A Rather Bitter Grammar Review

Set in the late 1930s, Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart tells the story of a sixteen year old orphan girl who, after a wandering life in Europe, goes to stay with relatives in London.

The book has little plot or action, relying on evocative writing for its impact.

With that in mind, I found the quality of writing patchy, particularly in the second half. The Death of the Heart is on the Modern Library’s list of the 100 best novels of all time. I’m only a struggling writer, who has read books with names like How to Write a Damn Good Novel, imploring me to avoid adverbs, passive voice and inelegantly repeated words. It was disconcerting, then, to find relatively frequent use of adverbs, passive voice and repeated words in writing which is supposed to be amongst the best there is. You’ll just have to consult other reviews for themes and so on. I just couldn’t get past all the stuff in Elizabeth Bowen’s writing that I had been told not to do.

Not that I’m bitter or anything, but have a look at the following and see what you think. We’ll start with repetition of words:

“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.”

This sentence is awkward. The word had is repeated three times. Why is repeated twice. Just for good measure the question why collides inelegantly with the question what.

In a similar vein, look at this sentence:

“The sense of exposure this airy bareness gave them made them, with one another, at once sidelong and bold.”

“Gave them made them” sounds awkwardly repetitive to me.

If we’re talking about repetition, wouldn’t the book’s title The Death of the Heart have been better without the first the?

Moving on to Bowen’s use of passive voice:

“The air, about to darken, quickens and is run through with mysterious white light.”

“The later phases of spring, when her foot is in at the door, are met with a conventional gaiety.”

“Here and there, a gull on a far-out post would be floated off by the tide.”

“There was a breakwater smell – a smell of sea-pickled planks, of slimy green boards being sucked by the tides.”

“Are met”, “is run through”, “would be floated” and “boards being sucked” are passive voice. Is that suggestive of things being acted upon by their environment? Or is it just the flat sound of passive voice?

Moving on to adverbs:

“Anna said, much more kindly.”

“Major Brutt had met her eyes kindly.”

“Thomas nosing so kindly round for cigars.”

“‘Don’t ask me,’ said Daphne kindly.”

“Kindly pulling Portia along by one elbow, she went to the end of the court.”

“When he had used the flame, he kindly looked down the row to see if anyone wanted a light too.”

In the next example, two adverbs – shingly and imperceptibly – and repetition of the word was, combine to produce a bizarre sentence:

“The shallow curve of the bay held a shingly murmur that was just not silence and imperceptibly ended where silence was.”

Similar to adverbs, we have intensifiers:

“His erect, rather forbidding carriage made him look so old-fashioned.”

“Outside gulls skimmed in the rather cold air.”

“Eddie smiled in a rather automatic way.”

In my own novels, not currently in the top 100 of all time, I would have avoided intensifiers like rather, which sits in an unfortunate category with very, pretty and quite.

Finally there are passages that just seemed plain wordy to me:

“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.”

I’m working my way through the Modern Library’s top 100 novels in the hope that the best writing will help my own. This novel reminded me of wisdom attributed to Sam Goldwyn:

“Nobody knows nothing in this business.”

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