Monthly Archives: July 2013

Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley

Being told you are clever when you are young is not necessarily a compliment. There is the problem of being too clever by half. And if you are a girl it can be a disadvantage in the eyes of those who believe it is your mission to get a man. Tongue-in-cheek it may be, but the words of the song The Dumber they come the Better I like ‘em (by Stephen Derosa) is a warning that all clever girls of the ‘60s will recognise. Clever girls, educated babies, wisenheimers, smart girls, they don’t know how to make love and men don’t want them.

There are plenty of clever girls in fiction, and on the whole they do get their man, but after a struggle. Clever girls write fiction after all. Jane Eyre, poor but clever, marries her employer. Dorothea (Middlemarch), first marries the dry, arid Casubon before giving up her inheritance to marry Ladislaw, who better appreciates her. Elizabeth Bennett’s fine eyes and wit are sneered at by the Miss Hurts, but capture the proud and brooding Darcy and his huge fortune and beautiful house. Sydney Warren (The Hotel, Elizabeth Bowen) is awkward in relationships, but at the end of the novel is off to make something of herself. Maggie Tulliver, Lucy Snowe, I’m sure you can name many more.

In the sixties girls were divided into those who were clever and those who weren’t. Cleverness and prettiness did not coincide, we assumed. And clever girls, we were told, would find it harder to get a man and were advised to hide or deny their smartness and limit their education. What use is cleverness when your destiny is to marry and have babies? In a twenty-first century twist Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, believes that women go to university today in order to find a husband.

42 Clever Girl

Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley (2013) has another take on the clever girl. Stella grows up in Bristol in the ‘60s and excels at school. But being clever does not save her from falling into a series of unfortunate relationships and non decisions. In the first place she finds secondary school unbearable.

By the end of the first week I knew I had found my way, through some terrible error, into enemy territory where I must as a matter of life or death keep my true self concealed. The school was a mill whose purpose was to grind you into its product. Every subject shrank to fit inside its exam questions; even – especially – the books we read in English lessons. (67-8)

Stella becomes pregnant and leaves school before taking A levels and acquiring the passport to the clever girl’s life at university. She runs away from home and lives with a number of people who take pity on her: an aunt, a housemother at the local public school, a teacher who had loved her soul mate, a commune and then with a friend. The impetus to change her life comes when she reads some lines of poetry by Whitman.

It wasn’t their meaning that affected me, it was the words themselves – the solidity of them, their being assembled together in that particular order and rhythm – which stopped my breath. They seemed a signal from another, bigger life than the one I was in, as if a smothering blanket had been torn through. (142)

Having seen the other, bigger life, Stella once again engages with the words of others. She acquires a degree in English literature as a mature student and could have continued into postgraduate education, but decides that this kind of formal education is not for her. Stella appears to survive a series of episodes in her life, more or less passively. Indeed the only thing she is good at is escaping. She runs away frequently: from home when pregnant, from Mrs Tapper (who saved her by providing home and work and Walt Whitman), from Fred who also gave her a home, and from time to time from her much older husband. But gradually and despite some uncertainty Stella changes so that she helps others, providing in her turn a home for the daughter of a friend and raising the child as her own.

The story is told in the first person, in rather a flat tone, which reinforces her experience of life as a series of episodes that happen to her. Tessa Hadley’s skill is in the language she uses, which pinpoints details making the narrative compelling, as these two extracts illustrate. Stella’s cleverness, we come to see, is not a worldly awareness. We find out on the first page that she has never questioned what happened to her father, having been told he died, but she doesn’t notice the absence of grief, mementos, what ifs or anniversaries that would confirm his death.

The episodic style fits the passive aspects of the story, and one can see how two chapters were published separately as short stories in The New Yorker. I’ve read Tessa Hadley’s earlier short stories and admired her ability to confront human failings, and the rather grim aspects of being alive. The collection was called Sunstroke, which illustrates my point. In Clever Girl Stella acquires enough wisdom to steer herself adequately through life after about 50 years of experience of it. That’s one form of cleverness. Some reviewers have been unconvinced by aspects of the novel – (Stella’s choice of career Elaine Showalter in the Guardian, for example). But I think Tessa Hadley has an eye for the unlikely details in life, such as clothes, novels, décor, career choice.

I’ve been to college, I’m full of knowledge, go the lyrics from The Dumber they come. That’s one form of cleverness. In Clever Girl Tessa Hadley has offered us a more uncomfortable version of cleverness.

What clever girls have you met in fiction? What did you think of this novel?


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Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys

‘No one who has read Jean Rhys’s first four novels [Good Morning, Midnight was her fourth] can suppose that she was good at life; but no one who never met her could know how very bad at it she was,’ says Diana Athill in Stet. The story of Jean Rhys’s life is remarkable. And her writing is also remarkable and ahead of its time, but, observes Diana Athill, ‘how this hopelessly inept, seemingly incomplete woman could write with such clarity, power and grace remains a mystery.’ While Jean Rhys mined her own life for the material for her novels, we should not make too much of this she warned us:

All of a writer that matters is in the book. It is idiotic to be curious about the person. (tweet from @Standoutbooks)

We can agree with the first half of that quotation without feeling idiotic about our curiosity.

The first four novels were published between the wars, Good Morning, Midnight in 1939. After the war it was thought that Jean Rhys was dead, until in 1957 she answered an advertisement seeking information about ‘the late Jean Rhys’. A BBC radio play of Good Morning, Midnight performed by Selma vaz Dias was being prepared.  Jean Rhys was living in penury in Cornwall, and lived on until 1979, publishing her most celebrated book Wide Sargasso Sea, in 1966.

Good M Mid

Good Morning, Midnight is set in Paris in October 1937. The Englishwoman Sophia (aka Sasha) Jansen is staying in a hotel, thanks to a friend. The novel is told by Sasha, as thoughts are going through her head, so that she shifts place and time frequently, but never looses the reader. As well as the present time, we see earlier times in Paris, and in Brussels. Her voice is unrelenting, bleak, sometimes telling herself to stop speaking, sometimes saying what she would like to be saying out loud, or ventriloquising a room as in the opening paragraph.

 ‘Quite like old times,’ the room says. ‘Yes? No?’

There are two beds, a big one for madame and a smaller one on the opposite side for monsieur. The wash-basin is shut off by a curtain. It is a large room, the smell of cheap hotels faint, almost imperceptible. The street outside is narrow, cobble-stoned, going sharply uphill and ending in a flight of steps. What they call an impasse.

I have been here five days. I have decided on a place to eat in at midday, a place to eat in at night, a place to have my drink in after dinner. I have arranged my little life.

In these first 100 words she establishes her relationship with the reader, who sees at once an odd, idiosyncratic figure, alone, impoverished, revisiting her past life. The hotel is shabby, bleak – no colour is mentioned. Her stay in Paris will be like the view out of her window, uphill, an impasse. Very quickly she persuades us that Sasha is ‘an inefficient member of Society, slow in the uptake, uncertain, slightly damaged in the fray’.

41 young j Rhys

Sasha is not an easy person: she does not find life easy and nor do other people find her easy to deal with. There is a line that we have all noticed, as we hover near in alcohol, depression, penury, sickness or hopelessness. We struggle to keep this side of the line at all costs. Sasha has crossed the line for good. She is unable to follow her own arrangements for her ‘little life’. She constantly tells herself not to go in that bar, not to have another drink, but immediately enters the bar, orders drink after drink, meets people and suffers from their looks or comments. She knows that she is one of those people whose eye you try not to catch, who you try to ignore on the street. She does not belong, not in her cheap room off Gray’s Inn Road nor in Paris. Her solution is ‘the bright idea of drinking myself to death.’

I have no pride – no pride, no name, no face, no country. I don’t belong anywhere. Too sad, too sad. … It doesn’t matter, there I am, like one of those straws which floats round the edge of a whirlpool and is gradually sucked into the centre, the dead centre, where everything is stagnant, everything is calm. Two-pound-ten a week and a room just off the Gray’s Inn Road. …

She attracts the people who prey off other people; other hotel guests, two Russians, a painter and a gigolo. He does not believe that she has no money. But she feels safe in her poverty. There is nothing further for him to take from her, she believes. It is in the sexual transactions of this world that destitution is clearest. But the final pages of the novel are chilling, shocking. It is always possible, it seems, to slip further away on the wrong side of that line.

Jean Rhys makes a powerful impression on the reader. Who can forget the image of Mr Rochester from the attic in The Wide Sargasso Sea? And who can escape the discomfort of this earlier novel, largely because of what Emma Darwin refers to (in a short blog review) as ‘admitting the reader so absolutely to a consciousness at once so helpless and sharp-eyed’. Linda Grant, writing about Rhys in the My Hero column in the Guardian in February this year describes the effect of her style.

When I read Rhys, I lost interest in fireworks in fiction. Sentence after apparently unremarkable sentence would pass until suddenly you would feel yourself hit in the solar plexus by the accumulated tension. I would look back and ask: how did you do that?

Some of the writing is even surreal, some captures the desperation of the life led in isolation, and some is joyful and funny. Perhaps the most shocking aspect is what AL Kennedy, in her introduction, calls ‘her eloquence in the language of human sexual transactions, chilling, cynical and surprisingly moving’. It is her attitude to sexual transactions, that shocks, even while she craves closeness and will invent it with strangers to stave off bleakness, when alcohol doesn’t do it.

Her achievement, according to Emma Darwin, ‘is in her pitch-perfect depiction – and thereby her validation – of female consciousness and experiences when the lives of women (and the novels written about them) were thought duller, smaller and less interesting than those of (and written by) men. …there’s no self pity there, only a painfully acute self-knowledge.’

I can see her book would be shocking to the inter-war readers: it’s still shocking today. But although disturbing to read, it is also very powerful and affecting. And we should not make too much of her chaotic life as we now can treasure her amazing prose.

41 jean-rhys

Further Reading:

Biography by Carol Angier new edition (2011, fp 1990)

Stet: an editor’s life by Diana Athill (2000)


REMINDER: if you have a recommendation for the September Readalong, please mention it in the comments box, on this page or on the ‘about the book group’ page. Thanks Marianne for the recommendation for this book.

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Learning about writing through writing about writing

On 30th June we dispatched the completed second revised manuscript of our book On Retiring to our editor at Guardian Faber. Eileen and I celebrated this next step towards publication with a visit to Hackney Museum Migrations Exhibition (great) and lunch at the Picture House (also great). Part of the celebration was this interview that I (CL) conducted with Eileen (EC).

40 EC & CL

CL: So we’ve sent our revised manuscript to Guardian Faber. How does it feel?

EC: Oooooooh wonderful, charming, delightful, delicious! A fantastic achievement because it is a popular/trade book and we’ve never written like that before. So we had to change our style and approach and way of thinking about how to engage with the audience.

CL: What have you learned from writing this book?

EC: One thing was redrafting the whole book to make it edgy. I’m not sure, even now, that I know what that means but the process definitely improved the writing. It made it succinct, more alive, focussed, amusing, witty and engaging.

Rewriting the second time taught me about how you could get the reader to think about issues and act on them in a way I didn’t think possible; ie not asking questions at the end of a section or chapter, more about a strategy to get the reader to involved themselves with the text.

CL: What was the worst bit?

EC: When all those publishers were telling us it was a brilliant book but not for them.

CL: And the best?

EC: The times we had together writing collaboratively. I think that’s when we are at our best. We have a dialogue to make sense of what we really want to convey and produce really good writing that we couldn’t achieve alone. The laughs we had during these periods almost brought on my asthma. I’ve learned so much from you in this collaboration.

CL: Why do you write?

EC: To learn. I believe that writing is more than telling the reader what you know but a continuous analysis of what you think, believe in and want to clarify for yourself. During the process I’m reworking my thoughts and my ideas and creating new ways of thinking. It changes me by changing how I look at the issues in a new way.

CL: How does this book compare to others you have written?

EC: I’ve never written anything that wasn’t scholarly or academic but I’ve always been interested in theory related to practice. Previous writing has been about education and learning and more concerned with concepts and how they related to practice.

This book has big concepts, illustrated through narratives and my own changing perspectives. Previously I’ve remained anonymous. In this book my ideas, thinking, changing and learning has been as much part of the book as bringing in other people’s stories.

So returning to learning, I’m now writing about changing circumstances such as transitions in retirement and ageing, before it was about classrooms and young people and working with adults to enhance their learning. Now there is more of me and my learning in the text.

CL: Where next?

EC: I am now involved in a major project on ageing – again covering different perspectives, combining narratives and research to come up with bigger themes – social, political, personal, intellectual and so on.

Also I am interested in writing about writing. I’m constructing a course that will be face-to-face but designing the materials as if it were an on-line course because that will happen later. I’ve written about writing before and enjoyed going back to it and it helps my writing now as well. Reinforces it. I’m learning about writing through writing about writing.

Because the course is for people in an art organisation I am trying to include art to stimulate writing activity. I also want this to help participants think about their writing identities and connect their writing with the context in which they are writing. That’s challenging as I have never done that before. It’s very exciting.

CL That sounds so interesting, so I look forward to hearing more about that. And I love that phrase you used: learning about writing through writing about writing. I’m going to use that in my work as a writing coach. Thank you so much Eileen.

EC: You are welcome. I really enjoyed reflecting on the process. I’d really like to hear your answers to the same questions.

A REMINDER: The Readalong review of Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys will be posted on Tuesday 23rd July.

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Tales from the Vienna Streets

We begin with a hare and move through two visits to Vienna (a city never previously visited) and onto a laboratory. We start with The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal (2010), and finish with The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal (2013). And, yes, there is a family connection: Edmund is Elisabeth’s grandson.

39 Books

It all started two years ago when I found a copy of The Hare with Amber Eyes in a second hand bookshop. I had noticed it had been a best seller (Winner of the 2010 COSTA Biography Award), but had no idea what it was about, or even that it was not fiction. But like many readers as soon as I started it, I was entranced by the story of the hare and its 263 companions. For those who don’t know (can there be many of you left?) the hare of the title is one of a collection of 264 netsuke, those tiny Japanese wood and ivory carvings of animals, so beloved of the cultured and rich in nineteenth century Europe.

I’m a history graduate and twentieth century European history has always fascinated and horrified me. In this book I found the fascination and horror made personal, through the history of the netsuke and their owners, the Jewish Ephrussi family. Edmund de Waal, the current owner of the collection, and a potter of distinction, has the skills to tell the story.

The 264 netsuke were acquired for his family’s collection in Paris in the 1870s when Japanese art was very fashionable. The family acquired their wealth in Odessa as grain exporters, and in the mid-nineteenth century the sons had been sent to extend their business into banking in Vienna and Paris. The little figures were sent to Vienna in 1899 as a wedding gift to a grandson, Viktor, where they stayed in the Ephrussi palace for nearly forty years. But in 1938 the palace was ransacked when Austria was absorbed into the Third Reich and the property of Jewish people confiscated. This section of the story is especially dramatic as Viktor and Emmy (the grandson and his wife) became trapped and frozen as their world collapsed. When their daughter Elisabeth (the second writer) returned to Vienna after the war, trying to reclaim their possessions, the maid Anna told her what happened.

‘I couldn’t carry anything precious away for you. So I would slip three or four of the little figures from the Baroness’s dressing-room, the little toys you played with when you were children – you remember – and I put them into the pocket of my apron whenever I was passing, and I took them to my room. I hid them in the mattress of my bed. It took me two weeks to get them all out of the big glass case. You remember how many there were!

‘And they didn’t notice. They were so busy. They were busy with all the grand things – the Baron’s paintings and the gold service from the safe, and the cabinets from the drawing-room, and the statues and all your mother’s jewellery. And all the Baron’s old books that he loved so much. They didn’t notice the little figures.

‘So I just took them. And I put them in my mattress and I slept on them. Now you are back, I have something to return to you.’

In December 1945 Anna gave Elisabeth 264 Japanese netsuke. (p278)

‘I know too much about the traces of my gilded family’, comments Edmund de Waal, ‘but I cannot find out any more about Anna.’ He does not even know her surname. ‘She was, simply, Anna.’

After the war-time rescue the collection got moved on again to other members of the family, to Tokyo and finally to London. Through the story of the collection of tiny objects we follow the misfortunes of the Ephrussi family and the larger historical and cultural convulsions in Europe in the first half of the twentieth century.

Reading this book was a final impetus to visit Vienna. The other impetus was music. I planned a visit to coincide with Gerry Finlay as the Count in Marriage of Figaro at the Opera House. I went to the Mozarthaus, walked in the cobbled streets, visited some art museums. Once was not enough, I returned within twelve months with a friend. This time we saw Don Giovanni, Irwin Schrott as Leporello. And we visited the memorial to the defeat of the plague, and Rachel Whiteread’s memorial library to the Jewish victims of Nazism in the Judenplatz. The city is crammed full of wonderful art, although enslaved to those ‘doing Europe’. There’s a good living to be made out of Klimt’s Kiss. I lost count of the number of souvenirs decorated with the kiss; umbrellas, purses, pens, pencils, teddies, trays, music boxes, bags, keyrings, lampshades, candles, mirrors, badges, glasses cases, cushions, scarves, paperweights, table napkins, coasters, tissues and even a Klimt cake in a café …

39 Opera

Brought up in that Viennese palace of the Ephrussi, Elisabeth de Waal was a resourceful woman who learned Dutch when she married a Dutchman, who wrote in both German and English. Her novel The Exiles Return, was published by Persephone Books this year, for the first time. It is set in post-war Vienna, in the 50s, just before the occupation ended and independence was granted. This city is familiar as the Vienna of The Third Man – Carol Reed’s quintessential film starring Trevor Howard, Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles and Valli – a city of corruption and intrigue.

39 3rd Man

The theme of the novel is the pain and pleasure of exile and return, which we learn about through the contrasted experiences of two exiles. Professor Adler, being a Jewish scientist, fled Vienna just before the Anschluss. Although he had made a new life for himself in America he returned to take up the government’s promise of restitution. He is disappointed to find that he is not given the seniority his career would merit and that the wartime activities of those who remained is being whitewashed. The head of the scientific institute is keen to insist that he was investigated and exonerated of any crimes against ‘inmates of certain institutions’. In one of the most uncomfortable scenes in the novel, Krieger claims the neutrality of scientists to justify his actions.

‘My colleagues and I had the opportunity of carrying out experiments, testing and researching with the only biological material that can yield convincing results in the field of medical science … with live human subjects. … But I can tell you for your comfort that our material – I mean my colleagues’ material – were not Jews. They were Gypsies.’ (p107)

Professor Adler realises that there must be many unrepentant Nazis still thriving in Vienna. His return from exile means that he has to share the city, its past and future with them. Adler falls in love with another lab employee (also a princess, who no longer uses her title) and it is all ends very nicely for him.

Resi is the daughter of an Austrian aristocratic mother and a Danish father. They went to live in America in the 1930s. Resi is sent to visit her European family because she is not thriving, sent into the care of two aunts, who despite being princesses, live in very straitened circumstances. Old families are no longer so powerful. Money and deal-making are the new powers.

Resi is naïve and in this unfamiliar world easily falls victim to the machinations of richer and more subtle people. She is manoeuvred into promising to marry a rich Greek, so that he can hide his homosexuality, having being sexually exploited by an impoverished prince. Her story ends badly.

The novel shows us that exile is hard, even for those who chose it. Home has a pull, and yet home will have been changed, by the passing of time as well as the paroxysms of the war. The exile who returns will also have changed. There was a great deal of displacement in Europe in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, millions of people experienced the discomfort of exile, and of return. And today people continue to move from country to country, into exile, fewer return home. ‘Most people living in Britain have a migration story to tell,’ says the welcome poster at the 100 Images of Migration exhibition (currently showing at Hackney Museum).

39 migr ex

Although my journey began with the hare, I like to think of Vienna as Mozart’s city. It seems to have been less tainted when Mozart died there in 1791. Or as the romantic heart of the waltz, celebrated every New Year’s Day by a concert with more tradition than the last night of the proms. Vienna city of music, psychiatry, art, European History, knitted lamppost jackets …

39 knit lamppost

Have you ever travelled to a new place because you read about it in a novel: to the Mississippi after reading Mark Twain, or Moscow and St Petersburg after reading Anna Karenina? What other migration stories are there in fiction – The Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck, …?


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Onward, old legs!

I’ve been searching for fictional examples of strong older women for a few months. The lack of obvious characters started me off, but the responses to my search has resulted in a decision to initiate three blog activities and I want to persuade you to come along with me.

My search began when I attended a day course at London’s adult education centre, City Lit. The course tutor drew on literature to consider Growing into Ageing, and for guidance about the purpose of the last phase of your life.

We looked at poems by Dylan Thomas (‘Do not go gentle into that good night/Rage, rage against the dying of the light’, which was used by Margaret Laurence as the epigraph for the Stone Angel), DH Lawrence (Uprooted) and Mary Oliver. I took the title for this post from her poem Self Portrait.

We looked at Shakespeare: King Lear, Jacques’s speech in As You Like it and Prospero in The Tempest. And we considered what we could learn from Homer’s Ulysses.

You will have noticed only one female writer (someone referred to Jenny Joseph’s poem Warning; you probably know the first line ‘When I am an old woman I shall wear purple’ to double the number of female writers). Also no novels. So I began my quest for strong older women in fiction.

Since I began my quest I’ve had to refine my terms:

Older – older than the person reading the blog? I use the term to mean 55+ (all kinds of problems of defining age with numbers, but I’ll leave that to our next book). For some that seemed young (A comment from twitter: ‘that made me laugh because 55+ seems very young to me’) and for others unimaginably old.

Strong – strongly written, ie not one of EM Forster’s flat characters, but a fully drawn character; with a bit of a determination about her like Hagar Shipley or Jenny Joseph.

Fiction – I was asked did I mean classics or contemporary. My response was – any, which led to a suggestion from theatre (Paulina in The Winter’s Tale).

25 Stone Angel

My original list is the most read page on my blog to date, closely followed by the review of Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel and Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor. I have added some suggestios to the list with contributions from Twitter, the blog, conversations with other readers, academic reading and a conference related to the wide-ranging New Dynamics of Ageing research project (its scope includes literature, other arts, science, sociology etc).

38 Strong W books

Now to my three actions. First: a new Readalong. I plan to read a novel that includes a strong older female character and post on the subject every two months. I will start with Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively in August. It will alternate with the other Readalong (see About the Book Group), which is intended to be more general.

Second, here is the revised, extended but not definitive list – additions are marked §. I hope that you will find lots of interesting reading here. Feel free to make more suggestions. Dickens anyone?

Margaret Atwood    The Blind Assasin (Iris)

Angela Carter           Wise Children (the twins) §

Agatha Christie        Miss Marple series

EM Forster                A Passage to India  (Mrs Moore) §

                                     Howard’s End (Mrs Wilcox) §

Margaret Forster     Isa and May

Patrick Gale               Notes from an Exhibition (GBH) §

Jane Gardam             Last Friends

Linda Gillard             Various

Siri Hustvedt             The Summer without Men

Tove Jansson             The Summer Book §

Doris Lessing            Various §

Penelope Lively        Heatwave

                                      Moon Tiger

Olivia Manning         School for Love (Miss Bohun)

Ian McEwan               Atonement (Bryony)

Jill J Marsh                Beatrice Stubbs series

David Mitchell          Ghostwritten (Chinese woman and Irish scientists)

Deborah Moggach   The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Toni Morrison          Beloved

Barbara Pym            Various

Carol Shield             The Stone Diaries (Daisy Goodwill Flett)

May Sarton               The Reckoning §

Wm Shakespeare      The Winter’s Tale (Paulina) §

Joanna Trollope        Various

Elizabeth Taylor       Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

Salley Vickers           Miss Garnett’s Angel

                                     Dancing Backwards

Alice Walker             The Colour Purple (Celie)

                                     Possessing the Secret of Joy (Tashi)

Dorothy Whipple     Greenbanks

Mary Wesley              Various

Virginia Woolf          Mrs Dalloway

                                     To the Lighthouse (Mrs Ramsey)

Third: I am adding a category to my blog, to help people find these reviews more easily: older women in fiction.

So please add to my list, and join me in the new Readalong, – make your comments and your suggestions.

 mrspalfrey green

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Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reading

A View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor

I found it hard to get into this novel for a chapter or two because there are a daunting number of characters and it is not immediately clear who is going to be most significant. When I had worked out the main characters I found this an engaging novel, a wonderful evocation of a group of people who lived in the same space looking out onto the harbour of the title. Elizabeth Taylor starts by following the fishing fleet out of the harbour and then introducing a visitor, one who claims to have a particular view of the harbour, as a painter. These quick shifts of perspective are typical of this novel.

A model for the harbour community is likely to have been Whitby where Elizabeth Taylor spent the final years of the war. But this harbour town, Newby, is close enough to London to visit in a day. It is somewhat eclipsed by the more racy New Town, just around the headland. The novel is set in the period in which it was written – 1946. War is over, workmen are rolling up the barbed wire fortifications, but the war is only present in the material drabness of the lives of the characters.

37 Harbour

Once I had established who was who, and the events of the spring and summer began to unfold, I experienced all the anticipated pleasure of reading the third of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels. The main narrative concerns the divorcee Tory Foyle and her involvement with the husband of her best friend and neighbour. Beth Cazubon seems unaware of the tension between her doctor husband and her friend for she is busy completing her novel. (Surely the name Cazubon is intended to refer to Dorothea’s dusty and unrealistic husband in George Eliot’s Middlemarch. He never completes his great oeuvre, while Beth finishes her novel as A View of the Harbour comes to a close. Beth, however, is a variation of the novelist’s own name.)

A second strand follows the terrible Mrs Bracey who has spiteful and bitter words for and about everyone, and the best view of her neighbours once she has been carried up to her first floor bedroom. She it is who spots the electric charge between Tory Foyle and Robert Cazubon. She is as observant of what is not done as Henry James in Portrait of a Lady.

… the very fact of them not smiling at one another when they met was a plain endorsement of their guilt …

As the title suggests, this is a novel about what people see, don’t see, choose not to see or want to see. Bernard Hemingway is the retired seaman and would-be painter who likes to think of himself as delightfully useful to everyone, even sitting with Mrs Bracey in her final days. But what he does not see it that he is rather selfish person who damages one of his abandoned protégées (Lilly Wilson) and his stance eventually ensnares him in what the reader feels will be a doomed marriage, even if it helps the lady out of a jam. Here Elizabeth Taylor describes his self-delusion and condescension, in a way that invites us to consider what we don’t see of ourselves.

He had always had great confidence with women and a tendency to kiss them better, as he called it; only when he had gone, their fears, their anxieties returned, a little intensified, perhaps, but he, of course, would not know that, and remained buoyed up by his own goodness. (p138)

Then there is Beth Cazubon, the novelist, who is so absorbed in her writing that she does not notice her husband’s interest in Tory, nor does she perceive the anger of their daughter Prudence. Prudence is enraged by what she clearly sees happening between her father and Tory, but her lack of maturity and a kind of simpleness makes her impotent.

Mrs Bracey fears her own decay and death and treats her daughters badly as a result. This character provides much of the comedy of the novel, but the reader observes the truths of Mrs Bracey’s outrageous comments. And she is pinioned through illness, to a single perspective.

The day comes slowly to those who are ill. The night has separated them from the sleepers, who return to them like strangers from a distant land, full of clumsy preparations for living, the earth itself creaking towards the light. (p257)

So the story shifts from one person to another, sometimes the reader sees from Bertram’s point of view, then shifts to another character, Prudence, say, walking along the harbour front, or one of Mrs Bracey’s daughters, or Tory who is perhaps the most clear-sighted of all, except she is blinded by love. Subtle and quiet are two adjectives frequently used to describe Elizabeth Taylor’s style. A View of the Harbour exemplifies both.

Loneliness is a theme of this novel – nearly everyone is lonely. In their loneliness they don’t always act in their best interests, Mrs Bracey pushes her daughter away by making more and more demands upon her. Lily descends into drinks at the bar and then into a disreputable sex life. Tory has to face losing both her best friend and her lover, and will settle for a less than wise marriage.

As in her other novels the children are interesting characters. Beth’s younger daughter, Stevie, is a delightful free spirit, who moves between the characters with charm and some precocity. Tory’s son Edward writes delightful letters to his mother from school. And Elizabeth Taylor knows the physicality of young boys. This is her description of what happens when Tory visits him at his boarding school and they walk together to meet his form master.

Every boy who passed surreptitiously lunged at Edward, dug an elbow at him, crooked a knee at his behind. (p142)

She’s good at the self-doubt of adults too. Here is Beth taking up her pen to write.

‘This isn’t writing,’ she thought miserably. It’s 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 in 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.’

E.Taylor 1

Elizabeth Taylor does not answer her own implied question. ‘No one asks us to write.’ But I continue to be pleased that she does, as I revisit or discover her novels this year.

In July I will be reading and reviewing the fourth novel by Elizabeth Taylor: A Wreath of Roses (published in 1949).

What did you think of A View of the Harbour? Did you like it? How does it compare to her other novels?

37 Vof H


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Filed under Books, Elizabeth Taylor's novels, Reviews