A View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor

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His first victim is meek, nervous Lily Wilson, proprietress of the town’s dingy, outdated waxwork museum; price, 3d.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!

27 comments

  1. This was one of those ‘life in a village’ reads that actually made me feel as though it would be the last sort of place I would chose to live in. Wasn’t the feeling so claustrophobic? The old nets were flicking left, right and centre in Newby! Of course it’s all down to Taylor’s excellent writing skill and in no time at all I got back to dreaming about my fantasy of a rose-covered cottage.
    Villette has been languishing on my shelves for a couple of years, if you would like a reading partner I would be happy to join in. I won’t cry if you’d rather please yourself though.

    1. Yes – totally claustrophobic and quite frightening how much everyone was into everyone else’s business! I’d hate it!

      Oh yes Darlene, that would be wonderful! I’m sure you’d really like Villette – I’ll let you know when I’m ready to start!

  2. I love the sound of this book. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by Elizabeth Taylor before, I think I’m going to have to rectify that.

  3. I didn’t know Elizabeth Taylor had written a book – this has prompted me to look out for it. Also I have not read Villette either, I have to fix that!

    1. Oh it’s not THAT Elizabeth Taylor, Denise! This Elizabeth Taylor was British and only a novelist. She published several wonderful books and this year is her centenary so do check her out!

      You MUST fix not having read Villette – it is magnificent!

  4. Hello Rachel! Lovely to read your thoughts on this book and, as you know, yes to Villette – you’ve made me want to re read it and see what the 18 year old me missed.

  5. I’m adding this one to my To Read list. I love reading books that explore the themes of private realities vs. public perceptions. Your description of the villagers actually made me think of a flipped on its head, less sweet and charming version of the village in Cranford.

    1. I’m glad to hear it, Miss Bibliophile! Yes, I suppose you could say it is a little Cranford-esque, though Taylor’s villagers certainly are not as cosy or twee!

  6. I picked this up from the library a few days ago, having liked my introduction to Taylor (At Mrs Lippincote’s) well enough that I wanted to try more. Your review was perfectly timed to get me even more excited to start reading it!

  7. I loved Villette and your review makes me want to pick up this book right now! A small village and the interwoven stories of the interesting people who live there…sounds perfect🙂

  8. I really should re-read Villette. I read it in a post Jane Eyre haze at 15 and didn’t enjoy it all because I was expecting/wanting it to be like JE (which it isn’t). That isn’t a legitimate strike against it though! Maybe I would like it second time round – I LOVED Mansfield Park on my second reading. I also have Tales of Angria at home which is a collection of her young adult (YA??) writing/juvenilia which looks set to be hilarious.

    You were doing fundraising at the V&A, yes? What a lovely place to work. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the ceramics, will have to make a trip. I’m excited about the Hollywood Costume exhibition coming up. x

    1. Yes Chuck I think that’s why most people don’t seem to love Villette – purely because it’s not Jane Eyre. That doesn’t make it any the less of a novel though! Interesting that you loved Mansfield Park – I hated it more second time round!! The Bronte juvenilia is a little out there but fantastic for seeing the early development of the sisters as novelists.

      I was indeed! It was great and I learned so much. I do miss it. Go and see the ceramics – I’m not massively into ‘pots’ but the way they’ve been displayed is extraordinary. The Hollywood Costume exhibition will be magnificent, I can guarantee – I can’t wait either!

    1. Thank you so much Laura! I’ve popped over and linked to my review, thanks for reminding me!🙂

      Yes you should! It is fantastic! I think Shirley is legitimately a pretty poor novel but Villette is outstanding, and very ahead of its time.

  9. Your comparisons of this novel to Villette really intrigue me. I think Lucy Snowe is such a fascinating narrator. She observes so much, yet she relates so little of that to the other characters or, indeed, the reader. I get a kick out of a narrator who keeps secrets from her readers. It leads me to make all sorts of conjectures about what we haven’t been told, a sort of galvanizing shock to kick the imagination into action.

    I haven’t read any of Taylor’s novel, but as always, your review has given me another title/author to add to the TBR pile. Thanks!

    1. Diana, Villette is indeed a fascinating novel with so many interesting narrative devices – it’s quite a revolutionary text. I can’t wait to reread it. Though it did absolutely break my heart the first time!

      Glad to hear Taylor has been added to the TBR pile!

  10. What the? I'm a serious dude and all I do is post nonsense here...LOOK OUT here it comes from BOP!!!! says:

    Yes as I recall from university, Villette is indeed is about watching and being watched.

    As a masculine supporter of your luvverly blog, may I proffer a masculine view.

    “Forget about it” as they say in The Sopranos.

    By which I mean, dear R, be not here or London or NYC or elsewhere for the perusal of others; not suggesting you are but I think it’s a “girl thing” when one feels oneself watched and worthy accordingly, hence the Villette theme. Bah humbug. Your light is brighter. OK Bop’s on the beer again, so like an embarrassing joke at a party for which one makes amends I do so in advance, etc….

    – Bop

  11. I didn’t read your review until now, because I hadn’t read the novel yet – but now I see that we came to very similar conclusions about the theme of observing and failing to observe!
    I don’t love Taylor quite as much as a lot of people around the blogs, but I do think she is a very good writer. But why does it always take me quite a while to engage with her novels??

    1. Yes, the observation angle was really fascinating – I thought it was all so cleverly done.

      As I said to you on your blog, I think her detachment and callousness does make it difficult to engage with her writing – you’d never be able to say that you ‘loved’ one of her books in the way you could ‘love’ a book like Jane Eyre, for example.

  12. The novelist Elizabeth Taylor has been described as the unsung heroine of British twentieth century fiction and the thinking person’s dangerous housewife. In her novels – 11 in all – and in her short stories, there is a tenderness and compassion as she dissects the minutiae of people’s lives, always with a psychological insight and more than a dash of comedy.

    July 3, 2012 marked the centenary of Elizabeth Taylor’s birth. We attended an Elizabeth Taylor Centenary Conference at Anglia Ruskin Sat 7 July. Brilliant!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s