The Wedding Group by Elizabeth Taylor – #1968Club

When I was going through the 1968 titles I had for the 1968 Club, I spotted that there was an Elizabeth Taylor there that I don’t hear all that much about. And that’s probably going to change this week, of course! But The Wedding Group – one of her final novels – is one that I knew nothing at all about. I must have read a review or two occasionally, but it hadn’t stuck. And I thought – why not?

I don’t consider myself an Elizabeth Taylor superfan, though her writing is impeccable, and I truly love some of her novels. And yet, despite no superfan status, I seem to have read almost all of her novels. Spoilers for how I feel about this one: it’s not her best, but it’s good. My early sense is that it’s not going to remain with me in the way that others have done. But I read it on a plane, and that’s never an ideal reading scenario, so… take this review with a pinch of salt??

It starts with a description of a many-layered family in Quayne that we don’t end up seeing that much of – it’s more of a restrictive, mistrustful background to illustrate the world that Cressy has come from. It’s an artistic world – the blurb to my Virago edition tells me that the grandfather of the clan is based on Augustus John (though Chris’s post mentions other potentials) – but it’s one that is instinctively wary of elite intellectual sets, modern life, and everything that Cressy longs to explore. Mostly, she wants to escape her oppressive mother Rose. And the vision of what she wants to experience is very 1968:

It was to that world beyond the beech woods that Cressy was looking. She dreamed of Wimpy Bars and a young man with a sports car, of cheap and fashionable clothes that would fall apart before she tired of them. In that world she might find a place for herself.

She rebels and gets a job in an antiques shop – which isn’t exactly the quintessence of teenage rebellion in 1968, but is, on the other hand, very Elizabeth Taylor. There she (re-)meets David, a journalist in his 30s who has previously visited Quayne and written about the family with some superior mild distaste. Indeed, he has wrongly labelled her in a photograph, and received a letter from her putting him right – he obviously thinks she is self-conscious, silly, and odd. What he doesn’t realise is that he is all those things too, in a slightly different way.

The strength of the novel, I think, is in the drawing of David’s mother Midge. As the novel starts, he lives with her – only later does he move (though no further than next door), and grows to question her influence on him. He feels that he cannot go to London, as he dreams of doing, because she is scared to be on her own – his father lives not too far away, oblivious and indifferent to the pain his selfishness has caused the family.

As with The Soul of Kindness, where Taylor shows us the real imprisoning agony of being a hypochondriac, in Midge we see a compassionate depiction of a woman whose terror of being alone is real – while still exasperating to those around her. In one scene, Midge believes she is about to be burgled – she leaves her jewellery on the stairs, and cowers in fear upstairs. It’s very moving, and shows that nothing is one-sided – for Midge is also a restrictive force when it comes to her son, though without the intentional stifling of Quayne. Rather, it is her need of him that has kept him tied to her apron strings. This is the fascinating relationship of the novel.

Oh, incidentally, I love when Taylor allows her own authorial comments to seep through. This is rather brilliant – I quote both paragraphs because it shows Taylor’s observational powers, and the way she makes the ordinary seem bizarrely profound – as well as the disjoint between what people are doing and the thoughts they vocalise:

The sandwiches they had ordered were now put in front of them, and Nell lifted a corner of one of hers and peered short-sightedly inside – hard-boiled egg, sliced, with dark rings round the yolk, a scattering of cress, black seeds as well.

“The reason, they say, that women novelists can’t write about men, is because they don’t know what they’re like when they’re alone together, what they talk about and so on. But I can’t think why they don’t know. I seem to hear them booming away all the time. Just listen to this lot, next to me.”

So, there is a lot to admire and appreciate in The Wedding Group, and it’s possible that I’d be raving about it if I’d never read another Taylor novel. But I almost take her writing talent and perceptiveness for granted – and this novel has too many scenes (and, dare I say, characters) that don’t quite go anywhere, and don’t leave much of a mark. Or perhaps it’s just because I read most of it on a plane, who knows. Unfair to judge her by her own standard, perhaps, but I don’t think 1968 was quite Taylor’s year – though, equally, she is incapable of writing a bad novel.

A Wreath of Roses by Elizabeth Taylor

Roses

I recently went to a brilliant conference in Chichester called ‘Undervalued British Women Writers 1930-1960’. I mean, the only way this could have been more perfect for me is if they’d shifted those dates back to 1920-1950 – but I overlooked that, because there were papers on beloved authors including E.M. Delafield, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Barbara Comyns, Muriel Spark, Elizabeth Taylor, Marghanita Laski, and more. My paper was on Rachel Ferguson’s The Brontes Went to Woolworths, which was great fun to talk about.

Once the conference programme came out, I did a bit of homework – reading Laski’s To Bed With Grand Music (review forthcoming) and Taylor’s A Wreath of Roses. I didn’t quite finish A Wreath of Roses (1949) in time to hear the excellent paper about it on my panel, but I’ve finished it now and it’s excellent. It’s vying with At Mrs Lippincote’s for my all-time fave Taylor novel.

It certainly starts more dramatically than most Taylor novels. I’m not going to spoil what happens in the opening pages, because it came as a very effective shock to me, but it’s something that Camilla witnesses as she is about to go and visit her friend Liz and Liz’s old governess. The moment is dramatic, but Taylor cleverly leaves the details undeveloped and the effect unspoken – it just quietly haunts both Camilla and the reader for the rest of the novel.

Like many Taylor heroines, Camilla is intelligent, literary, sensitive, and slightly wary of her way in the world. On the train, on the way to her friend, she meets Richard Elton – it is, she muses, the sort of name that an author would make up for a hero – and the meeting is not an immediate success. He is handsome and mysterious, but he also rebuffs her reference to Emily Bronte, and she ‘felt she had sacrificed Emily Bronte, throwing her in as a spur to conversation, uselessly’. There’s a great bit (not least for my conference paper) on how she and her childhood friend Liz had imaginary childhood tea parties for various literary luminaries – identified only as Emily, Charlotte, Jane, Ivy, and… Katie? Not sure who the last is.

When she arrives with Liz (and the slightly cranky ex-governess), she falls into trying to resurrect a friendship that has the significant obstacle of Liz having married a man (a vicar, no less) who Camilla intensely dislikes. He isn’t there, for the most part, but it colours their friendship – as does Liz’s baby boy, though that is a more nuanced obstacle, being chiefly a path down which Camilla cannot follow her friend. Oh, and the governess – Frances – is no stock character. I don’t think Taylor would know how to wrote one of those. She is a painter who, in her final years, is branching out into a whole new style of painting. In the midst of all this, two men arrive – one, a correspondent Frances has had for many years and never met; the other, Richard Elton back on the scene, darkly mysterious and intriguing.

There’s no author quite like Taylor for depending on my mood. Sometimes I love reading her beautiful writing; sometimes I find her writing impenetrable – and I think it must depend on how I’m feeling, rather than her writing. I’ll have to go back to A Wreath of Roses another time to see if I find it more of an obstacle then (though why would I put that to the test?) – this time, I was just able to soak in how good the prose was. Here’s the opening paragraph, to give you a flavour:

Afternoons seem unending on branch-line stations in England in summer time. The spiked shelter prints an unmoving shadow on the platform, geraniums blaze, whitewashed stones assault the eye. Such trains as come only add to the air of fantasy, to the idea of the scene being symbolic, or encountered at one level while suggesting another even more alienating. 

She is even better when she is writing about people. Time and again, Taylor shows everyday thoughts and moments in a nuanced, clear light. While A Wreath of Roses includes events that are much less ‘everyday’ than those in most of her other novels, and is certainly darker and more gothic, she still excels are crystallising the slippery truths behind friendships, enmities, uncertainties and identities.

I read bits of this in a graveyard next to a half-ruined priory, which was a pretty ideal place to read it – though the weather was warm and lovely, rather than hauntingly gothic. Context – my mood, the weather, font size, whatever – may have a lot to do with it – but I’m still going to say that this is one of the best Taylor novels I’ve read so far, and one I would certainly re-read.

 

Others who got Stuck into it:

“The characters are brilliantly observed, and this novel is a wonderful exploration of friendships.” – Heavenali

“It’s not all cozy rooms with lace curtains, plants in pots, ticking clocks, ornaments and coronation mugs, the wireless playing, and tabby cats waiting.” – Buried in Print

“One of the most moving and valuable studies of human isolation ever committed to print.” – Bentley Rumble

 

Tea or Books? #38: male characters by women vs female characters by men, and Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont vs At The Jerusalem

Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Bailey, and a bit of a debate about male and female characters. Here’s episode 38 – which is unusually short, but hopefully fun nonetheless. I’ve left in an amusing moment of drama…


 

Tea or Books logoMany thanks to Kaisha for suggesting men written by women vs women written by me – we had fun discussing it, and very much welcome everybody’s feedback. For the second half, we debate two books about old people’s homes – Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor and At The Jerusalem by Paul Bailey, which have a sort-of connection that readers of Virago Modern Classics introductions might have cottoned on to.

Do let us know any topics you’d like us to discuss – and which you’d pick from each category. Check out our iTunes page over here – ratings and reviews through iTunes or podcast apps always much appreciated. And hopefully we’ll back with a special guest next time…

Books and authors we mention in this episode are as follows…

The Sleeper Awakes by H.G. Wells
Ann Veronica by H.G. Wells
The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
Don’t Tell Alfred by Nancy Mitford
Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford
The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford
Pamela by Samuel Richardson
Clarissa by Samuel Richardson
Ian McEwan
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
Mrs Harris series by Paul Gallico
Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker
Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf
Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Orlando by Virginia Woolf
Provincial Lady series by E.M. Delafield
Ian and Felicity by Denis Mackail
Charles Dickens
Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope
The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope
The Warden by Anthony Trollope
Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope
Sybil by Benjamin Disraeli
Adam Bede by George Eliot
The Professor by Charlotte Bronte
Shirley by Charlotte Bronte
Elizabeth Gaskell
Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
The Girl With Glass Feet by Ali Shaw
V.S. Naipaul
The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley
Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor
At The Jerusalem by Paul Bailey
Ivy Compton-Burnett
Memento Mori by Muriel Spark
Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
Daddy Long-Legs by Jean Webster

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

At Mrs. Lippincote’s – Elizabeth Taylor

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.)

Your Views…

As promised, here are links to other reviews of A View of the Harbour – I’ll keep adding reviews as they appear, so let me know if you’ve written one.  I haven’t included reviews written on LibraryThing, but they can be read altogether here.

“I love Elizabeth Taylor’s writing, which so vividly evokes the shabby seaside town and the recent impact of the war on its inhabitants.” – Laura, Laura’s Musings

“Elizabeth Taylor brilliantly illustrates that regardless of how banal or tedious our day-to-day lives may seem, a profusion of thoughts and emotions keeps us constantly engaged even when we are silent or solitary.” – Darlene, Roses Over A Cottage Door

“I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, it is beautifully observed, and the setting and its community are touchingly portrayed.” – Ali, HeavenAli

“As usual, I’m not sure that Taylor really likes any of her characters, and nor are they very likeable[…], but that doesn’t matter to me, as I enjoy her cool appraisal of them and their lives.” – Liz, Libro Fulltime

“Quiet, pin sharp observation & layers of undercurrents that intrigue you every time you read it.” – Alison, The TBR Pile

“The reader is allowed into the heads of these ordinary characters and that is where the magic begins.” – Liz, efandrich

“Taylor doesn’t need to create intricate plots or dramatic scenes; she deals in the quiet understatement of every day life, managing to weave a tale of enormous profundity and interest whilst making it seem as if nothing has happened at all.” – Rachel, Book Snob

“This is an extraordinarily  complex, subtle, and beautifully observed novel.” – Harriet, Harriet Devine’s Blog

“Wonderful prose carried me along, and so often I was touched by moments of pure insight and moments of vivid emotion.” – Jane, Fleur Fisher Reads

Elizabeth Taylor – A View of the Harbour

If you’ve read any bookish blogs this year, you’re probably aware that it’s Elizabeth Taylor Centenary Year, and Laura has wonderfully organised a year-long celebration of this novelist.  I almost wrote ‘underrated novelist’, but she appears so often on lists of underrated novelists that I think she has to forfeit the title.  I can think of plenty who are equally deserving with less fanfare.  So let’s just call her a very good novelist, and move onto March’s book – A View of the Harbour (1947), published in the same year as One Fine Day, so (a) useless for A Century of Books (!) and (b) not the best novel published that year.  But definitely a darn good book.

I’m deliberately steering clear of everyone else’s reviews until I have worked out my own thoughts, and thrown this open to discussion, but I shall post a list of all the reviews tomorrow – so if you’ve written about A View of the Harbour, either this month or earlier, than let me know!

A View of the Harbour is set in a seaside town, seen initially through the eyes of an amateur artist, Bertram, who is attempting to capture (indeed) a view of the harbour.  At the same time, of course, Elizabeth Taylor is capturing her own view of the harbour – and all the emotions which the people living there (pun alert) harbour.

It is not quite fair to say, as I often have cause to say, that nothing happens.  This is not an ordinary time in the lives of the harbour neighbourhood.  Each set of characters have come to a climax in their lives: Mrs. Bracey is nearing the end of her life; Lily Wilson is recently widowed young, and Tory is having an affair with her best friend’s husband.  Such are the ingredients of soap opera, but in Taylor’s hands they take place almost without fuss.  The confrontations which come every half hour in soap opera are here neatly avoided, or politely repressed.  Gossip is the order of the day, not screaming in the street.  Rumour and supposition circle around, not with the fervour of a Barbara Pym novel, but through a need to know as much as possible about one’s fellow creatures.

If I were to suggest a theme for A View of the Harbour it would be right there in the title: viewing.  I think the central division between characters is whether they are observant or oblivious.  Neither ‘type’ takes much action as a result of their knowledge, but some seek this knowledge as though it were their lifeblood; others do not even consider its existence.  Mrs. Bracey – dying, but so slowly that it has become her way of living – is one of the watchers.  She vampirically wishes to know every movement of her daughter, but intends to spread her net wider.  Mrs. Bracey moves from her downstairs room to an upstairs room, simply so she can watch the harbour, and its inhabitants:

Up at her window, and in some discomfort (for her shoulder, her chest ached), Mrs. Bracey sat in judgment.  Guilt she saw, treachery and deceit and self-indulgence.  She did not see, as God might be expected to, their sensations of shame and horror, their compulsion towards one another, for which they dearly paid, nor in what danger they so helplessly stood, now, in middle-age, not in any safe harbour, but thrust out to sea with none of the brave equipment of youth to buoy them up, no romance, no delight.
That final few words brings to mind one of the more curious threads throughout A View of the Harbour.  The narrative, as well as characters, consistently attributes traits to all of youth.  Here’s another example:

The young imagine insults, magnify them, with great effort overcome them, or retaliate.  A waste of emotion, Bertram thought, forgetting how much emotion there is to spare. 
This came so often, and so absurdly (of course young people cannot be summed up in these ways, any more than middle-aged or old people can) that I wondered whether it was a flaw in Taylor’s writing, and there to serve some point that I missed?  For an author so interested in the peculiarities of individual personalities, it was inexplicable – not to mention the fact that Taylor was herself young (mid-thirties) when this novel was written.

Foremost amongst the oblivious characters is Beth, a novelist, who appears to have no idea that her husband  Robert (aren’t husbands always called Robert?) is having a clandestine affair with her best friend Tory.  Taylor writes some perfectly observed scenes of conversation between Beth and Tory – the latter trying to maintain the friendship alongside a betrayal which Beth knows nothing about.  There is only one moment of fieriness – Beth still oblivious – which includes this section (the ellipsis in the middle has about half a page of dialogue in it, by the way):

“You talk as if you were Auntie Beth in one of the women’s paper,” said Tory scornfully.  “You’ve no idea of what is real, and how real people think.”  She put her hand to her breast, as if she were saying: “I am real.”  She was suddenly swept away on a tide of words such as came from Beth only through her pen.  “Writers are ruined people.  As a person, you’re done for.  Everywhere you go, all you see and do, you are working up into something unreal, something to go on to paper… you’ve done it since you were a little girl… I’ve watched you for years and I’ve seen you gradually becoming inhuman, outside life, a machine.  When anything important happens you’re stunned and thrown out for a while, and then you recover… God, how novelists recover!… and you begin to wonder how you can make use of it, with a little shifting here, and a little adding there, something can be made of it, surely?  Everything comes in handy. […] One day something will happen to you, as it has to me, that you can’t twist into anything at all, it will go on staying straight, and being itself, and you will have to be yourself and put up with it, and I promise you you’ll be a bloody old woman before you can make a novel out of that.” 
One of the novel’s ironies is that Beth, as a writer, should be an expert at reading people – but though she has a complex understanding of the characters she creates, Beth does not look beyond the surface of those around her.  Or, rather, she trusts them implicitly.

When the novel opened with a painter, I thought “Right, the oldest trick in the book – an author explores ideas of creativity through the perspective of a painter, rather than a writer” – but Taylor gives us both.  It is Beth who takes on the Lily Briscoe role, in terms of structuring the book – which closes when she finishes writing her own novel.  It’s always tempting, and usually erroneous, to assume that writers in novels are reflections of the novelists themselves.  However different Beth is from Elizabeth Taylor, surely something of Taylor’s own thoughts and experiences must have gone into this excerpt?

“This isn’t writing,” she thought miserably.  “It is just fiddling about with words.  I’m not a great writer.  Whatever I do someone else has always done it before, and better.  In ten years’ time no one will remember this book, the libraries will have sold off all their grubby copies of it second-hand and the rest will have fallen to pieces, gone to dust.  And, even if I were one of the great ones, who, in the long run, cares?  People walk about the streets and it is all the same to them if the novels of Henry James were never written.  They could not easily care less.  No one asks us to write.  If we stop, who will implore us to go on?  The only goodness that will ever come out of it is surely this moment now, wondering if ‘vague’ will do better than ‘faint’, or ‘faint’ than ‘vague’, and what is to follow; putting one word alongside another, like matching silks, a sort of game.”
That’s very striking – and perhaps illuminating.  Beth’s absorption in her writing is certainly one of the most interesting threads in the novel.  But in case you think the whole book is anxious and fraught, here is one of the funnier sections (and there are plenty of moments of humour – mostly connected with the clash of perspectives, especially where children are involved.  Taylor is very good at the nonsensical commonsense of children.):

“It is for you,” Stevie said, coming to lean against Robert’s knees as he read.  “It is a shaver.”  She laid the bunch of soiled gulls’ feathers upon Robert’s waistcoat.  They were loosely bound with coloured wools.
“Is it indeed?” Robert said, scarcely lowering his paper.
“It is for putting the soap on your face with instead of a shaving-brush.”
Then he picked up the feathers and examined them.  When he had thanked her he glanced across at Beth, and they smiled gently at the thought of him dipping these grubby feathers into lather and painting his cheeks with them.  Amusement and affection linked them together for a moment.
“You see how soft it is!” Stevie said, entranced by her own generosity and the loveliness of the gift.
“It is very soft indeed,” Robert agreed, flinching away.  (“What the devil do I do in the morning when I shave?” he wondered.)  “Next you should make a hat for your mother,” he said, his eyes challenging Beth’s.  “A nice feather hat for her to wear when she goes to London.”
“Of course not,” Stevie said.  “I am too young to make hats.”
Beth nodded with triumph and malice at her husband.
You’ll notice that most of my quotations come from this family – and there is a reason for that.  I found them, and their story, easily the most absorbing and original.  Although all the characters overlapped to some extent, there are really three separate threads through A View of the Harbour, and I think perhaps it was too many.  I know this is a celebratory year, but I have to admit a few problems I have with Taylor’s novels… well, one major problem.  I always find that it takes me a sizeable chunk of her books to get into their flow, as it were (except for Angel – I loved that one from page one.)  She introduces so many characters, quite sketchily, and leaves us to hurry after them, trying to catch up.  That’s one thing.  But what I do not understand – what I cannot rationalise, but which happens time and again for me – is why I do not appreciate her writing for the first third of each novel.  After that, I find her an extraordinary stylist, and could read away for weeks – and I definitely come away thinking Taylor incredibly good – but I always struggle to engage with her writing initially.  Does anybody else feel this way?

And is there an identifiable Taylor style?  Her quintessential sentences are almost callous – not the naivety or matter-of-fact darkness seen in Barbara Comyns or Muriel Spark, but the objectivity of the omniscient surveyor.  ‘Godlike’, if you understand me to refer to the indifferent gods of classical mythology, rather than the very un-indifferent Christian God.  She lets her characters act, and watches them.  This struck me as a very Taylorian couple of sentences:

Prudence knew by her father’s saying “whatsoever” that he had lost his temper.  When he had gone out Stevie’s crying dropped into the minor key.

She describes cause and effect, but leaves a gap between them which could only be filled after intimacy with the characters involved.  Familiarity between characters, especially within family units, leads to a sort of shorthand of reactions, where emotions are seldom spoken, and actions considered but endlessly deferred: these emotions and potential actions are either understood intuitively by the observers of the novel, or…. missed completely by the oblivious.

Over to you!  This should be a sort of discussion, especially for those of you who have read the novel but don’t have blogs.  What did you think of A View of the Harbour?  Do you think Taylor was successful in her aims – and what were her aims?  Would you have been able to tell this was an Elizabeth Taylor novel without her name on the cover – and if so, why?

Remember, I’ll be posting links to all the reviews I can find (!) tomorrow – so let me know (and add here) if you’ve given your own view of A View of the Harbour

A Game of Hide and Seek

I promised a Virago Modern Classic, and a Virago Modern Classic I will deliver. I’ve already read a couple Elizabeth Taylor novels, Angel and Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont (click on the titles if you fancy reading my thoughts on them, but to summarise – they’re very good) and Nicola Beauman’s biography of Elizabeth Taylor, but there’s plenty of way to go – and when my supervisor told me I should take a look at A Game of Hide and Seek, how could I resist?

The ‘game’ in question is both literal and metaphorical. The novel opens with Harriet and Vesey (query: is this actually a name?) playing a game of hide-and-seek – and this game follows them throughout the rest of their lives… they chase each other, misunderstanding each other’s emotions and failing to say the right thing at the right times, and often saying the wrong thing. Vesey goes to Oxford; Harriet remains behind – and marries somebody else. Later, of course, Vesey reappears – and the same old feelings reappear as well.

I didn’t really want to write out the plot of A Game of Hide and Seek because, like so many of the best novels, the plot isn’t that important. A thousand novelists have written novels with this plot (for another good one, see EM Delafield’s Late and Soon) and explored the emotions that such a recrudescence can have. But few of them will have Elizabeth Taylor’s talent.

Confession time: I read the first half of this on the bus to and from London, and wasn’t very excited about it. I was tired, I had a headache, I was reading the words but not really getting anything out of it. It was only when I returned, busless, to my reading that I understood what an exceptionally well written novel A Game of Hide and Seek was. Taylor excels at the metaphor which is unusual and yet exactly conveys an image. One of my favourites was this:
Harriet tried to put on a polite and considering look. She loved the music, but could not allow herself to enjoy it among strangers. Sunk too far back in her too large chair, she felt helpless, like a beetle turned on its back; and as if she could never rise again, nor find the right phrases of appreciation. How many authors would think of that image, of a beetle turned on its back? And yet it works so very well. That is, to my mind, what sets Taylor apart from other authors – and makes it hard to explain exactly why – that she writes the sort of novel that many could write, but concentrates so much on avoiding cliche and finding new life in her characters, that she is on another level. Another example? It’s always difficult to ‘show’ good writing, isn’t it? But this is a paragraph I highlighted as being representative – the sort of writing which one has to read slowly, to enjoy it fully. The fog lay close to the windows. The train seemed to be grovelling its way towards London, but the banks on either side were obscured. Harriet wondered if they were passing open fields or the backs of factories, and she cleaned a space on the window with her glove, but all she could see reflected were her own frightened eyes.You can just tell that every word is carefully chosen, can’t you? This is all sounding a bit earnest, so I’m also going to quote my favourite line from the novel, which is often humorous as well as serious: “The meat has over-excited them,” Harriet thought. She had always heard that it inflamed the baser instincts.Quite so, Elizabeth, quite so.

I won’t go over the top, this isn’t the best novel I’ve ever read – but it is some of the best writing that I’ve read for a while. If you chose novels for their plot, you might not think too much of A Game of Hide and Seek. If you chose novels for their writing style and characterisation, this may well be something you’ll love – and admire. Not often that those two can go hand in hand – but Elizabeth Taylor is the woman for the job.

Mrs. Palfrey

I read Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont a few weeks ago, but was waiting until I’d seen the film as well before writing about it here. Consequently I’ve forgotten all sorts of details, but I’ll do my best…

The novel concerns Mrs. Palfrey at, you guessed it, the Claremont – ‘One rainy Sunday in January Mrs. Palfrey, recently widowed, arrives at the Claremont Hotel in the Cromwell Road. Here she will spend her remaining days. Her fellow residents are a magnificently eccentric group who live off crumbs of affection, obsessive interest in the relentless round of hotel meals, and undying curiosity.’ So says the blurb on my beautiful Virago edition (I used a postcard of David Hockney’s My Parents for a bookmark, see below, and his mother is startlingly similar to the Virago cover Mrs. Mabel Whitehead by Margaret Foreman. Same pose, same hair, everything.)

The characters sharing the Claremont with Mrs. Palfrey are all in various stages of boredom and hopelessness, but Elizabeth Taylor is subtle enough with her pen to show these states as brittleness or insatiable nosiness or indulging in risque jokes. Mrs. Arbuthnot is bossy; Mrs. Burton drinks; Mrs. Post gossips; Mr. Osmond complains of the lack of male company. Into this web Mrs. Palfrey stumbles, her daughter too busy and grandson too selfish to care much about her. Again, Taylor doesn’t lay it on too thick – there are no villains in this piece, only humans. The life in a hotel, which acts as a retirement home in all but name, is beautifully observed, and perfectly nuanced. As an example (but how can one exemplify subtlety?) here is a couple of paragraphs from early in the novel:

The chief gathering-place for the residents was the vestibule where, about an hour before both luncheon and dinner, the menu was put up in a frame by the lift. People, at those times, seemed to be hovering – reading old church notices on the board, tapping the barometer, inquiring at the desk about letters, or looking out at the street. None wished to appear greedy, or obsessed by food: but food made the breaks in the day, and menus offered a little choosing, and satisfactions and dissatisfactions, as once life had.

When the card was fixed into the frame, although awaited, it was for a time ignored. Then, perhaps Mrs. Arbuthnot, on her slow progress to the lift, would pause nonchalantly, though scarcely staying a second. There was not much to memorise – the choice of two or three dishes, and the fact (which Mrs. Arbuthnot knew, but Mrs. Palfrey had not yet learned) that the menus came round fortnightly, or more often. There were permutations, but no innovations.

The stumbling minutiae of their lives, delicately and acutely portrayed. The central interest in their lives is the visitation of relatives. Each has a store of potential visitors, and an even more valuable reserve of reasons why they haven’t been able to visit. Mrs. Palfrey naively makes known that her grandson Desmond lives near the Claremont, and is sure to come and see her… which he does not do. When she falls outside a flat, and a young man comes to her aid, she finds in many ways a substitute grandson. Ludovic Myers (for it is he) gives her a cup of tea, and is kind. A writer, and a bohemian of sorts, he is enough unlike Mrs. Palfrey to make their friendship diverting, and enough like her to prevent it being ridiculous. Both alone, in their own ways, it is somehow not long before he is masquerading as her grandson.

Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont does not go in for high drama, and this fraudulence never provides it. What the unusual pairing does offer is a touching, but not saccharine, breath of life into Mrs. Palfrey’s old age – but this is no Disney transformation. Elizabeth Taylor brilliantly continues to tread the line between fairy tale and misery literature – the line, I suppose, of reality. And never has reality been more beautiful written nor more honestly and unmanipulatively told.

So, I loved the book. Come back tomorrow to see what I thought about the film…

Speak of an Angel…

…and you shall hear the fluttering of its wings. I think that’s what the expression used to be, before the Great British cynicism and dark sense of humour altered it…

Before I start talking about another book I read in Northern Ireland, I must point you in the direction of the Carbon Copy’s blog for today… have a look here… it’s usually plain blue background etc., so quite witty what he’s done today, and made me double-take…

Elizabeth Taylor is a name which has been on my horizons for a few years now – and no, I don’t mean Mrs. Burton, the actress, but the novelist of the same name. She’s often mentioned on dovegreybooks, the online book discussion list I’m in, to the extent that I have four of her novels on my shelves, all unread. It seemed time to rectify this, so I took Angel away with me, devoured and loved it.

Well, I say loved. It was an incredibly sad novel.

Angel Deverell starts as a humourless young girl, intent on making her way out of her working class background, by fantasy if not by any other means. She finds a potential route out when she starts writing a novel in an exercise book – writing becomes compulsive, and before long she has finished her first romance. Elizabeth Taylor based Angel on similar contemporary romance novelists – Marie Correlli, Ethel M. Dell and so forth; all the people Q. D. Leavis so despised. Like them, Angel’s style and scenarios are over the top and exaggerated, with minimal verisimilitude. Somehow, she is accepted by Gilbright & Brace publishers – Brace finds her absurd, but Theo Gilbright has an unavoidable fondness for Angel, despite her complete lack of humour, her unwarranted self-confidence, arrogance and fierce opposition to criticism:

(Theo:) ‘I daresay I know more about the reading public than you, and you will take my word that I have an idea as to what will pass among the weakest of them. We publish for them, alas, ‘the bread-and-milk brigade’ my partner calls them. They decide. They bring the storms about our ears. For them we veil what is stark and tone down what is colourful and discard a lot that – for ourselves – we would rather keep. So will you take away your manuscript for a while and see what you can do for us?’
‘No,’ said Angel.

Success greets her – a mixture of unquestioning loyalty from the uneducated, and amused delight from the over-educated. When she can afford to leave Volunteer Street, her working-class birthplace, however, she does not enter the sublime world she’d envisaged…

Angel takes us to the end of Angel’s life, and, though the novel is only about 250 pages long, Elizabeth Taylor packs so much in that it really feels like a saga – a compulsive one. Some of the most moving passages concern Angel’s mother, as she moves with Angel to a ‘better’ neighbourhood, and loses all her lifelong friends:

‘Either they put out their best china and thought twice before they said anything, or they were defiantly informal – “You’ll have to take us as you find us” – and would persist in making remarks like “I don’t suppose you ever have bloaters up at Alderhurst” or “Pardon the apron, but there’s no servants here to polish the grate.” In each case, they were watching her for signs of grandeur or condescension. She fell into little traps they laid and then they were able to report to the neighbours. “It hasn’t taken her long to start putting on side.” She had to be especially careful to recognise everyone she met, and walked up the street with an expression of anxiety which was misinterpreted as disdain.’

Angel Deverell is never a likeable character; quite the reverse. Even so, Elizabeth Taylor creates in her a character of pathos, and it is difficult to take any pleasure in her downfalls, however deserved. It is testament to Taylor’s talent that such an unpleasant protagonist can inhabit a thoroughly compelling novel. I shall certainly be making sure I read the other Elizabeth Taylor novels I have, though if they’re all this sad, I’ll be pacing them out.