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.
For other perspectives, do read these reviews by Caroline (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat), Heavenali and Caroline (Bookword).
At Mrs Lippincote’s is published by Virago Modern Classics. Source: personal copy.
Where would you recommend I start with T’s novels? I’ve not read any yet.
If you’d like to begin with one of her strongest novels, then I’d suggest you take a look at Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. It’s where I started and I think it’s more accessible/direct than A Game of Hide and Seek (which I also loved for its subtlety). That said, I wouldn’t have been unhappy had I started with Mrs Lippincote’s. It is perhaps not as polished as Taylor’s later work, but all the trademark elements are there, most notably the excellent characteriastion and sharp eye for social situations. It’s an impressive debut.
I’m a recent convert to the dazzling writing of Elizabeth Taylor and have been picking up copies whenever I find them secondhand. Alas, I don’t yet have this one, but after reading your wonderful review, I’ll have to remedy that very soon!
Oh, great. I think you’d like it, Sarah, especially if you’ve enjoyed some of her other novels. I’ve been keeping an eye out for secondhand copies of those old green Virago editions as well. I’ve managed to pick up ‘vintage’ copies of two or three of her other novels but not this one sadly. The original covers are so beautiful.
So, you are turning up the heat on how I need to revisit Taylor
Ha! Go on, you know you want to. ;)
Excellent review Jacqui. It’s a powerful debut, isn’t it? I don’t always like Taylor’s characters but they’re always fascinating – and you do wonder if their frustrations echoed any she might have experienced in her own life.
Thanks, Karen. Yes, a very impressive debut. Did you review it, btw? Sorry, I should have checked your blog for a review as we were just talking about Taylor the other week.
I thought Julia was a wonderful creation – certainly not very likeable, but all the more intriguing because of it. I tend to find myself drawn to these flawed characters as they’re often so much more interesting (and more lifelike) than their ‘nice’ or wholesome counterparts. I did wonder about a possible connection to Taylor’s own life. Ali touched on this briefly in her review as she almost thought of Julia as an exaggerated version of one side of Taylor’s own personality.
No, I don’t think I did review it because I read it pre-blog – I probably put some thoughts on LibraryThing but that’s all!
Ah, thanks. Glad I didn’t miss a review from you!
Thanks for this review, Jacqui. I had no idea there was *another* Elizabeth Taylor in the 20th century. I will check her works now :)
You’re very welcome, Elena. I would definitely recommend this Elizabeth Taylor as she’s one of my best ‘discoveries’ in recent years. To be honest, I suspect she almost certainly suffered from sharing a name with such a famous actor, but she’s well worth your time – a wonderful writer.
I have to confess I thought it could be a hidden talent of the already-famous Elizabeth Taylor…
Ha! I’m sure you’re not the first person to have had that thought.
Brilliant review. This was Elizabeth Taylor’s first novel and in it I think she really sets out her stall – so to speak. It’s such a good book.
Thanks, Ali. Yes, a terrific book.As you say, it does feel as though she’s mapping out her territory with this one. I am so looking forward to reading the rest of her novels.
Hi Ali, Max is wondering which Taylor might be the best one to read as a second novel after Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont – Mrs Lippincote’s or A View of the Harbour? Would you be able to give a view in the comments below? Many thanks, J.
Great review. You are so good at getting to the essence of a book Jacqui.
I really want to read Elizabeth Taylor. Her books sound so good.
The character of Julia sounds intriguing. Characters that are not likable but who are interesting and draw the reader in, are, in my opinion, the sigh of good writing.
Thanks, Brian – that’s very kind of you to say. I really do think you would enjoy Taylor. Her canvases are small, and her insights into human nature are so sharp. She’s been compared to Jane Austen too, a 20th-century version I guess. I can’t recommend her highly enough. As you say, the ability to create flawed characters that hold the reader’s attention is one of the signs of a good writer.
Great review. It seems we’ve read almost the same novels by her so far. I’m one ahead. My first was Blaming. Looking back it’s the one I like dthe least. It was her last novel, I think.
I did like Julia. Not sure why you don’t find her likable. Oh and the Wing Commander is such a great character. I truly admire her gift for creating so many memorable secondary characters.
Do you already know which one you’ll read next? I’ve got Angel ready.
Thanks, Caroline, It was fun to compare perspectives with you especially as we ended up reading it at roughly the same time. Just to clarify my take on Julia (as I probably wasn’t very clear in my review), I loved her as a character, but as a person (i.e. if I met her in real life) I don’t think she would be the easiest individual to get along with, She’s quite cutting towards Eleanor, so I guess she’s not very ‘nice’ or likeable in the traditional way. Does that make any kind of sense? This novel’s just full of terrific characters, isn’t it? It’s like she had them all lined up, ready and waiting to appear in her debut.
I seem to have accumulated a little stack of Taylor’s novels so I’m wondering which one to read next. Angel is in the pile, but I might try A View to the Harbour next, possibly for Karen and Simon’s 1947 Club. Very curious to see what you think of Angel – I’ve heard it’s a little crueler than some of her others.
It sounds very impressive as a first novel. Actually, it just sounds impressive full stop, but particularly so for a first novel. Remarkable.
Oh, I had planned to read A View of the Harbour next, do you (or anyone else in the comments) have a view if this would be a better second Taylor after Mrs Palfrey which was my first?
It’s terrific, Max. Her skill with characterisation is just so apparent right from the off. I really think you would appreciate this one. As for which might be the better follow-on read after Mrs Palfrey, this or A View of the Harbour, I couldn’t say. (I have Harbour, and it might well be my next, but I can’t give a view right now.) Ali would probably be best placed to advise on this, so I’ll alert her to your question.
I would suggest that any of:At Mrs Lippincote’s, A Game of Hide and Seek, The Soul of Kindness or In a Summer Season would be great next reads Max. Hope you enjoy reading more Elizabeth Taylor soon.
Thanks for the tips, much appreciated and I’ll replan accordingly.
Thanks, Ali. This gives me some ideas on where to go next too. I have a copy of The Soul of Kindness, so maybe I should place it before A View of the Harbour.
I love the way Taylor uses ‘Mrs’ in the title and then goes on to explore the expectations and frustrations of that title. It reminds me of the importance of ‘Miss’ in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
Another great review of a Taylor novel I don’t yet have – but i feel confident I’ll get round to them all eventually!
Yes, good point! It is a kind of exploration of some of the frustrations of married life, especially for a woman who seems so distanced from her husband. There is a sense that these characters (Julia, Roddy and Eleanor) are all orbiting in somewhat separate worlds in spite of their presence in the same house. I’m rather reluctant to refer to it as a home as it certainly doesn’t feel one!
I would definitely recommend this one, Grant – plenty to get your teeth into here.
I want to read this one. I’ve read several Elizabeth Taylor novels–hard to understand why she’s been so neglected all these years, so it’s great to see reprints surfacing.
I think you’ll like this one, Guy. It’s darker than A Game of Hide and Seek. Julia’s a great character, and I think you’ll enjoy getting to know her. Yes, it’s odd to think that Taylor was under the radar for so long, only to come to the fore again in the last ten years or so. It’s funny how certain writers fall in and out of fashion in this way.
I like that you mention how you enjoy the character who is an unlikable woman. I’ve read a number of articles lately about how when readers label women as unlikable and hate them, the reader is really reinforcing the idea that women must be likable by conforming to patriarchal expectations.
Yes, Julia’s wonderful creation. I loved reading about her as she felt quite realistic to me. We all have sides to our personalities that aren’t terribly attractive or ‘nice’ in the traditional sense – it’s part of what makes us human, I guess. Julia certainly doesn’t conform to society’s expectations of women as friendly, nurturing creatures, and I enjoyed her all the more for her outspoken nature!
This sounds like a powerful debut. Loved reading your thoughts on the characters. A character driven book is always a pleasure
Thanks, Susan. It’s great, such an impressive debut. As Ali commented above, this is Taylor setting out her stall for her territory as a writer – the imperfect lives of these middle-class women, their hopes and expectations, their preoccupations and frustrations. If you like character-driven fiction, then I would definitely recommend her – it’s what she’s all about.
I’ve only read Angel by Taylor, and that was excellent. One thing you mention, about how the character is not ‘likeable’ I think must be a theme of her fiction because Angel was much the same but I think that was part of what made it so good. She was a person, not a representation. Sounds like this was a great read. Excellent review as always Jacqui.
Oh, cool. Glad to hear you rate Angel so highly. I have a copy in the pile, one of several Taylors I seem to have accumulated in recent months – she’s my new favourite!
Yes, I think she’s great at capturing these complex, somewhat flawed characters in such a way that makes them appear very true to life. Even though Julia is quite abrasive, particularly in her dealings with Eleanor, I still cared about her as a person. There’s another wonderfully brittle character in Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont – Mrs Arbuthnot, an elderly lady who suffers from arthritis. At first sight, she appears rather bitter and spiteful, but as the story unfolds you see a different, more vulnerable side to her persona. I guess it’s the combination of different shades that makes these characters seem so rounded.
You are still a newbie to Elizabeth Taylor novels, having read only three. I just checked, and I have read all twelve of her novels and all four of her original story collections. Of course this was all about twenty years ago, so maybe I am due for a re-read. She is one of the greats.
You’re right. I’ve read some of her stories, but it was a while ago so I’ve dipped in and out. It’s still early days for me especially as far as the novels are concerned. She is a tremendous writer though – as you say, one of the greats. I’m sure you’d enjoy revisiting her work at some point.
I love the quotes you pulled out Jacqui, this sounds wonderful. I’ve not read any Elizabeth Taylor and I’ve been meaning to for ages, I have some in the TBR – I’ll have to move them to the top :-)
Glad you enjoyed the quotes, madame bibi. They’re fairly representative of Taylor’s style, so if you like these passages you’ll probably take to her work. It’s worth bumping her up the pile. :)
I’m all in with your commenter above who proclaims that you’re “turning up the heat” on a need to revisit Taylor. Mrs. Palfrey is one of the handful of works I’ve read in the past couple of years that keeps coming back to me. I am simply going to have to set aside some time later this year to read more Taylor. As usual, you do such a fine job of providing just enough of a glimpse of the work to reel one in.
Mrs Palfrey has stayed with me too. I think it’s my favourite of the three I’ve read so far (mind you, the other two were pretty good as well). I can only encourage you to carve out some time for her. Ali has suggested any of the following as suitable follow-on reads after Mrs Palfrey: At Mrs Lippincote’s, A Game of Hide and Seek, The Soul of Kindness or In a Summer Season. Plenty of choice there, Scott!
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I’ll get to her. Someday. I’ve been bad at managing my TBR these days.
“It is not a lover she is after, but some form of companionship” From your review, Julia seems to want someone to talk to her as a womanand not as a housewife with all the expectations and clichés attached to the status.
I’d love to hear what you think of her. She’s my favourite ‘discovery’ in recent years. Yes, Julia’s a great character. She’s frustrated with the narrow confines of her life – as you say, the traditional role of housewife and mother, a woman constrained by her circumstances. I think that’s why she latches on to Wing Commander Mallory as he recognises the individual in her.
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I just started reading this yesterday, and I’ll come back and leave a longer comment once I’ve finished, but a first novel? My gosh but that’s impressive.
Isn’t it just! I loved this, and if anything it’s grown in stature over time. One of those books that resurfaces in the mind every now and again, almost out of nowhere when you’re least expecting it. I still have certain images of Julia in my head. Interestingly, Taylor mentioned at some point that she wrote in scenes rather than in narrative, and I think it’s possible to see some of that in this book. Looking forward to hearing more of your thoughts once you’ve finished it.
As an aside, it’s really nice to hear from you. I’m aware that you’ve probably been snowed under with the new job, but I hope all is relatively okay. Your posts have been missed!
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