Sunday, 12 April 2009

Book of the Month: Blaming (Elizabeth Taylor)

Blaming is Elizabeth Taylor’s last novel. Taylor was dying when she wrote it, and, according to her daughter, Taylor knew that she was dying. As the cancer eating Taylor from inside grew, so did her determination to finish the novel. There are unexpected deaths in the novel, which dexterously explores the feelings of bereavement: helplessness, anger, guilt, and blaming; and one wonders whether the knowledge that she was not for long for this world was a determinant of the way Taylor, a cheerful personality (according to those close to her) who believed in living life to the last moment, shaped the story and its progress.

Anne and Martha are the two protagonists of the novel, who meet on a cruise. As the only English-speaking people on the cruise the two women form temporary camaraderie people, who have not much in common with one another, form on holidays, and which, Anne is certain, will not blossom into a friendship beyond the cruise. However, the fate has something else in store for her. The lives of the two women, who could not be more different from each other in respect of their attitudes, viewpoints, sensibilities and perceptivity—one, a middle-class, middle-aged, stolid, haughty, and somewhat snobbishly upstage English housewife with conservative tastes; the other, a young, somewhat abrasive American, an aspiring writer with mood swings—, are intertwined by a tragic event. Anne’s husband Nick, who, we are told, is recovering from a chronic, serious ailment, dies suddenly in Istanbul. Stranded and utterly bereft in a foreign land, Anne accepts the succor Martha—who cuts short her cruise in order to be with Anne in these difficult times—provides. Back in England, however, Anne rebuffs Martha’s attempts to get in touch with her, as much for her desire not to want to be reminded of the Istanbul nightmare with which Martha will forever be associated as for her, Anne’s, wish to go on with her quiet, aloof widowhood. However, Martha is not so easily rebuffed; she has a way of getting under your skin. Martha finally secures an invitation and re-enters Amy’s life and, despite herself, Amy begins to warm up to the brash, quixotic and irritatingly intrusive young American, and her lover—the penurious and stingy, almost ungenerous, and outwardly passionless Simon. When Simon is transferred back to the USA he asks Martha to marry him, and she, on an impulse and much against her better judgment, consents. Before leaving for America, Martha visits Amy one last time.

Elizabeth Taylor, together with the other Elizabeth (Bowen), belonged to that category of women writers—Ivy Compton-Burnett, Rosamund Lehman, Olivia Manning, Rose Macaulay, E.H. Young and Barbara Pym are some other names that come to mind—who, for the want of better phrase, can be described as ‘English’. Most of Taylor’s fictional creations belong to the middle or upper classes; and their sensibilities, attitudes, haughtiness, and pretensions are quintessentially English middle-class. They take immense pride in their worlds which rarely extend beyond Home Counties, and generally view anything that does not fit neatly into their ordered, if somewhat limited, repertoire of experiences with suspicion that borders on condescension and distaste. (The reluctance to embrace new with open arms and hearts is not unique to the English Middle Class, though; the attitude of the Working Class towards anything newfangled is one of deep suspicion and hostility.) Amy, in Blaming, is a resentful traveller, the first thing that comes to her mind while walking barefoot in the grand mosques of Istanbul is verrucas. Bourgeois femininity perfuses Blaming as thick, sugary syrup permeates pastry. Taylor, however, never allows her narration to be weighed down either with mawkish sentimentality or crude satire, wherein lies her brilliance. The erudite writing may not induce a belly laugh, but Blaming is strewn with deliciously droll descriptions of English mannerisms, habits, idiosyncratic discourses, priggishness and a highly developed sense of entitlement that will seem whimsical to an outsider. The world inhabited by Taylor’s fictional creations may appear to be outwardly comfortable, even bland, but it is not without its share of intrigue and maliciousness. The cosy housewives, who lead cosy lives and speak précis, grammatically correct English, are capable of impressive deceit, conceit and petty cruelties—all so that they can score petty points over their social rivals. With almost surgical precision and aplomb, Taylor lays bare the frailties and fatuities of the world surrounding her. Most authors, it would be fair to say, draw inspirations from their environs, and it is no surprise that Taylor’s novels (with their astute observations and commentaries relating to the upper and middle classes) mirror the quiet middle-class, if somewhat limited, social milieu she mingled with. Born Elizabeth Coles in Reading, she was educated at the Abbey school (the same school to which Jane Austen, with whom Taylor is occasionally compared, went), and, before her marriage to John Taylor in 1936, worked as a governess and in Boots Lending Library. She lived in Buckinghamshire for almost all of her married life, and, whilst leading a well-to-do middle class life—dallying briefly, like all well-to-do people with conscience, with Communism, and holding lifelong left-wing sympathies—, surrounded (probably) by a happy family, produced a dozen novels, all of which ‘shrewd and affectionate portrayals of middle-and upper-middle-class English life’ (according to an introduction by Virago which reissued a number of her out of print novels a few years ago), at a steady rhythm, over three decades.

A special pleasure of reading Blaming is some or more of the characters, be they the eccentric factotum of Amy or the precocious daughters of her son, James. The conversations of Isobel and Dora, Amy’s granddaughters, are hilarious; they also reveal the keen eye Taylor had for how children talked and behaved. According to Taylor’s daughter, she found children’s conversations interesting and would talk with them for hours. Some of the conversational gems in Blaming were taken from the comments Taylor had recorded from her granddaughters’ conversations (whom she looked after) in real life.

Taylor, although she is rarely credited for it, was a modern novelist. The plot of Blaming, such as it is, can be summarized in two sentences; it is a vehicle for Taylor to explore themes such as guilt, recrimination, and emotional connectedness. Amy is left staggering in the wake of a sudden traumatic event—the event itself, the death of her husband, is elided, as if of no importance other than a catalyst for what then unfolds—that is to have a profound influence on her life, but the adjustment does not influence her moral compass in a meaningful way, does not broaden her horizons. Taylor’s vision is unsentimental and remorseless. At the end of Blaming one is left with a feeling of muted bleakness. This is a splendid, erudite and superbly intelligent novel.