I’ve been meaning to write to you since the beginning of April, when the 1938 Club brought me right inside ‘the turned-in heart’ of your novel The Death of the Heart (1938) – but, well, everyday life, as it happens, got recklessly on the way.
Set in the period between the World Wars, the book covers six months in the life of Portia, a newly orphaned 16 year old. When the story begins, it’s winter and she has just moved to London, to live with her half brother, Thomas, and his wife, Anna. Innocent and docile, the young Portia is a intruder in the lives of this cold upper class couple: neither Thomas nor Anna have any idea how to deal with her. On the one hand, Thomas is embarrassed by the fact that she was the result of an affair between his father and Irene, Portia’s mother. On the other hand, his very inability to accept and welcome his half sister also makes him feel awkward.
Portia is then pretty much left to her own devices, and, as one does, finds herself ripe for betrayal and heartbreak. Matchett, the housemaid, is the only one who seems to truly care for her. Anna, on the other hand, feels threatened by the fact that the emptiness of her current life is promptly reflected back to her by the simple presence of this innocent girl. The whole life opened up in front of Portia reminds the embittered Anna of a past she would rather forget. As her friend, the shallow Eddie, begins toying with Portia, Anna seems to perversely enjoy the re-enactment of her past mistakes through the girl’s present ill-informed choices. The only way to remove the threat represented by innocence is the slow but steady crushing of it.
Innocence, however, reveals itself to be a far more dangerous thing than its own loss. Each of the carachters is innocent, albeit in different ways. And the most brutal moments in the story happen precisely when the characters recognize each other for what they are – or once were – and seize each other’s innocence, mutually crushing it. “The innocent are so few that two of them seldom meet – when they do meet, their victims lie strewn all round.”
Innocence, sharp like a wintry wind, devoures itself merciless, and devastates everything it comes into contact with. Major Brutt, an old friend of Anna’s, crushes her innocence, by reminding her of a former lover; Anna crushes Portia, by using Eddie; St. Quentin crushes both Portia and Anna, by revealing a secret; and Portia, on her part, crushes Thomas and Anna – who, once accommodated to a comfortable unhappy marriage, become aware of what they really are: two people, trapped in a suffocating atmosphere full of silences and evasions.
The intruder cuts through layers and layers of habit and convention, just like the wintry wind does through unsuitable clothing. The intruder is the person they once were, or should have been, and could never be anymore. Portia’s innocence, like a mirror confronting them with their own corruption, has a pervasive effect on all the characters. In the girl’s presence, they lose their carefully constructed protective layers: Anna, her apathy; Eddie, his self-absorption; St. Quentin (Anna’s writer friend), his cynicism; Matchett, her jealous possessiveness; and Thomas, the comfort of his family’s veneer of respectability. They in turn react by not by recognizing their nakedness: the intruder is the one to blame, she’s the one at fault, the one crushing innocence with innocence itself. Trapped to themselves as if in a room of distorting mirrors, each character struggles to be seen – and, except for Portia, none of them notices each other or is really noticed by them: they are only looked through, with “the force of not being seen”, distorted like damaged pictures or incomplete images.
On the one hand, from Portia’s perspective (the outcast perspective, one who has no notion of which is the acceptable behaviour), the loss of innocence means losing the ability of truly seeing each other, the process of learning to keep all relationships on the surface, and thus becoming ‘civilized’, ‘accepted’. From the point of view of the remaining characters, on the other hand, the loss of innocence is the temporary loss of the false view they had of themselves and of others, and the sudden awareness of what lies under their veneer of ‘civilization’ – the awareness they could only achieve through the presence of the intruder, the outcast who has not learned yet the rules of the game. By exploring innocence as this two-sided coin shared by all characters in different ways, you radically subvert and expand its meaning, refusing both to condemn and to save your characters. You embrace ambiguity; you displace our hearts mercilessly; and than you ruthlessly refuse to repent.
As we follow Portia’s troubled path towards coming of age, we, the readers, feel like lonely intruders, too. Together with Portia, we wander through the many rooms of this empty mansion overlooking Regent’s Park. If we dare to go outside, we find ourselves suddenly enveloped by the London fog. Portia will soon learn there is no way out, the only way is through and through, onwards: the constant crossing through this heavy cloth of fog.
Yours, my dear, is a daring representation of loss: a journey from Winter to Summer, divided into three sections —“The World,” “The Flesh,” and “The Devil”— which not only refer to the seasons themselves, but also to the baptismal rite in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer: “Grant that he may have power and strength, to have victory, and to triumph against the devil, the world, and the flesh.” You carefully subverted not only the idea of innocence, but also the meaning usually associated to each season: Winter here represents youth and purity; Spring, the inbetween space where the first leaves foreshadow their imminent fall; and Summer is the time when getting old actually happens, innocence is depleted and terminates in a violent flare, a burning consumation. “And now we land into this inferno of glare.” Moreover, you subvert the Anglican prayer: Portia’s batismal rite is her loss of innocence, her jumping into the devil, the world and its throbbing flesh.
The detailed evocation of seasons, interiors and settings provides not only the story’s background, but also a mirror for the characters’ inner lives. Thomas’ mansion is as much elegant-looking, desolate and oppressive as his marriage. You have once beautifully said that “only dispossessed people know their land in the dark” (P. J. Kavanagh, Voices in Ireland, 1994, p.122). Well, as Thomas, this dispossessed man, wanders through his mansion, we cannot help but hear the clear-cut sound of footsteps on a dark and empty room. Innocence is no virtue here: it can have a dismantling effect on this mansion’s defence structures. More than one heart will be injured under the wreckage of these civil but oh so frail structures.
It seemed to her that while people were very happy, individual persons were surely damned. So, she shrank from that specious mystery the individual throws about himself, from Anna’s smiles, from Lilian’s tomorrows, from the shut-in room, the turned in heart.
– Elizabeth Bowen, The death of the heart
About the book
- Anchor Books, 2000, 418 p.
- First published in 1938
- Other editions:
- Vintage Classics, 2012, 368 p.
- Penguin Classics, 1986, 320 p.
- My rating: 5 stars
- I read this book for the 1938 Club.