Elizabeth Taylor is a private writer and a slow teller. In a recent reissue of a 1947 novel, A View from the Harbour from New York Review Books, the range of characters she presents is great. At first I had trouble keeping them all straight. Up until about page 80 of the 323 page novel, Taylor seems to roam around her story. There’s a fine spontaneity about her focus. I don’t think the writer was sure herself which characters she wanted the plot to center on. It was as if she were letting her characters introduce themselves to her and discover where they would take the story. But by the end of the novel I felt I knew the characters well and was sorry to see them go.
Perhaps one reason for my reluctance to let go of the story, which is fine indication of its merit, is Taylor’s attitude toward her fictional biographies. We come into the story in the middle of people’s lives and leave before the end, except in one case. But one of the pleasures of letting go of these characters is that our imaginations can extend the story, envision what happens to these people after the novel’s over. It’s the hidden novel, the post novel, that we can project ourselves because Taylor’s readers have been generously given her characters.
We open in a small seaside town, a harbour, a lighthouse, a seawall with a pulsing surf. Seedy. There’s a building called a fun fair that’s supposed to open for the summer tourist trade but never does and a moldy waxworks that’s badly in need of an updating. Its few patrons are likely to complain when they leave that they’ve been cheated.
Lily lives above the waxworks. She used to run it with her husband who’s been lost in the war. Her sense of mourning is still fresh. It’s only been a couple of years since war’s end. She looks forward to the summer because the evenings stay bright longer. Her worse periods are evenings spent alone. She prefers to get home before dark. If she comes home after nightfall, she has to walk through shadowed waxworks to get upstairs to her flat. She fortifies her evenings with cups of tea. 1947 is too early for her to have a television. Her home amusements would have been the radio, reading and her memories.
Her neighbor Tory is isolated as well, in her case by divorce. Tory is fearful that her young son, away in school, is going to be turned against her by her ex. She’s well off for the time being. Her ex husband is still supporting her and she has lots of nice things in her house left over from when she was married. That’s noticed by Bertram, a sixty year old retired sailor. There’s a wonderful scene where the ingratiating Bertram visits Tory’s house and examines its choice objects one by one, discussing their provenance and how they were made. Sounds outrageously intrusive doesn’t it? But if you are as emotionally isolated as Tory, you don’t mind. You’re happy for the company.
We learn a lot about what Elizabeth Taylor thinks of life from what we find out about Bertram. For Taylor, life is full of dicey compromises. Dicey because life could get much more treacherous. Her characters skate on thin ice.
Now that Bertram is retired from seafaring he tells himself that his fulfilling life as an artist is about to begin. He’ll paint acclaimed seascapes. So far he has done only watercolors. But when he starts with canvas and oils the results don’t measure up to his daydreams. For an artist, Bertram seems to find many excuses not to paint. He maintains his self esteem by nurturing an identity as an artist that’s a pipe dream. You sense that he barely believes it himself.
Tory’s best friend Beth, on the other hand, really is a novelist. She has a publisher and is working on her next book. Beth is especially looking forward to the death scene of her chief character, Allegra. Beth loves writing death scenes, which sounds overripe. There’s a wonderful parallelism in that Taylor also has a death scene in A View from the Harbour. But where you sense, without Taylor actually saying so, that Beth is a mediocre or hack writer, Taylor’s “real” death of a character is full of eloquence. All through the novel, that character has been presented as obnoxious, a character you’ll love to hate. But in the character’s death scene Taylor’s humanity shines.
Could Beth have been better writer? This sounds prescient for 1947: Beth wonders if she hadn’t been pressed with household duties and raising her children, perhaps she would have been able to devote more time to learning her craft.
Beth is a shut in, hardly leaves the house. Whenever she runs into someone new, like her daughter’s new hopeful boyfriend, well there’s another person to mine for a new character. Beth is self centered, a common character trait in Taylor’s novel, like her friend Tory, who is self absorbed…really selfish.
Taylor is the kind of gifted writer who will not say Tory is divorced, without giving some hint about something in Tory’s character that may have contributed to her divorce. In Beth’s case, her devotion to her fictional characters seems more animated than her relationships with her family.
She’s not very good with her children. Her husband, the town doctor, is much better with the kids. Moreover, her husband is having an affair and Beth is clueless, although her older daughter, Prudence, has picked up on it. Whenever Beth encounters a problem or trauma in her life or in the life of someone she knows, it’s plowed into her fiction, leaving the surface of her personality unperturbed as much as possible..
Speaking of Beth’s daughter, Prudence, a boyfriend more or less falls into her lap. A literate boy who loves poetry, which he both ardently reads and writes. The boy seems talented and promising and Taylor doesn’t say that the relationship with Prudence isn’t going to work out. As a writer, that’s not Elizabeth Taylor’s job. Taylor presents characters and the reader is left to surmise about them. Prudence’s apprentice boyfriend suggests meeting at a bench in the cemetery. There aren’t that many places in a small seaside town where a dating couple can have any privacy. The sheltered Prudence is shocked by the suggestion but goes. The poor boy! He’s really smitten with Prudence. And what a fine thing to have a handsome young poet in love with you! Only Prudence doesn’t like books. And she thinks: “Oh no, he’s not going to bring another one of his poems with him.” All praise to a writer who knows what to say, what not to say, and can set the imagination of her readers free to roam over the rest.
I purchase all the books I review. Having said that, I won’t say it again.