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.
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.