(As I publish this I have just heard Elizabeth Taylor’s daughter Judith Kingham will be on BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour tomorrow to talk about the centenary of her mother’s birth and the re-issue of the short stories. It really does seem as if she is getting some proper recognition at last)
On Sunday 1st July BBC Radio 4 aired the Bookclub programme recorded to mark the centenary of the birth of the novelist Elizabeth Taylor. I was lucky enough to be one of the thirty or so people in the audience to join David Baddiel and James Naughtie in the discussion of her best known book, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. I asked two questions, and both were included in the final version of the programme which, although little to do with my contributions, was in my view one of the best Bookclub programmes for some time. Most Bookclub programmes involve living authors, but to the BBC’s credit this did not deter them from showcasing the work of one of the best writers of the 20th century and one who is too often overlooked.
David Baddiel came to Elizabeth Taylor’s work whilst researching his latest novel The Death of Eli Gold, and has described her as ‘the missing link between Jane Austen and John Updike’. He is an enthusiastic reader of her novels and has written the introduction for The Sleeping Beauty, a book that is very far from a fairy tale. His views were strident and I was grateful he responded positively to my questions. One woman sitting close to me was shocked when he completely disagreed with a point she had made. For an author who wrote of the minutiae of middle-class lives she can elicit passionate responses in her readers.
Asked why he thought Elizabeth Taylor was not better known, David Baddiel said he did think it was something to do with sharing her name with the famous film star. Certainly, just as her first books were published, the film National Velvet, shot the other, younger Ms Taylor to superstardom.
Our Elizabeth Taylor, was born in Reading, Berkshire, in 1912 and worked as a governess and librarian before her marriage in 1936. These jobs were the source of much of her inspiration and she said she never regretted the time spent in them. She never sought the life of a celebrity author and lived quietly in Buckinghamshire until she died, at the age of 63, in 1975.
She wrote twelve novels in all, starting with At Mrs Lippincote’s. Her final novel, which she was proof-reading when she died, was Blaming, published posthumously in 1976. Her writing career spanned three decades – the 40s to the 70s – in which the lives of women changed dramatically, but the inner lives of her characters remain strikingly fresh and relevant. The subtlety with which she expressed those unchanging truths about human nature; the insecurities of women in failing marriages; the loneliness of the old and the naivety of youth won her a wide audience, and a nomination for the Booker Prize (in 1971 for Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont).
There are certainly moments when her wit and humour remind me of Jane Austen. Her barbed descriptions of characters render them both sad and painfully difficult to dislike – even the most seemingly obnoxious are offered a redemptive side. I have not read all her full length novels but my favourites so far are A View of the Harbour and In a Summer Season – the first for the atmospheric portrayal of a faded seaside harbour town where everything and nothing happens and the second because, to be frank, it is full of sexual tension. But she also has that quiet melancholy of a writer such as Barbara Pym or Anita Brookner, or Elizabeth Bowen.
The portrayal of writers in her books is also interesting – they feature regularly and in prominent roles. In Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. Ludo is a young writer who literally picks the elderly Mrs Palfrey up when she trips on the pavement. In A View of the Harbour, Beth is a woman who sits questioning her career as a writer whilst her husband has an affair with her best friend who lives next door. And in Angel – well Angelica is a terrible writer but despite being declared ‘rubbish’ by critics her books become bestsellers (sound familiar?).
On the whole, however, her books are all about the slight events and tragedies of our inner lives. Everyday lives.
I couldn’t resist reproducing this passage from the short story Hester Lily, a short story in which Muriel, the sophisticated wife of the headmaster of a minor public school suffers torments of jealousy when his gauche young cousin comes to live with them. It offers brilliant insights into a long, perhaps failing marriage. At this point in the story, Muriel’s husband Robert has walked in as she sits with the letters she wrote to him before they were married.
‘I suppose you are angry with me for reading those letters. I know it was wrong of me to open your drawer. I have never done such a thing in my life before.’ She still sat on the floor and seemed exhausted, keeping her head bent as she spoke.
‘I can believe that. Why did you now?’ he asked.
For a moment, gentleness, the possibility of understanding, enveloped them, but she let it go, could only think of her suspicions, her wounded pride.
The tears almost fell, but she breathed steadily and they receded. ‘I was bored. Not easy not to be. I remembered something…I was talking to Beatrice about it yesterday..I knew I should have written it somewhere in my letters to you. I was sure you wouldn’t mind my looking’. Her excuses broke off and at last she dared to look at him. She smiled defiantly. ‘I wrote them, you know. You seem as cross as if they were written by another woman.’
‘They were.’ he said
That cuts deep doesn’t it? That second when we choose whether to ask for forgiveness, or a hug but our pride won’t let us and the moment passes…
Elizabeth Taylor’s writing has been neglected for too long and these Virago re-issues are timely. The covers are a little suggestive of novels purely aimed at women, but there is so much for men to enjoy. Do try her work. I am sure you won’t regret the time spent in the company of the wonderfully drawn characters she creates. You will recognise many of them….