I am steadily making my way through Elizabeth Taylor’s novels, such a terrific writer she is. All the novels I’ve read so far – A Game of Hide and Seek, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, The Soul of Kindness, A Wreath of Roses – are superb. A View from the Harbour is another addition to this stellar list.
A View of the Harbour is a beautifully written, nuanced story of love, aching loneliness, stifled desires, and the claustrophobia of a dead-end seaside town.
The main plotline revolves around Beth Cazabon, a writer; her husband Robert, the town’s doctor; and Beth’s friend Tory Foyle who lives next door and is divorced. However, like the wonderful The Soul of Kindness, this is a book with an ensemble cast where the lives of the other members of the community are interwoven into that of the Cazabons. This is a drab, dreary seaside town where for desperate want of drama and excitement, the lives of its residents become fodder for speculation and gossip.
The opening of A View of the Harbour unfurls like the brushstrokes of a painting. A vivid panorama of the harbour is captured – the cry of the seagulls, the trawlers heading out to the open sea and the subtle transformation of the harbour landscape from a place dotted with derelict buildings to that of a picture postcard town once you are further away at sea; the distance blurring the drab contours of the harbour front.
No gulls escorted the trawlers going out of the harbour, at tea-time, as they would on the return journey; they sat upon the rocking waters without excitement, perching along the sides of little boats, slapped up and down by one wake after another. When they rose and stretched their wings they were brilliantly white against the green sea, as white as the lighthouse.
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.
This view is something aspiring painter Bertram Hemingway is keen to capture but is continuously defeated in his efforts. Bertram is now retired and wants to spend his leisure days dabbling in his hobbies – painting and seeing more of the world. He resides in a room above the town pub called Anchor and has promised the owner to deliver a painting of his own at the end of his stay. Bertram is an outsider in this seaside town, an object of curiosity and while he takes an interest in the lives of its residents, enjoying the prospect of helping them whenever he can, he makes sure he is not deeply involved. He prefers to remain on the town’s fringes, happy with his role of an observer.
And what he and the reader observe are the lives of the residents playing out, their daily struggles and how they are beset by a sense of chronic unhappiness. Tory Foyle lives alone, her husband of many years has abandoned her for a younger woman and she is trying to come to terms with the fact that she must fend for herself. Her son, studying in a university, is a constant source of worry to her. But despite this setback, Tory is a strong-willed woman and has not let herself slide into apathy. She remains stylish and poised, maybe even a little cold and aloof.
Her best friend Beth is the complete opposite, absent-minded and living in her own world. Beth is an author of dramatic novels and so engrossed in her craft of plot construction and character development that she does not much care for appearance, and domestic duties seem like such a burden. Beth and Robert have two children (20-year old Prudence and 5-year old Stevie), and she is sometimes anguished about not being a good mother. Her marriage to Robert has settled into a comfortable space driven by routines with not much room for passion and intimacy. But Robert feels trapped by the sameness of his job and married life, and looking for a spark he begins an affair with Tory.
Then there’s Lily Wilson, a young war widow, who is frequently overcome by utter desolation.
When she saw the light swinging over the water she felt terror and desolation, the approach of the long evening through which she must coax herself with cups of tea, a letter to her brother in Canada or this piece of knitting she had dropped to the floor as she leant to the pane to watch Bertram, the harsh lace curtain against her cheek, the cottony, dusty smell of it setting her teeth on edge.
Her life centers around running the waxworks exhibition during the tourist season and making trips to the library for books she can lose herself into, activities that further accentuate her sheer loneliness and her craving for human contact. Her desultory conversations with the charming Bertram give her a new lease of life and she starts frequenting the pub more often to have a chat with him and be escorted home.
And then there’s the ghastly Mrs Bracey, a bitter, gossipy, crude woman confined forever to bed because she is paralysed from the waist down. Mrs Bracey takes advantage of her hopeless physical condition to boss her daughters around, to the point that they are both resigned and filled with hate for her at the same time. Iris works in the pub and has lofty dreams of a glamorous life although she is also aware of the futility of this ever happening. She refuses to regale Mrs Bracey with stories and scraps of gossip for which the latter is so hungry.
Maisie secretly wishes that her mother dies soon. Maisie’s expectations from life are prosaic compared to those of Iris, but her onerous duties of a caregiver bog her down and dash her hopes. Given that Mrs Bracey can no longer rely on her body which has given up on her, she lets her imagination run freely, even occasionally displaying a sharp, perceptive mind, however unwelcome.
Last but not the least is Robert and Beth’s daughter Prudence, a blossoming young woman stuck in a dead-end town. Robert worries about Prudence’s prospects, she does not have the talent to carve out an independent life for herself and the possibility of marriage also seems remote. But Tory knows that Prudence is perceptive; she has gauged correctly that her father is having an affair, a development that torments her greatly.
A View of the Harbour, then, is a bleak but beautiful novel that explores the themes of loneliness, solitude, betrayal, dashed hopes and of feeling constricted in a small, dismal town. Lily’s loneliness is devastating. Ravaged by fear because of an uncertain future, she yearns for company, someone to talk to and at one time even contemplates spending time with the coarse Mrs Bracey if only to dispel the emptiness gnawing inside her. Tory is more self-possessed than Lily but also very lonely. She ponders over the future of her relationship with Robert which appears to be doomed. Can she afford to deeply hurt her best friend, the one anchor that possibly keeps Tory rooted in that town?
And what about Bertram? Bertram so far, considers himself lucky for not having formed any romantic attachments. But he is also beginning to feel the weight of his years and the idea of marriage and settling down sounds comforting in a way that it never did before, maybe something of the isolation of this seaside community begins to get mirrored in him too.
Elizabeth Taylor displays wonderful sensitivity towards her characters who are such lost souls, they are flawed but she does not judge them. She is great at depicting the small dramas playing out in the lives of these ordinary people with her characteristic flair for astute insights into human nature. This is a community struggling to feel important, where an annual innocuous, humdrum festival becomes an event to talk about given the lack of entertainment otherwise, and where the inhabitants’ lives never go unobserved.
She is also superb at showcasing a vivid sense of place – the vastness of the sea conjuring up infinite possibilities is juxtaposed against a small harbour town devoid of excitement, burdened by limits which induce a notion of being stalled and going nowhere. The light over the sea keeps changing, in sharp contrast to community life which essentially remains unaltered.
The view of the harbour (giving the novel its name), including the lighthouse, is a permanent fixture in the book and is symbolic of different perspectives to each individual. To Mrs Bracey, the view from the window is an opportunity to observe what’s happening outside and satisfy her need to be in the thick of things.
Up at her window, and in some discomfort, Mrs Bracey sat in judgment. Guilt she saw, treachery and deceit and self-indulgence. She did not see, as God might be expected to, their sensations of shame and horror, their compulsion towards one another, for which they dearly paid, nor in what danger they so helplessly stood, now, in middle-age, not in any safe harbour, but thrust out to sea with none of the brave equipment of youth to buoy them up, no romance, no delight.
To Prudence, the view from the window possibly signals danger, she did inadvertently chance upon her father and Tory together and its implications make her wonder whether their family life is in peril.
Female friendship also forms one of the core themes of the novel explored through the relationship between Beth and Tory. Beth and Tory’s personalities could not have been more different but they complement each other. But this bond could be derailed by Tory’s affair with Robert of which Beth is unaware and is unwittingly the cause.
“You and I…” Tory said. “We are so different. But nothing with men is so good as our friendship. If women love one another there is peace and delight, fun without effort. None of that wondering if the better side of one’s face is turned to the light…”
Strangely, for what it’s worth, Beth seems the happiest of the town residents, her books and writing keep her occupied and maybe protected from the harsh realities of life around her. We even scent a whiff of feminism in her when she secretly laments at how men can plunge headlong into their careers, a kind of freedom denied to women because of domestic responsibilities.
In a nutshell, A View of the Harbour is Taylor once again at her finest. Her stunning, gorgeous prose and evocative use of language effectively conveys the quiet, desperate dramas of a community dulled by the smallness of its existence, the bleakness made bearable by great compassion and depth in the portrayal of her characters who must navigate their private lives on their own. Highly recommended!