review by Imogen G.
I read this book for #1976 month, hosted by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book. This is a bi-annual week celebrating books published in a particular year, and I’ve intended to participate before but never been organized enough, especially as work is always frantic in October. Anyway, I settled on Blaming, a short 1976 novel by Elizabeth Taylor, published after her death the previous year – Taylor wrote it in the knowledge that she was terminally ill. Not to be confused with the iconic actress, her writing has been described – by Anne Tyler no less – as that of a writer who can hold her own against Jane Austen, Barbara Pym and Elizabeth Bowen in her intelligent, domestic novels. I’m sure her writing must have influenced contemporary writers of everyday life, such as Tyler herself, of course, and Tessa Hadley.
The book opens with Amy and her artist husband Nick, in early old age I guess, taking a cruise around the Aegean, after Nick has spent a bit of time in hospital with an unspecified (to us) ailment. During the holiday, Amy resents Nick’s forays into art galleries and identical-looking mosques, and his insistence on contemplating tedious (to her) Ming vases and suchlike for what feels like hours on end, and she also resents his friendship with a younger American woman, writer and academic Martha, who hangs around with them as one of the only other English speakers, and shares her art books with Nick.
Then tragedy strikes, and Amy is forced to return home without him. (This isn’t a spoiler, it happens in the first few pages, and is flagged up on the back cover too.) Martha looks after her in the immediate aftermath of her loss, and escorts her back to London, but although acknowledging the American woman’s kindness Amy doesn’t warm to her and finds her presence grating. As best she can, she picks up life where she left it, alone except for her ex-publican housekeeper Ernie, who calls her “madam” and has a “mixture of servility and familiarity, like a human-being lost to his own place in the world” (despite it apparently being set in the early 1970s!).
Amy also sees her patronising son James and his family – comprising efficient wife Maggie and two well-drawn, often wittily portrayed little girls – and Nick’s good friend Gareth, an attentive, faintly smug, widowed doctor. And she sees Martha regularly too, for having forged a bond with Amy, however unreciprocated, Martha is unwilling to let it go.
In one part of this book our heroine Amy picks up a book written by Martha and notes that “the writing is spare, as if translated from the French”, and the same could be said for Elizabeth Taylor’s prose in this book really. She’s very good at cutting through to essential truths and an intensity of feeling in just a few words.
Amy keeps her feelings to herself much of the time, in her role as a buttoned-up, upper middle-class English woman of a particular generation, but, as readers, we have access to her thoughts. She can be selfish: for example, she has little interest in throwback housekeeper Ernie and his various minor ailments, while Martha points out to her on a visit to her home that she never asks a single question about her, while Martha’s questions, in contrast, tend towards the relentless.
Perhaps we’re not supposed to warm to Amy, who is penny-pinching in contrast with Martha’s generosity of spirit, who finds her grand-daughters wearing (though fair enough, small children are exhausting), and who hangs on to outmoded hierarchies. But then who hasn’t felt resentful at being forced to spend time with someone who simply feels like a massive effort, however kind?!
Amy’s deeds might seem mean spirited without our access to her inner world, and ultra-English but intensely relatable reticence. Taylor is highly adept at recognising the emotional complexity that can underpin even the most everyday of interactions. I rather liked Amy, I found her a largely sympathetic character and also found quite a few of her reflections uncomfortably familiar. For example, sadly I too am inclined to a bit of random sentimental but fairly disengaged weeping:
“Tears often came to her eyes when writing insincere letters, and they came now for a moment”
I enjoyed this book much more than the tragicomic Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, which tends to attract perhaps the greatest praise (I rated it a 3/5). Looking back at Goodreads, eight years ago I also read Elizabeth Taylor’s The Wedding Group which I didn’t particularly love – I rated it 3 out of 5 at the time, and can’t remember much about it. Blaming is a great book, and a wise book I thought, which examines the sometimes terrible consequences of an excess of self-absorption. I need to read Taylor’s Angel now, which has been sitting on my shelves for way too long.