Archive for the ‘Elizabeth Taylor’ Category

A View of the Harbour

October 13, 2016

a-view-of-the-harbour

The loneliness which seeps through Elizabeth Taylor’s A View of the Harbour like damp sea air may not be as ingrained as that to be found in the novels of Jean Rhys – these, are after all, people with appearances to keep up – but it would be fair to say that few characters in the novel experience much in the way of happiness. The friendship at its centre, between old school friends Beth and Tory, is built upon a betrayal; its other characters live in the desperate isolation best exemplified by Mrs Bracey, unable to leave her house and living only through what she sees and hears of others:

“Bored, she was, frustrated; not only her body but her mind, her great, ranging, wilful imagination… the brilliance, the gossip had gone from life.”

She complains that her daughter, Iris, who works at the local pub, the Anchor, “don’t give a crumb of it away. Thinks I’m being nosey.” Iris, meanwhile, is dreaming of a better life: “in her mind Laurence Olivier kept opening the saloon door and coming into the bar.” In the Anchor the running joke is the landlord’s assertion that, “It’s been quiet to-night,” every night.

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Mrs Bracey and Iris are typical of the novel’s characters, lives on hold, watching out for a better future like a ship on the horizon, in a town which has all but closed down:

“The Waxworks exhibition looked sealed, windows covered with grey lace; next door the second-hand clothes shop was having a lick of paint; the first coat, salmon pink, framed the display of dejected, hanging frocks; shutters covered the Fun Fair…”

(Even the lick of paint feels like a cry for help). Only Tory and Bertram, a retired sailor who has come to the coast to paint, make any attempt to influence their fate. Tory’s loneliness is palpable since the departure of her husband, Teddy, with a younger woman:

“That house maddens me. I shall let all the clocks run down, I think, so that I can’t hear them ticking.”

She finds herself beginning an affair with Beth’s husband, Robert – that they have previously avoided each other (“We don’t…hit it off”) perhaps speaks of some suspected attraction. Tory puts up some resistance but, as Robert says, “too late.”

Bertram, meanwhile, ingratiates himself with most of the other characters, even going as far as to spend time with Mrs Bracey. For a while it seems he may take up with Lily Wilson who, like Tory, is husbandless (in her case a widow) and fears going home alone each night (though having to go through a roomful of waxwork killers might make anyone a little nervous):

“As the days went by it seemed to Lily Wilson that her very happiness was staked upon Bertram… No longer did she fear the light failing and all those wretched thoughts about the future…”

As with most characters in the novel, Lily’s dreams falter and fail in the realm of reality; unable to bear a return to her lonely existence she instead sacrifices her reputation, leading Bertram to comment later, “Well, I compromised myself there… If all I hear of that girl is true.”

The only character who achieves any degree of happiness is Beth, seemingly oblivious to much that is happening around her as she types her latest novel. Her writing, however, seems as much as burden as a joy:

“Even if she wished to be released from it, as she sometimes did which, she knew that she could not. The imaginary people would go on knocking at her forehead until she died.”

This may sounds rather gloomy and depressing, but that takes no account of the wit and brio with which Taylor writes. While she is rarely laugh-out-loud funny, she frequently raises a sardonic smile in a way that is similar, though not as detached, as Muriel Spark. A View of the Harbour may well be her most accomplished novel as she skilfully recounts its numerous stories, blending and contrasting with precision and rarely a word wasted. It also has my favourite ending (nothing to do with the plot) as Teddy appears in his yacht, catching sight of the town and thinking, “Nothing has changed.” This view from the harbour, in a novel where watching plays such an important role, reminds us that, whatever we’ve seen, we haven’t seen it all.

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Blaming

June 8, 2016

blaming

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.