After devouring half of his dozen novels – none disappointed – I find myself very reluctant to read anyone else. Even if the reasons for Taylor’s undercooked reputation are given, it still seems difficult to credit, given the amount of quality she served regularly – unless one considers a disturbing possibility: that the books being so easy reading actually worked to his detriment.
Take “Mrs Palfrey”, her penultimate novel. It’s a cinch, about shady old men spending their retirement years in a Kensington hotel that is a step on the path to assisted living and all that could be found beyond. For Ms. Palfrey, beyond that, it only spans a few streets and a few shops (Harrods, admittedly).
The old-fashioned cast is a bit surprising at first, as Taylor is so good at oblivion and the power of youth, especially the hypnotic hold of beautiful girls over middle-aged men. A youngster – called Ludo, playfully – introduces himself properly, but the book’s fishy heart is clogged with a Gerontian assortment of tremors, incontinence, and falls (preludes to fractures and pneumonia). It’s the late 1960s, and although in neighboring Chelsea, London may be swaying, attention at Claremont is focused on the dessert cart “with its load of quivering red jellies, salad. sloping fruit (mainly, Ms. Palfrey noted, apple and banana slices). “
This detail in parentheses is a diagnosis of the state of the nation, fresh in its day but expressive, like Tolstoy’s sleigh rides, of timeless truth (and, in Taylor’s case, dismal). The same goes for everything that follows, but there is a stranger aspect to Taylor’s vision as well. Mrs. Arbuthnot, one of the sick residents of Claremont, turns her eyes in Mrs. Palfrey’s direction. “They were blue eyes so pale they made Mrs. Palfrey uncomfortable. She thought the blue eyes grew paler and crazier over the years. Read this and you wonder about every pair of blue eyes you’ve ever seen or will ever see.
Insanity is always beckoning here – a repressed, uniquely English variant that pinches the psyche like a shoe that tightens day by day (especially as manners become more relaxed elsewhere). This mania is more extreme in the work of Taylor’s friend Ivy Compton-Burnett, the mad chief of English writers, but Taylor shares with her a taste for dialogue which, although fiercely on a leash, insists on diving into it. head down in absurdity. Ms. Arbuthnot has “ears sharp with wickedness” and there is often disorder and danger alongside Taylor. Something literally murderous underlies the “English sadness” that permeates “A Wreath of Roses”. In the short story “Hester Lilly” and the novel “Angel” it is the hideous darkness of fairy tales. In “A View of the Harbor”, the monstrous is thoroughly domesticated – and vice versa: “Prudence had cooked two cod heads for the cats. She lifted the lid of the pot and a foul steam escaped from it, and two pairs of boiling, disapproving eyes stared at her.