I read this book a couple of weeks ago in fact – and have simply saved this review to post now. Hopefully I have avoided any spoilers – as I know a lot of people will still be reading.
The Soul of Kindness of the title is Flora Quatermaine, a beautiful young woman, who as the novel opens is getting married. Flora is simply adored by everyone, which she feels is her due. As time moves forward four years, Flora has everything she wants; her husband Richard, a baby and a lovely home in St. Johns Wood. She also has an array of loyal adoring friends, Meg who she knew as a child, Meg’s brother Kit, whose theatrical ambitions Flora encourages, and writer Patrick who appears regularly at her house. She also has Mrs Lodge, her housekeeper, of whom Flora has made a special friend, and without whom she refuses to imagine her life. These people, who surround Flora, conspire to protect her, from herself, the truth of what she is. For Flora is a quiet monster. Flora only sees what she wants to see, hears what she wants to hear, she lives in a self-imposed bubble. She has her own ideas about the people around her, and is blind to any alternative. Her father-in-law, Percy thinking her biddable when she first married Richard, revises his opinion.
“Well, Percy’s got a cat,”
Flora, in fact had given it to him and he had been obliged to take it in. In four years, he had found that Flora was not biddable after all. Although good as gold, she had inconvenient plans for other people’s pleasure, and ideas differing from her own she was not able to imagine”
As so often with Elizabeth Taylor’s novels her minor characters are just as rounded and explored as the central characters. Percy has a lady friend Ba, whom Flora is certain he should marry. Percy is a rather marvellous character, a bit grumpy; he hates the idea of foreign travel, and sulks like a child when Ba goes to France for a week to see relatives. Flora’s mother Mrs Secretan lives in the country with her companion/housekeeper Miss Folley, Miss Folley invents old love letters to read out to Mrs Secretan, and makes spice cakes when Flora is expected to visit, these visits are always greatly anticipated by both women.
Meg and her brother Kit have to move to Towersey in the Thames Valley where they meet the bohemian painter Liz Corbett. Liz hears all about the wondrous Flora, but unlike everyone else, she refuses absolutely to believe in Flora’s goodness. Flora continues to encourage the adoring Kit in his theatrical ambitions, Flora believes he has a wonderful talent, everyone else knows that this is not the case, and fear that continuing to encourage Kit could be detrimental to his future.
Readers of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels are used to her humour, her brilliantly sharp observational wit, and there are flashes of that in The Soul of Kindness too. I am always so impressed with how she knows people, in their small private moments – how she does this is utterly brilliant, I find myself nodding – saying to myself “God yes people are just like that” This excerpt again about Percy – made me howl.
“A quiz programme. Two rows of people facing one another. A pompous, school-masterly man asking the questions. Those answers that Percy knew he spoke out loudly and promptly; when he was at a loss he pretended (as if he were not alone) that he had not quite caught the question, or he was busy blowing his nose to make a reply, or had to go to help himself to whiskey.”
God how brilliant!
The subtlety of Elizabeth Taylor’s writing is masterly. She could have made Flora a screaming maniac of a monstrosity, yet she is a more benign presence for most of the novel. Flora’s true personality creeps up on the reader as the novel progresses in quite subtle ways. Liz, whose attitude to and view of Flora – who she never really meets – is key, is kept as quite a minor figure. As Paul Bailey explains in his introduction to my edition:
“Liz is a counterpoint to the ultimately dismal glow that Flora causes to radiate about herself.”
It would seem that The Soul of Kindness was not the best received of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels, nor the most successful. In The Other Elizabeth Taylor, the biography by Nicola Beauman, the author suggests that The Soul of Kindness is too long, that it would have made a very good short story or novella.
“It is in this novel more than in any of her others that she suffered from being forced, according to the conventions of English and American publishing, to spin things out to seventy or eighty thousand words.”
(Nicola Beauman – The Other Elizabeth Taylor )
I didn’t think it was too long. Possibly Elizabeth Taylor felt she needed to stretch the novel to fit the expected word length, but to me it doesn’t read like a novel that has been padded out, I really enjoyed it. Certainly Elizabeth Bowen, a long-time friend and champion of Elizabeth Taylor apparently liked it a good deal and I for one wouldn’t want to argue with Ms Bowen. Also apparently the writer and critic Philip Hensher described The Soul of Kindness as “so expert that it seems effortless.” I am prepared to admit that there are better Elizabeth Taylor novels, and some of her short stories – I have only read some as yet – are masterly – but for me at least The Soul of Kindness is a good novel, a very good novel. It might not be the best one to begin reading Elizabeth Taylor, but I would hope there is nothing in it to put anyone off reading more.
In the last week of September I am hoping we can discuss in more detail the various relationships within The Soul of Kindness. For now however, I would love to hear what everyone thought of the book as a whole, feel free to add a link to your own reviews, and please visit Laura’s Elizabeth Taylor centenary page and add your review to her Mr Linky.