Published in 1964, The Soul of Kindness is one of Elizabeth Taylor’s later novels. It’s the seventh novel by her that I’ve read and since I want to read everything she has written, it won’t be my last. I have to be honest though – if this had been my first, I might not have been so keen to carry on. While most other novels have one, or two central characters, this is more of an ensemble piece. It says in the foreword that it is one of three novels that don’t centre on a main character. The other two being In A Summer Season and The Wedding Group, both of which I haven’t read yet. This may sound as if I didn’t like it – that’s’ not the case but I think it works better when you know her writing already and read it as part of her oeuvre. If not, you might feel a bit let down by the lack of plot and its feeling a bit disjointed at times, especially since the blurb tells us this is Flora’s story. I suppose that was a marketing decision, as it isn’t her story, not in a traditional way that is. She’s more like the central figure among a group of people. But she’s definitely “the Soul of Kindness” the ironic title alludes to.
When the book opens, we see her as a shining bride, all eyes on her. She’s the belle of the ball. While people do admire her and many think highly of her, nobody does so as much as she does herself. Right away she is presented as attractive and nice, but also too fond of herself and a little ridiculous.
“Here I am!” Flora called to Richard as she went downstairs. For a second, Meg felt disloyalty. It occurred to her of a sudden that Flora was always saying that, and that it was in the tone of one giving a lovely present. She was bestowing herself.
Most of the central characters of this novel, are present at the wedding. Especially those whose lives Flora wants to improve. Among those unlucky ones are Meg, her best friend, Kit, Meg’s brother, and Percy and Ba, her father in law and his mistress. They are unlucky because Flora might be well meaning but she’s so self-centred, her attempts to help leads to smaller and bigger catastrophes. To help another person one has to be able to see them for what they are and that’s something Flora is incapable of.
While there isn’t really a plot, and after these initial scenes, not even a main character, the book still offers a lot. There are so many astutely observed character portraits, small vignettes, and scenes, some of which quite funny, that it’s a joy to read. I was particularly fond of Elizabeth Taylor’s use of atmospheric descriptions to convey a mood.
Here’s a very melancholic passage. We see Mrs Secretan, Flora’s mother, who was wishing so much for Flora to marry well, but never thought what it would mean for her, as a widow, that her daughter would move out.
The air smelt autumnal. In no time there would be thick evening mist coming up from the water, a complete silence from the towing-path, and the river rising; perhaps floods. And Flora would be settled in London and never to come here again, except as a guest.
I made all the plans, Mrs Secretan thought; down to the last detail. But I forgot this, I forgot myself and the future. I particularly overlooked this evening. She read the letter through again, telling herself that Flora had meant well, meant very well, poor girl. In fact she had always meant well. That intention had been seen clearly, lying behind some of her biggest mistakes.
This passage shows us, quite clearly that even her mother doesn’t think of Flora as kind and good, but merely as well-meaning with fatal consequences.
And here’s a funny passage in which Mrs Secretan, encouraged by her son-in-law, thinks about travelling. It captures both characters, of Flora and her mother so well.
To Flora’s astonishment she (her mother) was quite seriously weighing the pros and cons – of Hellenic tours (‘might be too scholarly’), India (‘but I dare say it is spoiled, now that it doesn’t belong to us’), the Holy Land for Christmas.
‘Yes, I might plump for the Holy Land for Christmas,’ she had told Flora, who had been deeply shocked. At Christmas! she had thought in dismay. So what shall we do? Christmas had always been a sacred time, with cherished customs, not one for taking oneself off to the Holy Land.
Flora is so oblivious of other people and their needs that she’s pretty much the only happy character in this novel. All the others strive for something or someone they can’t attain. Or, because of Flora, they start to strive for something that’s not attainable, risking their contentment for a mirage.
In The Soul of Kindness, like in all of her novels, Elizabeth Taylor excels at creating well-rounded, believable characters. Their relationships are complex and at times complicated. Nothing is as simple as Flora perceives it. Not even her own husband Richard. He’s very much in love with his wife, because of her beauty, but knows that she’s too self-centred to be clever. No wonder he’s attracted to his unhappy neighbour. This relationship triggers Flora’s jealousy and we see, she can be perceptive when she feels threatened.
In the foreword, Flora is called demonic, which I find a total exaggeration. I don’t think she’s as bad as we’re initially led to believe. Yes, she’s self-centred, oblivious, and puts in motion some things that go terribly wrong, but she’s the glue that holds all these people together. Without her, this particular group of people and their relationships wouldn’t exist. And that’s not a little thing. It’s a gift to attract interesting people and to bring them together. I would, if I had to judge her, call her very imperfect, but neither demonic nor mean. That’s why, ultimately, she’s liked and forgiven.
There’s a lot to enjoy in this novel but I don’t think it’s as good as others. I believe it doesn’t succeed at being the portrait of one central character like Angel for example, but that’s how the beginning reads. All the initial chapters place Flora at the centre but this cohesion eventually fizzles out. As if Elizabeth Taylor had realized too late that Flora wasn’t a big enough character to carry a whole story. I could be totally wrong, of course, as critics have called this one of her, if not her best book.
Since this is one of three “group stories” I hope I will like the other two In A Summer Season and The Marriage Group more.