Archive for the ‘Elizabeth Taylor’ Category

My first few attempts at reading Elizabeth Taylor’s books did not go well.  I tried a handful during Virago Reading Week last year and never got past the first fifty pages in any of them.  But, given how enthusiastic so many of my favourite bloggers are about her, I wanted to give her another try.  So, a few weeks ago I found myself picking up At Mrs Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor and I can now finally report that I have read, from start to finish, one of Taylor’s novels.  But I’m still not sure how I feel about her.

The novel begins as the Davenant family are moving into Mrs Lippincote’s house, which they’ve rented to be close to the RAF base (the book was published in 1945) where Roddy Davenant has recently been assigned.  Roddy has been in the area for a while but his family – wife Julia, son Oliver, and spinster cousin Eleanor – have just joined him.  From the opening pages, it is clear that there is something a little off with this family.  They do not relate to one another in the way you would expect and they certainly never seem relaxed in one another’s presence.  Each one seems wholly interested in his or her own affairs, never really coming together to exist as a family unit.  It makes for a chilly atmosphere and wife and mother Julia seems to be at the center of that.

Julia is an odd character and certainly not a particularly likeable one.   She seems very alone and very empty but not in a particularly sympathetic way.  She is quite emotionally detached from her family, though, in her way, she cares deeply for her seven-year-old son Oliver.  She is essentially disinterested in all the trappings of respectability that matter so much to the outwardly proper (but philandering) Roddy and she does things not just knowing that they will upset Roddy but because she knows they will upset him; there is an uncomfortable element of cruelty to her behaviour.  She seems barbed and brittle – an amusing woman to have a light conversation with, someone whose sharp comments (if not directed at you) can make you laugh, but also someone who is very fragile.  Julia happily performs a number of domestic duties but she brings no warmth into the home – but then neither does anyone else.  She is quick though, and I found her conversations fascinating as she deployed her wit to both charm and needle.  And when she does want to charm and amuse, as in her conversations with the Wing Commander, she always succeeds, presenting herself with an appealing blend of confidence and peculiarity.  Who but Julia would use a dinner party to instigate a fanciful conversation about food in literature?:

‘These baked apples are very good,’ said the Wing Commander.

‘I had the recipe from Villette. I like to get my recipes from good literature,’ Julia explained.

‘It takes a woman novelist to describe a dish of food.’

‘If we invert that, what a prodigious novelist Mrs Beeton would have been,’ said Roddy.

‘Oh, I agree,’ said Julia, ‘but it isn’t often true. Remember how often it is always mutton in Jane Austen. I can’t recall them eating anything else. Oh, gruel, of course.’

‘And don’t men describe food well?’ Mrs Mallory wondered. No one could remember. ‘One of the best meals I ever ate in my imagination was the Boeuf en daube in To the Lighthouse,’ said Julia. ‘I see it now and smell it – the great earthenware dish and its’ (she closed her eyes and breathed slowly) ‘“its confusion of savoury brown and yellow meats, and its bayleaves and its wine.”’

They laughed at her and she took up a spoon and was surprised that the taste was of fruit, not meat.

‘Virginia Woolf is a little too modern for me,’ said the Wing Commander. ‘She has not stood the test of time. She has not been approved by posterity.’

‘We have none of us been that,’ said Julia. ‘But we can still enjoy a meal.’

I was more intrigued by Eleanor, Roddy’s middle-aged cousin.  She is and always has been in love with him, and, because of that, is oblivious to his faults.  After a breakdown, she’s come to live with the Davenants, a source of both stress and amusement for Julia.  Eleanor has a romantic soul and finds herself caught up with a group of dramatic communists, more notable for their domestic arrangements than political convictions.  Still, there is life and energy in them, something not always to be found at Mrs Lippincote’s, and therefore all the more attractive.  Or, rather, Julia has energy but you never know to what end it will be turned.

Roddy is largely absent, which is part of the problem, but does nothing to endear himself to the reader or his family when he does appear.  He is very dull, desiring an entirely conventional, unexceptional home life with an obedient, worshiping wife and presentable, respectful son.  Julia is far from obedient and the precocious Oliver acts too oddly grown-up to ever feel like the seven-year old he is.  For the reader, though, Oliver is a delight.  A bookish boy who has perfected the art of being an invalid, he makes both his parents nervous with his ailments and his disinterest in typical childish behaviours.  He, until he befriends the boisterous Felicity, is perfectly happy to live in his books.  He is the only character who didn’t feel distant but, all the same, there was nothing about him that was particularly believable (how many seven-year-olds count Jane Eyre among their favourite books?).  Still, as a reader I couldn’t help but grow a bit attached to this kindred soul:

Oliver Davenant did not merely read books.  He snuffed them up, took breaths of them into his lungs, filled his eyes with the sight of the print and his head with the sound of the words.  Some emanation from the book itself poured into his bones, as if he were absorbing steady sunshine.  The pages had personality.  He was of the kind who cannot have a horrifying book in the room at night.  He would, in fine weather, lay it upon an outside sill and close the window.  Often Julia would see a book lying on his doormat.

I am definitely intrigued by Taylor’s style – I find her sharp wit and precise descriptions very appealing – but I was unimpressed by her handling of the characters and plot. For a relatively short book, there just seemed to be too much pointless activity (especially the scenes among Eleanor’s communist friends) and too many extraneous characters.  More importantly, all of the central characters felt artificial.  They may have had certain characteristics or behaviours that I could sympathize with but not one of them – Julia, Roddy, Eleanor, or Oliver – ever felt like a real person.  They expressed exactly what they needed to in order to get across the story and mood that Taylor desired but they were nothing more than that.  The overall effect was too mannered for my tastes.  I read so many positive reviews of At Mrs Lippincote’s both before and while I was reading it, and I did try very hard to try and understand what those bloggers loved about the book but I simply could not feel the same.  Still, there was enough here to interest me in trying more of Taylor’s works and I’ve just begun reading A View of the Harbour (which is the March readalong book for the Elizabeth Taylor Centenary celebrations).

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