Set and written in the 1930s, Bowen’s arguably greatest novel concerns the sixteen-year old Portia who has come to stay with her half-brother and his wife in their fashionable home in London.
There is a feeling of disturbance and awkwardness from the start. Portia’s brother and sister-in-law are separated from her emotionally and mentally by a large age gap, which is exacerbated by the fact that Portia and Thomas’s shared father had been ‘sent away’ by Thomas’s mother to live with his lover who became Portia’s mother. Portia’s parents lived a very different, perapatetic, lifestyle to the rather more conventional and settled way of living that Thomas had grown up with.
With both her parents now dead, Portia has been sent to Thomas’s and Anna’s home on the last wishes of her father. Thomas and Anna are not very happy with the arrangement but had felt unable to refuse this last wish. They send her to private educational classes and make efforts to keep her happy by taking her to the cinema or to concerts, which never seem to be very successful events.
Portia starts a diary, which has just been discovered, at the opening of the book, by Anna. Comments that Portia has made about Anna create further feelings of animosity, but, unable to communicate that she has read her diary, Anna internalises her feelings.
More awkwardness occurs when Portia starts a relationship with Eddie, who is a friend of Anna’s, and seven years older than Portia. Portia, in the innocence of her youth, believes herself to be in love with Eddie, and he with her. However, it is evident that Eddie is playing with her, while Portia grows increasingly confused and hurt by his behaviour.
When Thomas and Anna go abroad, they send Portia to stay with Anna’s old governess, Mrs Heccomb, at the seaside, where she meets and socialises with Mrs Heccomb’s son & daughter and their friends. When Eddie comes to see her for a weekend, she is dismayed by his flirtatious behaviour with these people, but when she confronts him his replies are unsatisfactory.
After her return to Thomas and Anna’s house, Portia discovers that Anna has been reading her diary, and she also is convinced that everyone – in particular Anna and Eddie – are laughing at her. This belief is deepened when she finds Anna and Eddie having tea together.
Portia takes a very unconventional step, which throws everyone into a reluctant analysis of the way they have been behaving, and of Portia’s own feelings.
Elizabeth Bowen’s rather thoughtful style will not be to everyone’s taste, and some may find it quite slow compared to contemporary writing, but she shows a sensitive understanding of certain types of people and their relationships – a fascinating read.