Saturday, 6 October 2012

A View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor

This was her third novel (pub.1947) and one can see in it a willingness to expand her scope from the more restricted settings of the two previous. That would be one way of looking at it, imagining that more characters means more work, more narrative, more dialogue, more authorial business. On reflection though I now consider that it may have been easier to write because she is a natural fabulist and can conjure up stories in a trice like a modern scheherazade. More is less in this case.

In its way it is quite a narrative painting with visuals being provided by the hobby painter Bertram Hemingway a character of uncertain sexuality who is a retired naval officer on half pay. Out of this backdrop come all the characters that appear in the novel.

He drew in the buildings in squares and oblongs -the large stone house at one end of the row, the pub, the Mimosa Fish Cafe, the second-hand clothes shop, the Fun Fair, the Seamen’s Mission, the Waxworks, the lifeboat house.

Bertram notices things and has a way of insinuating himself into the lives of the rest of the cast of characters, Tara Foyle beautiful divorcee, Lily Wilson propritoress of the waxworks, lonely young war widow, fruity bed ridden scabrous Mrs. Brace of the clothes shop, Dr.Robert Cazabon and his wife Beth the published novelist who always has a book on the stocks, their two daughters Prudence and Stevie. Prudence by the way is described as having a Trilby fringe which goes to show how long that book stuck in the minds of the Great British Public. Tara and Beth are old school friends, their houses are next to each other and they drop in and out borrowing cups of sugar, mustard and sympathy. Tara and Dr.Robert have a spiky relationship but just now Jane Austen gave me a sharp elbow. Bertram befriends all the ladies in the cast, and is sympathetic, flattering and bracing but knows himself apt to vanish from people’s lives.

Bertram was worried about his shirts. He liked to rough it and to mingle, just as he did this evening, with men who wore coarse jerseys and smelt of fish and tobacco, as long as he could be sure of a drawerful of what is called dazzling white linen somewhere off-stage, something he could return to when he made his exit.

Tory is giving an omelette to Bertram:
When she cut the omelette in half grey mushrooms fell out. It was delicious he though, but not enough. Women never give one enough to eat, he decided, taking more bread. God know why men marry any of them.

When the energy that can be contained within a short book of 254 pages is spread over so many characters what is achieved is panoptic rather than focussed. It has its local intensities but like Mother said ‘divide small and serve all’. Some of the interchanges between Dr. Robert and Tara (Victoria) have the overwrought feeling of that film of the era Brief Encounter 1945. Even that prissy locution ‘I don’t know, I’m sure’ used in the film is used by Maisie the daughter of Mrs. Bracey. This latter offers the author many opportunities for low comedy. Bertram in his fretful search for dazzling white cuffs brings his shirts to the shop for the daughter to do. When he meets the bedridden Mrs. Bracey they recognise each other as forces:

His eyes went at once to Mrs Bracey and hers to him, as if each recognized in the other something above the stature of curates, charladies and young women. ‘Beauty in vile ugliness,’ he told himself, imagining he looked at her with the eyes of Rembrandt.

Bertram in his way is the ambulant form of Mrs Bracey and by way of acknowledging this he takes part in her death watch. He does this with great firmness but at the same time he does not go to the funeral as he feels that this would be imposing. This is the sort of observation that Taylor does so well.

There is fun and games with the donning of the female armour of the day, the corset.

’Persevere’ said Tory.
She sat on the fuschia-coloured sofa in her bedroom window and watched the sea.
‘I can’t,’ Beth gasped, trying to tuck great bunches of flesh into the corset.
‘If I can, you can,’ Tory said calmly.

Mrs Bracey watches as Mrs Flitcroft the Cazabon’s charlady tries on a corset only hoping that the curate Mr. Lidiard who is expected will arrive in the middle of it:
’Tighter, dear, I like to feel something in the small of my back.’

Such are the indignities that flesh is heir to. Mr. Lidiard does come in before Mrs Flitcroft is quite ready and what Mrs Bracey says to him you must read it to find out. Oh, all right so:
There’s Mrs Flitcroft’s cardigan. 'Take it out to her,’ said her mother. 'She’s putting on her drawers in the wash-house,’ she explained to Mr. Lidiard.
'Oh, yes,’ He seemed to take for granted that this should be, refusing to let her ruffle him or surprise him.

But what do you make of the last paragraph if you read it? Strange irony perhaps?

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