Blaming by Elizabeth Taylor  

As some of you may know, this week is all about the #1976Club, Karen and Simon’s celebration of books first published in 1976. For my first read, I’ve chosen Blaming, Elizabeth Taylor’s final novel, written when the author knew she was dying of cancer. There is a particular poignancy to it, a consequence perhaps of Taylor’s impending mortality. It is, nevertheless, an excellent novel, a characteristically perceptive story of blame, guilt and selfishness – more specifically, what we do when our selfishness catches up with us and how we sometimes try to shift the blame for our failings onto others.

The novel revolves around Amy Henderson, whom we first encounter in the middle of a holiday with her husband, Nick. The Hendersons are typical Taylor protagonists, drawn from the middle-class world that she knew so intimately. Well into middle age, the couple have a comfortable lifestyle, a married son, James, and two granddaughters, Dora and Isobel.

To aid his recovery from an operation, Nick has embarked on a Mediterranean cruise with Amy – a trip that is proving rather trying for various reasons. While Nick is determined to make the most of various sightseeing opportunities, Amy would much rather stay on the ship, passing the time by reading and relaxing. As a result, there is an unmistakable note of tension in the air as Amy tries to control her frustration with Nick and a packed timetable of outings to various Turkish mosques.

And so it had been in some ways a trying holiday – she fussing over him with the patience of a saint, but inwardly quick to be bored, or irritated by such prolonged sight-seeing; and he determined to miss nothing, as if it were his last chance. (p. 10)

Things take a turn for the worse when Nick passes away in his sleep while onboard the ship, leaving Amy in shock and with no family nearby for support. The one person to hand is Martha, a young American novelist who has already attached herself to the Hendersons as the only other English-speaking passengers on board. (In truth, Amy has already spent a little time with Martha, before Nick’s death, albeit out of politeness rather than any desire to be friends.)

Martha gallantly steps in, abandoning her plans for the remainder of the cruise to accompany Amy back to London, where both women happen to live. On their arrival in London, Martha delivers Amy into the hands of James, who together with a family friend, the gentle widower, Gareth Lloyd, will take care of Amy and the funeral arrangements for Nick.

Back in London, Amy is reluctant to maintain any kind of friendship with Martha, despite the latter’s kindness in supporting her on the journey home. James, in particular, sees the selfishness in his mother’s behaviour, irrespective of her grief.

[James:] “I will write to thank her [Martha]. It was a great act of friendship to cut short her holiday like that – and all the extra expense.”

“I paid that, and she really only missed Ephesus,” Amy said ungraciously. “But, oh yes, she was very kind.”

Mourning seemed to give the go-ahead to every sort of rudeness and selfishness, he thought, fearing more of the same thing to come. (p. 36)

At first, Amy neglects to return Martha’s calls, pretending she has mislaid the number, fully aware of her shameful behaviour in the face of this woman’s kindness. Finally, however, Martha writes to Amy, virtually inviting herself to come and visit – a trip that eventually takes place. Once inside Amy’s house, Martha is careful to observe everything, mentally noting specific phrases that Amy uses in conversation, together with all the attendant details of English life. We quickly get the sense that Martha is using Amy to a certain extent, possibly gathering information that might prove useful for a novel.

As the story plays out, an unlikely friendship develops between the two women, although we’re never quite sure of either character’s true feelings towards the other. There comes a point when the tables are turned, when Martha finds herself in need of help from Amy, offering the latter an opportunity to return the favour. Amy, to her shame, puts her own feelings first at this point, virtually abandoning Martha in her hour of need. It’s a failing that will come to haunt Amy in the months that follow, compounding the sense of guilt she feels while also trying to absolve herself of blame.

When viewed overall, Blaming is rather poignant in tone. Nevertheless, there are some wonderfully amusing moments for readers to enjoy, especially those involving Amy’s male housekeeper, the brilliantly named Ernie Pounce. A bit of an old woman at heart, Ernie persists in measuring himself against Gareth Lloyd’s housekeeper, who is clearly not averse to cutting corners in the kitchen, much to Ernie’s horror. In this scene, Amy and her son’s family are just about to be served their Christmas dinner, which Ernie has lovingly prepared.  

It was the meal of the year at which Ernie was always present as part of the family, wearing the black corduroy jazz-club jacket and a pink bow tie. Having brought in the turkey and set it before James, he whipped off a fancy apron and stood by to pass plates and vegetables. The sausages were in one long string and draped about the bird like a coronet. James, whose father had always done the carving, was annoyed by all this cluttering up of his job. He tried to lift the sausages away, but with a knife blade-side up, so that they lay scattered all over the carpet. Dora laughed quietly, with her eyes shut, her lips pressed together. Isobel was furious. (pp. 120-121)

James’ daughters, Dora and Isobel, are terrific value too, perfectly capturing the kinds of behaviours one might observe from a mature, intelligent seven-year-old (Dora) and her insufferable younger sister (Isobel). Children often ask the funniest or most awkward questions in challenging situations, and Taylor captures this brilliantly when the girls are told that their grandfather, Nick, has died. All too soon, the children are musing on who (or what) has the right to go to heaven. After all, people must go somewhere when they die, otherwise we’d run out of room for everyone on earth!

Ultimately though, this is Amy’s story, a thoughtful exploration of selfishness, blame and guilt. Once again, Taylor shows her innate ability to catch her characters off guard, observing them in their most private of moments, laying bare their inherent flaws and failings for the reader to see.

Mycopy of Blaming was published by Chatto & Windus, but it’s currently in print with Virago Press.

31 thoughts on “Blaming by Elizabeth Taylor  

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s different to some of her others in that respect as most them focus on relationships between men and women. I’ll be interested to see what you think, should you decide to pick it up.

      Reply
  1. madamebibilophile

    You’ve reminded me how much I enjoyed this novel Jacqui. So clear-sighted but still so humane in detailing people’s little failings that can have a big impact on a life. Taylor was an extraordinary writer.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I’ll head over to yours a little later to read your review. Yes, a wonderful writer. There was a point in the story when I thought it might head in a completely different direction, such is the level of richness Taylor brings to these characters.

      Reply
  2. Claire 'Word by Word'

    A wonderful descriptive review, all those undercurrents within a character that come out in certain behaviours and invite the judgement of those around them, the irony being because that’s how they’ve been raised. Amy seems to have moved beyond keeping up appearances, at the same time discovering it is impossible, being kept to task by all around her, that she has created. Deftly handled in true Taylor fashion. A good choice Jacqui.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Claire! Yes, it’s really interesting to see how Amy is perceived by her son, James, who clearly feels she ought to be more grateful to Martha for accompanying her home from Turkey. There’s a sense that Amy is trading on the ‘grieving widow’ card, allowing this to ‘excuse’ any inhospitable behaviour on her part, while also handing over all the responsibility for Nick’s funeral to James and Gareth Lloyd. I can’t say I cared for her very much!

      Reply
  3. 1streading

    This is one of my favourite Elizabeth Taylor novels. Amy is one of those women who seem superficially ‘blameless’ but are, in fact, intrinsically selfish. I’d forgotten about Ernie but I see in my review he was a favourite character, providing “comic relief and sandwiches throughout”!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! Yes, he’s certainly quite a character! There’s a lovely line about his disdain for Gareth Lloyd’s housekeeper and her reliance on shop-bought pastry cases when making desserts (apple tarts, I think). Oh, the shame of it!

      Reply
  4. jenniferbeworr

    Hm. These failings that may seem little to some may perhaps be felt more acutely by others. I’m undoubtedly in Ms. Taylor’s debt this time around, for having a glimpse at prevailing snobbery toward Americans that can be so very, very offhanded. (And yet already my mind turns to the beauty of Taylor’s Gravement Endommagé, which I would not have read were it not for you, Jacqui, so thank you.) I’m suspending judgement here of course, because I have not yet read Blame. The obvious judgements and prejudice of so many middle-class British women toward Americans happens to be a special area of interest of mine: part of a lived experience of standing in Montessori queues with women who could barely offer ‘the American’ the time of day. It would be more honest to say that the topic is volatile for me. Therefore I’d be in the wrong to miss Blame. Je vous remercie, Jacqui.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      God, that sounds awful, Jennifer…I’d like to think that doesn’t happen any more, but it must have been horrible to deal with at the time. There’s definitely a touch of snobbery about Amy, which comes out in her attitude towards Martha. She’s very much the type of woman who would gravitate towards ‘her kind of people’, those of a similar class/social standing and probably middle aged. The combination of Martha’s age (younger than Amy and Nick), nationality (American) and profession (a writer) set her apart from Amy on various dimensions. Still, that’s absolutely no reason for Amy to be uncharitable or selfish towards Martha – points that Taylor conveys in the book (especially through James’ reactions to his mother’s bad behaviour).

      Reply
      1. jenniferbeworr

        You’re very kind to think this through out of sympathy, Jacqui. I was probably being too thin-skinned. At the time it was tricky. We were really struggling and could never have had two sessions a week at a Montessori for our daughter had it not been for my parents helping us. What I found over time was that some of the most ‘posh’ women turned out to be very kind, it just took time for us to calibrate. That time spent living in Surrey helped me to move deeper into a real love for Britain, whereas the relationship began as infatuation. The Montessori queue experiences made me reflect and want to do better as a person. Surely there were people I’d been snobby toward (when more of ‘insider’ myself). I’m going to take the plunge and order Blaming. Thank you for your very kind and thoughtful response! Xx

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          A pleasure, Jennifer. Thanks for sharing your experiences here. We all need to be reminded of how our actions can come across to others every now and again, especially those from different cultures, backgrounds or walks of life. We have a duty to be as welcoming and accepting of others as far as possible, and your comments are a useful reminder of the hurt that can be caused when we fall short… In the meantime, I really hope you enjoy Blaming. Best wishes, as ever, J. x

          Reply
  5. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Great review Jacqui, of what is in my opinion a really great book. It’s years since I read it but I remember her characterisation as being as brilliant as it always is, and she handles the various tragedies so well. The conclusion was slight unexpected for me, and not necessarily typical of Taylor. But her middle class women, with limited options and outlets, are so well drawn. What a novelist she was!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I didn’t quite see that ending coming either, although I’m glad it was fairly understated. In the hands of another writer, that scenario could have tipped over into melodrama, but it’s to Taylor’s credit that she reigns things in. A wonderful writer indeed!

      Reply
  6. heavenali

    First of all I have to say I do envy you that beautiful edition. 😍
    I’ve read Blaming twice, it is a very poignant novel. Taylor’s peripheral characters are always so well drawn too, her cool oberserver’s eye is so acute. She’s brilliant at examining people’s motivations, weaknesses and relationships. I must re-read one soon.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s a lovely cover, isn’t it? A very lucky find on my part, as I think it’s a first edition! :-)
      Taylor’s secondary characters are always so good, especially the charladies and housekeepers. She has suck a knack for capturing their concerns and preoccupations, which are often very different from their employers’ priorities. To be honest, I could have happily read a whole novel about Ernie Pounce and his desires to trump Gareth Lloyd’s housekeeper in the kitchen. The Great British Bake Off, Elizabeth Taylor style!

      Reply
  7. Jane

    I’ve still to start Elizabeth Taylor which is strange since this is just what I love in a novel, watching people in their unguarded moments. And my daughter is called Isabel Dora so that captured my attention straight away!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Lovely! This probably wouldn’t be the best place to start with Taylor — Mrs Palfrey, At Mrs Lippincote’s or A View of the Harbour might be better entry points — but it’s certainly worth keeping in mind for later!

      Reply
  8. imogenglad

    I’ve just read this for 1976 week too! I think I may have liked Amy more than you did. It’s a great book, and my fave Elizabeth Taylor now (of the three I’ve read).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, that’s interesting to hear! I can imagine Amy dividing opinion somewhat as she’s not had an easy time of it with Nick. It’s a very good book, I think – a fitting note for Taylor to bow out on.

      Reply
  9. Sue Gedge

    An excellent review, I read this book over thirty years ago, and now feel inspired to read it again. Love Elizabeth Taylor’s work, but am far more familiar with some of her other novels. This one seems to have an elegaic tone, sad to think of her life being cut short.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, thank you. That’s very kind of you to say. Yes. she died far too young. Funnily enough, her grave is fairly close to where I live, so I’ll have to pay it a visit at some point to pay my respects…

      Reply
  10. gertloveday

    A wonderful choice Jacqui. I haven’t read this particular Taylor book, but it sounds typical of her sharp perception and humour. The description of it above as ‘elegaic’ seems highly appropriate.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Gert. It’s probably not as well known as some of her others (possibly because it was published posthumously?), but considering that she was ill at the time, it’s actually very good. I wonder if it was a deliberate decision not to make Amy a particular sympathetic character, especially for a woman in the throes of grief?

      Reply
  11. Julé Cunningham

    This does sound marvelous, a great pick for the 1976 club read! Taylor’s portrayal of characters is always so insightful and subtle and the cast of characters for this book sound especially appealing and the situations they find themselves in intriguing.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it was a no-brainer for me, especially given my fondness for Taylor! Plus, I already had it in the TBR pile, so it was ready-and-waiting for me, so to speak. Taylor’s supporting players are always great value, I find, and that’s very much the case in Blaming. Amy’s granddaughters, Dora and Isobel, are spot on. I could have happily read a whole novel featuring those two running rings around the Henderson family!

      Reply
  12. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

    Your review reminded me of how very much I enjoyed this novel when I read it a few years back. Although I’ve forgotten some of the secondary characters (even now I can’t understand how I could have forgotten Ernie Pounce!) I do remember being ultimately undecided about who was using whom in the Amy-Martha relationship. This kind of subtle depiction of complicated relationships is so typical of ET, isn’t it?
    Taylor is one of those novelists who’s steadily grown in my regard over the years, from “she’s o.k.” to “this woman is one of the greats!” I think when I first sampled Taylor’s work I was too young to appreciate the elegant understatement of her style and her skill in depicting the very constrained world of her female protagonists. With age has come a much greater appreciation on my part of Taylor’s marvelous skill as a writer; she’s now one of my favorites (my reaction to Taylor’s work reminds me of yours to Anita Brookner, especially your statement that you were perhaps too young to appreciate Ms. B. the first time around!)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! Ernie Pounce is great value, I must admit. Taylor’s ear for dialogue has always been very good, but I really noticed it here. Sometimes it’s just the tiniest of things, such as Ernie constantly referring to Gareth Lloyd as ‘doctor’ rather than ‘the doctor’ or ‘Dr Lloyd’. It’s probably hard to appreciate the full effect without the context of a quote, but there’s something about it that feels so in tune with Ernie’s tendency to gossip and fuss!

      The relationship between Amy and Martha is fascinating, isn’t it? There’s a point (as Martha is mentally noting everything about Amy’s speech, mannerisms and way of life at her London home) when Taylor could develop that thread more strongly, but she doesn’t quite go there in the end… I probably shouldn’t anything else about it as others might be reading Blaming this week, but it definitely taps into the ‘who’s using whom’ idea!

      And your closing comments about Taylor and Brookner really resonate with me. I didn’t start reading ET until I was in my early fifties, and while there are no hard and fast rules about the ‘right’ time to read certain writers, I’m glad I left it quite late. As you say, we probably have a greater appreciation of the subtleties at play in these writers’ work, now that we’re older and more experienced in life’s pleasures and pains.

      Reply
  13. buriedinprint

    Even though I can never remember which of her books it’s from, I love that bit about how the children process the idea of mortality and their dilemma about a crowded, imagined paradise. She is SO good writing children. They are simple without being dumb, innocent without being naive, knowing without being falsely imagined. This is one I should reread (like Ali’s done) as I know I read it too quickly the first time. She is gulp-able, isn’t she. Hard to resist.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, absolutely. Taylor is a little like Penelope Fitzgerald in that respect, another keen observer of sharp, ‘knowing’ children, who often understand much more than we give them credit for! I’m sure this novel would yield more on a second reading, especially given the subtleties in Taylor’s work.

      Reply

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