Newby is a down at heel seaside resort; a straggling row of houses, shops, a café and a pub arranged in a curve around the disused harbour. It no longer has much appeal to pleasure seeking post war tourists, who instead head to the flashy art deco houses and dance halls of the New Town, over the hill and just out of view. Those who call Newby home are an eclectic mix, living seemingly dull, ordinary lives behind their peeling front doors. Bertram Hemingway, a rather romantically named elderly gentleman with delusions of grandeur has come to Newby to make his name as a painter of seaside views. Deep down he knows he is never going to reach the levels of greatness he aspires to, and so he soon switches his canvas from the sea to the harbour, and sets about insinuating himself into the lives of Newby’s inhabitants. He preys on vulnerable women in particular, fancying himself as a knight in shining armour when really his motives are selfish and rooted in his need to feel that he is someone of significance.
His first victim is meek, nervous Lily Wilson, proprietress of the town’s dingy, outdated waxwork museum; price, 3d. She is a war widow, pitifully lonely and terrified of the long evenings that stretch before her with no company save the sightless eyes of the waxworks in her front room. Bertram takes special notice of her, buying her drinks in the pub and walking her home. Lily starts to believe that Bertram may rescue her from her unbearable existence, but he is merely toying with her. He has bigger fish to fry; attractive, chic divorcee Tory Foyle lives in a pretty cottage in the middle of the harbour, and exudes an air of frail vulnerability underneath her stylish exterior. Bertram fancies that he’s in with a chance, but what he doesn’t know is that Tory is conducting a torrid affair behind closed doors with her best friend – and neighbour – Beth’s husband, Robert, the town doctor. Someone who does know exactly what is going on is Beth’s beautiful, awkward daughter Prudence, whose closest relationship is with her slightly creepy cats. Her horror at her discovery terrifies Tory and Robert, who can’t bear for Beth to find out. Beth is a vague and ineffectual wife and mother, and her only interest is in the people who populate her mind, poised to become characters in her latest mildly successful novel. She rarely leaves her house, and has no idea what goes on outside.
This is not something that can be said of Mrs Bracey, a nosy paraplegic whose greatest delight is in watching the comings and goings of her neighbours and gossiping about them. Her elder daughter Maisie wishes her dead and her younger daughter Iris wishes Cecil Beaton would come into the pub where she works and take her photo, catapulting her to stardom and a life far from the dingy streets of Newby. Dreams, desire, jealousy, deceit, grief, fear, ambition and loneliness all lurk behind the doors of this seemingly dull community, which in reality harbours a collection of deeply fascinating, multi faceted personalities, all of whom have much more going on underneath their banal surfaces than those they are closest to realise. Taylor brilliantly explores the gossip and prejudices that are part of life in a claustrophobic town where everyone is watching everybody else, and coming to conclusions that demonstrate how little they really see from behind their net curtains.
Throughout reading this wonderfully perceptive novel, I was constantly reminded of Charlotte Bronte’s remarkable Villette (which I am going to re-read soon – it never ceases to amaze me how few people have actually read it, compared to the popularity of Jane Eyre – it’s such a shame it’s so under read as it’s truly superb). Villette is all about watching and being observed, and Lucy Snowe lives within the narrow confines of a girl’s school where she is never away from the prying eyes of pupils and teachers. Newby is a similarly enclosed space, where nothing is private and everything is open to interpretation, though what is most fascinating is how those who observe never quite understand those they are observing, and those things that should most be noticed are not perceived by those who should have their eyes opened to them. Mrs Bracey sees Lily Wilson with a man in her doorway and decides she has become a harlot, without perceiving her innocent, desperate loneliness. Prudence sees her father and Tory together and only sees betrayal, without perceiving the needs and desires of these two human beings, separate from their relationship to her mother. Bertram sees Tory as a damsel in distress, poised to be rescued, without perceiving her hidden motivations. And Beth sees a short tempered, distracted husband, without perceiving that he has fallen out of love with her and has sought a replacement elsewhere.
This is, therefore, a novel about the breach between the eye and the mind, and also about the many ways in which we perceive and delude ourselves. So much is witnessed but so little is understood; so many dreams and personas are constructed with no hope of fruition. Taylor expertly paints a canvas of a community still bruised from the war, trapped in lives of quiet frustration, longing for the excitement and glamour that is always just out of reach, just over the hill, just out of sight, much like the mythical New Town no one ever seems to visit. The characters are painfully real, individual, fascinating, and wonderfully flawed. Taylor’s perception of human nature is marvellous, and her depiction of the importance of female friendships and female solidarity is in particular very true and thought provoking. I loved every second of it, and it reminded me of how intelligent, insightful and crisp her prose always is. Taylor doesn’t need to create intricate plots or dramatic scenes; she deals in the quiet understatement of every day life, managing to weave a tale of enormous profundity and interest whilst making it seem as if nothing has happened at all. True genius. I can’t wait to read all the other thoughts on A View of the Harbour this month as part of the Elizabeth Taylor Centenary Celebrations; Laura is collecting all of the reviews here and Simon will be hosting the discussion later this month, so you still have a little bit of time to read and then join in if you want to!