As usual, I am a little behind everyone else, and have only just caught up with the latest offering from those nice people at the Backlisted Podcast – The Soul of Kindness, by Elizabeth Taylor. Guests included Virago founder Carmen Callil, who was responsible for reviving Taylor’s work, and always has something pertinent and interesting to say about the books and authors she dealt with in Virago’s heyday. Anyway, it reminded me that although I’ve read the book, and Taylor is one of my favorite authors, I never wrote about it, so I thought I’d do a quick post, based on memory, then looked at the book to find a couple of quotes – and ended up so engrossed I re-read the whole thing, and found it every bit as good as I remembered! So here goes…
“Here I am!” Flora called to Richard as she went downstairs. For a second, Meg felt disloyalty. It occurred to her of a sudden that Flora was always saying that, and that it was in the tone of one giving a lovely present. She was bestowing herself.
Sweet, gentle Flora is the soul of kindness. It’s what she – and everyone else – believes. Her husband Richard, and best friend Meg, may get the occasional twinge when they feel uneasy about Flora’s behaviour, but no-one doubts her good intentions. So there are no real complaints when she sets about re-ordering the lives of her nearest and dearest, to bring them joy, happiness and contentment. However, Flora has no interest in what her friends and family actually want, and no idea of what would be good for them, so others must deal with the disastrous consequences of her well-meaning meddling.
There is Meg, who is in love with author Patrick, who is (as she well knows), in love with Frankie, a young man with few -if any – ‘nice streaks’. Flora, ignoring the facts, is convinced that Meg and Patrick would be perfect partners. She’s equally determined that her widowed father-in-law Percy should marry his long-time mistress Ba, and that Meg’s younger brother Kit should fulfill his ambition to become a successful actor, even though everyone else realises he has no talent whatsoever.
On this second reading I surprised to see just how many clues about Flora’s true nature are there in the opening chapter, which describes Flora and Richard’s wedding. Indeed, Elizabeth Taylor is quite explicit in her portrayal. Speaking about Meg, she tells us:
At school she had been Flora’s Nannie-friend, for it was clear from the day that Flora arrived there that what Mrs Secretan had done – the cherishing, the protecting – could not be lightly broken off. Someone must carry on. ‘What do I do with this?’ ‘Where do I go from here?’ were questions somebody must answer. Meg disapproved of Mes Secretan’s cossetting, but saw that it would be dangerous for it to be abruptly discontinued – like putting an orchid out into the frosty air, or or suddenly depriving an alcoholic of drink. She had tried – so good she was – to introduce gradual reforms, but Flora peaceably ignored them, for she did not know that there was any necessity to stand on her own feet, or even that she was not doing so.
That tells you everything you need to know about Flora, and quite a bit about her doting mother, and Meg. Mrs Secretan has devoted her life to Flora and Flora’s well-being, and can see no wrong in her beautiful daughter – but even she has moments of clarity when she acknowledges there is something missing. Take the note Flora writes before leaving for honeymoon, in which she says Mrs Secretan has been the most wonderful mother.
If only, Mrs Secretan thought yearningly, if only Flora had written ‘You are such a wonderful mother’. That would have made all the difference…
On my first reading I was struck by how lonely everyone is, and how no-one seems to be in love with the ‘right’ person. On a second reading I was surprised at how much Flora’s perception of herself is influenced by other people’s view of her, and how much their view reflects the kindly persona she has created back at her. It’s an almost symbiotic relationship between Flora and those who love her, and I was suddenly reminded of Jack and Jill in RD Laing’s Knots, which I haven’t read in 30 years or more. This time around it also occurred to me that Liz, the painter (a minor but important character), is the only person who sees Flora clearly – yet she is the only one who doesn’t know Flora and never actually meets her: she merely ‘interprets’ information gleaned from other people.
Interestingly, the Backlisted team drew parallels between The Soul of Kindness (published in 1964) and Taylor’s earlier and much darker novel, Angel. I hadn’t previously considered this connection, but I think there is a link: Angel and Flora are both heartless monsters, totally self-centred and unable to face the real world, so both create an environment that is more to their liking. On the face of it Angel, who is so obviously not a ‘normal’ member of society, is the more monstrous, but thinking about it, I’m not so sure. Flora manages to get others to accede to her wishes whilst appearing to be sweet, gentle and biddable – but she goes into melt-down when things don’t go according to plan and her nice, safe, sunny world is rocked by tragedy (well, near tragedy if I am being strictly accurate). Her reaction is shocking because it is so extreme, but the reaction of those around her is even more shocking, because they rally round (against their better judgement in at least one case) and rebuild her up again. This episode, I imagine, will ensure that never again will any of those who love her oppose her in any way, and never again will they let reality intrude on her charmed life.
I could say lots more about Flora, and the other characters (some of whom I haven’t mentioned at all), and about the places, and the social customs of the times. The wealthy middle class families who feature so often in Elizabeth Taylor’s work, must already have been a dying breed in the mid-1960s, but they still have something to say to say to us today. Taylor understood this world where appearances and convention matter, but she was always able to show us what went on below the surface, and to make us care about her characters, even if we don’t always like them. And her writing is as perfect now as it was then – witty and ironic, with never a word out of place, it is frequently understated, and what she doesn’t say is as important as what she does. Anyway, don’t listen to me wittering on – just read the book!