I’ve been itching to get back to reading 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 this for themselves. Here’s a typical example of Flora in action – in this scene, she is talking to Ba, Percy’s level-headed lady friend and prospective partner in life.
‘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 own world.
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 his 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 wonderful observations, perfectly capturing the sadness and isolation of her circumstances. Moreover, the melancholy mood is reflected in the descriptions of the atmosphere and late afternoon light in dreary Towersey.
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.
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 this 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. This novel is not just about Flora and her lack of understanding; it’s just as much about the other characters and their troubles too. There are instances of wounded pride, unrequited love, the need for a little warmth and affection, loneliness, worthlessness, bitterness and guilt. 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’s and Kit’s – 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.
Things come to a head towards the end of the story, but I’ll leave you to discover the denouement for yourselves – it’s well worth doing so.
The Soul of Kindness is published by Virago Modern Classics.