A View of the Harbour: Elizabeth Taylor

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.

a view of the harbourBeth’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.

Review copy/Own a copy

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32 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Taylor, Elizabeth

32 responses to “A View of the Harbour: Elizabeth Taylor

  1. Phew! Well, I’m delighted to hear that you enjoyed this one so much. I think it’ll be my next by Elizabeth Taylor. The characters sound great, fully-painted and believable. And there’s something very attractive about a small-town setting…I’m reminded in a little way of Penelope Fitzgerald’s wonderful novel, The Bookshop.

  2. IMO this is better than The Bookshop so I’ll be interested to see what you make of it. I was very sorry when the novel came to an end.

  3. Just put in an order at the library. By the way, I’ve just finished ‘The Children’s Crusade’ after reading your review and I was very impressed by Ann Packer. Such an elegant, intelligent, understated writer. I’m still thinking about it.

    • I’ll be interested to see what you think of this Taylor. Glad you enjoyed the Children’s Crusade. I’ve been thinking about trying The Dive from Clausen’s Pier.

  4. Great commentary Guy.

    I want to read Elizabeth Taylor.

    Books that present realistic studies in human behavior and relationships have become a favorite of mine. I do think that a bit of homer in books like this go a long way, thus it is good to hear that Taylor includes it.

  5. Tredynas Days

    I’ve long intended reading E. Taylor; your review has encouraged me to bump her up the TBR pile a little. She’ll have to wait while i clear the backlog, sadly.

    • Which titles do you have?

      • Tredynas Days

        Don’t own any yet: what would you recommend to start with? Sorry if that’s already been suggested earlier and I missed it.

        • Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is excellent (much better than the film IMO).

          • Tredynas Days

            I’ve read a few reviews of this: on to the pile it goes! The Book People website is mostly tacky stuff, but I recall they were offering a batch of ET novels at an excellent price: Angel, Mrs P and A View of the Harbour – all for £4.99 + pp Bargain! One or two other collections there worth looking for: Hemingway, Dickens. I’ve had a couple of these over the years. You have to wade through the dross, but there are a few gems like this buried.

  6. Fantastic, sounds great. Blaming is on the shelf but will get to this one eventually.

    I wonder how personal that quote about the writer’s lot – specifically the female writer’s lot, in the mid-20th Century – really is. For all her success, Taylor didn’t seem to be taken particularly seriously (by men, of course). The imaginary people knocking on the forehead is a really arresting image.

    • I wondered that too. There was some discussion in the Goodreads NYRB group about an affair Elizabeth Taylor had. I wondered if that influenced a Game of Hide and Seek. Mary Cazabon is a wonderful character (well as they all are) but she’s also very sympathetic. At one point, her daughter asks if she’s famous.

  7. I do love books that have real characters within them and this sounds like one of those. I’ve not read any Elizabeth Taylor but it sounds like this is a good place to start?

  8. Interesting to read your review because the jury is out on Taylor for me. I didn’t enjoy Wreath of Roses (just didnt feel any of the characters were real) but loved Mrs Palfrey. I’d like to give her the benefit of the doubt so was wondering which to read next

  9. This sounds amazing. I could imagine it would land on my bets of list as well, just judging from your review. She does characters so well. I’ll get to this one eventually as I want to read everything she’s written but now I wish I had it already.

  10. I want to read all of her novels too. The last one I read wasn’t perfect but it was still exactly the sort of book I want to read. I ordered a copy of her bio too recently.

  11. This sounds excellent. I’ve never read her but I think I’d enjoy this one. She’s not very famous in France, I see this one has only been translated in 1999.

    Like Ian, I wonder about the quote on being a woman and a writer. Was this close to home for E. Taylor? Did she lack recongnition? (Plus she had the misfortune to have the same name as such a famous actress)

    • Yes the character of the writer was very possibly a reflection of the author–her alter ego as they say. She was a very interesting character and there’s one scene where she shows that she’s not quite as oblivious as she appears. I think you’d like this one.

      I don’t think she got much recognition in her day–just a feeling. I could be wrong.

  12. Hello Guy, I’ve read this now thanks to you and I thought it was wonderful. It’ll be on my best of the year too. Mrs Bracey is a magnificent character, right up there with some of Joyce’s. (BTW, it’s Beth, not Mary Cazabon).

    • Thanks for catching that; I made the corrections. Yes wonderful isn’t it? Bertram is an odd one. I’ve been thinking about what happened with his character in the end. Taylor seems to have given us a very precise slice of these characters’ lives. What do you predict for Bertram? Regret, happy ever after, or some sly escape?

  13. yes something very grubby. She was a sad character

  14. An article for you about NYRB: http://nyti.ms/1KWg9Ai

    Cheers

  15. Well they definitely have loyal fans. I’m reading the Chekhov (slowly) at the moment. Thanks for the link.

  16. It does sound excellent. I loved Mrs Palfrey and have heard mixed things about Hide and Seek (here as much as elsewhere) so this will likely be my next Taylor.

    I don’t have it to hand, but in Palfrey there’s a wonderful character who’s an old lady with terrible arthritis who gets about with walking sticks making her rather like a giant spider. She slightly terrorises the other residents, and yet is the first to show Mrs Palfrey kindness and when the novel briefly dips into her viewpoint she becomes vastly more sympathetic. Mrs Bracey here reminded me of that character.

    • taylor may have studied the infirm because there’s something about Mrs Bracey that rings true. She’s a tyrant with her daughter but the scenes with the priest are very funny and make her much more sympathetic.

  17. Just back from putting this in an Amazon wishlist. My god but Virago has given Taylor banal covers. A particular shame given Virago used to give her rather good ones.

  18. Just looked on Amazon UK. yes, a shame. I see what you mean. I rather liked the cover of the NYRB version.

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