Elizabeth Taylor's centenary week is upon us (July 3rd the actual day) and having been booked last autumn to take part in the Elizabeth Taylor centenary celebrations at Reading Library I had a plan.
Of course I would re-read ALL the books.
I had made a good start with In a Summer Season followed by The Soul of Kindness and A Wreath of Roses before I realised the event was months away and I would have done a great deal of other reading in the meantime. I was more than likely to end up with a mass muddle in my head ...A Summer Wreath, Mrs Palfrey at the Harbour, A View From the Palladian so I called a halt and re-grouped deciding to focus on the book I would be doing with the reading group, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, and the book I would sit in on with the other reading group if I could, At Mrs Lippincote's, both re-reads for me.
Then I would choose one previously unread book and come to it completely anew.
I would hope it wouldn't let me down, but would give me a sort of microcosm of everything that I feel Elizabeth Taylor does so well, a frame of reference that I could use during the panel discussion at the end of the day. I know it has often been the case that every new (to me) book by Elizabeth Taylor I read becomes the 'best' one I have read so far, but this time, honestly, I think I might really mean it.
A Game of Hide and Seek Elizabeth Taylor's fifth novel published in 1951, and it is about this time that Elizabeth, according to Robert Liddell in his book Elizabeth and Ivy, with her popularity gaining ground, started to experience the malice of the reviewers, the knives were out... it's a funny old world isn't it.
Harriet and Vesey, meet first as eighteen-year-olds and again some twenty years later. Harriet, the daughter of a suffragette and quietly and obsessively in love with Vesey who wants to be a writer and with the world at his feet, whilst Harriet's world will venture no further than marriage. The game of hide and seek is not only the one that Harriet and Vesey play with the children that Harriet is 'minding', they will play a game of hide and seek with each other and their love throughout their lives.
Harriet's eventual marriage to Charles is predictably staid, Vesey's career in writing migrates to the theatre, wanders all over the place and never breeds success, and when they do finally meet again twenty years later and finally dance together, trust Elizabeth Taylor to bypass the waltz and choose a tango for them.
It is a moment of pure Taylor-esque understatement which allows the reader to fill in the gaps...
'He simply did not allow her to falter and her nervousness began to change to elation....Remotely, the figures of other people drifted at the perimeter of their enhanted space of floor. They dictated their own music...'
If we spent the day wondering quite how Elizabeth Taylor achieves what she does with such economy perhaps this moment in this book encapsulates it, especially if the reader may be wondering what Charles, Harriet's husband looking on, makes of it...
'Now they danced with perfect grave precision and in silence. They made some ritual of the dance. some pact as if they were alone; ecstatic, in its true sense. They made an exhibition of themselves, Charles thought.'
There really isn't much more the reader needs to be told is there.
There are moments of great and memorable hilarity in the book too. The scenes where Harriet is working in a department store perhaps the funniest I have read in a very long time as Miss Brimpton, Miss Lazenby and Miss Lovelace initiate Harriet into this peculiar world where the women reign supreme, though of course it is the men who are supposed to be in charge.
'Their hours were long so they spared themselves any hard work, filched what they could; went up to elevenses at ten...set their hair, washed stockings, drank tea. Nothing was done in their own time that could be done in the firm's.'
Home beauty treatments of a depilatory nature are conducted in the staff room with the odd nod to a bit of customer service if they really have to and Miss Lazenby sets the trend..
'She has scarcely any eyebrows left. Just an inflamed expanse.'
That of course only the start and when the sales team move onto facial hair just make sure you are not sipping a drink or eating, or you will choke and need sorting out..
'Miss Lovelace removed her chicken broth from the gas-ring so that Miss Lazenby could heat the little pan of wax...
We spread it on and tear it off, ' Miss Brimpton directed.
'Then we'll have the chicken broth,' Miss Lovelace put the pan back on the gas-ring.
'On the upper lip first dear,' Miss Brimpton advised Harriet, 'Slightly downy if I may say so.'
'Anyone else would be insulted,' Miss Lazenby said dreamily. 'I call mine a bloody moustache.'
'Well that's up to you dear, what you call it...'
Harriet obediently spread the melting wax around her mouth.
'I'm doing my beard as well,' Miss Lazenby said recklessly...
I wasn't disappointed, A Game of Hide and Seek the perfect book to demonstrate Elizabeth Taylor's skills at populating a novel swiftly and decisively with memorable characters, giving each a recognisable voice. Then establishing and exploring an emotional landscape and mapping it out with all those paths that make up the journey of a good novel, love, boredom, humour, loneliness, lovelessness, longing, parting, loss and ultimately...well I couldn't possibly say. But pinned down and trapped on the page along the way, and often at a slant, the ennui of women's lives, harnessed to convention and gently interrogated for the reader by a writer who is perfectly in command of her material. Characters who we somehow come to know well enough to predict accurately how they may react in any given situation and to the point where the author doesn't need to tell the reader much to set them off on the right trail.
In her introduction to the new Virago edition Elizabeth Jane Howard captures the essence thus....
The subtle and the seldom dealt with paradox of the ordinary and the original, the universal and the unique is something that this novelist really understands; it could indeed be said to be her hallmark.
So on this her centenary week, my sincere thanks to Elizabeth Taylor for all the reading pleasure she has given and I know will continue to give me.