Elizabeth Bowen

Death of the Heart

By Elizabeth Bowen

Posted by A. G. Moore

I am cheered when I discover, or rediscover, an author – especially if the author has been prolific and offers the potential for many more occasions of reading pleasure.  I ask myself, how could I not have appreciated, or even encountered, this author before?  Recently the delight of new discovery was mine as I read Death of a Heart by Elizabeth Bowen.  The delicious subtlety of this author’s mind worked its magic on me almost immediately.  Her compact novel meandered with deceptive ease through a brief but critical period in a young girl’s life.

As Death of a Heart begins, we meet Portia Quayne, a sixteen-year old who is the essence of unaffected innocence.  Orphaned and sent to live with an unfamiliar half brother, Portia finds herself in a home that is almost a museum of human pretense.  As guileless and expressive as she is, so in equal measure are her brother and his wife unfeeling and calculating.  But Portia is no Jane Eyre; there is no Mr. Rochester waiting in the wings to redeem her heart.  Instead, Bowen’s young miss undergoes a gradual erosion of trust until she comes to terms with life as it happens and not as she might wish it to be.

Since reading Death of a Heart I have sampled two more of Ms. Bowen’s books:  The Last September and A World of Love.  The Last September more than lived up to my expectations of this author.  A World of Love I have not yet finished so I will not rush to make a judgment.

Happily, Elizabeth Bowen wrote enough books that, should my library cooperate, I will be entertained and enriched for some time to come.  I recommend this author to anyone who enjoys work that is sophisticated and relevant.

More Books by Elizabeth Bowen

The Little Girls

The House in Paris

A Time in Rome

The Heat of the Day Eva Trout

Seven Winters: Memories of a Dublin Childhood

A Time in Rome

Friends and Relations

To the North

The Hotel


James Tait Black Memorial Prize

CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire)

Nominee, Man Booker Prize


Elizabeth Bowen was born in 1899 – the same year Sigmund Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams.  Not only was Bowen Freud’s contemporary, she was also an associate of some the most influential literary figures of her time, including Eudora Welty and Virginia Woolf.

Bowen inherited the family’s Irish estate, Bowen’s Court, in 1930 but could not keep up with the property’s expenses.  She sold Bowen’s Court in 1960 and shortly afterwards saw the house torn down.

While Bowen’s remains are interred at a graveyard in Farahy, near Bowen’s Court, there is apparently some controversy among the Irish about her dedication to their country (see Elizabeth BowenA Debate in the Irish Examiner, @ http://aubanehistoricalsociety.org irishexaminerbowendebate.pdf )

Elizabeth Bowen died in a London hospital on June 22, 1973.
St. Colman’s Graveyard, Farahy, Ireland where Elizabeth Bowen is buried

Picture Attribution: Mike Searle

Update on Books by Elizabeth Bowen

Since my review of Death of A Heart I have read The House in Paris and completed A World of Love.  So I am now positioned to consider whether this author’s offerings are consistently excellent.  I would say yes, although A World of Love was as disappointing as its title might suggest.  I wonder whether Bowen meant the book to be a kind of spoof on a romantic novel – the last words in the book have two strangers looking into each others eyes and instantly falling in love.  This is so over-the-top that I cannot believe the author wrote them with any degree of seriousness.  Except as an examination of motive and character – two exercises at which Bowen excels – I would say the story is rather thin. 

Of course, to read Bowen is to spend time with an incisive and subtle intellect.  And that, even in a thin vehicle, is a reward in itself.

However, the other two books I have read by Bowen, The House in Paris and The Last September, are brilliant.  Each reveals traces of Bowen’s experience as the heir to a great Irish estate house.  The Last September deals more directly with this and has value not only because of its social commentary and psychological insight, but also because of its astute perspective on a tumultuous period in Irish history.

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