Elizabeth Taylor’s tenth novel first published in 1968 is not among her best and yet I enjoyed it enormously and I think there is plenty in it that is still interesting.
The novel centres on Cressy – a young girl who has been brought up in an odd communal family, a sort of religious/artistic community, presided over by her grandfather Harry Bretton. Like several of the characters in this novel Cressy is somewhat isolated – she wants to escape her family.
“Time always went slowly for Cressy, now that her school days were over. She had come home from the convent to nothing. To be part of a busy, useful, self-sufficing community, her mother had said… She would be expected to marry. Whom? Perhaps one of young men who come to work in the studio with her grandfather. They would live pennilessly in one of the out-buildings (restored) and take their place at the long dining table. She visualised it with the greatest ease.”
In order to make her escape Cressy finds a job and a small flat at an antique shop in the nearby village. Here she lives on things on toast and meets David – a local journalist who is several years older than Cressy. David’s mother Midge long separated from her much older husband relies on David’s presence in her life, while he is thoroughly tied to her apron strings. David’s father lives in his own self-imposed isolation in London, caring for his eccentric aunt until her death; he spends his time cleaning the silver. Midge likes the way things are and doesn’t much care for it to change. As David and Cressy begin to grow closer, Midge takes Cressy under her wing, and yet is unprepared for the inevitable engagement. When David is away from home, Midge is terrified, she is lonely afraid of burglars and works to manipulate these new changes to suit herself. She urges David and Cressy to live in a small broken down cottage, terribly overgrown that has the advantage of being isolated from everyone else but is very close to her.
Cressy is unprepared for grown up responsible living – she becomes more and more reliant upon Midge who is happy to help. David is equally unprepared for the responsibilities of marriage; he had rather unceremoniously finished a relationship with a rather acerbic woman closer to his own age in order to marry Cressy – who he often thinks of as rather a child.
As with so many Elizabeth Taylor novels marriage and loneliness figure strongly, the writing is good – although maybe not quite as good as in some of Taylor’s earlier novels, and I didn’t think the peripheral characters were as strongly explored as in many other novels. I was interested to note how Murdochian this novel felt in parts – especially the beginning. The artistic/religious community headed up by a rather elusive patriarch, a complex family living at close quarters. A few eccentric characters – particularly David’s father and his Aunt, two characters are even writing books (there is almost always someone writing a book in Murdoch). Having read 25 and a half of Iris Murdoch’s 26 novels I was pleased to note these little things.
(Just for fun – can anyone guess which Murdoch novel I got to p204 and wanted to hurl across the room and gave up on?)