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.
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