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shoulder, and was surprised that Amy’s gloved hand came up and touched hers in acknowledgement, and then was at once withdrawn and folded with the other in her lap.”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.

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17 Responses to “Blaming”

  1. Caroline Says:

    This was my first Elizabeth Taylor and I didn’t remember it so well. I’m glad you refreshed my memory. The tone is different from her other novels and while I thought it was amazing and it was the beginning of my love for her writing, I liked it less than the others.
    I could imagine that Angel is similar it tone. Both have unsympathetic characters.

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, I’ve read Angel and I see the similarity. I think because I had read more than once that Blaming wasn’t her best I was prepared for disappointment and therefore pleasantly surprised.

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Taylor’s so good, isn’t she? Even when you don’t like her characters you can’t stop reading.

  3. Tredynas Days Says:

    Look forward to reading this one day

    • 1streading Says:

      Are you taking the sensible approach and reading them in order? I’ve just been picking her novels up as I find them – but I plan to read them all eventually.

  4. Melissa Beck Says:

    I haven’t read this one yet. Sounds different from some of the others I’ve read.

  5. Poppy Peacock Says:

    Great review… very intrigued by both Taylor ( got Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont on the TBR & really must get round it soon) & this novel. Sounds compelling but a touch discomforting?

  6. JacquiWine Says:

    Excellent review as ever, Grant. It does sound quite different to some of Taylor’s other novels (certainly if I think of the ones I’ve read so far). Maybe I’ll keep this on my wishlist for a while. I would like to read it at some point, though – ideally once I’ve worked my way through her early novels (not necessarily in strict chronological order). I’m intrigued by your comparison with Muriel Spark, too – I still need to make headway with her after a couple of slightly false starts!

    • 1streading Says:

      I only read it because I happened to come across a copy – otherwise I would probably have left it until later.
      Last night I started Jean Brodie again as I’m teaching it this year and was still astonished at how good it was!

  7. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Ouch. It sounds good, but sharp. I can see why you quoted: “ ‘I hate this bloody country,’ Amy thought, who was to hate it more.” A marvellous line.

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