Harriet and Vesey grew up together as playmates and friends. One summer while caring for Vesey’s cousins, they realize their affection has blossomed into something more:
‘I cannot put down what happened this evening,’ she wrote mysteriously. ‘Nor is there any need, for I shall remember all my life.’ And, although she was so mysterious, she was right. Much in those diaries would puzzle her when she turned their pages in middle age, old age; many allusions would be meaningless; week after week would seem to have been wiped away; but that one entry, so proudly cryptic, would always evoke the evening in the woods, the shadows, the layers of leaves shutting out the sky, the bronze mosses at the of the trees, the floating sound their voices had, and that explosive, echoing cry of the cuckoo. (p.21-22)
But Vesey goes off to Oxford and Harriet remains at home. She picks up tidbits of news from his aunt and uncle, but they lose touch and eventually Harriet makes her own way. She finds a job in a gown shop, marries Charles, a respected business man, and they have a daughter, Betsy. Harriet thinks of Vesey often, but for the most part she is a reasonably happy wife and mother.
Until one day, nearly 20 years later, when Harriet and Vesey run into each other at a dance. Dancing with Vesey, Harriet is overcome with memories and emotion. They do not see each other often — Vesey is in the theatre, and travels around the country — but they exchange letters and find reasons to meet anytime he is nearby. Charles feels Harriet’s distance, but can neither draw her out nor express his own feelings. The strain rubs off on Betsy, too. Even though Harriet sees how differently people respond to her, she desperately wants to believe they’re fine. It’s just her, responding differently to them.
Taylor’s writing is exquisite. The story unfolds very slowly, with the rich observational detail Taylor is known for. And it’s emotionally intense as well. In the first part, the reader feels the pain of young love — we want Harriet and Vesey to accept the love they feel for each other, and live happily ever after. We feel pain in the awkwardness of their parting, and the pain returns when they meet again in middle age. By that time, I had come to appreciate her marriage to Charles. I was caught up in Harriet’s dilemma, simultaneously wishing for things that might have been, and wanting to maintain the comfort and security of her family life. The ending is ambiguous, and yet felt completely right.
In her biography, The Other Elizabeth Taylor, Nicola Beauman called this “Elizabeth’s most flawless, most nearly perfect novel.” I couldn’t agree more.