Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 901
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 snobbish. Her principal interest is the house and maintaining it in perfect order as she has always done. Like the Quaynes, she does not open herself to receive the affection of the lonely, seeking girl. The other character who is important to Portia, and who also disappoints her by being too self-centered and manipulative, is Eddie. At twenty-three, he recognizes Portia’s innocence but is unmoved by her need for love; he has too many needs of his own.
Portia encounters a very different household when she is sent to Seale-on-Sea to stay with Anna’s former governess while Thomas and Anna escape to Capri. Mrs. Heccomb is kind and her two stepchildren, young adults Dickie and Daphne, are as cool and self-centered as the Quaynes and Eddie are, but at Waikiki life is full of events, and Portia is allowed to participate in the activities of the family. She shops and goes to church with Mrs. Heccomb; she goes walking, dancing, and to the films with the two young people. When Eddie comes, quite surprisingly, to visit Portia at Waikiki, he is immediately accepted by the others, but Portia is still just an observer. Just as she is imagining that her love for Eddie is reciprocated, she observes him holding hands with Daphne at the movies. Disillusioned, she returns to London, where she is further betrayed by learning that Anna has not only read her diary but also discussed it with St. Quentin; in fact, it is he who tells Portia about this duplicity.
The betrayals by Eddie and Anna push Portia to run away from the Quaynes. She goes to the hotel of Major Brutt, another bachelor friend of Anna; he is an honorable, sensible, responsible man and convinces her that he must let the Quaynes know where she is. Whether or not she will return to them, she says, depends on what they do. They send Matchett in a cab to retrieve her, and the book ends as Matchett arrives at the door of the hotel.
The reader is not told what Portia decides, but one can assume that she will return because she has nowhere else to go. The question of what will eventually become of Portia is also left unanswered. The real point of the story is that Portia’s ignorance of the world—her innocence—has ended. It remains only for the reader to discover the meaning of the novel’s ambiguous title. One can be fairly sure that Portia’s heart is not “dead,” for her sense of hurt and disillusionment is too intense to suggest that she no longer yearns for understanding and love. On the other hand, one can easily see that the adults around her have undergone a “death of the heart.” Each one has shut himself or herself off from others, has refused to acknowledge the deep needs of others, is self-protective and deceitful. These people—Thomas, Anna, Eddie, St. Quentin, and Matchett—have all played a part in what happens to Portia, and one can only speculate on whether the damage that they have done to her through their lack of real concern and caring will result in Portia becoming like them.