Newby Revisited: An Appreciation of the fiction of Elizabeth Taylor (1912-1975)

December 16, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor, A View of the Harbour (1947)

Reviewed by Rosalie Ham

In delivering Elizabeth Taylor’s eulogy, Kingsley Amis said, ”Outside her family and friends her death wasn’t much noticed except among the smallish band who care for our literature. Her genuine distaste for any kind of publicity – that rarest of qualities in a writer – and her deeply unsensational style and subject matter saw to it, that in life, she never received her due as one of the best English novelists born this century. I hope she will in the future.” (Elizabeth Jane Howard, Slipstream, A Memoir, 2002)

Elizabeth Taylor is now receiving her due. I first read about her some years ago in a newspaper article, have since seen her name on a few ‘best reading’ lists and lately fellow readers and writers have enthusiastically advocated her books. The British critic Philip Hensher wrote that Taylor’s novel, The Soul of Kindness (1964), “…seems effortless. As it progresses, it seems as if the cast are so fully rounded that all the novelist had to do was place them, successively, in one setting after another and observe how they reacted to each other…. The plot… never feels as if it were organised in advance; it feels as if it arises from her characters’ mutual responses.”

A View of the Harbour (1947) is an absorbing read. Taylor’s writing is skillful, economic and reflects a lively, acute and wry wit. She has a knack for a cutting last line. A young school boy, Edward, while fare-welling his doting, divorced mother at the end of her mid-term visit says, ‘It’s a pity father couldn’t come.’

There are those who advise against opening a story with a description of the weather or any sort of physical geography but Taylor assuredly places us at the scene by giving us a vivid view of the harbour: ‘No gulls escorted the trawlers going out of the harbour, at tea-time, as they would on the return journey; they sat upon the rocking waters without excitement, perching along the side of the little boats, slapped up and down by one wake after another. When they rose and stretched their wings were brilliantly white against the green sea, as white as the lighthouse.’

In the second paragraph the point of view switches and we get a precise ‘back shot’ of the faded English fishing port of Newby – the lighthouse, snug cottages, shops and pub lining the docks. One suspects a quaint domestic story is about to unfold, but then we meet Bertram Hemingway and we know it isn’t going to be a quaint story. Bertram is a visitor to Newby, a painter (not a very good one), an aging man who declares himself an observer who ‘captures the essence’ of people. The residents of Newby in turn observe the intruder to be a ‘mischievous, prying man’. From here events unfold assuredly, seamlessly, the lives of the residents of Newby illuminated as if by the regular sweep of the lighthouse beam. Characters and issues are anchored in the good and bad elements that render the ideas conveyed as authentic, and the inner lives of the protagonists – mostly girls and women – contrast vividly with their hum-drum lives of yearning and loneliness. The story is engaging for two further reasons: the narrative arc slyly probes the purpose of fiction writing itself, and the story engenders empathy by revealing the alternatives the characters create to offset their everyday lives. Voyeurism is one alternative in Newby. Bertram (‘Women never give one enough to eat’) likes to ‘insinuate’ himself into the lives of the women – Tory, Lily, Prudence, Mrs Bracey – brightening his and their solitary existences at the same time as exacerbating their inner yearning and heightening restless, denied passions. For Beth Cazabon, a novelist, the alternative to everyday life is, of course, creating fictional lives for readers (and Beth herself) to dwell in. Through Beth, this novel ponders fiction writing and the way it both nourishes and blinds.

The characters in Newby who do observe real life declare it better than fiction, and in this way, the idea is mooted that fiction is pointless. Mrs Bracey, principle sticky-beak of Newby, says of her daughter’s reading habits, ‘I’ve got no patience with all those novels Iris sticks her head into. Everyday life, that’s good enough for me.’ The relationship between Tory and Beth shows some downsides of writing. Because Tory is Beth’s childhood and ‘best’ friend she is able to say many things to her, ‘Writers are ruined people. As a person, you’re done for. Everywhere you go, all you see and do, you are working up into something unreal…you’ve done it since you were a little girl…I’ve seen you gradually becoming inhuman, outside life, a machine.’ Beth discovers a negative review of her latest book wrapped around the evening meal (a fish) and so ‘cremates’ the ‘stinking’ newspaper in the stove. And she is candid about her art: ‘I’m not a great writer. Whatever I do someone else has done it before, and better. In ten years time no one will remember this book…And, even if I were one of the great ones, who, in the long run, cares? People will walk about the streets and it is all the same to them if the novels of Henry James were never written.’ Yet when she tells Tory that Prudence is ‘like a thorn encased in ice,’ she takes a moment to reflect on her clever simile.

Perhaps it is because Taylor was born in 1912 and was publishing at a time when women were not recognised at the forefront of the literary world, that the male characters, while engaging, are not at all likeable. Doctor Robert Cazabon, Beth’s husband, is an adulterer. The Librarian is a mean, narrow man who approves of murder in novels, ‘but not fornication.’ He is a creepy, grasping character who leaves the books he passes over his counter uncomfortably warm. The Librarian tells Lily Wilson, ‘writers who are ladies have their own contribution to make. A nice domestic romance.’  The publican, Mr Pallister, is despondent and dull – ‘It’s quiet tonight but I feel tired just the same’ – and the Curate is ineffectual. The women aren’t perfect either, but their flaws are germane to the issues Taylor presents. Though she ‘enjoys a coarse jest’ Mrs Bracey is manipulative, a static tyrant who ruins the lives of her frustrated daughters by using her paraplegic condition to wield a cruel power. Iris and Maisie are compelled to their mother, denied their own happiness, because she is needy, unhappy in her own dreadful life. Bed-bound, Mrs Bracey enjoys a kind of life through her window and so knows most of the secrets the residents of Newby are endeavoring to hide. Next door, young Prudence Cazabon, who has not been permitted to blossom, delivers all her unused love to her cats. Through her window, Prudence witnesses a relationship, a dangerous secret, and the knowledge proves yet another stultifying burden. Then there is Lily Wilson, the proprietress of the disintegrating waxworks museum. Lily drinks to dull her loneliness and the fear she has of the ‘ghostly company,’ the dusty wax effigies of royalty and murderers beyond the locked door of her apartment. In her apartment Lily longs for her dead husband and so when two men appear to (briefly) pursue her company, we are pleased, but we are let down when she spies her most attentive suitor with Tory Foyle.

In this small labyrinth all eyes are on Tory, a fragile, beautiful divorcee concerned with ‘important things’ like hats, what to wear and where best to live. While sadly reflecting on her own failed marriage, Tory laments, ‘Marriage is all about talk…a fundamental human need more important than violent passion.’ Tory also speculates that her friend, Beth, is ‘the only happy person she knows,’ at the same time making the point that Beth ‘lacks perception about the truth.’ Beth neglects her home and family so understandably, her husband Robert thinks writing is ‘a disease, a madness’ and finds what he needs elsewhere. Ironically, Robert is also the local doctor and a man who isn’t at all compassionate about his wife, her writing career or the lives of the patients who depend on his vital intrusions. Perhaps like the others who enjoy fiction in this novel, Beth’s preoccupation with the people and events in the new novel she is writing (that is, dramatizing truths and untruths, adapting everyday life), is perceptive. Perhaps by ‘working reality up into something to go on paper’ Beth circumvents the devastating truth of her reality. I write this because we, along with the other characters in Newby, are well aware of the truth ­about Tory, Beth’s supposed ‘best’ friend. Tory is actually Beth’s most disloyal friend, her greatest betrayer. If Beth does lack vision into the real world (Taylor’s fictional reality in Newby) then she escapes a tragic story line while the others in the novel suffer.

It is clever that these subtle ideas on the function of fiction, its relationship to truth, why it is pointless to some and necessary to others, are poignantly played out, made universal, by characters in a made-up, dying fishing community, a fictional village named Newby. Taylor uses irony to give life to her ideas on the grand themes of life – childhood, love, marriage, miss-timing, the purpose of living, ‘the interminable turning over of the waves far out at sea’ – and ideas of missing out, failing to capture the truth and not knowing someone you think you know, but there are no grand gestures in this story. None are required. The themes are carried subtly and deftly without the need of pronounced dramatization because in close proximity, it doesn’t take a big event to shake the harmony and make the characters surmount their obstacles. At the end of their trajectories we consider our lives and our fictional lives.

A View of the Harbour ends where we began, but on the final page a vessel returns to the small harbour to find things have changed. Issues have been resolved, romances ended, people have left, Beth has finished writing her novel, Bertram has failed to capture the essence of anyone on canvas but has captured Tory, and it’s in the last paragraph that Taylor also delivers her most devastating plot development.

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