Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Death of the Heart & Friends and Relations

Elizabeth Bowen's The Death of the Heart is one of the best “diary” novels of the 20th century: this brilliant portrait of a girl's coming of age is drawn partly through a diary and letters, and partly through her guardian brother and his wife's witty, despairing conversations about her awkwardness.  The orphan Portia moves to London to live with her chilly half-brother, Thomas, and his arrogant, sophisticated wife, Anna. She is self-conscious in their glittering, too-perfectly decorated house. She records their drawing-room conversations and foibles in her journal. And Anna furtively reads it and complains even more about Portia's invasive watchfulness to two male writer friends than to Thomas.

Bowen's books were not read much during my student days. Viragos were just starting: we were more likely to know Antonia White or Elizabeth Taylor. A professor with a soft spot for me recommended The Death of the Heart during my miserable final year of grad school, when I became notorious for reading novels in my library study carrel between stints of long nail-biting study - I was a nervous wreck.

“Did you read Knox?”

“I can’t do anymore today.” (Swallowing a gummy worm.)

“Oh, then don’t. So you’re reading X? Have you read Elizabeth Bowen?”

In critical reassessments in the future, he thought that Bowen might be considered a better stylist than Virginia Woolf. I'm never sure what people mean when they say such things. The two are so different: Woolf and Bowen are at opposite ends of the spectrum - except that they record feminine experience. But Bowen has her own peculiar lyrical style. Her characters in her early novels sometimes seem wooden in comparison to her oddly shaped sentences - just a poetic word too many -, but it doesn't matter because the writing is so good. That is, if you’re a Bowen person.

Here's an example of her prose from the beginning of her 1932 novel, Friends and Relations:

The morning of the Tilney-Studdart wedding rain fell steadily from before daylight, veiling trees and garden and darkening the canvas of the marquee that should have caught the earliest sun in happy augury. The bride's relations frowned in sleep and were roused with a sense of doom by rain's inauspicious mutter on roofs and windowsills Clouds with their reinforcements came rolling over the Malvern hills. Till quite late, the rooms at Corunna Lodge were dusky as though the morning had been delayed.

It’s the phrases like “in happy augury,” "with a sense of doom," and "clouds with their reinforcements" that mark Bowen as a poet, but some of her beautiful adverbial phrases are excessive in the eyes of her detractors. She underlines and illustrates the augury for the marriage, which turns out to be mixed - the bride, Laurel, doesn't care about the weather, and only wants the wedding to Edward be over - but the sun comes out before the wedding. There are complications: Edward's mother, an eccentric divorcee, prefers Laurel’s sister, the more practical Janet, and is disappointed about her son's choice: she treats Janet as the daughter-in-law. And though Laurel marries Rodney, a wealthy man, the meetings between the sisters and their husbands are awkward, because Edward can't get over the fact that Rodney's uncle had a notorious affair with his mother, which ruined his childhood.

One of the main reasons to read early Elizabeth Bowen is to see how it develops into later-period brilliant Bowen. Friends and Relations is good, but one should start with The Death of the Heart.


Ellen said...

I've been reading your blog from _To Serve Them All My Days_ up to the recent Dodie Smith. I write here because I want to say how much I love Elizabeth Bowen. Her _The Death of the Heart_ and _Heat of the Day_ seem to me her masterpieces, with _The Last September_ only slightly behind (it's a particular local book about Ireland). She also writes exquisite gothics and ghost stories; one was made into a film adaptation for _Shades of Darkness_.

When people say someone is a stylist, it's a slight putdown. Bowen resembles Woolf the way other 20th century women writers of subjective novels of sensibility resemble her, like many in the Virago series. They mostly write about the same class milieu too.

If I try to say what's the difference between Bowen and Woolf, maybe it's that Bowen is harder, a streak of mad erotic passion (outside of him lies the junkyard of what does not matter), driving steel intensity. The imagery is denser: green people in blue woods. You have to have real poise to write a successful ghost story.

Your blog cheered me tonight. I enjoyed reading your new series of entries.


Mad Housewife said...

I love Elizabeth Bowen, too, and have often thought she would be perfect for Virago Books. Obviously Bowen's books are still in print, though, without a Virago intervention. I agree about the hardness. When I reread The Death of the Heart, I tried to see the adults' point of view this time. But they are all horribly cold - even St. Quentin, the objective writer, who tells Portia that Anna has been reading her diary. Bowen's style is glittery. Cold and hard. Yet I admire her immensely.

I'll have to look for the film _Shades of Darkness_.


Wimbledon Bookclub (@WimbledonBookcl) said...

Wimbledon Bookclub will be discussing Elizabeth Bowen's "The Death of the Heart" on June 6th 2011 and June 20th 2011.

Any and all are welcome but places are limited.