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Elizabeth Taylor Centenary: At Mrs. Lippincote's

Virago Modern Classics

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Jan 1, 2012, 1:28pm Top

Welcome to 2012 and the Elizabeth Taylor Centenary! During January we will read and discuss her first novel, At Mrs Lippincote's. The description on the back cover reads:
"When he had married Julia, he had thought her woefully ignorant of the world; had looked forward, indeed, to assisting in her development. But she had been grown up all the time; or, at least, she had not changed"
Mrs. Lippincote's house, with its mahogany furniture and yellowing photographs, stands as a reminder of the earlier securities. This is to be the temporary home of Julia, who has joined her husband Roddy at the RAF's behest; of their young son Oliver, and Eleanor, Roddy's cousin. Here Julia must be mother and above all, officer's wife, for Roddy, that "leader of men", requires that she fulfil her role impeccably. Julia accepts the pomposities of service life, but her honesty and sense of humour prevent her from taking her role too seriously. And in her easy friendship with the Wing Commander and her allegiance with the raffish Mr. Taylor, Julia expresses a sensitivity unknown to those closest to her. Others may chafe at Julia's behaviour, but it is they - not she- who practise hypocrisy.

In The Other Elizabeth Taylor, biographer Nicola Beauman tells us the the character of Oliver was based on a boy Elizabeth taught in 1930:
The precociousness was true to life, but Oliver Knox was a grave, self-contained good humoured little boy whom Betty enjoyed being with very much and who, like his namesake in At Mrs Lippincote's, was always charmingly irreverent, always conscious of the absurd but serious au fond ('he always said he woudl be a judge when he grew up, & I always felt he was practising on me,' Elizabeth would write). (p. 38)

Elizabeth was also active in the Communist Party. Beauman describes how she evoked the atmosphere of party meetings in At Mrs Lippincote's:
The Communist Party friendships and the political engagement were to be evoked in At Mrs Lippincote's, in descriptions of the flat in 'Vasco Street' above a shop, where people are always clattering up and down the stairs. 'It was different,' Mr Speed, the grocer in the shop, thinks, 'from his daughter-in-law's, where people only came to tea on Sundays.' Then there are the evening meetings. At one the speaker goes on talking for too long, as speakers do, about the victimisation of Hindus on Bombay; his listeners cannot help thinking about the last bus or their back-ache or whether they will be able to open a tin of pilchards without a key. (p. 78)

Once you've read the book -- or even if you are still in progress -- please weigh in with your thoughts!

Jan 1, 2012, 1:31pm Top

I read this book in 2010, and really enjoyed it. It's an excellent example of Taylor's gift for subtlety and nuance. It's hard to believe this was her first novel!

In my review I wrote, "What I love about Elizabeth Taylor is her ability to develop rich characters through such understated language. At Mrs Lippincote's opens with Roddy and Julia, a middle-aged couple, moving into a rented house (belonging to the Mrs Lippincote in the title). Through their conversation about trivial matters, Taylor manages to convey both the stress of moving and the fragile state of Julia and Roddy's relationship."

Jan 1, 2012, 3:06pm Top

I've started the book -- not very far into it yet, but I can't say I'm enamored with the characters yet -- except maybe Oliver. But then I can't say I've been enamored with many of Taylor's characters in other books either.

Jan 1, 2012, 3:09pm Top

I read it just over a year ago in December 2010. I really enjoyed it.

Here is my review from the time.

A beautifully written novel. Elizabeth Taylor's amazing attention to detail in her depiction of the minutiae of everyday family life brings her characters and their world to life. In this novel, her central character Julia is not particularly warm, but she is so believable - a not very happy woman, married to a conventional man, Julia is not always conventional, she finds the things she must do difficult at times, and sometimes says exactly what she thinks. Alongside the story of Julia and her husband Roddy we have Eleanor - Roddy's cousin, who following a breakdown has been living with the couple and their son Oliver ( a brilliant child character). Eleanor's disatisfaction with life drives her into the company of a group of marxists, who she feels at home with, and yet unable to commit herself to fully. There is so much in this novel that is wonderful, poignant, funny and sharp, it is impossible to do the book justice in a mere review, you need to read Elizaebth Taylor to appreciate her - she was an enormously gifted writer.

Jan 1, 2012, 3:30pm Top

>4 Heaven-Ali:: Amen, Ali!

Jan 1, 2012, 3:38pm Top

Aha - I have a copy and will be starting it soon. I wonder if I'll start it before my Hardy Project read, though ... *gives a guilty glance over at Ali*

Jan 1, 2012, 3:52pm Top

you have 2 months for the Hardy - so up to you : D

Jan 1, 2012, 5:25pm Top

Hardy project ? Is this Thomas Hardy? From another group I presume. Just about to get started.

Jan 1, 2012, 6:39pm Top

I'll join Laura and Ali and post something from my review from last year too.

Julia and Roddy are not well-matched. She is imaginative, empathetic, unconventional while Roddy is just what he thinks he ought to be.
Taylor tells the story looking over Julia's shoulder as she tries to balance her husband's need for appearances with her own need for satisfying curiosity about the people she meets. Oliver, their son, wends his way through the book dealing with ill health, a new friend, and his own brand of his mother's humor. (I always look eagerly for the child in a Taylor book, and Oliver is a charming one.) All of this takes place in the very, very conventional setting of Mrs. Lippincote's house.
For flavor, from near the end of the book when Roddy has gotten orders to move his family elsewhere, comes this typical exchange and reflection:
Julia, speaking of the upcoming move says, "'It makes very little difference to me. I am a parasite. I follow my man around like a piece of luggage or part of a travelling harem. He is under contract to provide for me, but where he does so is for him to decide.'
'It is not for me to decide,' said Roddy loudly, annoyed by her speech. Obscurely he felt that it was a husband's business to make jokes (for such he took her remarks to be) about married life."
Taylor guides her reader to see as far as she cares to into the life of a marriage, and she does it perceptively and wittily.

Jan 2, 2012, 9:47am Top

Juliette, yes, Ali is running a project reading all of Thomas Hardy in publication order; this follows on from my Iris Murdoch project doing the same. But as she mentions, we have 2 months for the current Hardy, so that's fine.

Anyway - I read At Mrs Lippincote's in one day, today - something I haven't done for a long time. Really enjoyed it in a funny way - it's such a clever portrait of a marriage and those surrounding it, so perceptive and witty about people, all that I love about Taylor.

Is anyone else a bit in love with the Wing Commander, knitting and all, or is that just me?

I loved the contrast between the two insitutional groups of the Marxists and the military, and how they were very similar underneath the differences. And the children were a delight.

Jan 2, 2012, 10:12am Top

Lizzy - thanks for letting me know about the Thomas Hardy project - what an undertaking! Where is it happening?

Certainly haven't got as far as you yet due to many visitors but I do so agree about the knitting Wing Commander! Maybe that is because my dear Keith knitted in his past life.

Edited: Jan 2, 2012, 11:58am Top

#11 The Hardy project can be found here : )


and though we are embarking on our 4th book - it is certainly open to new joiners at any time. Some of the members have already said they would probably only read some of the books.

Jan 2, 2012, 8:08pm Top

I've just pulled this off the shelf with a re-read in mind. Here is one of my favourite quotes that I noted when I first read it: "Oliver Davenant did not merely read books. He snuffed them up, took breaths of them into his lungs, filled his eyes with the sight of the print and his head with the sound of words. Some emanation from the book itself poured into his bones, as if he were absorbing steady sunshine. The pages had personality." (It goes on, in bookishness!)

Jan 3, 2012, 9:06am Top

Must remember to take this off the shelf and start reading! I don't want to miss it!

Jan 5, 2012, 6:05pm Top

#13 - yes that line appealed to me. Just got it into the libary - hoorah...so am up to page 63. This is my first Elizabeth Taylor and so far I am enjoying it very much.

Jan 6, 2012, 5:35pm Top

~13 That quote engaged me as well - I had a bit of a giggle and thought that someone here would mention it!!

Jan 7, 2012, 6:29am Top

Have read as far as Chapter 14 and what a wonderful read!

I am enjoying the evocation of times passed and finding it is making me philosphical and reflective about life styles and changing times. For example the shops, the laundry man and the simple domestic parts of life. It has broken a memory of the Watford Steam Laundry van which visited our home weekly. Elizabeth Taylor writes about the brown satchel in which he kept his payments - I can see it in my mind's eye right now!

This vignette led me to reflect upon our understanding of the period details in this delightful book. I find myself having to re-read every now and then to realise the full meaning of a description.

Jan 7, 2012, 7:21am Top

That's very interesting Julie. I appreciate you highlighting those period details because sometimes they aren't obvious, nor are they appreciated as much, if you didn't experience them yourself.

Jan 7, 2012, 8:42am Top

It's been years since I read At Mrs. Lippincote's but what you said above brought it back in a rush, Julie. I love all books about the Second World War, all books about sensitive women married to less than sensitive men, and all books about people who read books. This was also my first Virago so it is of special significance.

But yes, it was also very much a book about 'life styles and changing times'. We had tradesmen visit our home weekly and monthly. The bread man and milkman came daily, the newspaper boy, the coalman came regularly, the man to clean the windows etc. And they all had to be paid. I can remember them standing at the front door and my mother rummaging through her purse for the necessary cash. We even had a man who collected money for insurance. This was not a rich person's thing - quite the reverse - we were one step above Coronation St - but it is a way of life that has completely gone, and completely gone within my own lifetime.

Jan 7, 2012, 12:51pm Top

Nearly finished but just had to share the lovely literary gourmet detail... our Wing Commander eating with Roddy and Julia remarks
"These baked apples are very good"
to which Julia replies
"I had the recipe from Villette. I like to get my recipes from good literature"

There then follows references to the mutton in Jane Austen and the boeuf en daube in To The Lighthouse - the reading of which madde me feel peckish (as Julia would have commented)!

There could be a whole new Virago book based on this culinary theme!

Jan 7, 2012, 7:44pm Top

Well, I've finished At Mrs. Lippincote's -- rather mixed feelings I'm afraid. Taylor writes incredible descriptions and wonderfully precocious children. It's a really naturalistic, "slice-of-life" novel that see-saws from the humorous to the cynical. I can't say I liked any of the characters, except the children. They all seem incredibly narcissistic and pretty shallow. Probably quite true to life -- but finally I just didn't care about them, and nothing much happens besides the death of poor Mr. Taylor (odd that she would give him her own name). What's up for February?

Jan 7, 2012, 8:32pm Top

Sorry you didn't enjoy it more, Jane. In February we'll read her second novel, Palladian.

Edited: Jan 8, 2012, 4:07am Top

I have also finished At Mrs Lippincote's.

Interesting thoughts Jane, especially regarding the children. As the book drew to a conclusion I found I was more concerned for the children - Felicity and Oliver than the adults. Does this mean I did not care about Roddy, Julia, Eleanor et al - not sure. Rather, I saw it as an interesting social commentary.

I am finding it fascinating the fact that the the story is set in the war which hardly merits a mention. Maybe that is because *that* was exactly what happened unless you were directly under the bombs, had a loved one away at war or were involved in factory work for the cause... the war gets an almost off hand mention in place.

Overall, a four star read for me. Looking forward to Febraury read of Palladian.

Jan 8, 2012, 6:38am Top

Jane Austen is often criticized for largely ignoring the Napoleonic Wars in her books. Because her books were more about social commentary, the war was a backdrop but not necessarily critical to the story. The same might be true of Taylor writing At Mrs Lippincote's.

Jan 8, 2012, 9:07am Top

It's so interesting what we make of books isn't it. At Mrs. Lippincote was the first Virago I bought (I'd read other titles in different editions) and went straight into my top ten books of all time for awhile. Every word of it resonated with me. I was not married, had no children, and yet it spoke to me. I was living in a very rundown house in Turnpike Lane when I read it, working as a temp in Central London, so perhaps it was nothing more than a huge comfort read. But I loved it - enough to try to register for this site under the name Lippincote (it was already taken), and to head off to the Wood Green library and its carousel of Viragos.

Jan 8, 2012, 9:22am Top

That's a very interesting story, Barbara! I can certainly agree that books affect us differently depending on where we are in life when we read them.

Jan 8, 2012, 10:40am Top

That's so true -- I think I probably would have appreciated the novel more when I was young and in the throes of feminism. But at my age and having worked all my life, I found both Julia and Eleanor rather insipid -- but maybe that was Taylor's intention,. I did love her descriptions and style, however.

Jan 8, 2012, 11:41am Top

There were things that bored me. The entire subplot, if one can call it that, about the communists. Still, I appreciated how cozy they were in their communal digs. A very different picture compared to the horned communist demons who were ready to eat little children in the US during the "red menace" of the late 40's and early 50's. I remember my mother, after a talk at the catholic mother's club meeting, tearing through my Little Lulu comics looking for secret communist messages.

I wasn't fond of Julia either, but I don't think I was meant to be. She is bored silly in this rented house. Is part of this her fault or is it another sign of what married women in her station were expected to endure while their husbands were off doing men things. The beginning of her friendship with the Wing Commander had to be that they both appreciated and could joke about literature. Even her interest and kindness toward Taylor, very genuine though it was, was also a reason for her to have a destination when she got out of the house. Unless she shakes herself out of her lethargy she seems to be destined to have one of those lives where it becomes too much trouble to change. Again, I think of growing up in the fifties. People didn't divorce not just because of the stigma, but because women had no way to maintain a home without the husband's paycheck. I can think of two of my mother close friends who were stay-at-home moms, looked the other way at their husbands' little office affairs, belonged to women's clubs, lived for children and grandchildren, hated when their husbands retired because they were around the house, and celebrated their fifty-odd years of marriage. They both told me, at my mother wake, how they envied her because she worked out of the house and knew how to drive a car.

A question for the wife of a serviceman. Appealing as he was, wasn't the Wing Commander's personal interest in Julia a bit inappropriate?

And the children were the best part of the story for me.

Were Mrs Lippincott's daughter and nephew really necessary?

Jan 8, 2012, 12:02pm Top

I'd have to re-read the book to answer all your questions, Elaine. I think Julia is very similar to the heroine of A View of the Harbour and that lady did annoy me terribly at times. However, I read that in my fifties - so different time, different point of view.

And yes, we tend to forget how limited women's lives were right through to the 70's. Stay at home mothers had no money and, therefore, no power. You put up and shut up. My mother also couldn't drive. Indeed, my father refused to teach either my sister or I to drive, but did teach our brothers.

Was the WC's relationship with Julia inappropriate? By the letter of military law yes but then when has that ever stopped anyone? Interesting, also, is that Taylor did find a way out of her boring life. On the surface she may have been Julia, but wasn't she in a long term affair during part of her marriage?

Jan 8, 2012, 2:15pm Top

>29 romain:: wasn't she in a long term affair during part of her marriage?
Yes she was, but called it off when her husband found out. Which must have been very sad. I'm reading about this part of her life in Beauman's bio (The Other Elizabeth Taylor) now. Her lover outlived her (he was much younger), and Beauman was able to visit with him and get access to letters Taylor sent him. She describes the meeting as quite sad, because she knew how the affair turned out.

Jan 10, 2012, 8:16am Top

I finished this last night, and thought is was excellent. I love Taylor's understated prose and the way she doesn't need to spell things out for the reader but lets us read between the lines. I too loved Oliver and Felicity - Julie, I wonder if you felt more concern for them than the adults because they seemed more vulnerable? They are, as I think Julia implies in one conversation, at the mercy of adults, and Taylor shows us just how flawed these particular adults are. I enjoyed the Communists subplot and the wry depiction of their meetings and lifestyle, but agree that Mrs Lippincote's daughter and nephew seemed superfluous (unless I am missing something . . .)

I did feel sympathy for Julia in her marriage, as my ex-husband was a lawyer and had his own image of the proper lawyer's wife that he wanted me to fit. Like Roddy, he would tell me I'd said the wrong thing, or wasn't dressed appropriately on occasion. But unlike Julia, I had the freedom to work and make my own friends for some escape. We're not shown whether Julia makes an effort to connect with the other military wives - and really, what might they have in common other than their husbands' jobs? Perhaps back in London she will be less lonely as I think I remember her mentioning old friends who are still there. I too liked the Wing Commander (an appreciation of Anne Bronte will do it for me every time!), and felt for Mr Taylor in his hopeless situation.

Jan 10, 2012, 4:32pm Top

I finished this in the wee hours of this morning when I couldn't sleep (as usual) - here are my thoughts....

I think the style of the book reflects the times. It seems jumpy and disjointed - not fixed. Stories are half told and things seem somewhat brittle. I found the exchange between Julia and Mr Maffick, the local clergyman, as Julia is swatting flies in the kitchen summed things up for me :

"Contemplating brutality makes you used to it. It's a way of saving our reason - of putting armour over one's nerves. If I really imagined what I'm doing now, I couldn't do it. It is the first step towards committing atrocities on human beings. At first, you are nervously repelled, then take it for granted, then look to it for excitement and, finally. for pleasure and ecstasy. Then you're done for and must be shot."

I liked this - my first - Elizabeth Taylor. It's very different - unusual - fractured really. But I had a very clear picture of the characters and their various predicaments and I liked them enormously.

Jan 10, 2012, 11:52pm Top

I hadn't checked in recently and was delighted to discover I grabbed this as my train read (I started Monday morning and finished on my commute home today)

10- Lyzzy I feel that way about the Wing commander -perhaps because of the knitting

28 yes, at first I thought his relationship was inappropriate- and it probably was- but by the end I felt like it was not ill-intentioned, *spoilers* he was not hoping seduce her but felt bad about the familial situation and sympathy and amusement about her love of the Brontes.

13- Buried, that was the first quote that jumped from the page and grabbed me. She is so good at describing the state of a reader who incorporates bits of what s/he is reading into ordinary life.

20 Julie- that moment made me want to plan a series of meals based only on books.

I loved that she writes in such subtle ways and yet peels back so many layers. I agree that the adults are not particularly sympathetic, but I think that is because she is reflecting their thoughts and in truth would any of us stand having our inner monologues throughout the course of a single day scrutinized by readers. We'd all seem terribly mean.

Part of the story is about displacement. Julia is painfully aware of the displacement, but having the possessions of others surrounding her reflects back the shabbiness of her own life, like her dirty white coat, and dirty neck after her bath. In some ways her life is like the cheap swan on the mantle piece.

I think that is why The Lippincote daughter and son appear. Every time the daughter appears she causes fear and surprise, she is like the cracks in Julia's relationship with Roddy and only appear sometimes and are unnerving. The son is like the veneer of morality that covers up a base gossip. Mrs. Lippincote knows about the infidelity from her son which is why she thinks they might go away again.

The communist sequences didn't bother me. They showed her search for family and connection. I think everyone in the novel is searching for connection. I loved the subtlety and inconclusiveness.

Jan 11, 2012, 7:44am Top

>32 alexdaw:: I agree; the book felt like a series of "scenes from a life", and we are left to fill in the gaps. I liked that about it.

Jan 11, 2012, 7:59am Top

>33 Marensr:: Every time the daughter appears she causes fear and surprise, she is like the cracks in Julia's relationship with Roddy and only appear sometimes and are unnerving. The son is like the veneer of morality that covers up a base gossip. Mrs. Lippincote knows about the infidelity from her son which is why she thinks they might go away again.

Ooh, that's very insightful! I read this book last year, so I'm not re-reading it now but am enjoying the discussion, as it brings the book back to life for me. It's been very interesting to have the Taylor biography as a companion read, especially because as the month began I was just reading about the period in her life when she was writing At Mrs Lippincote's. Her husband was posted to Scarborough for a short period, and the family had a temporary residence there, so you can see how that inspired elements of the story. The bio also repeatedly notes that Taylor wasn't so much creative as she was astutely observant of her milieu, and drew on those observations for characters and situations.

Edited: Jan 12, 2012, 8:08am Top

Did anyone notice how often wasps appeared in the book---usually to be killed or at least swatted at? In the first instance, Roddy kills one, and Julia protests. I believe there were at least two other references, which I will have to search out (here's where an electronic reader with a search feature would be nice!). Wasps suggest industriousness, organization, perhaps community?

ETA: Found the other two wasp references. One is actually an extension of the incident described above: as the wasp is "drawing his body into an agonized curve" after Roddy squashed it, Julia brushed it to the floor and "stamped on it." In the second instance, several wasps come to swarm around a dish of apples, and Roddy first "swish{ed} about with his table napkin" and then "gave a smart clap now and then" which caused an occasional wasp to drop stunned to the carpet. Still not sure what to make of these vignettes, but my inner Literary Reader says they aren't in there accidentally. EE.

The Wing Commander was more than inappropriate, I thought---he was playing at God. If we are to believe what he tells Roddy at the end, he had him bring Julia there because he thought being together might save their marriage (clearly he knew Roddy was a bounder); and then, he re-posted Roddy to London when it was obvious that having his wife around wasn't changing his behavior. He "dallied" (no other word for it) with Julia, probably because she was more interesting to him than his own wife, but he never went so far as to put his own career at risk. He is an engaging character in many ways, but he arouses my suspicions.

I, too, enjoyed the children, who in their relative innocence were much wiser than the adults.

The relationship between Roddy and Julia is more complex than it appears at first. They each have their inner lives and outside-the-home activities that do not really include the other; we're coming into their lives in media res, so how they got to this point is left to our imagination. How did they come to be married in the first place? Were they "in love"? Was it a marriage of some convenience on both sides? How much time have they spent apart during their marriage? Did they once communicate more and lose the skill, or just never develop it properly at all? We do see flashes of mutual affection, and the ease with which married couples accomplish things together (in the scene where they are preparing the drawing room for the party, for example). I got the impression that with a little effort and determination from each of them, this marriage could be a much more comfortable arrangement.

Jan 13, 2012, 1:21am Top

"Roddy...remember{ed} some book or other, written by a woman, on 'Happy Marriages, How to Make, Maintain, and Endure Them'..."

That made me laugh out loud.

This quote is from page 7 of my copy, and now that I type it out, it seems like a foreshadowing of the plot.

I wanted to like Julia, especially after her comments on food in great literature (I need to re-read Villette now, to get the baked apples recipe...), and the way she instilled her love of reading in her son (the scene where she and Oliver are reading and having tea together is just wonderful), but she was too lazy and indifferent. Her relationship with the Wing Co. didn't strike me as suspicious anymore than the relationship with Mr Taylor--I actually thought it was kind of neat that they seemed interested in each other as friends rather than lovers. Of course, at the time such a friendship would have been just as taboo as an affair. Perhaps she just preferred the company of men (she doesn't get along with any of the other women in the novel, and seems quite solitary), and clearly Roddy wasn't interested in being friends with her.

>36 laytonwoman3rd:: "I got the impression that with a little effort and determination from each of them, this marriage could be a much more comfortable arrangement." Yes, I absolutely agree. They were both lazy. It surprised me that Roddy had the imagination to carry on an affair--it was almost as if he thought that was somehow an expected facet of marriage (How to Endure, perhaps?). Roddy and Julia seemed caught in a groove, unable to recognize their good fortune. There's no sense of foreboding or fear in the novel, despite the time period and the military presence--other than Eleanor, their life is peaceful and pleasant, they have an interesting and lovely house to live in, plenty of good food, books, a delightful son. But they keep looking for something else and remain unsatisfied.

The children were the most compelling characters, and the ones that developed the most over the course of the novel. If they grew up and married each other, however, they might be Roddy and Julia in reverse--Oliver the bookish, thoughtful, lazy, slightly aloof one; and Felicity the frustratedly conventional one.

Jan 13, 2012, 6:12am Top

>36 laytonwoman3rd:: I got the impression that with a little effort and determination from each of them, this marriage could be a much more comfortable arrangement.
Linda, I left a comment on your 75 thread about this:
Yes, I know what you mean. They seem like a couple that might have been quite happy at first, but over time the "spark" died. Although there is the matter of Roddy's infidelity. Was that the cause of the distance between them? Or was it an effect, the marriage already having lost its luster?

>37 kdcdavis:: It surprised me that Roddy had the imagination to carry on an affair--it was almost as if he thought that was somehow an expected facet of marriage
Oh, that's another thought ... interesting.

And I keep remembering that Taylor herself was carrying on an affair as she was writing the book ...

Jan 13, 2012, 1:53pm Top


What do we make of the parallel between Oliver pulling Felicity out of the muddy water, and his father later saving her from the same river when she was in true peril?

Jan 14, 2012, 4:50am Top

oooh interesting - i didn't make that link - I've always been a bit slow - well done!!

Ok - so - here I go....Oliver did it because he loved Felicity....his father did it only because he thought he ought to....noble reasons - less noble motivation...

and I would challenge the assertion that Felicity was conventional - I thought she was unconventional and pushed Oliver to have a wild time, as it were....

Jan 15, 2012, 9:57am Top

"running wild"---I loved that bit.

Edited: Jan 19, 2012, 1:22am Top

This message has been deleted by its author.

Edited: Jan 24, 2012, 3:39pm Top

Elizabeth Taylor's writing is always exquisite but somehow I found At Mrs Lippincote's lacking. The characters were uneasily liked and the story quite dreary. I liked Oliver, Felicity and Mr. Taylor. The others I found rather boring and lifeless. I think that I found in this book the same things that I find so often in Elizabeth Berg's books: The boredom and sameness of daily living. At times I can find that extraordinary and charming but sadly in this book I did not.
I will try another of hers next month. I rated this one 2 stars.
My favorite quote from this novel was:

"No one could remember. "One of the best meals I ever at in my imagination was the Boeuf indaube in To The Lighthouse," said Julia; "I see it now and smell it---the great earthenware dish and its" (she closed her eyes and breathed slowly) " 'its confusion of savoury brown and yellow meats, and its bayleaves and its wine' ".
They laughed at her and she took up a spoon and was surprised that the taste was of fruit, not meat.
"Virginia Woolf is a little too modern for me, " said the
wing Commander. She has not stood the test of time. She has not been approved by posterity."
"We have none of us been that," said Julia. But we can still enjoy a meal."

Our Winged Commander had some pretty big kahunas to speak of Ms. Woolf in that regard.


Jan 15, 2012, 8:42pm Top

I found the copy I knew I had, bought on 5 July 1988 for £2.60 (cover price £3.95) apparently. Instead of the introductions by Valerie Martin (current edition) or Tim Waterstone (the library discard copy I read, 2006) there is an autobiographical sketch originally published in an American magazine in 1953.

I really enjoyed this book, and was amused by Eleanor going to meetings and assuming everyone else was taking them really seriously, then the revelation of their actual thoughts, and also her automatically checking out everyone's bookshelves at any opportunity.

Jan 16, 2012, 10:28pm Top

I just read this book a couple of months ago, I think? It didn't thrill but overall, I liked it. The writing is good but I had a hard time really identifying with any of the characters. I wrote a review for it earlier so I won't go on about it here. I'm looking forward to reading some more of her work, especially Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont. I saw the movie and I really liked it!

Jan 17, 2012, 5:39am Top

I've finished so finally made my way over to this thread. I really enjoyed this, my first book by Elizabeth Taylor. I thought the writing was wonderful and although I'm not sure I could say that I liked any of the characters (except the children), I felt I could sympathise with them.

Reading through the discussion above, about how limited women's lives were at he time brought to mind a section in the book where Julia and the Wing Commander were discussing Felicity's schooling (and I didn't make a note of where this was whilst I was reading so I might be misremembering). The WC gives his opinion that Greek grammar etc for girls is pointless as they will never use it and Julia, whilst agreeing that they will never use it, thinks it is worthwhile because it can save them from boredom when they're older and trapped in the drudgery of housework; they can think about Greek grammar whilst washing up and it will make it more bearable (or something like that).

#13 That was a quote that really struck me too. I loved all the Bronte references throughout this book and Julia referring to the WC as Mr Rochester.

#33 "In some ways her life is like the cheap swan on the mantle piece." - oh yes, very well put Maren.

#35 Thank you for sharing bits from the biography Laura - that's really helpful.

#36, 37 & 38 "I got the impression that with a little effort and determination from each of them, this marriage could be a much more comfortable arrangement." Yes, I've been trying to think through why and how it got to that stage - was it laziness? weariness? an affair? Because we don't seem to be given any clues as to what their relationship was like before, I suppose ET has left it up to the reader to guess at the causes to their current marital problems.

#44 "amused by Eleanor going to meetings and assuming everyone else was taking them really seriously, then the revelation of their actual thoughts - yes, that made me smile too.

Jan 17, 2012, 5:40am Top

I'm really interested in seeing how her writing evolves as we read each book. I've read her first 3 novels, and one of her later ones (Mrs. Palfrey), but wasn't aware at the time of how they were placed in her career.

Jan 17, 2012, 5:44am Top

#47 Me too, there are a couple of authors I've been rereading in publication/written order recently and it's been really interesting.

Did anyone else feel the ending lacked something the rest of the book had? It didn't feel right to me and I'm still trying to work out why.

Jan 19, 2012, 10:31am Top

I was reading back through the thread and it made me think of a larger question. Why do we need or want to identify with or like the central characters of a novel? (I noticed how many of us only liked the children.) It seems like there is value in writing about characters honestly even if that means that we don't really like them but it fascinates me that it seems that the central characters seem to have alienated readers in some cases to the point of not liking the book.

I would say Roddy didn't know it was Felicity when he saved her. He then kept saying something to the effect of "any other child"

Interesting about the wasps. I suppose they are a nuisance, there is the buzzing and the potential stinging but it seems more symptomatic of something going wrong in the relationship. . .

Edited: Jan 19, 2012, 10:50am Top

I found all the characters interesting; the children were more appealing on the whole, but I think their relationship would have seemed a bit bland without that of the adults to set it off.

If this novel is anything to go by (I haven't read any of her other work yet) Elizabeth Taylor writes exquisitely, but in this case I think the writing was much better than the story, which didn't really give it anywhere to go, if that makes any sense at all. I'm looking forward to reading her later work and seeing if she manages to make the two aspects a bit better balanced.

Jan 19, 2012, 10:51am Top

>49 Marensr:: While I find it helps me to like a book if I like the characters, it is more important for me that they be a) interesting and b) act in ways that are true to the character traits the author has established. Taylor succeeds on both counts, IMO, in At Mrs Lippincote's. I think I felt more sympathy for Julila than many of the group, but what mattered more was that I felt her actions and reactions throughout fit with what we had seen and been told of her personality. Likewise Roddy and the other viewpoint characters.

Sometimes it can be a relief for me to read a book where I don't like the characters much, then I don't feel worried that bad things might happen to them! But if I dislike them and they are not convincing or interesting, then I will put the book down.

I agree with your interpretation of Roddy's rescue of Felicity. But I think he would have saved her even knowing who she was, because he was brought up to be that sort of decent chap.

Jan 19, 2012, 11:57am Top

#49-51 I was contemplating speaking to this issue myself, but just didn't get my thoughts and fingers organized. I agree that I don't need to like or sympathize with the characters; they must strike me as real people, and be interesting in some respect. If they are unlikeable and boring, I'm done. (Some of my favorite characters in literature are despicable, actually.)

Jan 19, 2012, 3:50pm Top

Yes, indeed - I kept meaning to write that down too, but didn't get round to it (I've had a hectic couple of days with my business - thank goodness I got rid of the part-time job!). I didn't much like the children in it, tbh, BUT they were beautifully drawn and so fine.

Jan 19, 2012, 4:18pm Top

I read this book so long ago I cannot remember as much as I should so I rooted around in desk drawers until I found my written comments. I expected these to be lengthy but instead I found that I had given the novel only a few lines, starting with 'Marvelous!' and then going on to say how amused I was by it. Amused? Nobody else seems to have found it amusing so perhaps I meant amusing as in charming. All I can say is I loved it and am now afraid to re-read it in case it was just one of those books that hit the spot at the time but was never really much good.

Jan 19, 2012, 4:44pm Top

I read it just over a year ago - and although it's not my favourite of the ET books I have read - I did enjoy it very much, I think the beauty of ET's writing lies in the everyday domestic details of her characters - they become so real. Their motivations, actions and reactions seem minutely observed by Taylor - she understands her characters through and through. I didn't much like Julia, although I was able to sympathise with her too and I did find her very believable, and interesting, as many flawed characters in fiction are. I also thought Oliver a fabulous child character.

Jan 19, 2012, 4:59pm Top

I agree with your assessment Ali.

Jan 23, 2012, 7:22pm Top

If it is a well-written book it doesn't matter to me so much that I identify with the the characters, I just wondered when I saw so many people mentioning it. I also thought it was amusing- it is darkly amusing but funny nonetheless I think.

I don't think Roddy is so dispicable he wouldn't have saved Felicity but simply that it was not intentional.

I actually found something about the novel very cinematic. I have very vivid images in my head for the whole story even weeks later.

Jan 25, 2012, 4:45am Top

#54 Yes, I found it amusing, too - a very dry humour?

I finished this yesterday, having read it quite quickly. I was a bit surprised to find that I hadn't read it before as I'm sure I've read nearly all Elizabeth Taylor's novels. This is happening to me quite a lot recently - I'd expected advancing age might make me forget books I'd read, until I started them again, but it's having the opposite effect. I suppose it's not so surprising with the Classics as they seep into general consciousness anyway but this type of book would hardly be covered by that.

I love Taylor's turns of phrase, and, like Maren, found it a very visual book. I felt I was in the corner of every room watching it happen.

Jan 25, 2012, 7:37am Top

Uh, I think I missed something; must re-read.

Jan 26, 2012, 12:48pm Top

So...I took this off the shelf to re-read and finally started seriously doing so last night...on the 25th of January? That sounds about right. Heh.

I hadn't remembered the quote that I pulled out (13) coming so quickly in the novel, nor the bookishness that followed. I loved that whole beginning of the second chapter.

But I don't seem to have remembered anything else much, so I'm quite looking forward to this re-read. (I'm on page 40 now.)

Jan 29, 2012, 4:35am Top

I'm halfway through this at the moment, but wanted to check in with this thread as I am a bit puzzled by aspects of the book - eg, what is the purpose of the Communist subplot? Really insightful comments here, for which many thanks. Just on the WC's dismissal of Woolf, I had been thinking that some of the descriptions are very Woolfian, so that might make this a little joke at ET's own expense?

Jan 29, 2012, 10:58am Top

#61 that might make this a little joke at ET's own expense? Ooh...hadn't thought of that...but then I haven't read nearly enough Woolf myself.

Jan 29, 2012, 2:14pm Top

Just found this wonderful site via Jane Brocket's blog. Haven't negotiated around much yet but ELIZABETH TAYLOR - I'm a huge fan and have been for years. Just finished "Blaming" a couple of weeks ago and have "A Game of Hide and Seek" to start soon (again). Read "At Mrs Lippincote's" a year or so back, not enough left of January to join in the fun. Daughter bought me "The Other Elizabeth Taylor" for birthday when it first appeared. Will try to get "Palladian" for next month.

ps The Death of the Heart - searing...

Jan 29, 2012, 7:23pm Top

>63 criggall:: welcome, criggall! I'm so glad you've found us. I'm reading The Other Elizabeth Taylor now myself, it's so interesting.

Jan 29, 2012, 7:27pm Top

I know January isn't quite over yet, but I posted a wrap-up of this month's discussion on my blog.

Jan 30, 2012, 1:19am Top

Warm welcome to crigall as well!
Laura - I really enjoyed reading your resume (can't seem to do accents here ...)

Jan 30, 2012, 4:11pm Top

Yep, hey Criggall and welcome!

May 11, 2012, 9:36am Top

Just finally got round to reading this a little late (I'm playing catch up here) and I thought it was marvellous. As I think I've said elsewhere, I sense a pattern in the ET books I've read so far of main female characters with unsatisfactory husbands who they love but can't relate to/get enough out of to make them happy. Julia obviously is not happy to play the game and wants more from life than what is expected of her. It's easy to dismiss the situation she finds herself in and say she should be stronger etc etc but if she hadn't married Roddy she might well have ended up like Eleanor. I found Eleanor an interesting character too and her dalliance with the communists an interesting sideline. Taylor's portrayal of all the characters was effective and humorous and as people have said on here, the children are really well portrayed.

I have to confess, though, that I really didn't see the ending coming - I was actually quite surprised about Roddy's dalliances, as I thought the issue with their marriage was just dullness! It all made sense, retrospectively, and explained the WC to a certain degree (although his behaviour towards Julia still made me a little uncomfortable).

But it's an excellent first novel and I really did enjoy it.

Dec 1, 2012, 2:51pm Top

i have just started re-reading this one now, before going on to Blaming I am now glad i didn't re-read it back in january as it mean two lovely ET books to read in December.

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