I’ve been eager to return to Elizabeth Taylor for a while now, an author whose work I adore. First published in 1964, The Soul of Kindness was one of Taylor’s later novels, and I think it shows. There is a sense of precision in both the writing and the characterisation that suggests it is the work of an accomplished writer, one in full control of her material. Much as I loved the last Taylor I read – her first, At Mrs Lippincote’s – The Soul of Kindness seems a more rounded novel, possibly up there with Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont as my favourite so far.
The storyline in The Soul of Kindness revolves around Flora Quartermaine, a beautiful young woman who seems to have the perfect life. She is married to Richard, her loving husband and hard-working businessman, manager of the family-owned factory passed down from his father, Percy. In addition to Richard, Flora has a close circle of friends upon whom she lavishes her own unique brand of kindness: there is the long-suffering Meg, her closest friend from school; Patrick, the writer who looks forward to Flora’s company as a respite from his work; and Kit, Meg’s younger brother, who quite literally worships Flora, looking up to her as a sort of benefactor or mentor.
While Flora considers herself to be the very soul of kindness, in reality this is far from the truth, her good intentions often causing more harm than good. Kit, an aspiring actor, has very little real talent, but Flora encourages him terribly, building up his hopes and dreams with the best of intentions even though everyone else can see how futile and potentially damaging this is proving to be. Flora, however, always thinks she knows what’s best for her friends, even if they can’t see it for themselves. To give you an example, here’s Flora in action – a scene in which she is talking to Ba, Percy’s level-headed lady friend / prospective partner.
‘Why don’t you have a cat?’ Flora asked.
‘I don’t want a cat.’
‘But it would be lovely for you. Percy likes cats.’
‘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 at all. Although as good as gold, she had inconvenient plans for other people’s pleasure, and ideas differing from her own she was not able to imagine. (p. 18)
Right from the start, Flora’s mother, the well-intentioned Mrs Secretan, encouraged her daughter (an only child) to adopt only the rosiest view of human nature; and none of Flora’s experiences since then have succeeded in altering this mindset. To a certain extent, Flora has been shielded from the harsh realities of life by those around her. First by her mother in those early years, then by Meg who recognised that the protective environment nurtured by Mrs Secretan could not be broken down without consequences. Now the bulk of the responsibility for preserving Flora’s happiness has passed to Richard, a task he clearly acknowledges as presenting difficulties from time to time. In this scene, Richard is wondering why he has not told Flora about a chance encounter with one of his neighbours, the rather lonely Elinor Pringle, a woman with whom he has developed a close friendship. While Elinor is not in love with Richard, she values his companionship, someone to talk to and have a drink with every now and again while her busy politician husband is caught up in his work.
To have kept quiet about it, had given it the significance of a secret arrangement. Now it was too late, and if Flora came to hear of it, as more than likely she might, a little puzzled frown would come between her brows – the expression she wore when she was bewildered by other standards of behaviour than her own. But we’ve preserved the face pretty well, between us, Richard thought; not fearing ageing lines, but the loss of innocence. So far, and by the skin of his teeth, he felt. The face was his responsibility now and it would surely be his fault if it were altered, if the Botticelli calm were broken, or the appealing gaze veiled. (p. 71-72)
Slowly but surely over the course of the novel, Elizabeth Taylor reveals the true extent of Flora’s lack of self-awareness and her rather blinkered view of the lives of those around her. Flora has very little understanding of the real impact of her acts of ‘kindness’ on her closest friends and family, a point that hits home to Mrs Secretan when she finds this letter from her daughter at the end of the wedding.
Mrs Secretan took the letter and opened it. ‘You have been the most wonderful mother,’ she read. ‘I had a beautiful childhood.’ So it was to be regarded as finished? The words were the kind which might be spoken from a deathbed or to someone lying on one. If only, Mrs Secretan thought yearningly, if only Flora had written ‘You are such a wonderful mother.’ That would have made all the difference, she thought – would have made it seem that there was still a place for me. (p. 13)
She read the letter through again, telling herself that Flora had meant well, meant very well, poor girl. In fact she had always meant well. That intention had been seen clearly, lying behind some of her biggest mistakes. (p. 15)
Mrs Secretan is a typical Elizabeth Taylor character. There is a sense of despondency about her, knowing as she does that a life of loneliness almost certainly lies ahead, now that Flora has flown the nest. There are some priceless scenes between Mrs Secretan and her slightly dotty housekeeper, Miss Folley, a woman whose pride is wounded when she discovers she is the source of some amusement and frustration in the Secretan household.
Flora’s friend, Meg, is another lonely woman; in love with the wrong person – Patrick, the writer, who happens to be gay. She feels the burden of responsibility for supporting Kit, both financially and emotionally, while Flora fills Kit’s head with dreams of an acting career. In the face of diminishing funds, Meg is forced to look for a new place to live, somewhere outside of London. Patrick, in his infinite wisdom, suggests Towersey, a little town by the Thames, and he and Meg spend a dispiriting Saturday afternoon looking at one dismal dwelling after another. Eventually, Meg settles on the least-worst option, the best of a bad lot. Once again, Taylor conveys the quiet tragedy of Meg’s life through her astute observations, perfectly capturing the sadness and isolation of her circumstances – a mood she reflects in the descriptions of dreary Towersey, with its melancholy atmosphere and late afternoon light.
Patrick too has problems of his own, having fallen for the thoroughly unsuitable Frankie, a somewhat petulant and unreliable young man who seems out for what he can get. Flora, for her part, simply cannot work out why Patrick doesn’t ask Meg to marry him, refusing to believe all the talk of him being gay. As far as Flora is concerned, these fanciful ideas are just gossip and conjecture.
While I may have made this sound like a sad novel, there are some brilliant flashes of humour here too. Percy, Flora’s blustering father-in-law, is a marvellous creation, a traditional man with rather conventional views about life and women. He is forever meddling in Richard’s business affairs, returning to the factory and poking his nose into things even though he has supposedly retired from work. Percy features in several wonderful passages, but I couldn’t resist including the following one. Ba – now Percy’s wife – has gone on a trip to France, leaving Percy to fend for himself for a week. As a consequence, he decides to call on Flora in the hope of being invited to dinner. (Alice is Flora and Richard’s baby daughter, Mrs Lodge their housekeeper.)
Mrs Lodge opened the door to him. Although it was only half-past five a faint but appetising smell of roasting meat came up the stairs. It must be a very large joint to have been put on so early, he decided. There would be plenty for him, but he hoped there wasn’t going to be a dinner party. Of course, they lived well, he thought vaguely, taking off his overcoat and handing it to Mrs Lodge, who almost staggered under its weight.
Patrick Barlow stood up as the drawing-room door was opened. Always here, thought Percy. He wondered why Richard did not put his put his foot down. Flora sat on the sofa. Alice was on her lap, having her napkins changed.
Good God, thought Percy. […]
In the drawing-room, he thought. In company. (p. 139-140)
The Soul of Kindness is another brilliant novel from Elizabeth Taylor, one that features so many little insights into different aspects of human nature it’s hard to convey them all here. While Flora’s lack of self-awareness and understanding is a key focus for the novel, Taylor remains mindful of touching on the other major characters and their personal troubles. There are instances of wounded pride, unrequited love, loneliness, worthlessness, bitterness, guilt, and the need for a little warmth or affection. In the end though, the story comes back to Flora and the fallout from her misguided actions. Perhaps only one character in the novel – the bohemian painter, Liz Corbett, a friend of Patrick and Kit – can see Flora for what she truly is: a dangerous and deluded creature. Interestingly, Liz never actual meets Flora in person; she only hears about her through the other characters, which puts an interesting spin on her perspective.
Things come to a head towards the end of the story, but I’ll leave you to discover the denouement for yourselves, should you decide to read the book. It’s well worth doing so.
The Soul of Kindness is published by Virago Modern Classics.
This sounds like Taylor at the height of her powers – wonderful!
I thought it was tremendous, so cleverly plotted and constructed. It felt good to be back in her world again.
I loved this book when I reviewed it on my blog too. I thought the way Elizabeth Taylor built the character of Flora was tremendous. We probably all know someone as self-centred as Flora, but it is hard to say why they are so destructive, but the novel shows us quite clearly. Flora’s mother is also an excellent character. And you are right there is some great humour.
Yes, she knew exactly how much to reveal and when to do so to enable the reader to build that picture of Flora over the course of the novel. It’s all very skillfully constructed. I couldn’t help but feel for Flora’s mother at various points in the story, especially when she thinks she is ill and Richard ends up paying her a visit – that’s such a touching scene.
I haven’t seen your review, Caroline, so I’ll drop by later in the week. It’s great to hear that you loved this book too.
Here’s a link to Caroline’s excellent review. (I should mention that it reveals a key plot development in relation to Kit’s trajectory which readers may want to avoid if they haven’t read the book.)
Mrs P is high up on the TBR pile, so I’ll postpone reading this post until later. I’m looking forward to my first ET novel, having just finished the Complete Stories
Great. I’m trying to save her stories for a while, maybe until I’ve read a few more of the novels. Do drop back once you’ve finished with Mrs P as I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Possibly up there with Mrs Palfrey – well, now you’ve grabbed my attention. I love Elizabeth Taylor, especially Mrs P, but haven’t come across this novel – yet. it’s definitely going down on the wish list!
That’s great! I doubt whether Elizabeth Taylor ever wrote a bad novel, but this is definitely something special. The characterisation of Flora is superb.
Flora is my mother – although she tends to have grey-coloured spectacles on rather than pink regarding everybody’s intentions and needs. It sounds beautifully subtle and complex, you’ve tempted me greatly (love Elizabeth Taylor).
Is your mother friend with mine?
Oh my goodness. Well, this sounds like a must-read for you (and possibly for your mother too). Yes, subtle and complex is a good way of describing it. That’s a tricky combination to pull off successfully, but I think Taylor manages it here – she really is one of a kind.
Maybe not for my mother – although isn’t it funny that people never recognise themselves in negative character portrayals?
Yes, that’s often the way…
Jacqui, this sounds wonderful! I love the quote about her mother receiving the letter. Lovely stuff.
Isn’t it wonderful? As soon as I saw it, I knew I had to include it in my review. Luckily it was one of the first quotes I marked up, so it was easy to find when it came to putting my post together. I think it’s a feeling we can all relate to at some point in our lives – a desire to feel valued and appreciated, especially by those who are closest to us. .
This sounds excellent and it reminds me of Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler. Have you read it?
The Floras of the world are terrible because they’re toxic and you can’t be nasty to them as their actions are based on good intentions.
Ooh, no – I haven’t read Breathing Lessons, but it has been recommended to me as a good place to start with Tyler (I’ve yet to try anything by her). Re: Flora – yes, that’s it exactly. All her friends and family treat her with kid gloves as she genuinely means well, but all her good intentions are hopelessly misguided.
It’s much, much too long since I read Elizabeth Taylor. You review has me curious about this one, and I know I have a copy.
Oh, I’m glad I’ve piqued your interest in reading this one, Jane. There’s a good chance you’ll like it, so it’s great to hear that you already have a copy. I’m trying to read one or two of her novels each year, just to space them out a little bit.
Another great review Jacqui.
You have convinced me beyond all doubt that I want to read Elizabeth Taylor.
The quotation that you posted about the letter is very good.
Hooray! I doubt you’ll be disappointed, Brian. I think she’s been compared to Jane Austen, so I’ll be fascinated to see what you think of her work. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont would be a great one to try as it’s a favourite among Taylor aficionados – and it will give you a good introduction to her style and observational skills. I do hope you decide to give her a go.
Brilliant review Jacqui. I loved this book and it really stayed with me. Flora is such a fascinating character, though all characters have such depth in Elizabeth Taylor novels.
Thanks, Ali. Yes, I think it will stay with me too. Flora is pretty unforgettable, and I suspect Percy will have staying power too. Taylor is so skilled when it comes to characterisation – all her novels are such a joy to read.
This sounds marvellous. I haven’t come across a review of this until now. It sounds brilliant.
Flora does sound interesting, indeed.
I still have one of her novels on my piles but as soon as I’ve read that, I’ll get to this. Although . . . maybe I’ll even read next.
No, I hadn’t seen any reviews of it anywhere, although Caroline at book word just mentioned that she had posted on it some time ago, possibly before I started following her blog. It is rather brilliant, especially given the way Taylor constructs a picture of Flora, slowly revealing more insights into her character as the novel unravels. I would be fascinated to hear your thoughts on this one!
Hi Jacqui, Thanks for your subtle and lovely review, as well as for introducing me to this author. Given the dark days we are living in in the states right now, and the long, grinding resistance ahead, this book will be a tonic. I have not yet read the other comments, but I thought of Jane Austen’s “Emma.” Will also be interesting to see if there are any similarities to Barbara Pym. So glad writers like Taylor are being kept alive in this way.
Oh, you’re very welcome, Maureen. I think Jane Austen’s Emma is a great reference point. It’s been ages since I last read that novel, but as far as I can recall there are some clear similarities between the two characters – especially when it comes to misguided intentions and meddling in the lives of others. If you like Barbara Pym, then there’s a good chance you’ll take to Elizabeth Taylor. She is perhaps more serious than Pym, but her novels are packed full of subtle and insightful observations on human nature. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont would be a great one to try first, just to see how you find her style.
Excellent review as always Jacqui, though I liked this book much less than you. Her characterisation is great as always, but I found it lacked credibility that people would shelter Flora so, and also that Meg would return after what had happened. But still worth reading, as is everything by Taylor.
Ah, it’s interesting to hear another perspective on this one. Did you review it, Karen? If so, feel free to post a link here. I guess I just went with the story, partly because I’ve encountered someone similar to Flora in the past – not quite in the same league as her, but close enough. I’ve seen others treating this individual with kid gloves, perpetuating the myth that has been created in the process. So, in light of this I bought into the storyline for better or for worse. Nevertheless, I can see where you’re coming from in terms of your reservations about it…
My take on it was here:
And I can understand that the story would resonate if you have personal experience of a Flora! :)
Thanks, Karen. I’ll take a look at that.
Great review. Kit reminds me of the girl in High Rising by Angela Thirkell who is actually a bad writer but keeps writing a novel. Thankfully she is relieved to find out that she is a bad writer in the end.
I am glad to read there is humour in this book. It did sound like a very sad read.
Ah, Kit is more of a hopeless case than Laura from High Rising. I’m afraid his plight is much more desperate – and unlike Laura, he really doesn’t have any talent for his chosen path (or at least the one he aspires to). The humour definitely leavens the novel – it works well as a contrast to the more melancholy sections of the story.
Comparison to Mrs Palfrey is high praise indeed. I had a funny feeling the title might be ironic! Flora reminded me a little of some of Robin Jenkins’ characters – though their misplaced determination to do good often has a religious element.
Yes, it’s dripping in irony! I’m not at all familiar with Robin Jenkins, so I’ll have to look him up. In fact, I’d never even heard of him before you mentioned him here…
This is an author I suspect that once you get into her style, you become a fan for life. So far I’ve read three of her novels – loved two, really didnt ‘get’ the other (Wreath of Roses).
Yes, I think you’re right about that. I am so taken with her work that I want to read pretty much everything she’s ever written, Wreath of Roses included. Maybe I should try that one next just to see how it compares with the others…
Enjoyed this, Jacqui. Been meaning to read this one for a while and your review makes me all the more eager. Have you read A Wreath of Roses?That one and Blaming are my favourite Taylors. She’s a treasure.
Thanks, Dorian. Flora is a fascinating character, and I would love to hear your thoughts on her. A Wreath of Roses is in my TBR, so I’m sure I’ll be reading it within the next year or so (I tend to prefer to leave a bit of a gap between novels by the same author, just to mix things up a little). Glad to hear you rate it so highly – that’s good to know!
Lovely review Jacqui. I’ve only read Angel by Taylor and it was an excellent book and I keep meaning to read more and never getting around to it. Will add Miss Palfrey and The Soul of Kindness to my list, thanks. I love the quotes and the way Taylor seems to be able to create unpleasant female characters without resorting to cliché or over-simplicity. Her characters seem to always be complex and fully rounded.
Thanks, Belinda. Yes, she’s not afraid to paint her characters in a less-than-sympathetic light, complete with all their inherent flaws and foibles. Julia in At Mrs Lippincote’s felt very realistic too, so far removed from the standard, cliched women often depicted in literature. I’m glad you like the quotes I’ve chosen here. She’s a truly wonderful writer, definitely one of my best ‘discoveries’ in recent years.
High praise for this author indeed! I am still determined to start my discovery of Taylor with Mrs. Palfry, a book I purchased after your recommendation. But it’s good to know that there will be plenty more if I love it even half as much as you do. :)
Lovely. Mrs Palfrey was where I started with Elizabeth Taylor, and I’ve never looked back since. Her observations are quite brilliant – I do hope you enjoy her. :)
I found this to be one of the best Taylor novels I’ve read so far. Such insights into human nature and behaviour.
Yes, I agree completely – and so many different facets of human behaviour too. I loved the scenes between Mrs Secretan and her housekeeper – well, everything featuring Mrs S, in fact. There were some wonderful insights into Percy’s character too. The section where he’s playing along with the TV quiz is very revealing, especially when he pretends that he hasn’t heard the question properly.
She is one of my MustReadEverything authors, and if that sounds familiar, it’s likely because I was just saying the same thing to you about Barbara Pym. I discovered them around the same time, and have the same fondness for them, but of course there are some differences too. What you’ve said about wondering if all the talk of this one made it sound sad, but there is humour too? That seems to characterize her works more generally, wouldn’t you say? Both sensations are there, but the undercurrent of sadness seems to swell forth more obviously at times…and, yet, we mightn’t read on – and return so often – if the other wasn’t present as well?
I feel much the same way on all counts. Like you, I got into Taylor and Pym at roughly the same time, and I’ve yet to tire of either of them. It’s interesting to see that you’ve highlighted the characteristic blend of sadness and humour. Maybe that’s why I enjoyed this novel so much. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is in a similar vein, full of illuminating insights into human nature, balancing the melancholy tone with some wonderfully comic moments along the way. Penelope Fitzgerald is another writer I would highlight in this respect. I don’t know if you’ve ever read any of her work, but If not, The Bookshop and Offshore are in the same ballpark as these Elizabeth Taylor novels – although possibly erring more to the side of a tragicomedy, especially in the case of Offshore.
I have never read any Elizabeth Taylor but this book looks good! I like novels that read a bit like character studies and The Soul of Kindness seems to be one of them.
She’s very strong on characterisation – it’s been a prominent feature in all of the Taylors I’ve read so far. If you enjoy that type of book then I would definitely recommend you give her a go. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont would be a good one to try as it feels so indicative of her style. It’s one of her best-loved novels, and it’s not difficult to see why.
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Sounds like one of her best and most insightful, I saw Ali mention this one on Cathy’s blog post about the books that built the blogger and her comments there stayed with me, so thought I’d check out what you had to say about it, knowing that likely it would similarly resonate. I don’t own any of her books yet, but I know eventually I will and by then I know which I’ll be reading first!
Laughing out loud at some of the comments by those who see some of their nearest and dearest in Flora, that reminds me of similar comments I received when I reviewed Colm Toibin’s Nora Webster, I believe that you were one of them who could recognise and authenticate Nora’s behaviour!
Elizabeth Taylor has undoubtedly been my best ‘discovery’ in recent years. I say that with a tinge of irony in my voice as I really ought to have started reading her years ago seeing as she was one of my mother’s favourite writers. But then again, we often rebel against the interests of our parents when we’re young and foolish and determined to forge our own paths in life. Other fans of Taylor’s work have expressed some reservations about The Soul of Kindness, (Kaggsy, for instance), but I thought it was marvellous. If you’re looking to give her a try at some stage, then I would strongly recommend Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont as a suitable starting point – it’s probably her best-loved work, plus I think it’s the sort of book you would enjoy.
And yes, I certainly recognised an element of Nora Webster in my own mother. So many things about that novel resonated with me – Nora’s state of mind, her stubbornness and need for privacy at various points. The depiction of small-town Ireland felt very authentic too. Toibin’s brilliant when it comes to these things – characterisation and sense of place are his real strengths.
Glad I saved this to read. It does sound a particularly good one. Do you have any thoughts at this point on which Taylor’s you best regard, which least?
Thank you for taking the time to catch up with it. To be honest, it’s a little like splitting hairs as they’re all so good. I think my favourite remains Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, but this one comes pretty close. Flora is such a brilliant character, completely blind to the detrimental effects of her so-called acts of kindness, she’s a real liability. I would also highlight Taylor’s debut, At Mrs Lippincote’s, which I read last year. Not a perfect novel by any means, but the characterisation is excellent – plus it’s interesting to see how her work develops over the years.
While you’re here, you might want to take a look at Barbara Pym’s Crampton Hodnet, which I reviewed at around the same time. I thought it was hilarious, almost as though she packed all her best jokes and observations into her first novel. It was published posthumously in the mid 1980s, but it reads like classic Pym. I think you’d love it.
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