If there was a female Henry James, it would be Elizabeth Bowen. Her plots are not driven by events, but by small gestures of characters. Her characters are similar to James’ in both Washington Square and The Wings of the Dove. There is a plain, innocent heroine: Portia, who isn’t terribly likable, but hey, she’s better than all the other twisted, manipulative characters we’re faced with.
The story proceeds (at a snail’s pace) as Portia falls in love with Eddie, a slippery, creepy lay-about who has absolutely no business dating Portia. Though he clearly has no feelings for her, they proceed with a semblance of a relationship. Meanwhile Portia writes about her life with her brother, Thomas and his wife, Anna, including details of her illicit relationship with Eddie. Unknown to Portia, Anna reads her diary whenever Portia is out.
The Death of the Heart certainly succeeds in revealing the pettiness of the upper middle class. By creating a character like Portia who is too innocent and naive to realize what is proper, forms a juxtaposition with Anna and Thomas. Portia’s social mistakes combined with the reactions of Anna create a parody of the upper middle class.
The ending of the book was the real disappointment. I am happy to go though 400 pages of inaction if I am to witness a victory of some sort. This is where Bowen deviates from James. James creates an ironic victory for his heroines, while Portia still seems like a naive little girl. She has not stuck it to her brother and sister in-law, she simply runs away and hides like a child. There is no conclusion, no resolution, simply a vague open-ended finish.