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.
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.’
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?
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