Category Archives: Taylor Elizabeth

Hester Lilly by Elizabeth Taylor

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.

The Soul of Kindness by Elizabeth Taylor

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’sThe Soul of Kindness seems a more rounded novel, possibly up there with Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont as my favourite so far.

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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.

At Mrs Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor

First published in 1945, At Mrs Lippincote’s was Elizabeth Taylor’s debut novel. This is my third Taylor (after Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont and A Game of Hide and Seek), and if anything it has left me even more eager to read the rest of her books.

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As the novel opens the Davenant family are moving into their new home, a house near the RAF base where Flight Lieutenant Roddy Davenant is currently stationed. (The setting is a small town somewhere in the South of England during WW2.) Roddy has been present at the base for a little while, but he is now being joined by his wife, Julia, the couple’s young son, Oliver, and Roddy’s spinster cousin, Eleanor. From the opening pages, it is clear that Julia feels somewhat uncomfortable in these unfamiliar surroundings. The Davenants have rented the house from the recently widowed Mrs Lippincote, a woman they have yet to meet, but whose presence hangs over the place like a dark shadow. At first sight, the house is rather dark and oppressive, full of mahogany furniture, old-fashioned furnishings and yellowing photographs. Here’s Julia as she contemplates a picture of a wedding group, presumably one showing the Lippincotes on their wedding day.

‘And now it’s all finished,’ Julia thought. ‘They had that lovely day and the soup tureen and meat dishes, servants with frills and streamers, children. They set out that day as if they were laying the foundations of something. But it was only something which perished very quickly, the children scattered, the tureen draped with cobwebs, and now the widow, the bride, perhaps at this moment unfolding her napkin alone at a table in a small private hotel down the road.’ (pg 10)

In some respects, this could be seen as a metaphor for the future direction of Julia’s own marriage to Roddy as there is very little in the way of warmth and affection here. Even though Julia is not terribly likeable, I found her very interesting and intriguing. She is quite feisty, often willing to say whatever comes into her head without really thinking about the consequences, especially where Roddy’s cousin Eleanor is concerned. Julia makes no secret of the fact that she is not overly fond of Eleanor, a point that becomes increasingly apparent as the story unfolds. Eleanor, who happens to be in love with Roddy, despairs of Julia for not being a more conventional wife. She believes Roddy deserves a woman who would be prepared to support him; someone to stand behind him by making his career her life’s work; someone who would be a valuable asset as opposed to a hindrance or embarrassment. In other words, someone like Eleanor herself. This next quote seems to capture something of the dynamics at play between Julia, Roddy and Eleanor – Julia has just asked Roddy if there is anywhere they could go for a drink.

“I can’t take you into the Ante-room to-night,” said Roddy in a satisfied way. “It isn’t ladies’ night.”

“Can’t we have a drink in this damned place, without relying on the caprice of a lot of officers? And are there no pubs?”

“Only down in the town. This is a residential district. If you go, you will have to take the bus, and when you get there it will be closing time.”

“It wouldn’t be worth it,” said Eleanor quickly, lest she might be left to the washing-up.

“Ladies’ night!” cried Julia in a fury. “It sounds like a lot of red-faced Masons with wives in royal blue satin and pink carnations. ‘We will put aside our secrets and our stories about copulation and give the old girls a break.’ I couldn’t go to one of those. My pride wouldn’t allow it.”

Eleanor, whose evening dress was royal blue, leant forward and said to Roddy: “What time do you start in the morning?”

“Nine.”

‘If I had Roddy,’ thought Eleanor, ‘my greatest happiness would be to go out with him to meet the other wives. Why should her pride not allow it?’ She could not forgive Julia for wanting more than her own dearest dream. (pg. 11)

In time, Julia strikes up an unlikely friendship with Roddy’s boss, Wing Commander Mallory – they share a mutual interest in the novels of the Brontë sisters. There is some mild flirting between Julia and the Wing Commander, but nothing too serious. If anything, the Commander has Julia’s own interests at heart as he would like to see her happy with Roddy, something which seems but a distant hope from the start.

Julia also spends time with the rather forlorn Mr Taylor, an old acquaintance from London — now in diminished circumstances — whom she bumps into one evening while out for a walk. She visits him in his ‘club’ (effectively a members bar set up in his bungalow), but once again there is no real suggestion of romance here. It is not a lover she is after, but some form of companionship, ‘some other person whose words would link together with hers’ and with whom ‘some chord might be struck.’  

Roddy dislikes the idea of Julia being out on her own of an evening, especially when it becomes apparent that she has been having the occasional drink or two. It is his belief that respectable married women should not go cavorting about the countryside at night, walking into pubs on their own and generally letting the side down. I must admit to finding this next quote rather telling.

She exasperated him. Society necessarily has a great many little rules, especially relating to the behaviour of women. One accepted them and life ran smoothly and without embarrassment, or as far as that is possible where there are two sexes. Without the little rules, everything became queer and unsafe. When he had married Julia, he had thought her woefully ignorant of the world; had looked forward, indeed, to assisting in her development. But she had been grown up all the time; or, at least, she had not changed. The root of the trouble was not ignorance at all, but the refusal to accept. ‘If only she would!’ he thought now, staring at her; ‘If only she would accept.’ The room was between them. She stood there smiling, blinking still in the bright light. He was still fanning the air peevishly with his hand. (pg. 105)

As a break from the atmosphere at Mrs Lippincote’s, Roddy’s cousin Eleanor finds some much-needed companionship in the form Mr Aldridge, a colleague at the school where she teaches. (Eleanor has a backstory that I won’t reveal here but it’s something which adds another dimension to her character.) In time, she also falls in with a group of Mr Aldridge’s friends, a loose collective of Communists who live nearby. Even though they realise Eleanor is rather lonely and in need of a friend, the members of this group treat her as an individual in her own right, accepting her into their fold wherever possible. For her part, Julia cannot help but needle Eleanor about her relationship with Mr Aldridge, passing snide comments here and there, attempting to belittle both her cousin-in-law and Mr Aldridge in the process.

“Have you been to tea with your young man?” Her very way of saying ‘your young man’ implied that he was not, and was not likely to be, anything of the kind. She always dealt too lightly and therefore cruelly with Eleanor’s personal life. (pg. 56)

As with the other Elizabeth Taylor novels I’ve read, there is a strong cast of secondary characters here. The Davenant’s very bookish son, Oliver, is an absolute delight. He forms a very touching friendship with the Wing Commander’s daughter, Felicity, as the two children go fishing together by the local river. Mrs Lippincote’s charwoman, the formidable Mrs Whapshott, also deserves a mention. From the very outset, Julia feels uneasy in this woman’s presence as she imagines the slow but steady disintegration of the house is being reported back to Mrs Lippincote on a weekly basis.

All in all, this is another very subtle novel by Elizabeth Taylor, perhaps closer in style to A Game of Hide and Seek than to Mrs Palfrey. Each scene is beautifully observed – Taylor was reported to have said that she wrote in scenes rather than in narrative, and I think you can see it here in her debut.

At one point in the novel, Julia states that she wants to try to be more grown-up – more understanding towards Roddy, more patient with Oliver, and more charitable towards Eleanor. To find out if she achieves this, perhaps I can encourage you to read this excellent book for yourselves.

For other perspectives, do read these reviews by Caroline (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat), Heavenali and Caroline (Bookword).

At Mrs Lippincote’s is published by Virago Modern Classics. Source: personal copy.

A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor

Having loved Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, a book that made my end of year highlights in December, I was keen to try another of her novels. A View of the Harbour was a possibility, but in the end I plumped for A Game of Hide and Seek – both of these books appear on my Classics Club list, so I know I’ve still got Harbour to look forward to. In the meantime, I’m very glad to have picked this one to read – it delivered on every level for me.

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First published in 1951, A Game of Hide and Seek is a very poignant story of life’s disappointments, compromises and lost loves. As the novel opens, eighteen-year-old Vesey is spending the summer with his Aunt Caroline and Uncle Hugo at their home in the South of England. Harriet, also aged eighteen, is a frequent visitor to the house and during the long summer’s evenings, she plays hide-and-seek with Vesey and his two young cousins. Both Harriet and Vesey are something of a disappointment to their elders. Harriet shows no signs of fulfilling any of the ambitions or passions of her mother who, together with Caroline, was an active participant in the suffragette movement. Having struggled at school, Harriet now seems content to daydream and pick flowers in the countryside. Vesey, on the other hand, is bright, but somewhat lazy and insensitive. At times, he seems attentive to Harriet, but he can also be spiteful and uncaring. He envisages himself as a writer, a man of letters, and a place at Oxford beckons.

Over the summer months, Harriet falls in love with Vesey; she imagines a life with him, possibly a future defined by marriage and everything this entails. But while Harriet is clearly in love with Vesey, his future intentions remain somewhat unclear.

Vesey, whose next steps would take him over the threshold of a new and promising world, wished to go without any backward glances or entanglements. He was not one to keep up friendships, never threw out fastening tendrils such as letters or presents or remembrances; was quite unencumbered by all the things which Harriet valued and kept: drawers full of photographs, brochures, programmes, postcards, diaries. He never remembered birthdays or any other anniversary. (pg.16)

As the days pass, Hugo and Caroline become increasingly intolerant of Vesey’s behaviour, and it’s not long before they find an excuse to ask him to leave. Fearing that she may have missed her chance with Vesey, Harriet is bereft at his departure. A year seems a long time to wait until the following summer when she hopes to see him again.

With Vesey gone, Harriet finds a job in a gown shop, and in time she meets Charles Jephcott, a man who, at thirty-five, seems old before his time. Charles, a solicitor by profession, is solemn, steady and unexciting, but he is attentive to Harriet and wishes to marry her. When Vesey pays Caroline a brief visit, Harriet’s hopes are revived again only to be dashed when he fails to show at a dance. All seems lost, especially when Harriet’s mother dies unexpectedly. Uncertain of what the future may hold for her, Harriet agrees to marry Charles even though she is still in love with Vesey, a development that brings us to the end of the first part of the novel.

In the second half, we move forward some sixteen or seventeen years – the exact year isn’t clear, but we seem to be in the late 1940s following WW2. Harriet and Charles have been married for several years, and they have a daughter, Betsy, aged fifteen. There is a sense that Harriet has filled her days with domestic duties, managing the household administration and taking care of Betsy. The one thing that’s missing is any feeling of love or passion for Charles.

When she married Charles, she had seemed to wed also a social order. A convert to it, and to provincial life, and keeping house, she had pursued it fanatically and as if she feared censure. […] But now she flouted what she had helped to create – an illusion of society; an oiling of the wheels which went round but not forwards; conventions which could only exist so long as emotion was in abeyance. (pg. 262)

One evening, Vesey comes back into Harriet’s life, and all her old feelings for him are rekindled. Charles watches nervously and with more than a hint of displeasure as Harriet and Vesey dance the tango at a local get-together. As she accompanies her husband home in a taxi, Harriet reflects on the nature of her marriage.

‘Marriage does not solve mysteries,’ she thought. ‘It creates and deepens them.’ The two of them being shut up physically in this dark space, yet locked away for ever from one another, was oppressive. Both were edgy. (pg. 146)

What follows is a series of tentative meetings between Harriet and Vesey; the latter is now a failing actor scraping a living in third-rate productions of Hamlet and the like. Charles knows that his marriage to Harriet is at risk; the idea of Vesey, his image so to speak, has weakened their life together, like a shadow in the background threatening to come to the fore at any moment.

For it was Vesey who had undermined their life together; the idea of him in both their heads. In their few disagreements, he knew to whom her thoughts flew; discouraged, he remembered her girlhood’s inconsolable love, and her silence ever since. Many times, when she had thought of nothing, had simply sat and stared, he believed she thought of him. He had always known that one day he would walk back into their presence as he had done the previous evening, unexpectedly. Harriet had whitened. She had presently bent her head and looked at the floor in front of her, as if disavowing a ghost. Charles could not know that many times before she had thought Vesey coming towards her in the street; her heart leaping, she had scarcely dared to look up at the stranger who eventually went by, usually a man quite unlike Vesey. Seeing one face continually in crowds is one of the minor annoyances of being in love. (pg 178)

A Game of Hide and Seek is a novel full of astute observations on the lives of the middle-classes in England at the time. It is a subtler novel than Mrs Palfrey, one best read slowly to savour Taylor’s pitch-perfect prose and exquisitely-drawn scenes. One of the things I like most about Taylor is the empathy and sympathy she shows for her characters despite their failings. There are no heroes or villains here, just ordinary people trying to make the best of their largely unfulfilled lives.

Harriet and Charles are wonderful creations, credible and believable in their thoughts and actions. I found myself warming to Vesey too as a tenderer, more caring side to his character emerges in the second half of the novel; he clearly illuminates Harriet’s world. The cast of minor characters is equally strong, particularly Charles’ mother, Julia, a dreadful woman who lives with a female companion whom she bullies at every opportunity. She is also highly suspicious of Harriet and relishes the prospect of scandal once Vesey reappears on the scene.

There are touches of sly humour in this novel as well. For instance, there are some terrific scenes at the dress shop where Harriet works before her marriage, a place where the gaggle of shop assistants seem more concerned with trying out the latest beauty treatments than serving customers. Another highlight centres on a drinks evening at the Jephcotts’ when Charles invites Vesey to the house following a performance of the play.

There are some wonderful touches in the portrayal of life in the Jephcotts’ home, too – more specifically, Harriet’s relationship with her cleaning lady, Mrs Curzon, and the observations of the Dutch maid, Elke, who struggles to understand the customs and behaviour of the English middle classes.

Ultimately though, this is Harriet and Vesey’s story. I was left wondering whether Harriet would have been happier if she had spent the last sixteen years with Vesey instead of Charles. (There’s no easy answer to that question, but I suspect she would.) Can the two of them ever recapture the feelings of their youth? And just how far will Harriet go in risking her marriage to Charles? Perhaps I can encourage you to read this beautifully nuanced novel for yourself to discover how things turn out.

For other perspectives on this book, you might want to read these reviews by Caroline (of Beauty and the Cat), Guy and Heavenali. Update: more reviews here by Caroline (of Book word), Jonathan and Melissa.

A Game of Hide and Seek is published by Virago. Source: personal copy.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

Last year I read so many good books that I struggled to find space for them all on my end-of-year round-up. When the time comes to compile my 2015 list, I shall have to find a place for Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont as it’s such a brilliant novel: heart-rending and touching, so sharply observed and full of insight.

First published in 1971, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont features a recently widowed elderly lady, Laura Palfrey. In need of somewhere to live, Mrs Palfrey moves into the Claremont Hotel, a respectable establishment on the Cromwell Road, South Kensington, where she is likely to remain until a move to a nursing home or hospital can no longer be avoided. On her arrival at the Claremont, Mrs Palfrey joins a small group of elderly women and one lone man who have also moved to the hotel out of necessity. All are no longer able to manage on their own.

The Claremont is reasonably clean but somewhat lacking in atmosphere. At first, Mrs Palfrey wonders if she has made a terrible mistake in moving there, a feeling only reinforced by her initial impressions at dinner:

At other tables sat a few other elderly ladies looking, to Mr Palfrey, as if they had been sitting there for years. They were waiting patiently for the celery soup, hands folded in laps and eyes dreamy. (pg. 5)

Mrs Palfrey knows, however, that she must soldier on, and having made it through her first night, she decides to make the best of her new life. Over the course of the first few days, she is able to pinpoint the long-term residents, and a picture of each one soon emerges.

Elizabeth Taylor is very adept at describing people; she seems to have an innate ability to convey the sense of a character in just a few sentences. Here she is on three of the Claremont’s residents: the blustering Mr Osmond, the lively Mrs Burton and the rather bitter and brittle Mrs Arbuthnot:

Mr Osmond drank wine. He sat very still with the glass beside him as if it were keeping him company. He waited for the manager, who occasionally looked in. He could not hide his annoyance when Mrs Burton came down to his part of the lounge and kept pressing the bell for whiskies. She spent a great deal of money on whisky, which was a marvel to the other ladies – throwing money down her throat, Mrs Post said. She had other extravagances, such as mauve-rinsed hair, and what Mrs Arbuthnot always referred to as chain-smoking, although it was not. Mrs Arbuthnot, perhaps because of her arthritis, found it in her nature to be disparaging. (pgs. 11-12)

Each one of these characters has their own idiosyncrasies, their own habits and mannerisms, and Taylor captures these perfectly. What they all share is a feeling of loneliness and boredom, a need to adapt to constraints of old age, a reliance on others to brighten their days. All remember happier times: the lives they shared with their spouses; the ability to entertain family and friends; the comfort of the own homes.

Time drags at the Claremont; the days are long and drawn out, punctuated by mealtimes, walks and the occasional visiting relative. One day, on her return from the library, Mrs Palfrey slips on the pavement and falls. Luckily for Mrs Palfrey, a considerate young man named Ludo emerges from his basement flat and comes to her aid. As a thank you for his kindness, Mrs Palfrey invites Ludo to dinner at the Claremont the following Saturday, a day when ‘there is usually a rather better menu’. Ludo, an impoverished aspiring writer, is also rather lonely and willingly accepts her offer of a decent meal. Further, Mrs Palfrey sees an opportunity for Ludo to help her out of a tight spot with the other residents. In order to save face, she persuades him to stand in as her grandson, Desmond, who has resolutely failed to visit her. Thinking it will be a lark, Ludo agrees.

Taylor, an acute observer of social situations, is very aware of the little condescending remarks people make with the aim of needling others. Sometimes it’s not just what they say, but the tone of voice they use too (Taylor’s prose somehow manages to give a real sense of this). It’s a little difficult to appreciate the full effect here, but when Mrs Arbuthnot overhears Mrs Palfrey informing the waiter that a guest will be joining her for dinner she cannot resist the following slight:

‘So your grandson is coming to see you at last,’ Mrs Arbuthnot had said on her slow way past Mrs Palfrey’s table and, for some reason searched for later, Mrs Palfrey let her go without a word. (pg. 32)

On the evening itself, Ludo manages to stand up to the scrutiny of Mrs Arbuthnot. The dinner is a success and Mrs Palfrey regains a sense of dignity. Ludo gains something from the evening too, not just a hot meal but an opportunity to do some research for his novel ‘They Weren’t Allowed to Die There’, a title inspired by Mrs Palfrey’s own words.

He drank his soup, ate his veal with a kind of hungry concentration, which was a great pleasure to Mrs Palfrey. She was doing something for him, as he was doing something for her, and when he lifted his glass to her, she felt – for the first time since she came to the Claremont – that she was envied and respected, knowing herself watched form the other tables. (pg. 39)

An unlikely and touching friendship develops between the two, but it is also tinged with uncertainty. They get along very well, but there are times when they are unsure as to what to say to each other or how to react. The scenes of the two of them together are charming, and it is clear that Mrs Palfrey would love to have someone like Ludo as her real grandson. He also encourages her to do one or two things she would never have contemplated before. In one of my favourite passages from the novel, Ludo invites Mrs Palfrey to share a simple dinner in his threadbare flat, an outing that brightens her evening no end.

Mrs Palfrey is a melancholy story, and Taylor describes the loneliness and vulnerability of old age so well. In this scene, Mrs Palfrey decides to visit Ludo. She wishes to deliver a jumper she has knitted for him and feels sure he will be at home on a Saturday afternoon. The fall, however, has left her feeling increasingly frail:

She realised that she never walked now without knowing what she was doing and concentrating upon it; once, walking had been like breathing, something unheeded. The disaster of being old was in not feeling safe to venture anywhere, of seeing freedom put out of reach.

Her fall had deepened her uncertainty. And there was no husband to take her arm across a road, or protect her from indignity when she failed. I can have a little rest when I get there, she promised herself. And perhaps he will offer me a cup of tea. (pg. 73)

I find that quote very poignant, especially Mrs Palfrey’s wish for a little rest and a cup of tea when she arrives at Ludo’s flat. She longs for a few moments of relief and hospitality to break up the day.

This probably sounds like a very sad book, and it is sad, but Mrs Palfrey is also peppered with humour. Taylor has a wonderful ear for dialogue, and there are some priceless exchanges between the Claremont’s residents. The novel also contains a marvellous set piece, a cocktail party given by a temporary resident of the hotel, Mrs de Salis, following her move to a new flat. This next passage captures Claremont resident Mrs Post’s memories of the party (one of the guests is an actress; Willie is Mrs de Salis’s much-trumpeted son):

Mrs Post had lain quietly down and switched off the bedside lamp. Her head was like a magic-lantern into which slides were thrust noisily, one after the other. Mrs Darling of Peter Pan, opened and shut her mouth, but nothing came out of it – a pity, for Mrs Post had hoped to remember some of this conversation for her cousin; there had been sausages, she thought, certainly peanuts; Mrs Burton had sung loudly, rather disgracing them, but that was earlier on; Willie had rather disappointed.

‘I’m glad I went,’ she thought defiantly, ‘but I shouldn’t like to have to go again tomorrow.’ (pg. 162)

I don’t want to reveal anything else about the story, save to say that we follow Mrs Palfrey for the best part of a year. It’s a beautiful, poignant and thought-provoking novel, one that prompts the reader to consider the emotional and physical challenges of old age: the need to participate in life, the importance of small acts of kindness, the desire to feel valued.

Taylor’s characters are nuanced and so finely observed she makes us care about these people. Our feelings for Mrs Palfrey are a given, and the seemingly insufferable Mr Osmond has a softer, more compassionate side. Even Mrs Arbuthnot elicits some sympathy as her flashes of cruelty seem born out of frustration.

This is my first experience of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels, and I definitely want to read others in the future (I’ve dabbled with her short stories, but it’s been a while). Her prose style is very precise and economical, she makes every word count. The writing is superb.

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Finally, a few words about my edition, which comes with a rather staid and cosy cover. Please don’t let it put you off this book as the writing is anything but sentimental and cosy. This is a sharp and perceptive novel – I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Caroline (at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat), Ali (at Heavenali), Karen (at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings) and Caroline (at book word) have also reviewed Mrs Palfrey.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is published in the UK by Virago Modern Classics. Source: personal copy. Book 11/20 in my #TBR20.