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…