Complications, embarrassments: Elizabeth Taylor, The Soul of Kindness

Elizabeth Taylor (1912-75), The Soul of Kindness. VMC 2012; first published 1964

Elizabeth Taylor’s ninth novel is not her best; it verges at times on soap-opera, and some of the characterisation is dodgy (like Liz, the unconvincing, scruffily antisocial artist). But it’s still one to be savoured slowly for the subtle prose and insidious, perceptive wit that shows with human warmth the vicissitudes of living among other people who know themselves as little as they know you. A former university acquaintance of mine was noted for her frequent marginal comments on MSS she edited when she turned to publishing: LTRDSW – let the reader do some work. That’s just what this author does when she’s at her best: she doesn’t spell everything out.

Take one random example. Richard Quartermaine, a successful but bored businessman, has by chance met a near neighbour, Elinor, on his commute home, and they’d taken tea together. He neglects to tell his wife, Flora, heavily pregnant with their first child, on his return. Flora is a variation on Emma: a meddler in other people’s lives, invariably with catastrophic consequences (one of them in this novel turns out to be fatal).

The narrative here takes the point of view and voice of Richard, contemplating the ‘placid beauty’ and ‘appealing gaze’ of Flora, all innocence and complacent ‘Botticelli calm’:

She seemed to be as busy as anything, just bearing her child. Full-time job. He brushed a thought from his mind.

From his guilty interior monologues earlier it’s evident that this ‘thought’ is disloyal to her, and that he’s in some way attracted to the less flawed Elinor. By not admitting their tea together, that guilt is compounded. Taylor trusts her readers to know what’s going on.

Elizabeth Taylor, The Soul of Kindness coverThe disasters that befall those whose lives Flora interferes with are competently recounted in the novel, but for me the more interesting plot involves this…whatever it is… between waveringly loyal Richard – frustrated by his wife’s childlike schemes and indolent self-satisfaction, oblivious to and unaware of the damage she causes – and Elinor, whose blimpish MP husband neglects her, leaving her starved of affection. In Richard she sees a sympathetic fellow sufferer and potentially more satisfying connection. Is he?

Elinor’s childlessness is a Taylor trope, usually signifying lack of emotional fulfilment, and — her habitual central theme – loneliness.

The first time they’d awkwardly got together she’d told Richard how busy her husband was – implying his neglect. Richard blurts out:

‘Aren’t you lonely?’ immediately wishing that he hadn’t – definitely not a question to put to another man’s wife…

‘Sometimes I am,’ she then admitted.

Flora gives birth in a nursing-home after a long labour. Visited by Meg there after the birth of her daughter, she asks her friend to be godmother. The reader knows that Meg is not her first choice – but it wouldn’t occur to emotionally stunted Flora to consider this hurtful to her closest friend. When Meg tells her she doesn’t believe in God, Flora’s response typifies Taylor’s economy in revealing character and her mordant precision with language:

‘But of course you do, darling,’ Flora said comfortably.

Back to Flora’s husband and Elinor. It’s not quite a flirtation, and certainly not an affair. There are several further liaisons, after that furtive teashop meeting. We’re given numerous insights into the loveless marriage Elinor endures with her boring, thoughtless husband. Finally, she detours past Richard’s street, having spent a soul-numbing break in a drab seaside resort (while her husband was abroad) that only intensified her sense of loneliness, and then a humiliating solitary day in London that ended with her being chatted up by a tedious pub lothario. The narrative provides her thoughts as she nears Richard’s house, torturing herself by imagining his idyllic life with his lovely wife and baby, newly returned home :

Richard was one of her given-up hopes. She had not wanted much of him – his company and conversation.

Really? She goes on the consider that he merely used her for company when his wife was confined. When he invites Elinor in for a drink (she hadn’t realised he was alone), she reconsiders, in directly narrated first-person thought that artfully slips straight into semi-revealing third-person free indirect thought, an indication of how incompletely honest she’s being with herself?

‘He’s really my only friend…How dreadful if I did something to lose him. It was all she wanted – and had happened with miraculous luck – to talk to sit and have a drink with him, for him to be at ease with her, to take her for granted. She had not fallen in love with him, and desired nothing that belonged to Flora: but he must have something left over from that, which he could spare her; everybody has something left over.

Another rare instance in the novel, perhaps, of a character confronting the reality of her connection with another human being.

Meg’s interior monologue continues:

Marital complications she abhorred – husbands and wives in a changing pattern. Complications; embarrassments. If, for instance, as he crossed the room now with her drink – if, instead of handing it to her, he should put it down on the little table beside her and take her into his arms…even imagining this she was overcome with confusion and dismay. [Author’s ellipsis, tellingly]

So – maybe she’s not as honest with herself as she appeared to be earlier. The scene ends with a trademark Elizabeth Taylor disappointment; as she leaves, Richard half-heartedly invites her to visit more often – to see Flora! Elinor’s thoughts on this:

He was always easy with her, always kind and equable; but behind his urbane manner might conceivably be bored, or irritated, or embarrassed…Kind, neighbourly words [she muses as she walks home]. All he had to offer. We all talk like it most of the time, to make the wheels go round.

What’s worse than wondering if the one you’re attracted to doesn’t reciprocate your feelings? The possibility that you bore, irritate or embarrass them. We all think like that. But few writers depict it so poignantly.

 

 

Men are boring and irritating: Barbara Pym, Jane and Prudence

Barbara Pym, Jane and Prudence. Virago Modern Classics, 2007. 19531

There’s a particularly English kind of novel in which quietly ironic humour is the dominant tone. The irony in Jane and Prudence serves to create a critical view of a certain kind of middle class set of people, mostly in the country, but some in the city of London, whose idiosyncracies, defects and obsessions act as an index of a whole swathe of middle England in the post-war period in which the novel is set.

The Jane of the title is the 41-year-old wife of a vicar. As the novel opens she is attending a reunion of the alumnae of the Oxford college at which she had been a tutor to Prudence Bates, 29, an age when spinsterhood is considered in danger of shifting into old maidishness.

This is a novel of contrasts which are mostly shown up by a close attention to appearances and personal traits, and in the fact that neither woman feels she has fulfilled her potential as an Oxford graduate in a world where such accomplishment is not considered a useful asset in a woman.

Jane is dowdily dressed, showing little care for how she looks – her ‘old tweed coat’, we learn, looks like the kind ‘one might have used for feeding the chickens in’, and the country vicarage she and her husband Nicholas move to at the start of the novel is furnished frugally and shabbily. The curtains don’t quite meet in the middle. She’s a ‘great novel reader, perhaps too much for a vicar’s wife’, and her academic interest in the poetry of the 17C raises little interest in her new environment. She hardly knows where the kitchen is, and is ‘indifferent…to domestic arrangements’.

B Pym, Jane and Prudence Prudence wears elegant, sophisticated clothes, and furnishes her fashionable London flat in a chic Regency style. She’s usually involved in short-lived love affairs, mostly with totally unsuitable men. As with Jane Austen, there’s an assumption that a single woman must be in search of a suitable husband as the only possible goal in life in this skewed, patriarchal society.

Jane’s marriage has lost its original romance, and is summed up in her mind by her husband’s ‘mild, kindly looks and spectacles’. Both women are, in their own ways, lost and unfulfilled, and it’s this edge of frustration and disappointment that prevents the novel from descending into twee rom-com. There’s a bleakness about Pym’s portrayal of mid-20C middle class England.

This is seen most poignantly in the depiction of Jessie Morrow, a ‘little brown woman’ and paid companion and distant relative to an elderly battleaxe, Miss Doggett. These two also feature in Crampton Hodnett, which I wrote about recently HERE. Jessie, even more frumpishly dressed than Jane, is treated like a servant by her condescending employer – she is more of a ‘sparring partner’ than companion, as Jessie shrewdly points out. Although she has learned to remain invisible, she has hidden depths of intelligence and cunning. These emerge when she succeeds in snaring the local lothario, a preening, self-obsessed and louche widower called Fabian Driver, who lives next door, and snatching him out of the elegant arms of Prudence. To do so she wears one of his late wife’s dresses, which she had pilfered, and in so doing turns his fickle head.

It’s difficult to convey the pleasures of this novel in just a short space. Every page has little moments of delightful humour laced with that bleakness I mentioned earlier. Here’s a random example from early on: Jane has entered her husband’s new church for the first time and sees it being prepared by the fussy church ladies for Harvest Thanksgiving (not ‘Festival’, she’s sniffily informed by one of them, Miss Doggett, in her default tyrant mode; ‘festival’ sounds much too pagan for her) . Jane knows she’s going to seem inadequate and inferior to them in comparison with her more socially skilled and compliant predecessor.

She ill-advisedly expresses a wish to them that they will sing ‘Let us with a gladsome mind’ during the service:

‘It is such a fine hymn. In many ways one dislikes Milton, of course; his treatment of women was not all that it should have been.’

‘Well, they did not have quite the same standards in the old days,’ said Miss Doggett, frowning. ‘Of course we shall have the usual harvest hymns, I imagine. We plough the fields and scatter,’ she declared in a firm tone, almost challenging anyone to deny her.

This is typical of the way in which Pym narrates. Jane, an admirer of the Metaphysicals, would find Milton too sober and misogynistic; Miss Doggett, as her name implies, holds unbending, unreconstructed views about the place of women in society, and her dogmatic stance reveals her as representative of a view widely held at the time, and unfortunately still found today. The clash is silent but telling.

For all her scattiness and eccentricity, Jane holds views more consistent with Pym’s own, the reader is led to believe in such scenes, than those of the superficially more worldly Prudence, whose disastrous romances are a symptom of her incapacity for judgement when it comes to men, as a consequence of a lack of strength of character – her attractive looks and dress simply mask her weaknesses.

Some aspects of the novel are perhaps outmoded: there’s a great deal of knowing witticism about the various modes of religious faith, from High Church and Catholicism to chapel, for example. But these are offset by the barbed ironies throughout, especially those to do with marriage and sex.

This is Jane reflecting on Fabian’s dumping of her friend Prudence in favour of the less glamorous, ‘mousy’ Jessie – whom Pym has repeatedly shown to be a far more interesting character, a contrast to which Jane remains oblivious, being more inclined to interpret poetry than the human heart.

Feeling guilty at the part she’d played, like Austen’s Emma, in bringing her friend together with treacherous, shallow, handsome Fabian, she consoles herself with the thoughts that, first, at least Prudence hadn’t got pregnant, and second, that ‘it was obvious that at times [Prudence] found him both boring and irritating’. The internal monologue that follows is characteristic of Pym’s narrative poise, as Jane begins to perceive home truths about herself and marriage reflected in Fabian’s rejection of fashionable, headstrong Prudence and preference for ostensibly dreary Jessie as a wife:

But wasn’t that what so many marriages were – finding a person boring and irritating and yet loving him? Who could imagine a man who was never boring or irritating? …Perhaps this [i.e. Jessie] was after all what men liked to come home to, someone restful and neutral, who had no thought of changing the curtains or wallpapers? Jessie, who, for all her dim appearance, was very shrewd, had no doubt realised this. A beautiful wife would have been too much for Fabian, for one handsome person is enough in a marriage, if there is to be any beauty at all. And so often there isn’t… [Ellipses mine]

I hope I haven’t spoilt your potential enjoyment of this novel by revealing such aspects of the novel; I don’t think it’s really the denouement of the plot that is the most satisfying part of a Barbara Pym novel: it’s the journey there, and the epiphanies that ensue for her delicately delineated characters.

I”ve written about Pym’s novel Excellent Women HERE and No Fond Return of Love HERE

Writers are monsters: Elizabeth Taylor – Angel

Elizabeth Taylor, Angel. First published 1957; my edition: Virago Modern Classics, 2013.

‘Writers are monsters’, Hilary Mantel concludes in her introduction to this VMC edition. The gloriously inappropriately named protagonist of Elizabeth Taylor’s novel is a bestselling writer (born in 1885) of terrible romantic fiction. She’s the antithesis of her creator: Taylor writes her meticulously acute observation of ordinary lives, usually in unexciting suburban bourgeois settings, able through her sensitive writer’s antennae to pick up the tiniest signals of emotion and strangeness; her style is crisp, clear, restrained. Angel writes outrageously romantic, borderline salacious period melodramas with two-dimensional characters, dredged up from the shallow pool of her limited sensibility in luridly clichéd, overwritten prose. She’s opinionated and ignorant, and hates books and reading almost as much as she dislikes real people and life:

She had never cared much for books, because they did not seem to be about her…

When asked by her publisher when they first meet what authors she’s read and liked, she’s at a loss:

“I quite liked Shakespeare,” she admitted. “Except when he is trying to be funny.”

Angel escapes from and triumphs over reality in her daydreams; ‘she was menaced by intimations of the truth’. Henry James aspired to write ‘the real thing’; Angel

had removed herself, romantically, from the evidence of her senses: the reality of what she could learn by touching, tasting, was banished as a trivial annoyance, scored out as irrelevant.

These adolescent fantasies develop into her badly written stories as antidote to her drab, squalid life above a grocer’s shop in a dismal slum in a bleak industrial city.

It’s a novel that’s as bitter about the dreadful taste of a reading public that makes Angel a fortune from her scribbling as it is about the awful, exposed solitude of the writer’s life.

Elizabeth Taylor, cover of 'Angel'Perhaps that sounds a bit grim – but it’s a very funny, beautifully written book. From the opening words, when we’re treated to the only direct quotation in the novel of Angel’s execrable, purple prose style – an extract from a story written for her teacher (though it’s a style imitated viciously by one of her subsequent publishers) – it’s clear that Taylor has created a deliciously outrageous monster.

There are telling glimpses of the mediocrity of the adults around her that inspire Angel’s venomous animosity from the outset, such as that dull, narrow-minded teacher at a pretentious but useless private school:

She doesn’t believe I wrote it, she thought, glancing with contempt at the flustered little woman with the slipping pince-nez and bird’s-nest hair. Who does she think wrote it if I didn’t? Who does she think could? What a way to spend your life – fussing about with school lessons, getting chalk all over your skirt, going home to lodgings at night to work out the next day’s Shakespeare – cut to page this, line that, so that we don’t have to read the word ‘womb’.

The narrative voice has the wit, insight and sharp eye for detail that is all Taylor; Angel would never be capable of that selective kind of descriptive detail. But it’s a voice that also accurately expresses the viciousness and arrogance of the schoolgirl who so despises this harmless, commonplace teacher. It foreshadows the sheer nastiness, narcissism and intolerant cruelty that Angel displays throughout her life whenever someone criticises her work (which is clearly terrible), or has the temerity to challenge her fiery, rude and obstinate behaviour.

It’s perhaps this aspect of the novel that’s so brilliant. Anyone who’s ever aspired to write has to deal with the conflicting emotions brought about by the critical comments of those who read their work.  Angel has such a wilfully inflated, delusional view of her own brilliance that she’s incapable of accepting criticism gracefully, or of learning from it. She believes she’s perfect, so improvement is a logical impossibility in her view.

Maybe there’s something in this mixture of ‘great vanity’ and self-belief that all aspiring writers experience, but rarely admit to.

Here’s a typically astute piece of humour that also serves to draw attention to the egregious lack of self-awareness in Angel’s character; she receives fanmail, but also letters from clergymen complaining that she’s corrupting the morals of the young:

…these letters gave her a sense of power and she enjoyed reading them…she did not write for children. Letters which merely made carping criticisms, about flowers coming out in the wrong season, Orion appearing in the night sky in August, or some confusions with Greek deities, she put down as the work of literary critics, a part of their general scheme against her.

Typical of Angel, to make the expression ‘literary critics’ into an expletive (as ‘do-gooders’ or ‘anti-fascists’ are for extreme right-wingers). And notice that it’s ‘confusions’ and ‘deities’, plural! That hint of paranoia, too. Wonderful.

Then she picks up another reader’s letter:

“Dear Madam,” she read, “Since you can only describe what you write of from your own experiences, we must deduce from this fact that you are nothing but a common whore. Please keep your excesses to yourself and spare yours in disgust, Lover of Literature.”

When her husband roared with laughter on reading this, Angel ‘looked at him in amazement which changed to cold disdain.’ She can’t understand why he finds it – and her – hilarious, and then she feels sickened and angry; ‘he must be mad’, she concludes. The London EC4 postmark ‘meant nothing to her’; her vanity exceeds her boundless ignorance, for it is, of course, that of Fleet Street and the heart of English publishing.

I wrote in February about Elizabeth Taylor’s Complete Short Stories and about Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

Barbara Comyns, The Vet’s Daughter

Barbara Comyns, The Vet's Daughter

The cover of my Virago Modern Classics edition

This is not a review of Barbara Comyns’ fourth novel, The Vet’s Daughter, published in 1959 (she died in 1992). I’ve written about two of her others in previous posts (links at the end), so have I think already established the nature of her highly idiosyncratic approach to narrative voice, plot and character dynamics. All tend to be at the same time naive, deceptively simple, yet also dark, tending towards a kind of surreal gothic , and skewed in their world view. Odd things are narrated as if they were everyday; the banal is often rendered extraordinary.

All I need to do to give an idea of The Vet’s Daughter, then, is to quote from its opening page.

A man with small eyes and a ginger moustache came and spoke to me when I was thinking of something else. Together we walked down a street that was lined with privet hedges. He told me his wife belonged to the Plymouth Brethren, and I said I was sorry because that is what he seemed to need me to say and I saw he was a poor broken-down sort of creature. If he had been a horse, he would most likely have worn kneecaps. We came to a great red railway arch that crossed the road like a heavy rainbow; and near this arch there was a vet’s house with a lamp outside. I said, ‘You must excuse me,’ and left this poor man among the privet hedges.

This man possibly reappears in the penultimate page for no explicable reason, just as the encounter with the teenage vet’s daughter here simply serves to show the apparent randomness and lack of agency in her life.

Why bother to tell us about those privet hedges? Or that the ‘poor man’ is to be pitied because of his wife’s religious persuasion? How bizarre that she should liken his condition to that of a horse with kneecaps (do they wear such things? If so, why does he resemble on thus attired, rather than just a regular, naked-legged horse? Is it because they live a life of toil and drudgery? Maybe she’s projecting on to him something of her own miserable existence with her tyrannical, sadistic father. Maybe, like Stephen King, she’s establishing a suburban setting of ordered tranquillity and banality – the hedges, the railway bridge, the lamp – in order that the domestic horrors to come are all the more upsetting.

That ‘heavy rainbow’ simile is good. There is no magical crock of gold at its end, of course. Quite the opposite, as the next paragraph begins to show.

That her life is oppressive begins to become clearer there:

I entered the house. It was my home and smelt of animals, although there was no lino on the floor. In the brown hall my mother was standing; and she looked at me with her sad eyes half-covered by their heavy lids, but did not speak. She just stood there. Her bones were small and her shoulders sloped; her teeth were not straight either; so, if she had been a dog, my father would have destroyed her.

Although this narrating voice seems like that of a naive child, then, there’s a highly sophisticated literary sensibility at work here. That use of ‘although’, seemingly irrelevant, implies that either there is carpet – which would absorb and retain animal smells – or bare floorboards – which suggests parsimony in the head of the house. Or else the disconnectedness of the clause reflects that in her consciousness, all sense of normality and rational connection having been shattered or diminished by her father’s despotic control.

The hall’s brownness connotes a dismal, squalid colourlessness and lack of joy and love – a state that rapidly becomes frighteningly evident. The sadness of her mother’s eyes, her speechlessness, slight build, the slope of her shoulders: all demonstrate heartbreaking vulnerability in this hall of misery.

We soon learn, too, that her teeth have been knocked askew by her abusive, violent husband. He’s a monster of fairytale-ogre proportions. This is also hinted at in that closing sentence: he’s a vivisectionist’s supplier, quick to have sickly animals ‘destroyed’ – a category in which he includes his long-suffering wife and daughter.

I’m not  sure I can say I enjoyed this novel. Its bleak picture of a psychopathic husband and father, portrayed by a voice so gentle and unassuming, makes for almost unbearable reading at times.

I wrote about Our Spoons Came From Woolworths HERE last year

Sisters by a River HERE

A life of one’s own. Sylvia Townsend Warner: Lolly Willowes

I felt as though I had tried to make a sword only to be told what a pretty pattern there was on the blade. [STW in a letter to her friend, David Garnett, cited in the Introduction to the VMC edition by Sarah Waters]

How galling it must have been for Sylvia Townsend Warner to hear people like her mother praise this impassioned protofeminist novel Lolly Willowes for its whimsical depiction of spinstery witchcraft in the Chilterns.

Lolly WillowesSo much has been written about the plot, I won’t précis it here. There’s a succinct account and appraisal in Robert McCrum’s recent piece in the Guardian’s ‘100 Best Novels’ series (he places Lolly Willowes at no. 52), emphasising how it’s much more than a charming fantasy: it’s about a repressed, disregarded woman’s quest for personal freedom and for meaning in her life – without being beholden to any man, religion or social class or institution.

Sarah Waters’ introduction to the Virago Modern Classics edition – the one I’ve just finished – is found online, again at the Guardian website. It gives an excellent analysis of the novel’s impassioned themes of a woman’s struggle to be free in a patriarchal world soon after WWI, when the slaughter in the trenches was still a recent memory, and women’s new-found independence was being suppressed again, as it was in the Victorian and early Edwardian period.

Waters astutely positions the novel in a literary group containing both Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’.

The title of this post is from a quotation on p. 196, when Laura (the diminutive ‘Lolly’ – a name by which her family know her – sums up her lack of status or identity in the eyes of the world she inhabits) is conversing with her new master: Satan – the ‘Loving Huntsman’ as the novel’s subtitle calls him: a gentleman who once he’s netted his new witch’s soul, leaves her alone to revel in her liberated state [or is she in his thrall? Is she truly free even now?]:

One doesn’t become a witch to run around being harmful, or to run around being helpful either – a district visitor on a broomstick. It’s to escape all that – to have a life of one’s own, not an existence doled out to you by others, charitable refuse of their thoughts, so many ounces of stale bread of life a day…

Instead, she argues, women become witches ‘to show our scorn of pretending life’s a safe business, to satisfy our passion for adventure.’ This long section towards the end of the novel is one of the most powerful expressions of feminist polemic I’ve read in a work of prose fiction (Nora in A Doll’s House would understand Lolly implicitly).

Women, Lolly says to her satanic interlocutor (it’s an exchange reminiscent of Marlowe’s Dr Faustus when he first interrogates Mephistopheles), need to transcend the ‘dismal lives’ expected of them by society:

Women have such vivid imaginations, and lead such dull lives. Their pleasure in life is so soon over; they are so dependant on others, and their dependance so soon becomes a nuisance…And all the time being thrust further down into dullness when the one thing all women hate is to be thought dull…[On Sundays they are required to listen to church sermons on Sin, Grace:] All men’s things, like politics, or mathematics. Nothing for them except subjection and plaiting their hair.

What an act of wilful misreading by the author’s mother to see that as anything but a subversive call to feminist arms.

Sadly, it’s a message still relevant today.

 

Enmity and marriage: Rebecca West, Cousin Rosamund

Rebecca West, Cousin Rosamund. Virago Modern Classics (1991; first published 1985)

Victoria Glendinning’s Afterword to this Virago edition of Rebecca West’s Cousin Rosamund points out that the author left her continuation of The Fountain Overflows (which I wrote about recently here) in a typescript dating probably from the late 1950s. Part of it was published the year after her death (in 1983, aged 90) as This Real Night. She summarises how West mapped out how the story would have ended, soon after WWII.

The remainder constitutes about two thirds of Cousin Rosamund. After Rebecca West’s death her secretary found manuscripts which developed the story of the Aubrey family beyond the point where the typescript ended.

Rebecca West was a meticulous reviser of her work, and would presumably have edited the last third of this final novel in the Aubrey sequence before its publication. But as Glendinning says, ‘there is such fierceness and freshness in the drafted later section that one cannot regret what she might have considered as its lack of polish’.

he painting on the VMC cover is called 'Glitter', by American artist William Paxton.

The painting on the VMC cover is ‘Glitter’, by American artist William Paxton.

The zest of The Fountain Overflows is much reduced in the two sequels. In Cousin Rosamund the action resumes just after the devastation of WWI. Rose, the narrator, and her twin sister Mary have become famous concert pianists (like their mother before them). Conventional elder sister Cordelia has entered into a mundane, bourgeois marriage, and grown ever more distant and critical of her eccentric family and their bohemian circle. The eponymous cousin has trained as a nurse.

There’s even less plot in this final volume of the sequence than the previous two, but the lack of action rarely causes the narrative to drag. There are several beautifully realised set pieces, but the main interest increasingly resides in Rose’s response to abrasive experience during the decade or so after the first War.

Several of Rose’s family and friends marry men who appear singularly bad choices. Rose becomes increasingly convinced as a consequence that celibacy and solitude are preferable; sister Mary shares that view. But Rose’s convictions become so strong she undergoes a crisis that comes close to mental breakdown.

It’s the quality of writing that sustains the narrative. The characters’ eccentricity is often the source of wry humour, as in this early discussion by the twins and Rosamund, about their friend Nancy’s fiancé, whom they find dull and arrogant:

“But if he is going to be nice to her, we will do anything to please him,” said Mary. “Though I wonder how we can do it. I do wish there were only the people one can talk to and the other people that one just has to make signs at and offer curries to. It is the cases in between which are difficult.”

“Well, think of the only peaceful moments we have with the men who want to marry us,” I said. “They happen when we talk to them about what they do.”

 

Rosamund’s crucial role as the family’s moral arbiter is strongly indicated in the early part of this novel, as it was throughout the previous two. After this conversation, Rose feels emotionally cleansed, uplifted:

It was always so when Rosamund was with us, she found whatever we had for the moment lost.

Rose and Mary’s struggle to deal with relationships is complicated by Rosamund’s inexplicable marriage to a vulgar, swaggering magnate (he reminded me of a certain US president). Her motives for marrying this monster are never made clear, and her humiliation and embarrassment in his bullying, leering presence, the ‘cruelties and treacheries’ she endures, are painful for the sisters (and reader) to witness. Rosamund had always seemed their moral touchstone and guide; how could she have ‘sold herself to a freak of dubious origins and morals?’ Rose wonders. She and Mary are heartbroken; they feel like ‘deserted children’, and their suspicious view of men is endorsed. Here they discuss Rosamund’s former love interest, a man she was determined not to marry:

“I wonder why. I feel he had not that queer thing about him that all men have who want to marry us.”

“What is that?” I asked.

“Why, enmity, of course,” said Mary.

When she reflects on her parents’ marriage, Rose concludes their Pappa had not ‘protected’ Mamma,

and most of the men we met in our profession and at parties seemed not to have been fitted at birth with any apparatus for cherishing. We could believe that those who were homosexual had become so simply in order to evade any such obligation.

That fastidiously witty choice of words is typical of Rebecca West’s unusual style and capacity for surprise – especially in the amount of erotic content in Cousin Rosamund, both homosexual and heterosexual. Much of the book deals with Rose learning to overcome her revulsion at sex as ‘rank stuff’, ‘such pollution spoils women to the destruction of their essence, they become rubbish.’

Then she has her epiphany – her discovery that she is not so bereft that she cannot love a man. Marriage enables Rose to live again, but she experiences further anguish as well. Life is like that.

 

The possibility of happiness: Rebecca West, This Real Night

Rebecca West, This Real Night (Virago Modern Classics, 2000; first published 1984)

This is volume 2 in the trilogy ‘A Saga of the Century’, about the Aubrey family in early 20C England. The story resumes where The Fountain Overflows (about which I posted here recently) left off. Once again its hallmark is the offbeat perceptions of young narrator, Rose, who can be ‘sometimes savage’ as she’s allowed to grow up with minimal parental intervention, and with some unconventional views on life:

A pretence already existed in those days, and has grown stronger every year since then, that children do not belong to the same species as adults and have different kinds of perception and intelligence, which enable them to live a separate and satisfying life. This seemed to me then, and seems to me now, a great nonsense. A child is an adult temporarily enduring conditions which exclude the possibility of happiness.

She and her twin sister Mary have taken up their places in music academies in London, while beautiful eldest sister Cordelia, now resigned to the fact that she has no musical talent, has abandoned her ill-advised career as a concert violinist.

Rebecca West, This Real Night VMC edition coverIn This Real Night we see the twins maturing into young women, and beginning to recognise the unromantic harshness of life as professional classical pianists. Richard Quin, the adored baby brother of TFO, is slightly less cloying in this novel, as he too grows up. By the close, Mamma says of Rose and Mary that they’ve changed, like Cordelia: ‘Much of the original brutality has gone’, she muses placidly.

Money troubles are over now that profligate father Piers has deserted them. Mr Morpurgo, their kindly benefactor, plays a larger role in this novel, but his geniality is soured by his catty wife, who presides over an awkward lunch party with the Aubreys with vindictive, graceless spite.

There are more charming, heartwarming scenes as the girls develop slightly more sophisticated insights into the turbulent world of mysterious adults. Their idyllic visits to Aunt Lily, now established in a friendly Thameside pub, enable a measure of stability and peace to enter their lives after the heartache of their father’s disappearance. There is a dramatically violent scene there involving Lily’s genial landlord friend, Uncle Len, and a gang of desperado gipsies, which profoundly shocks the girls and teaches them yet another harsh life lesson.

Along with the often unreliable insights of Rose, this novel’s main strengths lie in the portrait of her Mamma, a saintly, eccentric and hugely gifted woman. She has taught her children to play and appreciate music with rare sensitivity, but has failed to show such insight into her feckless husband – who she continues to adore even when he’s abandoned her and the children.

Rose’s view of this marriage is characteristically skewed and partial, but it provides another opportunity to learn about life’s vicissitudes, especially for girls and women:

Indeed, marriage was to us a descent into a crypt where, by the tremulous light of smoking torches, there was celebrated a glorious rite of a sacrificial nature. Of course it was beautiful, we saw that. But we meant to stay in the sunlight, and we knew no end which we could serve by offering ourselves up as a sacrifice.

The tone of this novel is darker and more melancholy in some ways than TFO, published nearly thirty years earlier. Mamma’s frail hold on life becomes increasingly tenuous. Death’s shadow lengthens over the family, darkened ever more ominously by the onset of World War I.

It reads very like a spirited, unconventional autobiography, and perhaps reveals the author’s unfinished editing process. Rebecca West died in 1983, and This Real Night (like the final volume, Cousin Rosamund) was published posthumously. It would have benefited from some judicious pruning – but still contains delights.

Once again there are some dazzling descriptions of music and art, and serious reflections on the nature of creativity and its redemptive place in a secular, commercial, largely artless and dull modern world.

It’s not a great novel, but it is seriously good. Rose’s increasing awareness of the importance of moral rectitude and decency in human relations is developed without too much tub-thumping or piety, and is offset by the sometimes spiky humour and bizarre incongruities, especially about Cordelia, who lacks the other siblings’ artistic sensibility and zany imagination. Her desperate need for normality and urge to escape this (to her mind) crazy family is finally realised when she marries an equally uninspired man. His wealthy family views the Aubreys as quaintly plebeian and ‘humble’, while they, viewing his family,

were feeling towards them like unscrupulous horse-dealers who have sold a dangerous horse to an urban simpleton.

Rohan Maitzen wrote a detailed, perceptive review of this novel at Open Letters Monthly in Dec. 2013

 

Paltry things: Elizabeth Taylor, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

Elizabeth Taylor, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (Virago Modern Classics, 1982) First published 1971

Elizabeth Taylor’s approach in Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont seems austere and economical in comparison with Rebecca West’s baroque and intricate portrayal of an upper middle class family in decline (The Fountain Overflows), which I wrote about yesterday, who revels in the eccentricity of her adult characters and the almost feral preciousness of the children.

I’ve come to Elizabeth Taylor later than most, it seems. This novel has been so widely reviewed and discussed (list of links at the end of this post) I shall limit myself mostly to just one character in order to show some of the subtlety and unsentimental sympathy the author shows towards characters who she might, given her leftist leanings, have found uncongenial, even repulsive. This is the generosity of spirit of a truly humane artist.

Mrs Palfrey cover

My VMC edition was a Christmas present from Mrs TD

When Laura Palfrey arrives at the unprepossessing hotel to spend her declining years (she and her only daughter don’t get on), she feels like a prisoner when first confined to her cell. From her window all she can see is

a white brick wall down which dirty rain slithered.

The weather and slowly, inexorably passing seasons feature largely in creating mood, as here. The pathetic fallacy doesn’t grate, because it’s clearly refracted through the depressed sensibility of the protagonist. The artist’s own distinctive stylistic touch is seen in that artfully delayed verb, with its connotations of disgust.

Mrs Palfrey’s loneliness is reflected in the jaded residents she meets there. Status is measured by the number of visitors they receive – for all have become adrift from life, mostly forgotten by family and friends (it’s ‘a genteel antechamber to oblivion’ as Robert McCrum memorably calls it in his piece on the novel in his 100 Best Novels column in the Guardian).

The first resident she meets is the scary, cantankerous Mrs Arbuthnot, ‘bent with arthritis and walking with two sticks.’ Asking if is she’s coming to watch ‘the serial’ on tv, this woman ‘looked as if she might have smiled if she had not been in so much pain.’ So immediately we see the reason for her rude abruptness, and although it’s hard to condone, it’s possible to understand it.

Mrs Palfrey got up quickly, and she blushed a little as if she were a new girl at school addressed for the first time by a prefect.

Not a prison, now, but an infantilising, faction ridden school-like institution, with only one escape route (‘The Claremont was rather like a reduced and desiccated world of school’). Taylor in this encounter shows how the dynamics of relationships develop, and how characters’ foibles and inner nature are revealed throughout the novel – with subtle perception and minimal exposition.

Although she realises this woman is a bully, Mrs Palfrey’s insight, conveyed so ambivalently, shows her pathetic gratitude, tempered by humiliation.

A few days later Mrs Arbuthnot condoles spitefully with Mrs Palfrey when her vaunted grandson, the only relative who might visit her and prove she’s not abandoned like the rest of them, fails to materialise. Mrs Arbuthnot clearly doubts he exists, and fails to buy Mrs Palfrey’s excuses for her lack of visitors, gazing at her malevolently. Mrs Palfrey’s inner response is telling:

They were such very pale blue eyes as to make Mrs Palfrey uneasy. She thought that blue eyes get paler and madder as the years go by. But brown eyes remain steady, she decided, with a little pride.

Once again she shows a measure of spirit in the face of malice – but does not condemn her tormenter.

Later, when her new friend Ludo comes to dinner with her at the hotel and flinches under Mrs Arbuthnot’s artless probing – she rightly suspects he’s not really Mrs Palfrey’s grandson, with the instinctive rancour of a disappointed outcast who recognises another (Mrs Palfrey) when she sees one – he exclaims what ‘wicked old eyes’ Mrs Arbuthnot has. Mrs Palfrey says: ‘She is often in great pain.’

Her refusal to judge is rare in this infernal hotel, and redolent of the humanity with which Taylor portrays these sad, abandoned characters.

At bedtime after this encounter, Mrs Palfrey ‘slept well all night, and her lips were level, as if she were ready to smile.’ But the narrator follows Mrs Arbuthnot into her lonely bedroom. She’s in too much pain to sleep, her ‘rigid limbs’ a ‘torture’ to her.

Her interior monologue shows how desperately anxious and depressed she is. Her husband, like those of all these faded women, would have assertively complained to management about their shabby quarters. With ‘ghastly clarity’ she realises her constant complaining is directed ‘only to underlings like herself, who could do nothing.’ Whereas her husband would go ‘straight to the fountain-head’, she is afraid of it. Her raw, fearful vulnerability is painful to witness.

Her dejection is exacerbated by her growing realisation that she will soon be too ill to be allowed to remain at the hotel. ‘We are not allowed to die here’, Mrs Palfrey tells Ludo in one of the most memorable lines in the novel (and which he gleefully steals for the title of the novel he’s writing about the place).

Mrs Arbuthnot foresees her future: her incapacity will inevitably mean a nursing home or geriatric ward (and soon her incontinence brings this about.) ‘Or going to stay with one of her sisters, who did not want her.’

‘Can’t die here,’ she thought, in the middle of the night…One might go on and on, hopelessly being a nuisance to other people; in the end, lowering standards because of rising prices…Down the ladder she would have to go.

She reflects jealously on how happy Mrs Palfrey looked at dinner with Ludo, ‘their eyes on one another’s faces, like lovers’. She’d eavesdropped on them with ‘ears sharpened by malice’.

Mrs Palfrey is a dark horse, she thought. At this unintended little pun in her mind, she tipped her head back against the pillow and grimaced, by way of smiling.

Her ‘casual cruelty’ (as Paul Bailey says in his tender homage in the Introduction) serves to protect her from the ‘not always casual cruelty of others.’ Even a vindictive woman like Mrs Arbuthnot is shown as vulnerable and human – and sharing in humanity’s suffering.

An aged man is a paltry thing, said Yeats, a tattered coat upon a stick. It’s not so often we see such a sympathetic, clear-eyed portrayal of women growing old in literature. Ageing deprives these characters of dignity and, most of them, of hope. It’s to Elizabeth Taylor’s immense credit that she’s able to show an element of both in some of their bleak lives.

It’s not as sad or grim a read as these notes might suggest. There’s humour. Geriatric, unredeeming gallows humour, perhaps, but it’s there. That Palfrey pun adds pathos to Mrs Arbuthnot’s twisted, painful animosity.

Max at Pechorin’s Journal gives his customarily perceptive account, followed by a list of links to other blogs. I’d highlight the following, who’ve written about numerous other Taylor works (so far I’ve only posted here on the Complete Stories):

Jacqui Wine’s blog

Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings

Ali at Heavenali

Caroline at Bookword.

Simon at Stuck in a Book

What is music about? Rebecca West, ‘The Fountain Overflows’

Rebecca West, The Fountain Overflows (Virago Modern Classics, 2011) First published 1956

A while ago I wrote about the spiky charm of Barbara Comyns’ novel Sisters by a River; The Fountain Overflows is also narrated largely from the point of view of a child. Rose seems to be about six at the start of the novel, and is in her early teens by the end. It’s her ingenuously penetrating (and often disarmingly warped) insights into the lives of the adults around her, and sporadically sharp-eyed analysis of her three siblings and other children (‘We were quite little but we were already cunning as foxes’), that lend this narrative its pungency, acerbity and lopsided humour. Its stylistic and psychological naiveté are tempered by the maturer reflections of the narrator at the time of writing, fifty years later.

Rebecca West The Fountain Overflows cover VMC editionHere’s how we first see Clare Aubrey, Rose’s mother, once a brilliant concert pianist, now a shabby-genteel Edwardian housewife:

Mamma was not good-looking. She was too thin, her nose and forehead were shiny like bone, and her features were disordered because her tortured nerves were always drawing a rake over her face.

The metaphor there is typical of the flashes of menace and cruelty that serve as counterpoint to the surface childlike tranquillity of this dark domestic tragic-comedy. Rose never loses track of the family’s precarious situation, and the always imminent proximity of disaster.

A fleeting reference is made early on to the mother’s having ‘second sight’. When Rose first visits cousin Rosamund and Aunt Constance’s house, she and her mother calmly banish malevolent poltergeists by their very presence. Later, Rose is chastised by her mother for using her mind-reading and fortune-telling ability as a party trick. I found this supernatural aspect of the novel rather incongruous and grating.

Her improvident, handsome rogue of a father, who engages in a ‘lifelong wrestling match with money’, gambles and loses what little he earns as a writer. With his scornful manner he alienates the patrons who are impressed by his polemical articles, and dallies with women flagrantly. Yet Rose adores him; all the family do. That’s their problem:

My father, though very cruel, was very kind. [Two pages later:] He was often kind, but he was also ungrateful.

Rose is infatuated with him, but not blind to his selfishness and egregious faults: ‘Human relations are essentially imperfect,’ she muses on seeing a photo of him as a young man. Even his brave intervention to save a murderess, mother of one of Rose’s school friends, shows a thoughtless disregard for the possibly disastrous effect on his family this might have if he fails and goes to prison.

The father’s serial recklessness worsens the already tense marital/familial atmosphere:

We were at first puzzled by the nature of the calamity that had struck our household. We had read a great part of Shakespeare and a good many novels but nothing in them had modified our conviction that Papa and Mamma could not have any very strong interest in each other, as they were not related by blood.

Precocity and childishness combine like this throughout the narrative, but somehow usually managing to avoid cloying (though I found Rose’s attempts to portray little brother Richard Quin as an angelic pet tiresome).

This is Rose on big sister Cordelia, towards whom she tends to harbour murderous thoughts:

At school, we noticed, she got on discreditably well. The wrong sort of teacher liked her in the wrong sort of way, and they were constantly giving her what they called ‘little tasks’ and mentioning her as an example of esprit de corps; and she spoke to them with an air of professed insipidity which we took seriously as a betrayal of childhood. Of course grown-ups wanted children to be blanks, but no decent child, with parents like ours, would encourage them. We saw her paying too high a price for the approval of people who were not Papa and Mamma, and we felt about her as a soldier in a besieged citadel might feel about a comrade who is meditating desertion. Quite often we hated her. But the love of the flesh which binds a family together in its infancy was still strong…Often we loved her.

Poor Cordelia is the only non-musical child, but mistakenly believes her equally talentless music teacher, the faux-bohemian, pretentious Miss Beevor, when she tells her she is a genius violin player. ‘Cordelia is such rubbish’, complains Rose to her Mamma. Cordelia smarts with indignation at the eccentricity and profligacy of the household, longing for normality and to escape: “We are being so badly brought up,” she shrieks at one particularly exasperated moment.

More than a saga about a wildly eccentric family, TFO is really about art, and in particular, music. All four children are trained as musicians by their mother as a means ultimately of earning a living – except for Cordelia, whose beauty they hope will net her a rich husband before she can make too much of a spectacle of herself attempting to perform in public.

This is Rose and twin sister Mary, near the end, discussing their enigmatic, much-loved cousin Rosamund, a beautiful but strangely passive, apparently unmusical girl:

‘…I say, Mary, do you understand Rosamund?’

‘Quite often, no,’ said Mary.

‘Of course, we would find it easier to understand her if she were a musician too,’ I said.

‘Well, she may not be a musician, but she is what music is about,’ said Mary.

‘What is music about?’ I asked.

‘Oh, it is about life, I suppose, and specially about the parts of life we don’t understand, otherwise people would not have to worry about it by explaining it by music.’

This is the first volume in an unfinished trilogy of novels about the Aubrey family. I’ve ordered the next two.

Unusual and humiliating desires: Elizabeth Taylor, Complete Short Stories

Elizabeth Taylor, Complete Short Stories. Virago Modern Classics, 2012.

There are more than 60 stories in this wonderful collection, and nearly every one is a gem. I may have to post separate pieces to try to do some of them justice; for now I’ll just give an overview and first impressions, using just the opening story as illustration.

Elizabeth Taylor (1912-75) surely no longer merits the adjectives often used of her in recent years: underrated, overlooked. Several book bloggers whose opinions I value have praised her novels highly. I was given Mrs Palfrey for Christmas, and intend reading it as soon as my backlog has reduced. I picked up the Complete Stories with a view to dipping in occasionally, but found myself hooked from the start, and couldn’t stop until I’d read the lot.

Elizabeth Taylor, Complete Short Stories coverThe opener, ‘Hester Lilly’, is the longest in the collection (53 pp.; most are much shorter, some just a couple of pages), and one of the best. It introduces several of the themes and scenarios found in many of the other stories: a bourgeois couple, Robert and Muriel – he’s head of a small private boys’ school, she (like so many of Taylor’s female protagonists) doesn’t work – have a childless, emotionally sterile marriage. Their complacently dull life is wrecked with the arrival of young Hester, a cousin of Robert’s. She’s an impressionable, romantic young woman and has developed a crush on him that he reciprocates. The story shows with forensic acumen the self-destructive impulses that take each character into dangerous, desperate situations.

Here’s Muriel at a dance, dreading the music stopping during a ‘Paul Jones’ circle dance and finding herself without a partner:

She had not learnt how to mind less than as a little girl at parties – the panic of not being chosen, the first seeds of self-mistrust.

Her thin veneer of social sophistication is stripped away to reveal a different person: lonely, frustrated, frightened. Hester, the young house-guest, in her innocence has thrown Muriel’s moral state and her empty marriage out of equilibrium, and uncovered the poisonous corruption beneath the surface.

Despite the suburban, middle-class settings in most of these stories, Taylor isn’t coy or maidenly: as this marriage begins to implode, she shows Robert and Muriel, who is weeping after a bitter quarrel, in this sharply observed scene:

She began angrily to splash cold water on her eyes. When she was in bed, she said shakily: ‘After all, you don’t make love to me.’

He got neatly into bed and lay down, as far from her as he could, his back turned.

‘Do you?’ she wept.

‘You know I do not, and you know why I do not.’

‘If I didn’t like it, perhaps that was your fault. Did you ever think of that?’

The prose is always lucid, her style sinuous and elegant. It’s not extravagant or florid, but the apparent simplicity and understated clarity are deceptive: they convey unerringly a complex of emotions and tensions in these seemingly smug, uneventful provincial households. The dialogue is pitch perfect., as I hope these extracts show.

Here’s Muriel after playing reluctant hostess at the school’s Speech Day:

‘Oh, parents!’ she said later…’Perhaps I just hate them because they have children…’

Her childlessness makes her feel ‘panicky’; she wants ‘to go back, be different, have another chance.’ But life doesn’t offer such bonuses. All she can do is cultivate her prickly outer shell and make people feel as awkward as she secretly does.

In a painful closing scene, Muriel lies in bed with Robert again, this time longing for intimacy, but he ignores her gentle, beseeching touch, his back turned resolutely:

‘I cannot make him come to me,’ she thought in a panic. ‘I cannot get my own way.’ She became wide awake with a longing for him to make love to her; to prove his need for her; so that she could claim his attention; and so dominate him; but at last wished only to contend with her own desires, unusual and humiliating as they were to her.

I commend these stories to you: Elizabeth Taylor is a fine writer.