I intended to read At Mrs. Lippincote’s (1945) back in January, in its rightful place for Elizabeth Taylor Centenary year, but somehow it didn’t happen… and then I went to a wonderful Celebration of Elizabeth Taylor in Reading, and one of the book groups was discussing this title. I would have written about the day in Reading properly (where I got to meet lots of lovely ladies from the LibraryThing Virago group) but it happened just before Muriel Spark Reading Week, so I had other things to take blog prominence!
Well, better late than never – I’ll give you my thoughts on At Mrs. Lippincote’s. The short review is that this is my favourite, of the five or six Elizabeth Taylor novels I’ve read. My usual confusion over characters didn’t occur, and I didn’t even have that tiny this-feels-like-homework response I sometimes get with Taylor. Instead, I just enjoyed her beautiful writing and intriguing characters, and only had one misgiving – which I’ll come to later.
The Mrs. Lippincote of the title has gone to a residency not unlike Mrs. Palfrey’s at the Claremont, and has let her house to Roddy Davenant (an RAF airman) and his wife Julia, for the duration of the war. The idea of living in somebody else’s house is a very rich vein for a novelist, and it is mined (can one mine a vein?) beautifully by Taylor. Mrs. Lippincote is very present through her absence, and the constant possibility of her visitation and judgement. All her possessions are still in the house, and Julia makes her home amongst them, treading the line between running her family’s home and living in a stranger’s house. She looks at an old photo of Mrs. Lippincote’s family at an elaborate wedding:
“And now it’s all finished,” Julia thought. “They had that lovely day and the soup tureen and meat dishes, servants with frills and streamers, children. They set out that day as if they were laying the foundations of something. But it was only something which perished very quickly, the children scattered, the tureen draped with cobwebs, and now the widow, the bride, perhaps at this moment unfolding her napkin alone at a table in a small private hotel down the road.”
While Taylor is great at delving into characters and relationships over the course of a novel, she is also fantastic at painting complete portraits with a few imaginative details. A bit like synedochal snapshots of people’s lives.
Roddy’s cousin Eleanor is also living with them, and anybody who has read Rebecca West’s excellent novella The Return of the Soldier will be familiar with the dynamic of the wife/husband/husband’s cousin. (It is a cousin in The Return of the Soldier too, isn’t it?) Eleanor, indeed, does think that she would make a better wife for Roddy – and she is probably right. Roddy and Eleanor aren’t on the same wavelength – neither are the ‘bad guy’, but our sympathies are definitely with Julia, who is a wonderful character.
I would be confident that you’d all love Julia, or at least empathise with her, but I’ve just reminded myself of Claire’s review: ‘Julia is an odd character and certainly not a very likeable one.” Re-reading her post, I’m starting to change my mind a bit… but I’ll stick to my guns and explain why I did love Julia. She is intelligent and artistic, coping with the dissatisfactions of her life with stoicism and wit. She hasn’t been handed the home or husband that she would ideally choose, but makes the best of the situation she is in – as well as being sensitive and thoughtful about the wider conditions of the country. When talking to the Wing Commander (Roddy’s boss), she argues the point for education for his daughter Felicity:
“They will try to stuff her head with Virgil and Pliny and Greek Irregular Verbs.”
“All Greek verbs are irregular,” Julia murmured.
“I think it nonsense. What use will it be to her when she leaves school? Will it cook her husband’s dinner?”
“No, it won’t do that, but it will help her to endure doing it, perhaps. If she is to cook while she is at school, then there will be that thing less for her to learn when she’s grown-up: but, if she isn’t to learn Greek at school, then she will never learn it afterwards. And learning Greek at school is like storing honey against the winter.”
“But what use is it?” he persisted.
“Men can be educated; women must be trained,” she said sorrowfully.
A little heavy-handed perhaps, but a point worth making – and, incidentally, a battle subsequently won (although neither girls nor boys are likely to study Greek irregular verbs now… at least not at the sort of school I attended.) The Wing Commander is another really intriguing character. He has all the firmness and professionalism you’d expect of a Wing Commander, but also a literary side which baffles Roddy. He’s a bit awkward with children, but manages to engage Oliver Davenant in a discussion about the Brontes – a theme which runs throughout the novel, potential mad-woman-in-the-attic and everything. Oh, I’ve not mentioned Oliver before, have I? He is Julia’s ten year old son, and which of us could fail to greet a fellow bibliophile?
Oliver Davenant did not merely read books. He snuffed them up, took breaths of them into his lungs, filled his eyes with the sight of the print and his head with the sound of words. Some emanation from the book itself poured into his bones, as if he were absorbing steady sunshine. The pages had personality. He was of the kind who cannot have a horrifying book in the room at night. He would, in fine weather, lay it upon an outside sill and close the window. Often Julia would see a book lying on his doormat.
He is incredibly sensitive and fairly weak, in a determined-invalid sort of way, but his friendship with Felicity is more or less the only straightforward one in the novel. Which brings me onto my sticking point with At Mrs. Lippincote’s – the ending, which I shan’t spoil, is a crisis between two characters which comes rather out of the blue, and doesn’t feel very consistent with the rest of the narrative. At Mrs. Lippincote’s, like all the Taylor novels I’ve read, is more concerned with characters than plot – nothing hugely unbalancing occurs, and the focus is upon the way people live together and communicate. Until the end, which feels a bit as though Taylor wasn’t sure how to conclude a novel, and decided, unfortunately, to end with a bang.
I shall take a leaf out of her book (not literally, that would be vandalism) and end in a manner which I usually do not – with a quotation. At Mrs. Lippincote’s is thoughtful, clever, and perceptive, but it’s also often very witty – and I’ll finish with a quotation which amused me.
Eleanor, whom he [Oliver] did not really like, set sums for him every morning and corrected them when she came home for tea. Occasionally, he had a right answer, in much the same manner as when one backs horses a great deal, now and the one of them comes in for a place.
(See all the Elizabeth Taylor Centenary Celebration reviews for this title here.)