Elizabeth Taylor the Writer hadn’t entered my radar until a few years ago. I had come across one of her short story collections while trawling Goodreads, and out of all her works listed, The Soul of Kindness was the one I felt I wanted to read the most. I know two or three people in my own life who share the same qualities as the book’s principal character and I felt that I could relate on some level.
Set in the early 1960’s, The Soul of Kindness revolves around Flora, a beautiful and charming young woman who takes it upon herself to make those around her as happy and content as she is, from gently pressuring her father-in-law into marrying his mistress, to trying to get her friends Meg and Patrick, who is gay, into a relationship with each other, to encouraging Meg’s besotted brother Kit in his budding acting career. Unable to see past her own sense of self, Flora is oblivious to everyone else’s feelings but her own, yet her loved ones continue to shelter her from the reality of her good intentions, while struggling with their own personal problems. The only person who isn’t dazzled by Flora is Patrick’s artist acquaintance, Liz Corbett. Lurking on the fringes of Flora’s close-knit circle, Liz is aware of the potential repercussions of Flora’s ‘kindness’.
In my last post, I mentioned that prior to reading this book, I was totally prepared to dislike the character of Flora. She sounded abhorrent in the summary and from a personal viewpoint, way too familiar. But as self-centered and oblivious as Flora is, there’s a naivety to her character that softened my view of her a bit. My exasperation lay more with her family and her friends, who all seem too content with their roles as enablers to Flora’s behavior. There are some moments of rebellion; Richard tells Flora point-blank “Kit can’t act.” during a conversation where she bemoans Kit’s lack of success despite her unwavering faith in the young man’s acting abilities. Both Flora’s best friend Meg and Flora’s newly minted mother-in-law Barbara turn her down for different reasons when asked to be godmother to her infant daughter, to which Flora states unhappily, “It’s so miserable of everybody. I thought it would please them to be asked. It would please me. And if I were in their place, I’d do anything rather than spoil my happiness.”
As my first introduction to Elizabeth Taylor the Writer (not the Actress) The Soul of Kindness is an entertaining observation of the interconnection of the people who inhabit Flora’s orbit. I especially enjoyed the ‘chafing’ relationship between Flora’s mother Mrs. Secretan and her housekeeper Miss Folley. Percy, Flora’s grumbling father-in-law is also a comical figure who, before being persuaded into marrying his mistress Barbara was perfectly content with their separate living arrangements. While I didn’t quite like the ending of the book and thought it was unsatisfying, it seemed open-ended enough for me to hope that a lesson was learned somewhere and wouldn’t be soon forgotten in favor of continued politeness and willful ignorance.
I’ve heard good things about Taylor’s other books, like Angel and Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont. I’ve definitely seen the movie adaptation of Angel listed on Netflix some time back, and if it’s still there maybe I’ll check it out. I’m usually a stickler for reading the books before seeing the film adaptations, so let’s see how long I can stave off temptation.