either in Britain or abroad, and British spending on international vacation travel is increasing.

Emmeline Pankhurst led the fight for women's voting rights in Britain, establishing the Women's Franchise League in 1889 and assisting with the organization in 1903 of the National Women's Social and Political Union. Their bold program, demanding full voting rights for women, led them to stage parades and to engage in such violent forms of protest as window breaking. The police subjected Pankhurst and her followers to rough treatment, and occasionally they found themselves in jail for their activities.

Women in Britain were first granted the right to vote in 1918 but this included only women who were at least 30 years old and householders (meaning "wives"). Women finally received equal voting privileges to men in 1928, the year of Pankhurst's death.

Far more women worked in the 1920s and 1930s than had before World War I, and the average age of marriage rose sharply. Jobs opened up for women in shops and the new light industrial factories. It even became not uncommon to see women smoking in public. While women's colleges had been grudgingly allowed at Oxford and Cambridge since the 1870s, women could not take degrees at Oxford until 1921 and at Cambridge until 1948.

Critical Overview

Critics have responded to The Death of the Heart primarily in two ways: by discussing the implications of the author's childhood experiences vis-á-vis the motherless outsider in the novel; and by examining the conflict between innocence and experience threaded throughout the book.

Bowen grew up in a privileged Anglo-Irish family in Ireland, not really English but isolated by her English ties from the country in which she lived. According to Martha Henn in Feminist Writers, "she occupied a class position that put her at odds with most of her fellow Irish." As Richard Tillinghast notes in "The House, the Hotel, & the Child," "the Anglo-Irish were always, from the sixteenth century on, to some degree rootless and insecure in the country they governed." This tension is due to the fact that the Protestant ruling class owned land taken by force from the Irish Catholic population by their ancestors. This sense of uneasiness extends to Bowen's characters, according to Tillinghast. "The attenuation and malaise one feels among Bowen's characters springs, historically, from the growing isolation of the Anglo-Irish." Bowen's relatives are strangers in a country where the Irish, in the early part of the twentieth century, are increasingly focused on struggles for Irish national independence from Britain.

This link between Bowen's own sense of cultural rootlessness and her most prominent character, the outsider, is also echoed by Sean O'Faolain in The Vanishing Hero, where he writes, "Elizabeth Bowen is detached by birth from that society she describes. She is an Irishwoman, at least one sea apart from English traditions." Bowen depicts Portia as a young woman without a country, traveling throughout Europe as a vagabond, expelled from England by no fault of her own. While she does have ties to England, as did Bowen, Portia arrives in London a foreigner with the ability and necessity to watch carefully the behavior of those around her. Tillinghast notes, "This outsider's point of view—cold-eyed, unillusioned—places Portia beyond the cozy circle of civilized mutual accommodation practiced by Anna and Thomas, and thus makes their visitor a dangerous presence."

In addition, Bowen's outsider status extended beyond merely the political; she lost her father to mental illness when she was about six years old and her mother to cancer when she was thirteen. The job of raising her fell to a battery of relatives, and home was a series of villas on the English coast. According to Henn, "Bowen believed that fiction is rooted in the experiences of the author's life, but at the same time she rejected the overtly autobiographical or confessional impulse."

However, critics cannot help but notice that a major theme in much of her writing, including The Death of the Heart, is of the motherless girl, lacking any guiding adult hands. Edwin J. Kenney, Jr., notes in Elizabeth Bowen, that she showed an interest in her own history "as a motherless only child" by writing three nonfiction accounts of her experiences, as well as including in her novels "the dislocated child who is urgently seeking an identity as a means of survival."

Critics have also noted Bowen's efforts to understand the relationship between innocence and experience. Kenney argues that her interest in the role of innocence is clearly seen by the fact that one of her recurring themes is "man's primary need for an illusion" and the eventual "loss of innocence, the acquisition of knowledge through loss, and the entrance into selfhood."

Portia's story in The Death of the Heart is one of trying to understand who and what she is, taking on and shedding illusions—such as the illusion of love with Eddie—and moving from one stage of her life to another. According to Robert Rubens in The Contemporary Review:

The Death of the Heart is not only a crushing portrayal of the destruction of innocence, but a disillusioned warning that in the modern world innocence must be lost, that we all must compromise.

In 1998, the editorial board of the Modern Library cited The Death of the Heart among the one hundred best English language books of the twentieth century.


Susan Sanderson

Sanderson holds a master of fine arts degree in fiction writing and is an independent writer. In this essay, she examines how Bowen uses indoor settings in a particular way to shed light on Portia's frame of mind.

Critics have noticed Elizabeth Bowen's interest in placing her characters in natural and garden-like settings in The Death of the Heart, especially to highlight their innocence and naiveté. Paul A. Parrish, in "The Loss of Eden: Four Novels of Elizabeth Bowen," argues that Bowen has Eddie and Portia meet at the seaside and later in the woods because "the country has an obvious unreality because it's not the kind of life they know." Portia finds it easier to maintain her fantasies about the possibilities of Eddie's love in a place that is so different from London and her half-brother's imposing mansion. Parrish adds, in fact, "the scenes which unite the elements of nature, love, and idealism are themselves reminiscent of the Edenic myth and the Garden." Edwin J. Kenney, Jr., in Elizabeth Bowen, reiterates the connection between nature and Bowen's concern with loss of innocence as a theme, noting that her concern "often finds its expression in allusions to the story of the early life of man, the story of the fall from the garden of Eden."

But certainly of equal interest are the indoor settings in which Bowen places her characters. In The Death of the Heart, there are four primary indoor settings in which Bowen places Portia: her half-brother's house on Windsor Terrace in London; Mrs. Heccomb's seaside villa, Waikiki; movie theaters; and hotels. Bowen allows Portia's character to react differently to each of these settings, further illuminating the young girl's motivations and feelings.

Portia, as the love child of Mr. Quayne and his mistress, Irene (who later became the second Mrs. Quayne), was reared in a series of hotels and other temporary shelters. The only memories of love and familial warmth Portia has are of herself and Irene in these hotels, sharing cups of tea and eating chocolates, pulling an eiderdown comforter over themselves to stay warm, and making up entertaining stories about the other guests while they dine. But the London society she lands in, after the deaths of her parents, disdains hotels and refers to them only in pejorative tones. Anna intimates that Portia will have to be taught how to have dinner in polite company, and when Miss Paullie catches Portia reading Eddie's letter during class, she not only scolds her for the letter but also for keeping her handbag next to her desk instead of leaving it in the cloakroom. "To carry your bag about with you indoors is a hotel habit, you know," she chides.

It should come as no surprise that, after Portia is betrayed by Anna reading her diary, wounded by Eddie's announcement that he no longer loves her, and struck by her realization that most of the adults in her life have been viciously criticizing her, she finds herself at a hotel. Even though she is frightened and upset, looking like "a wild creature just old enough to know that it must dread humans," according to Major Brutt when he sees her in his hotel's lobby, she somehow finds her way to a hotel. With her heart broken and her innocence shed, Portia speaks openly, unlike she has ever spoken before in London, about Anna and Eddie and all the others who have disappointed her. She has been completely disabused of her fantasies about love—so much so that she offers to marry Major Brutt, a man who is a good thirty years older, promising that she would make him a good home. A hotel is where Portia comes to rest for a moment, to feel safe, before she is forced to go back out into the world, back to Anna and Thomas' house.

Movie houses seem to hold a special dread for Portia, almost as if they represent the crassness of the world in conflict with her innocence and inexperience. The first time she goes to a movie theater, she is with Anna and Thomas, and "the screen threw its tricky light on her relaxed profile; she sat almost appalled." This moment, for Portia, with its uncomfortableness, foreshadows an even more horrid evening when she goes to the movies at Seale-on-Sea with Eddie and Daphne and her other friends. There, illuminated for her in the darkness of the theater by a friend's cigarette lighter, is Eddie's mockery of her love for him—he and Daphne are holding hands. Eddie later tries to pass it off as just a silly thing he did, but this is the first break in Portia's fantasy about their love. Even as they occur in places that portray fantasy worlds, these experiences in movie houses underscore just how unprepared Portia is for the "real" world.

Thomas and Anna's relationship is tense, and that tension is everywhere in their house on Windsor Terrace. The house is filled with a heavy silence, unlike the chatter and sounds of living Portia is accustomed to hearing through the walls of hotels. This is a home where she feels very much not at home, and Bowen's descriptions of the place and how Portia behaves in it make that perfectly clear. In her diary, Portia writes, "When Thomas comes in he looks as though he was smelling something he thought he might not be let eat. This house makes a smell of feeling." And when the housemaid Matchett, the only person in the house who seems to care for her at all, asks her to share some tea, Portia later remembers that Matchett said she looked like a ghost. Portia writes in her diary, "But really it is this house that is like that."

Further displaying just how uncomfortable she feels at Windsor Terrace, and how much an outsider she thinks she is, Portia behaves in the manner of a skittish cat or of someone who is about to be found out. When Anna and St. Quentin come into the house for tea, Portia offers to take their coats and hats. A few minutes later, to compound this sense of submissiveness, Bowen has Portia slink out of the room:

Then, holding herself so erect that she quivered, taking long, soft steps on the balls of her feet, and at the same time with an orphaned unostentation, she started making towards the door. She moved crabwise, as though the others were royalty, never quite turning her back on them.

When she visits her brother in his library, she displays no sense of relief being with him, even though he is a blood relative. She offers to refill his cigarette case, as if she were his valet, and folds herself up in a chair, as if attempting to take up the smallest possible piece of real estate inside the house.

But when Portia goes to stay with Mrs. Heccomb and her adult children at Seale-on-Sea, just after leaving Anna and Thomas's house in London, her entire demeanor changes, reflecting the relaxed, casual air that pervades the house named Waikiki. Over the weeks she spends in the Heccombs' light-filled home by the sea, she comes out of her shell and discovers new aspects of herself. The first evening Portia is at Waikiki, she is still performing her "crabwise" walk. "Portia, as unostentatiously as possible, edged round the room to stand beside Mrs. Heccomb." And, while she does permit herself to do a little exploring around the house the next morning, she is still cautious. "Before stepping over the wall … Portia glanced back at the Waikiki windows. But no one watched her; no one seemed to object."

However, by the time the first week is out, she has helped roll back the carpeting at Waikiki for a party and has danced, for the first time, with a boy. Portia realizes then that "something edited life in the Quayne's house," and that "the uneditedness of life here at Waikiki made for behaviour that was … frank." The house is "the fount of spontaneous living." She is beginning to question not only how the new people she is meeting live, but how all of the other people she knows live, including Thomas, Anna, and Eddie.

But all of this does not mean that Portia has shed her naiveté at Waikiki. Indeed, one of her Seale-on-Sea friends, Cecil, comments to her that he can tell she is "so young." And when a family friend of the Heccombs' comes by for a visit, he asks Portia, "How's the child of the house" Portia is stunned, as well, while in Seale-on-Sea, by Eddie's behavior with Daphne at the movie house, and by Daphne's irritation with her afterwards, when Portia tries to find out what is going on. Even though the atmosphere at Waikiki to Portia is "life at its highest voltage," she still has yet to encounter the complete destruction of her innocence, which will come later, at the hands of Eddie and Anna and St. Quentin.

Source: Susan Sanderson, Critical Essay on The Death of the Heart, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

Allan E. Austin

In the following essay excerpt, Austin provides an overview of The Death of the Heart, and praises Bowen for skillfully blending the maturation of Portia with the revitalization of the Quaynes' marriage.

No Bowen novel has a more comically dramatic opening situation than The Death of the Heart. Into the adjusted, unemotional, childless, eight-year marriage of Anna and Thomas Quayne drops Portia, age fifteen, Thomas's half-sister. The Quaynes open the door of their expensive, overly ordered Regent's Park home with little enthusiasm to this newly orphaned child who was conceived in adultery. They are somewhat sustained by the possibility she may be shifted to other relatives after they have had her a year as the elder Mr. Quayne has beseeched them to do. The narrative culminates in a series of shocks: Portia is galvanized into action which, in turn, rebounds upon the Quaynes. By the end of the novel, considerable readjustment at 2 Windsor Terrace seems to be in the offing, and Portia's visit is quite likely a permanent one.

Though much of this "double-stranded" book records Portia's growth and her necessary loss of innocence, the more basic issue is the revitalization, perhaps simply the vitalization, of the moribund marriage. Much of this novel's brilliance results from the skillful blending of these two concerns and their subsidiary matters. This is Miss Bowen's most successful novel, artistically and commercially; and, along with The Heat of the Day, it constitutes the peak of her achievement.

The Quaynes have been living more of an arrangement than a marriage, for each came to it as an emotional cripple. Anna wed on the rebound from the one great love of her life, Robert Pidgeon. Though he dropped her, she has never come to terms with this romantic interlude; she harbors Pidgeon in the recesses of her mind in the same way that she has his letters secreted in a secret drawer of her desk. From her viewpoint, Thomas offered a quiet, undemanding, comfortable marriage, largely because of his passionless nature. Her hopes of establishing a normal role as a mother have long since vanished with her failure to terminate her pregnancies: her disappointment and her consequent adjustment to childlessness contribute to her stiffness toward Portia. She has settled down to find satisfaction in safe male admirers who can entertain and flatter her but who require no physical reward. Three such bachelors are on the scene during the course of the novel: St. Quentin Martin, an urbane novelist; Eddie, a bright young man employed at Thomas's advertising agency; and latterly, Major Brutt, an older gentleman, a friend of Pidgeon, and recently returned to England and out of touch. As with several other characters in the novel, Anna's appearance belies her inner being; for beneath her brittle sophistication lies an insecure woman who has never risked much for fear of being something less than the best. She is a dabbler.

Thomas originally wed Anna because she was pleasant, self-possessed, and seemingly unconcerned with emotion: in short, she was an ideal marital companion for a man who found the opposite sex a source of anxiety and who abhorred thoughts of intimacy. Marriage for both partners, then, came as a source of relief and as an opportunity to live a quiet life. However, following the ceremony, Thomas experienced the unanticipated; he fell passionately in love with Anna; but assuming her allegiance to their tacit agreement of quietude, he suffers his pent-up feelings privately. In Bowen terms, both are failing to exercise their full emotional potential and will not likely do so unless their current roles are altered. Clearly, this function is to be played by Portia.

The story opens upon Anna and St. Quentin strolling in a winter landscape. She tells him she has been reading Portia's diary which she came across accidentally, for Portia's record of her days at 2 Windsor Terrace has quite unsettled Anna. It is, she says, "completely distorted and distorting. As I read I thought either this girl or I are mad." Portia has seemingly missed nothing, though "There's certainly not a thing she does not misconstruct." Standing on a bridge in Regent's Park, "their figures sexless and stiff," Anna and her companion watch swans "in slow indignation" swim down cracks in the frozen surface of the lake." Fittingly, Portia becomes associated with bird imagery; and her initial condition is not unlike that of the swans. Because Portia does not learn of Anna's acquaintance with her diary until Part III of the novel, repercussions do not come until then. Most of Part I is devoted to characterizing life at Windsor Terrace and to explaining Portia's background.

When Portia's father, the senior Thomas Quayne, was fifty-seven, he had "lost his head completely" and had begun an affair with a woman named Irene, twenty-nine. As Anna explains his situation to St. Quentin: "He and [Mrs. Quayne] had married so young—though Thomas, for some reason, was not born for quite a number of years—that he had almost no time to be silly in. Also, I think, she must have hypnotised him into being a good deal steadier than he felt. At the same time she was a woman who thought all men are great boys at heart, and she took every care to keep him one."

Mr. Quayne is another instance of retarded adult innocence and of the need, at whatever the risk, for youthful excess. When Irene becomes pregnant, Mr. Quayne tells his wife; and "Mrs. Quayne [is] quite as splendid as ever …" She becomes "all heroic reserve," calms her husband, packs him off to Irene, starts divorce proceedings, and settles down to enjoy her house and garden in contented peace. Like hopeless babies, Mr. Quayne and his bride retire to the south of France and begin a wandering existence in cheap hotels. He suffers because the growing Portia has no proper life; and during a trip to London, he secretly inspects Windsor Terrace and envisions his daughter sharing the normal family life it suggests to him. After he dies, Portia and her mother continue the transient existence; but, when Irene suddenly dies after an operation, Portia becomes her father's legacy to Regent's Park.

An inside view of the Quayne affair is provided by an older servant, Matchett, who had worked for Thomas's mother before coming to Anna along with her mother-in-law's good furniture when she had died. Matchett, stolid and humorless, but Portia's only source of affection, makes a distinction between the right action and the good one. In her view, Mrs. Thomas Quayne "meant to do right." She explains to Portia, "Sacrificers … are not the ones to pity. The ones to pity are those that they sacrifice." She has been a great admirer of Portia's father who, in her estimation, was unlike his wife in being honest and natural. She views Mrs. Quayne as a role player who was prepared to maintain her concept of herself at whatever cost to anyone else. In the light of Matchett's views, we see that Thomas and Anna are also doing the "right" rather than the good thing by Portia.

This background detail helps to account for Anna's report that she and Portia "are on such curious terms—when I ever do take a line, she never knows what it is." Quite evidently, feelings must come to replace manners. That Portia, however, has two left feet because of her inexperience is humorously brought out in scenes at her private school for girls where she is decidedly unsuccessful in coping with the established decorum: "she had not learnt that one must learn …" Small wonder she feels all of London threatening her:

She had watched life, since she came to London, with a sort of despair—motivated and busy always, always progressing: even people pausing on bridges seemed to pause with a purpose; no bird seemed to pursue a quite aimless flight. The spring of the works seemed unfounded only by her…. She could not believe there was not a plan of the whole set-up in every head but her own … nothing was not weighed down by significance. In her home life (her new home life) with its puzzles, she saw dissimulation always on guard; she asked herself humbly for what reason people said what they did not mean, and did not say what they meant. She felt most certain to find the clue when she felt the frenzy behind the clever remark.

Having a modest relationship with Anna and Thomas, and a closer but milder one with Matchett, Portia grabs rather eagerly at the interest shown in her by the irresponsible Eddie. From the viewpoint of the contemporary British novel, Eddie is an interesting creation because he so evidently anticipates Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim; for, like him, Eddie comes from a modest background and is seeking to locate himself in the Establishment, in which he does not believe. A very conscious role player, Eddie prefigures Lucky Jim in his habits of face making and mimicry.

The relationship between Portia and Eddie is undemandingly comfortable from his viewpoint. He takes joy in her childlike innocence, and he feels she is the one person with whom he need not assume an interminable pose. Eddie, as it develops, misjudges in assuming that Portia will place no demands upon him. Really a very self-centered being, he is concerned with his welfare and per-sonal freedom; but his surface superciliousness really cloaks despair. An "experienced innocent," Eddie bears a resemblance to Emmeline of To the North in his unwillingness to adjust to the none-denic facts of life, or at least in his unwillingness to adjust without exacting his own price from the world. He seeks to punish and to travesty love because it cannot be what he longs for it to be; he sees only himself as reality since he is the only person he is prepared to trust. Portia, from his viewpoint, is really a new lease on the impossible life; with her, he seeks to sustain the innocence of adolescent love, the state which holds out to him the possibility of beautiful fulfillment so long as it is never tested. Portia, of course, has no such insight as his; but she discovers soon enough Eddie's unwillingness to allow their affair to progress, and she is left pondering his distress over her unwillingness to sustain their status quo and her desire to grow up.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Coming Home (1995), by Rosamunde Pilcher, tells the story of fourteen-year-old Judith Dunbar, who stays in England at Saint Ursula's boarding school when her mother and younger sister leave to join her father in Singapore. She and a friend grow up under the looming threat of World War II, which will eventually change their lives and the lives of those they love most.
  • Muriel Spark's novel The Girls of Slender Means (1963), tells the World War II story of a boarding house founded for "the Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means below the Age of Thirty Years." The boarding house's residents go to their jobs, dream of marriage, gossip, and maintain a facade that life and the world are still normal despite the war.
  • Radclyffe Hall's novel The Well of Loneliness (1928) tells the story of Stephen Mary Gordon. Given a male name by her father, who had desperately wanted a son, young Stephen learns to hunt and shoot and ride horses. She develops an intimate but disastrous relationship with another woman that challenges an English society that values and reinforces conformity and acceptability. Overwhelmed by grief and loneliness, she seeks escape in her work as a writer and as a World War I ambulance driver.
  • The Last September (1929), by Elizabeth Bowen, set in 1920, is the story of Lois Farquar, who lives with her uncle and aunt, members of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy in County Cork, in a "big house" modeled on Bowen's own family estate in Ireland. The demise of British rule in Ireland is just around the corner, and the family attempts to deal with the end of an era.
  • Elizabeth Bowen's Bowen's Court (1942) is a nonfiction history of the ancestral house where she spent her summers as a child, and which she inherited after her father died.

Part II, "The Flesh," shifts to a contrasting setting, one which offers Portia an alternate kind of life with its own range of new characters and experiences. Anna, feeling the need of a vacation, whisks Thomas to Capri; Portia is sent to the seaside at Seale to live with Anna's one-time governess, the widowed Mrs. Heccomb and her two working step-children, Dickie and Daphne. Home is called Wakiki (which is intended to give this sequence overtones of undemanding, irresponsible Pacific Island life), and the household is the antithesis of the highly mannered Windsor Terrace. Wakiki is sustained by blasting radios and by conversation conducted by shouting above them; all is "pushing and frank," though neurotically proper. Portia discovers "the upright rudeness of the primitive state—than which nothing is more rigid." Life at Windsor Terrace is "edited," but that at Wakiki is the reverse. The contrast recalls that between the stately home in The Last September and the huts of the army families.

More at home at Wakiki but still reticent, Portia falls in with the crowd presided over by Daphne and Dickie. Portia soon becomes anxious to invite Eddie for a weekend; and Mrs. Heccomb, assured that Eddie is well known to Anna, assumes his visit will be quite proper. Portia awaits his coming anxiously, for she has decided on the reality of Seale and wishes him to confirm it for her. Eddie has hardly arrived, however, before he declares it "unreal"; for in his self-conscious state he is well aware Wakiki is the unexamined life. The only member of the Seale crown who is at all introspective is barely tolerated—is considered ineffectual and labeled "a cissie."

Unknowingly betrayed in London by Anna, Portia is to know betrayal in Seale through Eddie. Sitting between Portia and Daphne at a Saturday night movie, Eddie ends up, as Portia discovers, holding Daphne's hand. Since Eddie has been introduced into the crowd as Portia's friend, she finds this experience painful. When she is alone with Eddie the next day, she challenges his conduct. The episode, he explains, is innocent enough in his view and was intended to lead to nothing further; but this view is not easily conveyed to Portia. In fairness to Eddie, it must be said that he has warned Portia not to get serious with him and to make demands: "Never be potty about me: I can't do anything for you." Furthermore, Eddie anticipates what St. Quentin later elaborates for Portia when he says, "Don't you know how dreadful the things you say are?"

In her diary Portia views Seale to London's disadvantage: "In London I do not know what anybody is doing, there are no things I can watch people do. Though things have hurt me since I was left behind here, I would rather stay with the things here than go back to where I do not know what will happen." Even Portia feels the great temptation of comfort, of seeking out an effortless stasis. However, she must return to London to be greeted by Matchett, who observes, "I can't see that this change has done you harm. Nor the shake-up either; you were getting too quiet."

When Thomas and Anna return, it is evident they have not changed. Having been greeted warmly by Portia in the front hall, Anna cannot wait to go up to her bath; and Thomas, claiming a headache, quickly vanishes into his study. Later, Thomas observes to Anna, "Portia gave us a welcome"; and she replies, "It was we who were not adequate." But Anna remains prepared with her justifications: "let's face it—whoever is adequate? We all create situations each other can't live up to, then break our hearts at them because they don't." This statement proves a telling one in the light of ensuing action. Though aware of their inadequacy in dealing with Portia, the Quaynes seem prepared to let matters drift. In the Bowen world, they are riding for an upset.

Critics generally agree that the "devil" of the final section is St. Quentin since he imparts to Portia the "forbidden" knowledge that Anna has been reading her diary. However, the devil may more properly be viewed as a situation rather than a person; for a comment Major Brutt makes to Anna provides the clue: "that's the devil, you know, about not having a fixed address." This statement assesses the root of the trouble, for what Portia ultimately feels is a lack of any sense of permanency. Her efforts at the close are directed toward finding a sanctuary; and, in a rather roundabout manner, she probably succeeds.

After learning from St. Quentin of Anna's having read the diary, Portia telephones Eddie to tell him, and he in turn calls Anna; and, though his position with both Thomas and Anna is insecure, he conveys his displeasure. When five days later, Portia arrives home to find Anna and Eddie tête-à-tête over tea, she is convinced they have been talking and laughing together about her. Two days later, when Portia walks out on Windsor Terrace, the time lapse, observes the narrator, is "long enough for the sense of two allied betrayals to push up a full growth, like a double tree …" Portia leaves her home after having arranged to meet Eddie; and, unbeknownst to him, she is intent on living with him. After Eddie has been more or less forced into taking her to his apartment and after he has reiterated his earlier claim that she does not know the ropes and has "a completely lunatic set of values" and that he simply cannot risk harboring her, she departs prepared to play her final card. She goes to Major Brutt, tells him she has "nowhere to be," and informs the poor dazed man that she wishes to marry him. She rather cruelly seeks to enlist him as an ally by telling him that Anna also laughs at him. When he insists that he must call Windsor Terrace, Portia tells him that Thomas and Anna will not know what to do; and she instructs him to say that her return will depend on their doing "the right thing."

Meanwhile, Portia's absence has been noted by the Quaynes and St. Quentin, their dinner guest. The air is already tense, and Anna and Thomas have already begun unburdening themselves to each other when the Major's call comes. Thomas now learns about the diary, and the scene which this disclosure threatens is just barely avoided as they turn their attention to the question of "the right thing." They quickly enough reject any thoughts of having Portia come across town alone in a taxi or of her being escorted home by Major Brutt. The importance of the issue they do not doubt; Anna points out: "It's not simply a question of getting her home this evening; it's a question of all three going on living here … yes, this is a situation. She's created it."

When St. Quentin initiates an important train of thought by suggesting that Anna and Thomas "are both unnaturally conscious of [Portia] …", Anna seeks to put herself in Portia's place and to express what her feelings must be: "Frantic, frantic desire to be handled with feeling, and, at the same time, to be let alone. Wish to be asked how I felt, great wish to be taken for granted—." The right act, really the good act, the natural thing, they decide is "something quite obvious. Something with no fuss." When Portia is normally brought home, Matchett brings her; so they dispatch Matchett and also decide against calling Major Brutt. Thomas says, "This is a coup or nothing."

Miss Bowen implies in her closing passage that life at Windsor Terrace will be better, but she once more avoids suggesting any miraculous change. Anna has already shown a humanitarian side, one that Portia is unaware of, in her efforts to find employment for Major Brutt, whose worth she recognizes. And she has also and most importantly come to terms with her harbored past feelings for Pidgeon. She admits to herself, as she never previously has, and tells Major Brutt as much, that Pidgeon did not really care for her, that their affair came to nothing because neither trusted the other. And she and Thomas have talked, as Thomas earlier complained they never did. Having "saved" Portia by pulling her back from a speeding car on one of their recent strolls in the park, he now appears committed to saving her in another sense. Emphasized at the very close, and clearly intended to contrast with the frigid landscape of the opening, is a description of the spring evening with its "intimation of summer coming …" And the piano music issuing from an open window as the curtain falls hints at the new harmony seemingly to be realized at Windsor Terrace.

Source: Allan E. Austin, "The Disruptive Children," in Elizabeth Bowen, Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1971, pp. 47-66.


Dunleavy, Janet E., "Elizabeth Bowen," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 15: British Novelists, 1930–1959, Part 1: A-L, Gale Research, 1983, pp. 33-46.

Henn, Martha, "Bowen, Elizabeth Dorothea Cole," in Feminist Writers, edited by Pamela Kester-Shelton, St. James Press, 1996, pp. 57-60.

Kenney, Edwin J., Jr., in Elizabeth Bowen, Bucknell University Press, 1975, p. 18.

Kilfeather, Siobhán, "Elizabeth Bowen," in British Writers, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1992, pp. 77-96.

O'Faolain, Sean, "Elizabeth Bowen; or, Romance Does Not Pay," in The Vanishing Hero: Studies in Novelists of the Twenties, Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1956, pp. 167-90.

Parrish, Paul A., "The Loss of Eden: Four Novels of Elizabeth Bowen," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XV, No. 1, 1973, pp. 86-100.

Rubens, Robert, "Elizabeth Bowen: A Woman of Wisdom," in Contemporary Review, Vol. 268, No. 1565, June 1996, pp. 304-07.

Tillinghast, Richard, "Elizabeth Bowen: The House, the Hotel & the Child," in New Criterion, Vol. 13, No. 4, December 1994, pp. 24-33.

Further Reading

Bloom, Harold, ed., Elizabeth Bowen, Chelsea House Publishers, 1992.

This is a collection of critical essays on the writings of Elizabeth Bowen, edited by the esteemed critic and academician Harold Bloom.

Bowen, Elizabeth, Graham Greene, and V. S. Pritchett, Why Do I Write: An Exchange of Views between Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene, and V. S. Pritchett, M. S. G. Haskell House, 1975.

This volume includes letters between these three literary giants on the subject of how writers live and what they think about as they go about their work.

Halperin, John, Eminent Georgians: The Lives of King George V, Elizabeth Bowen, St. John Philby, and Nancy Astor, St. Martin's Press, Inc., 1998.

John Halperin traces the impact these leading figures had in England between the two great wars, and examines the world of intrigue below the glittering surface of British society in the 1920s and 1930s.

Walshe, Eibhear, ed., Elizabeth Bowen Remembered: The Farahy Addresses, Four Courts Press, 1998.

Drawn from the annual lectures at the church in Farahy, in North Cork, where Bowen is buried, these essays provide insight into the life, fiction, and beliefs of the Anglo-Irish writer Elizabeth Bowen.

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The Death of the Heart

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The Death of the Heart