Tag Archives: Henry James

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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Rereading books

Do you reread books? My lovely friend Eileen suggested this topic was a good one for Bookword blog. I thought she was right and with a little arm-twisting she agreed to contribute this post. We benefit from her research skills and her colourful use of pseudonyms. And she has referred to lots of great books – read or reread them!

Eileen writes about rereading books

Ladder of Years, by my favourite author Anne Tyler, was serialized on Radio 4 a few weeks ago and I thought ‘I must reread that’. I have read all her books, some more than once, and The Accidental Tourist many times. Do you have a favourite author or book that you come back to again and again? I wondered if other people are similarly addicted so I asked Caroline if she would write a blog about it. She replied ‘Why don’t you!’ (Note to self: Be careful what you ask for.)

177 Therese R coverThe book I read compulsively is Thérèse Raquin by Emile Zola. I first read it when I was 20, found myself reading it again at 30, and then kept going. You probably know the story – two lovers plagued by guilt – gripping stuff!

My next most often reread book is To kill a Mockingbird – such fantastic story telling and powerful themes. I’m not keen on stories from a child’s perspective but this one’s amazing. Have you seen the film adaptation staring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch? Fabulous.

177 Atticus FinchI also admit to rereading: Madame Bovary, Cold Comfort Farm, Gone with the Wind, Jane Eyre, Jude the Obscure and Far from the Madding Crowd – well anything by Hardy. And I’m planning to read H is for Hawk again soon. It’s such an exquisitely written book. Do read it if you haven’t.

In order to understand my predilection for rereading I asked 12 of my friends to consider the novels they have reread, why they do it and what they gain. I loved their enthusiastic responses and reminders of some excellent stuff.

You might want to consider your own responses before reading on? If so, Dear Reader, look away now!

The Survey results

It turns out that none of my friends reread books as often as me. Indigo was a bit indignant: ‘I have never reread a book. I don’t have the time and there are so many other books I want to read’. Would that be your reaction? About six of my 12 buddies agreed to some extent including Marigold: ‘I always feel I don’t read enough and feel like I’m wasting time if each read isn’t new’. But she often rereads poetry and short stories such as those by Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, Muriel Spark and Ali Smith. And she added: ‘I have reread The Summer Book a good few times – I find it subtle, delightful and fresh each time’.116ToveJanssonSignature

Violet told me she has only ever reread one book. If you were going to pick just one which one would it be? For Violet it was Pride and Prejudice, which she would happily read again:

I read it once at school as a set text with no appreciation, watched the various films and then reread it a couple of years ago. That brought both enjoyment and a deeper appreciation of Jane Austen’s craft. The opening sentence is a total triumph and she manages to maintain her skill throughout the book.

She surprised me by saying that when she has greatly enjoyed a book she rarely reads a second one by the same author: ‘… that may seem odd. Perhaps I feel it sets the bar too high’.

The prospect of disappointment was also on Carmine’s mind: ‘If I really enjoyed something, I don’t want to read it again in case I don’t enjoy it as much’. Magenta agrees especially after her experience of rereading Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandrian Quartet:

I picked up the first book, Justine, and it seemed so dated.  I am definitely not the 18 year old that read it in the 1960s. It just didn’t speak to me as it had done. I did not finish the first volume never mind the four. I would rather leave the good memories.

People of a certain age, like me and my mates, like to reread to gain new perspectives on books read in their youth. Carmine spoke about this in her reply saying there was bound to be things she’d missed in the first reading. The example she gave was I Know why the Caged Bird Sings. Yes, I agree. That is worth another look.

Ebony loved reading the following eclectic mix in her teens: Hundred Years of Solitude, Death in Venice and On the Road. These had made a real impression and she wondered if they still would.

Rereading them reminded me of ways of thinking and of expressing ideas that struck a chord. These books shaped my thinking and I was curious to see if I still thought they were relevant and inspiring. They were, which was reassuring.

Blanche reread Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady for a similar reason. When she first read it in 1978 she found there was much that related to her feelings: ‘Rereading was a different experience as I was not identifying with the character and so appreciated it in a new way’. Sapphire mentioned the need to reread a book straight away in order to grasp its meaning: ‘As soon as I finished The Sound and the Fury I reread it. I understood it the second time!’

Exploring far off countries and cultures was important. Jade had reread three particular books that gave her insights into places she liked or wanted to visit – A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute, Cache Lake Country by John Rowlands and Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee.

Ruby spoke about her passion for Barbara Kingsolver’s books, rereading to psych herself up for travelling. I savoured her reply:177 poisonwood B

I bought and read The Poisonwood Bible voraciously when it was first published in Blog.doc paperback in 1999, because I’m a big fan and am always impatient for her next book. I reread it before my trip to Mali in 2007, to get me in the mood for Africa. (OK, so Mali is in West Africa and The Congo is in Central Africa, but there are commonalities: we’d be travelling by pinasse on the Niger River, the women wear similar combinations of brightly coloured cottons as body and head wraps, carry their babies on their backs, sell similar goods in the markets, etc. Both countries struggle with poverty and instability.) More recently, I read it for the third time just prior to seeing Barbara Kingsolver discussing the book with John Mullan, and I now have my copy signed! It’s not an enjoyable reread but I valued and savoured it more.

And for those who write themselves there is another purpose for rereading. I was intrigued by Marigold’s comments about The Accidental Tourist. She saw somewhere that it’s the perfect structure for a novel: ‘I started reading it with an eye on the structure and just ended up enjoying the minutiae’. Caroline’s research for her blog inspires her to reread. Her recent posts include: What Katy Did, Brighton Rock, A Passage to India and Love, Again. Another writer, Sapphire, says she studies high quality novels in great detail, reexamining each paragraph and sentence to appreciate good construction.

177 I capturedLoving the style, or the lifestyle depicted in particular books came up. Scarlet said she had reread Perfume by Patrick Susskind and Memoirs of a Geisha. She likes both because they’re visceral and experiential and she becomes completely immersed. And Jade said she had reread I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith as she loved the lifestyle portrayed.

If you belong to a book club you might reread novels to prepare for the discussion as Caroline, Blanche and Magenta do. Caroline has recently reread The Awakening by Kate Chopin because someone mentioned it in a book group and so she wanted to look closely at that again. She returns to a book in order to read more carefully rather than relying on memory. She reads so much and so quickly that she doesn’t keep the story in her head for long. Blanche enjoys being a member of a book club to get her rereading. She still sees novels as a holiday luxury, despite retirement, filling her life with ‘doing’ things. Recognise that pattern? I do.

And, of course, new technology has an influence. Magenta says she now mainly reads on a Kindle and has a tendency to read quickly, almost skimming the book:

I don’t take it in fully on the first reading, so I often read a second time and then get a lot more out of it. I do that particularly with books that we are going to discuss in our book group. So that is a very pragmatic use of rereading that is done immediately rather than after a long gap.

Comfort reading – ah yes! Carmine said: ‘Another reason is to be taken to a place I know is OK and comfortable, when I don’t want to be challenged, like reading Alexander McCall’s books when I want something interesting but light’. And ‘for therapy’ Caroline reads Pride and Prejudice and Catch-22.

Last was rereading by mistake – starting a novel and then remembering it had been read before.

So, do you ever reread books?

  • to be intellectually stimulated – to gain new perspectives or insights or shape your thinking
  • for emotional reasons – to immerse yourself in the warmth of the familiar, the joy of meeting old friends or the feeling a character, style or place can inspire
  • to develop your own creative skills – to study the beauty of the language, structure and plot for ideas for your own writing …
  • … or do you think rereading is a complete waste of time. Do let us know.

 

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The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen

This is an unusual book – in its subject matter and in its structure. In her introduction to the Vintage edition, AS Byatt reports that she had read it several times, and not always with appreciation. But for a discriminating reader she suggests ‘that it is one of those books that grow in the mind, in time’.

103 House in P coverThe story is told in three parts, framed in a single day. Part One is set in ‘the present’ (ie 1930s) in the house in Paris, where two children have been brought together because Henrietta (11) is on her way from London to stay with her Grandmother in France and is being cared for by Miss Fisher. Coincidentally, Leopold (9) has arrived on the same day from Italy and is anticipating meeting his mother, Karen, whom he has never known. She fails to turn up.

The second part recounts the story, in the past, about ten years before, of Karen and her affair with Leopold’s father. This part of the story takes us to Cork, London and the towns of the English Channel. We find how Miss Fisher and her irascible mother are involved.

Finally in Part Three we return to the house in Paris, later in the same day, and Mme Fisher’s revelations about Leopold’s past and follow what happens to the two children as they prepare leave the house. Mysteries are revealed and the actions of the adults explored so that by the end of the novel both children are able to move on to the subsequent phases of their lives, although little has actually happened.

53 EBI found Elizabeth Bowen’s portrayal of the two children especially successful. These two are affected by their expectations of the adults, but at a level that the adults do not always see. The relationship between the children is revealed with all the awkwardnesses, probing, sympathies, quarrels of two children thrown together. They are both innocent of much about the adult world, especially sexual behaviour, but both sense it, especially Henrietta and are trying to understand the consequences of adults’ behaviour. Here is the description of Leopold adjusting to his mother’s refusal to meet him.

His eyes darkened, their pupils expanding. Yes, his mother refused to come; she would not lend herself to him. He had cast her, but she refused her part. She was not, then, the creature of thought. Her will, her act, her thought spoke in the telegram. Her refusal became her, became her coming in suddenly, breaking down, by this one act of being herself only, his imagination in which he had bound her up. So she lived outside himself; she was alive truly. She set up that opposition that is love. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I shall see her some other day.’ (p201-2)

The three-part structure seems designed to get the reader to re-examine her understanding of the previous sections. Karen, in the middle part, is the key character and we follow her through the expectation of marriage, a short visit to an uncle and aunt, and then her relationship with Max. We find that she was a close friend of Miss Fisher. Coming to this second section after the tensions of Leopold’s vivid beliefs about his mother and subsequent disappointment means a reassessment of the characters in the first part. Elizabeth Bowen seems to be saying, look again, now you have this knowledge. It’s an interesting device for a novel, and Elizabeth Bowen uses it with great assurance.

The complexity of her prose, noted in my reviews of The Heat of the Day, The Last September and The Hotel, also makes you read carefully, and takes you into the psychology of her characters.

There is no end to the violations committed by children on children, quietly talking alone.

… Henrietta turned down her eyes, smoothed her dress on her knees and remarked with the utmost primness: ‘You must be very glad: no wonder you are excited. I am excited, going to Mentone.’ Then swinging her feet to the ground, she left the sofa and walked to the radiator, above which she spread her hands. Glancing aloofly to see if her nails were clean, she seemed to become unconscious of Leopold. Then she strolled across to examine a vase of crepe paper roses on the consol table behind Charles’s chair. Peering behind the roses, she found that they were tied on with wire to sprigs of box. She glanced across at the clock, smothered a yawn politely and said aloud to herself: ‘Only twenty-five past ten.’ Her sex provided these gestures, showing how bored she got with someone else’s insistence on his own personality. Her dread of Leopold gave way to annoyance. Already she never met anyone without immediately wanting to rivet their thought on herself, and with this end in view looked forward to being grown up. (p18-9)

I found the relationship between Karen and Miss Fisher the least convincing aspect of the book. Well, not their friendship, but its survival of Karen’s affair, the role of the interfering Mme Fisher and the death of Max.

103 EBTwo things about the subject matter made an impression on me. The first is the easy way in which people of Karen, Henrietta and Leopold’s class moved about Europe during the inter-war years. Transposed to the present day, perhaps involving the Eurotunnel, this story would not seem surprising. Maybe I am just influenced by the current anti-Europe political rhetoric, but it is worth remembering that ties with the continent have been strong for some time strong, and this is reflected in much literature of the time: in much of Henry James and Edith Wharton, for example.

And the second thing is Elizabeth Bowen’s frank exploration of sexual mores at the time. Some of it is highly wrought. Here’s the moment when we understand that Karen and Max (both engaged to other people) will mean more to each other.

‘We’ll bring the tray in when we go.’

But they both sat back, her hand lying near his. Max put his hand on Karen’s, pressing it into the grass. Their unexploring, consenting touch lasted; they did not look at each other or at their hands. When their hands had drawn slowly apart, they both watched the flattened grass beginning to spring up again, blade by blade. (p119-20)

The House in Paris is a feast for a discerning reader, of the novelist’s art, of the insights into the behaviour of young people and of children.

Here are some links to Blog reviews:

There is an excellent and thoughtful review by Booksnob.

And another by EmilyBooks, who calls it a tour de force.

And yet another by Girl with her Head in a Book.

GHave you read The House in Paris? Have you anything to add?

 

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In a Summer Season by Elizabeth Taylor

This is a novel about love of many different kinds. It is also about love’s tendency to appear and disappear – indicated by the title. For all the characters in this novel, the summer season changes their experience of love. Elizabeth Taylor knew what she was doing in this, her eighth novel. She manages a complex cast of characters and has the confidence to let her story unfold.

65 Winifred cover

Kate Heron is the protagonist. She is around forty and has recently married for the second time. As she is well off, her husband Dermot is able to be unemployed for stretches of time, although he tries his hand at growing mushrooms and at entering a partnership in a travel company in London. Kate has a sixteen year-old daughter, Lou, back from boarding school for the holidays, and a son, Tom, who is working his way up in his grandfather’s business. At the start of the novel one feels that Kate and Dermot are doomed, but not for the traditional reasons she and he separately suspect are harboured by Kate’s former friends: marrying a younger man, or marrying for her money. Something more complex is implied.

65 opening words

During the summer season Lou falls for the curate, a Father Blizzard. She hangs about places and undertakes parish chores, such as sorting shoes for the jumble sale, hoping to bump into him. One morning he asks her to help him buy a birthday present for his sister.

When they were sitting together in the bus, she felt completely happy, without knowing that to feel so is such a rare experience that it might never come to her again. The very knowledge would have made something else of it. This morning was something she recognised as having been waited for, but with wavering degrees of hope. As the miracle had come about she simply accepted it, but was taking it in little sips, blissfully restrained: for instance, she had not yet raised her eyes to look at his face. (p56)

Elizabeth Taylor is able to capture these adolescent feelings without implying they are inferior to adult love. As autumn approaches Father Blizzard makes a decision to leave the village and join a Catholic monastery in France. Lou returns to school. I love the description of Waterloo station as mothers see off their children. I was catching trains to and from school at the same period (she was writing in the early ‘60s). She has captured the scene at the start of term.

All over Waterloo Station groups of schoolgirls flocked together – their cries, their movements birdlike, as was their way of keeping to their own kind. Other uniforms drew only glances of scorn. Schoolboys, returning too, were less gregarious. They stood alone at the bookstalls or thoughtfully put pennies into slot-machines, unimpressed by so much feminine gaiety. (p206)

Tom is used to having girls at his beck and call, has become practised in letting them down gently when he moves on to the next one. But he is smitten with Araminta, when she returns with her father to the village. She is a cool customer, training to become a model, vividly attractive and sexy, but able to control Tom with her unresponsiveness. The reader feels for him in his unsuccessful pursuit. She is a prototype for the anorexic size 0 models of our time.

Dermot loves Kate, but he cant quite live up to his own intentions for himself, preferring to allow the truth to be obscured so that he doesn’t appear smaller in her eyes and those of her friends. He feels his inferiority to her and her friends; it is moral, educational, cultural and he resents it. This resentment is the catalyst for the climax of the story.

65 cover

One of the delights of Elizabeth Taylor novels is the references to other novels, in this case The Spoils of Poynton by Henry James, which Dermot does not recognise as a novel. I admit having yet to read this book, but it is about things, and a widow’s battle to retain her spoils – antique furniture. As Susannah Clapp points out in her introduction, ‘piles of discarded, unused and unlovely objects are strewn throughout In a Summer Season. … They carry some force as reminders of the inhibitions and consolations of memory and habit’. The Spoils of Poynton was Kate’s first husband’s favourite novel, and links Kate to him and to her previous life in a way that Dermot resents. It’s a clever, quiet device that also shows up Dermot’s ignorance (and mine!).

Kate is more aware of each person, including herself, than any of the other characters and because she is central to the plot we often see people mediated through her susceptibilities. She has to manage her relationship to Dermot. Elizabeth Taylor lets us know, in this early scene, that Kate understands Dermot very well.

On the way home they quarrelled – or, rather, she listened to Dermot quarrelling with an imaginary Kate, who supplied him with imaginary retorts, against which he was able to build up his indignation. Then, when they were nearly home, he began to punish himself, and Kate realised that the more he basked in blame, the more it would turn out to be all hers; her friends, for close friends of hers they would become, would seem to have lined up to aggravate him, and her silence would be held to account for his lack of it. (p34)

As readers we are encouraged to have some hope for the couple for the evening ends thus:

He ran his knuckles down her spine. ‘You taste of rain,’ he said, kissing her. ‘People say I married her for her money,’ he thought contentedly, and for the moment was full of self-respect that loving her had given him. (p40)

This is pure Elizabeth Taylor, the temporary relaxation of the tension, and the quiet observation of Dermot’s character.

It is Dermot’s lack of fibre (as they would say) that pushes the story to its conclusion. While there is tragedy, sudden and brutal, all does not end badly for Kate in a conclusion that does not satisfy all readers. We are unsure what kind of future Kate will have, but the final short chapter allows us to see how where love leaves her and the other characters, a year on from that summer season.

As always in her novels there are some great comic moments (preparing for the jumble sale, watching tv, Dermot’s mother). Great tenderness is shown towards Lou’s ‘calf ’love and Tom’s hopeless infatuation with Araminta.

But the uncertainties of love are also revealed with some tenderness: Kate’s dream about Charles, Dermot’s desire to do better by Kate leads him to lie and deceive; Lou’s growing up so that the departure of Father Blizzard is not such a blow; Lou crying about her mother and Dermot after he has accused her of being ‘bloody smug’; Charles’ comfort; Tom’s inability to recover from Araminta’s death.

 

Some other blog reviews of In a Summer Season:

Dovegreyreader

Of Books and Bicycles

 

Next month I will be reading Elizabeth Taylor’s ninth novel: The Soul of Kindness, published in 1964. Join me!

 

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A View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor

I found it hard to get into this novel for a chapter or two because there are a daunting number of characters and it is not immediately clear who is going to be most significant. When I had worked out the main characters I found this an engaging novel, a wonderful evocation of a group of people who lived in the same space looking out onto the harbour of the title. Elizabeth Taylor starts by following the fishing fleet out of the harbour and then introducing a visitor, one who claims to have a particular view of the harbour, as a painter. These quick shifts of perspective are typical of this novel.

A model for the harbour community is likely to have been Whitby where Elizabeth Taylor spent the final years of the war. But this harbour town, Newby, is close enough to London to visit in a day. It is somewhat eclipsed by the more racy New Town, just around the headland. The novel is set in the period in which it was written – 1946. War is over, workmen are rolling up the barbed wire fortifications, but the war is only present in the material drabness of the lives of the characters.

37 Harbour

Once I had established who was who, and the events of the spring and summer began to unfold, I experienced all the anticipated pleasure of reading the third of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels. The main narrative concerns the divorcee Tory Foyle and her involvement with the husband of her best friend and neighbour. Beth Cazubon seems unaware of the tension between her doctor husband and her friend for she is busy completing her novel. (Surely the name Cazubon is intended to refer to Dorothea’s dusty and unrealistic husband in George Eliot’s Middlemarch. He never completes his great oeuvre, while Beth finishes her novel as A View of the Harbour comes to a close. Beth, however, is a variation of the novelist’s own name.)

A second strand follows the terrible Mrs Bracey who has spiteful and bitter words for and about everyone, and the best view of her neighbours once she has been carried up to her first floor bedroom. She it is who spots the electric charge between Tory Foyle and Robert Cazubon. She is as observant of what is not done as Henry James in Portrait of a Lady.

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

As the title suggests, this is a novel about what people see, don’t see, choose not to see or want to see. Bernard Hemingway is the retired seaman and would-be painter who likes to think of himself as delightfully useful to everyone, even sitting with Mrs Bracey in her final days. But what he does not see it that he is rather selfish person who damages one of his abandoned protégées (Lilly Wilson) and his stance eventually ensnares him in what the reader feels will be a doomed marriage, even if it helps the lady out of a jam. Here Elizabeth Taylor describes his self-delusion and condescension, in a way that invites us to consider what we don’t see of ourselves.

He had always had great confidence with women and a tendency to kiss them better, as he called it; only when he had gone, their fears, their anxieties returned, a little intensified, perhaps, but he, of course, would not know that, and remained buoyed up by his own goodness. (p138)

Then there is Beth Cazubon, the novelist, who is so absorbed in her writing that she does not notice her husband’s interest in Tory, nor does she perceive the anger of their daughter Prudence. Prudence is enraged by what she clearly sees happening between her father and Tory, but her lack of maturity and a kind of simpleness makes her impotent.

Mrs Bracey fears her own decay and death and treats her daughters badly as a result. This character provides much of the comedy of the novel, but the reader observes the truths of Mrs Bracey’s outrageous comments. And she is pinioned through illness, to a single perspective.

The day comes slowly to those who are ill. The night has separated them from the sleepers, who return to them like strangers from a distant land, full of clumsy preparations for living, the earth itself creaking towards the light. (p257)

So the story shifts from one person to another, sometimes the reader sees from Bertram’s point of view, then shifts to another character, Prudence, say, walking along the harbour front, or one of Mrs Bracey’s daughters, or Tory who is perhaps the most clear-sighted of all, except she is blinded by love. Subtle and quiet are two adjectives frequently used to describe Elizabeth Taylor’s style. A View of the Harbour exemplifies both.

Loneliness is a theme of this novel – nearly everyone is lonely. In their loneliness they don’t always act in their best interests, Mrs Bracey pushes her daughter away by making more and more demands upon her. Lily descends into drinks at the bar and then into a disreputable sex life. Tory has to face losing both her best friend and her lover, and will settle for a less than wise marriage.

As in her other novels the children are interesting characters. Beth’s younger daughter, Stevie, is a delightful free spirit, who moves between the characters with charm and some precocity. Tory’s son Edward writes delightful letters to his mother from school. And Elizabeth Taylor knows the physicality of young boys. This is her description of what happens when Tory visits him at his boarding school and they walk together to meet his form master.

Every boy who passed surreptitiously lunged at Edward, dug an elbow at him, crooked a knee at his behind. (p142)

She’s good at the self-doubt of adults too. Here is Beth taking up her pen to write.

‘This isn’t writing,’ she thought miserably. It’s just fiddling about with words. I’m not a great writer. Whatever I do someone else has always done it before, and better. In ten years’ time no one will remember this book, the libraries will have sold off all their grubby copies of it second-hand and the rest will have fallen to pieces, gone to dust. And, even if I were one of the great ones, who in the long run cares? People walk about in the streets and it is all the same to them if the novels of Henry James were never written. They could not easily care less. No one asks us to write. If we stop, who will implore us to go on? The only goodness that will ever come out of it is surely this moment now, wondering if “vague” will do better than “faint”. Or “faint” than “vague”, and what is to follow; putting one word alongside another, like matching silks, a sort of game.’

E.Taylor 1

Elizabeth Taylor does not answer her own implied question. ‘No one asks us to write.’ But I continue to be pleased that she does, as I revisit or discover her novels this year.

In July I will be reading and reviewing the fourth novel by Elizabeth Taylor: A Wreath of Roses (published in 1949).

What did you think of A View of the Harbour? Did you like it? How does it compare to her other novels?

37 Vof H

 

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Filed under Books, Elizabeth Taylor's novels, Reviews