Mrs. Lippincote's

“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.

Other thoughts:

The Captive Reader

Harriet Devine

Heavenali

Stuck in a Book

Will you try Elizabeth Taylor?

16 Comments

  1. Your description of the circumstances in which you read this book sounds ideal. Elizabeth Taylor seems a worthy companion.
    I think this is an amazing first book. I was quite taken with the way the novel centred on the house, it tethered people, and yet they were camping in it, among Mrs Lippincote’s belongings, in her life almost.
    I like how you have picked out the women’s resistance, especially Julia. I think the novel shows how much Julia’s rather unconventional ways lead her to richer and more generous relationships than her husband’s.
    I made some comments on it in parallel with Elizabeth Bowen’s The Hotel (also a first novel) on my blog book word (http://www.bookword.co.uk/two-elizabeths-two-first-novels/) a couple of weeks ago.

    • Julia is unconventional and I think that made her a fascinating character. I do really like Elizabeth Taylor now and am going to start In a Summer Season very soon. Thanks for the link to your post – I will pop over and give a read as soon as this crazy week is over!

  2. I like the sound of the characters, and albeit that the mother-son relationship is rocky, it sounds a good read. From here it sounds a bit like a mystery, with the house, but then thinking how it could affect a person, I guess they find living there very difficult.

    • I think the house affects them more than they realize because they are surrounded by someone else’s life and world. It makes them unsettled and fractures their routine. It also makes them long to be out of the house a lot…

  3. sunday taylor

    I will definitely read her based on this review and your description of her subversive female characters. Sounds very intriguing. She is one of those writers that I have not read yet, though heard so much about. Thanks for letting us know about this book. I am not a short story fan and so would be better off starting with a novel by Taylor.

    • This one would be a good place to start. I’ve tried to read A Game of Hide and Seek and Palladian and didn’t like the feel of them, but this novel will hook you and introduce you to her style.

  4. You’ve caught it perfectly with these words:

    “…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…”

    This isn’t my favourite Elizabeth Taylor – that’s between Angel and A Wreath of Roses though I have yet to read them all – but I do like it very much,

  5. I had never heard of Elizabeth Taylor (the author) before I started blogging. I definitely have her on my “to read someday” list, but wasn’t sure where to start with her books. This sounds like a good place, thanks! I’m a big fan of subversive women!

    • I hadn’t heard of her either! I owe a lot of my favorite books to bloggers. I like subversive women, too, especially subversive women of the forties and fifties.

  6. Miss Bibliophile

    I haven’t read anything by Elizabeth Taylor yet but she is on my To Read list (which, at this point, deserves a whole sections devoted to books and authors I’ve learned about through the blog world!).

    • Oh, I know! I never would have heard about Persephones or Viragos if it wasn’t for blogs. Thank the heavens I found Stuck in a Book (my first book blog).

  7. JoAnn (Lakeside Musing)

    I have yet to read Elizabeth Taylor, but have A Game of HIde and Seek on my shelf. Love the idea of her books being filled with subversive women!

    • I have A Game of Hide and Seek on my shelf as well and hope to read it this year. It was the first Taylor that I tried, but I couldn’t get into it. I’m betting that now that I’m used to her style I will enjoy it more. Yes, subversive women are awesome – I hope her other novels have them too.

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