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...
(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...
(The entire section is 1177 words.)
Part One: The World
In the opening of The Death of the Heart, Anna and her good friend St. Quentin walk through the park in the winter while Anna relates the story of how sixteen-year-old Portia has come to live with her and her husband, Portia’s older half-brother, Thomas. Anna is especially vexed because she has found Portia’s diary and read some of it, and it is not complimentary to Anna. The arrangement made by Portia’s father, Mr. Quayne, that Anna and Thomas should take care of Portia, is not going well.
Portia’s background is then revealed. She is the love child of Mr. Quayne and his former mistress, Irene. When Mr. Quayne told his first wife about Irene and the child, she insisted that he marry Irene. He did so, and they moved to southern France, where Portia was born.
Anna and Thomas take Portia out to watch a Marx Brothers film. Portia does not find it very amusing but is grateful for the evening out with them. As they wait for a taxi home, they run into Major Brutt, a friend of Anna’s former lover, Robert Pidgeon.
Portia and her classmate Lilian walk to school together, as they usually do. At the school, Portia secretly reads a letter given to her by Eddie, a friend of Anna’s. The school head disciplines her when she is caught reading the letter. Portia obviously feels out of place at this school and worries about making mistakes. Lilian shows Portia the letters she still gets from the...
(The entire section is 1816 words.)