I finished this book a few weeks ago and have mulled over it occasionally since. It is very conventional: middle-class people in the 1940s home counties; a little bit of embezzlement is as disruptive as it gets. Its theme – and practically the protagonist of the novel – is enduring love. According to the foreword, Ivy Compton-Burnett compared it to Wuthering Heights. Interesting. After all, why should passion be confined to wild and unconventional characters amongst rugged terrain? I’ll accept that and raise you Brief Encounter.
Harriet at 18 is gauche, dreamy and unambitious, a disappointment to her mother, who once went to prison for her suffragette activities; Vesey, at the same age, is arrogant, bored and contrary. Neither are happy at home; they are drawn to each other, but Harriet is passive and Vesey is cynical and keen to escape to an independent life. When they meet again almost 20 years later, they are still in love with each other. Harriet is married to a solicitor (the perennial synecdoche for priggish staidness: I’m currently reading The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim, where the dull, overbearing husband is . . . a solicitor) and Vesey is an actor in a second-rate touring company.
Elizabeth Taylor’s approach is that of the omniscient narrator – the reader is given access to every character’s thoughts – but she is also elliptical and sharp-eyed. It’s a pleasure to read her: even the most ordinary characters become particular and extraordinary. Miss Bell, for example – the clever but ineffective teacher. There’s also sympathy for people’s less-than-perfect lives. In fact, the truly admirable “perfect” couple with their well-adjusted children are almost dismissed as sensible and happy: “There is no living up to them,” as Vesey says.