Tag Archives: The Other Elizabeth Taylor

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.

260 ET Sh Sts

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.

260 ET

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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Blaming by Elizabeth Taylor

This is the final review in my series: Elizabeth Taylor’s novels, all 12 of them in more or less chronological order. They were published between 1945 and 1976. Blaming was the final one, written when she was dying of cancer and published in the year following her death. I have been reading one a month, and so I will, in many ways, miss the constant companion of the last year. Except – I have the collected short stories to dip into, and I can always reread her novels. And I know that there is something of a following by enthusiasts, especially of Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, on this blog. She features in the list of older women in fiction.

89 blaming coverBlaming begins with Amy on holiday with her husband Nick in Istanbul. When he dies of a heart attack, Martha, a young American woman, supports Amy by accompanying her home. Amy resents her debt to Martha and resists the young woman’s friendship. Martha is without much social finesse or awareness and simply proceeds to make Amy her friend. Amy tolerates her for at best Martha helps pass the time in her grief. And being widowed Amy must adapt to altered relationships with her own family, her housekeeper, and with the man who was married to her friend and is her doctor. As with many of her novels there is an ambiguous ending, without too many clues about the heroine’s future happiness with her new partner.

The housekeeper Ernie is an odd creation, but good to read some gender role reversal. The grandchildren are well portrayed. One is from hell and the other precocious. Amy doesn’t really like them. She falls out with her son. This is another reversal for as he grows older he feels able to tell her what to do – about money, her friendship with Martha and her life generally.

All the main characters are lonely. Amy was bored of her life with her husband, although she missed him badly after he died. Martha is an isolate who prefers London to the mid-west, but takes her own life when she cannot manage marriage and when Amy does not welcome her return to London.

I am not sure about the key idea included in the title: blame. Is it a useful part of reflection, considering one’s culpability and experiencing the shame that goes with it, thus enabling corrective or changed behaviour. Blaming by other people always seems to me to be unhelpful, unproductive and often destructive.

89 ET listAt one point in the novel Martha asks Amy what she would do if she knew her life was limited. Amy replies empty her drawers. Do we take it that in Blaming Elizabeth Taylor was in Blaming, somehow, emptying her drawers?

So I have now read them all. The project itself was enjoyable and enabled me to understand how Elizabeth Taylor’s skill developed and expanded, and how her imagination explored lives from so many perspectives, how she gave her characters so many faults and quirks and disabling traits. I especially enjoyed reading A View of the Harbour again, but also A Wreath of Roses for the first time. The characters are beautifully depicted in communities that are recognisable; one a little dispirited seaside town, the other a tight group of women.  I think it will be a while before I revisit the monstrous Angel, or the smug Flora from The Soul of Kindness. You can find my reviews by using the search function or accessing the category Elizabeth Taylor’s novels. This series also brought me to read Nicola Beauman’s biography: The Other Elizabeth Taylor.

89 ET shelfI am considering reading all of Elizabeth Bowen’s books next. In the Heat of the Day is a novel I would recommend to anyone and I have reviewed The Last September on this blog as well. What do you recommend?

 

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Filed under Books, Elizabeth Taylor's novels, Reading, Reviews