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Death of the Heart, The

a novel by E. Bowen, published in 1938

portia novel anna quayne

Portia Quayne has had a vagrant, intimate childhood with her mother, who has died. The 16-year-old orphan has come to live with her half-brother Thomas and his cynical, egotistical, attractive wife Anna. Thomas's father made one late attempt to break free from the domineering Mrs Quayne (a powerful offstage figure) and fathered Portia, an intense, nervous, observant waif, whose arrival disrupts the exclusive, civilized life of Windsor Terrace. As her name suggests, she judges the Quaynes as much as they judge her, and the novel is in part a satire on the English middle classes of the 1930s, full of ‘competitiveness and funk’. Portia falls naïvely, demandingly in love with Anna's unreliable protégé Eddie, comes to feel betrayed by him and the Quaynes, and runs away. Her drama (that of a heroine in a Gothic novel, but in a secular, sceptical setting) is overseen by two guardians, the sibylline housemaid, Matchett, and the loyal, shabby-genteel Major Brutt. It moves between the elegant Regency terrace and the robust vulgar seaside home of the Heccomb family, ‘Waikiki’. As the disillusioned novelist St Quentin observes, the extreme demands of innocence will have to adapt to the compromised and treacherous grown-up world: ‘We must live how we can.’

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