“Did the old man die here? What do you think?” Julia asked, as her husband began to come upstairs.
One Christmas break when I was in college I house sat for a neighbor while she was on vacation. For two weeks I slept in her bed, cooked in her kitchen, watched her tv, read on her porch and snuggled with her dogs. It was nice to be on my own and to have a break from my roommates, but it was also a bit uncomfortable to inhabit a relative stranger’s home and unsettling to live among objects that were not my own. In Elizabeth Taylor’s debut novel At Mrs. Lippincote’s the Davenant family experiences much the same uneasiness.
Towards the end of the second world war Roddy Davenant is transferred to a new town (he’s in the RAF) and moves his wife Julia, son Oliver and cousin Eleanor into a rented home that belongs to Mrs. Lippincote. All of her furniture and belongings are left behind in the house and Julia and Eleanor set about setting up a home in these borrowed surroundings. The plot follows the characters as they question their lives and learn things about each other that change their relationships and family dynamic, mostly not for the good.
Julia is a remarkable character, a woman who is private, harsh and blunt yet a romantic. She doesn’t suffer fools, but she has a soft heart that leads her to connect with unlikely people. Roddy is your typical husband and soldier of this era and, though she loves him, she has no interest in playing the role of the typical wife and conflict ensues. Add to this mix Roddy’s cousin Eleanor, a single middle-aged woman who takes up with a band of Communists and conceals the friendship from Roddy who will not approve. Basically, the women in this novel rebel, perhaps because they don’t feel comfortable or in control of their own home.
Julia’s relationship with her young son Oliver is also rocky as he is precocious and sickly with a huge appetite for books (he’s seven and has read Jane Eyre) and causes her much worry and resentment. Their relationship, though, is really charming and I loved reading about Oliver’s favorite books and their conversations about his reading. It is one of the most delightful parts of the novel especially when Roddy’s boss, the Wing Commander, joins in the discussion.
Taylor’s writing continues to feel stiff to me and not easy to read, but reading her short stories alerted me to her style so I was ready for this novel. If you don’t like short stories and want to read her I would suggest this as a first try because it is short and not as hard to get into as some of her other novels that I’ve tried.
From what I’ve read to this point I’d say that her books are full of subversive women. They may not march down the middle of main street to protest the mistreatment, disrespect and boredom they endure, but they certainly act out in small ways within their own spheres. I am intrigued by them and will continue to read Taylor to meet more of these interesting women.
Will you try Elizabeth Taylor?