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There for the Duration

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‘It changed my life!’ people sometimes exclaim about a book. While I am fairly certain that has never happened to me, a book certainly changed my book. In the summer of 2004 I had finished writing a history of the home front in the Second World War. The manuscript was overdue and overlong, but at last it was in production and making a lot of work for everyone to ensure that it could be published in time for Christmas.

Then one evening, sitting in the garden, I began to read At Mrs Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor. And I knew I’d found what I didn’t know I was looking for, in three sentences at the beginning of Chapter 4:

Julia . . . noticed thick drops of blood running from the shopping bag. The Daily Worker (for Eleanor now veered towards class-consciousness under the influence of a visiting carpentry master) is an admirable newspaper in many ways, but for wrapping up any meat other than imported pork it is entirely inadequate. When she had unstuck the liver from the racing pages she sped upstairs . . . ‘I don’t like to have our meat wrapped in other people’s newspapers,’ said Roddy, meaning newspapers that have probably been read by the working-class.

It was a perfect small, barbed distillation of wartime conditions, uniting rationing, class, politics and fear of the future. It would have to go into my book as an epigraph, and the chapter it prefaced would have to be rewritten and reordered, to make it obvious why Taylor’s vignette was so sublime – so right. So, to gloss over the difficulties, that is what happened. It was just as Elizabeth Taylor had written to Elizabeth Bowen – a writer she greatly admired, and who greatly admired her – in 1949: ‘You rake up the dead leaves in our hearts and say many things which we did not know how to say ourselves . . .’

At Mrs Lippincote’s was Elizabeth Taylor’s first book, published in 1945. She had written

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‘It changed my life!’ people sometimes exclaim about a book. While I am fairly certain that has never happened to me, a book certainly changed my book. In the summer of 2004 I had finished writing a history of the home front in the Second World War. The manuscript was overdue and overlong, but at last it was in production and making a lot of work for everyone to ensure that it could be published in time for Christmas.

Then one evening, sitting in the garden, I began to read At Mrs Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor. And I knew I’d found what I didn’t know I was looking for, in three sentences at the beginning of Chapter 4:
Julia . . . noticed thick drops of blood running from the shopping bag. The Daily Worker (for Eleanor now veered towards class-consciousness under the influence of a visiting carpentry master) is an admirable newspaper in many ways, but for wrapping up any meat other than imported pork it is entirely inadequate. When she had unstuck the liver from the racing pages she sped upstairs . . . ‘I don’t like to have our meat wrapped in other people’s newspapers,’ said Roddy, meaning newspapers that have probably been read by the working-class.
It was a perfect small, barbed distillation of wartime conditions, uniting rationing, class, politics and fear of the future. It would have to go into my book as an epigraph, and the chapter it prefaced would have to be rewritten and reordered, to make it obvious why Taylor’s vignette was so sublime – so right. So, to gloss over the difficulties, that is what happened. It was just as Elizabeth Taylor had written to Elizabeth Bowen – a writer she greatly admired, and who greatly admired her – in 1949: ‘You rake up the dead leaves in our hearts and say many things which we did not know how to say ourselves . . .’ At Mrs Lippincote’s was Elizabeth Taylor’s first book, published in 1945. She had written it during the war while her husband, a confectionery manufacturer in peacetime, was away in the RAF. Roddy Davenant, the husband of Julia, who is the protagonist and who turns out to be the heroine of the story, is in the RAF too, but he is not away fighting. That is why Julia is living in rented accommodation near Roddy’s airforce base, in Mrs Lippincote’s gloomy, cluttered Edwardian house in Yorkshire, with him, their frail, intelligent son Oliver, and Roddy’s cousin, Eleanor. Eleanor is 40 and unmarried: ‘she . . . had a little money in Imperial Tobacco, a royal-blue evening dress, and was in love with her cousin, for whom, as they say, she would have laid down her life with every satisfaction’. Meantime Mrs Lippincote and her mad daughter have moved to a nearby guesthouse, apparently following the death of her husband, ‘whose eyes she had closed a month or two before’. Roddy’s Commanding Officer, a saturnine character with a strong resemblance to Jane Eyre’s Mr Rochester, who knits at cocktail parties and avoids being pinned down, has engineered this posting for the Davenants in an effort to save their fraying marriage. Roddy is having an adulterous affair which Julia knows about but which the reader does not until the final dénouement. It seems as if, drawn together by the war and a shared enthusiasm for the Brontës, Julia might relieve the boredom by having an affair with the CO (‘you are a brontëphil too,’ Julia says: ‘it sounds like a prehistoric animal’). But since she ‘never wanted to be Madame Bovary’ but ‘would rather be a good mother, a fairly good wife and at peace’, she does not. What she does is observe and endure. ‘For the Duration’ is the unwritten subtitle of At Mrs Lippincote’s. It was a wartime phrase employed by those in authority, carrying with it a sense of the stoicism and sacrifice needed to slog through the war when there would be danger and uncertainty, loss and shortages, and people would be ‘put upon’ in various ways for rather a long time. It perfectly describes Julia’s situation, her (usually only just) concealed despair at being removed from London with no idea of the length of her uncongenial wartime exile amongst another woman’s possessions, surrounded by military men who, rather than fighting, were doing ‘office jobs, schoolmastering, nursemaiding’ for the duration. At Mrs Lippincote’s is lightly written – indeed while most reviewers praised the book’s elegance and cleverness, a couple sniffed somewhat at its ‘lack of substance’, its ‘use of coarse expletives’ and, worse, the ‘over cosiness and complacency which married women novelists so seldom avoid’. But if the compass of Julia’s world seems stiflingly small, it is shot through with the multiple veracities of wartime sadness. Among some ruins in a nearby park Julia encounters a waiter from a favourite London restaurant, La Belle Charlotte, who has been bombed out and, traumatized by his experience, is drinking away his now pointless, seedy life. Eleanor’s wartime exile has brought her work as a teacher in a Montessori school and a circle of restless progressives (‘we are Communists and we trust one another’) who indulge in free love and always shop at the Co-op, yet feel themselves to be ‘soft and inefficient . . . taking on too many burdens until one becomes a burden oneself ’. Eleanor sees them as ‘never being lonely’ – unlike herself: ‘“The pattern of your lives is interlaced, woven together”. And she locked her fingers to show what she meant.’ Julia’s son Oliver, at 7, suspects he ought to get the hang of ‘running wild’ as wartime children were supposed to do, what with schools being evacuated and a shortage of teachers, and parental authority rather diluted in such stressful times. In fact he prefers to read The Wide, Wide World under the bedclothes. And then there is the slightly crafty but amenable Anglican clergyman whose face shines ‘with tolerance and daring’ as he chides Julia for swatting flies with a telephone directory as they are ‘copulating’. This prompts Julia to confess: ‘“This morning I read in the paper about something vile the Nazis did and I thought: ‘It’s all right. It’s not as bad as the atrocity I read about last week.’ I was very much shocked at myself.” “War does that for one,” agreed the man of God gravely.’ Angus Wilson, another great admirer of Elizabeth Taylor, described her ‘warm heart, sharp claws and exceptional powers of formal balance’. In At Mrs Lippincote’s she has lent those precise attributes to Julia Davenant – though here her ‘warm heart’ operates very selectively. Her precise, elegant and painfully clear-eyed insights are essential reading for anyone seeking to evoke the extraordinary years of the Second World War on the home front. ‘War only sharpens contrasts, makes one see one’s position more clearly. Hence – revolutions at the end of them.’ ‘Are you intending to revolt, may I ask?’ queries Roddy. ‘You shouldn’t ask. It is never done. But I am not,’ replies Julia. At Mrs Lippincote’s was reissued as a Virago Modern Classic in 1988 and again in 2006, this time with an introduction by Valerie Martin, who describes Elizabeth Taylor as ‘the thinking woman’s dangerous housewife’. Unfortunately, as is today’s fashion, a ‘mood’ photograph has replaced the 1988 jacket which reproduced a painting of Brookhouse Avenue by Jenny Cook. With its red-brick villas and its delphiniums this was exactly the sort of view across which Julia would have drawn ‘Mrs Lippincote’s damask curtains . . . for the last time’ as the Davenants prepared to return to war torn London and an uncertain future.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 13 © Juliet Gardiner 2007


About the contributor

Juliet Gardiner’s Wartime: Britain 1939–1945 was published in 2004. She is currently writing a social and cultural history of the 1930s, and is searching for writers with Elizabeth Taylor’s acute perception to be her vade mecum for that complex decade.

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