“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 the little boat, 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 cafe, pub with peeling plaster of apricot and sky blue; then as 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.”
Those words were penned by Elizabeth Taylor, but the picture is my harbour.
Isn’t it strange that in the month when the book selection for the celebration of her centenary was ‘A View of the Harbour’ I should find myself newly employed in a harbour-master’s office?!
But I was swept away to another harbour-town in another age. To Newby, a small town on the south coast just after the war.
Bertram Hemingway, a retired naval man, was a newcomer to the town. He intended to spend his days painting views of the harbour. He enjoyed the company of women, he enoyed being involved in the life of the town, but he gave no thought to the possibility that some would read much more than he meant into the interest he showed.
That was what happened to Lily Wilson, a shy and lonely war widow, struggling to cope with her responsibilities as proprietor of the town’s waxworks museum. Of course the was going to read things into the attentions of a man who bought her drinks, walked her home, sympathised with her.
But Bertram was more interested in the rather more sophisticated Tory Foyle. She and her husband had moved into their holiday cottage during the war, and when they divorced Tory chose to stay when her former husband returned to their home in London.
Tory was flattered by the attention, but she was caught up in an affair with, Robert Casubon, the town doctor. They had known each other for years – they were neighbours, and Robert’s wife, Beth, was Tory’s best friend – but, quite unexpectedly, something had somehow changed between them.
Beth hadn’t noticed. She was caught up in the writing of her new novel, and rather more interested in the characters in her head than her husband and daughters. She loved her family, of course she did, and she did what she should, but she felt detached and guilty at the way her work called her away from them.
But Prudence, the elder of those two daughters, had noticed.
And maybe Mrs Bracey would notice too. She observed the comings and goings of her neighbours so carefully, she loved to gossip., and her failing health often gave occasion to call out the doctor.
These, and other lives, go on behind the closed doors of this faded seaside town. And they are painted so beautifully, with understanding, with wit, and with wonderful clearsightedness.
Elizabeth Taylor’s characters are not, in the main, sympathetic, but they are intriguing. Flawed human beings, each one utterly real, and each one a product of a history that is not entirely revealed and would maybe explain much.
And so I was fascinated as I read of their overlapping lives, set out so beautifully. Wonderful prose carried me along, and so often I was touched by moments of pure insight and moments of vivid emotion.
I felt Lily’s pain as she realised she was not going to be rescued from her lonely life. I understood Prudence’s resentment as she had to fetch her father from Tory’s drawing-room when a patient called. And I smiled at the wonderful letters Tory received from her son, away at boarding school.
What didn’t ring quite so true was the portrayal of the town. There is a camaraderie and spirit among seafaring folk that spreads through seaside towns. And there are many buildings and activities around harbour-towns that you don’t find in other towns by the sea. All of this was missed, and the view was that of a visitor, not a resident.
But maybe that was deliberate; because if there is a theme running through this novel it is that we so often see a less than complete picture, or a distorted view, of the world around us.
And as a study of human lives, in showing that, this novel works quite beautifully.