Saturday, June 27, 2015

"A View of the Harbor," by Elizabeth Taylor

Another Virago book! Last time (6/25/15) I wrote about Polly Samson’s book “Perfect Lives” and mentioned that it was published by the venerable and revered (by me among others) feminist publisher Virago. By chance, the next book I read, Elizabeth Taylor’s novel “A View of the Harbor” (originally published 1947, republished by Virago in 1987) was from the same press. The Samson book was an example of a contemporary Virago book; Taylor’s book is an example of the Virago’s important work republishing (rescuing) books from the past by excellent women writers. The paperback I just read has a 2005 introduction by the author Sarah Waters, in which she praises Elizabeth Taylor, and says that ironically the author’s sharing a name with the famous movie star may have hurt the author’s reputation and the longevity, of lack thereof, of her work. I have long admired this author’s work, having read (and in some cases re-read) at various times many of her 17 works of fiction (twelve novels and five short story collections). This one, “A View of the Harbor,” takes a classic situation of a small community -- really mainly the occupants of one short street -- in a small town and explores each character, and the characters’ relationships, in detail. The inevitable comparison is with the novels of Jane Austen and of Elizabeth Gaskell. Taylor’s work is deceptively quiet and very insightful. Yes, there are events in the novel, but “what happens” is secondary to the depictions of the characters and their interactions. The main characters are two long time friends, Tory and Beth, who live next door to each other. Beth, a novelist, lives with her husband Robert, a doctor; her 19-year-old rather odd and disaffected daughter Prudence; and her six-year-old rather spoiled daughter Stevie. Tory lives alone, after her divorce from Teddy; her young son Edward is away at boarding school. Down the street are the disabled, gossip-hungry Mrs. Bracey, who is rather a tyrant to her two adult daughters, Iris and Maisie; another neighbor is the widowed Lily, living above and haunted by her family business, a wax museum. Then there is the new man in town – also a classic character in that he is interested in and makes friends with everyone, thus being a good device for revealing their traits and doings. He is Bertram, a suave and basically kind man of about 60 who flirts and connects, but has always avoided commitment in the past; questions in the novel include whether he will continue to do so, and if not, which of the available women he will become seriously involved with. One of the earlier mentioned characters is -- although so beautiful and elegant -- a study in selfishness, carelessness, and callousness; she is perhaps the most interesting character in the novel. The setting itself is of interest; the area of the harbor written about has seen better times, with more summer visitors, but now is somewhat neglected and decayed, as the action has moved to a newer area of town. The time is just post-World War II, so there is a lingering sense of deprivation; some food is still rationed, for example. Taylor also, through discussion of the novel-writing character Beth, slips in some meta-musing on the experiences of writing fiction; Beth sometimes wonders if her writing is really worthwhile, and if it will last, but feels she cannot stop writing, as writing is life itself to her. Readers cannot help but conclude that these thoughts echo those of the author herself. Taylor’s books are dramatic in a low key; her observations and insights are thoughtful and ring true. I recommend them highly, especially if you already appreciate fiction by two other novelist Elizabeths with whom she shares some aspects of sensibility: Elizabeth Bowen and Elizabeth Jane Howard. (One note: Perhaps some readers will remember the 2005 filmed version of Taylor’s novel “Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont”; it was a beautifully directed and acted film, starring Joan Plowright and Rupert Friend, and well worth viewing.)
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