Oscar is an accountant who has won enough money in a lottery to create an oasis of comfort for his beloved wife Dorrie and their twenty-seven-year-old daughter Heather. Rachel’s late father was a client of Oscar’s, and she becomes a regular guest in their home. Rachel lives alone in a small, ascetic apartment over the bookshop in which she works, and the disillusioned thirty-two-year-old orphan patronizes the bourgeois Livingstone household as a soothing anachronism: “fixed points of reference in a slipping universe, abiding by the rules which everybody else had broken.”
Rachel feels encouraged to befriend Heather and begins to regard her as an innocent in need of protection against the wiles of the world. Rachel’s anxieties are confirmed when Heather’s marriage to the unconventional Michael ends in divorce. When, despite Dorrie’s illness, Heather is determined to move in with another man in Venice, Rachel sees it as her duty to retrieve her.
In her emotional confrontation with Heather, Rachel’s elaborately constructed psychological armor is punctured. She fails in her defeatist attempt to “live my life on the surface, avoiding entanglements, confrontations, situations that cannot quickly be resolved, friendships that lead to passion.” Adrift in Venice, the city least hospitable to her hydrophobia, Rachel is the ironically named “friend from England” who is convinced of her responsibility to disabuse the privileged Heather of a belief in love. In its finely tuned nuances of awareness and its theme of the pinched life challenging a liberated one, A FRIEND FROM ENGLAND provides a deft turn of the screw to the novelistic legacy of Henry James.