Dubbed an author of “middlebrow” fiction by critics, I began reading the novels of Elizabeth Taylor after finishing all of Barbara Pym’s work (with whom Taylor is often grouped/compared.) I have read six of her fourteen novels now, and will just rank them and say a little about each one.
1/ Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont
This novel makes a good companion piece to Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn, and concerns an elderly lady, Mrs Palfrey, and the last years of her life, which are passed in a hotel, the Claremont, in London. There’s a large cast made up of the residents, some of them desperate, most of them quirky, while an unlikely friendship with a young man furnishes the plot with elements of farce, along with moments that are genuinely touching.
2/ A View of the Harbour
This novel charts about a year in the lives of the residents of a fading seaside town. These include an aging artist who produces little art, a widow running an unsuccessful waxworks museum, a publican, two sisters with a disabled, cantankerous mother, a dour librarian, a writer, Beth, her husband, Robert and their two children, and her lifelong friend, Tory, newly divorced, who lives next door. The action centers on an affair that is going on between the doctor and Tory, of which Beth is painfully unaware, while various subplots, mostly centered on loneliness and the search for love, wind their ways to a conclusion, often of an anticlimactic nature.
3/ Sleeping Beauty
Darker than the first two novels, this work centers on an enigmatic young woman who has suffered an accident that has left her facially disfigured. Her mother runs a guest house, and the arrival of a stranger provides the trigger for what follows. It’s difficult to discuss this novel without spoiling it, as it has quite a lot of romantic intrigue. Just as good as Mrs Palfrey and A View of the Harbour, but with less humor on offer.
4/ The Wedding Group
This is a frankly bizarre novel that centers on the family goings-on at a kind of Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood experiment in communal living, a religious community overseen by a patriarch who is a noted artist. One of the grandchildren wishes to explore the world outside (that of the 1960s), and she ends up in a relationship with a not-very-nice journalist who has a claustrophobic relationship with his mother. This mother is the central character of the work, with her constant scheming and emotional manipulation of others. There’s no real logic to what happens, and the various subplots progress so little that I can’t recall quite what happened now, just a week after reading it.
5/ A Wreath of Roses
A very poor novel where just about every character philosophizes over their loneliness in the same exact way. Has a plot that centers on a man revealing himself as an impostor/murderer, and this still fails to create any real excitement.
A bitter widow begrudgingly helps an American woman who took care of her after the sudden death of her husband (on a cruise.) Actually quite a good read, and there is something sickening about what unfolds, but the central character is unrelentingly horrible.