Many have told me that I should read the books of Elizabeth Taylor – an author I’d not heard of until the publication of Nicola Beauman’s recent biography The Other Elizabeth Taylor by the wonderful Persephone Books.
Published in 1961, it follows one summer in the lives of a family living in the Thames Valley, with ‘The View’ of Windsor castle visible in the far distance. This is already prime commuter belt – every day the men go off to work on the train to their jobs in the city – well, everyone except Dermot that is. He is the young Irish thirty-something husband of forty-something well-off widow Kate. They live in some comfort with Kate’s sixteen year old daughter Louisa and twenty-two year old son Tom, her Aunt Ethel, and looked after by cook Mrs Meacock.
As the novel opens, Kate is on a duty visit to her new mother-in-law, Edwina, up in London for the day. Edwina is always trying to find a job for her youngest, who has never been able to settle at anything or anyone until he fell in love with Kate. I picked up this particular one for its striking cover photo, and was told by pal Helen, that it was about a woman who marries a much younger man – a toy boy! – well that sold it to me instantly.
In the first half of the movel we find out what makes them all tick – and frankly, it’s all about sex. Kate with her younger husband, Tom with his girlfriends, and Louisa’s growing awareness and crush on the young curate in the village. Aunt Ethel watches all these mostly repressed emotions and assesses it in her letters to her friend Gertrude – “When the sex goes Kate will think him no bargain”.
Then the Thorntons return from abroad. The Thorntons, Charles and Dorothea, were Kate and her first husband Alan’s best friends, and Tom had a thing for Minty, their daughter. Charles’ wife died and Kate is keen to make them feel at home again now they’re back in England. There are bound to be problems – as three’s a crowd – Charles and Kate are the same age, whereas Dermot is closer to the children in age and sometimes, outlook.
“They were walking in circles around each other, Kate thought – both Dermot and Charles. When she had introduced them, Dermot had shaken hands with an air of boyish respect, almost adding ‘Sir’ to his greeting, and Charles seemed to try and avoid looking at him or showing more than ordinary interest. Although he had not met him before, even as far away as Bahrain he had heard stories, and Kate, writing to tell him of her marriage, had done so in a defensive strain, as if an explanation were due and she could think of no very good one.”
The story is mainly told from Kate’s point of view, but we hear not only her voice, but her thoughts also – and the two are often opposite. In that terribly repressed middle-class way, everyone says one thing and means another. The author takes a scalpel to these relationships and dissects them with sensitivity and wit, bringing things to a climax with great skill. I can safely say this novel made an instant fan of me, and I wonder why I never discovered her before. (9/10)