[I read this 1947 novel in three sections, writing about each section before reading further. Spoiler alert: If you read this running commentary, you will find out everything that happens in the book, section by section.]
10 October 2021
Chapters 1-6 (of 19)
It’s easy to forget just how long ago this novel was written—very nearly as close to the time of Middlemarch, published 75 years earlier, as to our own. And as a writer, Elizabeth Taylor has more in common with George Eliot than with TS Eliot. She focuses on the lives of a few households in a fishing town, revealing the anxieties and limitations of her small cast of characters with the omniscience of a 19th Century author. Two world wars have done little to alter very much about how the people view one another in the little world she presents to us. Men expect to be in charge, and middle-class women expect them to behave in particular ways. Meanwhile, as in Middlemarch, changes are happening, regarded by almost all with deep suspicion. There is a New Town around the coastal point beyond the harbour, and there aren’t many in the old town who like the idea of it. They are already feeling left behind.
But this seems to be much more a novel about the internal lives of its characters than a critique of contemporary society. Perhaps it’s this that makes it seem more of our own time. The things that matter now are personal happiness and individual fulfilment, and it’s the search for these that seems to concern Taylor’s characters far more than anything else. I’m sure it’s no accident that nobody seems happy, and if any personal fulfilment is to be achieved, there seems to be a price to be paid. One of the main characters is a moderately successful novelist, but her success appears to be built on her ability to cut herself off emotionally from everything and everybody else. Her children, one of them grown up and living in the family home, are a sort of necessary chore…. It’s no surprise at all that her husband has been having an affair with her best friend next door for some time. The novelist’s name is Beth which, again, is unlikely to be a coincidence. And, surely, Taylor is giving her readers a big clue as to Beth’s usefulness to the world by giving her the surname Cazabon. I’m back to Middlemarch again.
We follow the points of view of maybe seven or eight different characters for a few pages at a time. We start with the outsider, retired naval officer Bertram, staying in the town in order to paint. Except he doesn’t paint, but spends his time getting to know the people he meets. The landlord of the pub where he is staying. The sad war-widow looking after the run-down waxworks she’s become rather afraid of—as she’s become afraid of most things these days. Another widow, a working woman now confined by paralysis to living behind the laundry and shop with her adult daughters. One of these works behind the bar at the pub, but never tells her mother anything. Bertram also gets to know Tory, a once glamorous divorcee whose life has been made intolerable by her husband’s betrayal. She’s the best friend that Beth’s husband is having an affair with, an affair which seems to be going nowhere.
I’m wondering how much more than a faded period-piece it is. Sometimes it seems like Mrs Dale’s Diary, the first British radio soap opera—which began broadcasting in the January after this novel was published. Mrs Dale, like Beth, was the wife of a doctor, and her concerns were those of the English middle classes. Almost as soon as I realised that we would be following the interior lives of different characters living next to the sea, I regretted that it wasn’t Under Milk Wood (1954)…. But maybe I should stop referencing other products of the same era. Taylor is well-regarded, and this is one of her most respected novels. What’s to mark it out from a soap opera and an irreverent satire of small-town life?
First there’s what is turning into an exploration of post-war maleness. I’m starting with that because Taylor starts with Bertram, sizing up the town and ‘blocking in’ its topography. He seems to have literally nothing to do, and his painting is clearly no more than a time-filler he has no interest in. This is 1947, so his recent past must have been extraordinary—and, so far, we have heard literally nothing of it. I wonder if Taylor wants to ask questions about what men are for, now that the thing they’re good at has come to an end. Robert, Beth’s doctor husband, is perfectly certain of his own value, knowing that the nursing staff at the hospital will always defer to him, and constantly surprised and disappointed that his wife doesn’t seem to grasp his expectation that she should fulfil her side of the matrimonial contract. She doesn’t get it, because she’s never really thought about it. And away offstage there’s Edward, ‘Teddy’, Tory’s ex-husband, who she sees in London when she goes to town for shopping trips. But it’s like picking a scab for her. She simply doesn’t get how he could have left her—he used to behave in such a gentlemanly way towards her—with nothing. She might have enough money from him to allow her to live comfortably, and a young son, away at school. But she seems to have little connection to him, and his letters worry her.
That’s it for the men, except for the young curate who always seems uncomfortable in the company of the women he comes into contact with. Nobody seems to know what the point of him is, as he makes his dutiful visits to people like Mrs Bracey, the housebound widow who can’t believe her bad luck. She’s like the woman who runs the station café in Brief Encounter (1945). Like her, she’s a working-class woman able to make irreverent comments about the middle-class goings-on but, essentially, irrelevant. The only other working woman, apart from her daughters Iris who works in the pub and Maisie who helps with the laundry and shop, is Beth’s daily help. These women service the needs of those with the money, and… I’m not sure yet what Taylor has in mind for them.
The women whose lives, interior and exterior, we really get to follow are Beth and Tory. As she does with everybody, Taylor brings us into their separate consciousnesses haltingly. We first meet them (I think) as Tory reads Beth a letter from her son at school, and Beth tries to put her friend’s fears at rest. It’s only as time goes on—not much time, because only a few days are covered in these chapters—that we realise that Beth is the least qualified person in the world to dispense parental advice, or advice about anything. There’s one scene in which we follow her as she leaves the house, a rare thing for her because she likes to keep the world seeming fresh whenever she sees it. Which it does, because she knows how long a gap she needs to leave between refamiliarisation visits.
Later Tory, for the first time in their lives—and they have known each other since school—tells Beth exactly what she thinks about her writer’s-eye-view of the world, regarding the people in it only as raw material to be made a note of for later use. Beth had earlier come round to ask Tory’s permission to use the idea of a bloodstained letter containing a suicide threat, one that Tory had actually sent to her unfaithful husband. They had both laughed hysterically at the idea, recognising the unforgiveable melodrama of the gesture. Edward certainly hadn’t forgiven it…
…which leads to my last question for now. Beth might well be a satirical self-portrait of the author, just as Tory might well be a satirical portrait of the would-be glamorous woman the high-end magazines persuade their readers they can be. (Tory buys a ridiculous hat in London, clearly a bad habit of hers. In another letter, her son asks her not to wear a particular green hat if she comes to visit.) These are small lives and, 70-odd years later, it isn’t easy to gauge how much sympathy we are expected to feel.
Two developments, both in Chapter 6 and both, to some extent, involving Bertram make me think Taylor wants us to understand about quiet desperation. The chapter opens with Lily, the widow who lives above the waxworks, as she looks forward to seeing Bertram in the pub. She hadn’t been used to going there, but one evening she does, and since then he’s been the perfect gent with her. He buys her a drink or two, takes her home, stays for a cup of tea—and, for the first time she can remember, she doesn’t dread the long, empty evenings. Except, this particular night, he isn’t in the pub. He’s with Tory, being just as gentlemanly and listening to what she is telling him about how little there is for a woman when the wrinkles start to appear. After Bertram has gone, feeling hungry because women never know how big a meal a man needs, Taylor offers us a domestic, but genuinely harrowing dark night of the soul:
‘She went into the kitchen and filled the kettle and stood by the gas-stove waiting, her hot-water-bottle in her hand. Going to bed on her own, in silence, was even now strange and dismal to her. For Teddy had been what is called a good husband, who danced attendance, who waited hand and foot, who filled water-bottles, for instance, and heated milk, and brought early-morning tea; and, in short, himself did for her all those things which in war-time money had been unable to do. “Until he suddenly sheered off,” she now thought, lifting the kettle and pouring the boiling water into the bottle with such a reckless gesture that the water bubbled upwards, overflowed, and poured over her feet. She put the kettle down and groped behind her for a chair. The pain was cold first, then blisteringly hot. “My poor feet!” she thought, “my best stockings!” and fell forward in the darkness, her hands grazed upon the coconut matting.’
Which is as far as I’ve read.
The difficult second third of the novel. How to make it different from the first? If you’re Elizabeth Taylor, don’t even try. All the themes and concerns of the previous chapters are still here, as are all the characters. Beth is still fixated on writing—we get little moments when things are calling for her attention in the house while she is just getting her head around how she is going to bring a tricky sentence to a satisfactory close—but sometimes she wonders if she should try to balance her life more carefully. As if. Meanwhile Tory is Tory, a typical moment coming when she is dressing Beth up make a stunning impression on her publisher. Beth keeps trying to persuade her that it really, really isn’t necessary, but Tory presses on, and is proud of her creation. She feels terribly deflated—‘What the hell have we been wasting all this time for?’—when Beth finally mentions that her publisher is a woman.
Men, and Tory’s little boy, home from school for the Easter holidays, are sure of their place in the world, entitled, confident even when, like the son of an old school-friend of Tory and Beth’s, they are painfully self-conscious. Geoffrey, doing national service and camped nearby, is certain that his poetry is worthwhile, and worth inflicting on the yawning Beth. The women seem almost helpless in the thrall of the patriarchal status quo. When the word feminism is used in Beth’s thought-stream, it describes a half-formed, embryonic thing. She muses on what she has had to do in order to earn the right to spend a day in London: ‘“A man,” she thought suddenly, “would consider this a business outing. But, then, a man would not have to cook the meals for the day overnight, nor consign his child to a friend, nor leave half-done the ironing, nor forget the grocery order as I now discover I have forgotten it. The artfulness of men,” she thought. “They implant in us, foster in us, instincts which it is to their advantage for us to have, and which, in the end, we feel shame at not possessing.”’
Beth and Tory have lives that seem to look out from their little harbour town but, in their different ways, in reality they are both terribly limited. Beth is unable to perceive anything about the human life going on around her, as we see when Tory pretends to look coy when Bertram is mentioned. She wants to divert Beth’s thoughts away from her husband’s infidelity with her, and in Taylor’s presentation, it becomes a masterclass in the use of multiple viewpoints in a single paragraph: ‘Beth, to whom human nature was an open book, … could see through her friend’s hesitation and drew in her cheeks with a sly smile. This Tory noticed with a confusion of feelings, despising Beth for her lack of perception and herself for misleading her; and, above all, annoyed that a romantic attachment for an old man should be so easily attributed to her.’ Beth really isn’t a good mother in Taylor’s presentation of her, understanding nothing about the needs of either her bored, sickly grown-up daughter or the young daughter whose childish existence is a complete mystery to her.
Tory’s limitations aren’t the same as Beth’s. Perhaps they are the opposite, in that whilst Beth is too fixated on the interior world of her writing, if Tory looks inside herself she seems to find nothing. For all her life, up to the moment when Teddy left her, none of that mattered. She took for granted her fashion-plate looks and her comfortable lifestyle, paid for by the only young man—of the many in pursuit of her at the time—who had money. And then it wasn’t there, and her looks were fading. Unsurprisingly, she never got over Teddy, so that Beth and Robert, perhaps for different reasons, assume she still loves him. Perhaps she does, but Elizabeth Taylor isn’t telling us. All we get instead is her desperate unhappiness, a nostalgia (perhaps) for a life that was sufficient for her lazy needs. She thinks she’s in no danger from Bertram—how could she be, a glamorous woman like her?—but at least he is a gent, like her husband was, who knows how to treat a woman. There’s ironic humour in the way she doesn’t answer the door to Bertram one evening because she’s spending it wearing a face-mask. As for her son… Dunno. And neither does she.
There are other women. Mrs Bracey, limited physically and by her own selfishness and lifelong self-centredness. She isn’t a great advertisement for confident working-class women in this novel mainly focused elsewhere. She plays, and always wins, cruel little power-games with her daughter Maisie, which mainly consist of her making her feel guilty and fearing she will never have a life of her own. Maisie, meanwhile, has such a imagination that Taylor opens Chapter 7 with a description of the ordinariness of her ambitions. All she wants to do is to marry Eddie, the son of Mrs Flitwick, back in the town and lodging with Mrs B and her daughters after being with a fishing fleet elsewhere. There’s a crushing inevitability about the way Mrs B shoves him out by insisting on moving back upstairs, into the room Eddie is using.
Iris’s focus is outward, but nebulous. She is the opposite of Maisie, believing that marrying a local man and working hard—she’s as as Tory in her own way—would be the worst possible future. Instead, she is almost childishly besotted by celebrity and dreams of escape. What if Cecil Beaton were to come down to visit the town, wouldn’t he immediately notice her photogenic good looks…? And, living just around the corner is Lily, unable to imagine any life at all. She is increasingly desperate, finding it almost impossible to return home sometimes if Bertram isn’t there to accompany her. She is feeling particularly dreadful one night when she arrives outside her door only to run directly into the creepy librarian. She wonders if he has deliberately placed himself in the way, supposedly sheltering from almost non-existent rain. Bertram, seeming never to have thought of it, is largely responsible for her abandonment of hope, having seemed to offer and then withdraw the possibility of companionship. A French sailor, having eyed her up and down all night in the bar, follows her to her door and tries to make a pass. He has no chance, obviously—casual sex isn’t going to do it for her—but the evil-minded Mrs Bracey decides that Lily has suddenly become a loose woman, and plans to tell everybody.
Prudence, Beth and Robert’s grown-up daughter, is something of a mystery. Or do I mean a void? She does nothing, and Robert seems over-protective of what he has diagnosed as chronic bronchitis. But there is something going on behind her immature-seeming exterior. She is perceptive enough to know for sure where to find Robert when he has popped out—next door at Tory’s, not out on some medical call or other. Her unhappiness about this gets in the way with Geoffrey, who has decided she is beautiful—not that he, shy and self-absorbed, would be of interest to anybody. He guesses, wrongly, that she has been ‘made love to’ by the wrong person. Really, she seems to have been turned off the idea of sex—the couples in the shelters disgust her—by her father’s infidelity.
And then there are the men, more independent than the women, but just as blinkered. Is their role mainly to provide a context for the constraints on the women’s lives? Or is Elizabeth Taylor more interested in them than that implies? I’ll get back to you when I’ve finished reading the novel.
Chapters 13-19—to the end
Stuff happens—quite a lot of stuff, in fact—but I’m not sure how much is added to what we already know. These are small lives, as we knew from the beginning, and nothing that happens comes as a surprise. It’s fascinating as a microcosm of the world that was familiar to our great-grandparents, and Taylor peoples it with mostly well-drawn and plausible characters. There are some moments when we get tiny, almost shocking moments when we seem to be inside one person’s unbearable sadness or terror, and these raise it quite a long way above what we might imagine to be the output of the ‘lady authors’ in the care of Beth’s publisher. Tory’s awful moment of realisation as she is pouring boiling water into her hot water bottles in Chapter 6 is one of those moments…
…and a different one, equally terrifying, comes to Lily a couple of chapters later. After the shock of nearly having walked straight into the librarian in the dark outside, she forces herself to go through her own front door. ‘It used all her strength, the courage only the nervous know about, to impel herself through that avenue of waxworks, past the glittering eyes, each sinister, still hand, and up the stairs to her room.’ Moments like these in the novel bring the reader very close indeed to the characters’ experiences—and Taylor saves the best of them for a chapter very near the end. Whatever comedy there had ever been in Mrs Bracey is long gone and, after her move upstairs only seems to hasten the end of her life, we find out what it feels like.
‘Utterly alone, she lay and awaited death, cut off, discarded, like a man in a condemned cell. Pain had merged into sensation and there were no longer any definite feelings, nothing firm or decisive or with boundary. She could not be sure even of the bed beneath her, or of Maisie’s two hands clasping her own. No one could reach her, she knew, and in that knowledge lay all her helplessness and terror. She was slipping out of their reach into total darkness, as once her husband had slipped away from her. Fold his hands tightly in hers as she might, none the less the ties had loosened and he had gone swimming away from her out of her life. “To meet Our Lord,” she had thought then; but her religion had always been a matter of words, of catchy phrases, and now she had not the strength to form a word or put together a phrase for her own consolation.’
It’s brutal—and Taylor has earned the right to dispatch her like this. In the second half of the novel, since the time she first began to notice and undermine Maisie and Eddie’s growing interest in one another, she has become more and more monstrous. Other women are selfish—Tory has no qualms about betraying her best friend, only a fear of losing her if the adultery is discovered, and Iris does not reject Eddie’s advances when he tells her he’s not interested in waiting passively for Maisie—but Mrs Bracey seems to betray every woman, at best for selfish reasons, and at worst simply for something to do. In true Victorian novel fashion, she has to go.
Otherwise, and unlike what happens in the final chapters of Victorian novels, there are no clear resolutions. Tory appears to make a definite choice, deciding to accept Bertram’s proposal and somewhat shocking him in the process. He hadn’t expected it, and has spent his life avoiding long-term commitments, but he gallantly pretends it’s what he always wanted. By the end of the novel, Tory has got as far as finding a flat for them in London, and has got in the taxi to move in ahead of what she insists will be a quick and unfussy wedding. However, the novel ends with the arrival of her ex-husband, by sea, making his way ‘with sensations of both dread and delight’ towards the waterfront, knowing nothing of her move.
And nothing else is clear either. Beth, perhaps finally coming to understand that Robert has not been everything she had assumed in recent years, finally tells him what she thinks of his behaviour towards her. It might be argued—I certainly wouldn’t argue against it—that Taylor sometimes pushes Beth into thinking or saying words that aren’t hers but Taylor’s own. Often, Beth demonstrates an almost comic obtuseness and lack of engagement—she is appalled and astonished that Robert might think she would want to attend Mrs Bracey’s funeral, for instance, having never attended one in her life—but, occasionally, she becomes the voice of Everywoman. We saw it with the ‘business trip’ thought, and we see it again now. Robert has been self-righteously criticising their younger daughter for her rudeness, and says he had rudeness thrashed out of him as a child. Beth, perhaps for the first time ever, speaks frankly to him.
‘“Then perhaps you exhausted your politeness when you were young, for you’re very often rude now.” Both Robert and Prudence looked up in amazement, but Beth … apparently had no intention of saying any more.’ When Robert asks how he is rude, she tells him. ‘Firstly, you often speak very roughly and inconsiderately to me …’ He interrupts. ‘Firstly? Is there to be “secondly” as well?’ She ignores him and carries on. ‘“And secondly, it seems to me that although I don’t care in the least for etiquette or meaningless gestures such as your standing up when I enter the room, or walking on one side of the pavement rather than the other, sometimes I do carry very heavy trays and you never move to help me, and I run to and fro fetching things, and rather wait on you, like a … servant.” She smiled calmly and pleasantly as if she had been praising him. “And thirdly,” she continued, “your patronising airs, as if only men’s work is important, and my writing an irritating and rather shameful habit … ‘If we ignore it, she will grow out of it,’ you seem to imply.” She laid her knife and fork neatly together and looked up.’
It’s easy to imagine readers, especially women, cheering her on, now as much as in 1947. But is it really Beth speaking? Maybe I should stop worrying, and instead read it as a confirmation of my early suggestion that among the many things that constrict women’s lives, it’s their dealings with men that constrict them the most. Beth, Tory, Maisie, Iris, Prudence, Lily… What future do they have, independent of men?
All of them are stuck, and perhaps the biggest problem of all is that it takes a smiling, quietly-spoken tirade like Beth’s to give just one of them the tiniest inkling. What of Maisie, if Eddie does start going with Iris instead? What of Iris, whether she goes with Eddie or not? Prudence with the second-rate, obtuse Geoffrey? And what of Lily? We hear little about her after the going-nowhere episodes with the librarian and the sailor. All she seems to be left with is fury that her husband got himself killed. Nothing in the novel suggests that she will ever make a future for herself without him—and all Bertram did, in typical male fashion, is thoughtlessly make it worse. It seems to me that men in this world—the post-war world of this little England—are as stuck as the women. The only man we see genuinely trying to understand a woman’s thought processes is Geoffrey, and he gets it wrong.
(Taylor seems most explicit in her condemnations of men through a perhaps far-fetched statement of intent Eddie makes to Iris. Just for this moment, as his interest is moving away from Maisie and towards Iris, Taylor makes him a spokesperson for a particularly cynical Everyman. Every git, perhaps. ‘I … know what I am not, and that’s something on a chessboard your mother or anyone else can move where they like. I manage my own life. Things don’t change me, I change them. Like anyone with any sense, any guts.’ Iris seems unimpressed: ‘I’m so glad. What’s that got to do with Maisie, though?’ And Eddie’s answer is brutal. ‘She’s got no guts. I liked her, but I’ve got my own life to lead. I’m not one of those to go on wanting what’s hopeless. What I can’t get, I cut out for good and turn my attention to other matters.’ Iris can be as sarcastic as she likes—‘We’re hearing a nice lot this evening about what you do and what you don’t do.’—but this is the world and, later, she doesn’t discourage his advances.)
And the little world turns, taking these little lives with it. But I’m left wondering whether this novel is really as good as its best parts. I’ve deliberately quoted memorable sections but, as I started by saying today, I’m not sure what Taylor really adds in these chpaters beyond one thing happening after another. Sometimes it’s entertaining, sometimes it’s moving… and maybe that’s all we should be expecting. I’m reading the Virago Modern Classics edition, published to help reinstate Taylor as a worthwhile author whose work should not be allowed to disappear. And I’m all for that.