I imagine that anyone who picks up this novel will know someone like Flora, the soul of kindness of the title. Someone who is attractive, charming and accomplished, but without insight, self-awareness or a great deal of empathy; someone who is popular but can drive her friends and family to distraction.
She is the woman that Jane Austen’s Emma Woodhouse might have become – albeit in another age – had she not been guided by, and desirous of the high regard, of Mrs Weston and Mr Knightley ….
The story opens on Flora’s wedding day, and from the very first paragraph Elizabeth Taylor draws her wonderfully well:
‘Towards the end of the bridegroom’s speech, the bride turned aside and began to throw crumbs of the wedding cake through an opening in the marquee to the doves outside. She did so with gentle absorption, and more doves came down from their wooden house above the stables. Although she caused a little rustle of amusement among the guests, she did not know it: her husband was embarrassed by her behaviour and thought it early in their married life to be so; but she did not know that either.’
Flora was the carefully protected only child of widowed mother, and almost everyone she knew would follow that example, would love and protect her too. It was to her great credit that she hadn’t been irredeemably spoiled, that she realised she had been blessed and that she wanted to do everything that she could with the people she loved.
Her intentions were always good, she always charmed the recipient of her kindness into accepting her ideas, but she never saw that they were never as happy as she thought they would be.
Take the letter that she wrote to her mother on her wedding day.
‘Mrs Secretan took the letter and opened it. ‘You have been the most wonderful mother,’ she read. ‘I had a beautiful childhood.’ So it was to be regarded as finished? The words were the kind which might be spoken from a deathbed or to someone lying on one. If only, Mrs Secretan thought yearningly, if only Flora had written ‘You are such a wonderful mother.’ That would have made all the difference, she thought – would have made it seem that there was still a place for me.’
When she read the letter through again, her mother realised that Flora had meant well; she knew that she always meant well, even when she made terrible mistakes.
That insensitive choice of words had no serious consequences, but other acts of kindness would.
Flora encouraged her widowed father-in-law to marry his lady friend, not realising that they were both quite fond of their own homes and that the set-up they had suited them very well indeed.
She said quite firmly that her friend Meg’s younger brother, Kit, who had always idolised her, must pursue his dream of becoming an actor; even though his sister and everyone who had seen his efforts saw that he did not have the necessary talent.
Flora decided that her mother should find a housekeeper/companion so that she wouldn’t be lonely without her daughter. She failed to understand that her mother needed more than that, and that she should be more than a guest in her home.
It didn’t help that nobody told her the their real feelings; that accepted that her intentions were good and carried on.
Richard, her husband, is guilty of this; but he sees the consequences of his wife’s kindnesses and he is often able to smooth over some of the damage that they do. But as he seeks to protect her he cannot tell her of his growing friendship with a near neighbour ….
Flora is a wonderful creation, an utterly believable, fallible human being; and it says much for Elizabeth Taylor’s skill as novelist that she can draw readers into her story even as she is revealing her flaws and the unhappy consequences of her many kindnesses.
Her writing is beautiful, it is subtle and it has a lovely clarity. She has the insight and understanding of people and their relationships that Flora lacks in abundance, and she knows exactly which details are worthy of notice and will illuminate her story.
That story has a serious theme but it there is a smattering of wit and humour.
The dialogue is particularly fine; there are some memorable quick exchanges and longer conversations that really ring true.
Every character and every relationship is distinctive, and – as is almost always the case with Elizabeth Taylor – the supporting cast is wonderfully well done.
I particularly liked Mrs Secretan’s housekeeper/companion, Miss Folley:
‘The next day, there was more church in the morning. Social church, with hats. Richard was left with Miss Folley, whom he watched with a wary eye, tried to avoid. She kept offering him things — a mince pie, a glass of her sloe gin, a dish of marzipan strawberries.
He did not quite like to get out his briefcase and set to work again on Christmas morning, so he looked about for a book to read. No newspapers: no market prices. Mrs. Secretan was reading Elizabeth and her German Garden — ‘for the umpteenth time,’ she said. ‘Such a beautiful book. How much one would have liked to have known her.
Richard thought that for his part we would have tried to run a mile in the other direction, if such a risk had risen. He had ‘picked’ at the book once, as he put it; and had been vaguely repelled, but because he could never justify his reactions to art and literature, he kept quiet. I’m a businessman, he thought. This bolstering-up reflection he also kept to himself. …
Ageing ladies’ books filled the shelves — My Life as This or That — he skipped the title — The English Rock Garden, Rosemary for Remembrance, Down the Garden Path, The Herbaceous Border Under Three Reigns.
‘If you’re looking for a nice, pulling book,’ Miss Folley began, coming in to bully him with Elvas plums.
‘No, no,” he said, straightening quickly, backing away from the shelves. ‘I never read.’
He would have his little joke, she thought; and laughed accordingly.’
This is such an accomplished novel, but it hasn’t left as strong an impression on me as I thought it would. I can’t quite explain why, but I think it might be because the characters were quite scattered this book feels less ‘whole’ than others.
It was love again though, I appreciate that all of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels are distinctive and yet they have enough in common to sit together as siblings.
I’m looking forward to picking up another one soon, to read or to re-read.