Having loved Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, a book that made my end of year highlights in December, I was keen to try another of her novels. A View of the Harbour was a possibility, but in the end I plumped for A Game of Hide and Seek – both of these books appear on my Classics Club list, so I know I’ve still got Harbour to look forward to. In the meantime, I’m very glad to have picked this one to read – it delivered on every level for me.
First published in 1951, A Game of Hide and Seek is a very poignant story of life’s disappointments, compromises and lost loves. As the novel opens, eighteen-year-old Vesey is spending the summer with his Aunt Caroline and Uncle Hugo at their home in the South of England. Harriet, also aged eighteen, is a frequent visitor to the house and during the long summer’s evenings, she plays hide-and-seek with Vesey and his two young cousins. Both Harriet and Vesey are something of a disappointment to their elders. Harriet shows no signs of fulfilling any of the ambitions or passions of her mother who, together with Caroline, was an active participant in the suffragette movement. Having struggled at school, Harriet now seems content to daydream and pick flowers in the countryside. Vesey, on the other hand, is bright, but somewhat lazy and insensitive. At times, he seems attentive to Harriet, but he can also be spiteful and uncaring. He envisages himself as a writer, a man of letters, and a place at Oxford beckons.
Over the summer months, Harriet falls in love with Vesey; she imagines a life with him, possibly a future defined by marriage and everything this entails. But while Harriet is clearly in love with Vesey, his future intentions remain somewhat unclear.
Vesey, whose next steps would take him over the threshold of a new and promising world, wished to go without any backward glances or entanglements. He was not one to keep up friendships, never threw out fastening tendrils such as letters or presents or remembrances; was quite unencumbered by all the things which Harriet valued and kept: drawers full of photographs, brochures, programmes, postcards, diaries. He never remembered birthdays or any other anniversary. (pg.16)
As the days pass, Hugo and Caroline become increasingly intolerant of Vesey’s behaviour, and it’s not long before they find an excuse to ask him to leave. Fearing that she may have missed her chance with Vesey, Harriet is bereft at his departure. A year seems a long time to wait until the following summer when she hopes to see him again.
With Vesey gone, Harriet finds a job in a gown shop, and in time she meets Charles Jephcott, a man who, at thirty-five, seems old before his time. Charles, a solicitor by profession, is solemn, steady and unexciting, but he is attentive to Harriet and wishes to marry her. When Vesey pays Caroline a brief visit, Harriet’s hopes are revived again only to be dashed when he fails to show at a dance. All seems lost, especially when Harriet’s mother dies unexpectedly. Uncertain of what the future may hold for her, Harriet agrees to marry Charles even though she is still in love with Vesey, a development that brings us to the end of the first part of the novel.
In the second half, we move forward some sixteen or seventeen years – the exact year isn’t clear, but we seem to be in the late 1940s following WW2. Harriet and Charles have been married for several years, and they have a daughter, Betsy, aged fifteen. There is a sense that Harriet has filled her days with domestic duties, managing the household administration and taking care of Betsy. The one thing that’s missing is any feeling of love or passion for Charles.
When she married Charles, she had seemed to wed also a social order. A convert to it, and to provincial life, and keeping house, she had pursued it fanatically and as if she feared censure. […] But now she flouted what she had helped to create – an illusion of society; an oiling of the wheels which went round but not forwards; conventions which could only exist so long as emotion was in abeyance. (pg. 262)
One evening, Vesey comes back into Harriet’s life, and all her old feelings for him are rekindled. Charles watches nervously and with more than a hint of displeasure as Harriet and Vesey dance the tango at a local get-together. As she accompanies her husband home in a taxi, Harriet reflects on the nature of her marriage.
‘Marriage does not solve mysteries,’ she thought. ‘It creates and deepens them.’ The two of them being shut up physically in this dark space, yet locked away for ever from one another, was oppressive. Both were edgy. (pg. 146)
What follows is a series of tentative meetings between Harriet and Vesey; the latter is now a failing actor scraping a living in third-rate productions of Hamlet and the like. Charles knows that his marriage to Harriet is at risk; the idea of Vesey, his image so to speak, has weakened their life together, like a shadow in the background threatening to come to the fore at any moment.
For it was Vesey who had undermined their life together; the idea of him in both their heads. In their few disagreements, he knew to whom her thoughts flew; discouraged, he remembered her girlhood’s inconsolable love, and her silence ever since. Many times, when she had thought of nothing, had simply sat and stared, he believed she thought of him. He had always known that one day he would walk back into their presence as he had done the previous evening, unexpectedly. Harriet had whitened. She had presently bent her head and looked at the floor in front of her, as if disavowing a ghost. Charles could not know that many times before she had thought Vesey coming towards her in the street; her heart leaping, she had scarcely dared to look up at the stranger who eventually went by, usually a man quite unlike Vesey. Seeing one face continually in crowds is one of the minor annoyances of being in love. (pg 178)
A Game of Hide and Seek is a novel full of astute observations on the lives of the middle-classes in England at the time. It is a subtler novel than Mrs Palfrey, one best read slowly to savour Taylor’s pitch-perfect prose and exquisitely-drawn scenes. One of the things I like most about Taylor is the empathy and sympathy she shows for her characters despite their failings. There are no heroes or villains here, just ordinary people trying to make the best of their largely unfulfilled lives.
Harriet and Charles are wonderful creations, credible and believable in their thoughts and actions. I found myself warming to Vesey too as a tenderer, more caring side to his character emerges in the second half of the novel; he clearly illuminates Harriet’s world. The cast of minor characters is equally strong, particularly Charles’ mother, Julia, a dreadful woman who lives with a female companion whom she bullies at every opportunity. She is also highly suspicious of Harriet and relishes the prospect of scandal once Vesey reappears on the scene.
There are touches of sly humour in this novel as well. For instance, there are some terrific scenes at the dress shop where Harriet works before her marriage, a place where the gaggle of shop assistants seem more concerned with trying out the latest beauty treatments than serving customers. Another highlight centres on a drinks evening at the Jephcotts’ when Charles invites Vesey to the house following a performance of the play.
There are some wonderful touches in the portrayal of life in the Jephcotts’ home, too – more specifically, Harriet’s relationship with her cleaning lady, Mrs Curzon, and the observations of the Dutch maid, Elke, who struggles to understand the customs and behaviour of the English middle classes.
Ultimately though, this is Harriet and Vesey’s story. I was left wondering whether Harriet would have been happier if she had spent the last sixteen years with Vesey instead of Charles. (There’s no easy answer to that question, but I suspect she would.) Can the two of them ever recapture the feelings of their youth? And just how far will Harriet go in risking her marriage to Charles? Perhaps I can encourage you to read this beautifully nuanced novel for yourself to discover how things turn out.
For other perspectives on this book, you might want to read these reviews by Caroline (of Beauty and the Cat), Guy and Heavenali. Update: more reviews here by Caroline (of Book word), Jonathan and Melissa.
A Game of Hide and Seek is published by Virago. Source: personal copy.