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Mossy Trotter by Elizabeth Taylor

The most awful thing in Mossy Trotter’s life is the prospect of being a page boy at Miss Silkin’s wedding. Mossy is seven years old. This should not happen to him. He will have to wear velvet trousers and a frilled blouse. His reputation is at stake.183 Mossy Totter ET cover

Mossy Trotter was Elizabeth Taylor’s only book for children. It was first published in 1967 when childhoods were less supervised. Her other twelve novels were all written for adults. You can find the reviews of them by clicking on the category Novels of Elizabeth Taylor.

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The Story

The short novel takes the reader through some adventures and some changes in Mossy’s life. He has his tonsils removed, becomes lost with his sister, gets into scrapes, nearly sacrifices his birthday party, has a new baby brother and attends Miss Silkin’s wedding – yes as a pageboy.

This is life as a boy of seven would live in the outskirts of London in the late 60s. The characters are authentic. Here is a description of Mossy’s mother.

Like many mothers, Mossy’s was rather changeable. He could not always be sure where he stood with her. Although she tried very hard never to break promises, she broke threats, which in a way are a kind of black promise. She would send Mossy to his bedroom for having misbehaved, and then in a minute or two, tell him he could come down; or he would be told that if he were naughty he could not have chocolate cake for tea, and be given it for supper instead. It was a shocking way to bring up children, he once heard his father say. (12)

But we know that Mossy is being well brought up. He is miserable to think he had worried his mother when he gets lost with his three-year-old sister Emma. And his mother brings him exactly the right present when he is in hospital after having his tonsils out.

Mossy has to deal with some difficult dilemmas, again reflecting the reality of children’s lives: what to do about the threatened birthday party; telling lies that help out his grandfather; telling lies that multiply and result in humiliation and so on.

Mossy the boy

Mossy’s real name was Robert Mossman Trotter. The middle name was after his Grandfather Mossman Trotter, and he was called Mossy to avoid muddling him with his father, who had the same name. (42-3)

During the story Mossy develops his understanding of his world and especially of the adults in his life. We see Mossy more clearly because he is set against his mother’s friend Miss Silkin, an adult who understands little of children. Indeed the novel begins with her comment that the Common must be paradise for children. Mossy is bemused for he knows that ‘Standing where she was she could not possibly see the beautiful rubbish dump among the bracken’. (1) Readers of all ages would know that Miss Silkin’s and Mossy’s ideas of paradise are at odds.

Indeed Miss Silkin and Mossy are at odds about yet more important things: he hates the furs she wears. This is what he sees:

… two long, thin dead animals with yellow glass eyes in their heads. Mossy wondered if they had once upon a time been rats. One head peeped over Miss Silkin’s shoulder, and little paws hung limply down her back. (2-3)

Not only does she wear rat-like furs, but her favourite cake is seedy cake, and she is going to get married and wants Mossy to be the page boy. He learns to tolerate her presence.

Mossy’s relationship with his parents is happier. His father is rather distant but sometimes his accomplice; his mother is in consistent but the most comfortable adult in his life; and with his grandfather he shares excitement and pleasure in fast cars.

Mossy does things wrong, gets lost with his little sister, tells lies, gets messy with newly laid tar. When he’s punished for one bit of bad behaviour he takes revenge by drawing he draws a picture of his teacher and his father on the side of a drawer, believing it will never be found.

… he drew the nastiest face he could for Miss Blackett, with crooked teeth and spots all over her, and hair like a mop, and his father with a long nose and crossed eyes, and fleas the size of bumble-bees swarming out of his fuzzy hair. Then he slid the drawer back and felt better. (115-6)

183 E.Taylor

Children in Elizabeth Taylor’s writing

Elizabeth Taylor knows children and she writes well both for and about them. The extracts demonstrate that she writes simply but does not simplify Mossy’s complex emotions and responses. Here is Mossy’s experience as he lay in bed with a fever one summer’s evening.

A delicious smell of wet garden came into the bedroom, and then Mossy heard the swish-swish of water against the wall below his window. Father was hosing the hot bricks which had stored up the day’s sun, and a coolness began to come off them. There was the sound of dripping leaves, as the water spattered on the climbing rose. (78)

And here is Mossy as he realises he is lost with his little sister on the Common.

In some ways, having Emma with him made him braver. But in different ways it made him feel more fearful.

‘Listen,’ he said comfortingly to her. ‘This is a very exciting adventure. It’s like Babes in the Wood.’

‘I don’t like being Babes in the Wood.’

It was certainly the wrong thing to have said, for at once she began to boo-hoo more loudly. ‘There might be wolfs.’

‘”Wolves”,’ he said, to correct her. But she thought he was just agreeing with her, and shrieked louder than ever. (63)

As several extracts show, there is affectionate humour in the telling of this story.

In her other books we might remember the children are interesting characters in their own right. In At Mrs Lippincotes, A View of the Harbour, Angel (as a child), the children are real people.

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And as if to prove this, her son, in his introduction tells us that recently

I was moving some furniture that had been handed down by my parents and I happened to open a chest of drawers. Inside I found a pencil drawing of a man’s head, with lots of dots hovering over it. Beneath in childish writing were the words ‘John Taylor has fleas’. (iv)

I recommend you get this book to share with a child and/or to enjoy yourself.

The lively illustrations by Tony Ross exactly capture the spirit of Mossy Trotter.

 

Mossy Trotter by Elizabeth Taylor, first published in 1967, republished in 2015 by Virago Modern Classics 144 pp

Related link: review of Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

Furrowed Middlebrow reviewed Mossy Trotter earlier this year, with some of the original illustrations.

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The Wedding Group by Elizabeth Taylor

In The Wedding Group everyone seems to be tied to someone else in an unhealthy way. The title refers to a Wedgewood wedding group, never described, but much admired. The cold, rigid porcelain is a good metaphor in a novel looking at relationships. They are brittle, fragile, and frozen. Elizabeth Taylor scrutinises the ties that bind people, parent-child, lovers as well as in marriage.

In The Soul of Kindness she had depicted a very locked-together pair – Flora’s mother Mrs Secretan and her housekeeper Miss Folley. Miss Folley reads her employer’s letters. Mrs Secretan knows, but is unable to confront the housekeeper or find a way out of the situation. They are tied by this unspoken knowledge of each other in a distrustful relationship. It’s a fearful prospect.

76. Vir coverThe entrapment theme continues in The Wedding Group. I find the characters are the least sympathetic of any in her novels. Her previous two novels had included monsters, Angel, and Flora in The Soul of Kindness, people so unaware of their own selfishness that they damage others. The Wedding Group includes several portraits of rather awful people, although no one is very sympatique.

The story opens when a young woman, Cressy, declares her lack of faith, thus signalling her intention to move out of Quayle, the community established her larger-than-life domineering artist grandfather. Henry Bretton holds his children and grandchildren through his forcefulness. He likes to be known as the Master. He appears to have been modelled on Eric Gill, or perhaps Augustus John. Elizabeth Taylor deploys her precise observations to reveal the nature of the man: ‘one of his favourite tacks, and the discourse this evening – with no embarrassment at all to himself – was on the subject of woman in the life of man’ (48).

‘For all our precious ideals, our inventiveness it’s the essential, instinctive mother-wife we crave at last. We return, after our escapades or great deeds, to her, for forgiveness and healing and approval.’

Rachel [his wife] tried to look forgiving and healing and admiring, but had an abstracted air.

He just makes me want to vomit, Cressy thought. (48-9)

Cressy escapes to work in the village antiques shop, and to meet David and his mother, Midge. Midge lives for David, to the extent that when he is absent she hardly eats, or cares for herself. He is unaware of this.

He did not know that she dressed with the utmost care for his homecomings in the evenings. He imagined her always as she was now, had never – that he could remember – seen her otherwise. (17-8)

Midge is afraid of life without her son and uses everything in her power to retain his presence. As the story unfolds she becomes more and more dishonest in her schemes to keep him close. When she sees that David will marry Cressy she makes this naïve girl dependant upon her, and does the same to her grandson when he is born.

The mother-son relationship is based on silence, avoidance and slight references to things that matter. She also deploys dishonesty and artifice. He has been indulged for forty years, so they are both culpable. When David has rejected Cressy’s naïve advances, Midge tries to raise the subject with him. This paragraph reveals the meagreness of the mother-son relationship.

Serious matters they had always approached lightly. There had not been so very many of them. But the worries that had occurred had been treated in an off-hand, amused manner. It will all come out in the wash. Indeed they had no other manner with one another. For this reason, she had talked of Cressy’s visit and her confession, as if it were rather absurd; entertaining, certainly. Intuitive though she usually was with him, it had been a little time this evening before she realised he was not smiling, might even be angry at her flippancy. He thought the subject should not have been broached – there had been too much talking altogether – and he wished that Cressy had kept her mouth shut, had stayed away, in fact. Midge could not coax him into laughter. (109)

The lightness of touch here is indicative of a general avoidance in the middle classes in the ‘60s of matters relating to the emotions. It would all come out in the wash.

Another couple tied together in an unhealthy partnership is Archie, Midge’s estranged husband and his Aunt Sylvia. She is a great, spiteful, bed-bound creation. Their routines (French and Italian days, polishing the silver) point up the meaninglessness of their lives. Aunt Sylvia labels her hideous belongings for her beneficiaries according to how she feels about them, often removing their names from spite because they haven’t visited, forgetting who has pre-deceased her. When she dies Archie follows very quickly.

David’s marriage to Cressy is unlikely, entered with little thought by either of them. She is exceptionally naïve, almost infantile, having been brought up in the suffocating community of Quayle, and she exasperates him with her helplessness. It takes a harsh winter, an affair, and the discovery of a great big lie for this trio, David, Cressy and Midge, to untangle themselves. The baby breaks the Wedgwood Wedding Group, and I am not above reading good things into this. The baby’s action will prevent anyone being frozen in a moment in time, especially a romanticised and unreal moment. One is left with the impression that David and Cressy will make a better job of the next bit of their lives than Midge will, but, as with many of her novels, the ending is ambivalent and one feels that the characters may go on make a mess of things.

76 wed grpAs usual Elizabeth Taylor is writing about lonely and isolated people, as she says she did in everything she wrote. In this novel, they present a sad view of human lives, attempting to bind people to them in their fear of isolation.

I tried to find an image of the Wedding Group, looking on Wedgwood’s site as well as making a more general search. I have come to the conclusion that – she made it up. So I have added my old photograph of an unknown and much earlier wedding group.

76 Wdding photoHere are links to two blog reviews of The Wedding Group. The first is from Leaves and Pages, who didn’t like the novel much. Then there is Laura’s Musings, who noted the social trends, revealed in the novel.

The Wedding Group was Elizabeth Taylor’s tenth novel, published in 1968. Her next was Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, which I reviewed back in February 2013. You can find my comments here, a popular post that has rarely been out of the top ten of my most read posts.

I will be reading her twelfth and final novel Blaming in March. Join me.

 

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The Soul of Kindness by Elizabeth Taylor

We all know someone like Flora, popular, attractive, without insight or self-awareness, but still everybody’s favourite. Perhaps we even want to be her friend, because some of her lustre rubs off on us. Elizabeth Taylor shows us the damage such a creature can create. The title sounds a warning – the soul of kindness?70 Sof K

As usual the first paragraph reveals much of what Elizabeth Taylor’s ninth novel will explore.

Towards the end of the bridegroom’s speech, the bride turned aside and began to throw crumbs of the wedding cake through an opening in the marquee to the doves outside. She did so with gentle absorption, and more doves came down from their wooden house above the stables. Although she caused a little rustle of amusement among the guests, she did not know it: her husband was embarrassed by her behaviour and thought it early in their married life to be so; but she did not know that either. (p7)

70 my copyThus we meet Flora on her wedding day. In the 1960s (this book was published in 1964) the wedding day would have been the culmination of the story for the heroine of many novels.  But in The Soul of Kindness we follow Flora’s life after this event. She assumed that she would marry and continue to receive the adulation and attention of her friends, her husband and her mother.

And so she does. They are always on call to keep her company, to look after her, to protect her, and ultimately to rescue her from the consequences of her misplaced encouragement and Kit’s failed ambition. It was Flora who had planted and nurtured it in Kit.

Here is the moment when she receives an anonymous letter following Kit’s suicide attempt.

‘Let me read it again!’ She took the letter and stared at it with revulsion. It was scribbled in pencil on a piece of paper torn roughly from a sketching-pad. ‘My interference!’ she said in horrified amazement. ‘Why do they blame me? I’ve tried and tried to do all I could for Kit. There’s no one I’ve tried more over. I’m so fond of him. I love him as if he were my brother not just Meg’s. And I know he wouldn’t do anything like that. Why should he? Why, I saw him only the other day. And who in the world hates me so much as to send me this dreadful …’ She dropped the letter, put her face in her hands and began to weep – with long, shocked gasping sobs. Richard sat on the edge of the bed and put his arms round her. ‘On my birthday, too,’ she wept. (p209)

Her husband comforts her, assures her that no one is kinder than she. But we have noticed that her concern is all for herself, none for Kit (notice the emphases). And we readers are already aware that Flora is as flawed as Angel in Elizabeth Taylor’s seventh novel, but perhaps Flora is the more harmful as she lives more sociably than Angel. There are more people to harm.

The list of people who get hurt is long:

She encourages her father-in-law, Percy, to marry his mistress, despite both being happy living separately. (One of the best scenes in the novel concerns Percy, who, when on his own, conducted very loud music, played on the gramophone. The Ride of the Valkyries and the last movement of Brahms’ First Symphony are two of his favourites. Everyone’s favourites.)

Flora’s mother, finding her life empty after Flora’s marriage, took in a housekeeper, but the women are locked together as neither can admit to the other what she has written or read. It is Flora’s husband Richard who helps her see that her life is not over because her daughter has left home.

Kit is the brother of her school friend Meg. He is taken up by Flora and consistently fails to live up to her ambitions for him. He feels a failure.

In the character of Patrick Elizabeth Taylor was ahead of the time, for she makes it clear that he was gay, and she makes it clear that Flora has no idea, and no understanding of homosexuality. Homosexuality was illegal until 1967.

Richard, her husband, understands that his role is to protect Flora. He is also a force for good in the novel, as it turns out. But her demands mean that he cannot pursue a friendship with a lonely neighbour.

Flora’s school friend Meg is forever in her shadow, and perhaps suffers most from Flora’s actions. It is she who must deal with Kit’s disappointment associated with Flora’s inflated beliefs about his acting talents. Meg is in love with Patrick, and Flora is provoked by her failure to get it together with him, as she would approve the match. Meg blames Flora for Kit’s suicide attempt. When Flora is upset by the anonymous letter and craves reassurance from everyone only Meg withholds it. She sees clearly how Flora operates.

‘Other people have to live with the truth about themselves… She’ll go on and on until we rally round and build up the image again.’ (p215)

In the end … well you might know, or might guess what happens.

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Elizabeth Taylor was at the height of her skill as a novelist when she wrote The Soul of Kindness, creating a central character who is attractive to the reader even as she reveals her flaws. Many of the other characters are studies in loneliness, almost Elizabeth Taylor’s trademark. The idea that she wrote about small, insignificant and cosy lives is unjust given that she is able to conjure up suffering, affection, and, in this novel, human failings.

I’ve picked two other blog reviews you might like to read:

Vulpes Libris in which the reviewer suggests that Flora is like Jane Austen’s Emma without her wisdom.

Heavenali considers the relationships in the novel and finds much to admire.

The next novel Elizabeth Taylor wrote (published in 1968) was The Wedding Group. It was her tenth. I will be rereading it in January.

 

And a blog footnote: bookword is a year old. 70 posts and lots of comments later I thank my subscribers and readers. Here’s to more in 2014!

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Angel by Elizabeth Taylor

‘… bullying, obnoxious, hypocritical, unpleasant, alienating, opportunistic, confrontational, monomaniacal, disloyal, dysfunctional, insufferably rude, foolish, grudge-bearing, and an anachronistic bigot.’ These are a selection of words used to describe a certain recently deceased politician. Can’t work out who it is? The answer is at the end of the blogpost. It could be a description of Angel Deverell, the main character in Elizabeth Taylor’s seventh novel. Both women had lots of power and very few friends.

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The novel opens with a phrase from Angel’s composition called A Storm At Sea: ‘into the vast vacuity of the empyrean.’ A teacher is worrying about plagiarism. ‘Miss Dawson had gone through it in a state of alarm, fearful lest she had read it before or ought to have read it before. She had spent an agitated evening scanning Pater and Ruskin and others.’ Angel, the schoolgirl is the one who in ordinary circumstances would have been in a state of alarm. She is no ordinary girl. When she is challenged about the meaning of ‘empyrean’ she reacts thus:

“It means,” Angel said. Her tongue moistened her lips. She glanced out of the classroom window at the sky beyond the bare trees. “It means ’the highest heavens’.”

“Yes, the sky,” Miss Dawson said suspiciously. (p7)

It always pays to read the opening paragraphs of an Elizabeth Taylor novel with good attention. Angel, even as a schoolgirl, is able to write overblown prose, to demonstrate her vivid imagination and to meet challenge with disdain. But we are also invited, surely, to have some sympathy for her, for the teacher’s definition is much more prosaic than hers.

This novel tells the story of Angel’s life from girlhood at the end of the nineteenth century, in trouble with everyone in her town for her imaginative additions to real life, through her first novel, its success, her season in London, her marriage, widowhood, old age and finally her death.

In Angel Elizabeth Taylor has created a character who is monstrous; a writer of flamboyant and excessive fiction that is full of errors and anachronisms and other writerly solecisms (such as using real people’s names). The financial success of her novels came from the popularity of her overblown prose and the outrageousness of her style. Angel herself was certain that she should be spoken of in the same breath as Shakespeare and Goethe (whose name she could not pronounce).

She always supposed that everyone had read all of her books and had them nearly by heart, that they thought about them endlessly and waited impatiently for the next one to appear. (p133)

We learn through her publisher that she writes ‘with ignorance and imagination’. She has no sense of humour, no self-doubt and no judgement. Elizabeth Taylor is not above some humour at her subject’s expense.

“You are made to suffer?” he asked, then wished that he had not, dreaded a description of soul wrestling in the toils of creation; could not bear that he thought.

She touched her breast. “Here,” she said. “The most appalling indigestion. I think I breath badly when I am writing – hold my breath and then let it come in gasps. I feel cramped. Then when I stand up the pain begins – it is all right if I can belch. Why do you laugh?” (p134)

She never does anything, as they say, by halves, and for a while the public love her books and she becomes rich enough to buy the house she fantasised about in childhood. She commands loyalty of a kind, often from people who benefit from her books; her publisher, her mother, her husband, her companion and her manservant Marvell. She makes excessive demands on these people and they undertake her commissions because it is easier than dealing with her unreasonable anger. This is how her publisher Theo suffered:

He sometimes longed, too, to take a rest from the hazards of her correspondence. Two or three times a week, her letters, carelessly scrawled in violet ink, arrived at the office with her complaints about the insufficiency of his advertising, his lack of chivalry in not challenging her critics, the shortcomings of Mudie’s, the negligence of compositors. She accused him of cheese-paring; her advances, she said, were so niggardly as to be insulting. She mentioned great sums which had been paid by other publishers to other women novelists – to Miss Corelli and Miss Broughton – and suggested that from the fortune her books had provided him he was subsidising the bungled efforts of the other women writers on his list. “As it is by my industry that these poor little books are published at all,” she wrote, “it would merely be civil of you to acquaint me with your future plans for spreading this charity about.” (p76)

Angel is arrogant, rude, selfish and opinionated, and what she doesn’t like she ignores (such as her aunt, the First World War, critics, poverty, people who challenge her).

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Some readers shy away from picking up a novel with an unsympathetic protagonist. Why, they wonder, would they read a book about someone they don’t like? She is a very awful character, but it is her awfulness that makes Angel such a good read.

Even more interesting is why Elizabeth Taylor wrote about such a horrible character, and why she made her, of all things, a novelist? What does this novel offer us about the life of a writer?

At one level Elizabeth Taylor is offering a reflection on the novelist’s task, to provide an authentic narrative, one that is grounded in experience, a task in which Angel fails. This is part of her odiousness, she fails to be authentic and does not know it. ‘Greece was so disappointing. It was nothing like her novels.’ (p153).

Perhaps the author of Angel was also concerned about public reaction to excessive novelists such as Angel. Elizabeth Taylor was a writer of careful and crafted sentences, in whose narratives nothing much seems to happen. (Angels’ life was uneventful.) And Elizabeth Taylor was criticised for being too middle-class, too domestic, too unassuming in her material. Some of these criticisms came from fellow writers. She kept herself very private, rather quiet. Angel, by contrast, is slapdash, writes about what she does not know and draws attention to herself with her letters written in violet ink.

Despite these implied criticisms of Angel’s behaviour and writing, Elizabeth Taylor’s character evokes pity in the reader. You would not feel happy in her company, but you can admire her chutzpah, her daring, her rejection of the conventional. The striking image is of Angel as a flowering cactus, spikey and colourful.

She had found one living thing there among the flowerpots, a great cactus which had surprisingly survived, gross and bladdery; it looked as if it could keep going on its own succulence for years to come. (p148)

The extract that begins this blogpost comes from the review by Simon Hoggart in the Guardian on 19th October 2013 of the biography by Jonathan Aitken called Margaret Thatcher: power and personality.

The comparison of Angel and Mrs T does suggest that women who behave as they did provoke very strong reactions. How to be powerful and a woman without alienating people is an important question raised by the novel.

Other blogs reviews of Angel to check out are:

A Book Group of One

A few of my favourite books

60 Angel_posterA film was released in 2007 starring Ramola Garai as Angel. I’ve not seen it. Is it any good?

 

Elizabeth Taylor’s eighth novel was In a Summer Season (1961) and I will be reading it in November.

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The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor

The Sleeping Beauty is Elizabeth Taylor’s sixth novel – a romance, as the title suggests. It’s about how love can awaken people from inner deadness. Several people in this novel are awakened in this way.

54 Cover W NVinny, an expert in consolation, arrives in the seaside town of Seething (what a name!) to console Isabella, whose husband has been drowned in a boating accident. While providing Isabella with sympathy Vinny falls for Emily, a beautiful woman, herself damaged in a car accident. She has recovered physically, with altered but beautiful features. However, she keeps to a very small life helping her sister with her guest house and with her handicapped adult daughter. Vinny encourages Emily (echoes of Wuthering Heights intended) to give up her shut away life. Against considerable opposition and in spite of already being married, Vinny woos and marries Emily. Love, it seems, conquers all.

This is by no means the best of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels. I found the central character difficult to like, I think largely because of his name: Vinny. It conjures up for me what we used to call a spiv, a dissolute, empty charmer. And this is not Vinny’s character. He is genuinely sympathetic to people. He provides comfort, indeed, until he meets Emily, this has been the basis of his relationship with women. It was his undoing with his mendacious wife.

A second disadvantage of this novel is that Emily is not a lively character, always a weakness in the fairy tale – the heroine is asleep! Vinny’s love works the magic of the prince’s kiss, but I did not find Emily to be a very interesting character.

54 Ballet

The main delight in this novel for me was noticing the details with which Elizabeth Taylor says so much about the characters. Here is the first appearance of Emily. Vinny watches her on the cliff path with her niece:

… the woman herself did not pause. She walked on at the same pace, her head erect, as if she noticed nothing at all, or else always the same thing ahead of her. (p7)

Another example:

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. (p109)

Here is Isabella’s son, Laurence, doing his National Service, and not much more than a school boy:

He stood up, his hands still clumsily fidgeting witht the papers at the table. He was tall, and because he wore his old school suit – the grey double-breasted flannel, which had shrunk at the cleaner’s – his wrists shot out too far from the sleeves and too much sock showed between the turn-up and shoe. (p9)

This is the arrival of Vinny’s mother, Mrs Tumulty, 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. (p53)

How clever to tell us everything necessary about her past and present through her luggage! And enjoy the presentation of this next scene: Isabella and her former school friend Evalie are spending their morning transforming themselves. Laurence is about to arrive, of course, and find his mother thus:

The knitting lay discarded among the newspapers on the floor. Even Evalie had put hers aside while magic – she hoped – was transforming her appearance. Both were confident that this time, under stiff clay, new faces awaited them, rejuvenated, unbelievably braced and smoothed. (p226)

And a final example; this is Elizabeth Taylor’s description of Vinny’s weakness.

The curious hesitancy in him was caused by his romanticism, his longing for perfection. At the beginning of each relationship he struck the right notes; but sophistication, lightness, gallantry, could not carry him through anything so dire as passion. There were changes to make that defeated him. The circumstances were never right – pitch darkness, for example, he felt, essential. Women having been kissed and stroked, then helped into their coats, were surprised. Sometimes, they went home in such a fury of righteousness to their husbands that they behaved for a while impossibly; having, unexpectedly, no guilt to expiate, they wondered why they should waste their resolutions of kind attentiveness exonerated as they were by their fidelity (which their disappointment very soon became to them). Next morning, roses from Vinny helped them to forgive. (p69)

Such a paragraph illustrates Elizabeth Taylor’s grasp of not just Vinny’s behaviour, but also of how the women used him. And how they rationalised his failure. The roses are a sublime touch and one which brings the writing back to Vinny.

As always with Elizabeth Taylor the cast of minor characters are as well portrayed as the main players, as I hope these examples have shown. There is Laurence, the young man in the shrunken suit, who is also awakened by love, a less dramatic story shadowing that of Vinny and Emily. Then there is the family of Tillotsons who provide Elizabeth Taylor with an opportunity for writing about quarrelsome children and a bossy nanny; Rose, Emily’s jealous and possessive sister; Philly, the troubled girl who Emily has been caring for. The relationships of these people reveal their substitutes for love – duty, position, appearances, honour, ties, power.

54 Cover

Perhaps in the end I would have liked a more romantic, less middle-aged prince, and a more lively sleeping beauty. But there is so much else to admire in her novel.

 

The Sleeping Beauty was published in 1953; her seventh novel, Angel, in 1957. I’ll be reading it in October.

 

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