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.



24 thoughts on “Complications, embarrassments: Elizabeth Taylor, The Soul of Kindness

  1. Hi Simon,

    Such a wonderfully subtle essay. Reading this prompted a couple of thoughts from the process/technical angle.

    * LTRDSW – What a great acronym (“Let The Reader Do The Work”). I recall that when you kindly sent some feedback to me on a small piece set in Tokyo (“Water Babies”) you mentioned that it had an “allusive” quality. It was wonderful to hear that.

    There is always going to be a need to carefully balance allusiveness with writing that just leaves everyone confused! I find it helpful to put a piece of writing away for a couple of weeks then come back with the old editing hat on. If the plotting (even if unconventional) is muddy, that needs to be fixed.

    * Dialog –

    You write:

    [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.]

    What perfection there. The economy and precision create a powerfully concentrated dialog, where each word is a symbol for an enormous amount of meaning and background.

    In case you (other commenters) are interested, I find American author Richard Price (author of “The Wanderers” and “Clockers”) to be a master.

    Cheers and thanks again!


  2. I always find Taylor worth reading for her writing alone, although I agree that some books are stronger than others plot and character wise. And she does tend to tell rather than show at times, as you say. Nevertheless, Flora *is* hideous…

  3. I haven’t read this one (yet). The plot reminds me a bit of Anita Brookner and her married couple in Look at Me. The third wheel never quite understands what her relationship is supposed to be.

      • Don’t know that one either! That final scene with Elinor & Richard is so touching- her neediness & despair are palpable – and his bland unawareness of either- or is it emotional timidity

    • I’ve only read a couple of Brookner, so must take a look at that one. In general approach there are broad similarities, from what I have read by both writers- that preference for understatement & quietly desperate women characters

        • Guy: ET doesn’t just portray miserable, lonely or frustrated women; she’s surprisingly frank about their sexuality too. Here’s unmarried Meg, urged by her friend Flora to court gay Patrick; they’re walking together by the river, a zone where he’s (unhelpfully, a little thoughtlessly) suggested she live (he can behave like Flora, too; all her victims can): ‘She walked rather awkwardly, with his hand tucked under her elbow. She was shy of her sexuality, shyness tinged with shame. When she stumbled on the uneven pavement, he steadied her.’ OK, so she’s shy of her sexuality, but it’s there, acknowledged, and this adds to her sense of futility in what she deep down knows is a lost cause – she’s seen how Patrick is about Frankie, and part of her knows he’s not interested in her. This ambivalence pervades most of these sad, very human characters.

          • I’ve read a few Elizabeth Taylors–most of which I liked a great deal. A View of the Harbour has some sex there buried subtly in the sentences.

          • Guy: I wouldn’t want to overstate the sexual element in the novel, but it’s there. Like F’s bemused question about what’s obviously a taboo sex word in the Henry Miller novel she’s been given (with over-optimistic hopes from Patrick that she’ll benefit from it; maybe says as much about his sexuality as her schoolgirlish variety – though she uses it, as i said in the post, to keep her husband sweet).

    • I could have written a whole separate post on Flora; I agree, Alison, she’s monstrous but thinks she’s the angel or goddess others have treated her as all her life. It’s as much their fault that she behaves so badly – and her hypochondriac mother, who cosseted & protected her until she married & left home. None of these characters can ‘read’ themselves or others, so they can’t connect.

  4. I love Taylor and it’s always good to see her written about. I think I need to do her again soon, although it’s Iris Murdoch next! Flora is such a monster, but I love how Taylor shows how people are allowed (encouraged?) to become monsters.

    • Liz: good luck with IM. I agree that Flora is a monstrous product of her upbringing: the opening chapter, at her wedding, shows what’s caused her to be as she is – over-protected and worshipped by her mother and, it seems, everyone else. When Meg is first described, we’re told she’d been F’s ‘Nannie-friend, for it was clear from the day that Flora arrived there that what Mrs Secretan [F’s mother] had done – the cherishing, the protecting – could not be lightly broken off. Someone must carry on.’ Meg disapproves of Mrs S’s ‘cosseting’, but then ET produces one of her marvellous images: she ‘saw that it would be dangerous for it to be abruptly discontinued – like putting an orchid out into the frosty air, or suddenly depriving an alcoholic of drink. She had tried – so good she was – to introduce gradual reforms, but Flora peaceably ignored them’. And there’s another perfect use of adverb, like ‘comfortably’, quoted in the post. So now Meg and Mrs S hand ‘their precious burden’ with trepidation on to the unsuspecting Richard. Meg, not as lacking in perception as most of the others in the novel, is ‘nervous’ at the prospect.

        • I must read some more of her work some time; meanwhile my backlog just grew larger this week with some exciting finds in local charity shops, and an online splurge with gift vouchers – more Pym, a Spanish Civil War novel, Wm Gaddis (2 versions of the same novel – Mrs TD was appalled) and more! Where would you recommend I start again with iris M?

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