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The Death of the Heart (Twentieth Century Classics) [Paperback]

Elizabeth Bowen
3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)

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Book Description

25 Oct 1990 Twentieth Century Classics
Set in London during the 1930s, this is a tale of innocence betrayed, of passion, misunderstanding and the emotional atrophy of grown-ups. When 16-year-old Portia comes to stay with her cool, elegant relations in Windsor Terrace, she meets Eddie, an attractive young philanderer, and falls in love. From the author of THE HEAT OF THE DAY.

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The Death of the Heart (Twentieth Century Classics) + The Heat Of The Day (Vintage Classics)
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Product details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd; New edition edition (25 Oct 1990)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140183000
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140183009
  • Product Dimensions: 19.6 x 12.7 x 2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,320,661 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


"Bowen is "the link that connects Virginia Woolf with Iris Murdoch and Muriel Spark."" (Victoria Glendinning)

"Ironic comedy as well as tragedy, The Death of the Heart tells a story as old as wickedness: the world's betrayal of innocence" (TIME Magazine, 1939)

"Bowen had a genius for conveying the reader straight into the most powerful and complex regions of the heart" (New York Times) --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

Book Description

Bowen's best known book. A piercing story of innocence betrayed. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Innocence and Experience 13 July 2009
Following the death of her parents, the sixteen-year-old Portia Quayne comes to live with her older half-brother Thomas and his wife Anna. Although they are brother and sister, Thomas and Portia have had very different lives. He, in his late thirties, is a wealthy advertising executive, who has also inherited money from his mother and lives in one of the elegant Regency terraces surrounding Regent's Park. She is the family's guilty secret, the daughter of Thomas's father by his second wife. The elder Mr Quayne, a seemingly respectable middle-aged businessman, was divorced by his first wife after getting his mistress, Portia's mother, pregnant. As a result he was banished from polite society in England, and Portia has spent her entire childhood living in various seedy hotels on the Continent.

The book is divided into three sections, entitled "The World", "The Flesh" and "The Devil". The first and last sections are set in London, the middle one in the Kentish seaside town of Seale-on-Sea, where Portia goes to stay with Anna's old governess, Mrs Heccomb, while Thomas and Anna are abroad. (Seale, a fictitious town probably based on Hythe near Folkestone, also features in a later Elizabeth Bowen novel, "The Heat of the Day").

Portia is a quiet, naive and unworldly girl, who finds it difficult to fit into the fashionable world of her brother and sister-in-law. Thomas is a rather dull individual whose main preoccupation is making money, Anna a glamorous and sophisticated, if cold and conventional, society hostess, with a number of suspiciously close male friends,. Neither of them welcome having Portia staying with them, and take her in reluctantly out of a sense of duty. Anna in particular resents Portia, whose innocence is at odds with her own worldliness.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars 'the saddest story ever told' 18 Dec 2011
Elizabeth Bowen has a reputation for being a 'writer's writer', Ian McEwan has acknowledged his debt to her work. 'In the Heat of the Day' may be better known than this book, but it bears the same stamp of Bowen's in-depth psychological insight and a fine ability to evoke time and place. Her world is often London during, before and after the world war two and no-one has evoked the city and its diurnal and seasonal moods better. Here is Regent's Park and the glamorous London that seems untouched by the war, in the late 40's or early 50's.

Set amongst the largely idle, weathy, upper class set of post-war London's elite, the story is a 'coming of age novel', in a broad sense. Other reviewers have neatly recapped the plot so my point is to emphasise the sensitivity of the writing and to praise the heart-wrenchingly vivid portrait of a young girl, on the verge of adulthood whose vulnerablity and open-heartedness is exploited and vilified by those adults who should be caring for her. There is no physical abuse, it is the careless cruelty of the adult who has forgotten or never knew the sufferings of childhood.

In this, novel here bears some ressemblence to James's 'What Maisie Knew', in its use of the child's perspective to point up and emphasise adult corruption and veniality. But Maisie had someone to look out for her, Portia the heroine, has no-one and the reader feels acutely anxious for her. The final chapters are heart-breaking, it's true, but worth reading in order to understanding the message of the book, which is this: the corruprion of innocence is the most deadly of crimes and can be comitted by people who are merely careless, thoughtlessly cruel. And the damage is irrevocable. Childhood, the novel tells us, is not a time for the faint-hearted and if you can survive the deeply perplexing and frightening transition from innocence to experience unscathed, then nothing else life can throw at you will ever hurt so much.
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25 of 27 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not My Cup of Tea at All 23 Jan 2009
I have to admit that I read this critically acclaimed novel under some duress -- it was picked for my book group on the basis that it is one of our member's writing professor's favorite book. (It's also on the Modern Library and Time Magazine lists of Top 100 Novels, for whatever that's worth.) Unfortunately, I tend to like books with plots, and this is certainly not that -- it's more of a psychological portrait of a teenage girl as she undergoes the process of having her "innocence" utterly revoked by the social milieu she is thrust into.

Portia is a 16-year-old orphan sent to live with her half-brother and his cold and catty wife in their lovely Regency Park-fronting home in 1930s London. Having been raised in a succession of continental hotels (an experience Bowen herself had for about a decade, starting at age 12), she is wholly unprepared for the invisible and unspoken rules of the game operating in the upper-class English home she's entered. With her distant half-brother and cold sister-in-law, she struggles to locate some kind of human connection, and only manages to find it in unsuitable people such as an older head servant, or a dissolute young male "friend" of her sister-in-law (he's apparently based on the Welsh writer Goronwy Rees).

It is this latter relationship that inevitably leads to tears at the end, as her naive dreams are dashed by the self-absorption of everyone around her. It's all pretty bleak stuff, as there is not a single character in the book who lives in anything approaching happiness.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars good read
This was well reviewed in The Week magazine as a book on ageing and I really enjoyed it being an older person myself.
Published 15 months ago by p mcclure
4.0 out of 5 stars Death of childhood, welcome to reality!
A book very much of its time (1938) not so much a story more of an exploration of peoples characters. Read more
Published 16 months ago by Casada
2.0 out of 5 stars Dated
It was quite hard work to read this for my book club and I could not relate to the Characters
Published 22 months ago by Mrs margaret watts
3.0 out of 5 stars Moving
"Habit is not mere subjection, it is a tender tie: when one remembers habit it seems to have been happiness. Read more
Published on 7 Sep 2012 by Diane Walker
5.0 out of 5 stars A Masterpiece (just savour the prose)
I discovered this book through Amazon's "recommended for you" listings, and thoroughly agree with much said in these crits. Read more
Published on 26 May 2012 by Christopher H
2.0 out of 5 stars The Death of the Heart
I found the first section of the book had some interesting observations of the characters and situations. Read more
Published on 17 Aug 2011 by sv
4.0 out of 5 stars Great read
Having just moved to London, I loved how much the city infuses this moody jewel of a novel. It's definitely of its time, but anyone who has survived the depths and heights of... Read more
Published on 23 Feb 2004 by "girlwonder_uk"
5.0 out of 5 stars A superb, moving novel
Elizabeth Bowen could produce page-turners worthy of the best
commercial novelists, but she had a knack of making the most of
the apparently ordinary. Read more
Published on 22 Nov 2002 by "lucyms"
4.0 out of 5 stars An excellent, breath-taking read!!
Although not of the same era, Elizabeth Bowen's The Death of the Heart brings to mind the work of Jane Austen. Read more
Published on 28 Nov 1996
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