Reed & Exceed has finished reading the twelve novels of Elizabeth Taylor, a 20th century British writer. R&E has decided to reread each through the lens of female self-actualization. That lens esteems another’s life vis-à-vis three of Abraham Maslow’s criteria: 1. self-reflection and self-acceptance; 2. resistance to forced and debilitating cultural assimilation; and 3. care for and cultivation of the world.
Let’s start at the very beginning…
A discussion of female self-actualization in Elizabeth Taylor’s first novel begins with a brief catalogue of the interesting female characters, leaving to last the protagonist and a discussion of her possible and potential self-actualization.
Eleanor, Roddy’s cousin, convalesces from a recent nervous breakdown with him, his wife, and their child at a rented house—Mrs. Lippincote’s. She adores her cousin although she lies to him about her associations with Communists, whom she romanticizes as the only people she knows who aren’t lonely. Eleanor condemns Julia’s drinking, parenting, husbandry, and wifedom. In short, Eleanor subscribes to the major female master narratives of being a good little wife, effective house manager, and devoted mother. Good for her. You will not be surprised to know that Eleanor has never walked in any of those shoes. As such, R&E sees no reason to believe that she would accomplish more than her nemesis, Julia. She’d do better to take a less self-pitying look at her own life in an attempt to discover why she suffered a nervous breakdown. Low marks for self-reflection. Low marks, also, for resisting acculturation, especially when forcing domesticity on another. In terms of improving the world, she would get right on that except for one obstacle: “’I should make a good revolutionary, if it were not for my back. I am willing to do die for my beliefs, as someone else once said, but I forget who, but not to-day. Not till my back is better’” (119). Low marks for improving the world.
Vera, far less culturally conscripted than Eleanor, also fails to impress me. Barely concealed rudeness and inflexibility exude from her. She is loyal to a few, and dismissive of the rest. Her single-focused life is more of a bohemian luxury than a badge of honor. Following her about is like reading Thoreau. One is inclined to grant her her freedom and unconventionality, but one wonders about a society populated with Thoreaus and Veras. Who’s changing the babies’ nappies? To her credit, she is hard working; but in a Chicken Little way—accounting for everyone share without flexibility, generosity, and forgiveness. In short, she’s a bohemian snob and she knows it. Temporary high marks for self-acceptance. But without self-reflection, this amounts to more of a “my way or the high way” bravado than living the examined life. Where she shines is with Maslow’s second self-actualization criteria: resisting acculturation. Except that this shouldn’t be the goal—to rebel—but the logical and unavoidable worldview in order to self-actualize. There’s a difference between “Screw you and the horse you rode in on” and thoughtful rejection of master narratives that abuse power. Finally, fair marks for cultivating a better world if we are satisfied with one or two relationships. R&E is, after all, not much of a cause promoter and more of a hospitality vigilant. (See hospitalitymorality.blogspot for that angle.)
Next, we have Miss Phyllis, who is Mrs. Lippincote’s daughter. She randomly creeps around the house without permission or notice. She’s creepy—not in a sinister way but in an unpredictable way. Basically, R&E suspects that she serves to highlight the hospitality limitations of Roddy and Eleanor, who freak out. We have to disqualify her as a self-actualizer because she has no apparent goals.
Felicity is the Wing Commander’s young daughter, a sneaky girl with a taste for adventure. She is the child he deserves and will probably cause him more trouble as she ages. But she’s too immature to determine any self-actualizing potential.
That leaves us with our protagonist. Does Julia, Roddy’s wife, self-actualize during the course of the novel? If not, does she demonstrate self-actualizing potential? No and yes. No, because she ultimately acquiesces to domesticity and a wife = appendage mindset. Yes, because she has thoughtfully reflected about the female master narratives of good wife and good mother; spoken brazenly against both, especially, the first; and attempted to cultivate a better world through a nonconventional friendship. That is, fulfilling all three criteria at one point in the novel, Julia Davenant almost self-actualizes. Almost. Let’s pursue her potential through each criteria.
First, self-awareness and self-acceptance. Julia knows herself to be lonely, frustrated, and confined. She knows that she’s living no Bronte fantasy, nor does she want to be. Second, her malaise inspires her rebellion. Mid-way through the novel, she rejects that malaise as a natural or necessary female state. To Eleanor, the Wing Commander, and Roddy, Julia emphatically blasts cultural expectations. She journeys out of her house, begins to establish a meaningful (non-Madame Bovary) relationship, and struggles to remain a responsible family member. High marks for rejecting cultural norms. Unfortunately, the military orders mandate another move; and instantly, Julia returns to being a dutiful, although resentful, wife. She is back to the female master narrative script.
Where does her self-actualization go wrong? Why does she, with such a good education, clear self-concept, and strong temperament, retreat to a worn-out path of subservience, restraint, and hypocrisy? We return to Maslow’s three criteria for the answer. So far, we’ve established high marks for self-reflection and self-acceptance. “’I love myself,’ she said lightly. … ‘And then,’ she added, ‘miles down the scale, in a vague, bewildered way, I love you.’ Then he knew she was truly drunk” (26). Yes, Julia loves herself. And we have already established her rebellions against female acculturation. But although she has high marks for the first two criteria, she has low marks for the last. She has failed to become truly acquainted with anyone else although, in fairness, she tries. Although Mr. Taylor’s death seems to truncate the genesis of an authentic relationship, readers soon realize through Julia’s conversation with his mother that much of how he has presented himself has been false. Disillusioned, Julia gives up not just because the military is manipulating her life, her husband is closer to his cousin than to his wife, and her son is peculiarly backward for his age, but because she realizes that her best efforts to eschew the female master narrative without succumbing to a romance (just try to count the Bronte references) has failed. She has been deceived into a “friendship,” which, ironically destroys her more than would the knowledge of her husband’s affair. What is so damn frustrating about this novel is the accuracy of the passive voice in the last sentence. Julia is cheated by someone else. We don’t really know why Mr. Taylor misrepresents himself. Why don’t even know why her husband has an affair (that Julia may or may not suspect). And we don’t know why Eleanor, her son, and the Wing Commander deceiver her?
Although unaware of most of these lies, Julia lives painfully aware of her disconnectedness. Julia recognizes that she is disconnected from Roddy and everyone else in her life because she has failed to others as “real people”—a lament she expresses on the penultimate page of the novel. At the novel’s end, Julia closes Mrs. Lippincote’s curtains when she sees another lying man—Mr. Aldridge—pass by. After my second reading, I’m puzzled. Why is everyone lying? Is it their fault? Is it society’s? Are we all required to live lives of “double consciousness” behind veils of deception in order to survive and acculturate? Is there no other, more honest, way? Is it simply impossible to live the examined life and improve the world?
R&E is fond of the word “authentic” when describing truthful human relationships. According to Maslow and HM concurs, we can not self-actualize without authentic human relationships. Not causes. Not dramas. Not romances. And not attempts to replicate stories, which Julia, the Wing Commander, and Oliver desperately try to do. All those substitutes for living authentically with others not only diminish our lives but prevent our self-actualizing. We cannot love with deceit, At Mrs. Lippincote’s warns us. Little acts matter. Whether it’s spying into someone’s papers when we’re her boarder, mentally criticizing those we’ve invited into our homes, or lying about our whereabouts, minor secrets and discretions enervate our integrity—and prevent our self-actualizing. To be true to ourselves and rebel against the world’s unfair expectations without standing for and with at least one other person proves a hollow life. At Mrs. Lippincote’s last exchange between husband and wife reveals Julia’s deficiency: “’If we could see one another as real people…’ she began. ‘You are inquisitive about little things, but about this.. [says Roddy].’ ‘I am a coward,’ she agreed” (214). Of course, that’s not what he said or probably meant, which is part of the problem. She misprisions his remark. However, despite their miscommunication, Julia self-assesses with acumen. Why hasn’t she been able to see one other person as a real person? Because that requires risks—exposure, honesty, trust, and disinterested self-righteousness. And although Julia knows and accepts herself well and although Julia ideologically rejects cultural assimilation power abuses, she is too cowardly to take the final step to self-actualize. She has neglect the “act” in “self-actualizing” by failing to act for the betterment of someone else. All her bravado is for naught because looking out the window at Mr. Aldridge who “should have been dead months ago,” she accepts that his deceit is the way of life. And, without the courage to authentically connect to another person, she participates in the world’s deception.
R&E doesn’t suggest that At Mrs. Lippincote’s sanctions such cowardliness. Perhaps, Julia’s confession serves as the novel’s proscription. That’s the case that R&E has tried to make. However, R&E can make no case that the novel serves its readers a prescription for cowardliness. R&E will continue to reread the remaining eleven novels in hope that better news will come. Until then, R&E wonders how we can surmount our cowardliness and “see one another as real people.”