Published in McCall’s magazine in May 1966, Elizabeth Taylor’s “The Devastating Boys” is a witty, poignant depiction of the change that occurs in the marriage of Harold, a self-involved Oxford archeology professor, and his wife Laura, when two black children from London come to stay with them one summer. Harold is a dominating husband who has provided a model for an overbearing character in their neighbor Helena Western’s novel; Harold himself does not recognize himself in the character simply because the fictional man is a barrister: “[T]hat character, with his vaguely left-wing opinions and opinionated turns of phrase, his quelling manner to his wife . . . could have nothing to do with him, since he had never taken silk. Everyone else had recognized and known, and Laura, among them, knew they had.” While Harold’s ego does not allow him to imagine past his professorial identity, his self-deprecating wife is aware of others’ perceptions of their marriage. The story’s first sentence portrays Harold’s unreasonable dominion over his wife with admirable economy, while making his extemporizing about his own foibles comical: “Laura was always too early; and this was as bad as being late, her husband, who was always late himself, told her.” It has been Harold’s idea that they take in two poor urban children: “[H]e read of a scheme to give London children a summer holiday in the country. . . . ‘Some of the children will be coloured’ caught his eye. . . . He had made a long speech to Laura about children being the great equalizers, and that we should learn from them, that to insinuate the stale prejudices of their elders into their fresh, fair minds was such a sin that he could not think of a worse one.” Harold is a theorist, an intellectual who has liberal ideas about life, which he has not bothered to live very intimately or observe very closely. Laura has been in the trenches; with their own children, “any little bothers Laura had hidden from him.” Laura is described as “a woman who had never had any high opinions of herself.” She has loved being a mother, but her children are now grown up and gone: “Her children had been her life, and her grandchildren one day would be; but here was an empty space. Life had fallen away from her.” Laura is a very private person, not a woman who enjoys socializing with the other professors’ wives. Taylor depicts Laura’s quandary as that of an intelligent, reclusive woman without any work that feels important to her at present. Laura is a woman who finds a worthwhile identity through mothering but who lives in an era that does not offer her the possibility of using her talent for nurturing in a job as well. Yet though Laura does not think she is good with other people’s children, she finds she is a success with the boys from London. The story, like so much of Taylor’s fiction, has a feminist impulse both in its championing of the beleaguered Laura, taught that she is insignificant in comparison to her important husband, and in the recognition that Laura’s maternal qualities of patience, love, and humor are not so common.
The story opens with Laura waiting at the train station on a beautiful July morning for Septimus Smith and Benny Reece, the poor “coloured” children who are coming from London to the country. She herself is the mother of daughters, the “biddable children,” and until the last minute Laura has imagined that she will be sent little girls: “Six-year-old boys, and she had pictured perhaps eight- or ten-year-old girls, whom she could teach to sew and make cakes for tea, and press wild-flowers as she had taught Imogen and Lalage to do.”
The flamboyant half-caste Benny (“Laura hoped that this would count in Harold’s eyes”) and the self-dramatizing West Indian Sep are a far cry from Laura’s domestic, literary-named daughters. The boys revel in the domestic appurtenances familiar to the middle classes: brushing their teeth and taking baths, talking on the telephone. They are unintimidated by Laura, her big house, Harold, or other upper-class people like the writer Helena, whom they gleefully imitate. Soon Laura too is imitating Helena: “Aren’t they simply devastating boys?” Laura feels emboldened by the boys to be witty: She also plays cricket with Sep and Benny and feels proud of their politeness at Helena’s, “just as if they were her own children.” When Laura mentions to Harold that Sep might be a great athlete, he replies that Sep has rickets: “One of her children with rickets, she had thought, stricken.” Meanwhile, Harold has become more appreciative of Laura, has noticed when she is tired, and has himself played with the boys, told them stories, taken them—albeit reluctantly—to church. Laura recognizes that the boys’ vacation has been a success for her, and for Harold. Harold the archaeology professor, who early in the visit is “agonized” by Sep’s breaking of one of his sherds, is now focusing more on the living than the relics of the dead. By the story’s close, Harold has come to a new awareness of Laura’s gifts. On the day the boys leave to go back to London, Harold comes home early, imitates Benny’s and Sep’s slang (“Shall we make tracks?”), and takes his wife to an intimate lunch in the country. Harold, “who could not believe that he had any particular idiosyncrasies to be copied,” at last sees that the drama of life is based on the recognition of individuality. Harold learns from the authenticity and exuberance of the boys to appreciate not only them but himself and his loving wife as well: “ ‘Don’t fret,’ he said. ‘I think we’ve got them for life now.’ ”
Elizabeth Taylor. The Devastating Boys. London: Chatto and Windus, 1972.