Karen of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book are once again delving into books from the past with a 1951 Club reading week starting next week. This follows on from their 1924, 1938 and 1947 clubs.
Looking through my stack of books I found three that were published in 1951:
The End of the Affair by Graham Greene: This is fourth – and last – of Greene’s novels that have an overtly Roman Catholic dimension. Set in Clapham during the blitz (before the war, Greene owned a house in Clapham), it’s a story of adultery. It comes with a strong theme about guilt and jealousy. It’s one of my favourite Greene novels.
A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor: I can thank many bloggers for introducing me to Elizabeth Taylor. My first experience of her work – A Wreath of Roses – didn’t inspire me but I was persuaded to give her another chance so I ended up buying a number of her titles secondhand. A Game of Hide and Seek is one of them. It’s her fifth novel and, like The End of the Affair, features a triangular relationship. Taylor’s themes may be slightly less grand than Greene’s but she is no less insightful in depiction of human behaviour.
The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey: A rather unusual historical crime story in which a Detective Inspector with Scotland Yard lies in a hospital bed and reviews evidence that makes King Richard III murderer. Did he really order the deaths of the Princes in the Tower or is that a myth along with his withered arm and hunchback?
Three good options here I think. Since I’ve already read The End of the Affair I’ll likely go for the titles that will be less familiar. The Tey novel beckons to me most right now and will be a perfect pairing with the final episode in the Hollow Crown BBC series. It will be interesting to compare Shakespeare’s version of Richard III with the one in Tey’s novel.
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
The owners of care homes and residential homes for elderly people like to adorn their promotional material with photos of bright-eyed, smiling, carefree people in the twilight of their years. No sign of arthritic knees or failing memories, of stiffening joints or nervousness about venturing out anywhere after dark.
Such however is the reality experienced by Mrs Palfrey who, eschewing nursing homes, has moved into the Claremont Hotel in west Lonon for what she knows will the the final stage of her life.
She realised that she never walked now without knowing what she was doing and and concentrating upon it; once, walking had been like breathing, something unheeded. The disaster of being old was in not felng safe to venture anywhere, of seeing freedom put out of her reach.
Set in the early 1970s, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is the story of how a woman whose whole life has been an exercise in saving face and stiffening ones back. Having skilfully navigated the trials of life as the wife of a colonial administrator in Burma, she is now a widow of ‘comfortable’ means but not wealthy in need of somewhere to live other than her daughter’s home. The somewhat frayed decor of the Claremont with its assortment of similarly displaced guests, tests her resilience to the limit. Mrs Palfrey cannot even take comfort from visitors since her daughter lives too far away in Scotland and grandson Desmond has never been much good at keeping in touch. To her rescue comes a young, down-at-heel writer called Ludo, who acts the Good Samaritan when Mrs Palfrey trips while out walking. She hits on the idea of pretending that he is really her grandson Desmond. Attracted by the adventure of the deceit, and the chance it gives him to conduct research for his book, Ludo agrees to play along.
It’s a device which provides scope for the kind of comedy that derives from mistaken identities and misunderstandings. But Taylor blends the comic touch with insightful reflections on the nature of old age.
It was hard work being old. It was like being a baby, in reverse. Every day for an infant means some new little thing; every day for the old means nothing, sequences become muddled, and faces blurred. Both infancy and age are tiring times.
Taylor handles the subject of old age sympathetically but still maintains an ironic detachment about the old folk in The Claremont and the different ways in which they respond to loneliness, financial worries and failing health. Taylor perfectly captures their foibles, their insistence on routine and fascination with other people’s lives. Each of these residents deals with the situation in their own way – from Mrs Arbuthnot whose ‘ears sharpened by malice’ to Mrs Burton who finds solace at the bottom of a glass to Mr Osborne who voices an opinion on everything and bores everyone with his pointless stories.
I had hesitated to read this novel having been underwhelmed by my first and only Elizabeth Taylor work (A Wreath of Roses). But in an interview on the Guardian book podcast, the comedian David Badziel raved about it so much I decided to give it a go. I’m so glad I did.
My monthly snapshot of what I’m reading, watching etc on the first Sunday of each month.
I’m reading two books at the moment that could not be further apart in setting, theme or style.
On my e-reader is The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee which is due to be published by Random House in the UK on May 22. It’s set in 1960s Calcutta and is the story of a large Bengali family that is falling apart under the strain of poisonous sibling rivalries, adolescent drug addition and instability in the family business. The fractures in the family mirror the cracks that are appearing in the society around them with the rise of political activism in rural areas. Mukherjee has created some wonderful characters, especially the matriarch of the family and her only daughter, a girl whose venomous nature has ripened over the years of rejection by successive marriage suitors turned off by her swarthy complexion and turned eye.
By my bedside is Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. This is only the second work by Taylor that I’ve read. My first experience of her novels was A Wreath of Roses which I didn’t care for very much asI explained in this post. But so many other bloggers whose opinion I trust rate her highly so I thought she was worth a second chance and I am so glad I picked this up when I spotted it in the library. The collection of characters she assembles at the Claremont Hotel are beautifully crafted and Taylor does a wonderfully job of delicately balancing the humour of their various foibles with the note of sadness at the recognition that these residents are people who are approaching the twilight of their years. Forced by circumstances to live in a second class hotel instead of with family members, and with their resources dwindling, they are still determined to keep up appearances. The novel started lightly but it didn’t take long for more deeper ideas to come through, in particular the theme of loneliness in old age to develop. If this is a truer example of Taylor’s writing prowess than A Wreath of Roses, then I’ll be looking forward to reading more by her.
The BookerTalk household has been working its way through the entire series of Foyles War, staring Michael Kitchen who is an actor so accomplished I don’t understand why we don’t see more of him. In this series he is a Detective Chief Superintendent based in Hastings, a seaside resort on the south coast of England, during World War 2. He gives a masterfully understated performance as the policeman with high moral standards and a very shrewd understanding of human nature but with many a twinkle in his eye. No doubt there are people who have spotted anachronistic items of clothing, household goods or army equipment) but the period setting seems pretty convincing to me. We’re almost at the end – just two more episodes left unfortunately.
I’m a little behind with my favourite radio program — the daily episode of The Archers. For those of you who live in the UK you’ll know this radio program is a national institution with around 5 million listeners some of who are extremely devoted and get very passionate about some of the story lines. It’s set in the fictional English village of Ambridge, featuring the daily trials and tribulations of the local families, many of whom have been farming the land for generations. Which means we get plenty of info about seasonal activities like lambing mixed in with the drama of family life and village events such as the annual pantomime and the quiz in the village pub. The story lines do dip now and again which is to be expected for a series that’s been running since 1950 but I still miss it when I’m away. Actually, many years ago on holiday in France, we managed to pick it on the car radio and so sat in a field somewhere in Normandy, eating our Camembert and munching on a baguette, listening to a people talking about sheep shearing or potato planting and the price of milk. Quite bizarre.
The Future Learn on line course about Shakespeare’s World is now coming to an end. It’s sustained a high level of quality throughout and introduced me to new interpretations of his plays which I’d love to explore further when I have some time. It’s likely to be on offer again so keep an eye out for it.
I’m taking a short break away from reading the Man Booker prize winners, partly so I can explore some of the book recommendations I’ve had from fellow bloggers. But I also need to catch up with reading for my children’s literature course with the Open University which starts in September.
The two non-Booker books I’m currently reading, could not be more different.
Elizabeth Taylor: A Wreath of Roses
I had never heard of Elizabeth Taylor until recently but there seems to be a growing swell of people who rate her very highly. And so I bought, at random, A Wreath of Roses which turns out to rated as one of her best.
The early chapters didn’t sparkle very much for me but I sense a change and the emergence of a psychologically darker tone. It’s a story about three women who were very close for several years and spent many idyllic summers together in the country. But as the novel begins and they meet once again for their holiday, each of them is conscious of how much their lives have changed.
The once young and carefree Liz is struggling with her new role as a mother and vicar’s wife. Frances, the eldest of the trio, having swapped her life as teacher and governess to become a successful painter in later life, now finds her new work taking on a darker, more disturbing tone. Such changes leave the central character Camilla feeling estranged and disenchanted with the direction her own life has taken. The handsome man she meets by accident at the train station suggests an escape ..but Richard Elton seems to have an all too different agenda.
That was the point at which I decided it was worth reading further. I’d enjoyed some of the descriptive passages thanks to Taylor’s very painterly but the characters hadn’t really come to life so I didn’t particularly care what they thought or felt. It wasn’t until the narrative switched to Richard’s point of view and glimpses of his disturbed personality, were revealed that the book took on a new dimension. Let’s hope it keeps going in that direction.
R L Stevenson: Treasure Island
I first read this more than 40 years ago and yet I can still remember that feeling of excitement as the story of adventure unfolded. Long John Silver is one of those unforgettable characters from fiction of course but I remember too some of the turning point episodes – of Jim crouched in the apple barrel overhearing Silver plotting the mutiny. Reading it now, it doesn’t seem to have lost any of its freshness -the story still feels like it zips along at a cracking pace and even though I know the ending, the child in me can’t help but hold my breath just in case Jim gets caught in the barrel or he loses the fight up on the mast and plunges to his death. I hope that as the children’s literature course progresses that I don’t get so bogged down in the analysis that the magic fades……