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

The Garrick Year – Margaret Drabble

I’ve bought up a few old Margaret Drabble titles over the years, all in slightly trippy old Penguin editions, but I’ve never actually got around to reading one of them before.  The one I really wanted to read was The Millstone, since I’ve heard complimentary comparisons to one of my favourite books, The L-Shaped Room, but it was 1964 that needed filling on A Century of Books, so I picked my second choice – The Garrick Year.  Cup-mark and all (not my doing.)

What drew me towards The Garrick Year was its theatrical setting.  As I’ve mentioned over the years, I am fascinated by the theatre and love reading about it in fact or fiction.  One of my Five From The Archive posts even covered the topic.  So I was keen to see how Emma and her actor husband David would get on when they move to Hereford for the opening of a new theatre.  And then it all went rather wrong.  No, not the plot, but my enjoyment of the novel.  Partly this was because of my reasons for reading it – I love to hear the theatre praised or teased, but treated always with affection, and even a little reverence.  Because that’s how I feel about it, I suppose.  Emma, however, just mocks it completely.

For those who have never heard actors discuss their trade, I may say that there is nothing more painfully boring on earth.  I think it is their lack of accuracy, their frightful passion for generality that rob their discussions of interest.  They were talking, this time, about that ancient problem of whether one should, while acting, be more aware of the audience of the person or person with whom one is playing the scene: I must have heard this same argument once a fortnight over the last four years, and never has anyone got a step nearer to any kind of illumination, because instead of talking rationally they just wander round the morasses of their own personalities, producing their own weaknesses for examination as though they were interesting, objective facts about human nature.
I don’t think I realised quite how much I do revere the theatre, until I bristled at this sort of blasphemy!  And, oh, what a cow Emma is.  I know some say it shouldn’t matter how likeable a character is, but I always maintain (as others have said before me) that it does matter if the author clearly sets up a character to be likeable, and fails.  And, after all, I often like books because they have charming characters, so why shouldn’t it work the other way around?

I have to confess, I had a problem with Emma as soon as she admitted preferring London to the countryside.  But things get worse than that.  Emma is one of those miserable people who moans all the time about everything, but does nothing to change her life.  She has no paid employment, and whines about looking after their two children – which would be fair enough, if she didn’t have a full-time, live-in nanny.  Quite what she does with her day is unclear, but later she manages to fill the hours by thoughtlessly embarking on an affair with the producer of the theatre.  She appears to have no concern at all for her marriage vows, having declared earlier that the only reason she hadn’t committed adultery was that she hadn’t had the opportunity.

There isn’t much plot or narrative drive in The Garrick Year.  It’s mostly Emma’s introspective, self-pitying waffle.  Thankfully it’s at least well written, which is the only reason I persevered with what is, in fact, a slim novel.  Although Drabble isn’t quite as good a writer as I’d expected – I’d argue she’s not as good as Lynne Reid Banks – but it isn’t clunky or cliche-ridden or anything like that, and she creates the background characters rather well: among them is Sofy, an ambitious young actress whose talents (if any) do not lie in the direction of acting, and I rather enjoyed any moment that Emma and David’s young daughter was on the scene – she could be quite funny.  In terms of structure, Drabble went (I am sorry to say) for one of those last-minute-big-events which seem the last ditch effort of a novelist who knows their novel hasn’t been very exciting yet – you know the sort?

Perhaps I’ll enjoy Drabble more when her topic is different, or her character less selfish and awful. I wondered, while I was reading this, whether it might be her second novel – and, lo and behold, it was.  It has neither the inspiration of a first novel, nor the assured confidence of a later book – so hopefully I just picked up a dud, and there will be plenty more to try later.  I do recognise that she is a good writer, and I’m not giving up on her yet.  Any suggestions?