What I love about Elizabeth Taylor is her ability to develop rich characters through such understated language. At Mrs Lippincote’s opens with Roddy and Julia, a middle-aged couple, moving into a rented house (belonging to the Mrs Lippincote in the title). Through their conversation about trivial matters, Taylor manages to convey both the stress of moving and the fragile state of Julia and Roddy’s relationship.
The accommodation has been arranged to enable Julia, Roddy, their son Oliver and cousin Eleanor to be together during Roddy’s Royal Air Force posting. It’s 1945, and the family feels safer in the country than in London. But the hardship of war has worn them down as well. Oliver is a sickly boy — or, at least, the family thinks he is, finding one excuse after another for not sending him to school. Eleanor finds work at the school, and befriends a group of hapless political activists in an attempt to have a life of her own.
And Julia is stuck at home, forced to play the role of officer’s wife. She is hopeless at it, never quite saying the right thing or wearing the right clothes. She strikes up a friendship with Roddy’s commanding officer, based on a shared love of the Brontë sisters. She also encounters a man they once knew in London, who has fallen on hard times and become a waiter/bartender. She finds herself drawn to him, simply to overcome her loneliness.
Each of the characters in this book, even the young boy Oliver, are dramatically changed during their stay in Mrs Lippincote’s house. And yet the story unfolds quietly and subtly; to get the full effect, you have to pay attention to the nuances. At Mrs Lippincote’s is a showcase for Elizabeth Taylor’s gift for subtlety and nuance.