I really like Elizabeth Taylor. As a matter of fact I am generally so much in awe of her that I have been dragging my feet in writing about At Mrs. Lippincote's, which I finished several weeks and three or four books ago. If I put it off much longer the story will begin fading from mind and I won't be able to do it at all. For me the problem lies in the fact that in Taylor's novels, not much really happens, or at least it doesn't seem to happen. Taylor writes about a certain class of people (and she does it really well) and she focuses on the seemingly quiet domestic side of life (or as Valerie Martin says in her introduction: "the quiet horror of domestic life"), though if you've read her before you'll know there is always so much more seething below the surface of the story. Things move happily (or maybe not always so happily) along and then more often than not she will pack a wallop at the end.
The Mrs. Lippincote of Taylor's first published novel (1945) is by and large absent during much of the story, yet her presence still looms large. The Davenants have rented Mrs. Lippincote's musty, over-furnished home for the duration of the war. It's obvious from the start that Julia isn't quite the ideal image of middle class docility that her husband Roddy would like her to be. She and their son Oliver have followed him to his new posting where he's a junior officer in the RAF. It's believed wives act as a calming balance for their husbands while they're busy aiding the war effort. She spends most of her time looking after Oliver who is a sickly, bookish child. The family is joined by Roddy's school-teacher cousin Eleanor who lives with them after suffering a breakdown. It's also obvious that Eleanor harbors feelings for Roddy, though they go unspoken. Her actions are enough for Julia to notice however. The two are calmly polite, while mentally criticizing the other's behavior.
Eleanor is much more the picture of domesticity, sending off care packages to her POW love interest (though their relationship is always questionable), and working in a local Montessori school that Oliver is meant to attend once his health improves. She's got her secretive side, too, though. She spends time with a local group of Communists helping distribute fliers unbeknownst to Roddy or Julia. She seems unlucky in love, and while she wants to fit in, she mostly goes unappreciated by everyone around her. She's the sort of woman you feel sorry for but at the same time resent a little bit.
Roddy spends most of his time at the office or in meetings that go well into the evening. Eager to impress his superiors and colleagues, time and again Julia fails to do so--at least in the way Roddy would like her to. She does, however, strike up an unlikely friendship with Roddy's Wing Commander (who has the unusual hobby of knitting). Two two share a love of literature, being particular fans of the Brontes.
"She exasperated him. Society necessarily has a great many little rules, especially relating to the behavior of women. One accepted them and life ran smoothly and without embarrassment, or as far as that is possible where there are two sexes. Without the little rules, everything became queer and unsafe. When he had married Julia, he had thought her woefully ignorant of the world; had looked forward, indeed to assisting in her development. But she had been grown up all the time; or, at least she had not changed. The root of the trouble was not ignorance at all, but the refusal to accept. 'If only she would!' he thought now, staring at her; 'If only she would accept.' The room was between them. She stood there smiling, blinking still in the bright light. He was still fanning the air peevishly with his hand."
Marriage is hard enough as it is, but made more so by having spectators to it. Eleanor is hardly supportive, and Julia feels the stresses sometimes even lashing out at Oliver. She's not a sentimental woman, not even really very happy, but she does love her son.
"It's a bloody business when you resist and the resistance is all due to sentimentality. When Oliver was born I resisted insanely that all hope was lost for us both and I could do nothing more for myself. I suppose the first time one never does quite get the knack of it. There is something to be learnt, after all. The second time, something came to me. I realized it was never meant to be pain, but sensation. How women love this sort of conversation. It's the only important thing we have. It has to make up for so much of life that men keep to themselves."
This is a story of a faltering marriage. And while it plays out in the background there is also a strong nod towards the war and its implications for a way of life which is already fading. Everyone's lives are in some way impacted by what's happening abroad yet life in this quiet English village continues. Taylor presents her story with such subtlety--even though this is a domestic novel centered mainly around hearth and home, there is always more that meets the eye.
Elizabeth Taylor is a master of characterization and one of her great skills as an author is in her ability to create interesting characters with depth and feeling. They may not always be likable, but they always seem believable and multifaceted. She explores their interior lives so well, particularly her female characters. And she's so skillful in her prose--intelligent and sophisticated. You'll be reading along and then she'll deliver some damning or enlightening morsel that you're floored by her observations. Her books are the sort you read once for the story and then again and again to see how she makes it all work and to understand how it all works below the surface.
There is a Library Thing group reading her works all year long for the centenary anniversary of her birth. I hope to join in again and read more of her novels. It only took one book for me to decide I needed to collect everything I could find by her, so I have plenty of books to choose from. Hopefully I can squeeze in another very soon. Happily she wrote more than a dozen or so, and I still have most of them to read. And happily when I finish I can read them again.