“Some secret power kept springing out”: Fluidity and Overflow in Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart

In Elizabeth Bowen: The Shadow Across the Page, Maud Ellmann warns against “neglecting the outer world of Bowen’s fiction in favour of its forays into the interior.”[1] Similarly, Neil Corcoran’s Elizabeth Bowen: The Enforced Return alerts Bowen’s readers to the limitations of focusing too much on her “gaps, ellipse, absences, hauntings, silences, and aporias,” highlighting that, while “wandering the Protestant graveyard in Rome in her travel book A Time in Rome, … [Bowen] discovers there, extraordinarily, ‘overflows of livingness.’”[2] I am drawn to this metaphor of “overflow,” which stands opposed to notions of emptiness and abandon in Bowen’s writing. Bowen’s “overflows of livingness” suggest a movement towards the outside of space as a consequence of abundance and depends on the existence of a boundary—indeed, on a boundary which fails.[3] In an examination of spatial poetics in Bowen’s The Last September, Siân White argues that Bowen—whom she reads as a late modernist—produces narratives that move through “spatial juxtaposition rather than temporal sequencing.”[4] Living at Bowen’s Court, her ancestral home in County Cork, Bowen grows conscious of space as not only dynamic, but also as continuous—space as a “keeping going.”[5] What she decrees a “physical link” between multiple generations and temporalities is, ultimately, a spatial one, “forged of touch and sight—a matter of handling the same doorknobs, mounting the same stairs, looking out at the same scene through the same windows.”[6] Building on these perspectives, this piece addresses manifestations of physical, metaphorical and narrative thresholds in Bowen’s The Death of the Heart, offering an alternative treatment of Bowenesque space—both, narratorial and spatio-temporal—in which fluidity and malleability are the defining characteristics. 

“Floating in Segments”: Narrative Structure, Narrative Flow 

Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart opens with a breaking apart of a solid and yet fragile surface: “That morning’s ice, no more than a brittle film, had cracked and was now floating in segments.”[7] Introducing the first section of the novel, titled “The World,” these lines gesture towards the very opening of this “World” as though the story itself, like “channels of dark water” will now begin to flow.[8] Equally, it is a violent image: a once-cold, “brittle film” cracks as its surface slowly warms.[9] In this harsh, dark exterior, the novel introduces its first two characters, Anna Quayne and St. Quentin; like the ice below them, in which “their reflections were constantly broken up,” they experience their own thermal exchange, their warm interiors contrasted with their cold, outside edges—the “rims” of their bodies—as though, like the ice, they themselves are ready to “crack.”[10] What seeps out here is the secret that ties together the novel’s tensions: Anna has read Portia’s diary. It is Portia’s “World,” then, which has opened, and the violence contained in this image is the violence of an intruder—Anna—trespassing upon Portia’s private interiority. Describing Portia’s escritoire, in which the diary is located, Anna’s language reflects a disorderly expansion: the escritoire is “crammed” and “stuffed,” its keys are lost, and its flap refuses to shut as “papers gushed out all around it and even stuck through the hinge.”[11, 12] There is an overflow of paper and, in turn, of words. Indeed, there is an overflow of Portia herself, whose diary is exposed amidst this spatial upheaval. This encounter with Portia’s diary, Anna avows, is then far less an act of intrusion on Anna’s part and far more the outburst of the words themselves: this is Portia’s teeming interiority bursting forth. 

Bowen’s The Death of the Heart is, at its own heart, the story of Portia Quayne. I mean this literally. The “heart” of the novel is Portia’s own: her struggle to find a place within her adoptive extended family, the momentary bliss of young love, and the excruciating loss of innocence which follows. But this “segmented” narrative of three parts—“The World,” “The Flesh,” and “The Devil”—is framed by a beginning and an end that exclude Portia entirely, alluding to and insisting upon her physical existence “elsewhere.” Patricia Craig, in her introduction to the 1998 Vintage edition of the novel, exclaims that “The Death of the Heart begins with ice in Regent’s Park, and ends with intimations of heat and glare” —and yet, I note that neither of these pivotal scenes include Portia physically.[13] In the opening chapter, Portia is merely a literary presence; her voice emerges (with an ear for style, as St. Quentin notes) only from the pages of her ill-fated diary, distorted by Anna’s emotional interpretation.[14] In the final scene, Portia’s voice is once again displaced; if she speaks, it is only to and through Matchett, who works for the Quaynes, and with whom Portia has a close relationship. Here, Bowen’s text shifts abruptly to Matchett’s first-person perspective: “When at moments she [Matchett] thought, she thought in words. I don’t know, I’m sure. Mrs Thomas certainly never thought to mention, and I never thought to ask.”[15] Speaking to a silenced Portia, Matchett goes on:

Well, and did you get a good supper? Wholesome, was it? You never know at those places; they’re out to make what they can. And that Major Brutt’s just an innocent: he would never know. Him and his puzzles. However … No, what I’m on about is, you staying out like this, you coming right off here, you giving me such a turn. No, it’s high time you came out of this silly fit. You stay quiet, now, and remember what I said.[16]

For a moment, it appears that Matchett has simply failed to record Portia’s responses; when she arrives at The Karachi Hotel, however, it is revealed that this conversation is not only one-sided, but entirely imaginary. The novel ends with Matchett entering the hotel, presumably to utter those very words which she had just rehearsed. Once again, Portia’s presence is immaterial, almost phantasmal—her real voice is noticeably absent at the culmination of a novel that is almost entirely about her. 

And yet, Portia, we soon find, is incompatible with containment.[17]Describing the room in which she takes her lessons, she notes that “[v]entilation was not the room’s strong point—which may have been why Portia dropped like a plant the moment she got in. … She could not keep her thoughts at face-and-table level; they would go soaring up through the glass dome.”[18] Portia’s spectral manifestations in both the first and final scenes are testament to this ability to “soar… up through the glass dome”—to seep out and into narrative frames that repeatedly desire to speak on her behalf.[19] Like her heaving escritoire, Portia overflows through words, through the narrative itself, and extends into the two aforementioned narrative spaces which attempt to frame, on either side of the novel, the very “heart” of her story. She breaches the narratorial integrity of this frame, overflowing into the moments of the novel which the third-person narrative attempts to keep from her. In a chapter on “The In-Between Spaces of Elizabeth Bowen’s Early Novels,” Emma Short notes of The Death of the Heart that, “[b]eginning in Regent’s Park on a footbridge, and ending on the doorstep of the Karachi Hotel, the importance of thresholds and transitory spaces is at once highlighted.”[20] Short associates these two scenes with spatial displacement, arguing for the significance of liminality for many of Bowen’s characters. Equally, I believe, it captions Portia’s contention towards these narrative spaces that endeavour to isolate her, as well as to the characters that we encounter within them. Both bridge and threshold place Portia decidedly “elsewhere,” outside the narrative frame; both, however, are traversable and thus allow Portia to stream backwards into the sequestered spaces of the novel. 

Indeed, Portia’s propensity for “overflow” is presented as innate, even to her own body, which, readers are told, was “all concave and jerkily fluid lines; it moved with sensitive looseness, loosely threaded together: each movement had a touch of exaggeration, as though some secret power kept springing out.”[21] Certainly, the novel presents itself as a narrative that seeks to exert control over the flow of words and over the flow of emotion—and yet The Death of the Heart is, notably, one of Bowen’s longest novels, and certainly the one in which emotional intensity is most abundant. It is a novel notable for its lack of emotional restraint, and it is, I believe, this conflict which underpins much of the novel’s tense plot: the contrast between the unyielding sang froid of 2 Windsor Terrace and Portia’s unrestrained drift. Indeed, Portia’s only semblance of an escape is found on the coast of Seale-on-Sea, that “fount of spontaneous living” where everything is “nearly melted by light” and where the “steel expanse of the sea,” which initially marked out the horizon for Portia “like a blade,” ultimately “diluted into a mauvish haze.”[22-25] 

“Torn Mist”: Formlessness and the Spatio-Temporality of the Past

Portia herself is an excess, overflowing from one domestic setting into another, for as Ellmann notes, Portia “is that which is passed on, from hotel to hotel, from deathbed to deathbed.”[26] Prior to coming to London, her life with her mother is transient, fluid, and free from the confines of English society: 

They would lie down covered with coats, leaving the window open, … hearing the gutters run. … Between five and six the rain quite often stopped, wet light crept down the trunks of the pines. Then they rolled off their beds, put their shoes on, and walked down the village street to the viewpoint over the lake. Through torn mist they would watch the six o’clock steamer chuff round the cliff and pull in at the pier.[27] 

Portia and Irene’s immediate environment produces an effect of spatial excess, which, readers feel, is what Portia longs for at 2 Windsor Terrace: strange light and dense mists dominate the reader’s senses, rapidly flowing gutters are heard thundering, and the faint light of “dark” “Swiss summer rain” bends and twists itself in order to creep into the space of the obscure, back-facing room.[28] Flouting all conventions of orderly life, Portia, along with her mother—who was always “leaking tears”—eat in “mouthfuls,” read “aloud” to one another, and “expose” their wet stockings on the radiators to dry.[29, 30] Projecting Irene as a source of uncontrolled excess, the novel underlines the social standpoint on Irene as Mr. Quayne’s lover and later wife; this is concretized through Anna’s description of her as a “scrap of a widow, … with … defective tear-ducts that gave her eyes always rather a swimmy look.”[31] Portia is, therefore, accustomed to “formless space”—indeed, even “defective” space which barely qualifies as such because of its utter unboundedness.[32] Brimming with physical and metaphorical fluidity, such a space allows for the uninhibited movement of light and sound; equally, it allows Portia herself, her mind, and her thoughts, to traverse without hindrance. Speaking to her brother Thomas in his study, Portia “only looked through him, and Thomas felt the force of not being seen … What she did see was the pension on the crag in Switzerland.”[33] Like the “torn mist” through which Portia and Irene watch “the six o’clock steamer,” Bowen offers memory as a malleable space that can be “wound[ed],” and therefore accessed.[34, 35]

“[W]rapped” in rain, Portia’s consciousness wades through a semi-translucent recollection, collapsing both space and time between past and present.[36] Craig describes the novel’s characteristic “Swiss mist” as “a kind of fuzzy happiness in the past.”[37] This is what Steven Connor alludes to in The Matter of Air: Science and the Art of the Ethereal when he asserts that the “characteristics of haze, fog and mist derive from their scattering of light.”[38] Hazethat term under which Connor groups various “nebular” weather phenomenacan “suspend time,” he notes, for it is “the residue of the past” and marks the site of “interchange between the palpable and the impalpable.”[39-42] Considering this, Craig’s remark that the novel’s “Swiss mist” is “standing” for that vaguely defined space of Portia’s childhood is perhaps a little limiting.[43] For Portia and, indeed, for Bowen herselfwhose novels frequently place children at their forefrontthat space of childhood can be rather “unsettling,” Keri Walsh remarks.[44] Indeed, that space, I believe, is often even tangible as a site of confrontation between the characters’ various trajectories and the novels’ ultimate denouements, which frequently offer no sense of narrative closure. In many ways, Bowen’s insistence on the malleability of the past is symptomatic of her own experience as a single child. Writing in Seven Winters: Memories of a Dublin Childhood, Bowen notes that her parents lived “in a world of their own”; “inside it,” she confesses, she “began to set up … [her] own.”[45] Portia’s memories of her childhood echo this concentric structure, existing as worlds within worlds, semi-permeable, and accessible through incidents of spatio-temporal rupture: “black wounds in the white mist.”[46] Connor insists that “fog is the undoing of place and spatial differentiation.”[47] If, as he demonstrates, such atmospheric phenomena can indeed scatter light, thereby blurring the edges of space, they also seem capable of scattering memory, initiating precisely such an “undoing,” and allowing for a coalescence of space across time, as Portia’s past seeps into her present in the form of a formless fog.[48] 

In this reading of Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart, I examined incidents of rupture and overflow in order to question the integrity of Bowen’s narratorial and spatio-temporal structures. First, I demonstrated how the overt structure of The Death of the Heart is repeatedly compromised by what I believe is the voice that lies at its own “heart”—the coming-of-age story of Portia Quayne—which, like a “secret power” that “kept springing out,” defies any attempt to silence it and, in turn, exposes the permeability of the narrative spaces within the novel.[49] In this way, I believe, Portia’s supposed liminal status within the novel is both underlined and undermined. Second, I explored the fluid relationship between Portia’s past and present as evidence of Bowen’s attention to and interrogation of the im/permeability of both space and time. This approach to the fluidity of Bowen’s spatio-temporal structures, I believe, allows for a re-examination of Bowen’s treatment of space not only as a container that can enclose, but equally as a wellspring from which matter, characters, even thoughts, could leak. 

 

 


Farah Nada is PhD candidate in English at the University of Exeter, supervised by Professor Laura Salisbury and Dr. Beci Carver. Her thesis focuses on spaces, movement, and processes of departure in the work of Elizabeth Bowen. She holds a BA in English Literature and Journalism from the American University of Sharjah, and an MA in Twentieth and Twenty-First Century Literary Studies from Durham University.


References 

  1. Maud Ellmann, Elizabeth Bowen: The Shadow Across the Page (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003), 5.
  2. Neil Corcoran, Elizabeth Bowen: The Enforced Return (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 13.
  3. Elizabeth Bowen, A Time in Rome (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965), 224.
  4. Siân E White, “Spatial Politics/Poetics, Late Modernism, and Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September,” Genre, 49, no. 1 (April 2016): 27 https://doi-org.uoelibrary.idm.oclc.org/10.1215/00166928-3429225. 
  5. Bowen, “Bowen’s Court,” in People, Places, Things – Essays by Elizabeth Bowen, ed. Allan Hepburn, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008), 148.
  6. Ibid., 148. 
  7. Bowen, The Death of the Heart (London: Vintage, 2012), 3.
  8. Ibid., 3. 
  9. Ibid., 3.
  10. Ibid., 3. 
  11. Ibid., 5.
  12. Ibid., 6. 
  13. Patricia Craig, introduction to The Death of the Heart, by Elizabeth Bowen (Vintage, 2012), ix.
  14. Bowen, The Death of the Heart, 7–8.
  15. Ibid., 350 (italics added.) 
  16. Ibid., 353. 
  17. Ibid., 19. 
  18. Ibid., 53.
  19. Ibid., 53.
  20. Emma Short, “‘Always Coming and Going’: The In-Between Spaces of Elizabeth Bowen’s Early Novels,” in Women in Transit through Literary Liminal Spaces, ed. Teresa Gómez Reus and Terry Gifford, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan), 128.
  21. Bowen, The Death of the Heart, 26–27 (italics added).
  22. Ibid., 189.
  23. Ibid., 162. 
  24. Ibid., 164.
  25. Ibid., 205. 
  26. Ellmann, The Shadow Across the Page, 137.
  27. Bowen, The Death of the Heart, 32–33.
  28. Ibid., 32.
  29. Ibid., 15.
  30. Ibid., 32.
  31. Ibid., 14.
  32. Ibid., 14 (italics added). 
  33. Ibid., 32. 
  34. Ibid., 32.
  35. Ibid., 32.
  36. Ibid., 32. 
  37. Craig, introduction, ix.
  38. Steven Connor, The Matter of Air: Science and the Art of the Ethereal (London: Reaktion Books, 2012), 162.
  39. Ibid., 36.
  40. Ibid., 164.
  41. Ibid., 156.
  42. Ibid., 169. 
  43. Craig, introduction, ix.
  44. Keri Walsh, “Elizabeth Bowen, Surrealist.” Éire-Ireland, 42, no. 3 & 4 (Fall/Winter 2007): 133. https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137330475_9.
  45. Bowen, Bowen’s Court and Seven Winters (London: Vintage, 1999), 469 (italics added).
  46. Bowen, The Death of the Heart, 32. 
  47. Connor, The Matter of Air, 158.
  48. Ibid., 158.
  49. Bowen, The Death of the Heart, 27.

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