The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen
Part Three of my real-time review – as continued from HERE
All my reviews of Bowen novels will be linked here: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2021/11/27/elizabeth-bowens-novels/
All my links of Bowen stories: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/31260-2/
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Part Two: 2
“Daphne groaned, but got up and restarted the wireless. Then she kicked off her court shoes and lighted a cigarette. ‘You know,’ she said, ‘I feel spring in my bones today.’”
That spring again, now sprung by another momentous, monumental Bowen chapter, one that had completely escaped my memory of first reading it. Indeed this chapter itself refers to such a running memory theme of mine so far…
“To remember can be at times no more than a cold duty, for we remember only in the limited way that is bearable. We observe small rites, but we defend ourselves against that terrible memory that is stronger than will.”
Daphne in this seaside house — with, like mine, sloping bedroom ceilings, when nightmares can be assuaged by the nearness of folk through its walls — is unbearably larger than life as, later, so is her brother Dickie.
“Even when the wireless was not on full blast, Daphne often shouted as though it were.”
She is compensating for her job in the enforced quiet of a library!
Daphne thus almost overbears upon Doris, the maidservant who has a boyfriend with a spot on his neck…
Daphne seems to have antipathy towards absent Anna’s airs and graces and lilies floating in the bath like Portia (if my memory serves) and the past context of Anna’s co-opting Daphne’s step-mother herself…
Portia thinks over her lot here, her habits broken, Anna and Thomas — who had shared that house in London with her — now crossing some line of departure across the same sea that edges upon Seale so much like the Clacton where I live … except that was then, and this is now. That was there, and this is here.
“But you cannot pack a jigsaw that is three-quarters done.”
“How far she had travelled – not only in space.”
“…when one remembers habit it seems to have been happiness.”
“The need to attach themselves makes wandering people strike roots in a day:”
Her current room with sloping ceilings has absolved her loneliness with an image she has brought of 12 year old Anna with a kitten as a stain on the breast…creating a covivid dream if not a nightmare proper…
“…the sea filled the darkness with its approaching sighing, a little hoarse with shingle. High tide? The sea had come as near as it could.”
“Portia dreamed she was sharing a book with a little girl. The tips of Anna’s long fair hair brushed on the page: they sat up high in a window, waiting till something happened.”
“Inside everyone, is there an anxious person who stands to hesitate in an empty room?
“At Windsor Terrace, with its many floors and extended plumbing, the intimate life of Thomas was not noticeable. But here Dickie made himself felt as a powerful organism.”
Crucial withdrawal of the self as an island by use of the elbows…
“Portia sat on through Dickie’s exit and Daphne’s entrance, eating the breakfast that had come her way, elbows in as closely as possible, hoping not to catch anyone’s eye.”
Amid the observations of a minutiae that sometimes outweigh much bigger things…
“The Waikiki marmalade was highly jellied, sweet, and brilliantly orange;”
“For Portia, Daphne and Dickie seemed a crisis that surely must be unique: she could not believe that they happened every day.”
The essence of the sea and of Seale itself is indeed momentous and monumental….those Martello towers that haunt Clacton, too. Big things outweighing even bigger things. Larger than life, but still small in the poetic sense of lilies in a bath?
“One’s first day by the sea, one’s being feels salt, strong, resilient, and hollow – like a seaweed pod not giving under the heel.”
“– the polished sea looked like steel: amazing to think that a propeller could cut it. The edge of foam on the beach was tremulous, lacy, but the horizon looked like a blade.
A little later this morning, that blade would have cut off Thomas and Anna.”
The encroaching death of the heart as well as the hearth?
“The heart may think it knows better: the senses know that absence blots people out. We have really no absent friends. The friend becomes a traitor by breaking, however unwillingly or sadly, out of our own zone: a hard judgement is passed on him, for all the pleas of the heart. […] We defend ourselves from the rooms, the scenes, the objects that make for hallucination, that make the senses start up and fasten upon a ghost.”
“Portia was learning to live without Irene, not because she denied or had forgotten that once unfailing closeness between mother and child, but because she no longer felt her mother’s cheek on her own (that Eddie’s finger-tip, tracing the crease of a smile, had more idly but far more lately touched), or smelled the sachet-smell from Irene’s dresses, or woke in those hired north rooms where they used to wake. With regard to Eddie himself, at present, the hard law of present-or-absent was suspended.”
“He, she, Portia, three Quaynes, had lived, packed close in one house through the winter cold, accepting, not merely choosing each other. They had all three worked at their parts of the same necessary pattern. They had passed on the same stairs, grasped the same door handles, listened to the strokes of the same clocks. […] She had breathed smoke from their lungs in every room she went into…”
And those holy elbows again…
“She tried to make a picture of Thomas and Anna leaning over the rail of the ship, both looking the same way. The picture was just real enough, for the moment, to make her want to expunge from their faces a certain betraying look. For they looked like refugees, not people travelling for pleasure. Thomas – who had said he always wore a cap on a ship – wore the cap pulled down, while Anna held her fur collar plaintively to her chin. Their nearness – for they stood with their elbows touching –“
Anna never looks at the sea, a bad sailor.
And time now brings us or has already brought us to Portia’s thoughts while in Seale about Eddie (ironically the same age as Dickie…), Eddie still being pervasive for Portia in contradistinction to the indefinable yet definite absence of others, some more absent than others, death transcending any nullimmortalis or eventernality in the case of Irene, her mother… but for Eddie, she says:
‘Go, that you may be here.’
Just realised — from II. 6 — that the portrait of Anna in Portia’s room was not brought by Portia to Waiki, but was a fixture, as created in pastels by Mrs H herself. Sorry.
Part Two: 3
The Bursitis Chapter….
Three separate letters to Portia at Seale from Matchett, Eddie and Eric Brutt (the knowledge of his forename does seem to give him a new aura?) give us a gestalt-with-puzzles of this threesome elsewhere vis à vis Portia. Portia sizes up a possible visit by Eddie to stay at Seale. Meanwhile, Mrs Heccomb shopping again…
“With her hive-shaped basket under her elbow, Portia in her wake, she punted happily, slowly up and down the High Street, crossing at random, quite often going back on her tracks. Women who shop by telephone do not know what the pleasures of buying are. Rich women live at such a distance from life that very often they never see their money –“
…the latter part of which seems to have some resonance with our times today?
Cash, florins, ten shilling notes…
“When Mrs Heccomb had too many pennies, she would build them up, at the next counter she came to, into pillars of twelve or six, and push them across cautiously. […] …money goes further when you do not break into silver, and any provident person baulks at changing a note.”
Dark acts of step-children as regular evacuees to make room for summer lets at Waikiki, that throughout this chapter seems to be a liner at sea rather than a house!
Then sight of the library…
“Portia pictured Daphne behind that window like a furious Lady of Shalott.
‘Is she fond of reading?’ she said.”
Daphne is now ironically IN a book!
Then a wonderful scene, when out shopping…
“And how bright it was up here, with the smell of hot roasting coffee, the whicker of wicker chairs.”
Back at Waikiki, we learn more from what is there (“a Dismal Desmond dog sat on the bed” in Daphne’s room and “Dickie’s room looked north towards the town, and had that physical smell north rooms so soon acquire”) and what carpet is rolled up to allow one of Daphne and Dickie’s parties with a gramophone and match-making of couples, Clara and Cecil being pawns in such a manoeuvre …and a repaired bell echoing the needed bell that did not replace the ghostly whistle of the ‘dumb waiter in ‘To the North’ earlier today!
“She was first downstairs and, squatting on the tiled kerb in front of the fire, heard the chimney roar. With arms raised from the elbows, like an Egyptian, she turned and toasted her body, feeling the clammy velvet slowly unstick from between her shoulder blades.”
Those elbows (whoever they belong to) echo with the importuning of Portia by a Mr Bursely, because bursitis has long been a blight on elbows as well as knees!
“Mr Bursely slewed right round on the sofa, with one arm right along the back. His clean-skinned face, clotted up with emotion, approached Portia’s – unwilling, she looked at, not into, his eyes, which were urgent blue poached eggs.”
How old is she, he asks.
‘Gosh – I thought you were about ten. Anyone ever told you you’re a sweet little kid?’”
“– when another couple approached he would double her arm up, like someone shutting a penknife in a hurry. Crucified on his chest against his breathing, she felt her feet brush the floor like any marionette’s.”
– who was that? I forget. But that penknife image echoes the elbow bursitis. And stuff girls put on nails needing to be scraped off.
“Dickie controlled her by the pressure of a thumb under her shoulder blade;…”
“…whoever she danced with, it would always be Eddie.”
Portia: ‘Some of my ideas get enlarged almost before I have them.’
“They could only find what was inside the sandwiches by turning up the corners to have a look.”
“…and a Dismal Desmond dog sat on the bed.”
Part Two: 4
Portia debriefs herself — amid the All Saints-like stained glass windows (“The sun, slanting moltenly in at the south windows, laid a dusty nimbus over the furs, and printed cheeks with the colours of stained glass”) — about the previous night’s party, and how the behaviour of Bursely had negatively inflamed her conceit of Eddie …
“In church, during the sermon, Portia asked herself for the first time why what Mr Bursely had said had set up such disconcerting echoes, why she had run away from it in her mind. There was something she did not want to look straight at – was this why, since the party yesterday night, she had not once thought of Eddie? It is frightening to find that the beloved may be unwittingly caricatured by someone who does not know him at all. The devil must have been in Mr Bursely when he asked, and asked with such confidence, if she had not been told she was a sweet little kid.”
The Devil versus the God as in the Milton from ‘The Hotel’, that is. Think about it….
“(But if love were original, if it were the unique device of two unique spirits, its importance would not be granted; it could not make a great common law felt. The strongest compulsions we feel throughout life are no more than compulsions to repeat a pattern: the pattern is not of our own device.)”
A parallel with Waikiki versus Windsor Terrace within Portia…
”The uneditedness of life here at Waikiki made for behaviour that was pushing and frank.”
Almost as if Bowen had foreseen the ironic global editability of WAIKIKI-pedia !!!
“Frantic smiles at parties, overtures that have desperation behind them, miasmic reaches of talk with the lost bore, short cuts to approach through staring, squeezing, or kissing – all indicate that one cannot live alone. […] – all these made Waikiki the fount of spontaneous living. Life here seemed to be at its highest voltage, and Portia stood to marvel at Daphne and Dickie as she might have marvelled at dynamos. At nights, she thought of all that force contained in those single beds in the other rooms.”
“Life militates against the seclusion we seek. In the chaos that suddenly thrusts in, nothing remains unreal, except possibly love. […] Pity the selfishness of lovers: it is brief, a forlorn hope; it is impossible. […] Any likeness between Mr Bursely and Eddie her love did still hope to reject.”
Then the walking party with other young ones to play Badminton — “…at times they converged so close that they jogged elbows;…”
“She had learned to be less alarmed by Daphne’s set since she had learned to plumb their abeyances. People are made alarming by one’s dread of their unremitting, purposeful continuity. […] When these young people stopped doing what they were doing, they stopped all through, like clocks.”
And thus Portia takes the abrupt window of opportunity to ask Daphne whether she thought it Ok to ask Mrs Heccomb (great church porch chatterer) whether she could invite Eddie for the weekend….
So until that happens, hold your breath, I suggest just as another young lady at the badminton party, “Kindly pulling Portia along by one elbow, she went to the end of the court and threw open a door.”
For a breath of the sea.
“….standing in the doorway, filled their lungs with the dark sweet salt spring air.”
After, no doubt, all those hard hits of the shuttllecock as time’s feathered pendulum of abeyance versus continuity?
Cross-referenced EDIT HISTORY here: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2021/11/09/best-british-short-stories-2021/#comment-23686
”The uneditedness of life here at Waikiki made for behaviour that was pushing and frank.”
Almost as if Bowen had foreseen the ironic global editability of WAIKIKI-pedia !!!
The ‘pushing and frank’ internet with morphing edits evolving into what we have today…a to and fro of polarities and shuttlecocks, trumps and bodgers?
Part Two: 5
“She borrowed an eiderdown from Cecil’s mother.”
…and that is because Eddie is coming to visit Portia, Mrs H believing him to be a family friend or uncle figure. But reminded me of the shopping trip for eiderdowns in ‘To the North’ yesterday!
“Major Brutt’s second puzzle had come on Wedesday morning, by the same post as Eddie’s letter,…”
An air display in Seale that I thought at first was real like the Clacton air show. Dickie helped finish to fit the pieces together for the ambulance in it…
Scene at Daphne’s library, Daphne who spends her time there knitting, sneering inwardly at those who like reading real books , and I am sure she would have disliked Bowen’s books, especially the one she is in!
“Daphne’s nostrils wore a permanent crinkle. In all senses, literature was in bad odour here.”
“There may be libraries in which Daphne would not have done so well. But for this clientele of discarded people her bloom and her nonchalance served, somehow, to place her above literature. These were readers who could expect no more from life, and just dared to look in books to see how much they had missed.”
I myself dare look in books and I dare them to look back at me! Meanings and dark innuendos bouncing off each other like those earlier shuttlecocks.
“Also, though Daphne loathed print she had rather a feeling for dressy bindings: the books in her keeping had a well-groomed air …”
The suspense of Eddie’s arrival… will he come or cancel at the last minute? — a new literary timelessness of held breath…
“In so far as time did exist, it held some dismay.”
“For people who live on expectations, to face up to their realization is something of an ordeal. Expectations are the most perilous form of dream,…”
“…it was agony to consume intervening time.”
Seale as a sort of Aickman Holihaven resort in timelessness and pushback…
“‘But I thought it was once a port.’
‘It was, but the sea ran back.’”
“The shallow curve of the bay held a shingly murmur that was just not silence and imperceptibly ended where silence was.”
And so Eddie has duly arrived, halves halved…
“Taking her hand in his, he scrunched the fingers inside her glove together. ‘Sweet,’ he said. ‘Like a nest of little weak mice.’”
Mrs Heccomb’s sudden realisation of the nature of Eddie….
“Portia could almost hear Mrs Heccomb’s ideas, like chairs before a party, being rolled about and rapidly rearranged.”
Portia has thoughts about her own costly impression upon the world as we now think of carbon footprints…
“…wherever anyone is they are costing somebody something, and that the cost must be met.”
But Eddie’s arrival cancels this out like a final Bruttian jigsaw piece put in place for, say, the ambulance ….
“He seemed so natural here, so much in the heart of things, that Portia wondered how the Waikiki lounge could have fully existed before he came.”
“Eddie stood aloofly, like someone who after hours allows himself to be freely alone again. There was never much connexion between his affability and his spirit – which now, in a sombre way, came out to stand at its own door. Only Portia had this forbidding intimacy with him – she was the only person to whom he need not pretend that she had not ceased existing when, for him, she had ceased to exist.
He sees a lighthouse like the eye of God…
Then we reach the famous Grotto Cinema (!), a scene with various characters seated together on fauteuils in the near dark, including Portia and Eddie … and its shocking undivulgeable outcome, as seen in the light of a cigarette lighter….
(I remember sitting in cinema within the tug of smoke and seeing every seated person with a tiny red smouldering light havering an inch from their mouth like an unspoken thought…)
“Then Clara bobbed up from under Dickie’s elbow and paid for them all, as they had expected her to do.”
“During most of the programme, Dickie was more oncoming with Portia than he was with Clara – that is to say, he put one elbow on Portia’s arm of his fauteuil,…”
Why did not Eddie breathe? Held breath again…
“The jumping light from Dickie’s lighter showed the canyon below their row of knees.”
A “thumb alertly twitched at the joint.”
This review continues here: https://nemonymousnight.wordpress.com/874-2/