Letters and Letter Writing in Elizabeth Taylor’s Blaming

Hasn’t Dee done a wonderful job this month with our Elizabeth Taylor Centenary?  Let’s have a round of applause, shall we?  For her last post, Dee draws on an interesting book she acquired this year, that shed further insight on the life and work of this fine author.

I am so grateful to Dee for her well-researched and thoughtful commentary.  It’s a fitting way to end our celebration.  I’ve had a great time hosting this event and am pleased at the many people who have discovered Elizabeth Taylor this year.  I couldn’t have done it without Dee and all the other monthly hosts.  Thank you!

And now let’s read Dee’s closing thoughts on Blaming

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One of the ways I celebrated Elizabeth Taylor’s Centenary this year was by treating myself to a copy of Elizabeth Taylor: A Centenary Celebration, edited by N.H. Reeve. The book includes some short stories, two fragments which never made it to full novel or story form (though one seems a possible precursor to Mrs Palfrey as it also had the scene featuring Ludo in the launderette), some essays by Taylor, some letters and a few articles about Taylor’s writing.

In this month of increased communications, I thought I’d talk about what William May says, in his article in the book, about letters in Taylor’s work in general and in Blaming, in particular. He seems to me to be spot on about how Taylor uses letters as a way of both engaging us with and distancing us from her characters. There is a major spoiler, so don’t read on if you’re still reading Blaming.

May writes that “the letter is a means of bringing something closer and holding it at bay…it stretches time and distance, deferring conflict or interaction” and that “Taylor’s work makes full use of a letter’s ambiguities and contradictions. In Taylor’s plots writing letters both encode her characters and condemn them.”

In Blaming, Amy writes letters “grudgingly” and receives letters “ambivalently.” The passage which describes how the gaps between Amy’s letters to Martha were wider than with Martha’s letters to Amy, is also talking about the disparity in how each views their relationship. I liked the way May describes the friendship as “almost one-sided” and “nearly illusory”.

The formal and prescribed nature of traditional letter writing does give Amy a chance to fulfil her sense of duty and obligation, and to play out the role of a friend without having to undergo any actual human contact. But as Martha’s letters become sadder, Amy finds it increasingly difficult to respond to their “dreariness”. I think that as a newly bereaved widow, she probably wasn’t the ideal person to share disappointments with regarding newly married life.

May writes in his article:

The final wounds of the novel are also performed via letter, one inflicted by the ‘sweet and long letter’, Martha writes to her husband. It is in fact a suicide note, although he is not able to read it as such.

May also refers to the “stuffed envelope” which Simon hands to Amy after Martha’s death, saying:

The ‘crammed’ and the ‘stuffed’ suggest a correspondence that is full to bursting but one that contains less information or news than guilt and failure. There is always the sense that the recipient has not done their part and must be to blame for something.

I will leave May’s thoughts there but would love to hear what you think of this, or any other aspect of Blaming. If you’ve written a review, please do add it to Laura’s Mr Linky page. The reviews I’m aware of are:

We’ve now reached the end of Elizabeth Taylor’s Centenary year. It won’t be goodbye for me though, as I still have most of Taylor’s short stories to read and they are definitely not a second best option. When I read The Blush and Other Stories earlier this year, I realised the short story is a form that suits Taylor’s style perfectly. I also (confession time) never got past the first few pages of A Game of Hide and Seek so will try that one again before too long. And I know that Taylor’s books more than stand up to re-reading. In fact, I enjoyed Blaming and Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont considerably more second time round. They were the first Taylors I read and whilst I warmed to Mrs Palfrey who reminded me of my grandmother who had recently passed away, I didn’t really “get” Blaming. I would certainly have been very surprised to know that five years later, I’d be discussing the book at length on a blog! I’m sure I will reading and re-reading Taylor for some time to come.

Thank you so much Laura, for organising this year-long event. I know it has raised awareness and appreciation of this talented author for many of us.

I was quoting from William May’s article Reporting Back, or The Difficulty of Addressing Elizabeth Taylor in Elizabeth Taylor: A Centenary Celebration, edited by N.H. Reeve.
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For more about our centenary activities, check out Dee’s year in review post, Ali’s reflections on the year, and my Elizabeth Taylor Centenary page which includes links to all the monthly posts and reviews.

Bereavement and Self-Blame in Elizabeth Taylor’s Blaming

I’m pleased to welcome Dee again this Sunday, with her third post about our Elizabeth Taylor Centenary.  This time she’s talking about bereavement, one of the novel’s central themes.  And we’re also pleased to announce the winner of last week’s giveaway!

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If you’ve read any Elizabeth Taylor novels at all, you’ll have noticed the emotional depth behind the domestic details and cool comments. I found Blaming utterly convincing in its portrayal of a bereaved woman suffering intense grief but from a time, class and culture when one just didn’t show one’s feelings.

Amy is, it seems, doubly bereaved as it is soon revealed that she has not only lost her husband but, also fairly recently, her closest female friend, Anna. This, in typical Taylor fashion, isn’t dwelt on but it must have surely had an impact on Amy. She may still have been mourning her friend. Even if not, she had lost the one person she might have shared her grief with after Nick’s death. It could even have added to her irritation with her new friend, Martha. Maybe one reason why Martha seemed lacking to Amy was because she wasn’t Anna.

Martha is keen to be Amy’s confidante in her time of need but Amy is never really comfortable with the relationship. The more Martha does for Amy, the more Amy’s sense of obligation and guilt increases but it doesn’t lead to any real sense of affection.

Amy had never warmed to Martha when they first met on holiday. Perhaps any young woman without an obvious connection to them would have been unwelcome on this trip which seemed an attempt for Amy and Nick to reconnect after Nick’s illness. Martha helps Amy through the practicalities of dealing with the first days after Nick’s death but this will not be a time that Amy will enjoy looking back at. It is possible that Martha’s association with this time makes her even less welcome to Amy.

Amy grieves quietly, does not share the pain she is feeling but appears to see no end to it. When Ernie Pounce advises that “time will heal”, Amy thinks, “It will take more than whatever years I have left to me.”

Eventually Amy is able to follow Gareth’s recommendation and “let the days go by, one by one, to look at every hour as an achievement.”

Martha becomes part of this passing of time and possibly plays a part in Amy’s healing process but if so, Amy is not in a position to appreciate it. The only feelings she manages for Martha continue to be a sense of obligation and a sense of guilt.

Later on, Amy’s grand-daughter Dora does provide some comfort. Amy takes Dora to Nick’s studio to look for paper and also to “lay a few ghosts” as she has not been there since Nick’s death. It seems that Dora gives her the strength to do so. “Time hangs heavily. But not so bad when Dora’s here.”

The moment when Dora says she has “forgotten Grandpa” feels even more poignant when we read in the afterword written by Taylor’s daughter Joanna Kingham, that Taylor herself, writing when terminally ill, was afraid of being forgotten.

Amy does not miss Martha when she leaves the country and we are told that, “there were longer gaps between Amy’s letters to Martha, than Martha’s to her. Sometimes Martha did not wait for the gap to be closed and wrote another.”

When Martha returns, Amy avoids seeing her but finds this increases her feelings of self-blame. When tragedy strikes, Amy first tries to defend herself saying, “I did try” but then admits, “but I didn’t do my best”.

Amy’s feelings of self-blame are exacerbated in an intense scene with Martha’s husband, Simon. This is a scene that manages to combine tragedy and farce in a way that not many could pull off. It’s a horribly painful scenario with feelings of blame and guilt piling up, yet results in a darkly comic moment when Simon starts to find Martha’s grandmother responsible in some way and Amy snaps:

“Oh, surely there’s been enough blaming without dragging in poor old Grannie.”

Finally, she reflects with Ernie:

“Too much blame.”

“Never a thing to be encouraged. Quite useless. Quite unproductive.”

“I agree,” she said “but all the same, I know what it feels like.”

The book ends with the line.

“What else could I have done?” she asked the rain.

I thought this a perfect last line to Taylor’s final book, a book which I found faultless in its structure and where not one word was out of place.

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Congratulations to Kaggsy who won last week’s giveaway prize: A View of The Harbour!  I’ve sent you a message, Karen. I used www.random.org to find a winner.

Elizabeth Taylor’s Centenary Year: What We Read and What We Thought

I’m pleased to welcome Dee again this Sunday, with the second in a series of posts about our Elizabeth Taylor Centenary.  Take it away, Dee!

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So now that we’re nearly at the end of our year of celebrating the other Elizabeth Taylor, have your feelings about her changed? Is she your new favourite author, or were you a fan already? Or perhaps the reads left you cold and you gave up on them and Taylor several months ago! It would be great if we could share here, our thoughts on what the Centenary year meant for us. I, for one, would love to know which shared reads you all took part in and which were your favourites.

But first:  a giveaway!

Leave a comment on this post.  One comment will be chosen at random to receive a 1987 Virago green copy of one of my favourite Taylors, A View of The Harbour (the one with the Lyme Regis cover, pictured). I realise that many of you will already have a copy but do feel free to claim it and pass it on to someone you think would appreciate it.

Now, without further ado, here’s a reminder of the Taylors we read in 2012:

Most of us felt in good hands from the very beginning when we read At Mrs Lippincote’s in January. Libro’s Liz described Taylor’s first novel as “self-assured and polished”. Stuck-in-a-Book Simon found the book to be “thoughtful, clever and perceptive” and also “often very witty.”

Not everyone was won over though. The Captive Reader had tried Taylor unsuccessfully in the past and still wasn’t quite sure how she felt about her. Claire says:  “I am definitely intrigued by Taylor’s style – I find her sharp wit and precise decisions very appealing – but I was unimpressed by her handling of the characters and plot. For a relatively short book, there just seemed to be too much pointless activity and too many extraneous characters.”

Palladian in February left us debating whether we were reading a satire or not. We concluded that the book felt (as LibraryThing member souloftherose put it) “more than ‘just’ a satire or parody” and buriedinprint pointed out that “Palladian never crosses the line into caricature”.  We found much to enjoy in Palladian and had fun teasing out the literary references. However, some felt it was obviously an early work. LT’s Sibyx wrote that it was “a bumpy read, an uncomfortable and imperfect book by a very talented writer finding her way” but “still worth reading”.

In March our appreciation of Taylor grew and A View of The Harbour emerged as a possible favourite. KatieKrug’s LT review reads:

Taylor’s detailing of the everyday, of the misunderstandings, missed opportunities and missing pieces of the puzzle, is razor sharp and illuminative. The writing is clear and beautiful.

Host of the month, Simon got to the heart of Taylor’s writing with this passage:

Taylor describes cause and effect, but leaves a gap between them which could only be filled after intimacy with the characters involved. Familiarity between characters, especially within family units, leads to a sort of shorthand of reactions, where emotions are seldom spoken, and actions considered but endlessly deferred: these emotions and potential actions are either understood intuitively by the observers of the novel, or…missed completely by the oblivious.

In April, we continued to admire Taylor’s writing and found the atmosphere of A Wreath of Roses particularly evocative. Laura noted the “sense of foreboding” that fills the novel. It was a favourite for some of us but others found Richard an unrealistic character, seemingly included to add some non-Taylor like, classic suspense.  LT member romain, who describes herself as “generally a huge Taylor fan” found this one, “long-winded, boring and completely unrealistic”. LT’s Liz1564 would have liked to read more about the more credible characters and thought the whole “stic” with Richard was “fake”.

In May, we speculated about whether A Game of Hide and Seek actually was Taylor’s best novel, as apparently claimed by author and publisher, Nicola Beauman. Kaggsy thought it was the favourite of the three she’d read so far and found herself “caring much more about the fate of the characters than in previous books”. Criggall agreed that it was “her best, or one of her best” and “dense…with what we would now think of as perod detail”.  However, LT’s Kcdavis,  gave up on the book saying, “This is the first Elizabeth Taylor that has been a slog for me… frankly I’m just finding it rather dull.”  Others loved it for its emotional impact. Booksnob described the book as “absolutely heart-breaking, gut-wrenching stuff”.

The Sleeping Beauty in June was described by FleurFisher as not a favourite, “but still a lovely book: beautifully written” and this seemed the opinion of most of us.  Laura and Kaggsy discussed Taylor’s wonderful “bombshell” moments, of which The Sleeping Beauty has some great examples. For example, when Vesey sits quietly writing his wife a postcard, leaving the reader shocked that he has a wife!

In July we were entertained by Angel, a woman who is almost, but not quite, a monster. Equally entertaining was the ensuing discussion started on host Luvvie’s blog on ‘purveyors of twaddle’ and which purveyors or authors of twaddle, we personally indulged in! Angel, itself, was generally considered to be not an absolute favourite but darkly enjoyable. Libro’s Liz memorably compared the book to a “bag of cherry sours”.

In a Summer Season divided opinion in August. Heaven-Ali, Kaggsy and LT’s Sakerfalcon thought it a possible favourite. LT’s Crigall, however, was disappointed, finding the ending “contrived …and unconvincing”.  LT’s Rainpebble said, “It took me some pages to get into this one but I ended up loving it a great deal.”

In September, The Soul of Kindness was enjoyed by host of the month, Heaven-Ali who described the “subtlety of the writing” as “masterly”. Others, however, found something lacking.  Kaggsy thought the characters were “not entirely convincing and actually quite irritating.” Laura found lots to admire but said she would have preferred “a deeper storyline to go with the characterizations.” She summed the book up as: “a novel with an empty heart and marvellous, rich minor characters”.

The Wedding Group in October was another which was thought not to be Taylor’s best but which still had much to recommend it. Laura said, “I didn’t enjoy this as much as some of her earlier ones, but if you’re a Taylor fan you can’t help but like it.”  There was a feeling, in Sibyx’s words, “that the story seems to simply do a fade out”. However despite her reservations, Sibyx noticed a strength in the book that she hadn’t found in the earlier Palladian and wrote “inevitably when one begins to look underneath the surface of a Taylor book, the structure, neat and careful and strong does emerge.”

In November, Mrs Palfrey broke all our hearts and the book was thought to have a more personal and obviously compassionate tone than Taylor’s other works.  Sakerfalcon found it “poignant without being depressing and a fascinating look at aging as seen from both within and without” and Roses Over A Cottage Door’s Darlene said it made her laugh and cry. The book also led to an interesting discussion on host Verity’s blog, about older characters in literature.

And now we’ve reached the end of the year and Taylor’s final novel, Blaming. There will be more on Blaming next week. This week, I would love to know your final thoughts on the Elizabeth Taylor Centenary year and what it meant to you.  Don’t forget, every comment is entered into the giveaway!

Culture Clashes and Generation Gaps in Blaming

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?

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Next Week: Looking back at Elizabeth Taylor’s Centenary Year and a giveaway.

WINNER: The Other Elizabeth Taylor

Thank you to all who entered to win a copy of The Other Elizabeth Taylor, a biography by Nicola Beauman.  I’m pleased to announce the winner, chosen by Random.org:

Mystica!

Entrants responded to the prompt, If you could ask Elizabeth Taylor a question, what would it be?  And Mystica wrote,

I also wonder what she would have thought of the present times. Please count me in for the giveaway and thank you ever so much for making it worldwide.

Mystica, I’ll be in touch via email to work out the details.

Congratulations!  And thanks to all who entered!

Midweek @ Musings: Elizabeth Taylor December Preview

We are rapidly approaching the end of the Elizabeth Taylor Centenary celebration.  It’s been a great year, reading her novels in order of publication, and discussing them with bloggers from the world over (you can catch up on all of this via the previous link).

December’s events will be hosted here, by a very special guest: Dee from the LibraryThing Virago Group (also known as Soupdragon on Librarything).  Here’s Dee to tell you more about how we met, and what we’ve planned for next month …

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Laura has kindly offered me a guest spot on Musings in December, so that I can host the final Elizabeth Taylor Centenary discussions where we will be looking at Blaming, Taylor’s last novel.

Just to introduce myself, I am a forty-something mother of boys, a volunteer coordinator for an advice charity and, of course, a life-long bookworm. I live in East Yorkshire with my husband, two sons and cat.

I “met” Laura through a shared love of reading in general and Virago Modern Classics in particular. I’ve been a VMC fan since my teenage years in the 1980s, when I’d regularly head straight for the rack of green spines at my local library. Elizabeth Taylor, however, did not cross my radar until many years later. Maybe I’d got her confused with the actress, maybe I’d been put off by the unfair descriptions of her as a genteel ladies writer or maybe I’d just never heard of her.

In any case, this all changed in 2008 when I joined the ReadItSwapIt site in the hope of saving money by swapping books instead of buying them. (It didn’t work, of course. I just started swapping books as well as buying them). Perusing the list of titles offered by a swapper after an early Sue Grafton paperback of mine, I noticed a Virago Modern Classic called Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor. ReadItSwapIt handily provides direct links to Librarything for information on each book mentioned. Not only did that link persuade me that yes, I would like to exchange Sue Grafton for Elizabeth Taylor but it was the door to a whole new world. I soon discovered the joys of cataloguing every book I owned on Librarything and, even better, I met a whole community of lovely, like-minded and eloquent readers at the Virago forum. From my earliest days at Librarything, Laura was warm and welcoming and we soon discovered a wide range of shared bookish interests, not only Virago related!

A link on Laura’s profile led me to Musings, the first book blog I’d seen and then to many more. I now have a long list of bookmarked book blogs, should I ever need more literary inspiration!

I am delighted to have the opportunity to host the final Centenary discussions and am really looking forwarding to sharing my thoughts on Blaming and to hearing everyone else’s thoughts.

I’ll just say for starters, that there is all the usual subtlety, understatement, hidden emotional depth and moments of dark, unexpected humour that we have come to expect from Taylor. I also found it to have a particular mood all of its own. Please do join in with December’s read and let us know what you think!

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Enter to win a copy of Nicola Beauman’s biography, The Other Elizabeth Taylor!

Click here for details.  The giveaway ends Friday, November 23 at 5pm US EST.

The Sunday Salon: Elizabeth Taylor Centenary Giveaway!!

I am very happy to be hosting a giveaway today, as part of a  year-long Elizabeth Taylor Centenary Celebration!!

British novelist Elizabeth Taylor was an intensely private person, so very little was known about her life until Nicola Beauman published her biography, The Other Elizabeth Taylor.  It is a comprehensive account of her life and career.  Published after her death and with her husband’s consent, the biography reveals details of her private life and the parallels with her novel are obvious.  The biography is somewhat controversial, in that Taylor’s children  objected to certain themes, but despite that I found it an invaluable companion to Taylor’s novels and short stories.

I read this book back in March, and in my review I wrote, “All too often, biographies are dry, factual accounts.  Nicola Beauman’s thorough research infused this biography with real people and emotion.”  This book is a must-have for any Elizabeth Taylor fan, and makes great reading even if you are just getting to know Taylor and her work.  It would also make a great gift!

Win a copy of The Other Elizabeth Taylor, by Nicola Beauman

One lucky person will receive a copy of The Other Elizabeth Taylor.  It could be you!  Here are the necessary details:

  • The giveaway contest is open until 5:00 PM (US EST) on Friday, November 23, 2012.
  • The giveaway contest is open to anyone in the world.
  • To enter, please leave a comment answering the question:
    • If you could ask Elizabeth Taylor a question, what would it be?
  • The winner will be chosen at random and announced on my blog. I will also notify the winner by email, and request a shipping address for the book.
  • Bonus!  if you’d like to send the book as a gift, I will wrap it and enclose a small card inscribed with your message!

Good luck!!

Comments are welcome, even if you don’t want the book. Just let me know not enter your name into the drawing.

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