First published in 1945, At Mrs Lippincote’s was Elizabeth Taylor’s debut novel. This is my third Taylor (after Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont and A Game of Hide and Seek), and if anything it has left me even more eager to read the rest of her books.
As the novel opens the Davenant family are moving into their new home, a house near the RAF base where Flight Lieutenant Roddy Davenant is currently stationed. (The setting is a small town somewhere in the South of England during WW2.) Roddy has been present at the base for a little while, but he is now being joined by his wife, Julia, the couple’s young son, Oliver, and Roddy’s spinster cousin, Eleanor. From the opening pages, it is clear that Julia feels somewhat uncomfortable in these unfamiliar surroundings. The Davenants have rented the house from the recently widowed Mrs Lippincote, a woman they have yet to meet, but whose presence hangs over the place like a dark shadow. At first sight, the house is rather dark and oppressive, full of mahogany furniture, old-fashioned furnishings and yellowing photographs. Here’s Julia as she contemplates a picture of a wedding group, presumably one showing the Lippincotes on their wedding day.
‘And now it’s all finished,’ Julia thought. ‘They had that lovely day and the soup tureen and meat dishes, servants with frills and streamers, children. They set out that day as if they were laying the foundations of something. But it was only something which perished very quickly, the children scattered, the tureen draped with cobwebs, and now the widow, the bride, perhaps at this moment unfolding her napkin alone at a table in a small private hotel down the road.’ (pg 10)
In some respects, this could be seen as a metaphor for the future direction of Julia’s own marriage to Roddy as there is very little in the way of warmth and affection here. Even though Julia is not terribly likeable, I found her very interesting and intriguing. She is quite feisty, often willing to say whatever comes into her head without really thinking about the consequences, especially where Roddy’s cousin Eleanor is concerned. Julia makes no secret of the fact that she is not overly fond of Eleanor, a point that becomes increasingly apparent as the story unfolds. Eleanor, who happens to be in love with Roddy, despairs of Julia for not being a more conventional wife. She believes Roddy deserves a woman who would be prepared to support him; someone to stand behind him by making his career her life’s work; someone who would be a valuable asset as opposed to a hindrance or embarrassment. In other words, someone like Eleanor herself. This next quote seems to capture something of the dynamics at play between Julia, Roddy and Eleanor – Julia has just asked Roddy if there is anywhere they could go for a drink.
“I can’t take you into the Ante-room to-night,” said Roddy in a satisfied way. “It isn’t ladies’ night.”
“Can’t we have a drink in this damned place, without relying on the caprice of a lot of officers? And are there no pubs?”
“Only down in the town. This is a residential district. If you go, you will have to take the bus, and when you get there it will be closing time.”
“It wouldn’t be worth it,” said Eleanor quickly, lest she might be left to the washing-up.
“Ladies’ night!” cried Julia in a fury. “It sounds like a lot of red-faced Masons with wives in royal blue satin and pink carnations. ‘We will put aside our secrets and our stories about copulation and give the old girls a break.’ I couldn’t go to one of those. My pride wouldn’t allow it.”
Eleanor, whose evening dress was royal blue, leant forward and said to Roddy: “What time do you start in the morning?”
‘If I had Roddy,’ thought Eleanor, ‘my greatest happiness would be to go out with him to meet the other wives. Why should her pride not allow it?’ She could not forgive Julia for wanting more than her own dearest dream. (pg. 11)
In time, Julia strikes up an unlikely friendship with Roddy’s boss, Wing Commander Mallory – they share a mutual interest in the novels of the Brontë sisters. There is some mild flirting between Julia and the Wing Commander, but nothing too serious. If anything, the Commander has Julia’s own interests at heart as he would like to see her happy with Roddy, something which seems but a distant hope from the start.
Julia also spends time with the rather forlorn Mr Taylor, an old acquaintance from London — now in diminished circumstances — whom she bumps into one evening while out for a walk. She visits him in his ‘club’ (effectively a members bar set up in his bungalow), but once again there is no real suggestion of romance here. It is not a lover she is after, but some form of companionship, ‘some other person whose words would link together with hers’ and with whom ‘some chord might be struck.’
Roddy dislikes the idea of Julia being out on her own of an evening, especially when it becomes apparent that she has been having the occasional drink or two. It is his belief that respectable married women should not go cavorting about the countryside at night, walking into pubs on their own and generally letting the side down. I must admit to finding this next quote rather telling.
She exasperated him. Society necessarily has a great many little rules, especially relating to the behaviour of women. One accepted them and life ran smoothly and without embarrassment, or as far as that is possible where there are two sexes. Without the little rules, everything became queer and unsafe. When he had married Julia, he had thought her woefully ignorant of the world; had looked forward, indeed, to assisting in her development. But she had been grown up all the time; or, at least, she had not changed. The root of the trouble was not ignorance at all, but the refusal to accept. ‘If only she would!’ he thought now, staring at her; ‘If only she would accept.’ The room was between them. She stood there smiling, blinking still in the bright light. He was still fanning the air peevishly with his hand. (pg. 105)
As a break from the atmosphere at Mrs Lippincote’s, Roddy’s cousin Eleanor finds some much-needed companionship in the form Mr Aldridge, a colleague at the school where she teaches. (Eleanor has a backstory that I won’t reveal here but it’s something which adds another dimension to her character.) In time, she also falls in with a group of Mr Aldridge’s friends, a loose collective of Communists who live nearby. Even though they realise Eleanor is rather lonely and in need of a friend, the members of this group treat her as an individual in her own right, accepting her into their fold wherever possible. For her part, Julia cannot help but needle Eleanor about her relationship with Mr Aldridge, passing snide comments here and there, attempting to belittle both her cousin-in-law and Mr Aldridge in the process.
“Have you been to tea with your young man?” Her very way of saying ‘your young man’ implied that he was not, and was not likely to be, anything of the kind. She always dealt too lightly and therefore cruelly with Eleanor’s personal life. (pg. 56)
As with the other Elizabeth Taylor novels I’ve read, there is a strong cast of secondary characters here. The Davenant’s very bookish son, Oliver, is an absolute delight. He forms a very touching friendship with the Wing Commander’s daughter, Felicity, as the two children go fishing together by the local river. Mrs Lippincote’s charwoman, the formidable Mrs Whapshott, also deserves a mention. From the very outset, Julia feels uneasy in this woman’s presence as she imagines the slow but steady disintegration of the house is being reported back to Mrs Lippincote on a weekly basis.
All in all, this is another very subtle novel by Elizabeth Taylor, perhaps closer in style to A Game of Hide and Seek than to Mrs Palfrey. Each scene is beautifully observed – Taylor was reported to have said that she wrote in scenes rather than in narrative, and I think you can see it here in her debut.
At one point in the novel, Julia states that she wants to try to be more grown-up – more understanding towards Roddy, more patient with Oliver, and more charitable towards Eleanor. To find out if she achieves this, perhaps I can encourage you to read this excellent book for yourselves.
At Mrs Lippincote’s is published by Virago Modern Classics. Source: personal copy.