Birds, Beasts, and Relatives by Gerald Durrell

BBROne of my favourite reads from a couple of years ago was Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals (1956). It was so funny and delightful that I was cross with myself for having missed out on its joys for so long. And so I was thrilled to discover, after finishing, that there were two sequels – which nobody seems much to talk about? Or perhaps I’ve missed it? I made it my mission to find them in the wild, rather than the ease of getting from the internet, and thus it was that Birds, Beasts, and Relatives (1969) ended up in my hands at the Bookbarn last year.

Basically, if you liked My Family and Other Animals – this is more of the wonderful same.

You’ll notice from those dates that there was quite a gap between the two books being published – 13 years – and it was another nine years before the third in the trilogy made its way to print, by which point the halcyon pre-war days spent in Corfu must have seemed a far-off memory. Looking back from 2017, it seems an almost impossible dream – but a lot of that is connected with the way in which Durrell crafts a dreamlike world of nature, humour, and the eccentric foibles of his brothers, sister, and (to a lesser extent) mother.

The book kicks off with a preamble that I can only assume is fake – in which his family (in the 1960s) look back at the horrors that ensued when the previous book was published: ‘The bank writing to ask you if you will kindly remove your overdraft, the tradesmen looking at you askance, anonymous parcels of straight-jackets [sic] being left on the door step, being cut dead by all the relatives’. Unmoved, Gerald decides to write the sequel…

I haven’t been watching the TV series about this trilogy, mostly because I want to make sure that I finish reading it before I start watching it – so the stories may be familiar to those who are watching. There are plenty of set pieces – one of my favourites comes near the beginning, where they go back to London to seek weight-loss solutions for Margo (who was suffering from a glandular condition). Not only does this introduce us to Prue and Aunt Fan – the latter a deaf and kind lady who carries on her own conversations, entirely unrelated to everybody else’s, while being quietened by her daughter – but it also shows us Margo’s attempt at spiritualism. It is all hilarious, and some of Durrell’s best comic writing comes in this section. Never has the word ‘faintly’ had such amusing impact (now there’s something to entice you).

As with the previous volume, I was more interested in the family than the animals; though there were some very interesting moments concerning a camouflaging crab, I don’t think Durrell can expect everybody to share his fascination with dung beetles. Predictably, my interest hit its peak when the animal chat met etymology. Etymology over entomology, say I. (Excuse me while I retire on the back of this glorious moment.) Gerry is talking to Theodore, a man who shares his naturalist preoccupations, about the collared dove…

“In Greek,” Theodore said, munching his sandwich methodically, “the name for collared dove is dekaoctura, eighteener, you know. The story goes that when Christ was… um… carrying the cross to Calvary, a Roman soldier seeing that He was exhausted, took pity on Him. By the side of the road there was an old woman selling… um… you know… milk and so the Roman soldier went to her and asked her how much a cupful would cost. She replied that it would cost eighteen coins. But the soldier only had seventeen. He… er… you know… pleaded with the woman to let him have a cupful of milk for Christ for seventeen coins, but the woman avariciously stuck out for eighteen. So, when Christ was crucified the old woman was turned into a collared dove and condemned to go about the rest of her days repeating dekaocto, dekaocto, eighteen, eighteen.”

I don’t know if this the commonly-accepted etymology, but I want it to be so much that I refuse to look it up.

What else? There are some wonderful moments with Roger the dog, there is a wedding and a birth, there is an ill-fated sea quest or two. Basically, it’s full of the same sort of anecdotes that made My Family and Other Animals such a joy. And, while I fully empathise with the longsuffering family who don’t want (say) a turtle dissected on their patio, I still continued to enjoy the optimistic and spirited Gerry as our narrator.

If I didn’t love the sequel quite as much as the original, I think that might be the effect of novelty rather than anything else. This was returning to old friends, and it certainly didn’t feel like a second-rate set of stories. I think I might need to race on to the third in the trilogy which, as luck would have it, I have waiting for me…

 

 

 

At the Jerusalem by Paul Bailey

At the JerusalemIn a recent episode of ‘Tea or Books?’, Rachel and I pitted Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont against Paul Bailey’s At the Jerusalem. While we both preferred Taylor’s novel, I also thought Bailey’s slightly earlier novel (1967) was fantastic – really unusual, and possibly even an inspiration for Mrs Palfrey (c.f. Bailey’s introduction to the Virago reprint).

Bailey’s novel (which I have in a very sweet pocket-sized edition, apparently part of a Bloomsbury series in the 1990s) is about an old people’s home – called the Jerusalem – where Faith Gadny has been dispatched by her stepson Henry and his brightly indifferent wife Thelma. Here, she is torn from a comfortable world that has started to close in on her with its new discomforts – and placed, instead, in a world of interfering and disturbed women on a communal ward that she cannot escape.

Faith does not try to ingratiate herself. She is unresponsive to overtures of friendship, says few words to anybody, and is pretty closed off. This has the effect of making her closed off to the reader too – unlike Mrs Palfrey, this is not a book to turn to for a warm or empathetic character. But it is, perhaps, for a sympathetic character – for who would wish themselves in her position, at a place as steriley unpleasant as the Jerusalem? Other residents have either lost their faculties or are far too keen to make friendships that Faith does not want – and there is always, always the recurring motif of the woman who once hanged herself in the toilets.

Stylistically, At the Jerusalem will either impress or irk. Rachel was irked; I was impressed. A lot of the novel is in sparse dialogue – often crossing over each other as several conversations whirl around. The talent of Bailey is that it’s always obvious what’s going on, though at first glance it doesn’t seem like it (and you might need some context!) – and I found it darkly funny, even with hardly any words on the page. For example…

Another page. “More relations. That one there with the eyes is Cousin Charlie. He ended up in Africa. Nothing more was heard.”

“Who’s a good girl? Who’s finished her junket?”

“He could have been eaten, for all anybody knew. Stewed in a pot.”

When did Miss Burns sleep?

“He had enough meat on him.”

At every hour of the day she sat upright, staring.

“My wedding.”

Wouldn’t a meal have made her sleepy?

“My wedding, Faith?”

“Oh?”

“My wedding. Don’t I look fetching?”

“You do.”

“I was thirty.”

“Thirty.”

“He was a fair bit older. Harry Capes. Handsome Harry.” She laughed, winked. “Oh, he was too. And I loved him. At the time.” She paused. “It was on a Sunday, it was the June of 1921; he’d been in the war, he’d come out of it in one piece.”

Tom had a scar to show.

The novel starts in the home, flashes back to Henry and Thelma’s house for the second section, and returns to the Jerusalem in the third. In each, the coherence of the writing echoes the stage of Faith’s mind – getting more traditional in the flashback section. It’s never unreadable or even particularly experimental, but Bailey cleverly puts enough fragility into his prose that you can see the patterns.

Overall, what impressed me with Bailey was the sparseness of his writing, and how much he conveys with so little. Quite a few of the minor characters aren’t well delineated, and I had a tendency to get them a bit confused, but there are four or five at the forefront of the novel (including Faith) who are incredibly nuanced, given how little we hear from or about them. And there are a couple pivotal moments which are handled very well – without being unduly sensationalist. It’s certainly not a harrowing book, but it is often poignant in a slightly dark way – while also being amusing. I liked this moment in which Bailey mocks the redundancy of much speech – but it is a melancholy humour:

“Her Majesty sends telegrams to all her centenarians. The Mayor and Mayoress sent a very thoughtful message today.”

“Did they, Matron?”

“Shall I read it out?”

“Yes, please.”

“What one is it? Ah, yes. ‘Mrs Hibbs, The Jerusalem Home. Greetings on reaching your great age. Mayor and Mayoress Ernest and Sylvia Marsh.'”

“It is thoughtful.”

“Thoughtful.”

“Thoughtful. As Matron says.”

At The Jerusalem isn’t the achievement that Mrs Palfrey is, but it’s astonishing for a debut novel by a 30 year old. And, I learned after I finished it, Bailey is still alive and possibly still writing. I can see that I’ve got some catching up to do!

The Chinese Garden by Rosemary Manning

Chinese GardenRemember when I went to Edinburgh last year and every review for months seemed to start with ‘this is another book I read in Edinburgh’? Well, the same thing might happen here – since I read six books during the week that I was in Ludlow. Let’s kick off with Rosemary Manning’s The Chinese Garden (1962). It’s a book I’ve had waiting on my shelves for about 15 years, I think, so it was about time.

Fans of Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont may recall a moment in it where she refers to there being two novelists called Manning (and one character always gets them confused at the library). Olivia Manning is perhaps the more famous of those – but I’m assuming Rosemary Manning was the other. I don’t think I’ve heard of her anywhere else – but The Chinese Garden is an interesting idea for a novel, even if it never quite comes together.

It’s about a girl’s schooldays – she is sixteen, intelligent, bookish, and torn between a growing loathing of the strict rules of the school she will soon be leaving – and the love and respect she holds for certain teachers, not to mention uncertainty about what will happen after she graduates. Here’s how it begins:

I was at boarding school for my sixteenth birthday, for it falls at the beginning of November. I climbed out of bed very early that morning, wrapped my dressing-gown round me and went to the window. The other members of the dormitory were still sleeping under bright red blankets. The window, as always in our spartan establishment, was wide open top and bottom, but I could hardly have been conscious of the cold air streaming in, for the room was never filled with anything else and my lungs had been breathing deeply of it all night. After four years, the code of Bampfield had fixed its iron bands around my spirit, and my innate puritanism so welcomed it that I found a deliberate pleasure in a mortifying regime of cold water, draughts, outdoor drill and bad food. Although I now look back on that regime with repugnance, I can summon up my gratitude for the trained indifference to discomfort and cold which enabled me to sit almost naked at an open, November window, and watch the sun rise.

I never quite worked out who all the different teachers were, but there are some that Rachel feels a deep, sometimes slightly confusing affection for – and some that she sees as symbolic of the restraints she is hoping to be freed from. Most significant, and the most memorable, is the headteacher – a woman who insists on being referred to as ‘Chief’, calling her all-female student body ‘boys’, and wanting her school to be run as closely as possible on the lines of Eton or the like. And then there’s the little friendship trio Rachel is in – Margaret, the mysterious and secretive friend who doesn’t seem to value Rachel’s friendship in return, and Bisto, the clingy, slightly sad friend whom Rachel will tolerate when Margaret isn’t around.

Rather confusingly, the novel starts in the first person – the first few chapters are all from the viewpoint of Rachel, looking back to her schooldays – and then shifts to the third person, still about Rachel. After that, there are occasional moves back to the first person for a few paragraphs, then back to third… maybe it’s meant to be borrowing modern techniques, or playing with free indirect discourse, or something – but it’s a bit clumsy, and doesn’t really work.

What does work is the Chinese garden itself – though it takes a long time to turn up. In proper secret garden style, it’s a garden in the grounds, boarded up and seemingly inaccessible. Though Margaret and Rachel have independently found their way into it – and the description of the garden is rather lovely. She walks about its Chinese bridges and pools with enthralled wonder, and Manning is at her best when describing these scenes. Here’s a bit:

Rachel crossed a creaking, dilapidated bridge, and went into the tiny pagoda. Bells were still hanging under the painted eaves, their copper green with age, shrill and fragile when she touched them with her hand. It was inhabited only by spiders. The floorboards were rotten, and covered with bird droppings, and the once bright paint was blistered and faded. The quiet pools, greened over with weed, never-disturbed, the dense overgrown shrubbery which hedged it from the world without, the incongruous oriental appearance of the pagoda and its bridges, created an indescribable air of secrecy and strangeness. She entered an exotic world where she breathed pure poetry. It had the symmetry of Blake’s tiger. It was the green thought in a green shade.

If you have heard of The Chinese Garden, it’s probably in the context of its being considered a lesbian classic. There is an overt moment of lesbianism late in the book, and some more implicit moments in Rachel’s thoughts about her friends and teachers – but I rather suspect that the locked Chinese garden is a metaphor for much more than initially seems.

I suppose my problem with the novel – which I certainly did enjoy, and thought was well written, so please don’t think I disliked it – was that it never quite felt developed enough. I appreciate the delicacy of metaphor, and I don’t think Manning should have been any more heavy-handed, but perhaps the novel just needed to be longer – and the garden to come a bit earlier, and be explored a bit more. A rare case where I want a novel to be longer!

 

The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier

The House on the StrandIt’s Historical Fiction week over at Vulpes Libris, and I’m throwing some fat on the fire with a post about why I don’t like historical fiction… and (because I MULTI-TASK, y’all) it’s also a review of The House on the Strand (1969) by Daphne du Maurier.

Which sounds like I hated the novel – whereas in fact I had quite a confusing relationship with it, given that half of it is in present day (yay!) and half in the 14th century (boo!). Read all about it over at Vulpes Libris

Closely Observed Trains by Bohumil Hrabal

Closely Observed TrainsJust a quick post to point you in the direction of my latest blog post for Vulpes Libris: Closely Observed Trains (1965) by Bohumil Hrabal. Go and have a gander here; I’ve ended up reading rather a few Czech writers over the years. And by that I guess I mean three. But, still.

I seem to be in a bit of a reading slump at the moment, actually. Which is a shame, as I have a couple of books to read for the next podcast, and one for book group… well, hopefully blitzing a few episodes of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend on Netflix will put my mind back into reading. For now, I’ll just keep singing the excellent spoof Face Your Fears. Check it out.

 

Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford

I've borrowed this image from Karyn, who reviewed it here: http://apenguinaweek.blogspot.co.uk/2011/09/penguin-no-1738-hons-and-rebels-by.html (Hope that's ok, Karyn!)
I’ve borrowed this image from Karyn, who reviewed it here: http://tinyurl.com/qhpbmxc (Hope that’s ok, Karyn!)

It’s no secret that I’m a longstanding fan of the Mitfords – or, at least, of reading about them. Debo has an eternal place in my heart, but, even though none of the others quite made it there, I still adored reading the letters between all six sisters. The one whom I didn’t much like (besides Unity, obvs, though her regression after shooting herself is fascinating to see in letter-form) was Jessica. I was chastised. I was told I should read her letters and her books, and that thus I would come to like her more. Finally – FINALLY – I have read Hons and Rebels (1960). Do I like her more? Maybe.

I’ll get in there early: if I were writing a scholarly book review, whether or not I like the woman would be completely immaterial. And here, as with a novel, it isn’t the be all and end all. But if it is acceptable to cheer on a biography because you like the writer so much (heart you, Debo), then it’s equally acceptable to do the reverse. On the same page? Fabs.

In actual fact, Jessica (or Decca, as she was known) comes across very sympathetically. Partly this is because of my political leanings, I daresay. I don’t fall as far left as Decca, but I’m pretty much a lefty – and we can all agree to band against the Fascist and Nazi beliefs of Diana and Unity Mitford. There are some pretty extraordinary descriptions of Decca and Unity setting up their shared bedroom into a Fascist and Communist split, with posters advocating their own politics on either side. It would be amusing if Unity’s views were not so extreme.

I was expecting a biography of the eccentric Mitford childhood we (mostly) all know well. The sort of thing we found in Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love – with the hons in the cupboard, the father hunting the children, and the various codes. Spoilers: it is not. We do see some of Decca’s childhood – but by the time she was around in the nursery, her older siblings were more or less adults. Just Unity, Debo, and Decca were left around – and it is the three of them who formed various bonds and antipathies.

This section of the book I loved, even without the full line-up of Mitfords. We see, for instance, them being dragged around by the Conservative Party – ‘Our car was decorated with Tory blue ribbons, and if we should pass a car flaunting the red badge of Socialism, we were allowed to lean out of the window and shout at the occupants: “Down with the horrible Counter-Honnish Labour Party!”.’ We get a child’s-eye-view of the various scandals Nancy causes. Mostly, we get a taste of Decca’s thirst for independence, particularly in her longing to go to school and her storing-up of a Running Away Fund.

That fund turns out not to be as whimsical as it sounds. Very young, she rushes off to the Spanish Civil War. For those who think the Mitfords were rich gentry who never stepped down from their thrones to put their money where their mouths were (to mix metaphors) – Hons and Rebels is an education. We are many miles from the Cotswolds as we see the intrepid Decca follow her cousin Esmond Romilly to Spain, facing hardship, opposition, and – yes – romance. It shows the extraordinary person Decca was, for better or worse.

But the Cotswolds get even further around as the book progresses – as Decca moves to America. Here’s an example both of her early sheltered life, and the wit with which she writes. It is often a very amusing book.

My own impressions of Americans had been culled from various sources, ranging from books read in childhood, such as Little Women and What Katy Did, to Hemingway and movies. I knew that they lived on strange and rather unappetizing-sounding foods called squash, grits, hot dogs, and corn pudding. On the other hand, cookies sounded rather delicious. I visualized them as little cakes made in the shape of cooks with sugar-icing aprons and hats. From seeing The Petrified Forest, I gathered that Americans often made love under tables while gangster bullets whizzed through the air.

I’ve given enough plot for this book, so shan’t tell you all that happens in America – but, suffice to say, Esmond and Decca go through some difficult conditions and she writes about them winningly and wittily. A stray and dispassionate footnote on the penultimate page alerts us to why this memoir is particularly moving – but I’ll allow you to find that out for yourself.

So, in brief – it is fascinating, and certainly well told. The only reason I didn’t love Hons and Rebels as much as I could have done is because I was expecting something else – I missed hearing about the rest of the family (who are more or less absent for the second half of the book), and wondered quite what they were thinking about her. The feeling I got from the letters, that she rather abandoned them, is quietly reflected here – not by what she says about them, but by the fact that they are seldom mentioned. And that is a terrible reason to put something in the ‘cons’ column of a book review. But, Mitford-fanatic that I am, I can’t help it, and thought I should warn fellow enthusiasts. But this issue aside (as it should be), Hons and Rebels is an extraordinary book. When I read the sequel (A Fine Old Conflict), I shall better prepare myself for the book Decca wrote, rather than the one I wish she’d written.

The Midnight Fox by Betsy Byars

A little while ago I got a very nice email from someone called Vicki, saying how much she enjoyed reading Stuck-in-a-Book, and asking if she could send me one of the books she loved as a sort of thank you. Well, I was very touched, and – not one to turn down a book recommendation or, indeed, a book – said yespleasethankyouverymuch. And shortly afterwards Betsy Byars’ The Midnight Fox (1968) arrived.

I hadn’t heard of it, but I think The Midnight Fox is well known in some circles. Yet again, having only read Enid Blyton for years on end means that I don’t know that much about other children’s classics. But now I have read, and very much enjoyed, this sweet and touching tale of a holiday on a farm.

The premise has a surprising number of similarities with Philippa Pearce’s much-loved children’s book Tom’s Midnight Garden, published ten years earlier. In both, a boy named Tom must reluctantly go and stay with his aunt and uncle, and greatly misses a boy called Peter. In both, a certain midnight aberration becomes an obsession, and changes the stay into a much happier event; Peter is written to from a distance, and becomes an accomplice in the discovery. I doubt that Byars plagiarised the book, but the similarities amused me.

The story is simple – Tom is beguiled by the beauty of this unusual fox, who is entirely black. He starts to look out for her, and becomes increasingly keen to observe her playing with her small fox cub; he is almost bewitched by this elegant, elemental life lived near to him – and must find a way to stop his hunting uncle from trapping the fox.

What makes it such a special little book? The style, I think. It’s not told with the gung-ho naivety of some children’s books, but treats Tom’s anxieties and concerns seriously – not least because we read it in the first person. Here is the opening…

Sometimes at night when the rain is beating against the windows of my room, I think about that summer on the farm. It has been five years, but when I close my eyes I am once again by the creek watching the black fox come leaping over the green. green grass. She is as light and free as the wind, exactly as she was the first time I saw her.

Or sometimes it is that last terrible night, and I am standing beneath the oak tree with the rain beating against me. The lightning flashes, the world is turned white for a moment, and I see everything as it was – the broken lock, the empty cage, the small tracks disappearing into the rain. Then it seems to me that I can hear, as plainly as I heard it that August night, above the rain, beyond the years, the high, clear bark of the midnight fox.
Thanks again, Vicki, for sending me this book; it was so generous and kind of you. I really enjoyed reading it – and I especially think this would be good to read aloud to a child, if any parents are on the look-out for something!

A Day in Summer by J.L. Carr

Quite a few of us in the blogosphere are fans of J.L. Carr’s 1980 novel A Month in the Country – that gentle tale of a man who goes to help restore a rural mural. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist that rhyme.) But I don’t remember seeing reviews of any of his other novels – and had thought he might be rather a one-trick pony.

So, I was glad when my book group opted to read A Day in Summer (1963), Carr’s first novel – and evidence that he was fond of A [Time] in the [Situation] titles early on. But, except for similar titles, these novels have very little in common – except, that is, for quality. Both are very good.

A Day in Summer sounds a very halcyon title, but this is belied by the opening few pages. Peplow is on a train, coming into Great Minden. He has an imaginary conversation with his Manager; one of several in square brackets throughout the novel, from different characters’ perspectives, that give a very open access to their imaginations and projections:

[“I wonder if you’d mind very much if I take Friday off?””I suppose not. Is someone ill? Is it urgent?”No – well, it is and it isn’t. As a matter of fact I have to go off to a place in the country and shoot a man. Yes, that’s right, a man. They call it Great Minden. Perhaps you know it?””Really! Great Minden! I had an aunt living near there. If you wouldn’t consider it an impertinence, may I ask who – whom?””It’s the man who ran down my boy last summer. He’s with a fairground outfit, and on Friday he’ll be at the Fair there I understand. So it would be very convenient.””Naturally! Shall we see you again on Saturday? Monday?””Well, no. I’ve more or less decided it would be better for me to finish myself off too. In comfort, on the way back, all being well. It would by-pass the embarrassing formalities that usually follow. I’m sure you understand.”]
This isn’t precisely the tone that the rest of the novel takes – although it would be rather fascinating to read a whole narrative in this style. He isn’t really flippant about his action, and it is the thread that pulls the novel together, but Peplow isn’t really the leading character of A Day in Summer. And that is because, more than any other novel I can remember, this is an ensemble piece. Once Peplow arrives in Great Minden, the narrative flits from character to character, weaving their stories together so that the baton naturally passes from person to person.

There is a lascivious young schoolteacher who is having an affair with the vicar’s wife; the teacher is rightly terrified of the elderly spinster who runs the school with an iron fist. The vicar is desperate to hold his marriage together, but his wife despises him. There is a poor family with too many children, also with marital troubles; there is a dying man whose young son wonders why his mother left the family years ago. And, taking the cover on my book, is the man in a wheelchair, invalided by war, who happens to have been in action with Peplow.

There are, you see, too many characters to describe all that goes on; the plot is planned perfectly, and yet it feels less like a plot and more like observing villagers living their lives. Their unhappy lives, it should be said; misery is widespread, and marriages seem incapable of being content. Indeed, Peplow’s paternal grief seems perhaps less vivid than the teacher Croser’s sickness of being in a frustrating job, of the vicar’s pain.

Throughout, Carr’s tone is quite darkly witty, and I really loved it. Fans of A Month in the Country may find little to recognise, but this is by no means a weak first effort at novel-writing. Carr has a very impressive confidence even at this early stage, and handles a difficult tone and potentially unwieldy plot extremely well. Although A Month in the Country is a better book to curl up with for comfort, this is a stark, moving, and (yet) very amusing novel that is arguably equally good, in a very different way.

The Soul of Kindness by Elizabeth Taylor

My book group recently read The Soul of Kindness (1964) by Elizabeth Taylor – I have a feeling I recommended it, although can never quite remember – and I don’t think we’ve ever had a more divided discussion. Some thought the whole thing uneventful and boring; some thought it a brilliantly subtle novel about realistic people and the way they interact. Guess which I was?

Well, if you’ve read my previous reviews of Elizabeth Taylor – you can see them all by picking her from that dropdown menu of authors over on the left, should you so wish – you’ll probably have guessed that I was in the latter camp. (As a character thinks: ‘men, she knew, are very interested in detailed descriptions of ordinary things’. Curiously unlike the usual division of men and women in stereotype – the masculine grand epic vs. the feminine domestic hearth.) The Soul of Kindness is an extraordinary novel and, just like her others, almost impossible to write well about.

The first thing I have learned with Elizabeth Taylor is that you can’t read her quickly. Well, you can – but so much is lost. Because not much happens, and it’s easy to skim through the calm conversations and quiet movements, and miss the spectrum of emotion playing under the surface, so cleverly told by Taylor.

The novel opens with a wedding. Flora isn’t paying much attention to her husband; she is feeding doves (note their influence on the beautiful cover to my 1966 Reprint Society copy):

Towards the end of the bridegroom’s speech, the bride turned aside and began to throw crumbs of wedding cake through an opening in the marquee to the doves outside. She did so with gentle absorption, and more doves came down from their wooden house above the stables. Although she had caused a little rustle of amusement among the guests, she did not know it: her husband was embarrassed by her behaviour and thought it early in their married life to be so; but she did not know that either.
That lack of self-awareness and observation is the central thread of the novel. Flora is the ‘soul of kindness’ of the title – as another character says, “To harm anyone is the last thing she’d ever have in mind.” She is a blonde beauty, doted on by her mother, surrounded by people (mother, husband, friend, housekeeper) who never dream of crossing her, and who do not see any darkness in her. For, indeed, there is no darkness in her. I thought the novel might be about a craftily vindictive woman, but Flora is just monumentally naive – with a naivety either born of selfishness, or a selfishness born of naivety. She wants to help people. She is (as Hilary notes in her fab review, linked below) not unlike Austen’s Emma – although Flora is less meddlesome. She just suggests things and engineers things, without seeming to give any great effort, and… mild disaster follows.

A marriage that shouldn’t have happened. A union between two friends that will never happen because the man is gay. The encouragement to a young man that he is a talented actor, when he is hopeless and will only meet failure on that path. Everything Flora does is well-meaning. There is a moment of crisis (I shan’t say what), but… by the end of the novel, most people haven’t changed enormously. Human nature doesn’t follow a brief and convenient narrative structure.

For that is what Taylor observes and depicts so brilliantly: truthful human behaviour. Some people at book group found the characters poorly drawn, and I do agree that we see them chiefly from the outside rather than the inside – but that is an authorial choice and (I think) a good and acceptable one. There are wonderful scenes where she draws up the difference between what people say and what they mean – and what other people think they mean. It is so (that word again) subtle, and done extremely skilfully. Perhaps the best, and certainly the most agonising, where those between Patrick and Frankie – Patrick being in love with the youthful, callous Frankie, and anxious for any possible attention from him, taking what he is thrown so gratefully.

Oh, and Mrs Secretan (Flora’s mother) is the best depiction I have seen of a hypochondriac – usually they are hysterical or selfish, but Taylor’s portrait shows the terror at the heart of the true hypochondriac, particularly the one who dreads the doctor. I speak as one who knows…

I should add that there are moments of lovely humour. I enjoyed this a lot, about Flora (and that naivety):

She sat gazing in front of her. On a table at her side was a piece of knitting which had not grown for days, and the book by Henry Miller Patrick Barlow had lent her, which she was reading with such mild surprise. (‘What does this word mean, Richard? ‘Truly? Well I suppose it had to be called something.’ How had she lived so long without knowing? he wondered.)
All in all, I thought The Soul of Kindness a brilliant example of an exceptional writer. There are, of course, different books for different moods. When I wrote about My Sister Eileen recently, I shouted my love for books that are unashamedly lovely. Well, this is not that. It’s for a different mood. But, in the right mood, you could hardly do better.



Others who got Stuck into this Book:


“What I love about this novel is how subversive it is.” – Hilary, Vulpes Libris


“I found the characters not entirely convincing and actually quite irritating.” – Karen, Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings


“The subtlety of Elizabeth Taylor’s writing is masterly.” – Ali, Heavenali

Stuck-in-a-Book’s Weekend Miscellany

Hope you’re all having a good weekend! Mine is disappearing all too quickly… and I’ve read only 20 pages of the book I was intending to finish. Oops.

Slightly different from usual this week, as I’m going to be entirely egotistical in this miscellany… these things are all me elsewhere.

1. I wrote about Jeeves in the Offing by P.G. Wodehouse over at Vulpes Libris.

2. I made a cake to celebrate the 400th Very Short Introduction book.

3. And I appeared in this Oxford Dictionaries video (see the post for answers):