It immediately seemed like one of those books with which I’d always been familiar. And its author was secured on my Must Read Everything list.
Inside my book remains a copy of the two-page letter sent to my friend, which marvelled at the author’s ability to bring such a dislikeable character off the page and into my reader’s heart.
Since then, I’ve read seven of her novels, and not one has nudged her work out of my MRE intentions. And this fits beautifully with Laura’s planned Centenary Celebration of her work this year.
(Check out Laura’s post, which includes the scheduled reads, a contact form, and a list of the hosts who will be participating in the celebration, including Rachel, who has already posted about her hosting of Palladian next month.)
This month’s read is Elizabeth Taylor’s first novel, At Mrs. Lippincote’s.
I first read this novel in 2004: a borrowed first-edition from the local university library, the occasional page gummed or stained, its spine solidly aslant.
My current copy is a library discard: an original green-spined copy, with its corners dog-eared, its pages substantially yellowed, its spine badly broken in three places, and a small part of the image on the cover torn off completely.
But in both cases, these worn-out books suit the story perfectly.
For in Elizabeth Taylor’s novel, Julia has moved into another woman’s house, with all the remnants of other lives lived therein, just as I’ve settled into this edition of the novel, with all the marks and scars that other readers have left behind.
“She went downstairs, groping through shadow, not knowing where the light switches were, her hands passing over the walls, which felt clammy and unfamiliar.”
It’s an innocuous passage. And, indeed, eight years after this novel was published, the author wrote that “I also very much like reading books in which practically nothing ever happens.”
But there is something slightly foreboding about Julia’s journey downstairs, about her deep sense of unease that first night in Mrs Lippincote’s home, and about the tactility of various plot elements, and it’s not because of the discussion which opens the novel, about whether Mr Lippincote would have died there.
This is a novel rooted not, however, in suspense, but in tension. The drama of At Mrs Lippincote’s is rooted in the small push-and-pull details of everyday life in a house occupied by a husband, a wife, a son, and a cousin. It revolves around the questions of identity, loneliness and the ordinary connections and disconnections that draw us closer and splinter us.
On one hand, it’s easy to see how readily Elizabeth Taylor’s novels have been dismissed as “domestic fiction”, “light reading”, “women’s novels”. They read very quickly, and with the exception of uncomfortable moments in which the truths revealed are harsh and unpleasant, they read easily.
But, in fact, the novels are quite tightly crafted. Once you have finished this novel, in particular, if you revisit the novel’s first chapter, it’s surprising how layered some of the meaning in various passages becomes.
Even without re-reading, however, the author’s incisive observations are a pleasure to read.
Elizabeth Taylor has acutely attended to the ins-and-outs of ordinary conversations and patterns of relating, and one has the sense of immediately understanding even those characters whose roles are relatively minor.
Take, for example, this description of Eleanor, the unmarried cousin, who lives with Julia and Roddy:
“’I thought it was only spinsters who behaved in that neurotic way.’ She was forty and unmarried, she had a little money in Imperial Tobacco, a royal-blue evening dress, and was in love with her cousin, for whom, as they say, she would have laid down her life with every satisfaction.”
Or, Julia’s observations of the Wing Commander’s wife:
“She twitters. Like all the wives of somber men, she froths and seethes and bubbles, keeps herself at boiling-point ready for emergencies.”
Finally, the presentation of Edwards, who alters his accent depending on the company he’s keeping in that moment, and who has a habit of “hedging conversation round with little anxieties and agonies, so that each time he mentions a fashionable restaurant or good wine or an important friend a solemnity is give to the occasion, as if a flag is planted and unfurled.”
(It’s subtle, isn’t it? That talk of empire, a simple detail, easily overlooked. But military/social hierarchy does play a significant role in this novel, too.)
All three of these descriptions do bring these characters off the page with swift and bold strokes. But there is also an additional significance to each of these passages that is only appreciated after one follows the arc of the novel’s events to their close.
Similarly, there is a delightful sense of bookishness, which one can enjoy wholeheartedly as it unfolds. (The opening of the second chapter is guaranteed to charm the bookish.)
But there are also many allusions that bring another layer of understanding to the story after one has turned the final page and left At Mrs Lippincote’s.
Without spoiling anything, there is a single phrase which alludes to Fatima’s sweet dusty face in Oliver’s storybook, which can be read as yet one more expression of his charming bookishness.
For given that the novel hinges on the question of what makes for a good marriage, it’s not an accident that one of Oliver’s stories is that of Bluebeard and his locked room and an-arguably-disobedient wife (to say nothing of the fact that there is an attic room that is locked in Mrs Lippincote’s house).
“Society necessarily has a great many little rules, especially relating to the behavior 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.”
At Mrs. Lippincote’s makes for an entertaining and provocative first-reading.
It makes for an impressive and rewarding re-read.
What do you think?