(If you haven’t yet read this – SPOILER ALERT!)
As regular readers will know, members of the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group is having a read-along of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels to celebrate her centenary, and this month’s book is “The Soul of Kindness”. For some reason, I found this volume a little difficult to get going with. Maybe it’s hard to sustain a read-along for a whole year, or maybe I just wasn’t in the mood, but anyway I’ve finally read it!
Flora is the “Soul of Kindness” of the title, sailing through life blissfully unaware of reality and dispensing her so-called favours left, right and centre. She is surrounded by a group of friends and relations who all conspire to protect her from not only reality but also from the effects of her actions – her mother, the wonderfully named Mrs. Secretan, who has spent her life pandering to Flora and protecting her; husband Richard, best friend Meg, Meg’s brother Kit and Patrick the writer, Richard’s father Percy and his girlfriend Ba; all of whom struggle with balancing “disloyal thoughts” and adoration. Neighbours Elinor and Geoffrey are fortunately outside her sphere of influence, although she does try to use them to further her plans for Kit; and painter Liz is the only one clear-sighted enough to see the damage Flora can do.
So, Flora and Richard marry and have a baby; Mrs. Secretan has phantom diseases and an odd and complex relationship with her maid/companion; Meg buys a house and wrestles with being in love with Patrick, who is gay and in love with Frankie who doesn’t love him; Kit worships Flora, fails as an actor, gets a proper job; Percy and Ba get married and wish they hadn’t; Liz grumps and grumbles and fights with most of the characters; Richard works too hard and spends time with Elinor (although it isn’t an affair) because he somehow finds her more congenial than the beautiful Flora. Poor Mrs. Lodge, Flora’s devoted housekeeper, tries to leave and return to her beloved countryside but doesn’t managed to escape. And so on. You can probably tell by my tone that I wasn’t quite engaged with this one.
It’s not that it’s a terrible novel – Elizabeth Taylor’s prose is too good for that, and there is plenty to the storyline to interest a reader. But it isn’t up to her best. It’s fascinating to see her novels begin to reflect the modern world even more – Kit works in television plays; Meg’s neighbours are a Pakistani family; there are references to recognisable 1960s culture on the TV; Mrs. Secretan finds her way of life becoming redundant. And there are still Taylor’s lovely touches – the way she describes Mrs. Secretan’s awareness of her ageing and the passing of time are lovely.
But I found the characters not entirely convincing and actually quite irritating. It annoyed me immensely that these people would shelter the infuriating Flora in this way – she heartily needed some home truths brought home to her. In many ways, her selfishness reminded me of “Angel”, although in a much less forceful way. The real damage she did by effectively destroying the life Kit was building up for himself was only addressed by Liz and I didn’t find the way she did it convincing. In fact, I didn’t find that the character of Liz really worked at all because she was basically dirty and quite unpleasant and I can’t image Kit would have had any time for her (unless it was because she was the complete antithesis of Flora).
I think things crystallised at the end for me – if Meg can really return to Flora after the wreckage Flora has made of her brother’s life, she’s not a character I can care about or believe in. The ending annoyed me too – I didn’t expect Taylor to return things to the status quo and allow Flora to continue on her merry way, messing up people’s lives in the belief that she was some angel dispensing bounty. I can see what Taylor was trying to do, in showing that extreme selfishness can have an insidious effect and that although Flora meant well, her single-mindedness actually damaged people. I think Ali has picked up on the important point here which is that this book is very much about relationships – failed ones at that. But Taylor doesn’t quite bring off what she was trying to do because she stuck too much with having the central point of Flora, around which all circulate, which is a classic format for her novels.
So I’m afraid in the end this book left me pretty cold. Nicola Beauman says that Taylor lengthened the book for her publishers and if she was having issues with them about this it may be that she wasn’t convinced about the novel herself. As I said, not a bad book but probably not one of Taylor’s I’ll return to – let’s hope next month is more successful!