Like Elizabeth Taylor’s first two novels (discussed in earlier blogs), A View of the Harbour, proscribes romance. However, this novel also focuses on romance’s promise of “happily ever after” with a biting examination of marriage. Both male and female characters illustrate the pitfalls of young and old romance going and already gone awry. Thankfully, her third novel also offers a prescription.
But first, one proscription: beware the womanizer pretending to be Prince Charming.
Bertram Hemingway is sort of a painter. He never really paints much, but he does produce a painting. He is an old, lonely, bearded, voyeuristic, retired Navy officer. Most disturbingly, he is a womanizer. Despite his age and outsider stigma, he boldly and publicly pursues a young girl. Although everyone, including Prudence’s parents, thinks she’s mighty peculiar and irresponsible, singularly unattractive because of her crossed eyes, and unhealthy because of her respiratory problems, Bertram calls her beautiful, flirts with her, and escorts her around the port—in full view of everyone. He gets away with this for two reasons. First, these bored and lonely people are desperate for any action—appropriate or not. Second, these hopeless and weary people are desperate for anyone to enliven Prudence’s life, her chances of marriage are universally deemed so slim. Bertram, himself, misjudges her personality or character because he doesn’t think much of the young in general. But she is only one of his pursuits. When not with her, he’s leading on poor Mrs.Lily Wilson. She longs for him to enter the pub door at night, buy her a drink, and escort her home. Occasionally, he does that. But only as a last resort. He’s far more interested in a third woman–wooing the spirited Tory Foyle, proposing to her without loving her, so intent is he on filling a void in his life. But all the while he’s wooing Tory, he’s with Lily, Prudence, and even the invalid Mrs. Bracey, as well as her two daughters. He lies to everyone and sneaks behind these women’s backs. He gets just what he deserves—Tory, the bitch.
No hard-handed narration needed for his condemnation.
Dr. Robert Cazabon is Prudence and Stevie’s father and Beth’s husband—in that order. He’s conceited, cold, deceitful, dogmatic, impatient, and sanctimonious. He is having an affair with his wife’s long-time best friend, who lives next door. Even when his older daughter discovers his infidelity, he still chooses to risk his family, his reputation, and his home in order to sneak over to Tory’s for a quick drink and a quickie. Ultimately, Robert gets what he deserves when Tory accepts Bertram’s proposal and moves away. The novel punishes him further by developing his wife’s character and her criticism of him. He is left lonely and speechless. And he deserves to be rejected by both of these women.
Eddie Flitcroft, as his name suggests, is a flitter—from one sister to the other without shame or aim. He is no more interesting than that; but, I suppose that the novel didn’t want to limit the womanizing to middle-aged and old men.
Geoffrey Lloyd is the exception. He is kind to Prudence, but he’s affected. Let’s meet in the cemetery, he suggests. He’s always reading Donne’s poetry. He wants to rescue her. And she wants to be rescued. Throw in her parents’ relief to have her off of their hands, and we have the trifecta ofCinderella. And we know how that romance will end. Get used to the castle walls, Miss Prudence.
And second, another proscription: beware the shrew pretending to be Cinderella.
Mrs. Lily Wilson is the suspicious, gossipy proprietor of the waxworks. Like Bertram, she is a voyeur. I’m wondering if there’s anything creepier than out-of-date wax figures showcased by an outdated widow. I’m picturing Molière’s Arsinoé giving tours of the House of Usher. Taking advantage of her pathetic neediness, Bertram repeatedly attends to her only to discard her. But she is a grown woman, that is, in charge of her own self-actualizing. In the end, she finds an equally creepy male companion—the controlling Librarian (unnamed). “Murder he allowed; but not fornication. Childbirth (especially if the character died of it), but not pregnancy. Love might be supposed to be consummated as long as no one had any pleasure out of it…’Breast’ was not to be in the plural. ‘Rape’ sent the stamp plunging and twisting into the purple ink” (37). We know that Lily is beyond hope when she finally, reluctantly allows him to accompany her home. Readers realize that his literary censoring will compute to stifling control in their relationship. It’s too bad, for Lily; but that’s what you get when you expect others to take charge of your own life.
Mrs. Bracey, invalid and mother of two grown girls, complains and criticizes constantly. Another voyeur (hence, the title), she keeps tabs on everyone’s comings and goings, creating suspicion from glances and glimpses, and spreading (often unfounded) gossip as extensively as she can, considering her confinement. She expects her daughters to replace her dead Prince Charming, that is, to live their lives only to entertain and maintain her—emotionally and physically. When she wants something, she’ll stomp her cane, wield her guilt lectures, or launch false accusations. Her daughters, her minister, her doctor, and her neighbors, as well as this reader, are just waiting for her to die. She rewards their patience and mine.
Mrs. Tory Foley is, as Shakespeare wrote, “a piece of work.” Can you imagine the ego and audacity that it must take to be chatting up your “best friend” while you’re sexing up her husband? Can you fathom that they have known each other since school girl days? Can you abide the daily danger because they live next door to each other? It’s tough to read, and Taylor doesn’t intend to alleviate those anxieties one bit. A View of the Harbour far more strongly criticizes the betraying female friend than the adulterous husband. Late in the novel, when the Cazabon family looks like the affair will devastate them, in waltzes Tory for the daily tête-à-tête with her best friend. “Years fell away from them. They became two silly girls giggling at nothing” (181). There’s no need for narrative judgment beyond that observation. Subtly but clearly the text chides, Shame on you, Tory, for being such a disloyal female “friend.” Poor Beth, immersed in her writing, is clueless. But HM will get to her in a moment. Mrs. Tory Foley, deserted by her husband whom she still loves and stalks, destroys Robert’s relationship with his daughter who, although cross-eyed can’t help but see what’s going on; contributes to Robert’s disaffection with his wife; and cuckolds her fiancé. How does she get away with it? Ask yourself if you know this woman: she dresses well, is thought to be attractive, acts spiritedly, and commands attention; she’s invited to chair many boards; she’s elected to political posts; and she’s sought for many allegiances. Yes, HM thought that you would know her. And knowing her, you know why she acts with impunity. She exudes confidence and sassiness. Skeptical? Read The Invisible Gorilla. Its authors, psychiatrists and professors, are convinced of the persuasive power of confidence—despite inability, ineffectiveness, and meanness. From a fictional perspective, Elizabeth Taylor convinces us to take an authentic look at these sassy women and commands us to reject those who fail to enhance our lives. The subtly of Taylor’s fiction is that although she allows Tory to succeed–socially, financially, and sexually—Taylor aligns us with Beth and, therefore, against Tory. We recall that although Medea rides off in the chariot, leaving a wake of devastation behind, Euripides’s play does not admire her. In fact, her triumphant revenge and escape, indict her most forcefully. Similarly, no matter what sassy Tory gets away with, the novel makes it clear that this woman–and women like her–deserve our contempt.
Mrs. Beth Cazabon is the most interesting character. We know that, first and foremost, because she’s a writer of semi-popular novels while periodically trying to be a good wife, mother, and house manager. She is, of course, a lot like Elizabeth Taylor. Despite this parallel, our the novelist truthfully condemns Beth for being too absorbed in her writing. Not only do domestic, family, marital, and social relationships crumble around her without her alarm. She actually uses these failures and foibles to create characters and plots. That’s irresponsible, the novel recognizes. But something happens toward the end of the novel, and it’s not what we want to happen…it’s better. We want her to catch her husband and best friend in an act of betrayal. Well, maybe we don’t want her to catch them having sex; but we want her to realize that they are having sex. But Beth doesn’t discover their betrayal—not from her friend; her husband; her daughter; or any voyeuristic, gossipy neighbor who’s bound to have seen the comings and goings of Dr. Cazabon into Mrs. Foley’s house. But what Beth does discover is so much better because she discovers herself. She discovers her own voice. Late in the novel, as Robert is struggling with Tory’s rejection and upcoming abandonment, Beth blasts Robert for his sanctimonious behavior, cataloguing a litany of her absolutely accurate criticisms of him, not just as a husband, but also, as a human being. The book is worth reading just for her “First…Second…Third…” litany of how she insightfully esteems his narcissism, false chivalry, and mean-spiritedness. Thereafter, she prepares tea. So British and so rewarding to read. This is the start of her self-actualizing. She has, through her novel writing and conversations with Tory, begun to self-examine and self-accept—for good and for bad. Further, she has begun to reject the female master narrative of romance’s legacy—domestication. Finally, she has begun to commit to improving the world, promising herself that she will become a better mother. You’ll notice that she’s going to remain a wife. But the imbalance of marital power has shifted, leaving Robert speechless and Beth exhilarated. Let’s not lose sight of her determination to become a good mother, which in the hands of another novelist could appear to be acculturation. However, in Taylor’s hands this novel illustrates motherhood as a rejection of self-absorption and a commitment to others.
With Elizabeth Taylor’s third novel, we see more than just the disposing of the female master narratives of romance, male-controlled marriage, and domestication. We also see the embracing of female self-actualization. Beth, like Taylor, has only begun. And their first steps are welcomed by HM.