Analysis of Elizabeth Taylor’s The Blush

First published in the New Yorker and collected in The Blush and Other Stories, this is perhaps Elizabeth Taylor’s most anthologized short story. A. S. Byatt included it in the Oxford Book of English Short Stories (1998), and it was also selected by Patricia Craig for The Oxford Book of Modern Women’s Stories (1994). “The Blush” centers on Mrs. Allen, a childless uppermiddle-class woman in a village outside London. The lonely, betrayed protagonist is soul sister to many other isolated characters in Taylor’s work. Her final revelation of her own ignorance and the capacity in others to deceive is one of the most powerfully realized moments in Taylor’s fiction.

“The Blush” is also a feminist exploration of women’s roles in 1950s England, a portrayal that is informed by social class as well. In “The Blush,” Taylor subtly negotiates the boundaries between gender and class from the first sentence: “They were the same age—Mrs. Allen and the woman who came every day to do the housework.” The two women are thus overtly compared from the outset, and Mrs. Allen continues throughout the story to see her life in relation to that of Mrs. Lacey, her charwoman. The first issue between the women is introduced in this initial sentence: work. Mrs. Allen is a wealthy woman of leisure, and Mrs. Lacey is the woman she hires to perform her traditionally female work. However, the issue of labor is not quite so simple, it turns out: Mrs. Allen “listened—as they worked together in the kitchen—to Mrs. Lacey’s troubles with her family.” The two women in fact often work side by side in Mr. Allen’s home, female laborers maintaining its order and beauty. They are, in a sense, close, having worked together in the Allen home for many years. Although Mrs. Allen is critical of Mrs. Lacey’s rebellious children, the childless woman also defends her housecleaner from the gardener’s snide criticisms: “ ‘She works hard, and deserves a little pleasure— she has her anxieties,’ said Mrs. Allen, who, alas, had none.”

That Mrs. Allen has no anxiety—that she has, in particular, no children—is the crux of the story. In this sense, the tale is about another kind of labor, both giving birth itself and the work of raising children, about pain and joy missed. The second sentence of the story introduces this element: “ ‘I shall never have children now,’ Mrs. Allen had begun to tell herself. Something had not come true; the essential part of her life.” While Mrs. Allen imagines “her children in fleeting scenes and intimations,” she listens, over the years, to Mrs. Lacey’s catalog of her difficulties with her children, “grumblings about her grown-up son who would not get up till dinner-time on Sundays . . . the adolescent girl who moped and glowered and answered back.” Mrs. Lacey is rumored in the village to have done “all too little” for her children when they were young: “The children, one night after another, for years and years, had had to run out for parcels of fish and chips while their mother sat in The Horse & Jockey drinking brown ale.” Mrs. Allen herself is usually alone, but when she goes out, she sips sherry at the Chequers, where “no one ever sat down, but stood and sipped and chatted as at a cocktail-party, and luncheons and dinners were served, which made it so much more respectable: no children hung about outside, because they were all at home with their Nannies.” While Taylor depicts the poignancy of the blowsy Mrs. Lacey’s children waiting outside the Horse & Jockey, where they “pressed their foreheads to the window and looked in at the dark little bar,” Taylor also implicitly comments on the ease of the middle-class mothers’ lives, with their children “at home with their Nannies.”

The pain of Mrs. Allen’s life lies in her gradual awareness that she is wasting her time waiting for life to begin—in the larger sense, for children who will not be born, but more insistently for her husband to return from the many evenings when he “was kept late in London”: “She knew that it was a wasteful way of spending her years—and looking back, she was unable to tell one of them from another—but she could not think what else she might do. Humphrey kept on earning more and more money and there was no stopping him now.” Mrs. Allen’s Christian name is, significantly, Ruth. She is the dutiful wife who has been, like her biblical forerunner, the dutiful daughter: “Whither soever thou goest, I also shall go.” In Taylor’s quietly dark story, the ideal of female patience and loyalty is called into question, exposed as the male-constructed social ideal that it is.

Ruth Allen is certain she knows her successful husband’s tastes, however, and she is willing to garden and clean and walk the dog—and wait for him to come home. She is especially glad that the respectable, class-conscious Humphrey Allen has not met the “slackly corseted” Mrs. Lacey, with “her orange hair and bright lips and the floral patterns that she always wore.” She is worried about what he might think: “Her relationship with Mrs. Lacey and the intimacy of their conversations in the kitchen he would not have approved, and the sight of those calloused feet with their chipped nail-varnish and yellowing heels would have sickened him.”

Mrs. Allen’s world is rudely shaken, however, by two events. First, Mrs. Lacey tells her that she is pregnant again: “Mrs. Allen felt stunned and antagonistic. ‘Surely not at your age,’ she said crossly.” Then the much older Mr. Lacey, “quite ageless, a crooked, bowlegged little man who might have been a jockey once,” confronts Mrs. Allen at her home demanding that she stop asking Mrs. Lacey to babysit every night so that she and her husband can attend cocktail parties. Mrs. Allen is mystified. She feels “at sea” and “perilously near a barbarous, unknown shore and was afraid to make any movement towards it.” Mr. Lacey continues his tirade: “ ‘I’m boiling over some nights. Once I nearly rushed out when I heard the car stop down the road. I wanted to tell your husband what I thought of you both.’ ” Mrs. Allen knows that she has not asked Mrs. Lacey to babysit and makes the connection between her husband’s absences and Mrs. Lacey’s lies.

The story ends with Mrs. Allen promising the deluded Mr. Lacey that she will not ask his wife to babysit for her again at night. It is not clear whether she is simply stunned, or whether she is protecting herself, her husband, Mr. Lacey, or even Mrs. Lacey. After Mr. Lacey bicycles away from the house, Ruth Allen’s body registers the shameful realization of her own husband’s betrayal: “Then she felt herself beginning to blush. She was glad that she was alone, for she could feel her face, her throat, even the tops of her arms burning, and she went over to a looking-glass and studied with great interest this strange phenomenon.” The blush expresses on the body her deep embarrassment at her ignorance of her husband’s sordid liaison with her own housecleaner. This union now promises to give the prolific Mrs. Lacey yet another child—this time, a child of Humphrey Allen’s, the child Ruth Allen has been denied. Indeed, although Mrs. Lacey is rumoured to be promiscuous, it is even possible that all of Mrs. Lacey’s children have been fathered by Mr. Allen while he denies children to his yearning wife. It is difficult to tell how deep the betrayal and the sense of evil are in this situation, and for Mrs. Lacey, it is inflected by class bitterness as well: “She was an envious woman: she envied Mrs. Allen her pretty house and her clothes.” Since all the years of Ruth Allen’s waiting have become blurred—“looking back, she was unable to tell one of them from another”—we cannot discern the temporal boundaries of her betrayal.

Oddly, however, Mrs. Allen’s blush also seems empowering. While blushes throughout English literature signal female modesty, Ruth Allen’s blush seems to be a marker of a more complex reaction. Although the blush manifests her shame, it also seems to be a liberating release, perhaps the sign of sexual desires long repressed. Ruth wants to see this roseate glow in the mirror and almost scientifically “studied with great interest this strange phenomenon.” She seems to have recognized that she is part of the animal kingdom, and her observation of the blush is empirical. Mrs. Allen’s rosy display issues from her revelation of sexual knowledge; the “burning” that spreads across her face, throat, and even arms seems sexual, even orgasmic. She has fallen from innocence, and her fallenness is marked by the scarlet ruddiness of her body. Even in the midst of her shame, she seems fascinated with her body’s power, reflected back to her in the looking glass, and this final mirror image may suggest a new identity for Ruth Allen. Her promise to Mr. Lacey that his wife will not be going out at night on her employers’ behalf suggests an imminent confrontation with Mr. Allen that might well end his trysts. Perhaps Mrs. Allen’s blush is the harbinger of a new life in which the demands of her own body will be recognized—a life in which she will no longer wait for her prince to come.

Taylor, Elizabeth. The Blush. London: Peter Davies, 1958.

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story

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