5 September 2016

The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor

Virago reissued several of Elizabeth Taylor's novels in 2012 to mark the centenary of her birth.  I bought most of them.  The Sleeping Beauty, with an introduction by David Baddiel, was the novel I chose to save for last.  Partly because there's something delectable about a story waiting to be discovered...and, less poetically, it was the story that appealed least.  The first strike against it - the main character is named Vinny.  To have named this character Vincent would have been a redemption but Elizabeth Taylor knew exactly what she was doing.

Published in 1953, the story begins with Vinny arriving at Isabella's house in the seaside town of Seething.  Their friendship began while waiting in a queue to donate blood during the war.  Being the sort of man who thrives on being a saviour to women in their moment of need, Isabella was instantly enamoured by Vinny's attentive tucking in of her cot blanket.  Isabella's husband, a Member of Parliament, realized he was at school with his wife's recent acquaintance but the friendship was kept at a distance through Christmas cards.

Now recently bereaved, Isabella welcomes Vinny and his consoling manner.  Her son Laurence watches with disdain which doesn't go unnoticed.

'Laurence continued to be exclusive for the rest of the evening, so that his act of drawing the curtains became symbolic to Vinny, who seldom in his life had been up against just such an unrelaxed dislike in a person.  Other people, thinking: 'We cannot all take to one another.' would turn from or return the antagonism; but Vinny did not: he grieved.  It was his business to be loved - a mission created afresh with everyone he met - and he was always conscious of another's coldness.  Uneasily, he would be aware.  He could not work his magic.'

Elizabeth Taylor brilliantly constructs a relationship triangle with Isabella imagining that Vinny is there to sweep her off her feet while Vinny becomes entranced by a woman he sees walking along the beach in the evening.  The icing on the cake, so to speak, is that years ago, Vinny married a woman who told him she was carrying his child.  The marriage was kept a secret, even from Vinny's mother who is yet another brilliant example of character development.  Demanding the respect she feels due as matriarch of the family she once demanded her husband stand upon her arrival in a tent.  The image is a comic one in spite of the fact that Mrs Tumulty's way of gaining respect is tyrannical.  She's also a bit gauche.

'Isabella was quite aware of the curious glances people gave Mrs Tumulty, whose rusty black skirt trailed unevenly above lavender wool stockings.  Dust lay in the folds of her felt hat, which every year she remodelled for the Spring, adding a cockade, or cutting away pieces of the brim.  This year, she had stitched on a piece of glacé black ribbon and a bunch of rag violets.'

Rippling out from the story's basic outline are characters drawn with Elizabeth Taylor's expert skills of detailed observation.  Isabella thrived on being married to a man of distinction but pulls at her foundation garments when no one is looking, plays the horses with her friend, beats cake batter while fag ash falls into the bowl, and mulls over the slimming aspect of stoles while eating meringues.  The daily, Mrs Dickens, polishes the silver while 'Her sad and colourless face was reflected in the spoons, first wide, then long...'.

The mysterious woman that Vinnie falls in love with is named Emily.  Emily lives with her sister Rose who is a martyr to just about everything.  Under somewhat hazy circumstances, Emily was in a car accident with her brother-in-law who was killed.  Emily's face is horribly disfigured despite plastic surgery.  Together, Rose and Emily eke out a living by taking in paying guests during the summer despite a stratospheric level of passive-aggression.

'Even as a girl she had had her splitting heads, allergies, indispositions and the perennial travel-sickness.  To retaliate, Emily herself had assumed an exaggerated robustness.  Because Rose finicked with her food, Emily ate everything - once, standing at a stall in the street, ate jellied eels, the skin as well - and had for a while kept as a pet a grass-snake, overcoming her revulsion as Rose could not.'

While there's much to amuse as this relationship roundabout plays out, I couldn't help feeling sorry for Isabella.  She has lost her husband in a tragedy, her son falls in love with someone she perceives to be unsuitable, she's humiliated by Vinnie, and her home is eventually put up for auction.  The ending isn't neatly tied up in a bow but there's little to signal a 'happily ever after' as evidenced by rotting fruit, discarded items, and knitting cast aside.

The Sleeping Beauty isn't my favourite novel by Elizabeth Taylor but there is much to enjoy in the writing.  I didn't especially care what happened to most of the characters in this story but the honesty in the situations was sincere.  I was left feeling as though the author had bared a bit of her soul in the telling and that's not a bad consolation prize.


The Young Menage by Harold Harvey (1932)

3 comments:

  1. I thought I'd read all Elizabeth Taylor's novels but I haven't read this one. It sounds great - I must try to get a copy.

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  2. I have to echo what Harriet says above. Which I find odd since I know the storyline and some of the character names but it doesn't show up as having been added to my collection on Goodreads. Perhaps I shall now locate a copy via Abe Books, or Awesome. Thanks for the précis of it.

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  3. I must go back and read that again. It was the second ET that I ever read and it was the one that got me hooked. (Angel was the first, but it's so different from the others that somehow it doesn't count.)

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