I bought this book, which was originally published in 1947, through Bibliophile, a company which buys remaindered books of all kinds in bulk, then offers them for sale at greatly reduced prices by means of a monthly journal containing summaries of each book, which is sent out to subscribers. I always enjoy reading its contents, and have often succumbed to the temptation to buy one or more of its wares.
I cannot deny the fact that the name of the author intrigued me. But this is not the Elizabeth Taylor the famous film star but a very English, very skillful, writer who describes life, manners and mores in Britain in the period just after WWII. About a year ago I wrote here about another book of hers, ‘Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont,’ describing life in a seedy London hotel which serves as a retirement home for genteel English ladies whose ‘golden years’ are less golden than they might have been expected to be.
The present book looks at a very different mixture of characters: the various inhabitants of a seaside town on the English coast, and the interactions between them. Here, too, the little world the author portrays is revealed to us in all its colourful variety, both social and psychological. In fact, one could say that were Jane Austen to descend from on high and resume her humorous and perceptive accounts of the interior and exterior lives of individuals living in post-war Britain, she might well have written this novel.
All the niceties of middle-class English life are portrayed here in language that flows easily and without pretentiousness, giving the reader an account of life as it is lived in a small town, with all the provincial prejudices, preservation of the proprieties, friendships, courtships and even decline and eventual death that are characteristic of any small, enclosed society. While the narrative jumps from one character to another, the reader is exposed to insightful comments, sometimes affectionate, sometimes sardonic, but always entertaining.
Certain characters come more vividly to life than others, and the author obviously bears a particular affection for frumpish Beth, whose domestic life is governed mostly by the life of her imagination as she writes yet another novel, and is totally oblivious to the relationship between her beautiful, elegant friend and neighbor, Tory (Victoria), and her husband. The relationships between children of various ages and classes and their parents are also described with a sensitive eye and pen.
Above all, though, it is the ever-present sea, with its harbour, fishing boats, seagulls, the changing rhythm of the waves, and lighthouse that dominates everything, bringing the inhabitants of the town together and forming a common bond between them.