Sixteen years old Portia Quayne has grown up exiled not from her own country but from normal, cheerful family life. She is the product of an ignominious affair between her mother Irene and a married man. However much chagrin the adulterous number has caused Thomas Quayne, Portia’s half-brother, his mother, before she died, had gone out of her way to accommodate the mistress and approved the marriage.
Recently orphaned, Portia moves into Thomas’ house at Windsor Terrace, a luxurious but emotionally sterile London home where each person lives impaled upon a private obsession. Life is so restrained and edited that no feeling can ever thicken intimacy. It is not so much that the Quaynes don’t like the teenage girl as they find her keen eye, observant perception unsettling. Anna, Thomas’ wife, especially finds Portia unnerving because she “doesn’t like to be watched.” Her eyes are so riveting as if the invincible innocence and perspicacity give her power to see through Anna’s secrecy.
But the monotonous life at Windsor Terrace is quickly intruded by Portia’s falling for Eddie, a close friend of Anna with whom she has a liaison. That Eddie has made a villain of Anna, who treats her with a polite hostility, hypnotizes her and binds her close to him like an alliance. Unfortunately Portia cannot (she has no clue) comprehend evil or unkind motives. Though the main plot follows her relationship with Eddie, the novel’s real tension lies between Portia and Anna, as the girl comes to grief against Anna’s cynicism and insidiousness.
Bowen has very keen eye for such shadings of morality that in between the lines of her writing she exposes the ugliest, the most cruel, the most despicable in the genteel society. A sensitive observer of the way we live, she deals in motives and mind games that render the novel very psychological and haunting. The tension between Portia and Anna is not revealed by their interactions, who are meager, but between their ears.
I mentioned a very significant quote on innocence in a previous post. So the theme of innocence being corrupted is inverted in order to fully accentuate the destructive power of innocence. While innocence is a virtue, those who are innocent can be very vulnerable to betrayal, for innocent people, who exact a very brave happiness and sanguine nature, are strangers to the world. Portia’s innocence might poise as a challenge to a society that is completely lacking in compassion. In the end this respectable virtue makes her a victim of the social conventions in which the players tend to be more civil and kind than they really are.