Was it the last book I loved, or just one of the ones I come back to again and again, Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart? This winter, once again, it was necessary somehow to go back to this book; and, as always, I came away breathless with admiration for the way Bowen sets up her characters, allows them to hang themselves on their own flaws, and then refuses to save them from themselves.
Could one publish such a book now? A book in which no one is healed, in which everyone is, in fact, injured by contact with one another? A book in which a situation is revealed, a problem is made clear, and yet, there is no solution. This is, the book posits, simply the way things are.
The adult characters in The Death of the Heart are all external action. Anna, Thomas, St. Quentin, and even poor addled Eddie are known to one another entirely by their actions in the external world. They resist introspection, reject it even. They banter with one another. They flirt. They are determined to keep all of their relationships on the surface, to skate quickly over whatever it is they might feel. As Anna exclaims late in the book: “If one thought what everyone felt, one would go mad. It does not do to think of what people feel.”
And it is because Portia–the unbearably young, innocent sixteen year old (was anyone ever that young? that innocent?) lives solely in the world of her feelings, and cannot conceive that everyone else does not–that she is set on an inevitable collision course with these bright, quick, unfeeling adults. Portia is the inconvenient orphan, the child of her father’s late age, and a continual reminder to Thomas of his family disgrace. With both of her parents dead though, she must go somewhere, and so she comes into a house where her very neediness, her sorrow, her inability to grasp the invisible social codes by which the rest of them live makes her a constant irritant. She is a problem. More important, she knows that she is a problem no matter how many times she is told the opposite.
For one academic year I taught in an MFA program in California, and I was astonished by the way my students read stories. As though the characters were real people, and as though the point of a story was to present and then solve a psychological problem. As though the point was to save the characters, to heal them, to fix their nonexistent lives. I shudder to think what they would have made of Bowen; I think they would have been equally put off by Bowen’s refusal to condemn her characters as they would have been by her refusal to save them. If there’s no villain, then who is the hero? If there’s no hero, then where is the story?
For me, this is the genius of the novel. There is neither hero nor villain. Anna is cold, and manipulative, but she’s not the enemy who must be banished in order for Portia to prevail. She simply is what she is, a person with her own limitations and quirks, who has come up against another person whose limitations and quirks are incompatible. Could she be better? Of course, but who among us could not?
This is what I love about Bowen, her refusal to punish her characters for behaving badly. Everyone just is as they are–there’s no sense that the “adults” are going to change or grow in any fundamental way. Portia, yes, because she’s a child, and children must change in order to become adults. But the adults, they’re fixed now. They are what they are. That Portia breaks her heart against this is considered perhaps a tragedy; but like all tragedies, it’s inevitable.
Could you do this now? Could you publish a book in which Anna does not repent? A book in which Anna not only does not repent, but explicitly rejects the very idea of repentance? Could you publish a book where the ending remains as ambiguous as this one: will Matchett and Portia make it back to the cold safety of Anna and Thomas’s drawing room, or have they, and Major Brutt, all been cast out into the world of boarding houses?
This is what keeps me coming back to Elizabeth Bowen and in particular to The Death of the Heart. It’s brutality. It’s ambiguity. It’s utter lack of repentance. And yet, it is not a book without heart–the characters are allowed, as we all wish to be, to exist in and of themselves, and fully of themselves.