(Note: There are SPOILERS in this review if you haven’t read the book yet!)
The lovely ladies (and gentlemen!) at the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group have been having a Centenary read-along of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels. I hadn’t read any of her work before stumbling across the group, and have now finished my sixth volume! It’s been a very enjoyable read-along and I’m looking forward to next month’s book “Angel”.
However, on to “The Sleeping Beauty”, Elizabeth Taylor’s sixth novel, first published in 1958. The book begins with a funeral, of the husband of Isabella who has drowned in a boating accident, whilst their son Laurence has survived after heroically trying to save his father. Vinny, the book’s main character, who is an old friend of Isabella’s, arrives to provide emotional support and during his visit espies a local woman, Emily, walking on the beach. She is the ‘sleeping beauty’ and the story tells of Vinny’s attempts to meet and woo her.
But this being Elizabeth Taylor’s world means that there are bound to be complications. Emily has suffered a traumatic car crash and lives a reclusive life with her repressed sister Rose, caring for Rose’s daughter Philly who has learning difficulties. She has put up metaphorical walls around her, shut herself off from normal life, and it is these walls that Vinny has to break down to get to Emily.
The book also has the usual strong set of supporting characters, a feature of the Taylor novels I have read – Isabella’s best friend Evalie, Laurence’s friend Len, the Tillotson family and their nursery nurse (who are staying at the boarding house run by Rose) and Rita, a dance teacher in a nearby town. Another strong character is Vinny’s mother, Mrs. Tumelty who also ends up staying in the boarding house.
The book has one immediate striking difference to the earlier novels I’ve read in that it has a male protagonist. Vinny is an unusual hero, middle aged, a little unprepossesing and with a life very much under control. He’s obviously been very repressed and has got nothing from the women in his life up until the time he meets Emily. His mother in particular is a dominating handful and without wishing to stereotype him, if you met him in real life you might suspect he wasn’t keen on women in a romantic way. So the fact that he is hit, whammy, in middle age by his first real passion does, I feel, excuse what follows during the story. He is a complex character and surprisingly strong-willed when it comes to getting what he wants i.e. Emily.
Laura has comments on her excellent posts about the book that it is very strong in its portrayal of middle aged women, and they are wonderfully and sympathetically portrayed. Although Taylor is quite sharp in some places about them, you do feel that she has an empathy. Isabella and Evalie are having constant battles with life and its ageing processes, resorting to steam baths and face packs and diets in an attempt to stave off the inevitable. The writing is very funny and entertaining but many of us reading will have a wryly sympathetic smile on our faces!
What struck me strongly was the portrayal of the mothers in this novel – Mrs. Tumelty, Rose and Isabella all damage their children in one way or another. The relationship between Rose and Philly was particularly heartbreaking as Rose is totally repressed and almost seems to regard poor Philly as the result of some kind of sin. I found this part of the book one of the hardest to deal with, and as Philly was so attached to Emily I wondered what would happen as the book progressed but was glad that Philly found someone to care for, and to care for her.
I think one pivotal point in this book in that sex is quite an issue. Not in an over-the-top way, as that wouldn’t be very ET, but she’s not the genteel lady writer she’s made out to be! There is so much repression going on, what with Rose and Isabella and Vinny and Laurence. I feel that Taylor is making the point that although Emily’s behaviour (past and present) is condemned by Rose, it’s probably healthier than how Rose ends up – a very damaged person with no capacity for affection and thus a daughter who is deprived of a normal loving relationship with her mother.
Isabella’s son Laurence is also interesting – the circumstances of his behaviour at the time of his father’s death are not really made that much of (in a typically Taylorian way – more of her ‘bombshell moments’ later) but perhaps are pivotal to his somewhat sullen behaviour in much of the book. He certainly blossoms a little as it goes on. His relationship with Isabella his mother is well portrayed and it’s interesting how his attitude changes after he sees her and Len together.
The end of the book was much more upbeat than I thought it would be. After persuading Emily to marry him, the already-married Vinny then commits bigamy after failing to persuade his wife to divorce him. When Isabella finds out and the secret is revealed, surprisingly Emily’s major concern is whether Vinny will go to prison. The book is left open-ended (another of Taylor’s traits) but in many ways it doesn’t matter whether he is gaoled or not – Emily still loves him and if necessary will wait for his return. I liked the unresolved nature of the ending, personally – my main concern was what Emily’s reaction to Vinny’s secret would be, as I perceived their relationship as a little fragile and beset with outside dangers. I was sure that Emily would disown him and it would all be horrible and sad, but the fact that she stuck by him so strongly was, well – unusual, based on what ET I have read so far. I imagine that sex might be rearing its head here again – Emily seems to have had a *fulfilled* life, shall we say, before her accident and has found in Vinny someone who loves her and finds her attractive and brings her to life. If that is the case, she would stick with him through thick and thin.
And I did feel sorry for Vinny. The society in which he and Rita lived in effect trapped them both into a marriage which was in name only and which he couldn’t get out of because of the archaic divorce laws. From our enlightened viewpoint the whole thing seems bizarre and I think this is why Vinny is probably a more sympathetic character to modern readers than he might have been to contemporary ones. Having said that, nowadays I think young people would ask why Vinny and Emily don’t just live together!
As Laura has mentioned on her postings, and as many other readers have picked up, Elizabeth Taylor is the queen of ‘bomshell moments’! There are some crackers here – early in the book, Vinny sends a postcard to his wife and then a few pages later on it is mentioned that he isn’t married – enough to stop you in your tracks with a “Whaaa???” and send you back to check. Similarly, the way she casually drops into the story the truth about Laurence’s farther’s death is masterly.
Apparently Taylor’s American publishers found the characters uninteresting which surprises me (and maybe makes me think they were probably mainly men!!) Being a lady of a certain age I did identify with a lot of what the women were having to deal with. Having read Nicola Beauman’s excellent Elizabeth Taylor biography recently, I see she seems to think that the early novels are best but I found myself very satisfied with this one. And I can’t understand why people think Taylor is ‘just a woman novelist’ (and we should object to that kind of categorisation anyway) – she is quite hard edged in places, doesn’t shy away from difficult situations and gives her characters a hard time. The more ET I’m reading, the more I’m finding that she actually has quite a bleak outlook on life and her characters are not straightforward. Highly recommended reading!