Unreconstructed Emma

This is my review of The Soul Of Kindness (Virago Modern Classics) by Elizabeth Taylor.

Beautiful, indulged, emotionally immature with a childlike reluctance to face up to the grimmer realities of life, Flora does not prove for me to be the manipulative monster implied in the publisher's blurb, but her good intentions certainly cause other people grief, if not exactly leading to hell.

Each chapter in this well-crafted novel reads like a short story in its own right, providing sharply observed descriptions of the characters, their thoughts and relationships and the socially conventional, class-conscious, uptight world of Britain around 1960. Everyone except Flora knows a man is gay, but cannot discuss it. If a man has a drink with a lonely female neighbour it should be concealed as evidence of an affair.

The book is perhaps more interesting now than when it was written because it captures a lost world of dense London fogs, middle class women who do not work once married, and have live-in housekeepers in the basement, a safe, dull society on the brink of being shaken by the Swinging Sixties, fast food, pop culture, media manipulation and rampant commercialisation. Yet, some things have not changed, like the tatty sights and smells round an underground station, or a typical English seafront.

Perhaps Elizabeth Taylor is no longer widely read and known since her largely middle class characters seem rather snobbish and dated, there is no overt sex and violence and the drama is subtle and understated with a focus on the ordinary events of daily life. However, the power of her deceptively simple prose is very striking – a satirical Barbara Pym meets Dorothy Parker, by turns funny and moving.

She is also brilliant at creating in a few words a sense of place and nature and how they affect people's moods: starlings tearing up crocuses, gardens in the rain, the sadness of caged animals at the zoo.

It is intriguing to know that the intensely private Taylor may have been a person of hidden passions – respectably married to a businessman, her life said to be too uneventful to induce a friend to write her biography, she had communist sympathies, was a labour supporter and possibly intimate letters to a male friend were destroyed after her death.

I hope to read more of her work, but savour each novel as a model of how to write.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

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