Monday, 26 November 2012

The Soul of Kindness - Elizabeth Taylor

Our book club choice this month was Elizabeth Taylor's The Soul of Kindness, published in 1964.

Loneliness seems to be a recurring theme in Taylor's novels. Mrs Secretan finds a gaping hole in her life after the death of her husband and the marriage of her only child, Flora. Then there's Flora's friend Meg, still young, but 'on the shelf' and already showing signs of becoming an 'old maid.'  Flora wants to marry Meg off to Richard, but he's pining for his fickle friend Frankie, buying in treats just in case Frankie calls round. Meg's brother Kit is trying to find work as an actor, but without success. Flora's husband, Richard, befriends a Elinor who also leads a lonely life, despite being married.

At the centre of it all is Flora herself, a young newly-wed, living in London. She's beautiful and charming, the very 'soul of kindness'. There's something appealing, but also quite appalling, about Taylor's heroine:

'Here I am!' Flora called to Richard as she went downstairs. For a second, Meg felt disloyalty. It occurred to her all of a sudden that Flora was always saying that, and that it was in the tone of one giving a lovely present. She was bestowing herself.'
Perhaps Flora is a woman of her time and class. With no need to work for a living, her 'job' is to be kind and charming, the perfect wife and mother.  If such a thing as selfish selflessness is possible, then Flora is its embodiment. She's a fixer and wants everyone to be happy, but only because their unhappiness disturbs her own peace of mind. The other characters seem to have to put their own feelings to one side, so as not to disturb her well being. They can't even resent her for it, since she is apparently so kind and well-intentioned in all she does.

Flora congratulates herself on cheering up Kit when he's in bed with flu:
'she felt invigorated, sure that she had accomplished something for Kit, had left him uplifted and inspired. It was the gift she had - to be able to do this for him, to give him something to lie and think about and hope for.'
Events don't always turn out as she'd like them to and Flora realizes, albeit briefly, that what she takes for kindness may not be kindness at all.

Elizabeth Taylor
Until the last few pages, I must admit that the book was a little too understated for me. But then, at the very end, the denouement underlines the absolute irony of the title. The story seemed unremarkable as I read it, but it will linger in my memory for quite some time.

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