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There are some books and writers that I love so much that I buttonhole people and thrust the works into their hands, insisting that they will like them, and irritatingly checking up on them later. Elizabeth Taylor is one such writer, and The Soul of Kindness a work of brilliance, so prepare to be buttonholed.
What I love about this novel is how subversive it is. It starts with a wedding, and in the very first paragraph the picture of ‘happy ever after’ begins to be undermined:
“Towards the end of the bridegroom’s speech, the bride turned aside and began to throw crumbs of wedding cake through an opening in the marquee to the doves outside. She did so with gentle absorption, and more doves came down from their wooden houses above the stables. Although she had caused a little rustle of amusement among the guests, she did not know it: her husband was embarrassed by her behaviour and thought it early in their married life to be so; but she did not know that either.”
What a great opening! Especially for a reviewer – there are spoilers galore here, so I’m absolved from criticism for saying that the heroine’s self-absorption is the mainspring of the the plot. Beautiful, gentle, tall, blonde Flora is a magnet for love and sympathy – the miracle is that, so blessed with beauty and worship, she is so good, not spoiled at all. Her happiness and good fortune overflow to the extent that she wants to offer some of it to those around her, and her kindness is legendary. A pet cat here, badgering a contented couple into marriage there, encouragement of a career in acting … . Such is Flora’s magnetism that no-one can resist this kindness. But it is a product of Flora’s carefully constructed inner world, and whenever someone tries to shake it, her disappointment has everyone hastening to pull the covers back over the impending ruin of her composure. Meanwhile, those around her – husband, mother, friends – suffer in (relative) silence, spare her their real anxieties and fears, and help each other when they can, without invoking the pain of involving her. Whether the characters survive her intentions for them depends on how strong a sense of self they have, and only one, an outsider to her world, has the detachment needed to challenge her. As ever, I had better stop there, before I give too much away.
One of the attractions of this novel is that it speculatively explores the premise of Jane Austen’s Emma, but taking it further – what if Emma had not been wise as well as indulged? What if her character were fixed, with her sense of her own cleverness and her instinct to meddle? What if her journey had not been towards maturity and empathy? There is every chance that she would have been Flora. The Soul of Kindness is not a re-write, though there are parallels (I mentioned in my Hatchet Job Week piece on Jane Austen sequels and prequels that this novel echoed Emma in many ways, and I am grateful to one of the commenters for pointing out the happy reference in the very first paragraph to wedding cake, which sets off the chase for clues in a very satisfactory manner).
I’ve read and re-read this novel over the years, but this time around, I noticed just how sharp Elizabeth Taylor’s satire is, just how venomous she is towards Flora. Throughout the novel, she lays the trail in our minds that Flora is a monster, and sooner or later, one of those surrounding her is going to suffer by her. The mystery is – which one shall it be? Or will there be more? In the very last page of the novel, another of her victims is revealed ….. .
There are many other pleasures to be found in this novel; in particular, Elizabeth Taylor has a wonderful skill in describing mundane landscape. I felt I could walk a street in St John’s Wood, picture a dainty North London teashop (complete with some Victoria Wood-like eavesdroppings), and the down-at-heel streets and slightly squalid pub in London SE. In contrast, Flora’s childhood home in a country village has an appropriately fairytale aura – a setting for a pampered upbringing. Flora and Emma – what a difference.
Virago Press has recently reissued this novel (I feel the need to tell you how much I loathe the cover – if you do too, please don’t be put off), along with Elizabeth Taylor’s other works (read them – Flora-like, I INSIST you will love them). This is the version in print, and it has an introduction by Philip Hensher, I see. I’ve re-read my trusty 1960s second-hand copy, so I do not know what he has to say. I think I’d encourage you to read the novel first, and allow it to surprise and delight you with the exuberance of its writing and its malicious glee in portraying a gorgeous monster, then find out what he has to tell you – although that’s a bit unfair, as if you’ve read this far you’ll know what I have to say about it!
Elizabeth Taylor: The Soul Of Kindness. Virago, 2010 (first published 1964). 240pp
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