“She recalled her past kindness – the kindness, the affection of sixteen years – how she had taught and how she had played with her from five years old – how she had devoted all her powers to attach and amuse her in health – and how she nursed her through the various illness of childhood.” (Jane Austen, Emma, 1815).
I have recently been teaching Jane Austen’s novels alongside those of the lesser-known twentieth-century writer, Elizabeth Taylor. They share several affinities, not least their interest in subtle forms of shifting emotion and psychological nuance, discreet social and emotional implications, a language of hints. I teach my students to read their sentences twice, three times or more because some of their sentences can deliver more than we thought they might: entire histories.
Jane Austen was interested in affection; the effect of feelings that run the course of time. This includes kindness, and in the passage quoted above – which comes from the opening of Austen’s novel, Emma (1815) – the narrator reminds us that the kindness of Miss Taylor, devoted governess to the Woodhouse family, ran for 16 years: the length of Emma’s childhood. With this sentence we walk straight into a period of familial mourning for Miss Taylor. We learn of the history of her kindness in which ‘history’ is a record of tender feelings or sympathy.
The sentence is delivered from Miss Taylor’s point of view, and as such, it reads as a brief history of her practical care. I notice the three uses of ‘how’: ‘how she had taught . . .how she had played . . . how she had devoted all her powers.’ The adverb ‘how’ functions as a hook for Miss Taylor’s precise acts of kindness, or what the narrator is now calling her “devotion.” Devotion comes close to meaning a form of worship; the way in which Miss Taylor cared for young Emma Woodhouse was something akin to a religious commitment. ‘All her powers’ means her entire focus; her emotional and mental capacities were given to Emma.
Elizabeth Taylor was also a writer interested in kindness and care. She was writing in the twentieth century, but one of her literary ancestors was undoubtedly Jane Austen. Taylor’s novel, The Soul of Kindness (1964) takes the theme of devoted affection, or kindness, and questions what kindness is for when the feeling is conditional. ‘Kindness’, which if we look at the root of the word in a dictionary, reaches back to the old English word, ‘kyndnes’, which means ‘nation’ or ‘native’, but is also rooted in ‘kin’, which draws upon associations with ‘family’, or natural feeling for those you call your relations. Both Emma and The Soul of Kindness are novels of relations: how we are related to others and by what emotional and economic means.
At the opening of The Soul of Kindness, Flora Secretan is getting married. She is leaving behind her devoted mother, Mrs Secretan, and she is being fussed over by her school friend, Meg Driscoll, her bridesmaid. As a reader, we walk straight into a long history of fussing and petting, what Taylor’s narrator calls a ‘Nannie’ friendship. The Nanny is Mrs. Secretan, but it has also been Meg, as we learn from the sentence below told from Meg’s point of view.
“At school she had been Flora’s Nannie-friend, for it was clear that from the day that Flora arrived there that what Mrs. Secretan had done – the cherishing, the protecting – could not be lightly broken off.”
When Flora arrived at her new school Meg inherited Mrs. Secretan’s history of devotion. Meg, in other words, took on the work of adoring and protecting Flora; her work continues in this opening scene in her role as her fussing bridesmaid.
Flora is a close relative of Emma Woodhouse, a young woman also accustomed to exclusive care. There is something ominous about this sentence, and I hear it in the phrase, ‘what Mrs. Secretan had done’. As a reader I feel slightly nervous, but this is what Taylor wants me to feel. The emotional commitment to Flora is immense and set against the backdrop of Flora’s wedding to Richard Quartermaine, this sentence only adds pressure to this commitment. Taylor’s narrator is implying that Mrs. Secretan had her own sort of marriage to her daughter, such is the intensity of her feeling for Flora. This cherishing and protecting cannot be ‘lightly broken off;’ you might break off an engagement, but you cannot so easily break off a wedding day. Taylor borrows from Austen the language of emotional commitment to a child becoming woman: that long tract of time spent cherishing and protecting.
Elizabeth Taylor may still be little known, but her stories can teach us a lot about surface; she peels it away and critiques gentility, critiques what it means to be gentle and kind. She is psychological in her approach to women, which is a relief to me as someone who wants to teach writing about women in a way that allows for depth. Taylor wrote as a middleclass housewife and her novels honour the ordinariness of everyday domesticity. Frequently, the focus of her narrative steers away from the central character; instead of giving us a unified point of view, Taylor’s narrator breaks up her characters’ consciousness; fragments and interrupts their thoughts; and in that sense, she is true to the experience of a wife and mother who is trying to write from home as Taylor did from her small village in Buckinghamshire. Taylor is a more experimental writer than she has been given credit for and has as much in common with the modernist writing of Virginia Woolf who also looked back to Austen for her understanding of sympathy. She is an important writer, worthy of recognition, because she depicts ordinary lives on ordinary days but with bold experiments in narrative form. Her plotless novels remind us that our lives, while often brimming with emotion, remain unseen.
With thanks to my student, Sabrina Durmaz, who worked with me to prepare this piece.
Sally Bayley is a fiction and non-fiction writer. She is currently a Lecturer in English at Hertford College, Oxford. In 1990, Sally was the first child to go to university from the West Sussex Care system. She is currently completing a set of three coming of age stories that challenge our understanding of literary genre.
Elizabeth Taylor (1912-1975) was a novelist and short-story writer whose work portrays the mundanities of life as a middle-class, suburban woman. Her novels, influenced by E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf, are made up of scenes of domestic life that hint at the chaos beneath the surface.