Tag Archives: The Soul of Kindness

Some Monstrous Women in Books

Monstrous women appear in many novels, including those written by women. Some are redeemed, and some are defeated and one or two even triumph. A few are the main character. They all help the plot along in some way. I note that men can be monstrous too, but when they behave as these women do it appears insignificant. 

For this post I present some books that include monstrous women, with links to my reviews on Bookword.

Unredeemed

Angel by Elizabeth Taylor (1957)

Angel 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). Her publisher says that she writes ‘with ignorance and imagination’. She has no sense of humour, no self-doubt and no judgement. 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).

Flora in The Soul of Kindness, also by Elizabeth Taylor, (1964) has a magnificent unawareness and entitlement that drives people to death, unsuitable marriage and misery. We all know someone like Flora, attractive, without insight or self-awareness, but yet she is everybody’s favourite. Perhaps we even want to be her friend, because some of her lustre might rub off on us. Elizabeth Taylor shows us the damage such creatures can create.

Great Granny Webster by Caroline Blackwood (1977)

The narrator is sent to stay with her great-grandmother and finds the experience horrific. The old lady had a toxic upbringing imbued with Victorian middleclass values. She imposes on her young relative the rigid formality, the meeting of the expectations of others, the refusal to express emotions, the belief in her own righteousness, all from that upbringing.

And these get their come-uppance

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)

We learn that Lady Catherine de Bourgh ‘was extremely indignant’ at the marriage of her nephew, Mr Darcy, to Miss Elizabeth Bennet, ‘and she gave way to all the genuine frankness of her character’. She had paid a warning visit to Elizabeth in which she told the young woman,

‘Miss Bennet, you ought to know that I am not to be trifled with. But however insincere you may choose to be, you will not find me so. My character has ever been celebrated for its sincerity and frankness, and in a cause of such moment as this, I shall certainly not depart from it.’ 

Her abusive language to her nephew severed relations for a while, eventually smoothed over by Elizabeth.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938) 335

Few women live in the imagination as strongly as Mrs Danvers, in contrast to the meek second never-named wife of Max de Winter. The housekeeper resents the new wife and seems to own Manderley in the absence of the first Mrs de Winter. As a character she is a brilliant invention. But I wonder how the reader is so easily convinced of Max’s innocence, and how much that is a reaction to Mrs Danvers’s creepy and threatening presence.

Abbess of Crewe by Muriel Spark (1974) 

Mocking the great, is what Muriel Spark is about in this novel that is a parody of Richard Nixon’s downfall. Sister Alexandra, in white, corrupts and exploits the other sisters, in black. She records everything and is wittily exposed in this novel.

Beowulf

Grendel’s mother in the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf is portrayed as an ignorant hag-like creature, living in a pool of water-snakes, scarcely able to communicate with her son. Maddened by the death of her son at the hands of the first superhero, she is defeated in turn in her own cave. There is an alternative feminist version to this misogyny: The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847) 

Jane’s aunt, Mrs Sarah Reed, resents the necessity for her orphaned niece to join her household and treats her very badly and banishes her to Lowood Hall School.

They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple (1943)

Three sisters are contrasted in this novel. One of these is Vera who is so beautiful that every door is opened to her, all difficulty smoothed out of her way, all misdemeanours forgiven, until she becomes middle-aged. She treats her husband with flagrant unkindness, and when he leaves her, looks round for another admirer. Her nemesis is age, and she is forced to face her weaknesses when her niece replaces her in a young man’s attentions. Vera is too weak to give up the young man and they run away to a life of more unhappiness in South Africa.

Hidden Qualities

Some apparently horrendous women are revealed to have hidden qualities.

 

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (2008) 

In the first volume of short stories of Olive Kitteridge, the former schoolteacher is revealed as a very flawed individual. But in the second volume, Olive, Again (2010), she has become quite sympathetic, perhaps because we understand her more. Is this the Dirty Den syndrome, whereby the audience loves a baddie if they experience enough of them?

The Door by Magda Szabo (1987) 

Translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix

Emerence acts as housekeeper to a novelist, choses her clients and behaves in what appears to be a high-handed even predatory manner, intimidating her clients and her neighbours. She is not so much redeemed as explained in this magnificent Hungarian novel. 

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim (1922)

Mrs Fisher is definitely saved in this much-loved novel about four ill-assorted women who spend a month together in an Italian castle. She is saved through Italian sunshine and the sunny disposition of Lotty.

The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré (2020)

And now, meet Big Madam as 14-year-old Adunni meets her in Lagos.

The cool air inside the car is escaping with a strong flower smell as somebody is climbing out. First thing I am seeing is feets. Yellow feets, black toes. There is different colour paint on all the toenails: red, green, purple, orange, gold. The smallest of the toes is having a gold ring on it. Her whole body is almost filling the whole compound as she is coming out. I am now understanding why they are calling her Big Madam. When she come out, she draw deep breath and her chest, wide like a blackboard, is climbing up and down, up and down. It is as if this woman is using her nostrils to be collecting all the heating from the outside and making us be catching cold. I am standing beside Mr Kola, and his body is shaking like my own. Even the trees in the compound, the yellow, pink, blue flowers in the long flower pot, all of them are shaking. (122)

Big Madam enslaves Adunni, to work in her house, and to live in a shack in the compound. Adunni is valued by many of the people she meets, who help her achieve her ambitions – to do with the ‘louding’ voice – and to which Big Madam must eventually accede. 

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky (2010)

My Grandmother’s Braid by Alina Bronsky (2019)

Both novels were translated from the German by Tim Mohr

In both books there is a monstrous, interfering and overwhelming grandmother. Both behave in underhand and shocking ways, with lack of consideration for others. They are stories about unconditional love that is expressed in curious and sometimes hilarious ways.

Not yet categorised as monstrous

Guard your Daughters by Dorothy Tutton (1953)

The mother in this novel exerts control and limits her five daughter’s experiences to her own advantage. Is she monstrous?

Eva Trout by Elizabeth Bowen (1969)

The main character challenges many conventions about women, maternal feelings, obsession with appearance, desire to marry, and independent wealth. I am not sure I understand what the author was doing with this unlikely character, but I believe she is not monstrous.

You may have your own suggestions of monstrous female characters to add to this list?

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Filed under Books, Feminism, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews, Women in Translation, Women of Colour

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.

70 soul-of-kindness31

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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Filed under Books, Elizabeth Taylor's novels, Reading, Reviews