An Elizabeth Taylor novel is not well-suited to quick call-in visits. I catch myself lingering on each page, stringing out the visit, hoping to be invited to stay for another cup of tea and most reluctant to leave. I end up having to drag myself away from a book where, if I'm honest, not a lot may be happening, but for some reason I'm always mad keen to return to the ordinary lives of these very ordinary people. If you like people-watching as I do, then this is people-watching on the page, and perhaps that may be like watching paint dry for many readers because the most exciting event by page 111 in The Soul of Kindness is that Flora has given birth.
Ah Flora, dear child-like Flora, believing herself to be the soul of kindness, spoiled, cossetted and doted upon, she whom the world must revolve around; like a child she must be cared for, made to feel important at all times and everyone seems to help foster the illusion, often at great expense to their own well-being. And how Elizabeth Taylor excels at the miniscule observations, the superficial details that make up something larger. Life's tiny sadnesses magnified.
Take Mrs Secretan, mother of Flora, gazing out at her garden waiting for her newly-married daughter and son-in-law Richard to arrive for their first visit post-nuptials. The garden says it all...the daisies are withering, the leaves are tattered, a dirty yellow, and the tree limbs move like puppets, with silly erratic gestures, few guesses as to how well this visit will go in that case.
And yet for all that the reader might be expected to despise Flora's self-centred ways somehow I didn't. Flora serially disempowered, kept in her gilded cage by those around her and incapable of breaking out. The cast of characters that Elizabeth Taylor places in orbit around this sun seem to stretch across the social spectrum, the writer Patrick, Richard's rather 'common' father Percy who marries his mistress Barbara, the best friend Meg and her brother the failed actor Kit, and the rather earthy, grubby and Bohemian artist Liz all have their own shifting perspectives on Flora.
'I think loneliness is a theme running through many of my novels and short stories, the different ways in which individuals can be isolated from others - by poverty, old age, eccentricity, living in another country - even by having commited murder...'
A good thought to bear in mind from Elizabeth Taylor herself as I approach my reading, and with which Robert Liddell concurs in one of the only books that offers a glimpse into the real Elizabeth Taylor by someone who knew her well, Elizabeth and Ivy. And after the fact I find that Philip Hensher has also flagged up this book in his excellent introduction (but perhaps don't read it before the book.)
As Robert Liddell is quick to point out, and something else I must bear in mind, because how easy it is to drift into that search for the author themselves in their fiction
'the experiences in the book are theirs and not hers. And I am sure she knew that when the alternative to loneliness is boredom, which is frequently the case, loneliness is much to be preferred.'
I'm intrigued to see that in my well-marked copy of The Other Elizabeth Taylor, Nicola Beauman suggests that The Soul of Kindness, written in 1962, would have made a much better short story but that the market forces of publishing insisted it be spun out. It would seem the critics were divided too, some condemning the book as a failure, others arguing for its splendour, whilst the general sense in the 1960s was that, like her contemporary Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Taylor was old-fashioned and somehow out of step with the zeitgeist.
So how fascinating that almost fifty years on the novel can read for me as a little microcosm of early 1960's married life. Women's lives on the cusp of change as the workplace and a career beckons, and how obvious it is that for many women this would be a step too far. Flora distraught at the fact she may lose her housekeeper and have to do her own ironing, in fact the bigger deal is that without Mrs Lodge's constant presence Flora will be lonely and at sea and yes, bored with her seemingly vacuous life.
I find there is often a little nod to redemption in any novel by Elizabeth Taylor, a tiny escape route that her characters can take if they so choose. The Soul of Kindness is no exception because Flora has her baby,
'The spring came, and Flora all the time was happy. The baby grew, her dark, puckish face delighting her parents, although most other people thought it was a pity 'With those other looks in the family. 'they said...'
Hooray, baby Alice is loved unconditionally, and whilst Flora's ethereal beauty may have ultimately been the millstone around her own neck, perhaps, just perhaps, she can achieve something entirely different and more fulfilling for her own daughter and thereby for herself.
Now I'm moving on to A Wreath of Roses.