Elizabeth Taylor, “A View of the Harbour”

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.

Cadgwith Cove, probably more picturesque than Taylor’s Newby.

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.

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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8 Responses to Elizabeth Taylor, “A View of the Harbour”

  1. Alex says:

    I’m not certain where you’re based, but if you’re in the UK did you hear the discussion of ‘Mrs Palfrey’ on radio 4 on Sunday? If you are, but didn’t it will be repeated on Thursday. If you aren’t you might be able to source it through the BBC website. I haven’t read any Taylor. Where would you suggest that I start?

    • carolwallace says:

      Alex, I’m in the U.S., so I missed this, but I’ll ferret around online & see if I can find it. “Mrs. Palfrey” is a good place to start with Taylor because it’s more overtly funny than some of the books — she pretty much reinvents the wheel on each outing. I adored “Angel” but it’s pretty peculiar.

  2. Mary Nicoll says:

    I think this is for me. Thanks, Carol!

  3. kate says:

    I feel as you do about Elizabeth Taylor – I’m about to read “Wreath of Roses” which is the only novel left for me. I feel terribly sad about this… Who would you recommend who is similar? Any reading suggestions would be appreciated. (PS-I’ve already read everything by Rosamund Lehmann) Have you read “Getting a Life” by Helen Simpson? I can’t say enough about her – she’s deliciously English.

    • carolwallace says:

      Kate, I’m going to look into Helen Simpson right away. I empathize with you — it’s a terrible feeling to come to the end of an author’s output, and I think Elizabeth Taylor is unique. I assume you’ve read Mary Wesley and Mollie Keane? Somewhat similar… and of course Angela Thirkell, who is fun but much simpler. Oh, I know: Margery Sharp! Yes, author of “The Borrowers,” who also wrote for adults. Let me know what you find that’s fun!

      • kate says:

        Thank you so much – I haven’t read any of your suggestions, so I will look them up right away. Cheers!

  4. Pingback: Follow my book blog, “Book Group of One” | | Carol Wallace BooksCarol Wallace Books

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