A View of the Harbour
by Elizabeth Taylor
It was in her beady delight at human behaviour that Elizabeth Taylor found her most intriguing inspiration, but she was also painterly in her use of light and shade, colour, atmosphere and composition. Light falls from doorways into the night, framing her characters and their doings; the changing light from the sea as it reflects the sky, and the sound of the waves in constantly changing weather is always present in this book; the beam from the lighthouse evokes the depths and the mysteries of the sea. 'Here the light shone from downstairs rooms, printing upon blinds a pot of geraniums or a birdcage'.
The story is set in 1947 in the fishing village and tripper resort of Newby. Everything there is small, dingy and out of date: the most recent acquisitions in the Wax Work Emporium are the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (admission 3d.). The fishing fleet is dirty, tough and seaworthy, like its crews: it sets sail each evening in all weathers, and lands the catch at dawn. If the catch is good a man or woman in an apron will write in white paint 'Nice Fried Fillets', or, perhaps 'Frying God Tonight' on the inside of the fish shop window. If the catch is poor the announcement is more likely to be 'Egg and Chips and Tea 1/3'
Elizabeth Taylor's great joy is in the people who occupy the peeling houses and the shops, cafe and pub. Her narrative moves among them, silent and watchful, timeless and dispassionate as a ghost.
Near the lighthouse stands Bertram, a quietly dressed retired seaman, an ex-Navy officer and would-be artist. He has rented a room at the pub. He is sketching the fish shop, the second-hand clothes shop, the Seamans Mission, the closed-down Fun Fair, the waxworks, some cottages, the doctor's house, and the lifeboat house; behind them all he carefully draws in the church tower. In his imagination he is 'Bertram Hemingway, that delightful painter of marine and plage subjects'. But his watercolours are muddy, his birds wooden, and in his pictures it could be any time of day. He is ready, after many years at sea, to settle down with some attractive woman, and has recently decided that Tory, whose tidy little house stands next door to the doctor's, would probably do very well. She and Teddy, her husband, had evacuated from the London blitz to their seaside cottage, and, because Teddy loved sailing, had never moved back. But Tory hated everything to do with sailing and the sea, and in due course Teddy ran away with a jolly, sporty girl who thrived on that sort of thing.
Bertram appreciates Tory's one-liners and her smart appearance. Her house smells of hyacinths and furniture polish. He knows she is still half in love with Teddy, and probably more than half in love with the doctor, whose novelist wife is her dearest friend, so he hopes to be spared too much passionate neediness on her part. As for the doctor, besotted with her though he is, there never had been any chance of him leaving his wife.
The light is going and Bertram puts his sketchbook in his pocket and returns to the fuggy warmth of the pub. He greets the domino players and Eddie, a fisherman, and Iris, the attractive barmaid, whose mother, Mrs Bracey, keeps the second-hand clothes shop. Along the bar, in respectable apartheid, is Lily Wilson, widowed proprietess of the waxworks, a possible second string for Bertram should his suit for Tory fail. But he is truly a kindly man, and gallant, and rather afraid of yearning and frustration in a woman.
When Mrs Bracey is taken very ill and is dying, it is Bertram who relieves poor Maisie, her other daughter, by sitting with Mrs Bracey, talking to her and telling her stories of his adventures, which he, fresh from the silent service, related with relish. He rather imagines he is addressing a much wider audience than the semi-comatose Mrs Bracey. 'I've heard worse than that on the wireless' he marvels to himself, as he gives her a little talk on mangroves, as winding as the Amazon itself. A little later he is describing how cantaloupes are fed with arak until a slice will intoxicate a man, and how sucking pigs are stuffed with truffles, and melon-flowers crystallised with burnt cream, when Maisie comes in with a jug of cocoa and a plate of Marie biscuits.
Bertram admires Maisie and is extremely sorry for her. But the glimpse of imagined comfort and companionship in Tory's neat house, with a well-preserved Tory in her smart clothes at his side has fascinated him more than he knows.
The lighthouse-keeper, looking out to sea, sees the trawlers wide across the horizon, smudging the sky with their smoke. He notices, too, the white sails of a yacht approaching the harbour...
Elizabeth Taylor is sincerely admired by many of our most distinguished modern novelists. She died in 1975. I greatly enjoyed reading A VIEW OF THE HARBOUR and will certainly read it again and again.
Published by Virago, 320pp.