Hello, it’s Dee here, and thank you for taking part (or at least taking an interest) in the final Elizabeth Taylor Centenary read. This month I hope to not only talk about Blaming, but also provide opportunities for us to look back at the Taylor novels we’ve read over 2012.
Blaming was Taylor’s final novel, written while she was terminally ill and published after her death. So perhaps it’s not surprising that the mood is often a sombre one. The themes, of bereavement and self-blame, are prominent. I will talk about these themes later in the month but not quite yet, if only to avoid spoilers. If you haven’t started Blaming yet, please do not be put off by the heavy sound of all that. The usual Taylor humour is still there too.
This month, I’ll start with an aspect of Blaming that struck me early on: how Taylor’s world has changed. Her early novels seem firmly rooted in the mid twentieth century. Characters do not always agree with contemporary norms, (Julia, for example, in At Mrs Lippincote’s, fumes about patronising attitudes towards women in the military) but they do understand them. As time moves on, many of Taylor’s characters have become confused and uncomfortable with shiny new 1960s, and then 1970s, Britain. Cressy in The Wedding Group (published in 1968) loves television and Wimpy burgers but is generally perceived as being weak and superficial for this. Moving onto 1971, in Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, Ludo’s girlfriend Rosie makes an incongruous figure with her miniskirts and bleached hair.
In Blaming, the moving on of time has become not only uncomfortable but actually painful for the central character, Amy. Newly bereaved (I think it’s safe to say that as it happens very early on), Amy finds herself in a world very different to the one she once knew and feels rather redundant in it. She is very much the product of a world depicted in earlier Taylor novels, a middle-class English woman with values based around duty, good manners and keeping up appearances. She has dedicated her life to her husband and son.
Attending a typical 1970s party, hosted by her son and daughter-in-law, Amy notices the flowered shirts worn by men, the exotic foods (taramasalata and boeuf stroganov) and the odd practise of drinking home-brewed wine, or home-made wine as she refers to it. Blaming is quite a sparely written novel and when a detail is described or fixed on, it often indicates that it has been noted as unusual or irritating by Amy.
The women at the party (described as “youngish”) seem to be living full lives that would have been unlikely in Taylor’s early books but emancipation has come too late for Amy.
Being married, having children, going to work, was not enough for them. They also put in hours at family-planning clinics, sat on benches, fought pollution, visited prisons or were marriage-guidance counsellors. Amy, who had never done anything, but look after Nick and one child, and was now herself looked after, felt old stirrings of inadequacy.
An alternately sad and comic figure, Ernie Pounce has a foot in both worlds. He is willing to take on the role as man-servant to Amy and agrees with her on the oddness of “home-made wine” and the superiority of home-made apple pie to shop bought. At other times he brings home stories of the strange new world, for example, he talks of eating cheeseburgers with a lady wrestler!
If you’ve read any of Blaming at all, it’s probably become clear that the odd friendship between Amy and Martha has a significant role in the book. The relationship is mostly seen through Amy’s eyes. Amy never really seems to want or particularly welcome the friendship but doesn’t reject it either. Martha appears to be another representation of the new, youthful and alien. She is much younger than Amy and American, so part of an age and culture that Amy sees as different to her own. Amy also perceives Martha as being wasteful and untidy. These qualities are an affront to two of her basic values and she can’t seem to transcend this.
The differences between the two characters are highlighted early on in the book. When Martha identifies her favourite of the Onyx eggs bought on holiday, Amy thinks they are the worst. When Martha starts to talk about sex with her boyfriend, Amy asks if she would like more pudding! On the rare occasions that we see things through Martha’s eyes, it is still the differences that are emphasized. Taylor cleverly illustrates the distances between her characters, accentuating differences and the gaps they create or that the characters allow them to create.
Another thing about the English, Martha noted; they close up, they suddenly want to go home; or for you to. She thought they must be the fastest givers-up in the world, remembered wars, but dismissed that kind of tenacity as coming from having no choice.
Have you started Blaming yet, and if so what do you think? Does it feel different from Taylor’s other novels or is it the same Elizabeth Taylor we’ve grown to love over the past year? And what do you make of that odd friendship between Amy and Martha?
Next Week: Looking back at Elizabeth Taylor’s Centenary Year and a giveaway.