Blaming – Elizabeth Taylor (1976) 190 pages
Blaming was Elizabeth Taylor’s last novel and features all of her characteristic wit, sharp observation, compassion and lack of sentimentality.
It is the story of a relationship between Amy, a middle-class, middle-aged housewife, and a younger American novelist, Martha:
“Amy seemed to have remained at the age of seventeen, or thereabouts; but it was the English girlhood of her own class and time. The like never come again, Martha, much younger and American, decided.”
They meet on a cruise, and at a desperate time for Amy, Martha is there for her. They have nothing else in common except this shared experience, and when she returns home Amy has no plans to ever see Martha again. Martha has other ideas, and what follows is a brilliant dissection of a relationship built out of a sense of obligation, of politeness, and of unspoken, unacknowledged needs.
What makes this tale so compelling in its characterisation and circumstance is that Martha isn’t a monster. She’s not horrible or domineering or rude, but she’s unaware, a bit selfish and slightly irritating. It’s all so ordinary, and Amy is at a total loss as to what to do:
“Lolling back in her chair, steadily eating biscuits as if to satisfy a long-felt need, Martha dropped crumbs onto her lap, and occasionally brushed them off onto the carpet. She is going to be untidy about the place, Amy was thinking. Two long days. She glanced up at the clock. What could she do with her for all that time? The long evening ahead for instance. They could not – surely – just talk all the time.”
In her portrayal of Amy’s life and wider family, Taylor captures how relatives can also feel a sense of obligation, and even affection, that at the same time is arduous and would easier to live without. Her daughter-in-law and son like Amy well enough, she in turn likes her slightly irritating grandchildren. It would be easier for them all not to spend time together, but that is not how families work:
“He knew she was weeping for herself, not for his mother. She had never been drawn to her – no cosy women’s chats; but in spite of warmth, their relationship was exemplary […]
‘We will make some good plans,’ James said reassuringly. ‘It’s nice of you to care so much. Certainly a long weekend some time can’t be too terrible a strain on anyone.’
So nothing was done.”
In Blaming, Taylor demonstrates how the deepest pain that people experience can – and most often does – live alongside, the boring, the banal, the everyday. She shows how guilt is a powerful motivator for people who aren’t good or bad, just ordinary and fairly decent.
Blaming is a novel where you can sit back knowing you are in the hands of a masterful artist. Taylor is a brilliant, incisive writer, intelligent and humane. Any work of hers is a gift to the reader.