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
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.
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)
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.
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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