Thursday, August 13, 2009

what is the use of it?

I've been reading the novels of the other Elizabeth Taylor. I read them slowly and space them out so as to extend the pleasure they bring me. There is much to read about the beauties of her writing. The reviews in Amazon and LibraryThing are good, but Trev Broughton's article in TLS stands out.

I recently finished one of her later books, In a Summer Season. It's about a well-off middle-aged English widow — mother of a young man and younger sister — who marries a gallant Irishman, ten years her junior. A near opposite to her cultivated and literary first husband, he loves extravagantly and well yet lives off her parasitically, can't settle comfortably into her domestic circle, and — via drink, gambling, and fast driving — sustains a brash youthfulness much closer to her son's way of life than that of her contemporaries.
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Taylor meticulously draws out the emotional ebbs and flows of her created beings and never caricatures; respects all of them as they are, for better and worse, in their full selves.

The plot follows one mid-1950s summer in the lives of this family living in the Thames Valley area of Taylor's childhood home. The widow is Kate, her new husband Dermot. In addition to the son and daughter, the household includes Kate's spinster Aunt Ethel with Mrs Meacock as cook/housekeeper. This snippet shows Dermot's distance from the domestic arrangements of their home and the warmth that binds Kate with him:
Kate took up her sewing basket and went out-of-doors.

There Dermot stood talking to the old gardener, who meanwhile kept his face averted — it was a sardonic face with skin drawn tightly over the bones, like the smiling death-mask from Mycenae. Kate sat down on a seat and opened the basket. The piece of white linen she took out to mend dazzled her eyes and she shifted round to hold it in her shadow. Threading a needle, she listened with amusement to Dermot who was trying to persuade the gardener to spray one of the mildewed trees. The old man made only a few scornful interjections; for nature took its toll, he implied, and was bound to do so. After a while, his toad-like hand crept into his jacket and he brought out a large silver watch on his palm and stared hard at it, trying to make Dermot understand that it was twelve o'clock and time for his dinner. Pretending to mistake a pause for the end of the conversation, he made off across the garden.

Kate lifted her head and smiled. 'You can't win,' she said 'It's too hot to argue.'

Dermot stood looking at the view. Beyond the sloping garden, the wide valley lay in a haze; the nearer orchard was full of glinting tin to keep the birds away. On the other side of the railway track, the rose-red building estate was like a blurred flower-bed when he half shut his eyes. The Castle was lost. He stood behind Kate, with his hand on her shoulder.

'It is like a summer in a book,' Kate said.

'Or those I remember as a child, in Ireland.'

'It may be only one summer we remember — an exceptionally good one that stands for all the others. It's the same scene, the same place in my memory and I the same height always. I could stand right under the branches of the buddleia and watch the butterflies getting drunk.' She lifted her eyes from her work. 'The hot weather, and I was bored because the grown-ups rested in the heat. I knocked the croquet balls about on the lawn all by myself, or spent my time eating Victoria plums and having diarrhoea.'

He drew her shoulders back against him and slid his hands inside her thin shirt. At once, she dropped her sewing into her lap and closed her eyes, hit unexpectedly by vertigo, by desire. For a second, pressing her head back hard against him, she wildly thought that she must have him take her, there, at that moment — with the house in view, Ethel at an upstairs window perhaps, Mrs Meacock tripping out for some mint, or the gardener returning for something he had forgotten; but the extreme sensation, when it had seemed to swing her dizzily into the air, dropped her again. She felt weak, as hollow as an empty shell, and he counted her heartbeat settling slowly to its usual pace. He took his hands out of her shirt and stroked her hair.

'You take me too much by surprise,' she said.

'I'm glad.' He sat down beside her and she began to sew again.
A bit earlier, Taylor gives an exchange between Kate and Mrs Meacock, who has been gathering material for an anthology she hopes to write. With humor and penetrating observation, the author appears to allude to her own challenges while expressing the uncertainties and romantic yearnings of a minor participant in her quiet drama:
'How is your book coming along?' Kate asked.

At once Mrs Meacock looked uncertain and she frowned as she broke an egg into the basin of sweet corn, and seemed vague, as if she were not sure of what she was doing. Literature, it was obvious, bred less confidence than cooking. Among its ingredients one could be lost. 'I've too much material to manipulate,' she said. 'That's my trouble, I think.'

'Surely it is better than the other way round?'

'That I've never suffered from, so I couldn't say. Prolixity is my problem. Having too much, you see.' She took up the pepper mill and turned it once or twice over the mixing bowl. 'I've been a great reader all my life. One tends to have a wide range at one's finger-tips.' Kate was glad to see confidence returning. 'With an anthology,' Mrs Meacock went on 'there are several modes of approach. I've plumped now for the chronological — in order of time, that is. It has its own problems, but once they're sorted out it should be plain sailing.'

'I do so hope it will be,' said Kate.

Her words were no comfort to Mrs Meacock, whose deep fear was out of reach of such conventional encouragement. 'What is the use of it? Where is the point?' were the words she fought against in secret. They welled up now at the back of her mind, as clearly as if they were in print. They had a physically chilling effect on her. If they were unanswerable, she would never escape again. The anthology was her loop­hole, her way out to places where nothing but foreign words fell peacefully about her and people's clothes were as strange as the vegetation. The sky here — at the height of summer, at noonday — was the palest blue; the colours of the Thames Valley were insipid to her — gentle, like a Beatrix Potter illustration. Tame, she thought, yearning for a blinding white temple against a gentian sky. To stay in this house for years and years, seeing nothing but the faint greens and greys of their famous view, would kill her spirit, and she would not allow its possibility. 'If one begins listening to the devil,' she decided, 'nothing will ever be done. It just leads to silliness, from one absurd question to another, until one ends up wondering what was the use of writing War and Peace, for instance.' She regarded that as the ultimate achievement, as a sacred novel almost, about which, like the Bible, there are not two opinions. One subscribed to it, or kept quiet. She herself subscribed to it, although she had not read it. She seemed to know all about it without doing so.

Both women gazed at the basin as she stirred. The mixture was now of a dropping consistency and she put the spoon down. 'Well, that's that,' she said.

{Death mask (gold) Mycenae; 16th century. B.C.; source:}

{A Cornfield by a Backwater near a Village in the Thames Valley by Peter de Wint}

{Buddleia with butterflies; source:}

{Elizabeth Taylor; source: manaboutmayfair blog}

Here is a link to the wikipedia entry for Elizabeth Taylor


Aunt Ethel is quite conventionally convinced that Kate's love of Dermot is an aberration; a cultivated Englishwoman supporting a flamboyant younger husband in the home she shared with her first: it cannot last. Taylor adroitly shows both the centrifugality and centripetality of the situation.

I thought of Kate's returning youthfulness and sensual pleasure on recently reading this poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay:

Oh, Prue she has a patient man,
      And Joan a gentle lover,
And Agatha's Arth' is a hug-the-hearth, —
      But my true love's a rover!

Mig, her man's as good as cheese
      And honest as a briar,
Sue tells her love what he's thinking of, —
      But my dear lad's a liar!

Oh, Sue and Prue and Agatha
      Are thick with Mig and Joan!
They bite their threads and shake their heads
      And gnaw my name like a bone;

And Prue says, "Mine's a patient man,
As never snaps me up,"
And Agatha, "Arth' is a hug-the-hearth,
      Could live content in a cup,"

Sue's man's mind is like good jell —
      All one color, and clear —
And Mig's no call to think at all
      What's to come next year,

While Joan makes boast of a gentle lad,
      That's troubled with that and this;—
But they all would give the life they live
      For a look from the man I kiss!

Cold he slants his eyes about,
      And few enough's his choice, —
Though he'd slip me clean for a nun, or a queen,
      Or a beggar with knots in her voice,—

And Agatha will turn awake
      When her good man sleeps sound,
And Mig and Sue and Joan and Prue
      Will hear the clock strike round,

For Prue she has a patient man,
      As asks not when or why,
And Mig and Sue have naught to do
      But peep who's passing by,

Joan is paired with a putterer
      That bastes and tastes and salts,
And Agatha's Arth' is a hug-the-hearth, -
      But my true love is false!

From: A few figs from thistles: poems and sonnets by Edna St. Vincent Millay (Harper & Brothers, 1922)
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{Edna St. Vincent Millay; source:}

{Edna St. Vincent Millay; source: Life Magazine; Edna St. Vincent Millay in her apartment in New York City, March 1941; taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt}

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