“Are you any happier here now, love?” When she could not answer, he sighed.
“Oh, I am hopeless!” she said impulsively. “I find it so difficult to be happy. I wish it were not so. Are you happy?”
“Yes, on the whole, I am very happy. I suppose this life suits me, interests me.”
“What would interest me, suit me, I don’t know. I daresay I want life to always be pleasure – sitting in the sun, drinking.”
“Pleasure is not happiness.”
“No.” But she still saw herself beneath a striped awning, at the edge of some pavement, a market square, and its cobble-stones full of shadows and high lights like a tubful of suds. On the iron table was a glass still clouded with some frosted drink, there was the smell of sun-baked foreign newsprint; warmth, leisure, delight, relaxation, the frosted drink an illumination of contentment at the back of her head; across the table a shadow leaned forward and laid a hand over her hand on the iron table.
Elizabeth Taylor’s At Mrs. Lippincote’s is a treasure, a first novel (written in 1945) that sparkles with insight, wit, and a hint of melancholy.
Julia is married to Roddy, a lieutenant in the RAF who is stationed at a base somewhere in the south of England during WWII. They have one son, Oliver, and they also live with Roddy’s cousin Eleanor, who is recovering from an alluded-to nervous breakdown. They’re renting a furnished home from Mrs. Lippincote, and Julia doesn’t hesitate to explore the drawers and cabinets, speculating about the photographs and mementos she finds. Eleanor is somewhat in love with Roddy and silently resentful of Julia, whom she suspects is not the wife that she feels Roddy deserves. Roddy is what you’d expect an RAF pilot from the 1940s to be – solid, conventional, kind of obtuse, and definitely not seeing Julia for who she really is or wants to be.
Julia and Oliver have an absolutely adorable relationship. Oliver is quite precocious, a voracious reader with a tremendous imagination who for the first part of the book is ill and misses quite a bit of school. (The scene where he asks where babies come from is hilarious.) Julia frets over Oliver as the mother of an only child would (I definitely identified with this!)
Lying back in her chair, she watched Oliver’s thin hands dealing out the cards with slow deliberation. “Oh God, make him fat!” she prayed. “Please God, if only you would, I’d believe in you. For ever and ever, amen.” As she picked up her bundle of cards, her mouth smiled, but her eyes flashed and swam with tears.
We follow Julia as she strikes up a friendship (mild flirtation?) with Roddy’s Wing Commander, an intellectual man who shares Julia’s interest in the Brontë sisters. (He seems to observe Julia more shrewdly than her husband does.) She also goes out occasionally for a walk and ends up chatting with a Mr. Taylor, an old acquaintance from their pre-war London days who is not physically or mentally well. They have some interesting conversations but nothing untoward. However, Roddy is hostile to him and doesn’t like Julia going out by herself at night. He expects her to be more conventional and more attentive to his needs.
She exasperated him. Society necessarily has a great many little rules, especially relating to the behaviour of women. One accepted them and life ran smoothly and without embarrassment, or as far as that is possible where there are two sexes. Without the little rules, everything became queer and unsafe.
Julia is a fascinating character – she is more direct and more moody than Roddy would like her to be and I love her for it. She seemed authentic to me. She adored her child but felt stifled in her role as wife and mother. She seemed to long for intelligent conversation and more freedom. She sees Roddy much more clearly than he ever sees her, but she seems resigned to that role. Perhaps she will lobby Roddy for more freedom, perhaps they will part… the ending is ambiguous, but I feel a strength coming from Julia for her future days.
This novel was a real treat to read. This is an author that I suspect I am going to thoroughly enjoy getting to know. She reminds me a bit of my beloved Barbara Pym, only more acerbic and a bit edgier. I’m delighted to have finally discovered Elizabeth Taylor’s writing – and I’ve got THIRTEEN more of her novels to read! Merry Christmas to me!
And Merry Christmas to all my blogger friends who celebrate, and if you have time off from work in the coming days, may your reading time be plentiful and satisfying!