The Soul of Kindness is ostensibly the story of Flora Quartermaine, a beautiful but selfish woman who manipulates everyone around her while managing to leave them thinking she is working only in their best interests. I say ostensibly, because while the storyline unfolds that way, I thought the plot was secondary to this book’s real strength: character development.
Elizabeth Taylor combines her unique powers of observation, attention to detail, and irony to infuse life into even the most minor players. On the main stage, we have Flora and her husband Richard. When the book opens they are newly married, but the next chapter takes place four years later and Flora is pregnant. Flora has Richard, and pretty much everyone else, wrapped around her finger. One pouty look from Flora, and he’ll drop everything to make amends. He’s a devoted husband, but some of his behavior could be interpreted otherwise, and he’s completely oblivious to the danger until it’s almost too late. She’s also had a profound impact on Kit, the younger brother of her friend Meg, and an aspiring but not very talented actor. Flora is the only one who believes in Kit, and he fawns after her because of it. And then there’s Patrick, whom Flora tries desperately to pair with Meg, refusing to acknowledge his homosexuality.
While these main characters advanced the plot, I found the parallel stories of peripheral characters even more interesting. There’s a rather pathetic woman, Liz Corbett, who initially struck me funny but whose jealousy turned her into a tragic figure. And Flora’s mother, Mrs Secretan, who has been in service to Flora all her life. When the baby began to take priority in Flora’s life, Mrs Secretan lost her sense of self-worth and became increasingly concerned about mortality. Flora was oblivious and insensitive, but Richard proved himself yet again by quietly taking command of the situation. Taylor’s magic as a writer is being able to tell these stories in a way that made me laugh, while also tugging at my heart.
While I would have preferred a deeper storyline to go with the characterizations, this book is still a strong example of Taylor’s talent as a writer and on that basis I can heartily recommend this novel.