The Death of the Heart

The Death of the Heart
by Elizabeth Bowen
1938 – 418 pages
Rating – ?

A classic coming-of-age story about Portia Quayne, a 16 year-old girl who has to live with her brother and his wife after both her parents have died.  The siblings share the same father only – he had an affair resulting in a pregnancy forcing him to leave the marriage to Thomas’ mother and marry his lover.

The characters are wonderfully well drawn,  Thomas and Anna Quayne, Portia’s brother and his wife live in a kind of armed truce about something in their past.    Matchett, the maid/valet/nanny,  who is a household fixture and has been for decades,  the three bachelor friends,  each wanting to get close to Anna,  the family of Heccombs from the seaside who live entirely different lives from what Portia has ever known.

The settings are mostly interiors of a large home,  a smaller seaside house,  hotel rooms, but also out in nature with gardens and the seaside and city streets for walking in.

The themes are what makes the book – Portia had a home with her mother but now she fits nowhere and has to grow up a bit to even barely understand that the difficulties in the Quayne household are not all her doing.   “Experience isn’t interesting until it begins to repeat itself.”  – This idea repeats itself in various ways from  hereditary traits to seeing your own experience mirrored in another.

The plot is basically about a diary which Portia keeps, cataloguing the intrigues and “taping” her family and her friends.  Anna covertly reads this and is upset.

Characters:

Anna Quaynes –  wife of Thomas Quaynes
Thomas Quaynes – 30-something son of Mr. Quaynes
Portia Quaynes – 16 year old sister of Thomas Quaynes
Mr. Quaynes – Thomas’ father
Mrs. Quaynes – Thomas’ mother
Irene Quaynes – Portia’s mother
St. Quentin  –  author friend of the family
Matchett – long term hired woman – personal maid and valet
Eddie ? –  Anna’s friend and Portia’s friend –  (a charming user and climber)
Major Bruitt – Anna’s friend from Pigeon an old lover
Mrs. Heccomb – Anna’s old nanny and Portia’s new one at the seashore
Daphne – step-daughter to Mrs. Heccomb

Part I
The story of Portia born to Mr. Quayles who was married to Mrs. Quayles.  She divorced him in the most amiable way and he married Irene and was heartbroken.   The Quayles had a son, Thomas, of their own and it is to Thomas’ house that Portia goes when her parents both die.  She’s 16 years old.  Thomas’ wife, Anna,  is a huge social person while Thomas worries.

Portia is taken up by two of Anna’s old friends,  Eddie and Major Bruitt both of whom seems to want to use Portia as an avenue to Anna.  Portia ends up seeing Eddie in less than respectable circumstances.

In Part 2 Anna and Thomas go to France on an extended holiday leaving Portia with a Mrs. Heccomb in her home by the sea.  Mrs. Heccomb was the motherless Anna’s governess/nanny as a child.

Themes

Who takes after whom?  Is Thomas just like his father and did he marry an image of his mother?  Is Portia like her father (shared with Thomas) or like her own mother?  Why is Portia attracted to Eddie – is he like her mother?

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