“You insinuate yourself into people’s lives,” Tory, one of the main characters in British novelist Elizabeth Taylor’s A View of the Harbour (1947; New York Review Books, June 2015) throws at Bertram, a retired Royal Navy officer turned painter — though “not much of an artist, in spite of having found a very good way of painting waves with tops folded over whitely” — who has come to stay for the winter in the seemingly forgotten seaside town of Newby. Bertram’s response to Tory’s accusation is: “Yes, . . . they will all remember me.” But by what acts of insinuation, subtle or overt, do we insinuate ourselves into other people’s lives so as to not be forgotten, so as to temporarily extinguish our mortal fears, thinking that we can somehow live forever? By what do we remember people — both those with whom we are on intimate terms and those whose paths cross ours in more ephemeral terms — when we scarcely know ourselves? Lily Briscoe reflects on similar questions in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927): “Who knows what we are, what we feel? Who knows even at the moment of intimacy, This is knowledge?” Mirroring this, Tory confronts her novelist friend, Beth, with the following: “You have a secret life”; to which Beth responds matter-of-factly: “We all have.”
These are not new themes to readers familiar with Taylor’s novels, nor are they uncharacteristic of the genre of ars poetica within which she positions A View of the Harbour’s considerations of the interaction between art and life, fiction and truth, intimacy and betrayal, and the myriad masks we all wear in our dealings with others — but especially with ourselves. A View of the Harbour takes on similar thematic concerns to A Wreath of Roses (1949), Taylor’s undeniable masterpiece alongside the posthumously published Blaming (1976), while casting a much wider net. Indeed, it is likely the most populated of Taylor’s novels in terms of main characters: whereas Wreath focuses on more than the two or three primary protagonists that feature in most of her novels (Wreath begins with three, and then extends to finally encompass six), Harbour extends further to embrace the intersecting lives of a whole seaside town in thrall to the past.
The first chapter of Harbour alone is conducted with enviable skill. Here, with impressive strokes, Taylor paints — almost literally — the portrait of an English town still shaking off the weight of the Second World War (“there had been a war on”) in a symphonic register so that when one finishes the first chapter, one feels that one has not only been introduced to all of the main players in a large chamber piece, but that one has heard the orchestra tuning up in the pit below. While each individual is dealing alone with his or her own demons, the ways in which the individual’s attempts to move past (or succumb to) his or her very singular battles coincide with and brush up against the other members of the community is Taylor’s primary focus in this novel. For how can we dwell alone, seeking truth or insight about our highly individualized brand of chaos, when we are continually brought up against the chaoses others house within them? How can we ever really know just what is our own predicament when our lives are so inextricably entwined with those with whom we surround ourselves, whether wittingly or unwittingly?
Harbour’s characters, like all of Taylor’s characters, are deeply drawn, deeply flawed, and deeply human. There is Bertram, with whom we begin, promising to complete a painting of the view of Newby’s harbor for the reclusive Mr. Pallister, proprietor of the Anchor, the local pub and inn; there is Tory (arguably the main character), a recently divorced mother who is having an affair with her best friend’s physician husband, Robert; there is Beth, Tory’s cuckolded friend, who is a novelist balancing art and the demands of life, especially marital life with Robert and her children; there is Prudence, Beth’s oldest daughter, whose health requires a more sedentary life than she would prefer, and who laments: “I am twenty . . . and I have never been kissed in love!”; there is Mrs. Bracey, an invalid confined to her bed who lives vicariously and voyeuristically through her two daughters’ lives, particularly Iris who works at the Anchor; and there is the young war widow Lily Wilson who is trying to rid herself from the clutches of the past through any means necessary — drinking alone in the Anchor, borrowing sensation novels from the local library — while trying to survive each night among historical figures cast in wax that remind her of all she has lost: “they stood grouped there, unmoving, eyes glittering as the lighthouse beam winked upon them, their arms crooked unnaturally or knees flexed slightly in everlasting informality.”
Harbour is atypical in Taylor’s oeuvre in that the novel’s action does not take place in a village in Buckinghamshire — the setting for most of Taylor’s novels — but rather in the seaside town of Newby. The only other novel of Taylor’s set primarily beside the sea is her later novel, The Sleeping Beauty (1953), an even more claustrophobic and uncanny work than Harbour. Although Newby is not geographically positioned within Buckinghamshire as far as facts go, its placement by the sea suggests it is an amalgam of Newby, Hambleton in North Yorkshire, and Buckinghamshire. (Tory’s day trip to London, for instance, is not greeted with the shock a railway journey from Yorkshire would have incited, but treated as the norm much as it would in Buckinghamshire, given its proximity to London.)
And just as the setting of Harbour is singular, so, too, is the novel’s technique and structure wherein a large cast of characters are all tethered to, just as they circle around, the town’s central harbor, and, more importantly, its symbolical lighthouse: “The lighthouse was the pivot, and the harbour buildings, the wall, the sea were continually shifting about it, re-grouping, so that it was seldom seen against the same background.” Given the centrality of the harbor and the lighthouse to Harbour, it is not surprising that critical parallels have been drawn between Taylor’s work and Woolf’s own seminal text on artistry and intimacy, To the Lighthouse. As Roxana Robinson notes: “Taylor uses her diamantine prose to create a narrative mosaic with a shifting point of view, as Woolf did in To the Lighthouse, and Beth’s internal questions about writing echo Woolf’s musing catechisms about the creative process.”
In many ways, Harbour is a synthesis of To the Lighthouse as well as The Waves (1931), harking back to Woolf’s work while forging ahead with its own unique voice, its own rhythms, pulsations, and nuances. Because Taylor is sadly overlooked — and has only recently begun to be considered on her own terms — it is perhaps too easy to draw stylistic comparisons to the likes of Jane Austen, Elizabeth Bowen, Barbara Pym, Rose Macaulay, along with Woolf. However, to say that Taylor writes like Woolf or any of these other figures would do a critical disservice to her remarkable prose style as well as the bleak but always humane visions of life offered in her fiction. With that said, the critical parallels to Woolf’s work — e.g., the similarities in structure but not treatment in both Harbour and To the Lighthouse, the echo of six characters’ quests for self-knowledge in The Waves as at least a starting paradigm for Taylor’s A Wreath of Roses — are certainly present in Taylor’s, but more as an homage, a mid-century departure from Woolf’s pioneering modernist prose. While Taylor’s themes mirror Woolf’s, her treatment argues that new kinds of fiction and new modes of storytelling are needed for post-war Britain, especially in considering family ties, domestic intimacy, and how the social always informs the personal.
Robinson is indeed correct, though, in her view that Taylor’s Harbour alludes to Woolf’s To the Lighthouse in ways far too explicit to be overlooked. Woolf famously stated that writing her novel allowed her to lay to rest the memory of her parents, especially her mother:
I used to think of him and mother daily; but writing the Lighthouse laid them in my mind. . . . I suppose that I did for myself what psycho-analysts do for their patients. I expressed some very long felt and deeply felt emotion. And in expressing it I explained it and then laid it to rest. (Diary 28 Nov 1928; “A Sketch of the Past”)
Similarly, the large cast of characters in Taylor’s novel are grappling with their respective pasts, but in less fictively and psychologically productive ways than Woolf’s feat above. One of the major problems with comparing Taylor’s work to that of someone like Austen is belied by Taylor’s tone: while Taylor makes great use of free indirect discourse, satire, and irony like Austen, and while her focus is on the same social class (the educated bourgeoisie), Taylor’s prose is much darker than Austen’s. While she makes great use of comedy, critical comparisons to Austen serve as severe detriments to Taylor’s much bleaker outlook on life, as well as her revisions of Freudian models of individual psychology. Harriet and Vesey’s childhood love in A Game of Hide and Seek (1951), for example, does serve as social commentary in an Austenian sense, but the theme of love causes Game to ruminate obsessively about betrayal, infidelity, and intense pathos rather than gush poetically about the power of lifelong devotion. As Tory phrases it in Harbour: “the course of true love never does run smooth.” All of Taylor’s characters are in states of deep pathos; but only a few of them are ever granted full reprieve from it.
Apart from the theme of exorcising oneself from one’s past, or at least attempting to do so, Harbour and To the Lighthouse speak to one another on a more fundamental level in each texts’ exploration of art and life. In To the Lighthouse, painter Lily Briscoe grapples simultaneously with the memory of Mrs. Ramsay, the outwardly perfect wife and mother, and also with painting; in reflecting on the creative process, Lily encounters
this formidable ancient enemy of hers — this other thing, this truth, this reality . . . before she exchanged the fluidity of life for the concentration of painting. . . . Certainly she was losing consciousness of outer things. And as she lost consciousness of outer things, and her name and her personality and her appearance, and whether Mr. Carmichael was there or not, her mind kept throwing up from its depths, scenes, and names, and sayings, and memories and ideas, like a fountain spurting over that glaring, hideously difficult white space, while she modelled it with greens and blues.
In Harbour, we encounter two artists: the painter Bertram and the novelist Beth, both of whose attempts to reconcile the demands of life with the demands of art comprise the major tension in the novel. After Tory accuses Bertram of insinuating himself into the lives of others, the following exchange occurs:
“I am a painter,” he suddenly said to Tory, who had been thinking of her husband.
“A real painter?” she asked, looking up.
That was the question. All at once he felt like telling her the truth as he glimpsed it at that moment, that he was not a painter and never would be, that he would have no immortality, leave nothing to linger after him, had no hope of greatness, day-dreamed merely, frittered time away, let curiosity beguile him. But he could not bear the truth, even for a second, not for himself, still less to share.
Although he is the only one present who is aware of “the pulse of the lighthouse,” of the microcosmic importance of “the view of the harbour,” Bertram exists in a constant state of paralysis and guilt: he mulls over his painting rather than actually taking brush to canvas, so that even Tory remarks: “For a painter, you do very little painting.” And rather than use his role as outsider to his artistic advantage, Bertram chastises himself with: “I am a stranger. I have no right to know.”
In Beth’s case, not only does she accuse herself of being a bad mother — yet, curiously, never questioning her role as wife, in spite of Tory and Robert’s betrayal — but also she is forced to acknowledge that a writer can be dangerously close to being a parasite, which Taylor considers to more exaggerated effect in her novel Angel (1957). Beth uses at least one incident from Tory’s personal life as inspiration for fiction, creating a tension between the two women despite being their being the “dearest [of] friend[s] with whom there has been since childhood only clarity and candour and intimacy.”
Beth’s reflections on life and art cause Taylor to consider the myriad anxieties that plague women writers: “Funny how inferior novelists feel — from Jane Austen down,” Robert remarks to his novelist wife, which results in Beth’s reflections below:
“The artfulness of men,” she thought. “They implant in us, foster in us, instincts which it is to their advantage for us to have, and which, in the end, we feel shame at not possessing.” She opened her eyes and glared with scorn at a middle-aged man reading a newspaper.
“A man like that,” she thought, “a worthless creature, obviously, yet so long has his kind lorded it that I (who, if only I could have been ruthless and single-minded about my work as men are, could have been a great writer) feel slightly guilty at not being back at the kitchen-sink.”
In Taylor’s world, everyone deals not only with their own existential crises, but with those questions that plague those whom they encounter in daily life. What makes Beth’s predicament or Bertram’s paralysis singular, individual? What distinguishes their pursuits from the voyeuristic ones of the envious Mrs. Brace, who condemns the world into which she can no longer venture while at the same time lamenting the fact that she is no longer a part of it? In what ways are we all guilty of affecting the grief, the violence, the happiness of those in our various communities or those with whom we live?
While there would perhaps be no Taylor were it not for Woolf, it is high time that Taylor is taken on her own terms and reclaimed as a major British novelist; such a sea change is indeed happening now in literary culture, and hopefully this results in Taylor gaining even wider recognition for her ingenuity, her cleverness, and her commitment to ushering literary fiction’s potential for a new radicalism and its countless personal and social potentials into post-war Britain. For those new to Taylor’s oeuvre, A View of the Harbour may well be a good place to begin to immerse oneself in a world populated by people not so very different from ourselves: those who are battling the ineluctable legacy of the past while poised on the threshold of an unknown, anxiety-inducing future — a precarious position into which, as Bertram observes, “Life breaks through.”
K. Thomas Kahn‘s work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, The Quarterly Conversation, Music & Literature, Open Letters Monthly, Berfrois, Bookslut, Numéro Cinq, and other venues. He is Reviews Editor for 3:AM Magazine and Words without Borders.