At boarding school in the late Sixties we had as our English teacher a Miss J. H. B. Jones. Coaxing us self-absorbed teenagers through the A-level syllabus she was diffident, patient and unassuming, and had it not been for a brief conversation in which she suggested I read The Death of the Heart (1938) by Elizabeth Bowen, I’m sorry to say I would by now have forgotten her utterly. But I went off for the long summer holiday and took her advice; I have my Penguin copy fifty years later, and the cover illustration of a young girl wearing an anguished expression still takes me back to those inevitably anguished years.
The novel is divided into three sections: ‘The World’, ‘The Flesh’ and ‘The Devil’. In the first we discover Portia Quayne, a newly orphaned 16-year-old who has been taken in by her much older brother Thomas and his wife, Anna. This well-heeled couple live in some style on the edge of London’s Regent’s Park in a beautiful, immaculate house into which Portia, whose life has been spent shuffling between continental boarding-houses and shabby hotels, does not readily fit. There is a complicated back story, efficiently delivered in the first chapter, explaining how Portia’s childhood was lived in an atmosphere of some disgrace and how Thomas and Anna, thoroughly respectable if not noticeably happy, have reluctantly accepted that they must do the right thing and give Portia a home.
They appear to be doing their best: she is given new clothes and a pretty room, sent to private lessons, allowed a certain amount of freedom. But Anna has found – and read – Portia’s diary and it has rattled her (although we are told little about what Portia has actually written, apart from the fact that ‘there does not seem to be a single thing that she misses’). Anna’s already brittle self-esteem feels under threat and she angrily tells a friend that Portia has ‘made nothing but trouble since before she was born’.
Portia, meanwhile, yearning for some sign of affection from her brother, is trying to fit in; her greatest ally is Matchett, an elderly housemaid who has been inherited from Thomas’s mother along with the furniture. This family retainer, who knew and respected Portia’s father, comforts the child by talking to her about him; they have secret whispered conversations after Portia is in bed in which Matchett, generally so tight-lipped, tries to give her a proper sense of her value within the family. She is the one person, we feel, who properly cares about the child, watching her comings and goings, noticing her chilblains, worrying about her absent-mindedness.
Unfortunately, Portia – not yet old enough to be discerning, and badly in need of affection – has her head turned by Eddie, one of Anna’s sillier friends. Major Brutt, on the other hand, a past acquaintance of Anna’s encountered by chance, proves a real friend. He starts to call on the Quaynes, often uninvited, charmed by Portia and – ironically – by what he perceives to be the happy family atmosphere of the house.
The second section, ‘The Flesh’, in which Portia is introduced to a set of young people all boisterously asserting themselves, contains some sublime comedy. Anna and Thomas have, a little guiltily, escaped to Capri for a holiday and Portia is sent to stay with Mrs Heccomb, Anna’s one-time governess who now lives in a house by the sea with her stepchildren, who are exquisitely drawn. Daphne and Dickie are loud, bossy, serenely self-confident and seem to Portia ‘a crisis that surely must be unique: she could not believe that they happened every day’. Daphne works in a library:
Portia realized later that the tomb-like hush of Smoot’s library, where she had to sit all day, dealing out hated books, was not only antipathetic but even dangerous to Daphne. So, once home, she kept fit by making a loud noise. Daphne never simply touched objects, she slapped down her hand on them; she made up her mouth with the gesture of someone cutting their throat.
The seaside house, Waikiki, noisy with creaks and bangs and loud music, could hardly be more different from the Quaynes’ London house. At 2 Windsor Terrace, Thomas telephones Anna from his study to report he is home, silently brooding downstairs while she entertains above; Portia lets herself in quietly and creeps about, anxious not to disturb. At Waikiki, however, everyone knows what everyone else is doing – partly because of the acoustics, but also because there seems to be nothing to hide.
Portia is beginning to enjoy herself here when Eddie turns up, at her invitation; Mrs Heccomb, who had been expecting a respectable friend of Anna’s, is taken aback by his ‘bounce’. ‘Each time he spoke, her eyes went to his forehead, to the point where his hair sprang back in its fine spirited waves . . . Portia could almost hear Mrs Heccomb’s ideas, like chairs before a party, being rolled about and rapidly rearranged.’
The young people all go to the cinema and Portia’s world crashes about her ears when she sees Eddie holding Daphne’s willing hand. She tackles him about this and Eddie, who is incapable of considering anyone else, is perhaps not shocked enough by the evident strength of Portia’s feeling for him. After his return to London, however, the rest of Portia’s stay passes tranquilly: everybody is kind, and when she leaves, her diary entry is forlorn:
I cannot say anything about going away . . . Perhaps it is better not to say anything ever. I must try not to say anything more to Eddie, when I have said things it has always been a mistake.
The final section, ‘The Devil’, is where the real anguish comes in. Portia, adrift and unhappy, becomes desperate when she learns that Anna has read her diary. Convinced that Eddie and Anna have been laughing at her, she confronts Eddie who, as ever, slithers away from a direct question. Feeling she has nothing to lose, Portia now takes a bold step and frightens Thomas and Anna – she throws down a challenge to them and waits to see how they will respond. It’s an anguished wait, for the reader too.
Elizabeth Bowen builds her characters through superbly written conversations, provides history and context, gives everyone a hinterland. (They also, most definitely, have a future.) The vain, the shallow, the thoughtless, all behave as they do for a reason. Anna, who can be cruel, has herself suffered cruelties – a jilting lover, two miscarriages – and, further, has no illusions about herself. Thomas, outwardly successful, is miserable: ‘We none of us seem to feel very well, and I don’t think we want each other to know it.’ But this is not a bleak book; understanding dawns at the end.
Among the joys of the novel are the thumbnail sketches. Mrs Heccomb, responsible for Portia, worries about the letters she is getting: ‘She looked pink. On top of this she wore, like an extra hat, a distinct air of caution and indecision. “It is so nice to get letters,” she said.’
Major Brutt, so doggedly trying to land a job, is tragically summed up: ‘Makes of men date, like makes of cars; Major Brutt was a 1914–18 model; there was now no market for that make.’ And the incomparable Matchett, whose ‘step on the parquet or on the staircase was at the same time ominous and discreet’, is described elsewhere as ‘the woman with the big stony apron, who backs to the wall when I pass like a caryatid’.
It is not only the characters who provide both tragedy and comedy; the places do too. There is a moving description of Portia’s rootless childhood, remembered with longing:
They always stayed in places before the season, when the funicular was not working yet. All the other people in that pension had been German or Swiss: it was a wooden building with fretwork balconies. Their room, though it was a back room facing into the pinewoods, had a balcony; they would run away from the salon and spend the long wet afternoons there. They would lie down covered with coats, leaving the window open, smelling the wet woodwork, hearing the gutters run . . .
The interior of 2 Windsor Terrace is, despite its comforts, home to considerable unhappiness:
The vibration of London was heard through the shuttered and muffled window as though one were half deaf; lamplight bound the room in rather unreal circles; the fire threw its hard glow on the rug. The house held such tense, positive quiet that he and she might have been all alone in it.
Waikiki is (literally) a breath of fresh air:
While she was up in her room combing her hair back, hearing the tissue paper in her suitcase rustle, watching draughts bulge the new matting strip, she heard the bang that meant Daphne was in. Waikiki was a sounding box . . . In her room, the electric light, from its porcelain shade, poured down with a frankness unknown at Windsor Terrace. The light swayed slightly in that seaside draught, and Portia felt a new life had begun.
Perhaps most powerful of all, though, is the description of the Karachi Hotel in South Kensington where Major Brutt is staying:
The public rooms are lofty and large . . . nothing so nobly positive as space. The fireplaces with their flights of brackets, the doors with their poor mouldings, the nude-looking windows exist in deserts of wall: after dark the high-up electric lights die high in the air above unsmiling armchairs. If these houses give little by becoming hotels, they lose little . . . Their builders must have built to enclose fog, which having seeped in never quite goes away. Dyspepsia, uneasy wishes, ostentation, and chilblains can, only, have governed the lives of families here.
Of course, anyone might have suggested reading Elizabeth Bowen, and anyone might have recommended starting with The Death of the Heart, but it was Miss Jones who did so and it is to Miss Jones that I am forever grateful. If we at the time felt anything for our English teacher it would have been that unattractive condescending pity bestowed by adolescents on middle-aged teachers and, with the callousness of youth, I never thought to write and thank her. Subsequently, and too late, I regretted this, but I realize now my pity was misplaced; if she was familiar with Elizabeth Bowen then her life can’t have been as empty as all that.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 64 © Posy Fallowfield 2019