London: Virago, 2008, c1951.
It was Simon's 1951 Club that finally got me reading this book, which has been on the TBR for longer than I can remember. For some reason, I'd got the feel of Elizabeth Bowen's House in Paris mixed up with my impressions of this novel by Elizabeth Taylor (oh, those many Elizabeths) and so had been a little resistant to picking it up. Fortunately I had this lovely Virago classics edition to read this week.
The book does have the same sense of a doomed love affair though; it opens with young Harriet & Vesey, who've known each other since childhood but are now in late adolescence and suddenly aware of one another. Harriet falls hard but they are both awkward and inarticulate, and can't express their new feelings at all. The book is coloured by their inability to be open, by the habit of both of stifling all expression. He leaves; they are separated for the next fifteen or twenty years.
Harriet eventually shows some spine and gets a job in a dress shop. This is where some of the funniest bits come in, elements which may play into a comparison with Barbara Pym. Taylor describes each of the "ladies" that Harriet works with so amusingly, their situation quite funny (until much later when we learn the fates of a few of them). Harriet herself seems to expand in this milieu, but then she becomes involved with Charles, a lawyer twice her age, and marries as a good girl should. Jump cut -- part two -- Harriet is now in middle age, with a 15 yr old daughter (though she must in reality be only in her mid-30s, hardly into decrepitude). In any case, Vesey returns.
And they start a mild affair. I can only say mild because they are both as uncertain and awkward as ever. Vesey is a poor object of affection, but Harriet carries that torch. It's at the end, an uncertain and endlessly interpretable end, that he seems to show a spark of unselfish redemption in his character.
This novel reflected the culture of suburban British life in the 50s effectively -- its strictures and norms, the stifling expectations, the strange modern habits like adults drinking excessively at local dances nearly weekly, the gossip. It's a sad and pinched kind of story, but the writing itself is very fine. Taylor can capture a character in a gesture, in a phrase, whether a main character or an incidental one. She is darker than Pym but with the same eye for social interaction. I found it started slowly, throwing the reader into the midst of things and thus feeling a bit muddled at the start, but by the time I was partway through I was completely involved.
Aside from Harriet and Vesey, the story moves into the present/future with Betsy, her daughter, and a Dutch girl, Elke, who lives with Harriet's family and observes, though understanding little. There is quite a lot to observe in this novel, and the compression of time between Harriet's suffragette mother's youth and her own modern daughter's teen years is startling. Definitely a social novel worth the effort, with many quotable bits. I'll leave you with one about the vagaries of time:
If we do not alter with the times, the times yet alter us. We may stand perfectly still, but our surroundings shift round and we are not in the same relationship to them for long; just as a chameleon, matching perfectly the greenness of a leaf, should know that the leaf will one day fade.
See more 1951 books and reviews at Simon's 1951 Roundup Post