Elizabeth Taylor, A View of the Harbour – and some recent walks

Elizabeth Taylor, A View of the Harbour. Virago Modern Classic, 2018. First published 1947

As its title suggests, this is a painterly novel. There’s an ensemble of characters who live in the picturesque houses, shops, pub and cottages clustered around a fading harbour in the south of England just after the war. Among them is the visitor Bertram Hemingway, a retired naval officer, who likes the idea of painting seascapes and a view of this harbour, but he lacks the talent or application to produce anything of note. He’s a sort of catalyst: his arrival sets off a chain of reactions in the other characters in this enclosed community that will change some of their lives.

Elizabeth Taylor A View of the Harbour coverHe’s curious about other people; some would say he’s nosy. He has ‘a passion for turning stones’ to see what lives underneath. He’s less keen on taking responsibility for the disruption this curiosity causes.

The novel reveals the frictions, frustrations, infidelities, betrayals and imperilled friendships that go on in the harbourside’s fractious families and isolated individuals. Everyone watches everyone else: there’s a good deal of curtain-twitching as lonely individuals keep an eye on the comings and goings around the once-busy, now dying harbour.

Taylor’s usual sharp eye for telling detail is apparent. She describes the world of nature as if it were a living chorus, or reflection of the human drama onshore: the sea is sometimes ‘queasy’; ‘waves exploded and crashed’ as a young couple walk the coastal path, anticipating love; the fish being caught far out at sea ‘fought and slithered in the nets, floundering and entangled.’

She seems most at home with the middle-class characters, but she writes with acuity about the working classes, too – without romanticising or evading harsh realities.

If you haven’t yet tried Elizabeth Taylor’s fiction, this would be a good place to start: not her most subtle work, but I’m sure you’ll not regret exploring her fiction (the short stories are excellent, too – list of links to my posts at the end).

HeronRecent walks: a few days ago with Mrs TD I crossed town and did the circuit of a park beside which runs a tidal river. There we saw this elegant grey heron, poised like a dancer as it fished in the muddy shallows – the tide was low.

Another day I had to step into the shelter of a rural gateway to let a car pass in the narrow lane. As I looked across the huge garden of this country house I saw a large grey and white goat standing on the roof of a shed. His back was towards me, but he must have sensed my presence, because he obligingly turned to face me as I zoomed in with my phone camera to take his picture. He was too far away to include the photo here – he’s just a blur.

I looked online but couldn’t figure what breed he was. The nearest I could get was an Icelandic goat. What’s he doing in Cornwall?

Mossy wall

Yesterday I took one of our favourite local routes, and I had to take this picture of a lovely old Cornish hedge. Maybe not as authentic as those in the open country; this one is the outer wall of a house on the edge of town in a small development of fairly modern properties. Even so, it’s got a lovely downy coat of moss.


The River Kenwyn flows in the valley     River Kenwynjust below our house. This view is from the road bridge just as the river enters the outskirts of the city. All looks very monochrome and bare in December, but buds are bursting on the tree branches. Do the fish have trouble swimming against the strong currents in the swollen waters after recent heavy rain? How do they see where they’re going when it’s so muddied by the run-off from the steeply sloping fields upstream?

Saw two dippers splashing around in one of the other rivers that enters the built-up area across town the other day. I think they’re the only British birds that can swim underwater.

Also finally caught a good view of one of the tawny owls that haunt our valley: we hear their screeches, hoots and whistle most nights, but so far I’ve never managed to see one. This one was only about thirty feet away, perched on a branch just beyond our garden fence. He blinked at me nonchalantly in the beam of my torch, swivelled his head in that owly way they have, then took off.

CrocusFinally, the first winter flowers appeared in our garden yesterday: a crocus in a pot and a snowdrop by the bird feeder. The delinquent squirrel, who ate all the crocus bulbs last year, has spared most of them this winter, but I did see this morning the shredded remains of a crocus flower – as if he’d left a sinister message for me. You thought I’d given up, didn’t you?

That’s why, as I watched him in the owl’s tree this morning, he arrogantly turned his back and flounced his tail at me. Like a French archer at Agincourt. Pesky little rodent.

Links to all my Elizabeth Taylor posts (five novels and the complete short stories) HERE.


14 thoughts on “Elizabeth Taylor, A View of the Harbour – and some recent walks

  1. Hi Simon! I really hit the jackpot today — first a review by Jacquiwine of a new Mary Gaitskill essay and now your reivew of a novel by Elizabeth Taylor, who’s become one of my very favorite writers. Also — nature pics! With birds. A banner day indeed.
    I first read Taylor’s View of the Harbor when I was very young and, honestly, thought it rather dull. I re-read it when I was not so young and loved it. There’s no one like Taylor for observing human nature; while her favorite milieu is solidly middle/upper middle class, she certainly isn’t blind to the economic realities of her working class characters. It’s really gratifying to see how she finally seems to be getting her due as the great writer she is. I’ll certainly check out your other Taylor reviews.
    Loved the nature photos, as always. I absolutely love dippers — such intrepid little birds and so much fun to watch them hop into a stream! I’m afraid I made poor Mr. Janakay rush to our bird list first thing this morning to check whether we’d seen this species (we have, back in the day). Also Grey Heron, which seems to be the European equivalent of our Great Blue. I envy you that owl, not to mention the crocus — I’m afraid I’m too far south for bulb flowers, such as these (and tulips, alas). Loved the comparison between squirrel & French archer — those little rodents do have quite the attitude, don’t they?

    • Thanks, Janakay – I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. I can see why some might find ETaylor rather dull – but there’s a quiet edginess to her work, a toughness ‘beneath the slight lyric grace’, as I seem to recall Eliot describing a metaphysical poet (Donne?) Great to see you enjoying our N European birds. At the feeder today I saw a pretty little yellow-streaked bird; had to check my books – it was a siskin. As for the grey squirrels – although I can admire their agility and street swagger, I deplore their voracity for our bulbs and bird food (though my current squirrel-proof device defies them).

  2. LOL! I’m very fond of those pesky little rodents – we encourage them in the garden and Mr. Kaggsy is often popping out to leave nuts for them. But it *is* annoying when they attack your garden – we have more problems with the local deer who is prone coming along and eating whatever flowers we try to grow at the front of the house (we’re open plan) – I tend to try to grow orange and yellow flowers because it doesn’t like them!

    “A View of the Harbour” is one of my favour Taylors (and I think it was one of my first). She’s such a wonderful observer of human behaviour!

    • Kaggsy: your deer reminds me of David Copperfield’s aunt Trotwood and her war with the donkeys. As for Taylor – she’s surely one of the best English writers of fiction of the 20C…Btw, why don’t deer like yellow and orange?!

  3. I haven’t read any Elizabeth Taylor yet and is someone I really want to read so I’ll go over and have a look at your posts – thank you. I remember the first time I went to Cornwall it was the walls that really excited me, they’re so alive I couldn’t believe it!

    • They do look cute, but they can become a feral pest. And they carry a disease to which they are immune that has almost eradicated the population of our very cute native red squirrels. Greys were introduced from, ahem, the US…

  4. What wonderfully observed glimpses of your walks, Simon! I am not sure if you structured this entry this way, but they echoed the review so well.

    Much more to add but must finish up some work right now, took a long “nap” earlier this evening.. 3:20 a.m. in Washington DC time right now. Will follow up a bit later on news from our City Under Siege!


    • Maureen: good to hear from you. I hadn’t intended any connections between the book discussion and the walk pictures, so maybe there was an unconscious link! We watched the storming of the Capitol on 6 Jan. with dismay – but hardly with surprise; it had been stoked for some time by the former President. The inauguration and subsequent hours seem to have restored some sanity. Are you working again?

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