BLAMING by Elizabeth Taylor (1976)
Encapsulate the book in one sentence?
Her husband’s sudden death on a cruise liner leaves Amy stranded in Turkey and dependent upon the friendship of brash American novelist Martha, who Amy ends up letting down horribly.
When did I buy it? Where and why did I buy it?
It was a present, a couple of Christmases ago.
Why is it something you stashed away and hoarded?
I always love reading Elizabeth Taylor. I had a bit of a run on her a number of years ago, galloping through the novels and story collections – and perhaps this got set aside in the wake of that. Also, I think I was suffering a little from the delusion that there would be no surprises in another Elizabeth. Or perhaps I was saving it up – for the day I next fancied total immersion in that cool, exact prose.
What year or edition?
It’s one of the recent-ish Virago reprints from 2007, with these sort of perfume ad type photos on the cover. I much prefer the old green Viragos with contemporaneous paintings of oblique relevance on the front. These are a bit generic, and feel as if the designers haven’t actually read what they’re repackaging…
What’s your verdict?
Taylor keeps us in the precise moment, all the time. The clock ticks and we sit with her characters in their agonizing, self-serving silences. And as a reader you fall in love with everyone – even though many of them are just snobbish and awful. This one in particular features characters who would never dream of saying what they really think; who do the socially conventional thing – but are actually motivated by sheer selfish whim. The tragedies here come about because friends or relations simply can’t be arsed to care enough, and then find a convenient way to excuse themselves. It’s a quietly frightening read.
Did you finish it? Did it work for you?
Every page. Even though I’m yelling at the characters and throwing the book across the room, I’m enthralled and upset and laughing at their horribleness.
What genre would you say it is?
Polite mortification and quiet brutality. In other words – the British middle class novel of manners.
What surprises did it hold – if any?
Sudden death! Twice in one book. Both off-stage. The second one was particularly shocking.
What scene will stay with you? What character will stay with you?
I loved Martha’s day out – a taxi ride through Hyde Park – for her birthday. With Amy mithering inwardly about the expense and the Christmas lights in Kensington when they walk back home. It’s an intensely atmospheric novel – conjuring up London in the 1970s, and especially the rather luxurious homes of Amy and her son, compared with the cramped flat where Martha lives.
Have you read anything else by this author? Or anything this book reminds you of?
It reminds me of all the other Elizabeth Taylor stories and novels I’ve read. Though I think of her belonging to the 1950s, this was her last, from the mid-1970s, and it does feel a little more – for want of a better word – hip. Perhaps it’s a little sadder and more savage. The heroine is less forgivable and it’s altogether less comic than I’d have expected.
What will you do with this copy now?
I think this is one I could pass along to someone I think should read it. It’s a good warning, I think, against selfishly wriggling out of the attention and empathy you owe to your friends. Not that I’d ever give anyone a book because I thought it contained a message they should heed…! I’d give it them because I thought it was a wonderful piece of writing, which it is.
Is it available today?
Yes. For a long time it was hard to get hold of Elizabeth Taylor’s books. At one point, most of the ‘lost’ twentieth century women writers brought back into print were modernists, postmodernists, experimentalists of all kinds. Taylor was dismissed as simply a purveyor of domestic realism for much too long. Happily, she seems to be part of the canon of twentieth century classics now and her books are widely available.
Give me a good quote:
“‘Some young woman very kindly left the ship with her to look after her on the way back,’ he told Gareth.
‘I don’t really know her,’ Amy said. Martha was now part of the bad dream.”