TV today – ESPNEWS at 2:40 and Outside the Lines in the 3 pm half-hour, both EDT.
Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart appears on both the TIME and Bloomsbury lists and ranked 84th on the Modern Library 100; TIME‘s Richard Lacayo praised the way Bowen used the main character, 16-year-old ingenue/orphan Portia, to reveal the cruelty of the characters around her: “In the mirror of her innocent eyes, experience will catch a glimpse of its own reflection. It’s not a pretty picture.”
This theme was unmistakeable, as Portia is particularly useful to Bowen in laying bare the selfish, jealous, spiteful nature of Anna, wife of Portia’s half-brother Thomas; after Portia’s parents die, she goes to stay with Anna and Thomas in London, only to find herself tied up in the quiet, seething resentment and anger between them, Anna’s paramours (whether consummated or not isn’t quite clear, although I don’t think it needs to be), and that most essential element in any English novel, the servants. Bowen does infuse some comic elements, but the novel’s greatest strength is in her descriptive prose:
Portia had learnt one dare never look for long. She had those eyes that seem to be welcome nowhere, that learn shyness from the alarm they precipitate. Such eyes are always turning away or being humbly lowered – they dare come to rest nowhere but on a point in space; their homeless intentness makes them appear fanatical. They may move, they may affront, but they cannot communicate. You most often meet or, rather, avoid meeting such eyes in a child’s face – what becomes of the child later you do not know.
Bowen also has a little fun with caricatures, not of whole characters but of little traits, some humorous, some shocking:
She walked about with the rather fate expression you see in photographs of girls who have subsequently been murdered, but nothing had so far happened to her…
But ultimately, The Death of the Heart is dull. Very little happens; Portia falls for one of Anna’s beaux, the shiftless, irresponsible Eddie, earning the scorn of just about everyone around her and heading for an inevitable heartbreak at Eddie’s hands. Bowen focuses so heavily on emotions and settings that the plot, while not truly thin, is short, and the novel’s end brought release from the oppressive air of the time period.
Next up: Non-fiction with Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli, the story of his year in exile in a tiny mountain village in southern Italy.