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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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