Elizabeth Taylor wrote wrote beautiful, subtle human dramas with such lovely clarity. The stories that she told were wonderfully insightful about people and their relationships; and they reward close reading because she had such a wonderful eye and ear and because she was so very good at making every detail exactly right – and worthy of notice.
This novel – her eighth – is about love. It shows different kinds of love, it shows how love can change; and it shows how love affects one family and the people around them, and how it changes them and their lives, over the course of one summer season.
Kate was a young widow and she has recently married for the second time. Her new husband, Dermot, has tried a number of careers without ever finding the right one. He isn’t particularly driven, but he wants to do something, to play the role that he feels he should be playing.
Kate and Dermot are happy together as a couple.
‘Separated from their everyday life, as if in a dream or on a honeymoon, Kate and Dermot were under the spell of the gentle weather and blossoming countryside. They slept in bedrooms like corners of auction rooms stacked with old fashioned furniture, they made love in hummocky beds, and gave rise to much conjecture in bar parlours where that sat drinking alone, not talking much, though clearly intent on each other.’
Family life though, brings complications
Dermot has a good relationship with Kate’s son, Tom, who is working his way up in his grandfather’s business and having fun with a string of girlfriends; but he struggles with Kate’s daughter, Lou, who is back from boarding school for the holidays and hates that somebody else is taking her father’s place and making her mother the subject of gossip.
Kate is fully aware of Dermot’s weaknesses, but she accepts them, and tells herself that they can be – they will be happy.
But it becomes clear that their marriage has fault lines.
‘On the way home they quarreled – or, rather, she listened to Dermot quarreling with an imaginary Kate, who supplied him with imaginary retorts, against which he was able to build up his indignation. Then, when they were nearly home, he began to punish himself, and Kate realised that the more he basked in blame, the more it would turn out to be all hers; her friends, for close friends of hers they would become, would seem to have lined up to aggravate him, and her silence would be held to account for his lack of it.’
Dermot doesn’t share many of the interests and attitudes of Kate and her friends; he feels inferior, he resents that, and he resents that he can’t quite establish himself in the position he wants.
This becomes clear over the course of the summer.
In the first act of this two act drama family life simply plays out. Lou is drawn to the young local curate and she spends her summer caught up with parish affairs and events. Kate’s Aunt Ethel, who lives with the family is caught up with her own concerns, but she is worried about the family and she quietly does what she can for them.
In the second act Kate prepares for the return home of her best friend’s widower Charles and his daughter Araminta. They have been away since his wife died, they have never met Dermot, and Kate worries that the presence of an old friend, with so much shared history and so many common interests will unsettle him.
‘They were walking in circles around each other, Kate thought – both Dermot and Charles. When she had introduced them, Dermot had shaken hands with an air of boyish respect, almost adding ‘Sir’ to his greeting, and Charles seemed to try and avoid looking at him or showing more than ordinary interest. Although he had not met him before, even as far away as Bahrain he had heard stories, and Kate, writing to tell him of her marriage, had done so in a defensive strain, as if an explanation were due and she could think of no very good one.’
She is right, and, quite unwittingly, Tom and Araminta, upset the precarious balance of Kate’s family. Tom is fascinated by Araminta, an aspiring model, who is beautiful, cool and distant; the first girl he wants but cannot win. And the return of her own friend unsettles Kate as well as Dermot.
There is little plot here, but the characters and the relationships are so well drawn that it really doesn’t matter.
The minor characters are particularly well drawn. I was particularly taken with Ethel, a former suffragette who wrote gossipy letters to her old friend in Cornwall but also had a practical and unsentimental concern for family; with Dermot’s mother, Edwina, who tried to push her son forward and was inclined to blame Kate for his failings; and with the cook, Mrs Meacock, who experimented with American food and was compiling a book.
They brought a different aspects to the story, as did Lou’s involvement with the curate.
There are so many emotions here, including some wonderful moments of humour that are beautifully mixed into the story.
‘Love was turning Tom hostile to every one person but one. They all affronted him by cluttering up the earth, by impinging on his thoughts, He tried to drive them away from his secret by rudeness and he reminded Ethel of an old goose she had once had who protected her nest with such hissings, such clumsy ferocity, that she claimed the attention of even the unconcerned.’
I believed in these people and their relationships; they all lived and breathed, and Elizabeth Taylor told all of their stories so very well.
The summer is perfectly evoked, and this book is very well rooted in its particular time and place.
I loved the first act of this book, when I read that I thought that this might become my favourite of Elizabeth Taylor’s books, but I loved the second act a little less. It felt just a little bit predictable, a little bit like something I’ve read before and I couldn’t help wondering if the dénouement came from a need to do something to end the story rather than simply being a natural end.
It was love though, and I can explain away all my concerns by telling myself that stories do repeat in different lives and that lives often take unexpected turns, and can be changed by events that are quite unexpected.
I’m glad that I finally picked this book up, and that I have other books by Elizabeth Taylor to read and to re-read.