The Sleeping Beauty: Book Chat, Week One

How’s everyone doing with The Sleeping Beauty?

For the next two weeks I promise to keep these posts free of spoilers, and ask that you do the same in the comments or make a very visible notation.

But before we dive into the book chat, I have an exciting announcement …

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On July 2, I will be hosting a giveaway.  Thanks to the generous team at Virago Press, one lucky person will receive a copy of Elizabeth Taylor’s Complete Short Stories.  This new volume will be published June 21, and includes 65 stories with a beautiful cover.  More details here.

Be sure to stop by on July 2 to enter the drawing!

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This week I’d like to talk about the women in the story.  I found some of them absolutely hilarious and that seems like a fun way to begin our discussion.

Nicola Beauman piqued my interest with this comment in her biography, The Other Elizabeth Taylor:

The very best thing in the book was missed by most reviewers. The description of middle-aged women in The Sleeping Beauty is, as Bill Maxwell put it, ‘classical: my God those women are funny’ … Yet what critic, what academic, has ever perceived artistic brilliance in the description of middle-aged ennui, despair, and bulging flesh?

The story takes place in the seaside town of Seething, which amused me in and of itself.  Seaside towns are normally quiet, serene places of rest and enjoyment.  What exactly is seething in Seething?  Well, Isabella and Evaline, to start with.  Isabella is recently widowed, her husband having died tragically in a boating accident.  She and her friend Evaline enjoy high social standing, which affords them the privilege of judging everyone else.  They are keenly observant — much like Taylor herself — and with a very strong sense of right and wrong.  So when they see something amiss, they feel compelled to put things right, sometimes with equally negative consequences.  Beneath all this self-righteousness lurks a secret fondness for betting on horses, and the women go to great lengths to prevent anyone else from discovering their habit.

After a while, they turned to gambling. They did this not as any reckless crisis in their lives, but because they needed money for their face-creams and fashion-papers. …they progressed from little flutters to a cool and steady daily appraisal of all the runners and riders; to having an account with a bookmaker instead of giving half-crowns to Evalie’s gardener. They gave up morning coffee in the town and hurried to one another’s houses to make their plans for the day and to lament or rejoice over the day before.  This was more of a tonic to them for having to be indulged in secret. … when they overheard others talking of racing, their faces became so devoid of expression as to have invited suspicion if anyone had noticed. But they were perhaps beyond the age for being noticed. (p. 34)

Mrs Tumulty is another mature female character, and the mother of Vinny, the male protagonist.  She travels to Seething after becoming suspicious of Vinny’s regular weekend visits.  She makes a grand entrance, passes instant judgement on everyone around her, and engages in a completely tactless and insensitive conversation with Emily, the “sleeping beauty” of the title, who is at the center of this story. Emily has lived a reclusive life since a car accident left her severely disfigured.  Surgery repaired the physical scars, but emotional healing will take years.  Rather than face the outside world, she has chosen to live with her sister Rose and care for Rose’s daughter Philly, who suffers from developmental disabilities and will likely never live independently.  Rose, too, has suffered, and is buried under layers of repression and resentment.

So as you can see, not all the women play a comedic role.  And there’s one other significant female role: Rita, a dance instructor in a nearby town. I can’t say much about her without a major plot spoiler, but she certainly adds color to the story.

I found myself smiling and even giggling when Isabella or Evalie came on the scene. They would be great main characters in a short story.

What did you think of the women in The Sleeping Beauty?  Do you have a favorite woman character?

Next week: the men!

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11 thoughts on “The Sleeping Beauty: Book Chat, Week One

  1. As you may have seen Laura I have finished The Sleeping Beauty, and really enjoyed it – it won’t be my favourite – but it is still a really good novel I thought.
    I too loved the women in this novel – they are brilliant. I think the older women (I see Emily as being younger) Mrs Tumulty, Rose, Isabella and Evaline are rather self righteous as you say, never missing a trick they keep their eyes peeled and are very critical of everyone else. However they not without their own flaws, and of course cannot see this in themselves. The younger women of Emily, Betty and Philly are at the mercy of these women to an extent. The middle aged women are honestly portrayed – but done so with Elizabeth Taylor’s characteristic humour – I think they are drawn with a certain amount of affection. Isabella and Rose sadder creations for me – they are both widows, they each seem to have their hopes and disappointments which make them rather more sympathetic than say Evaline – who just vaguely spiteful and gossiping.

    • Ali, thank you for mentioning Betty! I forgot to include her in my post. I enjoyed her story running in parallel with Emily’s. And I completely agree about the younger women being at the mercy of the older. Hmm … I do think that plays out in real life quite a bit, don’t you? I’m speaking, sadly now, as one of those more “mature” women … eek!

  2. That comment in Beauman’s biography stuck out for me, too; it really made me curious about the novel; it’s on the top of the not-just-now stack, the one from which I draw when I finish something on the currently-reading stack that actually gets moved about the house with me. (I do realize how much simpler it would be if I simply read one book at a time.)

  3. I’ve just started and am sure I’m going to enjoy it. The characters, tone and setting already seem quintessentially Taylor!

    • You are so right, Dee, about this being quintessentially Taylor. I’m loving these monthly readalongs because each time I open one of her novels, I settle into something familiar and wonderful.

  4. I agree that the ageing women are wonderfully and sympathetically portrayed. Although Taylor is quite sharp in some places about them, you do feel that she has an empathy.

    What struck me strongly was the portrayal of the mothers – Vinny’s, Rose and Isabella all damage their children in one way or another. The relationship between Rose and Philly was heartbreaking and I found it quite hard to deal with at points. At least Philly’s resolution (trying to avoid spoilers here) was not as bad as I had feared!

    I’m surprised that Taylor’s American publishers found the characters uninteresting because I didn’t – 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 biography at last, I see she seems to think that the novels after AGofHandS are not so good 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 edges in places, doesn’t shy away from difficult situations and gives her characters a hard time. Many of these women novelist we read are grounded in reality, writing about real lives that people live and that makes them important and valuable in my eyes.

    • kaggsy, I too am “of a certain age” and could identify with the older women. Your observation of Rose and Philly is spot on, I felt so sad for both of them. And poor Rose was so repressed — her attitudes towards sex coming out in her reactions to Emily. Well this wasn’t a happy story, but I was quite satisfied with it as well.

  5. And I meant to say also that Beauman is right about the number of sub-plots in this novel – in some ways it might have been nicer if Taylor had extracted a few of the lightly touched on stories and made them into longer pieces.

  6. Pingback: Virago Volumes: #2 – The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor « Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings

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