What a lot of unhappy people inhabit the fishing village chosen as the setting of Elizabeth Taylor’s A View from the Harbour. Loneliness and disappointment seep out from almost every house that sits on the sea-front. Even the town of Newby seems in its twilight years with few visitors since the focus moved to the new town around the point. All that’s left is a furniture shop with chipped china, a tobacconist whose windows are full of faded postcards and gifts that no-one wants to buy, a wax works that is clinging to the past, a second hand clothes shop where the frocks hang dejected and unloved and a harbour where rusty wire is full of seaweed and tattered rags.
There’s Robert the doctor who is in love with his wife’s best friend, a beautiful divorcee called Tory who lives next door. She’s half in love with her former husband still and fretting about her young son who’s gone off to boarding school. Then there’s the doctor’s wife Beth who is so wrapped up in writing her novels and carefully crafting funeral scenes that she can’t see the sadness of her own daughter’s life “No warmth fell from her over her children,” the narrator tells us and indeed through the novel Beth is rather detached, not just from her two daughters but her husband. She spends more time questioning her merits as an author.
It is just fiddling about with words. I’m not a great writer. Whatever I do someone else’s always done it before, and better. In ten years’ time no one will remember this book, the libraries will have sold off all their grubby copies of it second-hand and the rest will have fallen to pieces, gone to dust. And even if I were one of the great ones, who cares?
Just down the street sisters Maisie and Ivy are struggling with their personal demon -their mother. Mrs Bracey is the book’s darkest character. She’s a control freak who wants her daughters – and everyone else -dancing attendance on her while she watches what goes on outside the house. She’s a perceptive character though – quick to pick up nuances when Robert and Tory meet outside her window so she can tell from the very fact that they are not smiling, that they are lovers.
A few doors away widow Lily Wilson is petrified to go home to the darkened waxworks museum she runs, locking the bedroom door against her ghostly companions and praying for sleep.
…. she was ever conscious that they stood grouped there, unmoving, eyes glittering as the lighthouse beam winked upon them, their arms crooked unnaturally or ones flexed slightly in everlasting informality, a disintegrating glove draped between the fingers of royalty, the unfamiliar faces of forgotten murderers turned to the door.
Weaving his way through these people who yearn for something different – and better – is a retired seaman. Bertram Hemingway has his own dreams of being an artist, “a delightful painter of marine and plage subjects. Every day he takes his materials down to the harbour front, in the hope of capturing the essence of the sea that had for been his world for thirty years. In his head he can do it but on paper “the greens became mud, the birds suggested no possibility of movement, stuck motionless above the waves…” To salve his waves of loneliness he tries to ingratiate himself with the locals at the pub and with the neighbours either side, even at one point sitting at the bedside of the dying Mrs Bracey though his reminiscences of childhood Christmases are of no interest or meaning for her.
No momentous events materialise to change the course of their lives – this isn’t a plot driven novel but one of finely observed human behaviour. People in this community watch each other a lot though they don’t necessarily comprehend what they see so they go on blindless to their own nature and to those around them. We see them framed as if in a tableau – indeed the first scene is of Bertrand watching a woman do little more than carry a jug from the pub to the doctor’s house and then back again.
In her introduction to my edition of the novel Sarah Walters comments that she sees Elizabeth Taylor as an important British author “of great subtlety, great compassion and great depth”. I’m not convinced about the depth but subtlety is certainly in evidence in A View of the Harbour. Sometimes her insight into humanity are so discreet that you read a sentence and don’t understand its full import until much later. This is a novel that doesn’t parade itself with dramatic turns of plot or sudden revelations of character – it’s a bit like a really good cup of tea, it needs time to brew.
The Book: A View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor. It was her third of 14 novels.
Published: 1947. My version is a 1987 edition published by Virago Press
Length: 313 pages
The Author: Elizabeth Taylor the writer