Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Portia Quayne is the sixteen-year-old heroine of The Death of the Heart, which begins soon after she arrives in London. Her father and mother having died within a few years of each other, Portia must now live with her father’s son, Thomas Quayne, and his wife Anna. Thomas is a middle-aged, successful, reserved businessman who is unable to form close personal relationships with anyone, although he does love his wife in his own aloof and undemonstrative way. Anna is a stylish, elegant woman whose principal interest is making herself and her house beautiful. She entertains frequently, but she, too, has no close relationships, though she appears to have a certain cool, impersonal attachment to her husband. Both are embarrassed and uncomfortable at the appearance of Portia, the child of the elder Quayne’s disgrace and second marriage.
Into this house comes Portia, who does everything that she can to please the Quaynes, being obedient, well-mannered, and quiet. She observes them minutely and records in a diary her thoughts about them, as well as the uninteresting events of her life, which consist primarily of attending an expensive, exclusive establishment where French lessons, lectures, and excursions are offered to a small group of girls. Portia does not know that Anna has discovered her diary. Worse, Anna discusses the diary with St. Quentin, a novelist and one of her several bachelor friends. Anna is upset by Portia’s insights and candid observations, but she is too resentful of the slight disruption caused by Portia’s presence to feel any real pity or concern for her.
Portia is bewildered by the lack of open, shared feeling in this household. She believes that she is the only one who does not understand what is beneath the genteel, snobbish surface of the Quaynes’ lives. Two other characters add to Portia’s puzzlement. One is Matchett, the housekeeper, a woman who worked for the first Mrs. Quayne and who knows a considerable amount about the family but who reveals only as much as she chooses to reveal in response to Portia’s attempts to make a connection with the only family left to her. Matchett is a perfect servant—conscientious, discreet, authoritarian, and...
(The entire section is 901 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Anna Quayne’s pique demands an outlet—she can no longer contain it all within herself; therefore, while St. Quentin Miller shivers with cold, she marches him around the frozen park, delivering herself of her discontent. The trouble, of course, started with Portia, for the Quayne household was not the same after the arrival of Tom’s sixteen-year-old half sister. Not that Portia is all to blame; the business began with a deathbed wish. Who could have expected dying old Mr. Quayne to ask Tom to take a half sister he hardly knew, keep her for at least a year, and give her a graceful start in life? As she explains to St. Quentin, Anna herself hardly knows how to cope with the arrangement, although she tries to accept it with outward tranquillity. Now she stumbled across the girl’s diary, glimpsed her own name, and was tempted to read. It is obvious that Portia is less than happy and that she is scanning the atmosphere of her brother’s house with an unflattering eye.
While Anna is thus unburdening herself, the subject of her discussion returns home quietly from Miss Paullie’s lessons. She is vaguely disturbed to learn from Matchett, the housekeeper, that Anna commented upon the clutter in Portia’s bedroom. Later, she shares tea with Anna and St. Quentin when they come in, tingling with cold; but the atmosphere seems a bit stiff, and Portia readily agrees with Anna’s suggestion that she join her brother in his study. Portia feels more at ease with Tom, even though he clearly finds conversation with her awkward.
By now, Portia knows that there is no one in whom she can readily confide. At 2 Windsor Terrace, Matchett offers a certain possessive friendship; at school, only the inquisitive Lilian takes notice of her. Major Brutt is better than either of these; in her presence, his eyes show a fatherly gleam, and she likes the picture puzzle he sent. Anna tolerates the Major—he is her only link with an old friend, Pidgeon—but Major Brutt seldom ventures to call, and Portia sees him mostly in the company of others.
Another of Anna’s friends whom Portia sometimes sees is Eddie. Eddie, however, is seemingly beyond the range of Portia’s clumsy probing for companionship. He is twenty-three years of age and brightly self-assured. Anna finds it amusing to have him around, although she often rebukes his conceit and presumption; she goes so far as to find him a job with Quayne and Merrett. One day, Portia hands Eddie his hat as he takes leave of Anna; the next day he writes to her. Before long, they are meeting regularly and secretly.
Having no wish to alienate Anna, Eddie cautions Portia not to mention him in her diary, but he revels in Portia’s uncritical adoration. They go to the zoo, to tea, and ultimately to his apartment. Matchett, who finds Eddie’s letter under Portia’s pillow, soon becomes coldly jealous of his...
(The entire section is 1177 words.)