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The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor

The Sleeping Beauty (1953)

by Elizabeth Taylor

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1971185,136 (3.68)1 / 44
  1. 00
    Blaming by Elizabeth Taylor (KayCliff)
    KayCliff: Both books deal with friendships between two women, one newly widowed.

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“Love is a disturbing element . . . disruptive, far-reaching. The world cannot assimilate it or eject it. Its beauty can evoke evil; its radiance corrupts . . . “

Years before the story proper begins, Isabella, a central character in Taylor’s sixth novel, meets Vinny Tumulty (yes, Tumulty) at a London blood donor clinic. They recline on beds positioned next to each other, and, as their blood is collected, Isabella notices how soothing Vinny’s presence can be. Afterwards, Vinny drives her home, and he meets her husband, Harry. Thus begins his insinuation into the Godden family. Since that time, he has kept in touch with an annual Christmas card.

When the novel opens, Vinny has not seen Isabella for a decade. Now close to 50, he gallantly re-enters her life to comfort her in her time of loss, for Harry, a public figure and Liberal MP, has recently died. He drowned in a yachting accident, which his 20-ish son, Laurence, somehow managed to survive. There is some confusion as to what actually happened. Did Laurence attempt to save Harry, or did he leave him to struggle in the water? Whatever the case, Harry’s body was not recovered, and there has been no funeral—not that Isabella would have been capable of arranging one anyway. Harry always looked after everything, from pouring the drinks to doing all the worrying. Almost every character comments on how silly Isabella is, and she herself says that she never grew up.

Taylor has moved the small Norfolk village of “Seething”— a name that that promises melodrama— to the coast in order to provide her characters with a romantic, natural backdrop against which to interact. There will be brief scenes set in Buckinghamshire and London, but it is the shoreline with its rocky cliffs and sandy beaches that will be the novel’s primary setting.

When Vinny first arrives in Isabella’s parlour, the reader wonders if he’s there to take advantage of a grieving widow and her financial assets. As Isabella sheds the first of her theatrical tears on his shoulder, Vinny’s eyes are already surveying the room. Any notion the reader may have had that Vinny is interested in Isabella as a person is quickly dispelled. Nevertheless, he remains deeply (and egotistically) invested in his relationships with females, and Isabella’s situation offers him a welcome-enough opportunity to display what he wants everyone to see as his sensitive and sympathetic nature. When it comes to consoling the grieved, Isabella finds him more personal than the professionals (doctors and clergy). He is certainly smoother. Laurence, Isabella’s son, is suspicious of him from the get-go; he finds him a total phoney, and refuses to submit to his counselling and artificial chumminess.

Soon enough, Taylor makes clear that Vinny’s dominant characteristic is not sensitivity but romanticism. He can’t bear too much reality, the mess of human passions and needs—both physical and emotional. He prefers his encounters with women to occur in the twilight hours, or under cover of darkness, so he doesn’t have to see too much or too clearly. He leads everyone to believe he never has and never will marry. Continuing to live with his overbearing, preternaturally vigorous mother in London, he works as an underwriter for Lloyds. When he tells Isabella he’ll regularly visit Seething to assist her as she adjusts to a new life without Harry, however, she is delighted by the idea that Vinny is romantically interested in her. Some of the book focuses on her coming to terms with the fact that he has become infatuated with someone else. His rejection of her certainly contributes to the novel’s climax.

During his first visit to Seething, Vinny observes a beautiful hooded woman walking on the beach, trailed by a young girl. (Minus the young girl, the scene could be straight out of The French Lieutenant’s Woman; all the ingredients for male romantic fantasy are there.) Vinny is, of course, immediately smitten with Emily, a “Sleeping Beauty” whose life (he later learns) “froze” after a serious car accident that killed her brother-in-law. As well as causing physical injury, the accident dramatically changed Emily’s appearance, making her unrecognizable to those who once knew her. It didn’t erase her beauty exactly, but it, or subsequent surgery, somehow rearranged her facial features. (All of this is very hard to buy given the state of plastic surgery in the early 1950s when Taylor wrote the book.) The accident also changed Emily’s life in other ways. Once she had been a social butterfly who regularly attended parties, and a much desired woman, as well. After the accident, however, she spent a long time in hospital and was abandoned by her fiancé. For many years now, she has lived a semi-reclusive life as a captive of her chilly sister, Rose Kelsey. Sheltered from a world that Rose regards as dangerous, Emily serves as a companion to and minder of her sister’s “loopy”, “not-all-there” daughter, Philippa, whose virulence, wild tantrums, and fits of sobbing Rose finds appalling.

Rose has believed herself comfortable, even happy, with the quiet life she has built running a guesthouse, but her security is fragile and ripe for disruption by Vinny Tumulty. Vinny finagles his way into getting a room at the ugly Victorian guesthouse perched on the cliff, so that he can be close to the first woman to genuinely arouse his passion. Having had an erotic dream about her, he is convinced that his personal Wuthering Heights has been set in motion, and he is soon scheming to marry Emily. However, he (like almost every other character in the novel) has secrets, and these threaten to stand in his way.

The Sleeping Beauty is the seventh of Taylor’s books I’ve read, and it is definitely the most plot driven of the bunch. It adheres to a more conventional narrative structure, in which a protagonist faces and must overcome obstacles that prevent him from getting what he wants. As in Taylor’s other novels, her characters are interesting, but never lovable and certainly not nice. Taylor’s consistently ironic tone and her subversion of the love stories found in the works of the Brontes, Jane Austen, and, in this case, the classic fairy tale insure that the reader is kept at a certain distance from the characters. There is always a barrier to complete immersion in their stories. Taylor’s people dissemble and attempt to hide unpleasant thoughts, traits, and actions from others and themselves. Ultimately, though, the essential nastiness will out—with either a small explosion or a slow, corrosive leak. ( )
  fountainoverflows | Sep 3, 2018 |
Taylor is a very interesting novelist: in the tradition of the ironic, mildly subversive English-woman-novelist-who-gets-compared-to-Jane-Austen, but also a little bit off to one side of it. The books have a mood of quietly pleasurable pessimism that sits somewhere between Barbara Pym's "grateful to be back where we started from" view of the world and the doom and gloom of Anita Brookner. The irony is carefully dosed, so we are often tricked into taking her characters seriously at the beginning only to find her, a chapter or two down the line, making us see how absurd they really are by sticking in a couple of beautifully observed and entirely ridiculous details. In this book there's a running joke that most of the characters are secretly addicted to betting on horseraces, taking considerable pains to prevent their friends (who have the same vice) from finding out about it, for instance.

Like one or two of her other novels, this takes as its starting point the death of a husband and the consequent changes in a middle-aged woman's life, but in this case it isn't really the widow Isabella who is at the centre of the novel, but her male friend Vinnie, who falls, French Lieutenant's Woman style, for a mysterious woman he has glimpsed walking on the beach. It turns out that the "mystery woman", Emily, has had major plastic surgery on her face after a car accident and has locked herself away from the world ever since: the question is whether the middle-aged Vinnie has the qualifications to be the prince who awakens her. And whether a plot complication so absurd that it must have strayed in from either a Victorian novel or a soap opera can prevent the necessary happy-end?

A very good read, full of entertaining detail and anything but a romance. ( )
2 vote thorold | Aug 8, 2016 |
First published in the year I was born and the current Queen of England was crowned, so it's definitely an historical relic to some extent. Nonetheless, I reckon Elizabeth Taylor is a very good writer and there is an enduring interest in this book because of the skill she has in drawing characters and their relationships and tensions between them. Interesting view of British mid-20th century life and class structure too - makes me wonder whether is has changed fundamentally since then. I've never been there so I'll have to read more to find out. This book doesn't quite match her brilliant "Mrs Palfrey..." but I'll be looking for more of Taylor's work at the library tomorrow. ( )
  oldblack | Apr 3, 2014 |
In this, her sixth novel, Elizabeth Taylor took the bones of a fairy story and re-set it as a very human story, among other human stories, in an English seaside town.

Vinny, the hero, is visiting to offer help and support to an old friend, Isabella, who has been widowed. He does the job beautifully and Isabella, anxious about growing old on her own, fancies that she is beginning to fall in love with him.

Her son, Lawrence, on leave from the army, is less impressed.

And Vinny is falling in love with another. With a young woman he saw walking, alone, across the beach.

Emily lived at the town’s guest house with her widowed sister, Rose, and Rose’s disabled daughter. She’d had an independent life, but there had been a car accident. The physical injuries had healed but the mental scars had not. Maybe Vinny, in love for the first time, in his fifties, could be the man to rescue her …

Meanwhile, Isabella and her friend Evalie invest in beauty treatments, trying to hold on to youth and hope. Laurence, to his mother’s displeasure, embarks on a romance with Betty a nursery maid staying with her employers at Rose’s guest house. And Rose frets about how she would manage, should her sister marry.

The relationship between Vinny and Emily advances nicely. But Vinny has a secret that he dare not tell.

Elizabeth Taylor, of course, paints all of those characters, all of those lives, quite beautifully. Always showing, but never telling. I saw insecurities, I saw snobbery. But I understood; these were real, fallible human beings. In a few places I had doubts, but in the end there was nothing that I couldn’t accept.

Those doubts lead me to say that this is not my favourite of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels. I’d like to explain more, but to do that properly I would have to give away more of the plot than feels right.

My other concern was the balance between the characters: one more household, one more plotline, would have made the community and this seaside town so much more real for me. But I think that maybe what I wanted wasn’t what the author intended.

Whatever the case, I have to say that this is still a lovely book: beautifully written and with much to say about the human condition. ( )
3 vote BeyondEdenRock | Jul 1, 2012 |
1 vote kaggsy | Jun 28, 2012 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Elizabeth Taylorprimary authorall editionscalculated
Baddiel, DavidIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Clapp, SusannahIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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With Love
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"There's Vinny going in with the wreaths," Isabella had once said.
'We never read books written by men, do we? Just library books all the time...We ought to go in for psychology, or something like it.' (Introduction)
They met middle-age together—a time when women are necessary to one another —and all the petty but grievous insults of greying hair, crowsfeet, and the loathed encumbrances of unwanted flesh, seemed less sordid when faced and fought (though fought spasmodically and with weak wills) gaily together.
One is left so much on one's own. People are shy of the bereaved. They don't quite know what to BE. And they feel that they must not flock down, like Vultures - they say, "Other people are nearer to her, it is not our place to presume or intrude. Or are they just too embarrassed and waiting for death to blow over? Time heals everything, especially embarrassment.
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The Sleeping Beauty is a love story of middle age by a writer whom Arthur Mizener called "the modern man's Jane Austen." Vinny Tumulty is a quiet, sensible man. When he goes to stay at a small English seaside resort his task is to comfort a bereaved friend, Isabella. A master of sympathy, Vinny looks forward to a few solemn days of tears and consolation. Then, on the evening of his arrival, he looks out of the window at sunset and catches sight of a mysterious, romantic figure: a beautiful woman walking by the seashore. Before the weekend is over, Vinny has fallen in love, completely and utterly, for the first time in his middle-aged life. But Emily is a sleeping beauty, her secluded life hiding bitter secrets from the past. How can this unlikely Prince Charming break the spell and rouse her from her dreams?
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Vinny Tumulty is a quiet, sensible man. When he goes to stay at a seaside town, his task is to comfort a bereaved friend. Vinny is prepared for a solemn few days of tears and consolation. But on the evening of his arrival, he looks out of the window at the sunset and catches sight of a mysterious, romantic figure: a beautiful woman walking by the seashore. Before the week is over Vinny has fallen in love, completely and utterly, for the first time in his middle-aged life. Emily, though, is a sleeping beauty, her secluded life hiding bitter secrets from the past.… (more)

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