“First Death of Her Life” by Elizabeth Taylor

4ofhearts

In this week’s “Deal Me In” challenge I drew the four of hearts—although the deck was well-shuffled, it happened to be an adjacent card–and story–to the five of hearts I drew last week.  “First Death of her Life” is a brief (three pages) story about a young woman whose mother has just died in hospital and it reflects the rush of ambivalent feelings that engulf her.  In the midst of her tears she pauses to mentally compose a letter—“for her mind was always composing letters”–to her boss telling him that she will be away for four days for her mother’s funeral.  The nurse comes in:

The nurse came in. She took her patient’s wrist for a moment, replaced it, removed a jar of forced lilac from beside the bed as if this were no longer necessary, and went out again.

Lucy, our subject character, resumes her mental letter, starting anew.  She wonders how her father is doing–he is late.  He will have missed his wife’s death.   It is snowing and 4 PM on a winter’s day.  Lucy works hard to push away her negative memories of her mother because it was important that they “be sent away for ever” and “only loving-kindness” to remain.

She takes a tentative sip of the champagne from her mother’s glass by the bedside.  The family is clearly poor, but they have spent money on the champagne, the lilac, the private room.  After a “life of drabness and denial” on the “mean street where they lived” they wish her to have a little piece of luxury.  Lucy gathers up her mother’s handbag, the library book she had chosen, which would go unread, and takes a final sip of the champagne then leaves.

This story, like the previous one I read by Elizabeth Taylor, reminds me very  much of the kind of impressionistic moodiness of a story from Joyce’s “Dubliners”.   The dead mother gets her flowers, champagne, and library book before she is able to appreciate them.  As the story ends, Lucy leaves the hospital as her father arrives:  There is a sense of missed opportunities; of missed messages; of the collision-course between one’s duties to work and earn money and one’s duties to family, especially when they are ill, dying, dead.

“Opening the glass doors onto the snowy gardens, she thought it was like the end of a film. But no music rose up and engulfed her. Instead there was her father’s turning in at the gates. He propped his bicycle against the wall and began to run clumsily across the wet gravel.”

This is the end of life—no grand swelling of music; no majestic pomp.  And I am reminded again of one of my personal moments of bitterness:  having to work at the very moment my mother died because I had taken too much time away when she was ill.  And I remember my husband being fired from a job because he went to my sister’s funeral.  Most American employers don’t deal with death very well.

Author: Gubbinal

Bookish, tea-drinking cat-lady who loves great poetry

8 thoughts on ““First Death of Her Life” by Elizabeth Taylor”

    1. I read most (if not all) of her novels a while back. I know I read “A View of the Harbor” and would recommend it. I also think that some of her later novels are more accomplished, such as “Mrs. Palfrey,” “Angel,” “In a Summer Season.” I was very amused by her early novel, “Palladian”.

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  1. I only ‘discovered’ Elizabeth Taylor for myself a few years ago, but she is now one of my favourite authors. My aim is to work my way through her novels over the next few years, but her stories are on my radar too. Thank you for writing about this one.

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  2. I think I commented here recently about the Complete Stories I was given for Christmas; I’m 3/4 through now, and savouring each one. I’m not sure these stories of the lower classes are quite as successful – ET seems on surer ground when exploring and dissecting the lives of middle-class people – who also tend to lead lives ‘of drabness and denial’. Strangely, this doesn’t become depressing: there’s usually a glimmer of hope, of decency, or something that redeems the characters. This particular story is full of her usual suggestiveness – nothing is spelt out, all the significance takes place between the words, as it were. Beautifully done. What’s all that about the ‘forced lilacs’? Is she wanting us to attend to that word ‘forced’? The champagne is an odd touch, too. And the poor father, too late for his wife’s death. Poignant is a word that applies to so many of these snapshot stories.

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    1. Thank you for your comment. It is very sad, I think, that the family had to wait for the woman’s impending death to give her her first taste of champagne. The use of the word “forced” is an excellent choice–it means that the flower bulb was artificially “forced” to bloom prematurely. It’s as if they wait until the very last moment to give this woman nice flowers and bubbly—but they have never had the resources to do so before.

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  3. Elizabeth Taylor is rapidly become the author I’ve learned of through other Deal Me In-ers so far this year that I find most intriguing. I’d never even heard of her before your two posts. Thanks for the introduction! 🙂

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    1. Thank you for commenting, Jay. Now that I’ve read her two weeks in a row I am feeling torn between wanting her to pop up again this week or having her stories eked out throughout the “Deal Me In” year.

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