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Virago Volumes: Blaming by Elizabeth Taylor

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After a joyous year (well, about three-quarters of a year in my case) of the LibraryThing Elizabeth Taylor Centenary celebrations, we have finally reached Taylor’s last book, “Blaming” which was published just after her early death in 1975.

“Blaming” opens with Amy and Nick holidaying in Istanbul. They are a middle-aged couple with children and grandchildren, and Nick is recovering from an operation. They befriend slightly a fellow traveller, Martha, an American author who is younger than them. Martha comes to Amy’s aid when Nick suddenly dies during the trip and back in England keeps in touch with Amy, who is trying to pick up some kind of life gain after her loss. However, truth be told, Amy does not really like Martha and when events in the latter’s life take a serious turn, Amy is left wondering whether she is to blame and if she could have done more to help Martha.

ET

Joanna Kingham’s introduction to my edition describes her mother’s struggle to finish this book while fighting her disease. But despite this (or maybe because of the effort she put into it) I found this one of Taylor’s strongest works. It has all her wonderful hallmarks – strong characterisation, acute observation, the ability to capture events in a few words – and is one of her most compelling reads.

Amy is an interesting protagonist, and as I look back on Taylor’s books, typical of many of the women characters she writes about. She is middle/upper class, with no particular occupation but defines herself in relation to her husband and children (and then grandchildren). I think we would find fewer female characters like her nowadays as culturally women generally have a less restricted outlook on life, but at the time Taylor was writing this was much more common. And like Midge in “The Wedding Group”, Amy finds it hard to cope with being alone. She has a son James and a rather intimidating daughter-in-law Maggie, whom she is determined not to be a burden on, and two grandchildren – Isobel and Dora. The two little girls were brilliantly portrayed – Taylor is so good at children! – but I think I would have had trouble dealing with Isobel on a regular basis, as does Amy. With Dora, she has a particular bond and this grandchild helps Amy to move on from her loss.

Martha herself is a complex character, and it would seem from reading Nicola Beauman’s biography of ET that she is based on a friend of Taylor’s, who tragically took her own life in somewhat similar circumstances to Martha. In many ways it is hard to sympathise with Martha – she has an irritant quality which affects Amy (who thinks she should feel grateful to Martha but is annoyed by her) and also us as readers (well, me in any case!) She is the complete opposite of Amy – untidy, fidgety, scruffy and in many ways detached. Taylor describes the Anglophile writer’s career in a very few words:

“Her few books were…well reviewed, and more or less unknown. Without fretting, she waited to be discovered.”

I wonder here if she was having a little dig at herself and her neglect as a serious novelist. There are also possible generational and class differences which are also manifested in the contrasts between Amy and her daughter-in-law Maggie. This is demonstrated by such simple comparisons as the way in which Amy will eat formally at a table served by Ernie whereas her son’s family eat at the kitchen table – and the fact that Amy is somewhat fazed, when looking after her granddaughters, at the thought of having to defrost and cook a meal. But Martha does make it very hard to like her – her brashness, nosiness and well, rudeness repel the other characters and the reader. She eventually marries but one wonders really why she did so – she wishes to stay in England, not return to small town America, and seems to have little in common with her husband Simon. Her descent into a depressed mental state is handled delicately by Taylor – hinted at more than stated outright – but her lonely suicide is terribly sad and despite her irritating habits you would not wish her to end her life this way.

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Once again, we have a wonderful cast of supporting characters painted by ET. Ernie, Amy’s cook and general factotum, is an ex-forces man and entertaining in his own right. Then there is Gareth Lloyd, family doctor and friend of Amy and Nick, whose wife was Amy’s great friend and who died a little while ago. Amy is in many ways steered towards Gareth and it becomes inevitable that they will marry. This relieves Amy’s family of any necessity of taking care of her, gives Gareth a purpose in life and gives Amy someone to base her life around. Perhaps this resolution was a little un-Taylor-like – I don’t usually look to her for a traditional happy ending – but is quite a neat tying up of things.

As for the title – well, there is plenty of guilt and blame going around in this story. Amy feels guilty about Nick, about how she behaved on their holiday, about how she treats Martha; James feels guilty about his mother and how she will cope on her own (to the extent of bullying her a little bit about her spending and hinting she should move from the house she loves to a flat; and there is the final huge guilt Amy has about Martha and how she behaved towards her. The final scene between Amy and Simon is heartbreaking, where Amy reveals the truth about Martha’s “escape money” which she left with Amy. Should she have said nothing and left him with her illusions? Should she blame herself more for letting Martha down and not getting in touch with her on her return to England? In the end, the final blaming and assigning of guilt is left slightly ambiguous and perhaps for the reader to decide.

I’ve really enjoyed reading Elizabeth Taylor’s work this year – it’s been a voyage of discovery for me as I hadn’t come across her novels before – and this one ranks as one of my favourites. Her character portraits were spot on and the locating of the start of the novel away from the home counties was refreshing. I warmed very much to Dora, the eldest granddaughter and I came out of this book feeling that I would want to re-read it despite the sadness.

So many thanks to the LibraryThing Virago group for introducing me to this wonderful novelist (and particularly Laura who curated the event so beautifully) – and now I’m very much looking forward to next year’s Barbara Pym readalong!

Some Recent Finds – including a Russian treat!

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I’ve been trying to rein myself in a little bit recently, as I had a bit of a binge in London, and also been succumbing to online purchases because of my current hobbyhorse of comparing translations of Russian books! However, I did pick up a few bargains at the weekend from the charity shops – though not, alas, from Claude Cox Books which was unaccountably shut when we went past in the rain on Saturday. I do hope this isn’t a permanent thing…

(As an aside, I *hate* bookshopping in the rain – I’m always terrified that the precious finds are going to get damp on the way home – which wasn’t helped this weekend as I left Youngest Child’s umbrella on the bus – she was *not* amused….)

Anyway – the few treats:


First up, a Molly Keane I don’t have for my Virago collection – brand new and £1.50 in the Saint Elizabeth Hospice shop, and apparently reckoned to be one of Keane’s best – yay!


Secondly, a rather lovely hardback by Jerome K. Jerome which I’ve never hear of (though I have of course read “Three Men in a Boat”). But it looked lovely and I read the first page and laughed out loud in the Oxfam Bookshop, so that was a good sign!


Finally, a pleasing find – I have been reading up on any 20th century Russian authors I might have missed, and this volume came up on a number of lists so it was must-have. Translation is by Michael Glenny who did a lot of Bulgakov (in fact, most of the old Harvill editions I have are done by him). Was most pleased to discover this book!

And another Virago which arrived in the post on Saturday:


I confess to having got a little behind with the Elizabeth Taylor read-along, having been distracted by Slavs, but I shall catch up as soon as I’ve dealt with the chunkster!

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