It was only yesterday that I saw on Simon's blog that this was the bit of Elizabeth Taylor's centenary year when people would be reading A View of the Harbour. I had known this, and had a copy, but had completely forgotten to read it. But luckily I had a long journey ahead of me -- car to airport, sit in airport, fly to Stansted, train to Liverpool Street, tube to Hammersmith -- and in that time I actually managed to read the whole novel.
As I have undoubtedly said before, I am a huge fan of Elizabeth Taylor. I've read quite a few but though I have owned this for ages, for some reason I had never got around to reading it. One thing I really admire about Taylor is that her novels are not all the same. That sounds ridiculous, perhaps, but when you think of Angel, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, and At Mrs Lippincotes, for example, you might see what I mean. Of course there are common concerns, and a common style, and how I do love Taylor's cool, wry wit and her wonderful observation of people and their foibles and their inner lives.
I noticed that Simon said in his review yesterday that he felt that there were too many threads in this novel. I really disagree. Yes there is a large cast of characters, and each has their own story. All are separate but all are somehow connected and this clearly is the purpose here -- a panorama of ordinary people and their generally troubled inner lives. Central to the plot, and the source of the title, is the elderly would-be painter Bertram Hemingway, who has come to stay in the small, rather run-down seaside town Newby and has plans to paint the definitive view of the harbour. Of course this has resonances throughout the novel -- Hemingway fails utterly, as he plainly lacks skill and talent, but Taylor, who has also set out to do this, succeeds brilliantly. Hemingway is a fascinating character. He is pompous and self-serving but not entirely without self-knowledge. He has ambitions to be a great painter but knows he never will be. A life-long batchelor, he likes women a great deal but is well aware that he uses them ruthlessly and drops them without a backward glance when it suits him. More or less universally disliked, he is the only person who gives up his time to sit with old Mrs Bracey, talk to her, listen to her ramblings, and finally wait for her drawn-out death.
After toying, with disastrous results, with Lily Wilson, a sad, lonely war widow (for this is 1947, by the way), Hemingway turns his attention to beautiful, elegant Tory Foyle.Tory is divorced, missing her small son Edward who has gone to boarding school -- and secretly getting deeply involved with the husband of her oldest friend, who lives next door. This agonising, irresistible affair has been discovered by Robert's daughter Prudence, who is furious and miserable. But Beth, Robert's wife, and a successful novelist, is completely unaware of what is going on. Over at Mrs Bracey's, the aged, partially paralysed matriach lies in her bed, bullying her two daughters, sucking in the local gossip, greedily reading books about the dirty goings on of the natives in far-flung places. Her daughter Iris works in the pub and dreams that Laurence Olivier may come in one day, though she can't imagine what they would talk about if he did, while her sister Maisie is no dreamer, simply getting on with her life in a simple, practical way.
There is so much that could be said about these people and their stories, but the thing that struck me most forcibly here was how unhappy, frustrated, disappointed, everybody was. The only person, really, who is not unhappy is Beth, the novelist, and this is because she lives entirely in the life of her novels. This means that though she just about manages to keep her house and family together, she rarely goes out and has little or no idea of anything that is going on around her. Of course this is profoundly ironic since there is at least as much drama surrounding her in real life as there is between the pages of her novels. But luckily this means she is protected from the pain she would suffer if she knew of Tory's involvement with her husband.
This is an extraordinarily complex, subtle, and beautifully observed novel. Taylor sometimes makes me laugh, and always amazes me with the profound insight she has into people and their inner lives. I'll just leave you with a quotation -- possibly not a particularly representative one, but I liked it, so here it is.
Lily Wilson sat behind the lace curtains with Lady Audley's Secret on her lap, but it was too dark to read. Although awaited, the first flash of the lighthouse was always surprising and made of the movement something enchanting and miraculaous, sweeping over the pidgeon-coloured evening with condescension and negligence, half-returning, withdrawing, and then, almost forgotten, opening its fan again across the water, encircled, so Lily thought, all the summer through by mazed birds and moths, betrayed, as some creatures are preserved, by that caprice of nature which cherishes the ermine, the chameleon, the stick-insect, but lays sly traps for others, the moths and lemmings. 'And women?', Lily wondered, and she turned down a corner of Lady Audley's Secret to mark the place, and stood up yawning.
I think Taylor is a really important writer. I'd love to have a small class of really bright students to sit down with and discuss this novel at length. I think it would pass a number of very happy hours. Failing that, look at Simon's blog today for other views!
Yes I have a new banner -- I've had so much trouble getting it right and I think it's still a bit off but I can't go on fiddling for ever. Not sure even why I needed it as I really liked the old one, but perhaps it's spring in the air that makes me think of new beginnings.
And while I'm at it I must apologise for not posting any reviews for a while -- I have been all over the place, back and forth to the UK from France, going to funerals, trying to keep up with the demands of my life. I haven't even done all that much reading in the past couple of weeks but I will be back, I promise. One problem is that the book I'm reading at the moment, which I bought on impulse on Brittany Ferries, is more than 500 pages long and I'm finding it so entertaining and informative that I can't give it up till I get to the end. I'm also reading Muriel Spark, which I shouldn't be as Muriel Spark Week is still almost a month away. But I'm deep in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (reading it on my iphone) and am absolutely swept away by what a wonderful novel it is. So you will be hearing more about these before too long.
Now I have to read Elizabeth Taylor's A View of the Harbour because I'd forgotten about this.
The American graphic artist Charles Dana Gibson (1867-1944) created an image of women that became known as The Gibson Girl. Here's one of them, reading, surrounded by lots of discarded books. Presumably she's having trouble deciding what she wants to read -- I feel that way sometimes myself.
What are you reading for Muriel Spark Reading Week, which starts exactly a month from today? If you have some kind of e-reader (or even Kindle on your computer) you could be downloading e-books from Open Road, who have just brought out eight of her novels in digital format - BUT SADLY, NOT IF YOU LIVE IN THE UK! (see comments below). You can read more about them and about Spark herself, here, and there are also extracts from probably her most famous novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, to be read here. I read this many years ago and am going for a re-read, and also already have The Driver's Seat and a collection of her poems.
If you missed the original post about this exciting event, you can find all the details here.
I only discovered Elizabeth Bowen about six months ago -- this is the third one of her novels that I've read, and I'm still amazed by the extraordinary skill of her writing. The first two were The Heat of the Day and To the North, and I think I liked both of them a little more than this one, but only a little. And that might just be because I found the subject matter quite upsetting.
Set in London in the late 1930s, this is the story of sixteen-year-old Portia Quayne. The product of a love affair between apparently respectable, middle-aged Mr Quayne and his unsuitable mistress Irene, Portia has been brought up on the continent in seedy flats and hotels, and now, after the deaths of both her parents, has been sent to live with her much older half-brother Thomas and his wife Anna. The visit has not been a success. Thomas is distant and embarassed by this constant reminder of his father's disgrace, and Anna -- cold, wealthy and bored -- actively dislikes the girl and has no idea what to do with her. The Quaynes live in a Regency house overlooking Regent's Park, where Anna idles her days away with superficial society friends, looked after by the loyal, taciturn housekeeper Matchett. Portia goes to lessons and wonders what to do with herself the rest of the time -- until, that is, she meets Eddie.
Eddie, still in his early twenties, is one of Anna's friends, though their relationship is quite equivocal. They are not lovers, and it's not even clear whether they actually like each other, but they are certainly close and given to sharing gossip and confidences. Eddie is in fact a deeply confused young man -- he has never made anything of his life, preferring to trade on his attractiveness and intelligence, though it's clear that these will not see him through for much longer. When he meets Portia he is genuinely attracted to her extreme youth and innocence, and needless to say she falls desperately in love with him. But Eddie is unreliable, to say the least, and when he visits Portia at the seaside, where she has been sent to stay with Anna's old governess and her two rather rackety step-children, things start to go badly wrong.
There is so much to admire -- even gasp over -- about this novel. As always in Bowen's writing there's a wonderful sense of place and time, whether it's Regent's Park slowly progressing from deep winter to spring or the rather run-down south coast of England in early summer. As for the characters, they are truly superb -- Bowen's observation of people's behaviour and their inner lives is astonishingly profound and true. Apart from Anna -- far from likeable, but just about understandable -- and Eddie, who must be one of the most complex and fascinating characters ever to hit the pages of a novel, the more minor characters are brilliantly done. There's poor Major Brutt, a friend of Anna's ex-lover Pidgeon, despised by Anna and Thomas who laugh at him behind his back, but one of the only people in this appallingly superficial world who genuinely likes Portia and sends her jigsaw puzzles to cheer her up. There's Mrs Heccomb, the ex-governess, pottering around her seaside boarding house and painting lampshades for pocket money, and her two loud, careless step-children David and Daphne, whose influence on Portia and her life is pretty disastrous. And then there's Matchett, the only person in the house who has a real relationship with Portia -- the two of them have tea together behind Anna's back and long conversations at bedtime, though Matchett gets cross and jealous when she discovers Portia's attachment to Eddie. And of course there's Portia herself, who surely will remind everyone of what they were like at sixteen. The extreme pain of her disillusionment with Eddie is really what made this novel so uncomfortable for me -- it must have hit a nerve somewhere.
I wish I could tell you that this novel has a happy ending, but you wouldn't really expect that from Elizabeth Bowen. In fact it doesn't have a tragic ending either, just a very open one. There's pain along the way but there's also wit -- some of the scenes at Mrs Heccombe's are really funny. And then there's Bowen's wonderful prose, and I can't resist leaving you with a sample of it, especially as it's so appropriate for the time of year:
Early in March the crocuses crept alight, then blazed yellow and purple in the park. In fact it is about five o'clock in the evening that the first hour of spring strikes - autumn arrives in the early morning, but spring at the close of a winter day. The air, about to darken, quickens and is run through with mysterious white light; the curtain of darkness is suspended, as though for some unprecedented event. There is perhaps no sunset, the trees are not yet budding - but the senses receive an intimation, an intimation so fine, yet striking in so directly, that this appears a movement in one's own spirit. This exalts whatever feeling is in the heart.
No moment in human experience approaches in its intensity this experience of the solitary earth's. The later phases of spring, when her foot is in at the door, are met with a conventional gaiety. But her first unavowed presence is disconcerting; silences fall in company - the wish to be either alone or with a lover is avowed by some look or spontaneous movement - the window being thrown open, the glance away up the street. In cities the traffic lightens and quickens; even buildings take such a feeling of depth that the streets might be rides cut through a wood. What is happening is only acknowledged between strangers, by looks, or between lovers. Unwritten poetry twists the hearts of people in their thirties.
There's more, of course -- but why not read it yourself?
This is an absolutely brilliant novel. I've read all Sophie Hannah's earlier ones and enjoyed them all, some more than others, but this one I think is unquestionably her best yet, and that's saying something. Her great talent is her ability to set up the most extraordinary, impossible situations and then slowly reveal how they can in fact be solved, and this one -- best described as a psychological thriller -- is no exception.
The central character here is one Amber Hewerdine, a young woman in her thirties. As the novel begins, she is consulting a hypnotherapist -- very much a last resort -- in an attempt to cure her chronic insomnia. Highly intelligent and extremely sceptical, Amber is very dubious about trying hypnosis, and the chapter in which the reader is privy to her thoughts as the therapist starts to try to put her under is wonderfully done. Amber thinks she has not succumbed, but then she suddenly finds herself saying some apparently irrational words -- "Kind -- Cruel -- Kind of Cruel". She has no idea where they came from or what they mean,and though she seems to have a memory of seeing them written down somewhere she cannot recollect when, where, or in what context.
And so the story progresses, with more and more apparently unrelated mysteries spiraling off in all directions, and Amber somehow being connected with all of them. There's the bizarre Christmas day nearly a decade ago when Amber's sister-in-law suddenly disappeared from the country house they were sharing, taking her husband and children with her, and reappeared a day later, never referring to the incident again. Then there's the unexplained recent murder, in which those same words (Kind - Cruel...) were found to have been written in a notebook in the murdered woman's flat. Then there's the death by fire of Amber's best friend, whose two children now live with Amber and her husband Luke. And all of this is being investigated by DI Simon Waterhouse, unofficially helped by his wife Charlie, who is also undergoing hypnotherapy, ostensibly to help her to stop smoking but actually hoping for some help with the sexual problems of her marriage.
Obviously I'm not going to tell you any more, but I can assure you that all of these things do prove in the end to be connected (well, not Simon's problems, but all the rest) in surprising and ingenious ways. But in fact the solution, though obviously necessary and perfectly satisfying, is nothing compared with the huge pleasures along the way. The characters are brilliantly conceived -- Amber, clever, spiky, difficult, but full of love for her adopted daughters -- her sister-in-law Jo, apparently a warm, caring woman but one who is apt to suddenly turn on her friends for no apparent reason -- Charlie and Simon, whose ongoing difficulties have featured in all the earlier novels -- and perhaps above all the two little girls, aged 6 and 8, who are superbly characterised and whose conversations with Amber are wonderfully true and touching.
I listened to this as an audiobook, courtesy of Audible, and it gave me many many hours of intense pleasure. It's out in hardback and on Kindle but not in paperback for a while yet. If I were you I'd get hold of it in some form or other as soon as possible. Thanks, Sophie! Can't wait for the next one.