Category Archives: Elizabeth Taylor’s novels

The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor

Two novels by Elizabeth Taylor focus on thoroughly unlikeable characters: Angel and The Soul of Kindness. Both titles are freighted with irony. Angel is a monster, and Flora is monstrously selfish. As a result these novels are not comfortable to read, although full of acute observations.

Of her other novels I find The Sleeping Beauty the least enjoyable. I think it is because the main character, Vinny, appears to be what in my childhood was called a spiv. The novel was published in 1953, just when I was learning to avoid spivs! But actually, Vinny is the Prince Charming of this novel, in the unlikely role of the prince charming who awakens a sleeping beauty.

The Sleeping Beauty

We first meet Vinny, who has come to Seething, a town on the coast, to bring consolation to Isabella whose husband has been drowned. Vinny seems to be an accomplished consoler, ready with words, patient in the presence of tears, and altogether useful to the bereaved. Here are the opening lines of the novel.

“There’s Vinny going in with the wreaths,” Isabella had once said.
Now that her own time to be consoled had come, she was glad of him. The wreaths she had mentioned were a figure of speech – her way of associating Vinny with condolences and gloom; for disaster could always bring him to a scene. He went with sympathy professional in its skill; yet adept and exquisite. (1)

Isabella speaks of him as inevitable, and he appreciates the description. I am not sure why Vinny appears to me to be a spiv. Perhaps it’s the name. Or that he appears at this difficult time for Isabella and her adolescent son Laurence, ready to exploit the new widow. 

But it is not Isabella who is the sleeping beauty. In fact she is a silly woman. Rather, gazing out of the window while Isabella cries, Vinny spots the Tillotson family on their way up the cliff to their holiday guest house. Close behind them are a child and a woman.

It was too dark to see the woman’s face, but he was certain, from her walk, that it was beautiful. She went on slowly and dreamily along the shore. Beautiful women do not need to hurry. Then she turned and paused, looking back: the girl came nearer to her, and together they crossed the sands and began to climb the rustic steps, the private way up to the house above, where a light or two was switched on in upstairs rooms. (7-8)

Vinny is captivated by this woman, Emily. He discovers that she is the sister of the Rose who runs the guest house. She suffered badly in a road accident and was now protected from the world by Rose. The child, Philly, is Rose’s mentally challenged daughter who is cared for by Emily. Vinny brings his mother, Mrs Tumulty, to stay in the guest house so that he can form a closer relationship with Emily.

Vinny’s mother, Mrs Tumulty, is a larger-than-life character and much that the reader needs to know about her is captured by Elizabeth Taylor on her arrival at the guest house:

Vinny and the gardener brought in the most curious weather-beaten luggage – an old leather hat-box; a round-topped trunk with labels of countries which no longer existed, hotels which had been shelled in 1916 and never risen again; a Gladstone-bag; a wicker hamper. There were also Mrs Tumulty’s bird-watching glasses and a black japanned box in which she collected fungi; for she was a great naturalist. (52)

Vinny faces the many challenges to a satisfactory outcome with Emily, not the least of which is that he is already married. His wife is another great character, described in this way:

To say that Vinny’s wife was not above telling a lie – and she would not have been his wife at all if that had been so – would be to underestimate her inventiveness. She had in fact a great distaste for the truth and was for ever tidying it up or turning her back on it. …Vinny’s desertion she had disposed of by moving to a new place and saying he was dead. She even changed Vinny himself into a Fighter Pilot and gave him a D.F.C with bar. (109)

Laurence thinks that Vinny is in Seething for his mother. He is an awkward young man, in the army and often on his way back to Aldershot. He too is awakening, into manhood and love, but he does not make things easy for Vinny.

Rose, Emily’s sister, has much to lose if Emily marries Vinny: her child’s carer, her companion, someone who relied on her, the end of a period when she didn’t compete with Emily, and so forth. 

I found it hard as a reader to find much sympathy for either Emily or her suitor, Vinny. Emily is not a lively character, always a weakness in the fairy tale – the heroine is asleep! We are asked to believe in the magic of Vinny’s love, but I did not find Emily to be a very interesting or attractive character. I would have preferred to spend more time in the company of the rather spoiled Tillotson children. Elizabeth Taylor writes about children so well. In this example Betty, the children’s nursemaid, takes them down to the Regatta.

“Why are there flags on the steamer?” Benjy asked.
“It’s dressed all over for Regatta Day,” Betty said.
“How do you know that that is what it is called?” asked Constance. “Over all, I mean.”
“I happen to have a cousin in the Navy.”
“You are always boasting. I think you are getting too big for your boots.”
“It is what Nannie said you were,” her brother reminded her.
“I bet you wouldn’t have the nerve to take us on a boat,” Constance said, but casually and without optimism. Benjy looked quickly up at Betty’s face, and then away again, seeing that the idea had not had her attention. (218)

The children do not play a big part in the drama of the novel, but they are there, part of the picture at Seething.

Elizabeth Taylor

Names are always interesting in Elizabeth Taylor’s novels: Seething (the town), Mrs Tumulty (a women of chaos) and as usual a derivative of Elizabeth, in this case in the naïve nursery maid Betty.

The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor, first published in 1953. I used my copy of the Virago Modern Classic (1983) which has an introduction by Susannah Clapp. 250pp 

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Summer reading over ten years

I began blogging just over ten years ago. Recent Twitter lists of summer reading encouraged me to look back over those years and see what I was blogging on 7th July in those years. Here are just seven posts from the 787 that I have produced over that time. Some themes emerge from those years: the older women in fiction series, translations, thematic posts, and the established fiction which I preferred to chasing the new. I have included links in this piece to all the posts mentioned. Happy summer reading!

Onward, Old Legs (2013)

Several novels featuring older women had already appeared on my blog by July 2013: Stone Angel by the Canadian writer Margaret Laurence and Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor, and I listed more than thirty others. Many of them I have now read, and some have been dropped from the list for various reasons. The full list for the series can be found at this link

Ways with Words (2014)

2014 was the year that Retiring with Attitude was published. I wrote it with my friend and colleague Eileen Carnell. We were asked to do a presentation on our book at the Ways With Words festival at Dartington that year. We have written one book since then, The New Age of Ageing with our colleague and friend Marianne Coleman. Our writing careers have slowed down since then!

Island Novels (2016)

Two years later I wrote a post on the theme of novels set on islands. It was a rich subject and I referred to Night Waking by Sarah Moss, To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, The Summer Book by Tove Jansson, and four other novels. I enjoy putting together themed posts.

To The North by Elizabeth Bowen (2019)

To the North was the seventh of Elizabeth Bowen’s ten novels reviewed on Bookword blog. In 2019 I was in a phase of reading novels that had been published for some time. It’s something I have continued with, and Elizabeth Bowen is a writer for whom I have great admiration. On a train travelling north from Italy the recently widowed Cecelia meets Markie, and is nearly taken in by him, but he transfers his attentions to her sister-in-law …

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter (2020)

For several years I had followed a theme, reporting on a book every decade. In 2020 I picked publications by Virago, and in July this was the choice from the 1960s. I wrote,

This fantastic tale, which ends in incest and a conflagration and the possible death of the two younger children, is not a simple contrast between goodness and wickedness, youth and age, or even wicked masculinity vs the goodness of femininity. It has complexity in its themes of love and abuse, adult and adolescent sexuality, play and life, reality and magic.

Summerwater by Sarah Moss (2021)

I read most of this short novel when I was trapped on Pewsey station, following a walk with a friend. There were no trains, no taxis and no room at the inn. The novel, like the others by Sarah Moss that I have reviewed, mitigated the dire circumstances. A train eventually arrived.

[Summerwater] is bleak, and harsh and almost apocryphal. It captures the current generally depressed mood and seems to be a comment on the modern world.

The Art of Losing by Alice Zeniter (2022)

This novel, translated from the French by Frank Wynne, was first published in 2017. It follows one family through three generations, beginning in Algeria just after the Second World War and ending in the banlieues in the present day. I learned a great deal from this novel and thought about it again when France erupted earlier this summer.

And the others?

BTW in 2015 it was A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler, and in 2017 a themed post about novelists called Elizabeth. In 2018 I posted my thoughts about Missing by Alison Moore.

At the moment I am reading about the last months of the German High Seas Fleet (for a thing), and Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf (for another thing), essays in Space Crone by Ursula le Guin, and enjoying the catalogue of the exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery of paintings by Berthe Morisot, which I saw last weekend.  

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A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor

Rereading novels by Elizabeth Taylor is my indulgence. This one I read and reviewed on Bookword blog nearly ten years ago. I must admit that I have enjoyed it less than her other novels. The characters seem rather pathetic, which is hinted at by the title, two people forever missing each other. But as an exercise in following characters for nearly twenty years it demonstrates Elizabeth Taylor’s versatility as a writer. Both In a Summer Season and A Wreath of Roses take place over a span of weeks. This novel begins in the early thirties and ends in the fifties, after the Second World War.

A Game of Hide and Seek

Harriet and Vesey spend time together during childhood. Caroline is Vesey’s aunt, and he goes to stay with her every summer. Caroline is also the best friend of Harriet’s mother, and they live near each other. Harriet has taken on some light secretarial and childcare responsibilities for Caroline so she cycles there every day. Harriet’s mother, Lilian, was imprisoned as a Suffragette and met Caroline as they faced their sentences together. Theirs is a glorious past, but Harriet is almost indifferent to her mother’s achievements. She does not see herself as brave as the previous generation.

Vesey is in a perpetual state of not knowing what he should be doing or what his future will be. His father has abandoned his mother, and she is happy for him to be out of the way of her London business during the summer. Vesey is always a little sickly, not a sportsman, nor an intellectual. The two young people are uncertain and shy in each other’s company. 

The two of them go for walks together, rather uncertainly. And they play hide and seek with Caroline’s two children. One day they go to a deserted house, and they have a rather hurried embrace in the empty bedroom before the younger children disturb them. At the end of the summer, Vesey goes up to Oxford and Harriet’s dreary social round continues. Vesey does not keep in touch.

Harriet takes a job in a shop selling gowns. Some of the best scenes in the novel come from this part of her life, as the more experienced women try to educate her in the ways of the world. 

Harriet’s virginity they marvelled over a great deal. It seemed a privilege to have it under the same roof. They were always kindly asking after it, as if it were a sick relative. It must not be bestowed lightly, they advised. It must not be bestowed at all, Miss Brimpton said. It was a possession, not a state; was positive, not negative. (61)

Harriet meets and is courted by Charles, ‘an elderly man of about thirty-five’. He is a solicitor. He is very sensible and well-regarded, and partly because his mother is a former actress, and very actressy, he is not very dramatic. Eventually Charles and Harriet marry, and they have a daughter, Besty. 

The relationship between Harriet and Vesey is sustained on and off over the decades. He joins the army during the war. After the war he becomes an actor in a touring company and comes to perform at a theatre near Harriet in Buckinghamshire. The relationship between Charles and Harriet is strained, and Vesey and Harriet continue to fail to commit to each other. Betsy develops her own crush on Vesey and eventually is convinced that he is her father. Harriet and Vesey meet in London, or he visits her house in the afternoon. 

As always, Elizabeth Taylor is brilliant at revealing the small emotional ripples between people, the shift in mood in a room, the moment when someone fears they will give themselves away. In this scene, for example, it is the evening after Harriet has spent an afternoon with Vesey in the park and she is thinking about it as she sews. Charles is reading Persuasion.

As he read, he passed his hand over his hair, with the impatient quick gesture Harriet knew. His hair was greying but, as with many fair people, without much altering his appearance. At irregular intervals, he turned pages; once or twice he glanced at the fire, but never at his wife. Harriet sat still, and wary. Her needle plucked at the cloth. However hard she tried to concentrate on her task, the blue park with its blurred vistas rose before her, its magic engulfed her as if it were the park she was in love with. When Charles turned a page, her eyelids lowered, her mouth tightened. She wondered if he were reading the chapter on women’s constancy; for the book became a reproach all by itself. (155-6)

There is a splendid cast of secondary characters: Caroline and her husband, Hugo; their children; Charles and his friends Tiny and Kitty; a very clumsy Dutch maid; the local woman who comes and ‘does’; the other women in the dress shop; Betsy’s teacher and her school friend. The children are especially well observed, but every character is believable and reflects everyday life, and draws attention to the strained relationship between Vesey and Harriet. The ending is somewhat ambiguous.

A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor, first published in 1951. I used the Virago Modern Classic edition, published in 1986, with an Introduction by Elizabeth Jane Howard. 260pp

The first review of A Game of Hide and Seek on this blog was posted in August 2013. You can find it here. I have reviewed all her fiction on Bookword blog, and I am currently rereading the novels.

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Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor – again

Mrs Palfrey was the first in the series on the blog called Older Women in Fiction, posted ten years ago in March 2013. This review has been followed by another 63 in the series. When I read and posted about Mrs Palfrey I did it under the mistaken impression that older women were rare in fiction. While they may form a small proportion of the fiction market here in the UK, I have discovered that the reader can find many books in which the older woman is the main or a significant character in a novel. 

In addition to the 64 reviews, there are another 50 recommendations from readers for inclusion in the series. Please find this list of reviewed and recommended books here. You can make recommendations in the comments box.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

We are introduced to the unlikely hero in Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont with this description.

She was a tall woman with big bones and a noble face, dark eyebrows and a neatly folded jowl. She would have made a distinguished-looking man, and sometimes, wearing evening dress, looked like some famous general in drag. (2)

We already know that Mrs Palfrey is a genteel widow, needing to live somewhere, not invited and not minded to share a home with her daughter in Scotland. She moves into the Claremont Hotel on the Cromwell Road in London, joining a small group of elderly residents. Upon this group Mrs Palfrey practices a deceit. Having fallen in the street, she is rescued by Ludo, a young writer. Her grandson Desmond has failed to visit her at the Claremont. Ludo, who is lonely himself and attracted by the adventure of play-acting agrees to stand in as Mrs Palfrey’s grandson. Mrs Palfrey achieves a grandson and a visitor and thereby establishes her status among the residents. It allows Ludo an opportunity for some research as he is writing a novel about an old people’s home called We Aren’t Allowed to Die Here. One of the charms of the novel is how Mrs Palfrey and Ludo cope with the risks and difficulties that this deception gives rise to, including a visit by le vrai Desmond. 

In Mrs Palfrey Elizabeth Taylor explores the behaviour of older men and women forced to live in institutions. ‘As they aged, the women seemed to become more like old men, and Mr Osmond became more like an old woman.’ They experience loneliness, neglect, boredom and financial problems. At the Claremont they are concerned to keep up appearances. As Elizabeth Taylor deftly shows, such a life infantilises them through the routines of mealtimes. The similarity to boarding school is explicit. They are aging and it is inconvenient and embarrassing. Mrs Arbuthnot’s incontinence, for example, is the cause of her slipping further into dependence, moving to a shared room in a nursing home for the elderly. She tries to pass it off as a welcome move to a quieter place.

On the blogs I sampled ten years ago, the reviews frequently suggested that Elizabeth Taylor has placed ‘eccentric’ residents at the Claremont. I don’t think it is so much eccentricity that she is describing. Rather, she has a penetrating ability to pinpoint a mannerism or gesture or foible, an ability to present characters with their warts. I think she is much admired by writers as well as readers because she is so economical, her details telling us so much about a character. Neither comic nor patronising, she has an awareness of the ludicrousness of people’s behaviours and attempts to hide the truth. 

Mr Osmond is a bore because he is lonely. He is also afraid that the world is changing and writes letters of protest to the newspapers about being treated by foreign doctors. He hates the accents of the weather forecasters. He is sour and has an old-fashioned fruity, male sense of humour. He likes Mrs Palfrey and suggests marriage. The scene of his botched proposal has comic aspects because he handles it so badly. But it is also an authentic conversation resulting from his lack of perception and insight into another person.

Lady Swayne has ‘another irritating mannerism – all her most bigoted or self-congratulatory statements, she prefaced with ‘I’m afraid. I’m afraid I don’t smoke. I’m afraid I’m just common or garden Church of England. … I’m afraid I think the fox revels in it. I’m afraid I don’t think that’s awfully funny.’

These are ordinary people, observed without whimsy or exaggeration. Take this little scene where Mrs Arbuthnot, who has ears ‘sharpened by malice’, has asked Mrs Palfrey to change her library book.

It was like being back at school again and asked to run an errand for the head girl. She was just going out for one of her aimless walks, to break up the afternoon, and was delighted to be given an object for it.
‘Something by Lord Snow, perhaps,’ Mrs Arbuthnot said. ‘I cannot stand trash.’ 
’But if you’ve already read it …’ Mrs Palfrey began nervously.
‘One can always read a good book twice,’ Mrs Arbuthnot snapped. ‘In fact one always should read a good book twice.’
Mrs Palfrey took the rebuke quite steadily. After all, Mrs Arbuthnot was the one who was doing the favour. (p23-4)

A small pleasure is the mention of books read by the characters. Mrs Arbuthnot ‘got Elizabeth Bowen muddled with Marjorie Bowen and could never remember that there were two Mannings and two Durrells and a couple of Flemings.’

Elizabeth Taylor frequently explores the theme of loneliness in her fiction. She is quoted on this subject on the now disappeared blog Dove Grey Reader Scribbles in a review of The Soul of Kindness:

I think loneliness is a theme running through many of my novels and short stories, the different ways in which individuals can be isolated from others – by poverty, old age, eccentricity, living in another country – even by having committed murder…

Another comment on the blog reviews was how the readers had found the topic of ageing and death difficult and referred to their own grandparents or parents. But we need more books that explore this difficult area. There are other very good older characters in Elizabeth Taylor’s novels, such as Aunt Sylvie in The Marriage Group, who rewrites the labels indicating who will inherit what, despite having forgotten that some of the recipients had themselves died. She blamed them for neglecting her.

I still haven’t seen the film of Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, starring Joan Plowright. There will undoubtedly be more films dealing with later life, as there’s money to be made from us older folk. It’s my experience that films rarely offer as much as the original text, and older people get played for laughs: forgetfulness, incontinence, men pursuing young women and vice versa. Have you seen Quartet or The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel?

After reading Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont I went on to read and review all her novels. Loneliness is a theme in all of them. Some of her characters deal better with it than others. Mrs Palfrey seems stoic to me. 

Elizabeth Taylor

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont was Elizabeth Taylor’s last novel published in her lifetime. It appeared in 1971. She died in 1975 aged 63 having produced 12 novels as well as five short story collections. 

Despite many champions, Elizabeth Taylor remains relatively neglected. Perhaps one reason for that can be discerned from the title of her biography by Nicola Beauman The Other Elizabeth Taylor, published by the champion of neglected C20th writers, Persephone. And it may also be that because of her Home Counties life, neglect of the London literary scene, and classic good looks she has the undeserved reputation of writing about and for middle class women.

I have reviewed all her novels and her short story collection on Bookword. I have been rereading them, in no order, in the last few months. My admiration for her writing keeps on growing.

Related links

You can find the complete list of the Older Women in Fiction series here.

You can find my original post about Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont here (from March 2013)

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor was published in 1971. I used the Virago Modern Classic edition, with an introduction by Paul Bailey, thought to be the model for Ludo.

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A Wreath of Roses by Elizabeth Taylor

Should anyone ever ask me for an example of an outstanding first chapter to a novel, I would recommend the opening chapter of A Wreath of Roses. It captures the themes of the novel while providing a vivid scene: surface evenness disturbed by violence; loneliness; change; aftermath of war; summer nostalgia. We are in the post-war era and a woman waits at a small railway station for a connecting train to take her to her usual summer holiday. The summer calm is broken by a violent act, which was also witnessed by another passenger. Both passengers are shaken by the events and soon it is evident that he has something to hide. 

The title warns us: roses have thorns. Wreaths are significant at funerals. Whoever thought of Elizabeth Taylor as chintzy and cosy should read this dark novel with its themes of the pain of change and of loneliness.

A Wreath of Roses

This is the fourth time I have read this novel. Although it has a dark, almost melodramatic sub-plot in contrast to her previous work, she continues to demonstrate that she can create and control a story full of complex characters, who have different perceptions and contrasting needs and are each changing as the narrative progresses.

Everything changes and comes to an end in the short time span of this novel. The war has not long finished; journeys come to an end, as does the traditional holiday of three women; attitudes to life and friendship change; the friendship group will not meet again in the same way; a life comes to an end and so on. 

The woman at the station in the opening chapter is Camilla, who works as a secretary in a school and is feeling that she should change her life and its unchanging routines. She is met at the end of her train journey by her friend Liz, who has a baby son, having married a clergyman about 18 months before. Liz and Camilla met at boarding school in Switzerland before the war and have spent a month together every summer since. They stay with Frances, Liz’s former governess, who now devotes herself to painting. 

Each of this trio are at a bit of a crossroads. Frances is finding it harder to paint in the way that she wishes and is facing ill health in her old age. Liz is having a hard time adjusting to her baby and to the demands of life as a vicar’s wife. She and Camilla are finding it hard to maintain their intimacy. They are each unhappy, as a visitor suggests to Frances:

“Liz is unhappy about her baby. Camilla – that’s a lovely name. It has the smoothness of ice – she’s unhappy about her life; embittered, waspish. You’re unhappy about the world.” (172)

They each bring a man to the story: Morland Beddoes has admired Frances’s painting from afar for years and corresponded with her even while a prisoner of war; Arnold is the vicar who is married to Liz, and despite Camilla’s jealousy is a good sort; Richard Elton (probably not his real name) meets Camilla on the train, and is clearly not a good sort, but a bad ‘un. She is drawn to him, although she has doubts about him too. She is attracted by the possibility of adventure and being desired, breaking down her habitual reserve and defences.

The story plays out over a few days, as the women try to recapture the pleasures of former holidays. The men and the baby are drawn in, for example to the annual picnic, and their presence reminds the reader how their circle is changing. 

Among the pleasures of this novel is the background of the local town and village and the steadiness of life in this rural setting. 

Camilla walked with Hotchkiss [the dog] along the quiet lanes. Trees and the hedgerows were dark as blackberries against a starry sky; a little owl took off from the telegraph-post, floating noiselessly across a field of stubble. Outside the Hand and Flowers a knot of villagers said goodnight to one another. They dispersed along the lanes, singing in slurred voices. Their ‘goodnights’ rang between the hedges. The bar with its uncurtained window was blue with smoke; the landlord crossed and recrossed it, carrying tankards, behind him on the wall a great tarnished fish in a glass case.
From the cottages all along the village came blurred and muted wireless music. Some of the doors stood open to the scented night, revealing little pictures of interiors, fleeting and enchanting, those cottage rooms that Frances loved so dearly, with their ornaments, their coronation mugs, their tabby cats. Night scented stocks lined garden-paths, curled shells were arranged on window-sills, and on drawn blinds were printed shadows of geraniums or a bird-cage shrouded for the night. (75)

In contrast to this beautifully captured scene, there is real fear in this novel. Camilla and Richard walked up to the Saxon earth works but got caught in the rain one evening. They seek shelter in an abandoned house. 

She went slowly upstairs in front of him. Rain swept across the landing window. The bannisters were coated with dust.
At the turn of the stairs, he came close behind her, and put his hands round her waist, Fear leapt through her at his touch. She stopped and turned round, her hand clutching at the bannisters. She could feel sweat breaking out over her body.
“I don’t want to go any farther,” she whispered. Her lips stiffened so that she could scarcely speak. “I can’t bear this house a moment longer.” He only stared at her. “Richard!” she said pleadingly, afraid of the silence.
“But I want to stay.” He caught her wrist and held it very tightly. “I have something to say to you.” (245-6)

There have only been a few days between the beginning of the novel, at a railway station, and the ending, again at a station. The circle of the friendship group has changed for ever, and each of the three women have a new reality to face. Nothing is yet resolved, but somehow it is a satisfactory ending for the novel. 

I have been rereading the novels of Elizabeth Taylor recently. You can find my comments on rereading At Mrs Lippincote’s in December 2022 here.

A Wreath of Roses by Elizabeth Taylor, first published in 1949. I used the Virago Classic edition of 1994, with an introduction by Candia McWilliam. 253pp

Related postA Wreath of Roses by Elizabeth Taylor (August 2013). This is the link to the first post about reading this novel on Bookword.

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At Mrs Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor

I’m doing a fair bit of rereading novels recently, including all of those by Elizabeth Taylor – at a snail’s pace and out of order, but with great pleasure.

At Mrs Lippincote’s is Elizabeth Taylor’s first published novel, and it appears that it was written when it was unclear when the war would end. The war is the background to the events here, but no direct mention is made: mention of ‘for the duration’ is about as far as it goes. Readers at the time would have been familiar with the meagre food (a supper of tinned pilchards on toast, for example) and the countless small deprivations required of everyone. Above all, people found themselves having to live in places they had not chosen. 

At Mrs Lippincote’s

This is a novel about displacement: the title gives us a hint to this effect. Everyone is displaced. Julia Davenant, her husband, son and a cousin arrive to live in the house of Mrs Lippincote, who has rented it to Roddy Davenant. Mrs Lippincote has recently been widowed and now she is living down the road in a hotel with her daughter. The Squadron, its leader, men and wives, are all displaced to this unnamed town. The cousin, Eleanor, writes to Reggy, a former boyfriend who is in a pow camp in Germany. Mr Taylor, known to Julia in London as a maitre d’, has turned up in this town running a club in a bungalow. 

It is also a novel about honesty. Julia, married to Roddy and mother of Oliver, is revealed as uninterested in conventions. She doesn’t care very much to follow normal rules but lives according to her own instincts. 

Julia had a strange gift of coming to a situation freshly, peculiarly untarnished by preconceived ideas, whether of her own preconception or the world’s. Could she have taken for granted a few of those generalisations invented by men and largely acquiesced in by women (that women live by their hearts, men by their heads, that love is women’s whole existence, and especially that sons should respect their fathers), she would have eased her own life and other people’s. (26)

We might feel rather sorry for Roddy in this, for he expected to mould her when he married her. She frequently makes him anxious that she will show him up with by not behaving appropriately. 

Elizabeth Taylor often includes a child in her novels, and she is rather good at them. Oliver is seven years old and rather a precocious child.

Oliver Davenant did not merely read books. He snuffed them up, took breaths of them in his lungs, filled his eyes with the sight of the print and his head with the sound of words. […] With impartiality, he studied comic papers and encyclopaedia, Eleanor’s pamphlets on whatever interested her at the moment, the labels on breakfast cereals and cod liver oil, Conan Doyle and Charlotte Brontë. (14-15)

He had the capacity to enter into a book and live it, so that looking out of his new bedroom window at a girls’ school he can imagine that it is Lowood and that he will have burnt porridge and unclean milk for breakfast. He is able to hold conversations with the Squadron Leader about books, and especially about Charlotte Brontë. In the way of children he can be very literal. 

The Squadron Leader is an interesting character. It emerges that he is perceptive about the men under his command, but that he doesn’t stand on ceremony or masculine bravado. Like Oliver he is a reader and in addition he knits.

Against the different kinds of honesty of these three characters we have Eleanor, Roddy Davenant’s cousin who lives with them. She is in love with Roddy, but when she takes up a job as a teacher and becomes involved with a socialist group, (through the woodwork teacher) she finds it necessary to hide her activities from Roddy and Julia. The reader is continually aware that she thinks she would be a better wife to Roddy than Julia is. Her letters to the prisoner of war are likewise not honest in their motives or contents. 

But the biggest hypocrite turns out to be Roddy, as the Squadron Leader knew. Here is a small example of his dissembling.

Roddy kissed Julia and went off to a party in the Mess – a men’s party, a ‘presence required’ party he explained leaving the house with a look of resignation. Watching him go, she was interested to see, as he turned for a second to latch the gate, the change that had come over him; gone the forbearance, and in its place geniality and a look of anticipation. (127)

Elizabeth Taylor

This was her first published novel, but Elizabeth Taylor was already showing herself to be a very accomplished writer. Look again at the quotation about Julia above. Note the list in parenthesis of things that Julia did not take for granted: that women live by their hearts, men by their heads, that love is women’s whole existence, and especially that sons should respect their fathers. It’s a safe enough list of examples, but through the novel Julia is proved right in not taking each of them for granted. 

Her descriptions of people are always illuminated by small details: Eleanor’s pamphlets, Roddy’s change of demeanour, Mrs Lippincote’s hat, and so on. Humour threads through the novel, humour and wry observation.

And the story is beautifully crafted. Here’s a moment from the first chapter which turns out to be significant but is only given the slightest emphasis. Julia is in her bedroom, surrounded by suitcases on their first evening in the house. She was searching in a trunk for handkerchiefs.

Oh, God! Of course, they were not there. She found, however, some talcum powder and a packet of envelopes which she needed.
As for a handkerchief … sniffing miserably, she had begun to rummage in the pockets of Roddy’s greatcoat. She did this aloofly, for husband’s pockets, since they were the subject of music-hall jokes, were always to be scorned and avoided. He did not apparently, carry handkerchiefs. “Now what are you up to?” he had asked, coming into the bedroom with yet another case. “My dear Julia, this trunk! You dive like a mole and leave disorder in your train.” (6)

Or notice this turning point following a party, which Roddy was claiming was “a damned good party”

“Yes,” she said gravely. She took up some empty bottles and went out. She had been angry with him on many occasions, impatient often, never grave. (85)

The novel ends as Julia and Roddy leave Mrs Lippincote’s house, he has been redeployed by the Wing Commander. The husband and wife’s roles have been reversed; he has been shown to cause disorder, and she is the competent one who will decide how they manage in the future.

At Mrs Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor, first published in 1945. I used the edition published in 1988 by in the Virago Modern Classic series. 215pp

Related posts

Two Elizabeths, two first novels, a post about The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen and At Mrs Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor, which noted some similarities between these two first novels. (May 2013)

Recent re-readings of novels by Elizabeth Taylor include

Reading Palladium again (September 2022)

Rereading A View of the Harbour (February 2022)

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Reading Palladian again by Elizabeth Taylor

Some days only reading Elizabeth Taylor will do. I am sad to have read all her fiction – and reviewed it here on Bookword. But I am rereading them again when that mood takes me. I first read Palladian for a post in May 2013. I enjoy rereading her novels and find that I can concentrate more on her superb writing and less on the plot when I do so. In rereading Palladian, I am impressed by how she has conceptualised a large number of characters and how the story is narrated in her precise and elegant prose.

Palladian

The novel was published in 1946 and was her second novel after At Mrs Lippincote’s. This novel has the feel of a small section of society, very much engaging with the post-war austerity. The decaying Palladian house is perhaps the most obvious example of this. 

Cassandra Dashwood is an orphan and as she finishes school her headteacher finds her a place as a governess for a young girl, daughter of a widower and the owner of a grand house, Cropthorne Manor. She leaves what she has known to work in a strange household: Marion Vanbrugh is the widower, his cousins Tom and Margaret are also staying there with their mother, Tinty Vanbrugh. In the house also is Sophy, a precocious and wilful child and Nanny who acts as cook and housekeeper and is poisonous in her speech.

It has been suggested that this is Elizabeth Taylor’s homage to Jane Eyre, and while there are some surface parallels, and literature permeates the novel, I think this is only meant as a nod. There is no mad woman in the attic and Cassandra is not asked to join in a bigamous marriage. Cassandra is, however, quite ready to fall for the widower and does. 

Daphne du Maurier published Rebecca in 1938, and the story of Palladium has some similarities with it: the handsome but distracted leading man; a beautiful house, an innocent, naïve girl and an older woman servant who remembers the first wife. Nanny is no Mrs Danvers, however. She is not threatening, merely small-minded and a bully.

Nanny had disapproved of Violet, but she disapproved of Cassandra even more. She had always loved her boys and was not above setting the girls against one another; whether dead or alive. It delighted her to bring Cassandra to the edge of despair about Violet.

Readers discover that Nanny is frequently wrong, for example when she gossips about Cassandra pilfering money (it’s Tom) and food (it’s Margaret) and a brooch (it’s a gift from Marion). 

The members of the household are all lonely – this is Elizabeth Taylor, after all. No-one does loneliness quite as well as she does. Marion lost his wife; Tom (his cousin) also loved Violet and has not, after ten years, recovered; Margaret is married to an absent sailor, but will eventually leave the house to give birth to her child; Sophy has no one of her age to play or socialise with; Nanny is poison. 

Cassandra observes the others in the household. Tom is an alcoholic and frequently visits the Blacksmith’s Arms, where he has been carrying on with Mrs Veal. Margaret has no friends and is a bit of a bully. Nanny makes difficulties for everyone. And then a disaster strikes, and everyone has to reassess their situation. Only Tom is still adrift after the accident.

Names in the novel

Look at the names she gives her characters. First: Marion. Mrs Turner, the headteacher, explains to Cassandra that despite a name usually given to women Marion is a man:

‘I discovered that it was one of those names like Evelyn or Hilary or Lindsay that can be either. With an “o”, you see. But “o” or not, I think it rather girlish for a grown man.’ (9)

And it is true that Marion Vanbrugh is delicate and not at all aggressive as many of the men of the time were required to be.

Cassandra Dashwood: Cassandra was famously the Trojan princess who made true prophecies but was never believed. Rather a portentous first name to saddle someone with. And it was the Dashwood family that were the subject of Sense and Sensibility, Marianne the impetuous sister, and Eleanor the more circumspect. Like Cassandra, they lost their father and had to live at the mercy of others.  

The title of the book, Palladian, refers to a popular style of architecture of the 18th century, where the façade was precise and balanced, featuring classical columns and symmetry. The façade is the important thing. All kinds of horrors can hide behind it, as Nanny points out. In any case the house has been badly neglected. But the title might refer to the attributes of those who, like the goddess Pallas Athene, acquire wisdom and knowledge. And it is Cassandra and Marion who gain these qualities.

Literature in literature

As well as a reference to Jane Eyre, I counted no less than eleven novels or other literary works that are quoted or referred to in Palladian. In addition, the setting of the library is a key location for some of the action.

A Month in the Country by Turgenev

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

Tom Jones by Henry Fielding

The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster

Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne

Homer, Sappho, Ruskin and Shakespeare are quoted 

Nanny takes Sophy to a showing of the film of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

I love how Elizabeth Taylor weaves these texts into her novel. She did something similar in her first novel, At Mrs Lippincote’s in which a small boy ‘snuffs up’ novels. Elizabeth Taylor is reminding us that readers are as influenced by their imagination as they are by their physical environments.

Palladian by Elizabeth Taylor, first published in 1946. Republished in the Virago Modern Classics series. 191pp

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Rereading A View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor

One dank and dismal weekend at the end of January my Twitter timeline was alight with praise for Elizabeth Taylor, and for her biography by Nicola Beauman (The Other Elizabeth Taylor). The ripple spread out to include A Very Great Profession, also by Nicola Beauman about women writers between the wars.

Thus provoked, I indulged myself in an afternoon’s reading in front of the fire, my chosen novel was A View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor which I hadn’t read for nine years. My first review was part of a series on this blog which includes all Elizabeth Taylor ‘s novels, including Mossy Trotter written for children, as well as her brilliant short stories. Here are my impressions on rereading the novel.

A View of the Harbour

This was the third of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels, published in 1947, following At Mrs Lippincote’s (1945) and Palladian (1946. She must have been feeling confident in her skills for this novel is concerned with a large number of characters, and with what they see of each other. Not only was the author able to handle the number of characters, differentiating them, showing us their conceits and self-deceptions, but she also is concerned to show the reader how they looked to each other, how they changed. Notice the title.

The novel begins as the trawlers leave the harbour at teatime. We look back at the harbour with the trawler men.

To the men on the boats the harbour was at first dingy and familiar, a row of buildings, shops, café, pub, with peeling plaster of apricot and sky-blue; then as the boats steered purposefully from the harbour-mouth to sea, houses rose up in tiers, the church tower extricated itself from the roofs, the lettering on the shops faded and the sordid became picturesque. (9)

We immediately encounter Bertram who has watched the trawlers leave. Nearly all the large number of characters appear in this first chapter. For this reading I made notes on them as they appeared. I remembered that it was not easy to work out who would become significant. 

Because he is new to this town and an artist, Elizabeth Taylor allows Bertram to be our first guide to the ‘dingy’ row of buildings. He sees a sparsely inhabited place, down at heel, shabby, closed. We are in the first spring following the end of the war. In the past its best times have been in the summer, but even now the rather brasher New Town is a livelier community. It had a cinema after all.

Bertram Hemingway never quite manages to capture in paint what he sees. A former naval man, he seems to be drifting about, being kind to people. He sees himself as delightfully useful to everyone, even sitting with one old woman as she dies. But what he does not see it that he is a 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. 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. (138)

Beth Cazubon hardly sees anything despite being a novelist. She is doubtful about the quality of the novels she writes. The name Cazubon must be intended to refer to Dorothea’s dusty and unrealistic husband in George Eliot’s Middlemarch. He never completes his great oeuvre, but Beth finishes her novel as A View of the Harbourends. Beth, we note, is a variation of the novelist’s own name. Here she is 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.’

Beth is very focused on her writing, is rather casual about her two children and the care of her house and apparently blind to the passion under her nose between her husband and her best friend, who lives next door. A novel that includes a novelist who cannot see what is before her is a daring proposition. Nor does Beth perceive the anger of her 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 is a great invention. She is spiteful and contrary but is also a figure to be pitied for she has lost her husband and the use of her legs. One of her daughters, Iris, helps her run her second-hand clothes shop, and the other works in the pub. They are a dreary trio, for Mrs Bracey is imperious and full of whims and her daughters long for escape. She has herself moved to the top floor, so that she can keep an eye on the inhabitants of the harbour, and also to oust the young man who rented the room and has been paying court to Iris. It is Mrs Bracey who sees the electric charge between the divorcée Tory Foyle and Robert Cazubon. She observes what is not done, like Henry James in The Portrait of a Lady.

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

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. (257)

Loneliness is another theme of this novel, of all her novels – 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 faces 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 precocity. Tory’s son Edward writes typical schoolboy letters to his mother from school. And Elizabeth Taylor knows the physicality of young boys. When Tory visits him at his boarding school she makes this observation as they walk to meet Edward’s form master. 

Every boy who passed surreptitiously lunged at Edward, dug an elbow at him, crooked a knee at his behind. (142)

She handles the constantly shifting points of view with ease. The reader is never confused about whose perspective is in focus, and what motivates the characters to see what they see. 

Finally, this novel contains some lovely writing in its transition passages. Newby may have been modelled on Whitby, where Elizabeth Taylor spent some of her war years, but she creates the harbour, the landscape and seascape from her own imagination.

Seen from afar, the lighthouse merely struck deft blows at the darkness, but to anyone standing under the shelter of its white-washed walls a deeper sense of mystery was invoked: the light remained longer, it seemed, and spread wider, indicating greater ranges of darkness and deeper wonders hidden in that darkness. (277)

A View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor (1947) Virago Modern Classic. 313pp

Related Posts

A View of the Harbour (original post from July 2013)

Do we need biographies of writers? looking at The Other Elizabeth Taylor (April 2013)

Elizabeth Taylor – still neglected? (June 2018)

You can find reviews of all her novels and her short story collection on Bookword Blog. Use the search function.

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At the Jerusalem by Paul Bailey

Written more than 50 years ago, this novel addresses the loss of dignity and agency that came with advancing age at that time. Is it the same today? Are our older citizens treated with the same slight attention and dismissive attitudes? Mrs Gadny is our unwitting guide, admitted to the Jerusalem, a care home for women. She is unhappy and has begun to lose touch with the present time. She develops dementia while the other inmates look on.

This is the 50th in the series of older women in fiction which I promote to make older women more visible. You can find the complete list of 100+ suggested books and reviews on my list here.

At the Jerusalem

Mrs Gadny is delivered to the Jerusalem by her step-son and his wife. This couple took her into their home, for seven weeks, after both her husband and her daughter had died. Those seven weeks were not successful as no one in the family had familiarity with or affection for Mrs Gadny. Sometimes grandchildren are seen as closer to the elderly, but these children are no more able to make the necessary adjustments than the adults. Thelma is monstrously selfish  and greedy and feels no obligation towards her husband’s step-mother, especially when it requires some sacrifices from her. What is the obligation of each generation to their parents? Today we are no nearer to a good answer to this dilemma. The section about the weeks that Mrs Gadny spends in her step-son’s home appears after we learn about her arrival and early unease at the Jerusalem. We can see that she is not comfortable here, but this section dissuades us from imagining that she was better off before. 

Mrs Gadny had been in service, and she knows how things should be done and what are the correct terms used by people of class. She is a bit of a snob, for example she hates Thelma’s use of the word ‘lounge’ for sitting room. And she knows what is good taste in a room’s décor – it is not floral wallpaper. Although many of the other residents of the Jerusalem have also been in service, Mrs Gadny finds them coarse or intrusive. She is also much more reserved than they are.

At Matron’s request Mrs Capes, who lets everyone know that she is above her fellow residents, tries to befriend the new arrival. Matron explains this arrangement to Mrs Gadny. 

‘Mrs Capes is what you’d call a “character”. She’s energetic, has a lively mind. You’ll take to her. She will amuse you, I can promise. […] I shall ask her to guide you round the Home: show you all the nooks, all the crannies. And she can introduce you to the other residents, describe their little ways.’ (8)

But in carrying out this task Mrs Capes manages to show her the worst aspects of the Home, even including the place where a former patient hanged herself with a lavatory chain. She also provides critical gossip about the other residents and recommends a spiritualist’s consultations. Mrs Gadny does not warm to her company and continues to feel isolated and unwanted. 

Eventually, despite the affectionate care of one of the nurses, she breaks down and has to be put in a room on her own and finally sent to an institution where they can care for an old woman with dementia. 

The older women

While Mrs Gadny lives both in the past and the present, for example she hears her daughter’s cough from time to time, and writes to a former neighbour who died some years before. Her fellow patients are also living reduced lives. They are an unlikeable lot: rather coarse, prone to airs, gossip and criticism. One constantly mislays her teeth, another says what everyone is thinking, another has raucous uncontrolled fits of laughter and so on. All of this behaviour is on show at the annual trip to Southend.

The staff, while kind, are unable to resist infantilising the residents. They call them patients. Even the food is like nursery food: jelly, junket, semolina. However, it is difficult to avoid seeing humour in the situations at the Jerusalem but it is not at the expense of the characters or at least it does not belittle them. For example, there is a 90th birthday party: it takes place in the dormitory where all nine women sleep and two of them remain all day. One of those has the birthday, and the celebration takes place round her bed. She has to be repeatedly nudged awake. The other bed-bound woman is fed birthday jelly from time to time.

Much of the narrative as well as the effect of this novel is conveyed through the direct speech which dominates the text. This is often very brief, and much of what is important is revealed by what is not said. In his introduction Colm Toibin praises Bailey’s ability to convey so much through speech. Here’s an example of the style:

A rumour had reached Mrs Gross’s ears. Had it reached Edie’s? Concerning a coloured nurse?
‘No.’
‘Nurse Percival told Maggy we might be getting one. She came to see Matron last evening.’
‘The nurse?’
‘What?’
‘He invented steam.’
‘Who did?’
‘Watt did.’
‘You’ve confused me.’
‘She come to see Matron, this nurse.’
‘Yes. What I gathered from Maggy is that she’s brown rather than coloured.’
‘Brown’s coloured, Nell.’
‘Not in my book. When I refer to someone being coloured, I mean black. Brown’s lighter than black.’
‘God help us!’
‘Take Daisy, that cleaner. The one who wears the trilby, she’s black. Maggy says this nurse isn’t a bit like her – no marks on her face. What I’m trying to tell you is Matron’s going to ask each of us in turn whether we approve. Of her looking after us.’
‘Oh.’
‘I don’t mind, do you?’ (164)

What care should be provided for older people? And how can care of people with dementia allow them dignity? As I suggested earlier, these questions are still with us today.

A note: In his introduction to Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor (1971) Paul Bailey noted that she had drawn on his habit of writing in Harrod’s banking hall to create the character of Ludo. Ludo was writing a book about elderly people called They Weren’t Allowed to Die There. She told him this after the publication of her book.

At the Jerusalem by Paul Bailey was originally published in 1967. It has been republished in 2020 by Head of Zeus with an introduction by Colm Toibin. 219pp

Simon had recently compared this book with Mrs Palfrey. He preferred the Elizabeth Taylor. Here is a review from Stuck in a Book from May 2017

Recent posts in the Older Women in Fiction Series

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout.

Frangipani House by Beryl Gilroy

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Henry James, Elizabeth Taylor and me

So normally I wouldn’t pick up a novel by Henry James. However, as regular readers of the blog will know, I am intending to eschew the pursuit of new books in favour of rereading some, and reading books already published. The relevant post can be read hereThe Spoils of Poynton by Henry James falls into the second category. 

I found a copy of The Spoils of Poynton by Henry James a few weeks ago in a second-hand bookshop. I had planned to read it at some point because I came across references to it in a novel by Elizabeth Taylor. Now I had access to a copy. (It never seemed pressing enough to request a copy from the library, but of course I could have done that some time ago.)

What follows are my thoughts about The Spoils of Poynton and its relationship to In a Summer Season  by Elizabeth Taylor.

The Spoils of Poynton  by Henry James

This novel was first serialised and then published as a book in 1897. It’s a tightly plotted exploration of a widow’s obsession with the contents of the grand house called Poynton, and of the dilemmas encountered by her young friend, Fleda Vetch, when Mrs Gereth steals her former belongings. 

Mrs Gereth had spent her adult married life acquiring and loving the contents of Poynton. But when she is widowed all is left to her son. When he becomes engaged to the unappreciative Mona Mrs Gereth must leave the house and its contents and live in a maiden aunt’s cottage, Ricks. Her young friend Fleda also appreciates the finer things in life and is seen as a hanger-on by others. Mrs Gereth tries to get her son to marry Fleda so that her possessions will be in the care of someone who appreciates them. The young people do fall in love but only reveal this after Owen’s engagement to Mona. Fleda refuses to be with Owen until Mona has released him. 

Mrs Gereth steals the spoils and installs them in Ricks. Much of the book concerns the battle to return them, in which Fleda acts as go between for Mrs Gereth and Owen. In the end they are all caught out by what they don’t say, and Mona gets her man and the spoils. But Poynton burns down.

Mrs Gereth is a strong, opinionated and obsessive character, who places her own interests before all others. Fleda tries to do right, and in the end Mona defeats her because of it. Owen is a simple soul, but the most honest of the trio, although he too looses out, married to the wrong woman.

In A Summer Season by Elizabeth Taylor

The action of In A Summer Season takes place over one summer and concerns a wealthy widow who has remarried. Her husband Dermot is somewhat younger than her. One of the charms of her novels is that Elizabeth Taylor frequently makes references to works of fiction. The Spoils of Poynton appears as a clever, quiet device to show Dermot’s ignorance of literature and the awkwardness of his marriage.  He does not recognise the reference to Mrs Gereth’s name, when it comes up and assumes she is a neighbour. His mistake is glossed over by those present and when he realises this he feels humiliated. The Spoils of Poynton had been the favourite novel of Kate’s first husband. He inscribed her copy so that the book is a link to him and to Kate’s previous life in a way that Dermot resents. My full comments on the novel can be read here.

Henry James and Elizabeth Taylor

As I read his novel, I became aware that the two novelists share a very sharp eye for imperfect characters for their, social difficulties, unarticulated dilemmas and shifts of understanding. You can say the same for Edith Wharton I believe.

Both Henry James and Elizabeth Taylor write exquisite sentences, with balance and flow. James’s are long and languorous, full of Latinate words, and psychological shifts. Hers are usually a little shorter, but we know that she took great trouble with the rhythm and flow of her sentences.

And both are concerned with moral issues. In The Spoils of Poynton  we see the effects of obsession and not being open. In a Summer Season  is concerned with different types of love and a fair bit of lying

And I am pleased to have read some Henry James and to have caught up with the references in the other novel.

In a Summer Season by Elizabeth Taylor. First published in 1961. I read the Virago Modern Classics edition from1983. 221pp

The Spoils of Poynton by Henry James, first published in 1897. I read the Penguin Modern Classic edition from 1963. 192pp

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