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Elizabeth Taylor Centenary: In A Summer Season – Week 4 – Art Imitating Life (or Vice Versa)

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It’s week four of our read-along of “In a Summer Season” by Elizabeth Taylor, and hopefully everyone is getting along well with the book. This week I would like to consider a slightly controversial aspect of the novel as highlighted in Nicola Beaman’s biography of the writer. I suppose I should nail my colours to the mast here and state that I rate the biography very highly. I think Beauman did a remarkable job of presenting a balanced and fair book, straying on the side of discretion and handling the objections of the family as best she could. I accept that for some reason Taylor’s son and daughter objected to the book, but bearing in mind that Taylor’s husband had given his permission, I cannot see why. It’s not as if Beauman was portraying Taylor as a mad axe-murdered or child-abuser, after all, and it can’t be said that her behaviour resembled that of the narrator of “The Aspern Papers”! However, accepting that there are differing opinions, if you aren’t happy with the elements of the Beauman biog it may be best to look away now!

According to Beauman, in the mid 1950s while the Taylor family were living in Penn Cottage, they were friendly with the Blakely family. The son, David, is best known nowadays as having been killed by Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain. This is not the place to debate the rights and wrongs of the case or the hanging – I would simply refer you to the case of Edith Thompson and advise a reading of F. Tennyson Jesse’s “A Pin to See The Peepshow” (incidentally one of the best books I have ever read). But David was a friend of the Taylor family, had spent time with Elizabeth’s son Renny while he was ill, and Beauman asserts that the character of Dermot is based on David Blakely. Taylor’s daughter disputes this, but whatever the truth, Beauman quotes a letter from Taylor to Ivy Compton-Burnett admitting that she had been attracted to David and much of IASS is concerned with the aspect of the attractions of a younger man for an older woman. David Blakely was no young innocent (Wikipedia describes him as a hard-drinking racer, and he is reported to have beaten his girlfriend) and Dermot in IASS has some traits in common with him, with his fast cars and constant need for the nearest pub or bottle of whisky. Indeed, Dermot’s fecklessness and bad behaviour is portrayed as attractive and indulged at the start of the book but becomes dangerous and even fatal by the climax.

The milieu the characters occupy is that in which Taylor and her friends and family moved, and it is hard not to feel that Taylor is using her life and her surroundings in her art. Nicola Beauman considers this to be one of Taylor’s strongest books owing to the fact that she was writing about characters and places she knew well. I tend to agree with this view and I actually felt that this is the best Taylor I have read so far. But it is a common tendency in readers to conflate the writer and his/her characters and so it is hard to actually quantify how much of her own life Taylor put into her books.

So many of the Virago books we read could be described as presenting everyday life as art, and it occurs to me that this might be a particularly female type of writing.  Of course, I do feel that all authors use their lives in their work to a varying degree, and because of the limitations and constrictions of women’s lives in the past, their experience would be largely domestic. What do other readers think?

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Elizabeth Taylor Centenary: In A Summer Season – Week 3 – The Review!

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Time for the review of “In A Summer Season”, and if you haven’t yet finished the book, there will be SPOILERS! so look away now.

“In a Summer Season” takes place over one summer in the life of Kate Heron and her family and friends. Kate is a ‘middle aged’ woman, by which we place her in her forties, married to a second husband, Dermot, who is some years her junior. Kate has two grown up children, Tom and Louise, and the household is made up of a maiden aunt, Ethel, plus cook Mrs. Meacock. Kate and Dermot’s marriage is looked upon askance by most of the locals who were friends of Kate and her late husband Alan, and the extended family (including Dermot’s mother Edwina). Then there are Charles Thornton and his wife Araminta who only join the book fully in the second section, entitled “The Return of the Thorntons”. Add to this the peripheral characters of Fr. Blizzard and Vicar, Kate’s father-in-law (from her first marriage) Sir Alfred, Ethel’s friend Gertrude, a gaggle of local ladies doing good works for the church and even Kate’s London hairdresser, and you have the usual finely-drawn set of characters you can expect from an Elizabeth Taylor novel. There are also the absent ones – the late Alan, and Dorothea, who was Kate’s best friend and Charles’s wife. From the very start of the book, we get the sense of loss that Kate feels having lost Dorothea. We never learn how Alan and Dorothea died, but they are a constant presence in the existence of those who have carried on living.

The first section of the book starts at the beginning of the summer, with Kate visiting her mother-in-law Edwina. From the discussions between them it does not take long to establish Dermot’s character and as the book progresses it is clear that the marriage is a troubled one. Although Kate and Dermot clearly love each other and have a good sexual relationship, there is no great depth portrayed. Their interests are different (as Taylor shows well in several scenes) and their mutual attraction is not enough to build a marriage on. Meanwhile, Kate’s children struggle with their own issues – Lou, with her passion for the curate Father Blizzard (what a wonderful name!) and Tom with his humiliating employment in the lower rungs of his grandfather’s firm. Meanwhile, Mrs. Meacock the cook, who is a wonderfully rounded character in her own right, wrestles with menopausal symptoms and produces a quaint array of American style dishes for the family

Everything is turned upside down, however, by the return of the Thorntons. Araminta has grown up into a very strange young woman, sexually attractive to Tom, Dermot and seemingly every other man she meets. Charles is safe and ordinary and much as Kate had remembered him. It is obvious that he has much more in common with Kate than Dermot and their conversation instantly becomes exclusive, covering interests they share and people they know, cutting Dermot out of the loop. Tom pursues Araminta who is so detached it’s quite ridiculous and she also meets up with Dermot on her return from her days in London modelling.

Kate and Dermot’s relationship begins to unravel and as I neared the end of the book I did wonder how Taylor was going to wrap it up. The resolution is a dramatic one, and in choosing to kill off her two most sexually motivated characters, Taylor may be meting out some kind of divine retribution for their fickleness and disloyalty.

This is a rich and complex novel which can hardly be done justice in a short review, and I think it’s possibly the Elizabeth Taylor book I’ve enjoyed the most so far. Her portrayal of the characters and scenes is masterly, and they’re so well drawn they become real. The dinner party scene, with its shifting viewpoints, is a positive joy. In contrast to some of her novels, which I feel have had a central, dominant female character with the rest of the lesser ones orbiting her, this book was much more rounded. All of the main players had fully developed characters and existed in their own right.

The novel is also an interesting jump into the current world, in contrast to “Angel” which came before it. Televisions, teddy boy haircuts, sports cars and the trappings of modern life are creeping into the book. Taylor contrasts the attitudes of the older generation, still stuck in their rigid way of life, with the younger characters who are starting to kick against this. If “Angel” was set in the no-man’s-land of the historical novel, “IASS” starts to confront the changes that were happening in society at the time Taylor was writing. I rate this book very highly and I’d be interested to hear what other readers think.

Elizabeth Taylor Centenary: In A Summer Season – Week 2 – Love and Marriage (or the Lack of It)

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Taylor’s novels often portray the flaws in a marriage and betrayal by one or both partners. In fact, marriage (or the lack of it) could be said to occupy a prominent position in all of her books I have read so far. “At Mrs. Lippincote’s” is a study of a marriage and the unfaithfulness of one (or both?) of the partners; “Palladian” shows the deceptions that can take place and the search for marriage by a young girl; “A View of the Harbour” once again has a central marriage where there is unfaithfulness and studies the effects of that betrayal; the compromises made and emotional anguish endured by one women at the hands of her insenstive husband feature in “A Wreath of Roses”, whilst another character in search of companionship has a narrow shave at the hands of a rather dodgy male; “A Game of Hide and Seek” has marriage for security and not love, and how this can be undermined by a real passion; Taylor’s view of marriage seems to become a little skewed by the time of “The Sleeping Beauty” as she deals with a partnership in name only and bigamy; and in “Angel” our monstrous lady novelist pins down and marries her reluctant husband who once again betrays her.

All of these marriages have flaws and it is interesting to speculate whether Taylor has a jaded view of the state of matrimony. Of course, daily compromises are necessary in any relationship and more often than not these are made by the woman. However, it is in IASS that the subject of sex in a relationship comes very much to the fore. In Taylor’s early books the subject was not really raised, but by the time of “The Sleeping Beauty” she begins to address the physical side of marriage. In fact, it becomes pivotal to the plot during IASS as much of the debate fuelled by the book is based on how much of a marriage can be made when the attraction and relationship is only a physical one?

Dermot and Kate’s marriage is based almost entirely on the physical and although we are led to believe they really love each other, it does seem that this is something of a rocky foundation. Their interests are very different – Kate loves music and books whereas Dermot likes fast cars and going to the pub and, well, just drinking! It’s Kate who is making the compromises (although touchingly, at the end of the story, Dermot is revealed as having been trying to read Kate’s favourite book, presumably to build bridges and try to understand her more). But Charles, who is an old friend and of the same age/generation as Kate, has much more in common with her and we end up speculating on how much more important kindness and a meeting of minds is in a marriage (as opposed to just sex).

Bound up in all this we have to consider society’s attitudes to an older women in a relationship with a younger man. Remember that the book was published in 1960 – we still joke about ‘toy boys’ nowadays and so how much more gossip-worthy would Kate and Dermot’s relationship have been 50-odd years ago. In addition, we sense a hint of guilt from Kate, as she knew Dermot while Alan was still alive and it is implied that there was a little flirting as she laughed a lot around him. It may be that however much Kate loved Alan, he was (whisper it) a little dull and so marrying Dermot was actually quite thrilling. Certainly, there is no doubting the physical attraction they have for each other.

Contrasted with the happy couple and their sexual and marital bliss, the other characters have a variety of emotional states. Spinsters Ethel and Gertrude can be viewed as somewhat barren individuals, but Ethel, for all her lack of actual experience, is quite perceptive about relationships and is there for Kate when she needs comfort. This may be because Ethel lives within a family setting whereas Gertrude does not.

Minty, the other most sexually defined character in the book, floats through people’s lives in a devastating fashion, unaware or unconcerned about the effect she has on those around her. Her sexuality is almost impassive in contrast to Dermot and Kate’s intensely physical relationship. Lou’s unrequited love for Fr. Blizzard is the only pure, untainted passion and so as she realises, she is the one whose love survives and is herself intact at the end of the book.

So is the message here that too much sex is a bad thing? Is Taylor saying that the physical side of any relationship is over-rated and that it has to be balanced by an emotional and intellectual compatibility? “They all live under a strain these days, the young people. Overstimulated. You can’t pick up a newspaper without seeing some minx’s half-naked bust. The great mammary age I call it.” So speaks Gertrude, and you can’t help thinking how little has change since then except to give even more importance to the physical aspect. It may be that the book is striking back in a small way against the changes in society that Taylor perceived taking place around her. Let’s hear what other readers think!

Elizabeth Taylor Centenary: In A Summer Season – Week 1 – Death (and Wreaths!)

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(Warning! Possible small spoilers for earlier books!)

For the first week of our discussion of “In A Summer Season”, I thought it might be interesting to look at a theme which features in many of Taylor’s book – death, in particular the death of a character prior to the story commencing, the implications of which carry on through the book.

At the start of IASS, Kate Heron is married to a younger man, Dermot, her second husband. Her first, Alan, has died although we never learn quite what of, as well as her best friend Dorothea. In many ways, she seems to mourn the loss of Dorothea the most as, although there is reference to her grieving reaction on Alan’s passing, it is Dorothea (her best friend) who she harks back to throughout the novel. Alan is a somewhat shadowy presence whereas Dorothea takes on real shape and substance through Kate’s memories.

Taylor is in some ways quite casual about the death of her characters’ family members – at the beginning of “The Sleeping Beauty”, Isabella’s husband has just died, in “Palladian” Marion is a widower and the circumstances of his wife’s death are much revisited, and also in “Palladian” Cassandra’s father has just died as the novel begins

But it isn’t only the demise of characters prior to the book’s beginning – Taylor dishes out death throughout many of her novels, often just in passing (at the beginning and end of “A Wreath of Roses” for example) and without the pomp and drama some novelists might give it. However, the deaths are always essential, indeed pivotal to the plot. Her matter-of-fact treatment is quite shocking in some ways as the fatalities are often unexpected – Sophy in “Palladian”, Richard and the unnamed man in “A Wreath of Roses” and of course the climax of IASS. There is sometimes an element of pathos in her treatment, more often than not when a character’s parent passes on, but there is a lightness of treatment that is surprising for such a weighty subject. Interesting, the subject of death and loss seems to become more potent as Taylor’s novels progress and possibly reflect the change in a novelist’s subject matter and perspective as they age.

As for wreaths – well, it’s been mentioned on LibraryThing that they do seem to be a recurring motif in Taylor’s work (even featuring in one of her titles obviously) and yes, a wreath turns up in IASS.

Taylor has stated that she writes in scenes, which is an interesting admission and can be seen to be true in several of her novels. In fact, many could be translated quite well into the play form and so it may be that the “off-stage” death is a convenient device for her to use, in keeping with her economy of style. So – Elizabeth Taylor as casual dispenser of death – what do others think?

Elizabeth Taylor Centenary: In A Summer Season

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2012 is the centenary of the author Elizabeth Taylor’s birth and various members of  the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group have been hosting monthly read-alongs of Taylor’s works. We are now approaching August and this is just a heads-up that I will be hosting the August book, Elizabeth Taylor’s seventh novel, “In A Summer Season”.  There will be an introductory post on 1st August and then hopefully future weekly posts. You can read more about the centenary on Laura’s blog and also follow the discussions on LibraryThing.

I do hope you can join us discussing this excellent and underrated novelist!

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