Friday, May 22, 2009

Elizabeth Taylor's view

I found the British author, Elizabeth Taylor, on someone's best-reads list and borrowed A View of the Harbour from the local library. Like her other books, it explores a particularly English response to dashed hopes, personal loss, and petty injustice — the coping that is given undramatic descriptors like making do or getting by. Its characters are not happy with their lot and they seek what pleasure or fulfillment they can within their socially circumscribed world. This little world, their harbor community, may seem claustrophobic, but it has much that is beautiful, touching, and funny. Deceiving and being deceived, keeping private fantasies and acting them out, enforcing social conventions and artfully twisting them, the characters' interactions with each other carry forward the narrative action of the book. But, with greatly varied degrees of clarity, these women and men also observe; they look upon the place and its contents and they look upon one another, and by this means Taylor gives us many ways to consider the "View" of her title.

Read the introduction by Sarah Walters to the 2006 Virago edition of the book (pdf). It's short, accurate, and well written. As she says, there "are no heroes, and no improbable villains, only flawed, likeable characters negotiating the ordinary small crises of marriage, family and friendship."

The book is set in the old-town section of an English harbor town in a summer not long after the end of the second world war. The dozen or so characters whom Taylor lets us meet are recovering from hardships the war brought them as well as their own foibles and the common vicissitudes of daily life. One of them is Lily Wilson, a middle-aged reclusive war widow, proprietor of a run-down wax museum whose shadowy residents frighten her. Here are a few paragraphs covering a brief outing she takes to the library.
In the little school, in the dimness filled with shifting chalk­motes, children chanted a lesson and a woman's voice, domineering, without love, prompted them. On the window­sills hyacinth bulbs trailed cottony threads into jars of water, erupted a little into leaves: as if authority had tried to bring beauty inside and have it teach a lesson at the same time, an idea which Lily understood, for to her learning meant 'a bringing indoors' and education the insinuation into children's heads as painlessly as possible of a sub­ stance which might later turn out to have money-making properties.

"Charles the First, Sixteen-twenty-five," the children were chanting as Lily turned into the Public Library. "Common­wealth, Sixteen-forty-nine," and then — something final and triumphant — " Charles the Second, Sixteen-sixty" — as if they were all concerned militantly with the return of the monarchy. Hesitation followed, they fell into a minor key, for was he not the last real king for a long time; they paused briefly as a salutation to lechery and humour and eccentricity, qualities the English revere on the printed page or across a distance of time. As Lily closed the door of the Library she could hear the children, having refilled their lungs, trailing unevenly down the incline into the confusions of the House of Hanover.

The Library was part of the Institute. Behind a counter was an old man with an ink-pad and a large oval stamp, with which he conducted a passionate, erratic campaign against slack morals. His censorship was quite personal. Some books he could not read and they remained on the shelves in original bindings and without the necessary stigma "For Adults Only". Roderick Random stood thus neglected, and Tristram Shandy, vaguely supposed to be children's books. Jane Eyre, bound and rebound, full of loose leaves, black with grease, fish-smelling, was stamped back and front. Madame Bovary had fallen to pieces.

The Librarian who performed this useful service to readers had certain fixed standards before him, as he sat there skimming through the pages, one hand fingering the rubber stamp. Murder he allowed; but not fornication. Child­birth (especially if the character died of it), but not pregnancy. Love might be supposed to be consummated as long as no one had any pleasure out of it. There were single words whose appearance called for the stamp at once. "Oh, God!" the characters might cry in their extremity, but not "Oh, Christ!" "Breast" was not to be in the plural. "Rape" sent the stamp plunging and twisting into the purple ink.

Lily went flicking through one book after another, but listlessly; for the choosing of the book brought the thought of the quiet evening when she would read it. The books themselves with their thick greasy boards sickened her, but gave escape into the land of the living. "Audley Court," she read, "lay low down in a hollow, rich with fine old timber and fertile pastures." In the spell of these words she sank deeply as if under an anaesthetic, away from empty and makeshift reality; she went down willingly and pleasurably, relinquishing with eagerness the gritty initations of the Harbour streets, the smell of fish, the dusty shops with their cast-off clothes and furniture.

She took the book to the old man at the counter and stood there silently while he did a great deal of clerieal work about it.

"That's a fine and powerful story," he said. "No need to be prejudiced against lady novelists. In literature the wind bloweth where it listeth."

He would not give the book into her hands and she was compelled to listen, but looked vaguely beyond him at the dirt-marks shoulder high on the flaky wall where for years people had leant, bewildered, misled, searching for pornography in Jane Eyre.

"Robert Elsmere, for instance. That's a serious book. Who could object? No!" he said, as if she had contradicted him. "Ladies — and you notice I say' ladies ' — have their own contribution to make. A nice domestic romance. Why ape men?" He put (at last) the book into her hands as if it were a prize she had won. "Under Two FLags," he added, as she walked away, "that's another matter. That's something of a very different complexion."

Lily, without knowing why, was always conscious of something salacious beneath his Puritanical conversation, and found this old-fashioned prurience boring as well as disgusting, worse than Mrs Bracey's Rabelaisian stories. She carried her book away, holding it with loathing, for it was warm still from his hands, and she climbed to the top of the hill for a breath of air.

Here, where the houses stopped, was slippery turf and the sudden wideness of the sky all round and below, and, stretched out on her left as she faced the sea, the long, curv­ ing glitter of the New Town; the white hotels, the cliffs of boarding-houses, the broad esplanade and the gardens and pier; all planned and clean and built for pleasure.

And then, below on her right, steeply huddled, the Harbour buildings, children running out of school up the narrow streets, playing on the flights of steps, the sea, still, locked in the embrace of the stone wall, dotted with little boats, and, far out on the horizon, smudging the sky with smoke, escorted by wheeling birds, the fleet coming back.

She pressed fingers against her eyes, closing her lids against tears, and turned away from the sight of the place which only love had made tolerable. When her eyes were cleared of tears she opened them again, looking deliberately at the long sands on either side of the pier and the waves creaming over in silence far below.

{This is Scarborough, a bit like Taylor's Newby harbour, though the bright sunshine is a bit disconcerting; source: dkimages}

{Elizabeth Taylor; sources: telegraph, librarything, manaboutmayfair.blogspot}

Further information:

Introduction (pdf) by Sarah Walters, to A view of the harbour, Elizabeth Taylor (London: Virago Press, 2006)

A View of the Harbour (Virago Modern Classics), by Elizabeth Taylor (Penguin, 1987)

The Other Elizabeth Taylor, by Benjamin Schwarz, Books, September 2007, Atlantic (Editor’s Choice: The late English writer is overdue for the recognition and readers she deserves.)

For what it may be worth, this day, May 23, is the one on which Charles II arrived in England to assume the monarchy, an event recorded in Pepys's Diary.

{Landing of Charles II, May 23, 1660; source: apollo-magazine}

No comments: