Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Battered Penguins - The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

The Death of the Heart seems to me less really the story of its characters than a kind of evocation of the shattered state of British society following the first world war, in which people are trying with varying degrees of success to cling to the wreckage of something approaching order and largely seem to have lost the instinct to take good care of the young and innocent.

The book opens with a conversation between Anna - a woman, who we later learn has given up the idea of children, after a number of miscarriages, been damaged by an unsatisfactory earlier relationship with a man called Pidgeon and married in a rather dispassionate mood, only to kindle in her husband after the event a passion he finds unquenchable - and St Quentin, her writer friend. They are talking about what Anna has read of the private diary of her orphaned 16-year-old ward, Portia. The conversation takes place as the pair walk in a wintry Regent's Park and faintly echoes the absurd tone of the Monty Python sketch in which Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw trade competitive aphorisms:

"Nothing arrives on paper as it started, and so much arrives that never started at all. To write is always to rave a little" observes St Quentin, continuing, "Style is the thing that's always a bit phoney, and at the same time you cannot write without style."

"Experience isn't interesting till it begins to repeat itself", declares Anna, while the actual writer of the book intrudes from time to time, as she does disconcertingly - and sometimes almost incomprehensibly e.g. "Life militates against the seclusion we seek. In the chaos that suddenly thrusts in, nothing remains unreal, except possibly love"- throughout the novel, with airy observations of her own, such as, "There is something momentous about the height of winter" and "writers find themselves constantly face to face with persons who expect to make free with them."

Portia, we learn is the daughter of Anna's husband Thomas's father and Irene, a dalliance of his, with whom, once found out, he was condemned to spend the years until his death, abroad and in hotels. It is there that Portia has until recently continued living happily with her mother, a woman who knew "that nine out of ten things you do direct from the heart are the wrong thing". As Portia's mother is now dead too, Portia has returned to Britain to live with her half-brother, from whence she is despatched each day to Miss Paullie's, an educational establishment dedicated to teaching girls important things such as that to "carry your bag about with you indoors is a hotel habit", as well as "the deportment of staying still, of feeling yourself watched without turning a hair", a place where "the lunch given the girls was sufficient, simple and far from excellent."

The only person within her own household who really seems to care at all for Portia is Matchett, the housekeeper, whose loyalty is to the furniture, rather than the family. Matchett tells Portia that Thomas's mother was all too pleased to chuck her husband out. "Sacrificers", she explains, "are not the ones to pity. The ones to pity are those that they sacrifice." When Portia protests that the woman "meant to do good", Matchett contradicts her, saying, "No, she meant to do right." Matchett, it is made abundantly clear, is the presiding priestess of the house: "The impassive solemnity of her preparations made a sort of an altar of each bed: in big houses in which things are done properly, there is always the religious element", we are told. She serves the furniture: "Furniture's knowing all right", she claims, "Good furniture knows what's what. It knows it's made for a purpose and it respects itself", she says, adding boastfully, "You can see ten foot into my polish".

Sadly, for a time at least, Portia falls for a young friend of Anna's called Eddie, after he writes her something awfully like a love letter. Eddie is "the brilliant child of an obscure home ... His apparent rushes of Russian frankness proved, when you came to look back at them later, to have been more carefully edited than you had known at the time" and he is "one of those natures in which underground passion is, at a crisis, stronger than policy". It is a mark of Bowen's good writing that just thinking about him now makes me cross. He is a frightful human being, and he is unsurprisingly dreadful to Portia. Their relationship comes to a head when Anna sends Portia away to stay at the seaside with Anna's childhood governess and her stepchildren, where Portia experiences a thoroughly rackety life amongst rather ordinary young people but in some ways feels slightly happier than she had in London. On her return to the city, where she feels unwanted, Portia encounters St Quentin, who tells her that Anna has been reading her diary.

This precipitates a crisis for Portia, but not a very enormous one. She turns to the novel's only two decent and trustworthy characters, Matchett and, before her, Major Brutt, a peripheral figure who has intruded into Anna and Thomas's life by chance and who has shown kindness to Portia, via the presentation of a couple of jigsaws as gifts. I suppose it is neither here nor there who I am fond of in the book, but nevertheless I can't help saying that Major Brutt is the character I like best in the novel. He is a returned soldier, who leads a life of great loneliness and increasing impoverishment in a hotel for paying guests. In describing him, Bowen explains that,

"Makes of men date, like makes of cars; Major Brutt was a 1914-18 model: there was now no market for that make. In fact, only his steadfast persistence in living made it a pity that he could not be scrapped."

Matchett, Brutt's counterpart in solid old-fashioned reliability, eventually comes to some kind of rescue for Portia. She is, after all, the upholder of the past, about which her masters do not care to remember - or at least so she asserts:

"They'd rather no past", she tells Portia, "not have the past, that is to say. No wonder they don't rightly know what they're doing. Those without memories don't know what is what."

The book ends without any real resolution. The various characters are left as they were at the beginning, groping through existence. However, has succeeded in conveying at least to this reader a sense of a society unravelling, a world in which all but a very few feel themselves to have lost their bearings, to be living on unsteady ground.

PS The books three sections are titled: the World; the Flesh; the Devil, as in the Book of Common Prayer's, "From all the deceits of the world, the flesh and the devil, good Lord, protect us". I wish I could say I find this enlightening.

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