A View of the Harbour, by Elizabeth Taylor, was my classics club spin pick this time around. I think Taylor gets classed with generic middlebrow female writers of the mid 20th century, which does her a bit of a disservice in my view. The only other Taylor novel I’ve read is Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, a much later work than this, and I thought it was absolutely stunning. This is as well – just a brilliantly-observed story about a few ordinary people doing ordinary things. I sometimes joke that my favourite genre is “sad quiet books where nothing happens, but very beautifully” and this absolutely falls within that category.
The first thing that struck me, almost from the first page, was the realisation of the setting. It’s set just after WWII in the run-down coastal village of Newby. I had always thought of the faded seaside town as a late 20th century phenonmenon, after package holidays and cheap flights made holidaying in the sunshine so much easier, but this novel – published in 1947 – captured the feeling perfectly. I don’t know if the particular Newby in the novel is real – there are more than half a dozen Newbys in the north of England, and in my brief perusal of Wikipedia it didn’t seem that any of them are coastal – but it is certainly believable as a seaside town in decline. I think that when non-Brits read books that are advertised as having a “very English” setting, they want country houses and Oxford, but this is much more like the England that most of us know. Kent and East Sussex, lands of my forebears, are both packed with towns like this. I spent lots of time in towns like this as a child – Folkestone, Hastings, Bexhill, Margate, Ramsgate – and I thought it was perfectly observed. Early on in the novel, amateur painter Bertram is trying to draw the view, and lists the buildings: “the largest stone house at one end of the row, the pub, the Mimosa Fish Café, the second-hand clothes shop, the Fun Fair, the Seamen’s Mission, the Waxworks, the lifeboat house”. Almost the whole plot takes place in this handful of buildings clustered around the harbour, and you really get the sense of the village having been abandoned by the rapid changes that are happening elsewhere.
To the men on the boats the harbour was at first dingy and familiar, a row of buildings, shops, café, pub, with peeling plaster of apricot and sky-blue; then as the boats steered purposefully from the harbour-mouth to sea, houses rose up in tiers, the church tower extricated itself from the roofs, the lettering on the shops faded and the sordid became picturesque.
The fading village is mirrored in the character of Mrs Bracey, an older woman (though not that much older – her daughters seem to be in their late teens), who alternates throughout the novel between telling bawdy stories, complaining that no-one brings her news of the outside world any more, gossiping about her neighbours – and lying helplessly in her bed, taking rattling ineffective breaths and being much iller than anyone other than the doctor really believes. She’s full of stories about the good old days when outsiders still came regularly over the summer, and even before that, when it was a fishing village rather than a tourist one – while simultaneously resenting and gossiping about the occasional visitor who does come. Mrs Bracey wants her daughters to supply her with a view of the outside world, while running the laundry she’s no longer well enough to manage, and resents any attempt on their part to break away. In this she again reflects the harbour itself – a small, insular world with a tight grip on its inhabitants. I think Mrs Bracey is a real triumph of this novel. It’s also worth noting that, unlike a lot of the middle class writers from this time, Taylor creates complex and interesting working class characters – not just Mrs Bracey herself, but her daughters, and the young lad who lodges with them; all of them have vivid internal lives and none of them is remotely stereotyped.
It’s difficult for me to give a sense of the plot, because it’s so tied up with the characters and setting, and on its own it sounds small and uninteresting – teenagers growing up, a young widow mourning her husband, two neighbours trying to conceal an affair, a novelist struggling to balance her home life with her working life. It’s the type of book that would have to be pitch perfect for me to enjoy it, because it’s true that not a lot happens – but it is pitch perfect. Taylor just excels at characterisation – I thought it in Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont and again here – and every single character in this novel comes right off the page. I wasn’t rushing to pick it up – it’s not that sort of book – but when I did pick it up I often sat up past my normal bedtime reading, not because I wanted to see the next piece of the story but because I wanted more time in the world Taylor had created.
There is a quiet sort of despair hanging about this novel. Even the characters who might be on course for a happy ending on the last page don’t seem like they’ll be happy indefinitely, and I don’t think I could take reading too much Taylor in one go for this reason. Her writing is beautiful, though, and occasionally very funny amidst the slow decline of Mrs Bracey and the village around her. This is one of her earliest novels, and Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont was the last published before her death; it was wonderful to see that her skill was already so much on display at this point. Taylor wrote ten other novels and several short story collections, which is a tremendous treat – so often I discover a new favourite writer from this period only to discover that they only ever published one or two novels – I really look forward to working my way through all of them. Also, this review represents an important success story – the first time I’ve ever completed a Classics Club Spin – and that is a testament to how much I absolutely loved this novel.