Saturday, February 21, 2015

ELIZABETH TAYLOR, Mossy Trotter (1967)

(It seems I'm uncharacteristically relevant and timely with this review. Apparently Virago will be undertaking the first reprint of this book since it first appeared. It will have new illustrations and is set for release in April. Kudos, as usual, to Virago!)

Mossy Trotter is Elizabeth Taylor's only completed children's book, and I've been meaning to read it for at least a couple of years, since I finished reading the last of her twelve novels, with the resulting sense of emptiness that that experience always brings to me.  Somehow, a writer never quite seems to be really and truly dead until I finish reading the last of their work and realize there's nothing more to be read and savored for the first time. There's always a slight feeling of mourning when that happens—I remember saving my last unread Virginia Woolf novel for at least a year, choosing to reread others instead, and I had my last unread Agatha Christie lying around for even longer. 

Mossy and the rather prickly Miss Silkin

Perhaps there's something along the same lines going on in the fact that it took me so long to get to Mossy Trotter.  It's certainly no substitute for one of Taylor's lovely grownup novels, but it does offer some unmistakable traces of her inimitable style—sensitive and subtly humorous, with likeable (and dislikeable) characters and some surprising depths beneath its simple surface.

Mossy Trotter is an eight-year-old boy whose parents and younger sister, Emma, have recently moved from London into the countryside in anticipation of a new baby brother or sister.  Mossy finds the country much more interesting than the boring big city—in large part because of his freedom to explore a nearby rubbish dump and his quest to lay eyes on a cuckoo that he hears out on the nearby common.  The book's loose, episodic plot features such events as Mossy's day out with his grandfather (who drives too fast in his convertible), his day of telling increasingly involved lies to cover up for having worn unmatched shoes to school, and his illness and the subsequent removal of his tonsils.

The cover of my copy, which
has clearly seen better days

Alternating with these events are the appearances of his mother's friend, the rather unfriendly Miss Silkin, a middle-aged spinster who goes on vacation, finds herself betrothed, and asks Mossy to be a page boy in her wedding—an event Mossy dreads until he meets Miss Silkin's niece Allison, who will be in the wedding with him and whom he finds, unexpectedly, that he really quite likes.

Baltimore Sun archive photo of Elizabeth Taylor

None of the story's events are terribly exciting, but it moves along quickly and garners quite a lot of interest from Taylor's characterizations.  Nicola Beauman, discussing the book in her biography The Other Elizabeth Taylor, singled out this passage about Mossy's no doubt increasingly pregnant, fatigued, and uncomfortable mother:

Like many mothers, Mossy's was rather changeable. He could not always be sure where he stood with her. Although she tried very hard never to break promises, she broke threats, which in a way are a kind of black promise. She would send Mossy to his bedroom for having misbehaved and then, in a minute or two, tell him he could come down; or he would be told that if he were naughty, he could not have chocolate cake for tea and be given it for supper instead. It was a shocking way to bring up children, he once heard his father say.

And the humorless Miss Silkin is pretty clearly summed up in one humorous question and answer:

"And how's London?" [Mossy's father] asked Miss Silkin—with his mouth full, Mossy noted.

"London's fine," Miss Silkin said, as if it were all her doing that it was.

Poor Miss Silkin can't catch a break in Taylor's tale.  Although she has—as Mossy's grandfather puts it—"hooked" a husband, Mossy's observations during tea with Miss Silkin and Herbert, her fiancĂ©, cast some doubt on their eventual happiness together.  His observations take off from the bland seed cake his mother always makes when Miss Silkin is expected, as it's her particular favorite:

The honeymoon was being discussed. They were going to Madeira, which Mossy thought was the name of a cake. He thought it would be nice if there were a place called Seedy they could go to instead. It would be a very small, dry, dull, shabby, and old-fashioned place, and Herbert wouldn't like it much, as he apparently didn't like the cake of that name, for he kept on taking another slice of the shop one instead of Mother's. He had a good appetite and looked as if he had had it for a long time.

It's in this sort of subtle observation and its possible underlying meanings—not even grasped by Mossy who is doing the observing—that one might see traces of Taylor's brilliant adult novels, and it's because of them that Mossy Trotter is well worth a read for any Taylor fan.

Mossy with Emmy (sadly not, here, talking into a hollyhock)

But my own favorite character here is Mossy's younger sister, Emma, who is the object of his scorn for her childish ways and a burden for him to bear.  She has a more vivid imagination than Mossy:

She had an imaginary familya large family of boys and girls (not many boys, and only baby ones) and cats and dogs. She had just bought an imaginary pony, too, and she was quite content with it. Mossy knew he could never be contented with an imaginary bicycle.

And when Emma's friend Bunty visits, the description of their play—which Mossy finds patently absurd—is both completely realistic and rather hilarious:

Bunty seemed quite excited, too. She played Emma's games obediently and took any part that she was given. Sometimes she was Emma's husband or nursemaid, and other times she had to be one of the children and lie curled up in the cardboard box the groceries had come in. And she would suck her thumb and make baby noises until Mossy was disgusted.

This afternoon she was in the cardboard box, making out she had measles; and Emma was standing on tiptoe by a hollyhock, pretending it was a telephone. "Hello! Good-by!" she kept saying into the flower.

"Fancy talking to a hollyhock," Mossy said.

I think whenever I see any large flower now, I'm going to imagine Emma incorporating it into her vivid fantasies and saying "Hello! Goodbye!" into it…


  1. This sounds wonderful. I discovered Elizabeth Taylor when I started blogging and proceeded to buy up all of Viragos reissues and gobble them up...almost. The Sleeping Beauty still sits on my shelves, unread. It seems like such an idiotic thing to do but that's the way it is. There's still room for discovery until that last book has been enjoyed...and thanks for highlighting this one!

    1. It makes perfect sense to me, Darlene! I think I had even re-read some of her books before I could bring myself to read the last one.

  2. Scott, this sounds like a WONDERFUL book! Can you recommend which of her "grown up novels," I ought t go for first? Thanks,

    1. Perhaps other readers will chime in too, Tom, but my favorites are At Mrs Lippincote's (rather dark, wartime setting) and A Game of Hide and Seek (technically brilliant, star-crossed love story). I didn't like Angel, but some people consider it her best. Anyone else have advice?

    2. Merci, Scott! Will start looking for one or both of those!

  3. How interesting! Although I've read (and loved) all Elizabeth Taylor's novels and Beauman's book, I've never come across Mossy Trotter.
    I'll have to look for it now!
    Are those illustrations by Shirley Hughes?

    1. I just added a note above that Virago is reprinting this book soon, so it will be easy to find after April! The illustrator of my edition was Laszlo Acs. The new edition has new illustrations.


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