Firstly, A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor. I loved Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont so once I saw Taylor had a novel published in 1951 this was an easy choice for me. Like Mrs Palfrey, it is a finely observed portrait of a life lived quietly, with its sadness not shied away from but without being depressing.
One summer after World War I, as she is on the brink of adulthood, Harriet falls in love with Vesey. I’ve no idea why as he seems proof that it’s possible for jellyfish to take on human form and he is wholly self-centred, but fall for him she does. It’s testament to Taylor’s writing that the male love-object being determinedly unheroic does not detract from the story at all. People fall for all sorts of unsuitable types and this is one example. Also, Taylor is a nicer person than me and does not judge him as harshly:
“The streak of cruelty which Lilian had perceived in him was real enough, but used defensively. He would not have wished to be cruel to Harriet, who had not threatened him. Indeed it had begun to seem to him that only she was set against the great weight of disapproval he felt upon him. His mother treated him, at best, with an amused kindliness. Among her friends she drew attention to him as if he were a beloved marmoset on a chain, somehow enhancing her own originality, decorating her.”
Their love affair is marked by very little happening. It is a series of minor misunderstandings, things unsaid, feelings unexpressed. This is absolutely Taylor’s strength: she is brilliant at depicting small devastations.
“All through the long winter and the spring, she would not have him near her; yet now, standing so close beside him, the moment which should have been so precious was worse than useless: it shrank, and stopped and curdled. These blue flowers she carried in her hand she would surely hate for the rest of her life.”
The novel then jumps forward fifteen years. Harriet is married to Charles, they have an adolescent daughter who is in love with her teacher, and Harriet has learnt to be a good wife:
“When she married Charles, she had seemed to wed also a social order. A convert to it, and to provincial life, and keeping-house, she had pursued it fanatically and as if she feared censure. No one had entertained more methodically or better bolstered up social interplay. She had been indefatigable in writing letters of condolence, telegrams of congratulation; remembered birthdays and anniversaries; remembered bread-and-butter letters and telephone messages after parties…”
When Vesey reappears, so do Harriet’s long-buried feelings. They embark on an affair, but again, it’s strangely uneventful. Given that Harriet’s mother was a suffragette and is best friends with Vesey’s aunt, the next generation of their families lack volition.
A Game of Hide and Seek is a wonderful novel filled with Taylor’s unblinking observations, humour and compassion. The supporting characters of Harriet’s husband, daughter, work colleagues and dreadful mother-in-law are all brilliantly drawn. There is ambiguity around some fairly major points in the novel, not least the ending. This is not a novel to read if you want answers and ends tied up neatly. But if you want to have your heart broken just a little bit by a portrait of lives lived in quiet desperation, this is for you.
“Against him, against his calm and decision, she felt confused and incoherent; and, looking back on her married life, it seemed a frayed, tangled thing made by two strangers.”
Secondly, The Ballad of the Sad Café by Carson McCullers. This is a collection of short stories, of which the titular story makes up half, which I’ll focus on. This was my first foray into both McCullers and Southern Gothic and I found it compelling. The Ballad of the Sad Café tells the story of Miss Amelia, a lynchpin in her local community despite being wholly unsympathetic to those around her. She runs the store and brews the alcohol and practices effective folk remedies.
“…when a man has drunk Miss Amelia’s liquor. He may suffer, or he may be spent with joy – but the experience has shown the truth; he has warmed his soul and seen the message hidden there.”
A hunchback arrives in town professing to be a distant relation of Miss Amelia and she adores him. He is manipulative and untrustworthy, but things tick along. He persuades her to turn the store into the café and she gives him all he desires, and probably a few things he doesn’t, such as her kidney stones set in a watch chain.
“For the lover is for ever trying to strip bare his beloved. The lover craves any possible relation with the beloved, even if this experience can cause him only pain.”
Things change when Miss Amelia’s estranged husband is released from jail. He adored Miss Amelia and has taken her rejection of him badly. He arrives back in town and tensions begin to build.
“Any number of wicked things could be listed against him, but quite apart from these crimes there was about him a secret meanness that clung to him almost like a smell. Another thing – he never sweated, not even in August, and that surely is a sign worth pondering over.”
McCullers increases the tension throughout this short tale expertly, and her cast of characters are idiosyncratic but never caricatures. Similarly, the gothic elements are not overwrought and fit well within the heady, tense atmosphere. A short portrait of a small town tragedy.
The cultural significance of The Ballad of the Sad Café has been recognised through that most prestigious of accolades: a Sesame Street parody. If I was McCullers I’d be overjoyed 😀