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...
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