Blaming was Elizabeth Taylor’s final novel written in something of a hurry during her final illness, when she knew that she was dying. It is a novel much more character driven than plot driven – as I think is much, if not all of her work. It is a novel about guilt, bereavement and blame.
Amy is a very recognisable Elizabeth Taylor character. Middle aged, middle class, she is often reserved, holding back her thoughts and feelings, taking little interest in people around her. While on holiday aboard ship with her husband Nick, Amy is suddenly widowed, left stranded and bewildered in a foreign country. Incapacitated by grief Amy is befriended by Martha an American writer, a little odd and certainly the type of woman who Amy would generally have had little time for. However Martha takes charge of Amy, accompanying her back to England, even though it means cutting her own holiday short. Once home, Martha proves rather difficult to shake off. Amy is surrounded by people, her son James and his wife Maggie with their two “little girls” the superb Isobel and Dora (brilliant child characters again from Elizabeth Taylor – she knew children so absolutely. Ernie Pounce a kind of male housekeeper who with his new false teeth and slight hypochondria loves nothing more than to fuss around after “madam,” and Gavin, physician and dear old friend, the widower of her one time best friend, calls in regularly. Amy feels no need of Martha, but feels guilty after the care Martha took of her, and allows Martha to visit. However it appears that Martha has some need of Amy, she is a rather lonely figure, happy to push herself forward, inviting herself to Amy’s house, questioning Amy and Ernie about their lives with no embarrassment – seemingly unaware of any awkwardness. Martha soon becomes a regular part of Amy’s life, and Amy finds she has rather less need of James and Maggie, much to their obvious relief. However when a vulnerable Martha herself is in need of support – she is tragically let down by Amy.
Often in Elizabeth Taylor’s novels, it is the peripheral characters that provide the humour that she injects so beautifully even into her more poignant works. In Blaming the gentle humour is provided by Ernie, and Amy’s grandchildren, the “little girls”
“To the children, first thing next morning, Maggie said, “I’m afraid dear Grandpa has died.”
“And gone to heaven,” Isobel said, as if her mother had left something out.
Maggie slightly inclined her head, not to be caught telling a lie by the God she did not believe in.
“And-Gone-To-Heaven” Isobel shouted, standing up, outraged, in her little bed.
“Yes of course.”
“Not everyone goes to heaven,” Dora, who was older said, “Egyptian mummies didn’t go. Or stuffed fishes.”
“No fishes never go,” Isobel agreed “sometimes I eat them. Chickens can’t go nor”
“I don’t really know about heaven,” Dora said in her considered way. “We haven’t done that at school yet. But I know they must go somewhere, or we’d be full up here. People coming and going all the time”
Published after her death this novel brings to a close the work of a remarkable writer; it seems a fitting note to end on. There is an obvious reflective poignancy to this novel, in her brilliantly understated way Elizabeth Taylor draws a discreet veil over her own work. In the afterword to my edition Joanna Kingham writes very movingly about her mother’s battle to finish this novel and the true story behind one of the incidents involving the children.
Incidentally did anyone else notice the marvellous homage to Jane Austen in the scene between James and Maggie at the beginning of Chapter 5? As soon as I read it this time (I know I missed it the first time I read Blaming) I thought ‘oh that’s just like in Sense and Sensibility!’ – And sure enough Jonathan Keates in the introduction to my edition (I read introductions after the novel) draws attention to the very same thing.