Posts Tagged ‘elizabeth taylor’


Back in January when the Librarything Virago group read At Mrs Lippincote’s I didn’t read it as it had only been a year since I read it previously. However I had wanted to read all Elizabeth Taylor’s novels in 2012, her centenary year – so this is the first of two Elizabeth Taylor novels I will be reading during December.

At Mrs Lippincote’s was Elizabeth Taylor’s first published novel, when it came out in 1945 – Elizabeth Taylor was a woman in her thirties, a wife and mother, a woman who had already had an adulterous relationship. These things are among some of the key ingredients to all of Elizabeth Taylor’s writing, and in At Mrs Lippincote’s Elizabeth Taylor sort of sets out her stall – her world and it’s everyday preoccupations is one readers of her work return to again and again. This is a novel that has often said to be really quite autobiographical, in Julia, we have a character in who, I think Elizabeth Taylor could see herself. Yet Julia isn’t automatically a likeable character (although I found I liked her much better this time of reading). I like to believe that she was an exaggerated facet of just one side of Elizabeth Taylor, after all, we all have sides to our natures that are less attractive than others.

The novel opens as Julia her husband Roddy and their child move, along with Roddy’s cousin Eleanor, to a new house. The house is not their own, but belongs to Mrs Lippincote, a woman whom they have yet to meet. Roddy in the RAF is stationed nearby and has requested that his family join him. Julia feels the strangeness of living in someone else’s house right away, and this sense of displaced unease pervades the whole novel. Julia is not particularly warm, but she is very believable – a not very happy woman, married to a conventional man, Julia is not always conventional herself, she finds the things she must do difficult at times, and sometimes says exactly what she thinks. Elizabeth Taylor gives free rein to her brilliant wit in the terrible things Julia says, especially about Eleanor’s friend Mr Aldridge who has received a terminal diagnosis. School teacher, Eleanor – Roddy’s cousin, following a breakdown has been living with the couple and their son Oliver (a brilliant child character who reads English classics far beyond the scope of most children his age). Eleanor’s dissatisfaction with life drives her into the company of a group of Marxists, who she feels at home with, and yet feels unable to commit to fully.

I think this extract goes a long way to explain the complicated state of play with Julia, Roddy and Eleanor.

“I should like to meet this kind Wing Commander,” said Julia. “Now, he really is high up, isn’t he?” Eleanor, who thought this vagueness about rank an affectation looked sideways at Roddy. “He’s the boss, my dear,” said Roddy, with simple devotion, so that Julia half expected him to cross himself.
Eleanor thought what a splendid thing it would have been for Roddy to have had some woman behind him to make his career her life’s work, and to be an inspiration and incentive to him. ‘To understand him, in fact,’ she added grimly for her own benefit. ‘That is what spinsters in books are always thinking about other women’s husbands.’ She tried not to behave like a spinster in a book. Her sense of humour saved her she believed. She put up a good fight and fell into only the less obvious traps, but she bothered a little more about her dignity, and her position, than do the majority of married women, and betrayed herself by what Roddy called her ‘little ways’, by which he meant the trivial comforts, consolations, cups of tea and patent medicines, small precautions against draughts and a gentle fussing which grows insidiously upon and characterises those who have neither husband nor children to cherish and only themselves to put first.”

Roddy’s boss the Wing Commander is rather taken by Julia, the two strike up and odd friendship, he drops in to tea, they discuss the Brontes, and later young Oliver becomes great friends with Felicity the Wing Commander’’ daughter. Julia flirts, fairly safely with, first the Wing Commander, and then Mr Taylor – a restaurateur she and Roddy had known slightly in London. Yet surprisingly it is ultimately not Julia’s loyalty that is in question. At Mrs Lippincote’s is not my favourite Elizabeth Taylor novel, but it is a wonderfully complex and yet subtle exploration of middle class people during wartime.


Read Full Post »

“Mrs Palfrey first came to the Claremont Hotel on a Sunday afternoon in January. Rain had closed in over London, and her taxi sloshed along the almost deserted Cromwell Road, past one cavernous porch after another, the driver going slowly and poking his head out into the wet, for the hotel was not known to him. This discovery, that he did not know had a little disconcerted Mrs Palfrey, for she did know it either, and began to wonder what she was coming to. She tried to banish terror from her heart. She was alarmed at the threat of her own depression.”

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, Elizabeth Taylor’s penultimate novel is therefore the penultimate read of the librarything Virago Group’s Elizabeth Taylor centenary read along. Although, as I didn’t re-read ‘At Mrs Lippincotes’ in January with them, I may read it next month along with Blaming so I will have read all the novels this year.
I have heard it said, that one’s first reading of a novel is the most intense, but I don’t always find that to be the case. Certainly with my own re-reading I have found the reverse to sometimes be the case. When I first read this novel I enjoyed it hugely and was certainly looking forward to reading it again. I hadn’t expected however, to be so exceptionally moved by it, or to find myself thinking about it throughout the day whilst at work, it wasn’t as if I didn’t know what was coming.
Having spent so much time thinking about and reading the works of Elizabeth Taylor this year, I feel as if I have got to know, in some small way at least, the woman that she was. It may have been this that made this reading of the book so poignant. Laura Palfrey is a woman so much set in the Elizabeth Taylor mould that I recognised her instantly, it may have been just my fancy, but in her I saw glimpses of the younger women who had come before, it was as if I couldn’t bear what she (they) had become. In 1971 when this novel was published, Elizabeth Taylor was only 59 – certainly not old, although she must have been in some way aware of the passage of time and her own ageing – she was only to live 4 more years.
As the novel opens Laura Palfrey, the widow of a colonial administrator, having enjoyed a blissful retirement with her husband in Rottingdean, before his death, comes to the Claremont Hotel. Such places like the Claremont exist no longer, yet there is a peculiar familiarity to them. A genteel hotel, that offers reduced rates to the elderly residents who take up permanent residence there. Here she joins a small group of other elderly residents – with nothing in common but the Claremont, and the peculiar rules and daily routines. These are a wonderful group of eccentrics – Elizabeth Taylor is always so brilliant with her more minor characters – Mr Osmond with his risqué stories, Mrs Burton with her mauve hair and her drinking, the arthritic and bossy Mrs Arbuthnot. Hotel meals and visitors are given particular importance and no one wants to be seen as the poor old soul with no visitors. When fellow resident Mrs Arbuthnot discovers that Mrs Palfrey has a grandson in London, Mrs Palfrey feels rather duty bound to produce him. However Desmond never arrives.
Then Laura meets Ludo. Ludo is a young aspiring writer and former actor, who spends his days in the famous banking hall at Harrods where he keeps warm and works at his writing. There is a story well known to Elizabeth Taylor fans that the character of Ludo, was based on writer Paul Bailey, who Elizabeth Taylor had watched from afar as he carried out his job at Harrods around the time his first book was published. Paul Bailey has since written several of the introductions to the Virago editions of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels, and he recounts the story in his introduction to this one. Ludo comes to dinner at the Claremont and is a big hit with the other residents; he soon begins to eclipse the real Desmond in Mrs Palfrey’s mind.
In Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont – Elizabeth Taylor has given us a deeply poignant, beautifully written novel, that I feel must have given her chance to have a deeply personal look back over her own life.

“They became more and more to one another and, in the end, the perfect marriage they had created was like a work of art. People are sorry for brides who lose their husbands early, from some accident or war. And they should be sorry, Mrs Palfrey thought. But the other thing is worse.

Mrs Palfrey is helped by Ludo after a fall, and in her gratitude they strike up an odd sort of friendship. Odd because Laura is rather smitten with young Ludo, and persuades him to impersonate her grandson Desmond so she can save face back at the Claremont.
There are moments in this novel, which I felt to be really rather Brookneresque – such pathos and loneliness, the bleakness of an empty Sunday, the emptiness of certain London suburban streets. However there is a warmth to Elizabeth Taylor’s writing – even when it is sad – that I don’t think Brookner can reproduce.

This is simply a beautiful novel, and everyone should read it.

Read Full Post »

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?)

Read Full Post »

So then October is just around the corner – where did September go? My month of hosting the Librarything Virago group’s reading of The Soul of Kindness is almost up. I have really enjoyed my hosting – and I also enjoyed the book – which unfortunately not everyone did I don’t think.

The Soul of Kindness is not Elizabeth Taylor’s best novel – but she was such a good writer and observer of people that it still has much to recommend it. Flora, who is the soul of kindness of the title, is a character who is terribly deluded – the reader wants her to come to some sort of realisation at the end, and the fact that she doesn’t is something some readers didn’t like. I have to admit I did like it – yes I said I liked it that Flora didn’t change. There was no eureka moment – aided by the people around her she continues in much the same way as she always has – with poor Mrs Lodge her housekeeper destined to remain with her, despite desperately wanting to live out in the country. I liked this ending because it is more interesting – and frankly more like life. There are too many books out there already – where everybody learns a valuable lesson and tearfully promise to mend their ways. Have you ever known someone who annoys or upsets people around them frequently without ever knowing they are doing it? Yes? And do they ever suddenly come to the terrible realisation of the truth and change their ways? – no never! Elizabeth Taylor understood people, and so that, I believe is why Flora doesn’t learn, because she is who she is and cannot change, just as all the people around her who have always allowed her to be that person, remain themselves and so things just carry on as they always have – just as in life.

So then, now is the time to pass the Elizabeth Taylor centenary baton to Harriet Devine who will be hosting our October reading of The Wedding Group. I haven’t read that one yet, and so I am looking forward to it.
I want to thank everyone who has posted comments and taken part in my first ever blog hosting. Maybe we can do it again sometime.

Here’s some links to reviews of The Soul of Kindness:







Read Full Post »

In the title story of this collection which is more in length like that of a novella, a middle aged wife of a boarding school headmaster dreads the arrival of Hester, her husband’s cousin. Hester and Robert having been writing to one another for some time and Muriel feels excluded. Initially she is relieved when Hester arrives, not seeing in her the threat she had dreaded.

“Hester, in clothes which astonished by their improvisation – the wedding of out-grown school uniform with the adult, gloomy wardrobe of her dead mother – looked jaunty, defiant and absurb. Every garment was grown out of or not grown into.”

However, having underestimated Hester’s appeal Muriel soon reverts to her original jealousy. Robert and Hester get along well together, while Muriel and her husband have a strained relationship, which she only serves to worsen when she makes a fool of herself at a dance. Muriel makes Hester nervous, slowly driving her almost to collapse, Muriel wants rid of Hester and Hester feels it keenly and it makes her miserable.
Muriel is wonderfully terrible creation, as is the peculiar character from the village that Hester meets on her wanderings, the lonely Miss Despenser who lives in a filthy house with her memories of her dead sister.
This story is a wonderful start to a lovely collection. Anyone regularly reading my blog knows how much I love Elizabeth Taylor’s writing, and this collection demonstrates beautifully why I do. In ‘First Death of her Life’ a daughter sits by her dead mother awaiting the arrival of her father. I’m sure that this story is deeply autobiographical, as the death of Elizabeth Taylor’s own mother had a huge effect on her. There are too many stories in this collection to talk about each one individually but among my favourites were: Shadows of the world, Swan Moving and A Red letter Day. In Swan Moving, a swan comes to the pond of a small rather down at heel village. Its presence seems to instigate something of a change in attitude of the villagers to their environment- although they do go rather too far. However when the pool begins to dry up, the villagers decide to move their swan to another deeper pool a mile away.

“The swan sat on the front seat beside the Vicar and the manservant sat behind. When they drove away, the crowd waved and cheered as if seeing off bride and bridegroom. The swan surveyed them with indifference. His feet were splayed out in an ungainly way on a piece of sacking and, as the car moved forward, he crooked his neck and began to cleanse from his plumage the trace of human hands.”

In ‘Red Letter Day’ a mother and son go out for the afternoon, the mother collecting her son from boarding school, a day so looked forward to, is of course a small disappointment. Elizabeth Taylor is a master at showing us the small everyday events that loom large in people’s lives, the way people act, speak and think, ring so beautifully, and often poignantly true. Shadows of the World is just so well written, a subtle domestic story, a woman shares a drink with a male friend, awaits her husband’s arrival home, her daughter is put to bed, her son watches over his cat as she gives birth to four kittens. He imagines the kittens later running and playing around the house.
There is though, plenty of Elizabeth Taylor’s wit in evidence. She was such a wonderfully sharp observer of people, the way they speak particularly; she must have had just as sharp an ear for speech, as she had for the way people act. In ‘Nods & Becks and Wreathѐd Smiles’ a group of women discuss childbirth while having tea in a café.

“Well it was certainly the worst experience I ever had,” Mrs Howard said emphatically. ‘I hope never to go through –‘
‘I thought neuralgia was worse,’ Mrs Graham forgot herself enough to say.
At first, they were too surprised to speak. After all, men could have neuralgia. Then Mrs Miller gave her own special little laugh. It was light as thistledown. It meant that Mrs Graham only said that to be different, probably because she was vegetarian.”

I do so adore Elizabeth Taylor’s writing, I think her short stories are masterly, and I am very fussy about short stories, I used to think I didn’t much care for them. These were a joy, and I am sure they are stories that I will happily return to again and again.

Read Full Post »

I’m not sure how many people are still reading or intending to read The Soul of Kindness, but if you haven’t finished reading it yet, maybe you could come back here and post your thoughts about the various relationships in the book when you have.
So then, what do we all think of the various relationships in The Soul of Kindness? I felt there were a lot of different dynamics which are interesting.
Flora and Richard are married at the start of the novel; she is the beautiful bride that her mother Mrs Secreten has been preparing her for, her whole life. With her goddess like beauty, she is sure to be the centre of attention. Right from the start the reader understands that this is exactly where Flora is used to being.

“Here I am!” Flora called to Richard as she went downstairs. For a second, Meg felt disloyalty. It occurred to her of a sudden that Flora was always saying that, and that it was in the tone of one giving a lovely present. She was bestowing herself. “

Flora organises her life the way she likes it. Surrounds herself with people who indulge in what Richard at one time disloyally thinks of as “Flora worship.” She counts on Meg to never forget her birthday, Meg who always looked after her, protected her at school. Flora’s domestic like pet the novelist Patrick is on hand whenever she wants, and is adept at smoothing out any ruffled feathers. She doesn’t seem to give anything much in return to these people – except her lovely self. Meg’s brother Kit worships her, his adolescent like adoration is taken as simply her due by Flora, and when she buys him an expensive suit – everyone but Flora is acutely embarrassed by the connotations of such an extravagant gift. True she buys him a suit, and takes him food when he is ill, all while aiding his unrealistic expectations. All this allows Flora to think of herself as a good person, a ministering angel. Flora has now dispensed with her mother – who spent her life turning Flora into the woman she is now, and now must sit in the country with her housekeeper/companion awaiting rare visits.

“Miss Folley, I can smell spice cakes” said Flora, shaking hands with her. It was just that touch of homely graciousness one connects with the Royal ladies, Miss Folley thought”

Poor Mrs Secreten, one of several rather lonely characters, in mocking her friend Miss Folley to Flora in a letter she knows Miss Folley will read, she damages maybe the best relationship she has. While she fears for her health, she realises that should there be anything really the matter with her, she would not be able to count on Flora for help. Mrs Secreten is lonely after Flora’s marriage, she has spent years devoting to herself to Flora and then suddenly she is gone. Mrs Secreten is left with her housekeeper/companion Miss Folley. Miss Folley is yet another sad character; she has taken to reading out letters to Mrs Secreten – which she says were written to her by her various lovers many years ago. Mrs Secreten recognises the envelopes and the writing from her seat across the room; it is obvious that Miss Folley has written them herself with the sole intention of reading them out. In mocking Miss Folley to Flora, Mrs Secreten betrays her, it is quite a toe curling painful moment, and Mrs Secreten slowly comes to realise what she has done to Miss Folley and feels sorry for it.

To me Richard is a rather insipid character and very much feels like an also ran within the relationship with Flora. I think this must be why he turns to Elinor Pringle. He doesn’t seem to be sexually attracted to her, but Richard recognises in her, someone who like him, is rather alone within their marriage. This is a recurring theme; Elinor and her husband are mismatched, live fairly separate lives. The loyal Patrick is in love with the unsuitable Frankie, who has no feelings for Patrick. When Frankie turns up unexpectedly at Patrick’s flat on Christmas day, Patrick’s joy is heart-breaking, his delight in a recycled Christmas gift sadly pathetic. Meanwhile Meg is also in love with the wrong person, Patrick! She treasures the times she spends with Patrick – eking out the minutes till he leaves her again. Liz is very much her own woman, she has a brief fling with Kit, but doesn’t seem too bothered when he ends it after they row about Flora – or is she bothered? Paul Bailey in the introduction to my edition suggests that Liz is the sanest and most fulfilled character in the novel, – and although she seems a bit of an odd character, I think she is.
Two other peripheral characters are Percy and Ba – they are wonderful, at least I thought so. Flora doesn’t quite approve of Percy at first, but does approve of Ba. Percy wants to marry Ba, and Flora thinks it a good idea. Ba knows Percy needs her more than she does him, although Percy doesn’t recognise it in himself. He is quite lost when Ba goes to France without him for a week. They are a very old fashioned married couple, Ba knows how to manage her irascible husband, with her frequent “yes, honey” to placate him in his rages.
Then what about Richard and Elinor? Richard is married to the beautiful Flora – but he is unfulfilled I think. Elinor is older, unhappily married and apparently not attractive to Richard, but he enjoys her company, and he sees her behind Flora’s back. What is it that Elinor has that Flora doesn’t?
What did you all think about these relationships and various dynamics?

Read Full Post »

I have heard it said on a number of occasions that Elizabeth Taylor was the Jane Austen of her generation. So was she? I do think there seems to be a number of similarities in their work – though there are differences too of course.

Born in 1775 Jane Austen died in 1817 – almost a hundred years before Elizabeth Taylor was born in 1912. Jane never married, and wrote only six novels, though they are some of the most perfect novels in the English language. Elizabeth Taylor published 11 novels in her life time, her twelfth novel was published posthumously, and she left us with four volumes of short stories. Elizabeth married, had an adulterous relationship with another man, and had two children. So where is it that we can see the influences that Jane Austen must have had on Elizabeth Taylor?
In The Other Elizabeth Taylor by Nicola Beauman, the author tells us that Elizabeth acknowledged Jane Austen as being one of the writers who were “behind her” – along with people such as E M Forster. Elizabeth is said to have revered Jane, and that Elizabeth Taylor was well aware of the Jane Austen recipe for a ”nice novel” – that is “two or three families living near to one another in the country” Well Elizabeth Taylor’s novels are certainly not that far from that recipe. Most of them revolve around a small community often a village or small town: – a seaside town in “A view of the Harbour”, a large house filled with eccentrics, close to a village in “Palladian” another village in “A Wreath of Roses” the suburbia of an English town in A Game of Hide and seek, and so on. Just like Jane Austen’s beutiful novels, we have a host of minor characters in Elizabeth’s novels, each of them fully fleshed out and memorable in their own right.
So I have been thinking about Elizabeth Taylor’s novels, and playing spot the Austen influences, I am sure I have missed dozens. A few I thought of (probably the most obvious examples) as follows: In Palladian Elizabeth Taylor delivers a wonderful homage to the gothic and romantic novels of the Brontes, Jane Austen and Du Maurier. Her heroine is Cassandra which of course was Jane Austen’s sister’s name. In many of Elizabeth Taylor novels and short fiction we have stories that strongly feature mothers and daughters, making me think of the Bennetts and the Dashwoods. Remember how poor Mr Bennett is totally at a loss to understand his daughters? – particularly Elizabeth, well I think one or two of Elizabeth Taylor’s fathers are just as confounded, Charles in “In a Summer Season” struggles to understand Araminta and Robert in A View from the Harbour certainly doesn’t seem to understand his eldest daughter, while Percy in The Soul of Kindness had totally misjudged the pliability or lack of, of his daughter-in-law. In all of Elizabeth Taylor’s writing her stories are shot through with a wicked sense of humour, fantastically wry observations which are a testament to Elizabeth Taylor’s sense of the ridiculous. Jane Austen was also very funny – she plainly saw the ridiculous in so much of the society she lived in. Socially Elizabeth Taylor’s characters are from the middle class and upper middle class – the women seldom work, unless they write or paint, they have daily help, have tea by the fire and go up to town to get their hair done. Jane Austen’s characters similarly come from that section of society that Jane herself was from, they are from a gentler section of society, and are constrained by that.
Jane and Elizabeth went to the same school – well almost. Jane and her sister Cassandra attended the Abbey School in Reading that was housed in the old Abbey gatehouse. After this school closed a high school opened in another part of Reading, this school was later moved again and renamed Abbey school, which Elizabeth Taylor attended. So maybe not quite the same school – but it’s a nice nearly connection isn’t it.
Jane and Elizabeth were both highly committed to their families. Those of us who have read about Jane Austen’s life will know how Jane would write almost secretly – pushing aside her work when someone came into the room, jumping to attend to whatever household task she was needed for. Elizabeth wrote while her children were at school – making sure she was always available for them when they got home.
They may have been separated by many years, and the society’s they lived in were very different – and the lives they each lived were essentially very different, but I do think they were not so very far from one another as all that. What do you think?
There is a lovely reference incidentally to Isabella Thorpe from Northanger Abbey in The Soul of Kindness, did anyone spot it? There is even a Mrs Austen at the post officer too, which rather pleased me. Also it has been suggested that Flora in the ‘The Soul of Kindness’ is rather Emma like? What do you think? Emma at least learns some lessons – does Flora?
One final thought, would Jane and Elizabeth have liked or understood one another?

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

There have been several times when someone asked me what I was reading this year I have said “oh such and such by Elizabeth Taylor.” Once or twice I have seen a look come over them – that plainly says – “well I didn’t know she wrote books.” Now I realise many of the people that regularly read my blog already know Elizabeth Taylor – the English novelist. This short post is particularly for those people who don’t.
So if you don’t know Elizabeth Taylor the writer then let me introduce you. Elizabeth Taylor was born Dorothy Betty Coles in July 1912, and upon her marriage in 1936 became Elizabeth Taylor. Her mother’s death had a huge impact on her when she was in her early twenties, soon after this she married John Taylor. She then had a relationship with another man, who she met through her membership to the communist party, and continued to correspond with him for many years. She had two children, and chose her family life with them over this man. This story is told by Nicola Beauman in the excellent biography The Other Elizabeth Taylor. I can’t possibly do justice to her writing in just a few lines, so how to describe her writing? Elizabeth Taylor’s novels are quite domestic, with fantastic wry observation and a wonderful sense of humour she brilliantly exposes the intricate relationships of people in middle class families living usually in small communities. They concern mainly the minutia of everyday life, her characters are exceptionally well rounded and fully explored, and her child characters some of the best to be found in English fiction.
Her first novel At Mrs Lippincote’s was published in 1945, her last novel Blaming was published posthumously, in 1976. During her lifetime Elizabeth Taylor didn’t win any awards, though her novel Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont was short listed for the booker prize in 1972. Elizabeth Taylor died of cancer in 1975 aged just 63.

Her novels are: 
At Mrs Lippincote’s (1945)
Palladian (1946)
A View of the Harbour (1947)
A Wreath of Roses (1949)
A Game of Hide and Seek (1951)
The Sleeping Beauty (1953)
Angel (1957)
In a Summer Season (1961)
The Soul of Kindness (1964)
The Wedding Group (1968)
              Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (1971)
Blaming (1976)

Her collections of Short stories:
Hester Lily and other stories (1954)
The Blush and other stories (1958)
A Dedicated man and other stories (1965)
The Devastating boys and other stories (1972)

all of which are now available in one beautiful big book – The Collected short stories which contains some previously unpublished.

And a children’s story – Mossy Trotter (1967)

So then let’s get this blog hosting off to a good start – with a giveaway. This is open to those in Europe only this time I’m afraid. I will draw a name randomly on Monday evening and send the book out next week. Hopefully the recipient will get the book in time to read it and post their thoughts towards the end of the month or soon after. I don’t get sent things for free very often – so I have bought a copy of The Soul of Kindness for this giveaway – as I wanted to share my love of Elizabeth Taylor. I am aware that this might not be the best book with which to start reading Elizabeth Taylor – but hopefully the winner if they haven’t read Elizabeth Taylor before, will be inspired enough to read more.

Read Full Post »

The Librarything Virago group have been reading the novels of Elizabeth Taylor during 2012 – in recognition of her centenary the project was started by Laura  it has proved to be a wonderful celebration. Each month a different blogger has hosted that month’s read on their blog. Everyone has done such a marvellous job; I have felt a bit nervous when it came to my turn. I was unsure about how to approach this month’s discussions – and never have done anything like this before. Below is my suggested schedule (subject to change). So this month we will be reading and talking about Elizabeth Taylor’s 1964 novel The Soul of Kindness. So if you would like to join in and don’t yet have a copy of the book (and live in Europe) come back later today – as I will be doing a giveaway of the book.

September 1st -7th (1st) Introducing Elizabeth Taylor, a giveaway (5th) my review –spoiler free
September 8th – 14th Elizabeth & Jane – thinking about Elizabeth Taylor and Jane Austen.
September 15th – 21st The Soul of Kindness: discussion of relationships in ‘The soul of Kindness.’
September 22nd – 31st The Soul of Kindness -brief roundup – final thoughts. 

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »