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