Friday, July 22, 2011
The Soul of Kindness by Elizabeth Taylor
'I don't want a cat.'
'But it would be lovely for you. Percy likes cats.'
'Well, Percy's got a cat.'
Flora, in fact, had given it to him and he had been obliged to take it in. In four years, he had found that Flora was not biddable after all. Although as good as gold, she had inconvenient plans for other people's pleasure, and ideas differing from her own she was not able to imagine.
During the early pages of The Soul of Kindness it is tempting to imagine Flora surrounded by a glowing halo of light, floating just above the ground so as to avoid the merest scuff on her shoes. The world as she sees it is just about perfect and full of amiable people who are all the better for knowing her. But as the story moves along you realize that Flora leaves a wake of disappointed, confused and lonely people who fall victim to her fanciful ideas or well-meant interfering.
Brushing aside her glistening tears Flora writes her mother a note after changing out of her wedding dress. Instead of reassuring her mother that a strong bond still exists between them, Flora manages to imply that the task of motherhood is now over leaving Mrs Secretan feeling empty and useless. Flora's numerous attempts to bring together a female friend with a man who is clearly homosexual paints a picture of ignorance which is far from blissful. And at her worst, Flora is relentless at building the confidence of a young man, who hangs on her every word, in his ability as an actor with devastating results.
While the reader is busy watching Flora create her idyllic world, Elizabeth Taylor is masterfully painting a dark side to Flora. Such as the resentment when things don't go her way, taking to her bed as a way of drawing people to her, childish sulking and ignoring news which doesn't please her.
Taylor's writing and skills of observation are as supreme as ever in this novel. Discovering in Nicola Beauman's biography The Other Elizabeth Taylor that she would sit in her local pub with pen and notebook at hand to people watch, I smiled when she described a character on page 151.
'...a more than middle-aged man, jauntily dressed, in a navy-blue blazer heavily badged, and shoes with pointed toes, was also sitting alone. He covered his mouth with one hand, and with the other worked with a pick among his gold or rotting teeth, eyeing every woman who came in.'
Ugh! But I'm quite convinced this fellow actually existed and unknowingly sat down within viewing distance of Elizabeth Taylor while she jotted down the details of his very public display of dental hygiene. Other details such as nurses removing flowers from hospital rooms at night and that television sets needed to warm up before the picture came on were charming reminders of what things were like when I was a child but forgotten about. And I really must read von Arnim's Elizabeth and her German Garden as Taylor had Flora's mother reading it 'for the umpteenth time'.
Others have mentioned that The Soul of Kindness would have been better served as a short story or novella and I would agree. At times the pace did seem to stall ever so slightly. But having said that, once I reached the ending and mulled over the brilliant characterization my affection for the story increased and I could have happily turned back to the first page.