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)
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
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)