Originally issued in 1954, Hester Lilly was Elizabeth Taylor’s first volume of stories. (It’s also my first experience of her short fiction.) There are some brilliant stories here, up there with some of the best scenes from her longer works. The titular piece, in particular, encapsulates many of this writer’s key trademarks: her ability to create nuanced characters with real emotional depth; her acute observations of the subtleties of human interactions; and her capacity to elicit the reader’s sympathy for difficult individuals in spite of their inherent flaws. I’ll come back to this story at the end of my review; but first, a few words about the collection itself.
Hester Lilly comprises seventeen stories of varying length, from brief sketches lasting a couple of pages to the novella-sized titular piece which opens the collection. As with other collections I’ve reviewed, I’m not going try to cover every story; instead, I’ll try to focus on a few favourites to give you a flavour of the volume as a whole.
In the aptly titled story Spry Old Character, a lively veteran horse-trader named Harry has no alternative but to move to a Home for the Blind following the death of his sister/carer. An odd-man-out among the genteel residents of the care home, Harry is left feeling lonely, grumpy and neglected, deflated as he is by the patronising ministrations of Matron and the anodyne environment she seems intent on encouraging.
“You’ll have the company of others like you,” his neighbours had told him. This was not so. He found himself in a society, whose existence he had never, in his old egotism, contemplated and whose ways soon lowered his vitality. He had nothing in common with these faded seamstresses; the prophet-like lay-preacher; an old piano-tuner who believed he was the reincarnation of Beethoven; elderly people who had lived more than half a dim life-time in dark drapers’ shops in country towns. Blind they might not have been; for they found their way about the house, its grounds, the village, with pride and confidence. Indoors, they bickered about the wireless; for the ladies liked a nice domestic play and thought some of the variety programmes ‘suggestive’. The racing results were always switched to something different, hastily, before they could contaminate the air. (pp. 84-85)
In time, Harry makes friends with the local bus drivers and conductors who ferry him around the district on a regular basis – if nothing else, it’s a brief respite from the atmosphere of the home. This is a bittersweet story; the central character is at once both comic and tragic.
Swan-Moving is a very different type of story, one that demonstrates an element of range in Taylor’s work. In this piece, a young swan settles in a dirty pond in a rather shabby, neglected village, much to the fascination of the local residents. Somewhat surprisingly, the swan’s presence seems to spark a sense of change in the locality. As the swan blossoms and grows more resplendent, so do the villagers – for the very first time, they come together to spruce up their village, decorating their houses in bright (albeit rather garish) colours in an effort to improve their environment. This is a lovely story with a slightly magical touch, a delightful addition to the collection.
Taylor’s ear for dialogue comes to the fore in Nods & Becks & Wreathed Smiles as a group of women meet up for a gossip at the local tea shop. Naturally, the subjects under discussion are wide-ranging, from the trials of childbirth to the shortage of fish in the local shops to views on Mrs Liddell’s new ring. This is a short sketch, beautifully observed.
Other stories cover a child’s observations of an elderly woman on holiday from the hustle and bustle of London (The Idea of Age); a woman’s memories of her just-deceased mother as she sits by her side in hospital (First Death of Her Life); and the desperate disappointment of schoolboy’s day out with his mother, their individual worlds seemingly poles apart (A Red-Letter Day). What unites these stories, and many others in this excellent collection, is their ability to capture a scene so effectively, thereby giving the reader access to the thoughts and feelings of the central characters.
Where this collection really excels though is in its depiction of domestic stories: the palpable tensions between semi-estranged partners; the unspoken agonies of lifeless marriages; the painful attempts of a mother to outdo her neighbour.
In Gravement Endommagé, one of my favourite stories in the collection, a married couple – Richard and Louise – drive through the war-ravaged countryside in France, the destruction of the buildings around them only serving to mirror the damaged nature of their relationship. They have come to the continent for a holiday, a trip designed to ‘set things to rights’ between them, their petty bickering with one another having descended into more direct animosity. The years of hardship and isolation during the war have brought about a significant change in Louise, making her fearful and edgy. Now that the grand conflict is over, she remains damaged – intolerant, complaining and overly reliant on drink.
Her doctor, advising the holiday, was only conventional in his optimism. If anyone were benefited by it, it would be the children, stopping at home with their grandmother—for a while, out of the arena. What Richard needed was a holiday away from Louise, and what Louise needed was a holiday from herself, from the very thing she must always take along, the dull carapace of her own dissatisfaction, her chronic unsunniness. (p. 114)
Shadows of the World also falls into this category; it offers a brief yet highly effective snapshot of a family, each individual member orbiting in their own semi-isolated world. This is another beautifully observed story, each thread coming together to form a broader whole.
The star of the show is undoubtedly Hester Lilly, the longest story in the collection at 78 pages. In this piece, a middle-aged woman, Muriel, is dismayed at the prospect of the arrival of her husband’s cousin, a young lady by the name of Hester Lilly. Having been married to Robert for some years, Muriel now feels uncertain of her position in the relationship, and so she imagines Hester, with her undoubted youth and potential beauty, to be a significant threat. However, on Hester’s arrival at the boarding school where Robert works, Muriel fears are initially laid to rest; Hester is gauche, nervous and poorly dressed, every garment appearing to be either too small or too big for her frame.
Nevertheless, it is not long before Muriel realises that she must be on her guard against Hester. With this in mind, she decides upon a pre-emptive strike, casually dropping the following remark into a conversation with her charge: “Of course, you are in love with Robert.” Better to unnerve Hester by tackling the issue head-on before the girl gets a chance to develop any such notions of her own.
Muriel insinuated the idea into the girl’s head, thinking that such an idea would come sooner or later and came better from her, inseparable from the very beginning with shame and confusion. She struck, with that stunning remark, at the right time. For the first week or so Hester was tense with the desire to please, anxiety that she might not earn her keep. Robert would often find her bowed in misery over indecipherable shorthand, or would hear her rip pages out of the typewriter and begin again. The waste-paper basket was usually crammed-fill of spoilt stationary. Once, he discovered her in tears and, half-way across the room to comfort her, wariness overtook him. He walked instead to the window and spoke with his back to her, which seemed to him the only alternative to embracing her. (pp. 8-9)
A little later, Muriel tries to consolidate her position with the following comments, whereby she stresses the triviality of young love and its differentiation from a deeper, more lasting relationship.
“Robert? Oh, yes! Don’t fuss, dear girl. At your age on has to be in love with someone, and Robert does very well for the time being. Perhaps at every age one has to be in love with someone, but when one is young it is difficult to decide whom. Later one becomes more stable. I fell in love with all sorts of unsuitable people—very worrying for one’s mother. But by the time I met Robert I was old enough to be sure that that would last. And it has,” she added quietly; and she chose a strand of white silk and began work on the high-lights of a rose petal. (pp. 13-14)
I suspect some readers might find Muriel a rather cruel and pathetic woman, eaten up with jealousy over the more vulnerable Hester. While I recognise these flaws in Muriel’s character, I couldn’t help but feel a degree of sympathy for her too. She is desperately isolated in her marriage to Robert, a rather cold man who has long revealed himself to be a stranger to her. He no longer displays any tenderness or affection towards Muriel, a fact that is only exacerbated when she finds herself drawn into a compromising position with one of the schoolmasters at a local dance.
This is a terrific story that will test your responses to each of the individual characters. There is also another player in the mix, a desperately sad old woman, Mrs Despenser, who tries to befriend Hester when she goes out for a walk one night. Mrs D is a hangover from a bygone age, a lonely individual living in abject squalor in a dilapidated cottage with only her cat for company. She is desperate for Hester to stay a little while to alleviate her loneliness.
All in all, this is a fine collection of stories, an excellent introduction to Taylor’s short fiction. While a couple of the shorter pieces didn’t quite fly for me, they were never less than well observed. A fairly minor point considering the high quality of the other stories here.
Hester Lilly is published by Virago; personal copy.