Hermione Lee suggests this in her book Body Parts - Essays on Life-Writing,
'Readers of biography are greedy readers, with an insatiable appetite for detail and story. There are all sorts of ways of satisfying these appetites. Coming at a likeness will always involve a messy, often contradictory, mixture of approaches...but the target of all these approaches is a living person in a body, not a smoothed-over figure...'
I'd slotted in some alternatives to Orange longlist reading in the last week and having just finished East Fortune by James Runcie, I had been struck by one memorable little quote in particular,
'You should always speak the truth, but the truth need not be spoken.'
Let me therefore try and explain something of the moral quandary I have been considering since reading The Other Elizabeth Taylor by Nicola Beauman.
Several years ago I wrote a short piece for newbooks mag on Elizabeth Taylor, a very favourite writer of mine, in which I acknowledged that legendary privacy for which Elizabeth Taylor was famed. Letters and diaries destroyed and very little written about her life since her death in 1975 and somehow the world is very unaccepting of that these days. We feel we have an inalienable right to know every last detail and though I knew this book was being written, I had also heard that all was not going smoothly in that way that you do, but had decided it was all best ignored until the book emerged.
Being a start-with-the-afterword person for books like this I was therefore surprised, yet on reflection not that surprised to discover that though Elizabeth Taylor's late husband John had originally given permission
'to write this biography and to quote from all published and unpublished copyright material'
on submitting the completed manuscript to John and Elizabeth's children they were 'very angry and distressed' about the book and have asked to be disassociated from it.
In the interests of anonymity only one person is publicly thanked (it will become obvious who) the rest have received personal letters instead and at this point I was but a short step from envisaging the lasting suspicion and mistrust this may have engendered amongst the family and friends of Elizabeth Taylor and what long-term and possibly damaging consequences that may have.
It quickly became obvious as I read what the sources of contention may have been.
In the course of her research Nicola Beauman had located and met up with Elizabeth's wartime lover and writing confidante Raymond Russell who had kept all Elizabeth's personal and intimate letters to him. In the face of such an extraordinary discovery I can only imagine this was like hitting the biographer's mother lode because the startling revelations contained therein form the foundation of much of this book, the contents often seguing into close analysis of Elizabeth Taylor's writing.
John Taylor to whom Elizabeth was married for thirty-nine years and who was doubtless out working earning and supporting both his family and his wife's writing (though Elizabeth eventually earned a substantial amount in her own right) remains the merest shadow in the whole. There are hints of his infidelities but as a husband and father he barely exists and on a personal note I think as a reader I would have felt reassured by further clarification about whether John Taylor knew of and agreed to the inclusion of these letters and subsequent analysis, and would he have cooperated so fully had he known that the final result would be so traumatic for his family?
Having worked on The Other Elizabeth Taylor for fifteen years, Nicola Beauman has waited until John's death (two years ago) to self-publish this book and of course we can only surmise what heart-searching this may have entailed behind the scenes.
I'm reminded of Penelope Fitzgerald's foray into a biography of L.P.Hartley and the years of work abandoned out of respect for the family when she discovered information that would be distressing to them and perhaps all this highlights the dilemmas faced by the biographers. Of necessity they have to set themselves that clear remit to satisfy the 'greedy reader' and marry this with their own moral parameters in telling that truth which needs to be spoken. There's another uncanny Fitzgerald-Knox link too because Elizabeth Taylor was at one time governess to Penelope's cousin, the seven-year old Oliver Knox who was almost certainly the inspiration for Oliver in Elizabeth Taylor's first novel, At Mrs Lippincote's.
Yet none of that should detract from a sympathetic, readable and well-written book, one which gives a careful and close analysis of Elizabeth Taylor's early life, her extraordinary career as a novelist and short story writer, her thin-skinned vulnerability to excoriating criticism (and some of it was pure evil by all accounts) which eventually caused her to retreat further into quiet village life, whilst no fan of Elizabeth Taylor will be disappointed at the superb resource now at their fingertips. Mine now resembling a pink hedgehog and primed ready for a good re-read of Elizabeth Taylor's novels and particularly her short stories which I have most certainly and woefully neglected.
But I have to say it feels unusual to read a biography that declares open conflict with quite such candour and I remain undecided, perhaps I'm being too sensitive but I feel somehow complicit in the Taylor family's obvious pain and distress, and now wonder whether reading this book has left me feeling slightly voyeuristic and a shade uncomfortable.
Do I feel as if I have been offered a furtive and slightly illicit glimpse behind Elizabeth's own net curtains? As I wrote of Elizabeth Taylor at the time,
'She is at her best when portraying the seemingly ordinary lives of the middle classes, writing about what she knows; however she knows much more than that. In her hands of course in reality those lives are far from mundane or perfect as we are escorted far enough below the surface to gaze at the cracks and then safely left there to explore them for ourselves.'
So how do I now feel about being taken to the less than perfect aspects of Elizabeth's own life in the full and certain knowledge of the distress this is causing?
When exactly does a writer's life become public property and where should those powers of discretion and decision rest?
Can such a thing as confidentiality ever exist for a writer?
In this instance we have the letters but, given the gloss of Raymond Russell's version and Nicola Beauman's interpretation of events, who can possibly know Elizabeth's side of this story and its seeming sadness?
There are certainly moments when I winced on behalf of the feelings of the family who may be reading this book; apart from the revelations there are the assertions that though they may have been proud of Elizabeth they teased her and never took her writing seriously, that she was intellectually lonely and isolated, that the constraints of caring for her children and then grandchildren impinged on her writing and plenty more.
As an attempt at regenerating interest in a much-neglected writer there is no question in my mind that this book succeeds. Without entering into detail about the revelations, which rather than sensationalize I will leave you to read for yourselves and very importantly consider within the context of the whole, yes, I now know a great deal more about Elizabeth Taylor the woman and the writer.
But interestingly I still think the enigma of the real Elizabeth Taylor remains unresolved for me.
I still don't know a great deal about the other Elizabeth Taylor either, perhaps because it was not within the feminist remit of this book to explore that, but the one of whom her daughter said
'We always knew that we were the most important part of her life.'
The Elizabeth Taylor who was known only to her family; the wife, the mother who adored her children, who always put them first, the person whose memory is carved for all time in her childrens' hearts and about whom her daughter Joanna Kingham has also said,
'It was great fun being her daughter - no one else has been able to reduce me to such a weeping state of giggles over the most ordinary, everyday events.'
I can't help but feel that this Elizabeth Taylor contributed as much to that lifetime of writing as the other one.
More importantly I've tried to read this book with real empathy for all concerned and on reflection perhaps my state of Keatsian negative capability is exactly the way things should remain until such time as Elizabeth Taylor's family decide (or not) to tell their own particular truth about this remarkable woman's life.
It felt clear to me that this book may have been published at a cost and only those involved can know how great that cost is, but I suspect there is a good deal more truth out there about Elizabeth Taylor now needed to rebalance the woman portrayed in The Other Elizabeth Taylor and 'greedy readers' though we may be, we may just not have that inalienable right to know it.