Tag Archives: At Mrs Lippincote’s

Elizabeth Taylor – still neglected?

Elizabeth Taylor was included in a list of underappreciated lady authors. I’m not so sure that she should be there, for she has a loyal and vigorous following among readers, writers and book bloggers. Among the writers are Kingsley Amis, Anita Brookner, Anne Tyler, David Baddiel, Antonia Fraser, Hilary Mantel and Philip Henscher.

When he accepted the Whitbread Prize, posthumously awarded in 1976 for outstanding achievement over her lifetime, her husband remarked

I just can’t help thinking how nice it would have been if my wife could have received this recognition while she was still alive.

In her lifetime she was dismissed as a rather chintzy lady writer from the drawing-room tradition. Those who know her writing believe that she should be celebrated for her wit, delicacy, carefully wrought sentences as she ‘made it her business to explore the quirky underside of so-called civilisation’ (according to Anne Tyler, who inhabits similar territory).

My recommended first read of Elizabeth Taylor? Why not start with her first novel At Mrs Lippincote’s(1945). In this story Julia Davenport and her son seem out of kilter with the changes the war has brought to their family life. She makes an unlikely connection with the Wing commander (who knits) through literature. Her son is also a reder. When I reviewed it I pointed to its connections with Elizabeth Bowen’s first novel The Hotelin a post called Two Elizabeths, two first novels.

Happy Birthday Elizabeth Taylor.

7 Things I like about Elizabeth Taylor’s writing

Loneliness

The theme of loneliness can be found over and over again in the novels and stories of Elizabeth Taylor – the newly married, the couples who drift apart, the old and abandoned, those who have lost their loved ones, or never had them, or who suffer at the hands of others.

In Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, the residents are all in the last years of their lives, and parked in the Cromwell Road hotel to be out of the way of their close family and relatives. Some have described these residents as eccentric, but I think that Elizabeth Taylor knew how people behave when they are lonely.

All six characters featured in A Wreath of Rosesare suffering from loneliness. It’s one of her darkest novels and one of her most interesting.

Children

The children in her novels are authentically drawn. Here, from A View of the Harbourshe notes the physicality of young boys as a mother visits her son at boarding school:

Every boy who passed surreptitiously lunged at Edward, dug an elbow at him, crooked a knee at his behind. (142)

The monstrous author, the main character in Angeloutsmarted her teacher by knowing the meaning of the word empyreanand having great timing.

“It means,” Angel said. Her tongue moistened her lips. She glanced out of the classroom window at the sky beyond the bare trees. “It means ’the highest heavens’.”

“Yes, the sky,” Miss Dawson said suspiciously. (7)

And I recommend to you the children in At Mrs Lippincotes, Mossy Trotter, and in her many short stories.

The craft of her sentences

Elizabeth Taylor writes with great precision, and her reader is led into deeper understanding by her prose. Here is an extract from A Wreath of Roses, set on a sleepy country train station.

She issues a warning to the reader with this short sentence.

Then, with a collapsing sound, the signal dropped. (2)

Then comes this:

All at once, the man on the footbridge swung himself up on the parapet and, just as Camilla was putting out her arms in a ridiculous gesture as if to stop him, he clumsily jumped, a sprawling jump, an ill-devised death, since he fell wide of the express train. (3)

The reader and the three people on the platform, at the same moment understand the intentions of the man. As if this wasn’t enough for one sentence to carry she adds Camilla’s futile but understandable gesture (the reader almost makes the same gesture herself). And further, she includes the bathetic details of ‘an ill-devised death’.

Close observation of everyday life

Note how she conveys complex relationships in this scene of children returning to boarding school at the start of term from In a Summer Season.

All over Waterloo Station groups of schoolgirls flocked together – their cries, their movements birdlike, as was their way of keeping to their own kind. Other uniforms drew only glances of scorn. Schoolboys, returning too, were less gregarious. They stood alone at the bookstalls or thoughtfully put pennies into slot-machines, unimpressed by so much feminine gaiety. (206)

The plots of her novels are all different

Her short stories are a feast

The Virago green covers of her books were the best

12 things you should know about Elizabeth Taylor.

She was born 3rd July 1912 in Reading.

She wrote 12 novels for adults between 1945 and 1976, another one for children – Mossy Totter(1967) – and innumerable short stories, many of which were published in The New Yorker.

Her novels and short stories have all been published by Virago Books.

She was a friend of Elizabeth Bowen, but was not drawn to the London literary circle.

Nicola Beauman wrote a biography called The Other Elizabeth Taylor, published by Persephone Books in 2009.

Her husband owned a sweet factory. She had two children.

She was not a film star.

She had a long affair, 10 years, with Ray Russell. He was a pow during some of that time, and she wrote him many letters.

She was a member of the Communist Party for a while.

She died of cancer in November 1975.

Many of her heroines are called Elizabeth, Betty, Bess, Beth and other variations on her own name.

I have read all her books and reviewed each of them on this blog.

Neglected?

Her books are all in print. Bloggers I follow enjoy her work. SlightlyFoxedfeatured A Game of Hide and Seekin their most recent edition. BBC Radio4 extra dramatized In a Summer Season. Films have been made of Angeland Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. If she is less well known than she deserves it is not the fault of her many champions.

Jane on beyondedenrock blog posted A Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authorswhich caught my eye. She included Elizabeth Taylor.

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Complete Short Stories by Elizabeth Taylor

I have commented on all Elizabeth Taylor’s novels on this blog. Just click on the category: Elizabeth Taylor’s Novels. She wrote twelve novels for adults and Mossy Trotter for children. She always did children really well.

Finally I have finished her collected short stories, a large volume of 626 pages, 4.5 cms, 65 stories. I’ve been reading these stories on and off for three or more years, usually if I wake in the night or when I am not ready to start a new book. Each story is a drop of Elizabeth Taylor’s art.

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The Collection

Elizabeth Taylor was writing these stories between 1944 and 1973, at the same time as her novels. Most of her short stories have been published, primarily in The New Yorker (especially between 1948 and 1965). Others appeared in Cornhill Magazine, McCall’s and Vogue.

The themes and settings will be familiar to readers of Elizabeth Taylor‘s novels. Many of the stories are set in the suburbs of London (men frequently travel up to town by train every day) and gardens are important. Some have children, marriages, or other relationships that have grit in the oyster. Some of the characters are very sad, lonely or deluded. One or two stories are located abroad, on holiday for example in France or in Tunisia. Here are some thoughts about four stories.

The Thames Spread Out (December 1959, published in The New Yorker)

This is the story of Rose, an isolated and not very happy young woman, ‘kept’ by a married man in a rented house on the Thames. Gilbert pays the rent and gives her some pocket money. He visits every Friday, and sometimes, when his wife goes to see her sister, spends a week with Rose.

The Thames floods and cuts Rose off from her usual routines. Letters are delivered by boat and boy scouts offer to get her shopping for her, but she forgets to ask for peroxide. Everything begins to look more and more strange as the water rises.

A swan had come in through the front door. Looking austere and suspicious, he turned his head about, circled aloofly, and returned to the garden. (334)

The disruption leads her to spend an evening drinking with two young men, her neighbours, who come and fetch her in their boat. In the morning, the waters receding, she realises how confined she is, and takes off.

I love the image of the swan circling near the staircase. Aloofly. What a great word! Many of Elizabeth Taylor’s plots include a slight change that shifts perspectives. The spreading out of the Thames helps Rose see the possibilities of her life differently and abandon the dreary Gilbert.

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Crepes Flambees

This is a tale about how Harry and Rose (not the same Rose) return to Tunisia to recapture the excitement of a previous holiday when they befriended the people in a local bar, above all the patron, Habib. Returning four years later they find that everything has changed. The bar has closed and Habib, when they find him, tells them he is now a respected chef in a local tourist hotel. The reader comes to see, long before Harry and Rose do, that Habib wants to present them with what they want to see, and the truth is less satisfactory. They blunder about in his life, his job, the hotel, his family, his friends. The differences between the lives of the tourists and the Tunisians are painfully revealed, even if Harry and Rose have good motives for befriending Habib. Elizabeth Taylor portrays both the pleasures of foreign holidays and the difficulties for any tourists who try to break down barriers with the locals.

Mice and Birds and Boy (February 1963, published in The New Yorker)

This is a sad story. A young boy visits an old and isolated lady. William himself is a bit of a loner, not much liked by other children. His curiosity about Mrs May’s early life develops into a nice friendship, but she becomes dependent upon him. He grows up and begins to move away from her. She is left more bereft than before. Elizabeth Taylor’s writing about children is always excellent. She knows what children think about, what takes their interest, and how they change.

Their estrangement grows.

The truth was that he could hardly remember how he had liked to go to see her. Then he had tired of her stories about her childhood, grew bored with her photographs, became embarrassed by her and realised, in an adult way, that the little house was filthy. One afternoon, on his way home from school, he had seen her coming out of the butcher’s shop ahead of him and slackened his pace, almost walked backwards not to overtake her. (419)

Hotel du Commerce (Winter 1965/6, published in the Cornhill Magazine)

This story is only 8 pages long, and follows a couple from their arrival during the evening in the small and disappointing French hotel on their honeymoon through to breakfast the next morning. The reader becomes aware that their marriage is doomed to unhappiness, revealed by their reactions to the rowing couple in the room next door.

She lay on her side, well away from him on the very edge of the bed, facing the horrible patterned curtains, her mouth so stiff, her eyes full of tears. He made an attempt to draw her close, but she became rigid, her limbs were iron. (547)

In her stories human failings are not catastrophic, but they do cause hurt, sadness or regret. Many have very poignant characters who do not thrive in life. Others seize their chances. Always there is a little nugget of truth of perceptiveness in each story.

260 Elizabeth_Taylor_(novelist)Complete Short Stories by Elizabeth Taylor, published by Virago in 2012. 626pp

 

Related posts

Two Elizabeths, two First Novels. This post comments on At Mrs Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor, alongside The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor. This was the first in the older women in fiction series. It is one of the most read posts on Bookword blog.

183 Mossy Totter ET cover

Mossy Trotter by Elizabeth Taylor: her children’s book.

The Other Elizabeth Taylor, looking at Elizabeth Taylor’s biography by Nicola Beauman.

 

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Mossy Trotter by Elizabeth Taylor

The most awful thing in Mossy Trotter’s life is the prospect of being a page boy at Miss Silkin’s wedding. Mossy is seven years old. This should not happen to him. He will have to wear velvet trousers and a frilled blouse. His reputation is at stake.183 Mossy Totter ET cover

Mossy Trotter was Elizabeth Taylor’s only book for children. It was first published in 1967 when childhoods were less supervised. Her other twelve novels were all written for adults. You can find the reviews of them by clicking on the category Novels of Elizabeth Taylor.

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The Story

The short novel takes the reader through some adventures and some changes in Mossy’s life. He has his tonsils removed, becomes lost with his sister, gets into scrapes, nearly sacrifices his birthday party, has a new baby brother and attends Miss Silkin’s wedding – yes as a pageboy.

This is life as a boy of seven would live in the outskirts of London in the late 60s. The characters are authentic. Here is a description of Mossy’s mother.

Like many mothers, Mossy’s was rather changeable. He could not always be sure where he stood with her. Although she tried very hard never to break promises, she broke threats, which in a way are a kind of black promise. She would send Mossy to his bedroom for having misbehaved, and then in a minute or two, tell him he could come down; or he would be told that if he were naughty he could not have chocolate cake for tea, and be given it for supper instead. It was a shocking way to bring up children, he once heard his father say. (12)

But we know that Mossy is being well brought up. He is miserable to think he had worried his mother when he gets lost with his three-year-old sister Emma. And his mother brings him exactly the right present when he is in hospital after having his tonsils out.

Mossy has to deal with some difficult dilemmas, again reflecting the reality of children’s lives: what to do about the threatened birthday party; telling lies that help out his grandfather; telling lies that multiply and result in humiliation and so on.

Mossy the boy

Mossy’s real name was Robert Mossman Trotter. The middle name was after his Grandfather Mossman Trotter, and he was called Mossy to avoid muddling him with his father, who had the same name. (42-3)

During the story Mossy develops his understanding of his world and especially of the adults in his life. We see Mossy more clearly because he is set against his mother’s friend Miss Silkin, an adult who understands little of children. Indeed the novel begins with her comment that the Common must be paradise for children. Mossy is bemused for he knows that ‘Standing where she was she could not possibly see the beautiful rubbish dump among the bracken’. (1) Readers of all ages would know that Miss Silkin’s and Mossy’s ideas of paradise are at odds.

Indeed Miss Silkin and Mossy are at odds about yet more important things: he hates the furs she wears. This is what he sees:

… two long, thin dead animals with yellow glass eyes in their heads. Mossy wondered if they had once upon a time been rats. One head peeped over Miss Silkin’s shoulder, and little paws hung limply down her back. (2-3)

Not only does she wear rat-like furs, but her favourite cake is seedy cake, and she is going to get married and wants Mossy to be the page boy. He learns to tolerate her presence.

Mossy’s relationship with his parents is happier. His father is rather distant but sometimes his accomplice; his mother is in consistent but the most comfortable adult in his life; and with his grandfather he shares excitement and pleasure in fast cars.

Mossy does things wrong, gets lost with his little sister, tells lies, gets messy with newly laid tar. When he’s punished for one bit of bad behaviour he takes revenge by drawing he draws a picture of his teacher and his father on the side of a drawer, believing it will never be found.

… he drew the nastiest face he could for Miss Blackett, with crooked teeth and spots all over her, and hair like a mop, and his father with a long nose and crossed eyes, and fleas the size of bumble-bees swarming out of his fuzzy hair. Then he slid the drawer back and felt better. (115-6)

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Children in Elizabeth Taylor’s writing

Elizabeth Taylor knows children and she writes well both for and about them. The extracts demonstrate that she writes simply but does not simplify Mossy’s complex emotions and responses. Here is Mossy’s experience as he lay in bed with a fever one summer’s evening.

A delicious smell of wet garden came into the bedroom, and then Mossy heard the swish-swish of water against the wall below his window. Father was hosing the hot bricks which had stored up the day’s sun, and a coolness began to come off them. There was the sound of dripping leaves, as the water spattered on the climbing rose. (78)

And here is Mossy as he realises he is lost with his little sister on the Common.

In some ways, having Emma with him made him braver. But in different ways it made him feel more fearful.

‘Listen,’ he said comfortingly to her. ‘This is a very exciting adventure. It’s like Babes in the Wood.’

‘I don’t like being Babes in the Wood.’

It was certainly the wrong thing to have said, for at once she began to boo-hoo more loudly. ‘There might be wolfs.’

‘”Wolves”,’ he said, to correct her. But she thought he was just agreeing with her, and shrieked louder than ever. (63)

As several extracts show, there is affectionate humour in the telling of this story.

In her other books we might remember the children are interesting characters in their own right. In At Mrs Lippincotes, A View of the Harbour, Angel (as a child), the children are real people.

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And as if to prove this, her son, in his introduction tells us that recently

I was moving some furniture that had been handed down by my parents and I happened to open a chest of drawers. Inside I found a pencil drawing of a man’s head, with lots of dots hovering over it. Beneath in childish writing were the words ‘John Taylor has fleas’. (iv)

I recommend you get this book to share with a child and/or to enjoy yourself.

The lively illustrations by Tony Ross exactly capture the spirit of Mossy Trotter.

 

Mossy Trotter by Elizabeth Taylor, first published in 1967, republished in 2015 by Virago Modern Classics 144 pp

Related link: review of Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

Furrowed Middlebrow reviewed Mossy Trotter earlier this year, with some of the original illustrations.

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Filed under Books, Books for children, Elizabeth Taylor's novels, Reviews

Two Elizabeths, two first novels

The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen was published in 1927 and At Mrs Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor in 1945. They were written 18 years apart but I read these two first novels one after the other last week. Considering them side by side reveals some interesting points.

Both are novels defined, as their titles indicate, by a place, a building. Mrs Lippincote’s is a house, rented to Roddy and Julia Davenport towards the end of the war. Roddy is in the RAF and Julia is fascinated by living in Mrs Lippincote’s house, and among her things. The old lady eventually appears, like something from another time.

‘I am Mrs Lippincote.’

Superfluous statement.

The leghorn hat with its immense velvet bow, the tussore suit and parasol, the gold chains and watch pinned to the bosom transfixed Julia. The bosom itself intimidated, seemed unrelated to the female body, a structure, a shelf, a thing to pin watches to, hang chains upon. (At Mrs Lippincote’s)

The war has displaced her, and her appearance reminds Julia and the reader that there was a time ‘before the war’ and there will be a time ‘when the war is over’.

22 At Mrs L

The Hotel is somewhere on the Italian Riviera, a place where people with money and gentility go to occupy their time. It is out of season. Hotels provided a setting for chance encounters and disconcerting meetings.

The Honourable Mrs and Miss Pinkerton occupied two wide-balconied rooms at the end of the first floor corridor. Five times across the Hotel, each on a floor, these corridors ran – dark, thickly carpeted, panelled with bedroom doors… Mrs and Miss Pinkerton were of course on the sunny side, with their balconies from which the view could be patronized. The view was their own; they were to enjoy the spiritual, crude and half-repellent beauty of that changing curtain, so featureless but for the occasional passing ship. They barricaded themselves in from the assault of noonday behind impassable jalousies. (The Hotel)

We learn so much of the social expectations and assumptions from this description of the accommodation of Mrs and Miss Pinkerton. The violation of their bathroom is a great comic scene, one which also reveals much about the participants and more about the social positions in the Hotel. (A jalousie is a kind of louvred or slatted blind.)

22 The Hotel

In both novels the narrative is pegged, so to speak, by the places, the bricks and mortar. The narrative unfolds, scene take place outside these buildings, yet at the end of each day, events are resolved – or not – within their walls. In both places the characters move between private and public rooms, rooms where people retreat and can be on their own and others where the action is played out in the presence of an audience.

The interesting characters in both The Hotel and At Mrs Lippincote’s are non-conformists. Roddy is constantly fearful that Julia will say the wrong thing in front of his fellow officers, and is disappointed to find that he has not been able to mould Julia in their married life. She is wiser than her husband.

Roddy kissed Julia and went off to a party in the Mess – a men’s party, a ‘presence required’ party he explained leaving the house with a look of resignation. Watching him go, she was interested to see, as he turned for a second to latch the gate, the change that had come over him; gone the forbearance, and in its place geniality and a look of anticipation. (At Mrs Lippincote’s)

Roddy and Julia must each decide to accommodate their disappointment in the other in order to make a go of their marriage. It is likely, but not certain, that they will, by the close of the novel

In the Hotel the residents all live with the disappointments of love, and most settle for less than love. The Misses Pym and Fitzgerald open the novel on a quarrel; Mrs Kerr cannot remember ever having been loved; her relationship with her son Ronald is dutiful rather than loving; Mrs Duperrier is neglected by her husband who prefers to flirt with the many young ladies; and so on. Mr Lee-Mittison organises an expedition to collect anemone roots, which fizzles out as hosts and guests lose each other in the hills. There is a terrible irony to the Lee-Mittisons’ situation. The wife has a moment of clarity: ‘she felt sick at the thought of their hotel bedrooms that stretched, only interposed with the spare rooms of friends, in unbroken succession before and behind her.’ They have no roots, are perpetual travellers with no home of their own.

It is Sydney Warren who captures our interest. It is the story of Sydney’s unlikely and amourous adventure that forms the core narrative of this novel.

Sydney’s relations had been delighted that she should go abroad with her cousin Tessa. It had appeared an inspired solution to the Sydney problem. The girl passed too many of these examinations, was on the verge of a breakdown and railed so bitterly at the prospect of a year’s enforced idleness, that the breakdown seemed nearer than ever. (The Hotel)

Both Julia and Sydney are more spontaneous than rational, more innocent than the people among whom they live, more open to life’s experiences. The characters around them are shown to have more tawdry and meagre lives by contrast, built up in both novels through small, often mundane actions and scenes.

As an aside, I enjoyed the references to novels in both books. Lady Catherine de Burgh from Pride and Prejudice appears in The Hotel, as does Jude the Obscure. In At Mrs Lippincote’s conversation about the Brontes forges a link between Julia and the Wing Commander. (As well as reading, he knits socks, which is lovely detail.) Her seven-year old son ‘did not merely read books. He snuffed them up, took breaths of them in his lungs, filled his eyes with the sight of the print and his head with the sound of words.’ He is somewhat unconvincing, and the reader is relieved when he befriends Felicity and they play as children should.

What I find remarkable about these two writers is that they both already had an astonishing discernment for the slightest reactions or movements, the understated but telling observation which is fully evident in this their first novels. For example, in the extracts quoted – Julia’s observation of her husband’s change of expression; Sydney’s relations’ attitude to her.

The Elizabeths became friends, but I think they only met after the publication of the younger woman’s first novels.

I am currently re-reading Elizabeth Taylor’s novels in order of publication and continue to explore Elizabeth Bowen’s. Any recommendations?

 

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Filed under Books, Elizabeth Bowen, Elizabeth Taylor's novels