As Elizabeth Taylor wrote her final novel, Blaming, she knew she was dying. Unsurprisingly, then, death features prominently, though it’s a novel more concerned with coping with death than with dying: its deaths are sudden and unexpected, and it is the living who are left behind, grasping for feelings, uncertain of their new lives.
Amy and Nick are on a cruise, a continuation of Nick’s recuperation from a serious illness. Amy is determined to be patient with her husband, though her kindness leads him to suspect she knows his recovery is only temporary – “The gentler she was, the more his suspicions rose.” They are befriended by Martha, an American novelist who lives in England, and is pleased to discover fellow English-speakers as she “was greatly taken up with her own language, but could not come to grips with any other.” Taylor uses Martha to poke fun at her own expense:
“They seemed devoted to each other – it was probably always said of them – as were so many childless, middle-aged couples she had observed; to learn later of a son and grandchildren was an annoyance, for those did not enter into her picture.”
Taylor, however, remains an astute observer of human behaviour; take, for example, this brief moment when Martha catches sight of Amy after Nick has died suddenly in the night:
“Martha, seeing her, panicked; did not know how to behave. For a moment, Amy lifted her swollen face, and Martha, as she passed by, found herself unable to completely ostracise this grief. She put her hand on Amy’s shoulder, and was surprised that Amy’s gloved hand came up and touched hers in acknowledgement, and then was at once withdrawn and folded with the other in her lap.”
Rather than continue with the cruise, Martha stays to help Amy, and the novel becomes the story of their relationship. In their final conversation, Nick had observed that Amy didn’t like Martha, and Martha is unable to give any reason for this apart from, “At home, she wouldn’t be one of our friends.” Once she returns home, Amy is torn between her gratitude towards Martha and the fact she doesn’t’ particularly want to see her again:
“She re-read the letter for the third time, wondering how she could decently prevent Martha from coming… but she knew she could not decently prevent her, after all she had done… Perhaps delay her, though.”
The repetition of “decently” (she also refers to not writing to Martha as “the very worst behaviour of her life”) conveys the tension between two aspects of Amy’s conventionality: the need for good manners versus the desire to avoid the unconventional.
Martha is not the only eccentric character in the novel; Amy’s servant Ernie would also surely qualify, though, of course, Amy can tolerate this more easily in an inferior. That most of his first conversation with Amy on her return revolves around his cancelled appointment to have teeth removed tells you everything you need to know about both his hypochondria and self-absorption. Though never intentionally funny, he provides comic relief and sandwiches throughout. Martha’s ability to develop more of a relationship with him in a few hours when she does come to stay than Amy has over years, suggests another reason why Amy cannot take to her. She is similarly more able to handle Amy’s granddaughter, Isobel.
Blaming reminds me of Muriel Spark more than any other Taylor novel I have read – the intrusion of a confident, unconventional character into the comfortable, safe existence of another. (It also has some wonderful Spark-like lines, such as: “ ‘I hate this bloody country,’ Amy thought, who was to hate it more.”) The difference is that Amy steadfastly resists both Martha’s glamour and her kindness (for example when she gifts her a painting of Nick’s she has sourced).
Blaming is a devastating portrait of Amy, the kind of person who would typically be summed up by the bland (and blameless) ‘nice’, but who in fact, demonstrates a ruthless streak of selfishness, and is noticeably absent when Martha requires the support that she once offered. Even at the end, when she is offered a chance at redemption, taking the blame where she was not at fault, she cannot do it. Taylor’s unforgiving eye was as accurate as a knife-point until the end.