A View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor

First published in 1947, A View of the Harbour was Elizabeth Taylor’s third novel, a beautifully-crafted story of the complications of life, love and family relationships, all set within a small, close-knit community. The setting is Newby, a sleepy, down-at-heel harbour town on the English coast a year or so after the end of WW2. In some ways, Newby reminds me of Hardborough, the fictional town in Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel The Bookshop, as it’s the sort of place where everyone – with one or two notable exceptions – knows everyone else’s business.

The town’s inhabitants are an interesting bunch. As ever with Elizabeth Taylor, each character is drawn with great care and attention to detail irrespective of whether they are likeable or not.

There is Beth Cabazon, the rather self-absorbed but amiable novelist, her husband, Robert, the local doctor, and the couple’s two children, twenty-year-old Prudence and five-year-old Stevie. Living next door to the Cazabons is Beth’s closest friend, Tory Foyle, a sophisticated and glamorous divorcee who finds life in Newby a little dull without her husband, Teddy. Then there is old Mrs Bracey, the longstanding proprietor of the town’s second-hand clothes shop, and her two daughters, Iris and Maisie. And finally (at least for now) there is Lily Wilson, the desperately lonely widow who lives above the local Waxworks Museum which she also runs for a living. This early picture of Lily goes a long way towards capturing the emptiness of her life, the feeling of fear and desolation as she contemplates yet another solitary night ahead.

When she saw the light swinging over the water she felt terror and desolation, the approach of the long evening through which she must coax herself with cups of tea, a letter to her brother in Canada or this piece of knitting she had dropped to the floor as she leant to the pane to watch Bertram, the harsh lace curtain against her cheek, the cottony, dusty smell of it setting her teeth on edge. (p. 13)

Into this mix comes Bertram Hemingway, a retired Naval Officer who intends to spend his time capturing the local scenery in a painting – ideally a magnificent view of the harbour which he hopes to leave behind as a memento of his visit. Bertram is lodging at The Anchor, the local pub where Iris Bracey works as a barmaid. Lily Wilson can be found there too, as she has started going to the pub just to avoid being home alone every evening – the eerie atmosphere created by the waxworks only adds to her anxiety.

Slowly but surely, Bertram comes into contact with virtually all of the town’s inhabitants, affecting their lives in subtle and not so subtle ways. At first, Lily Wilson wonders whether Bertram could be the answer to her loneliness, especially when he buys her drinks and offers to escort her home from the pub at closing time. However, while he may appear gallant on the outside, Bertram is most certainly not quite as caring on the inside. He has a selfish or self-centred streak – something Taylor carefully reveals to us as catches Bertram in a private moment.

He walked back to the pub, feeling very pleased with himself. Very tactfully he had done a great kindness. When he was kind to people he had to love them; but when he had loved them for a little while he wished only to be rid of them and so that he might free himself would not hesitate to inflict all the cruelties which his sensibility knew they could not endure. (p. 54)

Bertram, for his part, is more taken with Tory, whom he views as a bright and attractive woman – and, in time, as a possible future partner. With a view to settling down to a life of mutual understanding and companionship, Bertram proposes marriage to Tory, albeit in a fairly light-hearted but presumptuous way. Little does he know, at least at the beginning, that Tory is involved with Robert Cazabon, a furtive little affair that has been developing for some time – mostly in moments snatched here and there, supposedly away from the prying eyes of the town’s inhabitants. For the rather brisk and unappreciative Robert, Tory represents an escape from the crushing dullness and monotony of his life, the daily routine of patients, mealtimes and family responsibilities.

Luckily for Robert and Tory, Beth Cazabon is too wrapped up in the process of writing her novel to notice what is going on under her nose – the trials and tribulations of her fictional characters are of greater interest to Beth than those of her own husband and children. Prudence, however, is another matter. Considered slow or a little ‘touched’ by some of the locals, Prudence is actually much more perceptive than most people realise. She has seen Robert and Tory arriving home together, overheard snatches of conversation here and there – and naturally it doesn’t take long for her to put two and two together. Quite correctly as it turns out.

Also watching and absorbing the various goings-on in Newby is Mrs Bracey, a bawdy, gossipy woman who remains confined to her bed by a combination of disabilities and illnesses. With the arrival of spring, Mrs B asks to be moved to the upstairs bedroom where she can view the town from a suitable vantage point, supplementing the titbits of news she extracts from Iris on her return from the pub. Mrs Bracey is also wise to the true nature of Tory’s relationship with Robert, observing the situation with all its inherent deceit and secrecy.

So she watched them curtly greeting one another as they did this evening – Robert driving up in the car just as Tory rounded the corner – watched them exchange a few words, and Robert running his eye over Tory’s London clothes as if in disapproval; and she knew, as surely as if she could hear their words, how briefly, how cunningly, they laid their plans, their lives whittled down to those few moments when they could be together, a few words passing swiftly between them or their finger-tips contriving to brush together as if by accident, a glance, a touch, an innuendo in the presence of others – the rest darkness. (pp. 218-219)

As the story plays out, we wonder how far Tory will go in risking her friendship with Beth. Will her love (if it really is love) for Robert win out? Or will she make a clean break of it, choosing instead to save the feelings of her closest friend? You’ll have to read the novel to find out.

As I mentioned earlier, the characterisation is uniformly excellent here – not only the main players but several of the minor characters too. Prudence is spot on, mooning around all day with her two Siamese cats, equally disapproving of her father and Tory alike. Stevie, the Cazabons’ youngest daughter, is in a world of her own, forever speaking her mind or engaging in mild tantrums, much to Robert’s annoyance.

I also enjoyed the banter between the Braceys, especially the two daughters, Iris and Maisie, who have to share not only a room but a bed too. Iris, the daydreamer, longs for someone famous to come to Newby to liven up the place – Laurence Olivier, for example – while the more down-to-earth Maisie just wishes her mother would fade away and die. The need to care for old Mrs Bracey is stopping Maisie from having any kind of life of her own – she can’t even nip out to the cinema with one of the local lads for fear of her mother having a turn.

While the novel’s tone is quite dark at times, there are several moments of lightness too. Stevie’s outbursts are a delight, gloriously refreshing and unfiltered. Then there are the letters Tory receives from her young son, Edward, who is away at boarding school – little comic gems in their own right. Not to mention Mrs Bracey’s tendency towards indiscretion, especially when passing judgement on one of her neighbours.

I’ll finish with an example of one of the many things I loved about this novel – Taylor’s ability to rove around the town, capturing little sketches of various scenes as she goes. Here’s one of my favourites.

Lily ate fish and chips at the Mimosa Cafê, her book propped against a bottle of sauce. The fleet had come in and up at the market the floor was deep with fish, blue and black-barred, a mass of dinted silver, crimson-eyed. At the Anchor Iris was busy for once, with not a minute to wipe down the wet counter or to collect glasses. All over the harbour waters was a frenzied screaming of gulls. Mrs Bracey waited with impatience for her dinner and for her daughter to return at closing-time. Smells of stew crept round the kitchen. She trembled with exasperation, imagining the greyish meat slipping off the bone, the rings of onions, the pearl-barley, the golden sequins of fat glinting on the surface. And she thought too of the jug of draught stout Iris would bring back and her hands plucked peevishly at the bed covers. (p.43)

Several other bloggers have reviewed this novel. You can find links to some of them in this post about Simon and Karen’s 1947 Club.

A View of the Harbour is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

43 thoughts on “A View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor

  1. heavenali

    Brilliant review. I really love this book, although I have only read it once, so you’re definitely making me want to re-read it. Such wonderful characterisation and Taylor perfectly captures the mood of the people in a small seaside town, bored, lonely gossipy etc.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, that’s exactly why the Penelope Fitzgerald comes to mind as the settings feel quite similar. There’s a lot of people-watching going on here – Beth catching her father with Tory, Mrs Bracey watching the various goings-on from her upstairs window. Even Bertram is an observer of sorts, albeit a somewhat deluded one. What a wonderful canvas for Taylor to explore!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m so glad to hear that you loved this too. And yes, what a wonderful creation in Mrs Bracey. Taylor seems to have a real knack when it comes capturing these bawdy, gossipy women – frequently charladies or landladies.

      I think you might appreciate the following snippet of dialogue from the book as it features Mrs Bracey reflecting on some gossip about Tory and Bertram (a passage I couldn’t quite shoehorn into my review). Bertram has been seen cleaning the brass on Tory’s front door. Mrs Bracey is the first to speak, followed by her daughter, Maisie. (Mr Lidiard is the curate, Mrs Flitcroft the Cazabons’ charlady.)

      ‘I hear Mrs Foyle’s getting herself talked about again,’ Mrs Bracey went on, turning to the curate.
      ‘Mother, don’t gossip.’
      ‘Let him see her in her true colours.’
      Mr Lidiard stiffened. He would have spoken up for Tory, but he realised it was useless. With Mrs Bracey there was nothing to do but wait for her to die, which she would probably do long after her time.
      ‘Did he go inside with her afterwards?’ she asked Mrs Flitcroft.
      ‘After what?’
      ‘Cleaning the brass.’
      ‘I couldn’t say, I’m sure.’ Mrs Flitcroft said, very off-hand, for the curate’s benefit, but nodding behind his back.
      ‘There’s the shop again, Maisie. When you’ve finished serving we’ll have a cup of tea.’

  2. Simon T

    Lovely review – and one of my favourite Taylor novels. As you say, she’s so good at a paragraph that takes through the town – the bit you quote for that is wonderful.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you. I had a feeling it was one of your favourites – that’s great to hear. I adore those passages where she roves around the town, offering little glimpses of the characters’ lives as she goes. There’s something terribly tragic about that image of Mrs Bracey lying in bed as she awaits her daughter’s return. Maybe it’s the little detail about her hands plucking away at the bed cover, almost in desperation as well as annoyance.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Well, yes – she certainly sets a very high bar. The only Taylor I didn’t particularly enjoy was Angel, which I read earlier this year – rubbish timing on my part, no doubt. That said, I found it less sympathetic than her others, crueller perhaps, certainly in its portrayal of the central character Angel Deverell. It’s still a good book – just a bit different from the others I’ve read by her, and maybe not for me.

      Going back to the Harbour for a mo, I think you’d really like it, especially given your fondness for Penelope Fitzgerald’s Bookshop. It’s up there with the rest of my favourites.

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Excellent review as always Jacqui. This is such a good book, one of my favourite Taylors, though I read it pre-blog during a year long read of her books. She’s so good on character and so subtle at times – and yes, there is a darkness always lurking in her stories.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. I’m sure it would stand up to a re-read if you ever fancy a return to Taylorsville!

      Yes, there’s always an edge to her writing, a bit of shade alongside the light. I found it rather melancholic in parts too (in a good way, if that makes sense). Those little pen portraits of Lily Wilson were so poignant, especially the scenes between her and Bertram. I couldn’t help but feel for her in the end.

  4. Izzy

    At the risk of soundind very superficial, and though this has been on my wishlist forever, I’m waiting in case Virago also released this one with a special cover, like the ones they did for A Game of Hide and Seek, or A Wreath of Roses, and especially for Angel, with its superb blue peacock !

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Not superficial at all – they’re beautiful editions! I had already bought the NYRB by the time the new Viragos started to appear last year, otherwise I might have been tempted to hang on myself. Mind you, I am very partial to these NYRB editions, and this particular example is one of the prettiest – the cover image seems to capture the town so perfectly.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, yes – please do give her a try, Jessie. She’s all kinds of wonderful. This would be a good one to start with as it came fairly early in her career. Plus, I think it would give you a great indication of her style. Enjoy.

  5. Grier

    I’m reading this right now, slowly, as I haven’t had much reading time this week and am savoring every word. I’m interested in your comments about Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop and do see a parallel. I’m reading a Virago edition with an afterword by Robbert Liddell. I really enjoyed your review.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Wonderful. I’m delighted to hear that you’re enjoying it too. And yes, it’s certainly a novel to savour – one of her best, I think.

      The setting is beautifully evoked here, complete with all the secrets, deceptions and observations of small-town life. I think that’s why The Bookshop came to mind as I was reading it. Both of these writers (Taylor and Fitzgerald) are adept at capturing a feeling of loneliness in their work. There’s a sense of emptiness in some of these individuals’ lives which feels very true to life.

      1. Grier

        I just finished it and wasn’t expecting the surprise at the very end, the appearance of Tory’s husband. Fabulous! This novel will make my favorite books of the year list.

        1. JacquiWine Post author

          I really liked the ending of this one – it just felt so ‘right’ for all parties involved! I’m so glad you enjoyed it – definitely a reading highlight for me too.

  6. clodge2013

    Excellent review. It makes me think it must be time to reread this. To relish all over again the specific pleasures of this account of the harbour community.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Caroline. I’m sure it would stand up to another reading. Taylor’s portrait of this small-town community is so richly observed that you’re bound to get even more out of it second time around.

  7. BookerTalk

    Reading your review brought back the pleasure I had in reading this a year or so again. Like you I loved the characterisation but I also thought she captured extremely well that kind of seaside town that is essentially a throw-back to the times before people started taking their holidays abroad. Now they all look a bit sad and dejected, especially in winter

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Lovely. Yes, I completely agree with you on the atmosphere in the town. There’s a definite post-war feel to the place, particularly in the pub, cafe and waxworks museum. The fact that Iris is waiting for something exciting to happen only emphasises that underlying sense of neglect and dreariness.

  8. Sarah

    I really enjoyed revisiting this wonderful novel through your review. It perfectly captures the oppressive noseyness of a small village.

  9. madamebibilophile

    Everything about this appeals to me. Elizabeth Taylor is such a highly skilled writer, and the comparison to The Bookshop means I can’t wait for my book-buying ban to end – I’m going to have to scuttle to the library for this one! Wonderful review as always Jacqui :-)

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! Thanks, Madame Bibi. I think you’re going to love this one. It’s actually quite affecting in a somewhat melancholy way. Amidst the moments of dark humour, you get a sense of these disparate souls drifting around the harbour town, intersecting with one another but very rarely connecting. It’s a great novel, one of my favourites this year.

  10. Caroline

    Oh this sounds like another one to look forward to. That last quote is so wonderful. I’ll get to this sooner or later for now I still have The Soul of Kindness and In a Summer Season.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, indeed. There’s a lot to look forward to here, not least the little sections where Taylor takes a helicopter view of the town, alighting on various characters in turn. She does this a few times over the course of the story, and the passages in question really stand out. It’s a truly lovely book – I’m sure you’ll enjoy it whenever you get the chance.

  11. Scott W

    Terrific commentary, Jacqui. This was among the first books I read this year and will certainly go on my highlights of the year list. I love how Taylor interweaves Beth’s writing and Bertram’s painting into her portrait of small town life, such that the novel develops like a novel being written and a painting being painted. And the book is so funny too – another aspect to recommend it.

    I’ve puzzled over the connection of A View of the Harbour with Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, which serves as an obvious reference to the point where Taylor’s novel almost seems a kind of dialogue with or even riposte to Woolf’s. But I can’t quite make out what Taylor thinks of Woolf; she certainly seems to bring her back to earth a bit, to the quotidian intrigues of village life rather than the lofty meditations on time and art. Betram doesn’t lay down his brush in “extreme fatigue” at the end, having had his vision like Lily Briscoe; he just finishes his little portrait and hangs it in the pub. And of course Angel is also a fictional engagement with the business of writing, so it fits that Taylor is doing this again here.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Scott. I’m so glad you enjoyed this novel too. I think it’s one of my favourite Taylors – certainly up there with Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, my introduction to her work.

      That’s a terrific point about the way Taylor touches on Beth’s writing and Betram’s painting at various points in the book. And I love the way you’ve expressed this in your comments – what a wonderful way of looking at it! I really warmed to Beth as a character in spite of her rather scatterbrain approach. Deep down you get the feeling that she cares about her family – she just has a funny way of showing it. Betram is a bit of an oddball too — but then again, he’s the only one who tries to reach out to Prudence in an effort to connect with her in some way. Perhaps Bertram sees something of himself in her, another lonely or misunderstood soul lacking a bit of direction in life.

      I’m really interested in your points about a possible connection between Harbour and Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, too. That said, I’m struggling to comment any further due to a lack of any real understanding of that book. (For personal reasons, it’s been quite a while since I read any Woolf, and I can’t see that changing in the near future – sorry!) I’m kind of hoping Grant will drop by at some point as he read To the Lighthouse not so long ago. He’s also read a lot of Taylor, this one included.

      I hadn’t thought about any links between Harbour and Angel, but now you’ve highlighted the interest in the writing process I can see the connection. Have you read Palladian, another of Taylor’s early novels? It’s a sort of riff on Jane Austin’s territory – some of the themes are pretty similar. Maybe that’s another indication of Taylor’s interest in the business of writing, a sort of homage to one of the literary giants?

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