When a woman writes economically there is likely to be a wanton comparison to Jane Austen. The authors of both books under review have received this accolade, in one case at least with preposterous irrelevance. Considering that Jane Austen belongs to a world as remote as Lady Murasaki’s, the comparison is bound to be absurd. But even Elizabeth Taylor and Brigid Brophy are worlds apart. Miss Taylor takes the novel as she finds it (spruced up a bit by Henry Green perhaps), fills it with ordinary English people, and self-effacingly lets them live a passage of their lives which shows us what they are. Brigid Brophy flings herself upon the novel as if it were an exercise machine and she a programmatic gymnast.
The Snow Ball is a sort of prosy musical joke, though hardly like one by Mozart, with whom Brigid Brophy seems to be on close terms; Meyerbeer perhaps. The author begins with an epigraph from a book written by herself (Mozart the Dramatist): “That most fascinating subject for gossip, whether, when the opera opens, Don Giovanni has just seduced or has just failed to seduce Donna Anna will no doubt go on being debated for another two centuries.” The novel provides an all-night debating ground. An eighteenth-century costume ball is being given on a contemporary New Year’s Eve by a fleshy lady named Anne. Her closest friend, another middle-aged Anne, who has obligingly changed her name to Anna, has elected to come to the ball as Donna Anna. The two women—whose relationship seems oddly playful and interdependent for women above school age—posture and play together in a white bedroom, gloatingly described. When Anna descends to the ball she glimpses a masked Don Giovanni, flees him, then seeks him. They meet, talk about what interests them (especially: Did Don Giovanni seduce Donna Anna?), go off to bed together, where he at last removes his mask and she has a two-page orgasm. They return in time to see an enigmatic fellow-guest fall dead on the dance floor; they part once more and Anna goes home alone, thinking of death. Played off against the main plot is a little counter theme involving a young couple dressed as Casanova and Cherubino.
But the plot is chiefly a stage for the play of three ideas. When Don Giovanni asks Anna what she chiefly thinks about, she sums it up neatly: “Mozart, sex, and death.” Considering the latter preoccupation, however, one wonders what to make of an observation by Don Giovanni a little later: “Obsessive thoughts about death are in inverse proportion to the frequency of sexual intercourse.” For Brigid Brophy evidently puts a very high value upon sexual intercourse. Anna gazes at a statue of Cupid—described, oddly enough, with beady-eyed disgust—and offers “a prayer to the only god she believed in: but him she believed capable of saving the world.” Like other ideas in this book, however, this estimate of the powers of Eros is stated, not demonstrated.
Peacock’s novels shows how bracing can be the play of ideas among pantomime people; but such tours de force call not only for wit and style but a context of intellectual ferment. Miss Brophy is not particularly lucky in any of these respects. Her prose is a curious pastiche of magazinish naturalism and clogged baroque, studded with passages of apothegmatic dialogue (“…the rich have libraries, whereas people like us have books. People like to read books. The rich have them catalogued”). She has something in common with Iris Murdoch—pleasure in ideas, extravagance, an ambivalent attitude toward the physical end of life—but she is without the older, far better, writer’s narrative skill. The intellectual jokes—often either banal or irritatingly illegible—take precedence over the interplay of personalities (the people are no more than rather ugly dolls); yet under the surface one senses the beat of a sentimental, vindictive female heart.
The Finishing Touch is about a school for girls on the Riviera run by a pair of dykes. A gum-soled English princess joins the student body; matters come to a head in an international scandal. Pure Firbank. “A natural showcase,” thinks the headmistress, gazing at a black girl’s bosom, “for jewels…. She would have liked to try sapphires (the lucid on the dusky blue); or even, throwing away value and returning, rapturous, to nature, orchids…” “Where we live,” says another girl (the Badessa de Poggibonsi, the only secular Abbess in Italy) “lawn means handkerchiefs.” The Finishing Touch is short for a novel, but long for a joke. A good joke must contain some element of surprise: out of the familiar, something new should be teased. Confined to a paragraph, this Firbank parody would win a New Statesman competition. Only why should a woman want to write a Firbank novel fifty years after the fact?
If The Snow Ball is about Mozart, sex, and death, The Soul of Kindness is merely about a woman who unintentionally messes up every life she touches. But while one never loses sight of what Brigid Brophy’s book is “about,” the subject of Elizabeth Taylor’s novel is immersed in a flow of life. The soul of kindness is Flora, a stately beauty around whom the world has revolved at her mother’s bidding since infancy. She marries a mild man whose father soon sees Flora plain: “Although good as gold,” he realizes, “she had inconvenient plans for other people’s pleasure, and ideas differing from her own she was not able to imagine.” She obstructs her mother’s life by carrying on the girlhood dependency; her husband is subtly domineered and frustrated (“What are you thinking, darling?”…This was one of her favorite questions, for she did not like his thoughts to separate them”); her father-in-law, happy with a sensible mistress, is forced to turn the cosy arrangement into a galling marriage; her school friend is egged on in a painful relationship with a man Flora refuses to recognize as homosexual; the friend’s young brother is encouraged to worship Flora to the point where he tries suicide; her housekeeper is implored to stay on when she yearns to return to the country. But Flora’s tyranny is exercised with shining innocence. Her husband had “never known his wife to have to stand in a bus or train; her gentle smile, her trusting look, always brought some man to his feet.”
None of these manipulated people is remarkable for creative courage, but at their worst moments the author is never contemptuous of them. Even to the awful Flora she is always fair. The achievement of writing about a loathesome women without loathing is a moral feat, but accomplished by practical means. The author avoids browbeating her characters just as one avoids fatal quarrels, by sticking to particulars. Everyone is placed with accurate, economical detail. When Flora receives a poison pen letter, one of her first laments amidst the flood of tears is that it should have happened on her birthday. Her husband’s biggest problem is passed off in half a sentence. He has kept his undistinguished relatives out of sight—“but it had been strenuous and tricky work, none more exhausting than being snobbish from an unadvantageous position.”
The novel is about what Flora does to others, but more than that it is about what almost everyone does to one another. Flora plays with life as if it were her doll house, but at the same time the others are helplessly, unintentionally, remorsefully inflicting suffering upon one another. Flora’s mother mortally offends her prying housekeeper; the homosexual man can give only pain to the sad, stoic girl who loves him; he in turn suffers shattering humiliation in his passion for a heartless boy; and so on. But in spite of these poignant miseries, the book is a funny one, for the characters are conscious people with enough insight into themselves to see the often ludicrous gap between saying and thinking. The author can so tactfully dart in and out of their minds, lighting on the detail that counts that her people seem extraordinarily true, however dismally hamstrung they are by their upper-middle-class values. It is not surprising that the two most interesting people in the book are social outsiders—the father-in-law and his mistress, he a self-made man and proud of it, she a Jewish shopkeeper. But perhaps it would take another author to write a novel about them.
September 24, 1964