Set in Newby, a small seaside town, just after the Second World War, A View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor is an ensemble novel focussing on a small cast of characters. There is love and betrayal, friendship and duty, loneliness and death. Not a great deal happens, in terms of action, but the shifts in relationships in this place where everything seems to revolve around the harbour are what kept me reading.
There are seven key characters whose lives impact on each other in positive and negative ways. A middle-aged doctor, Robert, and his wife Beth seem to get through life without taking too much notice of each other. Their neighbour, divorcee Tory, is Beth’s best friend and Robert’s lover. A fact Beth seems unaware of, though their elder daughter Prudence knows and resents. Invalid and gossip Mrs Bracey makes hell of the lives of her two daughters, Maisie and Iris, but somehow knows everything that is happening. War widow Lily Wilson lives above the creepy, dusty Waxworks Exhibition, she used to run with her husband. Like much of Newby the museum is closed for the off-season, waiting the new life, energy and money expected by the arrival of springtime visitors. Into this midst comes Bertram Hemingway, an out of season visitor, amateur artist, and something of a hit with the local ladies.
Each character is lonely, bereft, in a place where war is still evident; in absences, in debris washed up on the shore, in the general shabbiness of everything and everyone. Everything seems to happen slowly in Newby, like the lapping of the waves against the shore. Taylor introduces Prudence as she sits at her bedroom window looking out at her view of the harbour, “… various lights spread out over the cobblestones, the lamp above the door of this house, the doctor’s house, and the pavement shining red under the serge-draped windows of the Anchor; nearer the sea wall, lamps cast down circles of greenish light encompassed by blackness. And always there was the sound she no longer heard, since she had been hearing it from the beginning, water lapping unevenly against stone, swaying up drunkenly, baulked, broken, retreating.” Taylor uses this limited geography – plus the pub, the Braceys’ secondhand clothes shop and the museum – to show women surviving, often without men. First published in 1947, Taylor shows a community of women who get by because of, and sometimes despite, each other and in this it reminded by of Pat Barker’s Union Street, not published until 1982.
A View of the Harbour is both a bleak read and a funny one. I particularly enjoyed the letters written to Tory by her son, Edward, who is at boarding school; and the gauche awkward meetings between Prudence and her bookish beau Geoffrey.
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