After reading & liking A Game of Hide and Seek, I wanted to read another Elizabeth Taylor novel I liked as much as Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. A View of the Harbour, set in a drab seaside town, immediately appealed to my imagination. A seaside tourist destination in the off season seems like a party where the guests don’t show– sad, neglected, with all the glamour and excitement gone. A View of the Harbour is a marvelous look into the lives of a diverse handful of locals who live on the Harbour in Newby in an area known as ‘the old town’ while the ‘New Town’ has grown and expanded around another coastal point. The “pulsing” light from the reassuring presence of the lighthouse guides sailors on the majestic ocean, and there’s the subtle idea that while various passions simmer amongst Taylor’s characters, they lack any such guidance when making their decisions. Instead they employ various coping mechanisms to endure their lives.
The harbour “dingy and familiar, a row of buildings, shops, café, pub, with peeling plaster of apricot and sky-blue,” is home to a handful of businesses and residences. Mrs. Beth Cazabon, a published author of weepy, emotional novels is always scribbling away, working on her plots where characters drop like flies while her doctor husband, Robert, a seemingly emotionally detached man, is on call 24/7. Beth Cazabon’s mind lives firmly with her characters, so she’s a distracted wife, a mediocre housewife and an unsatisfactory mother in the eyes of the husband who married her thinking that writing was just a phase Beth was going through. While the Cazabons’ marriage functions, its more pathological aspects are manifested through the behaviour of their two strange children: Prudence and Stevie. There’s a fifteen year difference between Prudence and Stevie which “suggested that they were haphazardly conceived.” Prudence has health problems which have isolated and infantilized her to a great extent, and her sole companions are two Siamese cats she’s constantly fussing. The younger girl, Stevie, is a fey child who wanders around the house singing hymns, given to explosive emotional tantrums and who occasionally says the most inappropriate things.
Beth’s best friend, the elegant, attractive, divorced Tory Foyle whose husband ran off with another woman during the war lives next door. Tory’s only child is now attending boarding school and his letters home cause Tory some alarm, yet at the same time, she realizes that she must allow her son to have certain experiences.
As a divorced woman, Tory is an object of interest, and widow Lily Wilson, the owner and operator of the waxworks museum is another subject of gossip. Both of these women, single and available are the object of scrutiny from bed-bound, paralyzed Mrs. Bracey who has nothing else to do except watch the more interesting lives of others. Mrs. Bracey lives with her two daughters Maisie and Iris, and from her bed, Mrs. Bracey terrorizes and controls Maisie while Iris manages to escape through her work as a barmaid at the local pub, the Anchor. Iris and Maisie lead very constricted lives due to their mother’s controlling nature, but whereas Maisie begins to long for her mother’s death, Iris escapes in fantasies that a Hollywood star will walk into her life.
Into these lives drifts retired naval officer and hobby artist, Bertram who arrives in the off-season, stays at the pub and observes the residents who live on the harbour even as he quietly insinuates himself into their lives and into their community. Bertram, a bachelor, has spent a lifetime evading serious relationships, and yet he strikes up a routine with the lonely widow, Lily Wilson, and is also attracted to Tory. There’s something about Bertram that’s not quite right, and he’s a character that will generate various opinions. He’s old-fashioned and polite, and yet there are shades of the emotional vampire in some of his behaviours–as though he must taste other’s problems before moving on. He admits to feeling only “curiosity” about other people and acknowledges that he “always move[s] on” in order to avoid permanent involvement:
When he was kind to people he had to love them; but when he had loved them for a little while he wished only to be rid of them and so that he might free himself would not hesitate to inflict all the cruelties which his sensibility knew they could not endure.
These complex, well-drawn characters play out their lives and their personal dramas over the course of a few months. I won’t say much more about the plot, but I’ll add that the book’s strength lies in Elizabeth Taylor’s ability to create believable, imperfect, fascinating human beings who demand our empathy. Lily Wilson, for example, makes a marginal existence from the shabby little waxworks museum, and every night when she returns home from the pub, she must force herself to walk past the ghoulish figures. She depends upon the museum to make her living and yet she loathes the waxwork figures and is afraid to go to sleep at night. Mrs Bracey is arguably the most unpleasant character in the book for her treatment of her daughter Maisie, and yet Elizabeth Taylor still manages to generate empathy for this woman who is paralyzed, has “a hunger for life,” dreams of good health, and lives to upset other people. There’s a marvelous scene with Mrs. Bracey threatening clergyman, Mr. Lidiard that she may switch to Catholicism as the Catholic priests visit the sick more frequently. After an argument in which Mrs. Bracey tells Mr. Lidiard “shut your trap,” he decides to make a strategic exit:
Mr Lidiard put his cup very carefully into its saucer and stood up. ‘I must be off.’ He made a little bow to Mrs. Bracey. ‘I shall call next week if I may.’ His glance included Maisie.
‘I shall most likely have gone over to Rome by then,’ said Mrs. Bracey.
The decorators made way for him, drawing back a little in contempt for his cloth
‘And you can bring me a book next time,’ Mrs. Bracey suddenly shouted after him. ‘A travel book. A nice book about the South Sea Islands.’ She chuckled. ‘Some of the tricks these natives get up to, the dirty monkeys!’ But her face softened with tenderness and affection.
Beth Cazabon is another incredibly well-drawn character. Her husband thinks that her writing career is a “disease, a madness,” and here she is, in a moment of crisis as she admires Tory’s home and wishes that she was as good a housekeeper:
She would have liked to have achieved such a room as this for her family, and felt the old guilt about her writing coming over her, and the indignant answer trying to smother it–‘Men look upon writing as work.’ Even if she wished to be released from it, as she sometimes did wish, she knew that she could not. The imaginary people would go on knocking at her forehead until she died. ‘Haunted!’ she thought. ‘I’m haunted. Inside me I am full of ghosts. But I am nothing myself–I am an empty house!’
In the midst of all this passion, gossip and drama, Elizabeth Taylor seeds the story with touches of delicate humour. Here’s the creepy, tyrannical librarian:
Behind a counter was an old man with an ink-pad and a large oval stamp, with which he conducted a passionate erratic campaign against slack morals. His censorship was quite personal. Some books he could not read and they remained on the shelves in original bindings and without the necessary stigma ‘For Adults Only.’ Roderick Random stood thus neglected, and Tristram Shandy, vaguely supposed to be children’s books. Jane Eyre, bound and rebound, full of loose leaves, black with grease, fish-smelling, was stamped front and back. Madame Bovary had fallen to pieces.
A View of the Harbour will make my best-of-year list.
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