Elizabeth Taylor is one of the few writers whose books I will choose blindly. If she wrote a novel and I haven’t read it, I don’t even bother to see what it’s about. Or “about,” because with Taylor there’s always a great deal seething away below the surface. A View of the Harbour, for instance, is one of the more ostensibly quiet of her novels. The structure is apparently casual: the omniscient narrator rambles from one resident to another of the seaside village of Newby, examining the little community and its surroundings in a clear, dispassionate light.
The outlander is Bertram Hemingway, a retired naval officer who fancies himself an artist and has come to Newby to paint. His function for Taylor, of course, is to be the outsider who misunderstands or the outsider who notices afresh, and provides insight. The two genteel families are the Cazabons and their next-door neighbor, Tory Foyle. Tory is an unstable element in this setting, a beautiful young divorcee with a young son and a propensity for fecklessness. Beth Cazabon, the novelist who lives next door, has always been Tory’s staid, predictable sidekick. But, this being an Elizabeth Taylor novel, Beth Cazabon has her own unruly qualities. In Angela Thirkell’s hands, she would merely be the frumpy neighbor with the peculiar daughters, but Beth, as Tory points out, has a wild and reliable source of satisfaction in her writing. “‘She is about the only happy person I know,’” Tory tells Robert Cazabon. “‘Don’t you see how she is to be envied? Nothing people do can ever break her.’”
And why is Tory discussing Robert’s wife with him, on these intimate terms? Well might you ask: this relationship is another un-Thirkell development. So is the coarse but vital Mrs. Bracey, fat, crippled and malicious, who makes life grim for her daughters Maisie and Iris. Then the widowed Lily Wilson, proprietress of a pathetic Wax Museum, seems on the verge of slipping into alcoholism or a kind of informal prostitution or possibly both. In fact A View of the Harbour resembles Stella Gibbons’ classic Cold Comfort Farm, with its relish of peculiarities. Taylor, though, avoids Gibbons‘ satiric tone, so we participate in Lily Wilson’s desperation and Mrs. Bracey’s will to dominate.
And what happens in the novel? Oh, life and death. The war is recently over, Newby is poor and shabby. Summer comes and the tourists don’t. Bertram doesn’t paint. Maisie flirts with her mother’s lodger, a fisherman, and Mrs. Bracey kicks him out of the house. The Cazabons’ daft daughter Prudence feeds disgusting messes to her two elegant Siamese cats, Yvette and Guilbert. Tory buys frivolous hats. A yacht skims the water of the bay, white sails looking irrelevant in their beauty. Hats, cats, boats, hearts, they’re all equally important.