I have been invited to participate in several literary events next year which I am very much looking forward to, though of course I might have guessed that of the 366 days to choose from in 2012 two of the events would be in different cities and on consecutive days.
One is a day conference on the writer Elizabeth Taylor to be held in Reading (more details when I have them). 2012 will be the centenary of Elizabeth Taylor's birth and so I thought I would gently make my way through the books again in preparation. Not as a chore or a challenge, more a pleasurable meander much better suited to a writer whose books I find it impossible to rush, and also because new editions are arriving from Virago with brilliant new introductions.
I'll be sharing my thoughts on the books here as I read them, but it seemed like a good idea to resurrect a piece I wrote about Elizabeth Taylor back in 2006 and make sure it was on here for posterity. It was pre-dovegreyreader, and published in Newbooks magazine, and I can't do any of this without resurrecting some of the old Virago covers at the same time.
And I'd love to know your thoughts on Elizabeth Taylor too... do you have a favourite novel of hers??
How about the short story collections??
Or perhaps she is unknown to you in which case where would those of us who love her books suggest others make a start??
“Taylor’s literary reputation is far from what it should be. For every reader who knows and deeply admires her novels there are four or five others who have never heard of her”
Thus spoke The New Statesman in 2001 and I must confess it is within recent memory that I was one of the ‘four or five others’ and I will feel considerably better if I know there are at least one or two reading this and asking themselves as I did just who is this Elizabeth Taylor?
Born Elizabeth Coles on July 3rd 1912 in Reading, Berkshire, the daughter of an insurance inspector and his wife, the young Elizabeth was educated at The Abbey School in Reading as famously was a young Jane Austen. Austen is the writer that Elizabeth Taylor most admired and the one with whom she is frequently and favourably compared.
Prior to her marriage in 1936 to John William Kendall Taylor, the owner of a confectionary business, Elizabeth worked as a governess and then a librarian. John Taylor served in the RAF during the war and Elizabeth applied herself willingly to motherhood but also very professionally to her writing following the birth of their two children, Renny and Joanna. The family lived in the village of Penn in Buckinghamshire, still a peaceful and elegant setting with houses gathered around a picturesque village green complete with pond (and probably unwittingly known to many as the film location for the TV series Midsomer Murders).
Elizabeth Taylor was an intensely private person who apart from a few very close confidantes shunned the ‘literary’ life and carefully ensured that much of her correspondence was destroyed on her death from cancer in 1975. These days self-publicity is all, reticence just won’t do; we expect to know everything about an author and we expect them to tell us. We have come to believe that we have an unalienable right to the detail and without it we will somehow be a lesser reader and they will be a lesser writer. It was not ever thus.
Elizabeth Jane Howard recounts, in her memoir Slipstream, an enlightening incident where she had to review books and interview novelists on a live TV programme in the early 1960’s. Elizabeth Taylor was the guest and the book in question was In a Summer Season, her eighth novel. Howard had prepared thoroughly, or so she thought, describing the book as one that you enjoy reading very much at the time and one that leaves an impression on you long afterwards, it was funny, sharp and perceptive. Howard concurred with comparisons to Jane Austen and was confidently anticipating a good interview. Elizabeth Taylor invariably described as beautiful and elegant by those who knew her was sitting quietly attentive. As the questions flowed so did her replies, ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to every question that Howard posed, twenty of them covered in less than a minute, five minutes left to fill and little personal information gleaned. By her own admission she felt embarrassed to be asked details of her life suggesting that “nothing sensational thank heavens, has ever happened”. A devotee of routine preferring predictability to uncertainty in her day to day life, Elizabeth Taylor was also notoriously shy, as noted by fellow novelist Barbara Pym in a letter of 1963,
“Elizabeth seemed very bored but knowing her it was her usual manner which conceals her shyness”.
Interestingly many of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels feature women who appear to be shy and retiring on the surface concealing an inner life of great imagination always sympathetically portrayed by an author who clearly understood their predicament. She herself said “I wouldn’t describe anything that was not what I had gone through and understood myself- in my experience or out of my imagination and other people’s words wouldn’t do” and somehow that sense of ‘quietness of self’ adds to the allure of her as a writer for me.
Elizabeth Taylor's first novel At Mrs Lippincote’s was published in 1945 her last Blaming was published posthumously in 1976. In the intervening years and effectively spanning four memorable decades there were ten other novels, four volumes of short stories and a book for children.
So how did I discover this wonderful writer? Well a recommend from a friend left me mystified, I had never heard of this Elizabeth Taylor, and until you know, for some reason, you never notice her books on the shelves; they are almost as quietly shy and retiring as the author herself. Rarely found in ‘new’ bookshops suddenly I was finding them in every second-hand bookshop I searched. I quickly found and read Mrs Palfrey at The Claremont and a serial addiction had begun. When presented with an author’s entire oeuvre, there is a perceptible sadness to know that what you have is all there is. It has been a wonderful reading journey to gradually work my way slowly through Elizabeth Taylor’s writing. Every book I read becomes my favourite and yet I find it impossible to choose one above another. In passing I must pay homage to the early Virago editions, now becoming increasingly difficult to find, which featured some of the most exquisite artwork ever to grace the cover of a book. Several use paintings by the Cookham artist Stanley Spencer and once seen they are instantly memorable.
So how did reading Mrs Palfrey at The Claremont aid and abet my instant conversion? It remains unusual to read a novel like this about old age and this book moved me immensely. It is a difficult subject handled with great sensitivity and not without its humour. The faded gentility of the disparate group of ‘inmates’ in the hotel struggling desperately to avoid the next move in the game that would signal checkmate - removal to the nursing home. Elizabeth Taylor quietly delineates many of the indignities of increasing age and
frailty and by bestowing the most undignified on the character we like the least we are putty in her hands as we examine the limited extent of our sympathies. Then the master stroke, I could have wept for the “indefinable melancholy” of poor, fierce Mrs Arbuthnot’s departure. Her skill here reminds me of George Eliot’s in Middlemarch. Eliot starts to weave the character of Casaubon into one of the most un-likeable and then offers the obverse and visibly takes the reader to task, suitably chastened we react with an outpouring of sympathies and much self –recrimination for being so judgemental. Elizabeth Taylor is subtle and clever and doesn’t need to tell us what she has done or tell us how to find it, we know for ourselves. We are never able to wholly dislike even her worst characters; there is always a little store of redemption, a saving grace in reserve somewhere.
The novelist, Paul Bailey who has written many prefaces to Elizabeth Taylor’s novels sums up her writing succinctly when he refers to it as “her reports from the chintz-bedecked battlefields”. 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 and of course in reality their 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. Elizabeth Taylor describes the difficulties of this process “I shut my eyes and tremble with the effort to get it vividly in my mind. It runs away and I pursue it until I’m worn out and nearly in tears”
As a microcosm of middle class life Elizabeth Taylor’s novels read as a priceless and unwitting social history of several decades of the twentieth century as she applies herself to the issues that arise in each one. In some of the novels of the 1940’s and 50’s she examines the austerity and dilemmas of post-war Britain and all its deprivations, nor does she shy from the issues of the 1960’s; illegitimate pregnancy and birth control (and lack of it) feature strongly. Hers was a remarkable literary voice but to me it is a voice that has endured and still has the power to speak and deserves to be heard.
Elizabeth Taylor’s final illness came as she was writing Blaming and it was a determined effort on her part to see it through to printing whilst facing her own death. As her daughter states in a preface that is a fitting and moving tribute to a wonderful mother, it is a book about so much in life, grief, anger, helplessness, boredom and selfishness; all familiar territory for Elizabeth Taylor in her novels. But she loved life itself, a keen sense of fair play and a sense of humour pervaded her approach but this from her daughter just confirms the Elizabeth Taylor I feel I have come to know through her writing
“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”
It is the ordinary, everyday events that Elizabeth Taylor illuminates so brilliantly for her readers and thereby so much more about herself. Like Paul Bailey I am now quite envious of any readers approaching her novels for the first time, to discover this writer anew seems like a real gift.