Friday, July 22, 2011

The Soul of Kindness by Elizabeth Taylor

'Why don't you have a cat?' Flora asked.
'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.


  1. I was in London last weekend and popped over to Persphone books on Saturday morning hoping to buy Beauman's biography of Taylor. Sadly the shop was shut! Wasn't meant to be ...

  2. This sounds very good indeed. I'm about due for another Taylor and I've decided this will be the one! Thanks for the excellent review.

  3. I love it when characters in a book are reading other books--and they tell you what it is. Always makes me curious, too! You're whizzing through ET's books--I need to pick up another one sometime soon....Hope all is well with you, and you're not sweltering too much up there, too! :)

  4. Oh I loved this one. Very keen to start another...if only I could get through the to-read pile beside my bed! K x

  5. Nicola, Oh no! I wonder if someone was just nipping to a nearby shop for buns? I'm not making that up, I've heard it happens! Oh well, don't give have to read this book!

    Laura, I'm trying so hard not to gobble them all up in one summer. Looking forward to reading what you think of this one once you get to it...enjoy!

    Danielle, We are as miserable as anything! No rain for a month, sweating in high humidity, barely able to breathe, the grass is brown and Deacon doesn't understand why we can't be outside all day. Poor boy! Other than that, things are just fine, thanks for asking!

    Kristina, Elizabeth Taylor was simply stunning at her craft and why she is not a household name I will never know. Since her works are finite we have to eke them out ever so carefully so get to that stack beside your bed first!

  6. We have the dull damp weather you crave ... it's dull today, but without rain, and windy enough to dry washing on the line.
    Not yet read a Taylor, have tried several times and failed, but Eliz and her German Garden is a treat!
    And I, too, love it when characters in books read other novels which I then attempt to try ... I remember many, many years ago (1957 to be precise!) when I was just a girl (that dates me, har, har!) I read the 2nd Rosamunde Pilcher novel. You won't find it listed anywhere, it was called simply APRIL. In it the young April has to take a train journey from London to Cornwall and for it she chooses a book: John Buchan's The Island of Sheep. I bought the book but it's still on the shelf, unread!

  7. galant, Dull damp weather...yes please! R made a roast for dinner since it is only 34C with the humidex today. Ice cream for dessert to cool off with, yum.

    You have had a book languishing for over fifty years!? Oh my goodness....and if you have failed with Taylor but adore Elizabeth and Her German Garden then I must buy myself a copy!

  8. Oh Darlene, this sounds very intriguing indeed! I can't wait to have an Elizabeth Taylor FEST when I get back to my books. I am also yet to read Elizabeth and Her German's languishing on the shelf at home but I know I'll love it, so I need to hurry up and get stuck in!

  9. bookssnob, And I can't wait to read all about the latest in your Bowen-fest!

    Hope you're staying cool, Rachel. Goodness gracious but it has been hot!