Friday, August 21, 2020

Famous for not being famous / A great writer with a glamorous name

Elizabeth Taylor

Famous for not being famous: a great writer with a glamorous name

British novelist Elizabeth Taylor’s literary reputation has suffered, partly because people often confused her with her actress counterpart, but her ‘droll, compassionate and delicate fiction’, now republished, is well worth investigating

Elizabeth Wassell

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Elizabeth Taylor is famous for not being famous. Despite her droll, compassionate and delicate fiction “she remains one of the great under-read and under-appreciated British writers of the 20th century,” according to Sarah Waters, who goes on to surmise that the confusion between writer and actress is partly to blame: “When I asked for ‘anything by Elizabeth Taylor’ in a second-hand bookshop recently, [I] was promptly offered a book on the making of Cleopatra .”
Taylor herself must have felt exasperated by the greater and glossier fame of that other Elizabeth Taylor, for in Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont , originally published in 1971, we meet a vulgar dipsomaniac called Mrs Burton – perhaps a subtle revenge?
Virago Modern Classics has republished three fine Taylors, Mrs Palfrey (1971), Angel (1957) and A View of the Harbour (1947), in the kind of elegant hardbound editions many of us may remember from childhood: satisfying to balance in the hands and with charmingly designed covers, in this case by Celia Birtwell. And all three books, rich in story without emphasising storyline, remind us that we can feel compelled to read a work of fiction not in order to find out what happens next but because we are made to care deeply, even desperately, about the characters, and because the language in which they are described is vigorous and beautiful.
Elizabeth Taylor, born in 1912, stands with contemporaries such as Ivy Compton-Burnett and Barbara Pym as a consummate practitioner of modernist fiction. She wrote wryly, sensitively and sometimes hilariously about characters with whom we can always sympathise – even the eponymous Angel, a repellent scribbler of tawdry romances. Kingsley Amis championed Taylor much as Philip Larkin did Pym, declaring her “one of the best English novelists” of the last century.
It seems that these midcentury women fiction writers needed the support of big guns such as Amis and Larkin, because they were often condescended to for writing about the “domestic” or “ordinary” aspects of life. But where does most mystery lie except in the ordinary? In any case, momentous things do happen within Taylor’s novels. In A View of the Harbour , for example, a feckless retired naval officer, “gallant, rather than tender”, “flirtatious, but not loving” and “buoyed up by his own goodness”, hurts a vulnerable widow inadvertently yet devastatingly, leaving the reader dazzled by such insight into the human capacity for deception, especially self-deception.With its lighthouse intermittently illuminating the harbour and all those who live, love, work and dream there, this novel is of course indebted to Virginia Woolf. But it takes place just after the second World War, in a threadbare seaside village during the low season. Lily Wilson’s husband, killed in the war, has left her in charge of the ghoulish waxworks: “The Blazing Car Murderer” and “A View of Tortures Used in the Middle Ages” all standing “in a greenish, submarine light”. These shabby exhibits so oppress Lily that she is afraid to go home at night.
Enter the intruder Bertram, who does her “a great kindness” by escorting her to her curious premises, except that “when he was kind to people he had to love them; but when he had loved them for a little while he wished only to be rid of them and so that he might free himself would not hesitate to inflict all the cruelties which his sensibility knew they could not endure.” And so by exposing Lily’s need, and then refusing in his idly brutal way to fulfil it, he does her not a great kindness but great harm.

Fascinating characters
Bertram is the central character in this intense story, but other, equally fascinating ones abound: adolescent Prudence and her little sister; monstrous though pathetic Mrs Bracey and her two daughters; lonely Tory, engaged in an affair with the doctor. And the doctor’s novelist wife, Beth (a name intriguingly similar to that of our author).

But, unlike Taylor, Beth does not observe the details of her world and transmute them into fiction through precise yet lyrical prose. Beth’s characters are manufactured in her own head, tragic young women with Byronic names such as Allegra, who die untimely deaths and whose funerals are lovingly described. Yet when her husband suggests that Beth should attend the actual funeral of Mrs Bracey, she cries, “But, Robert, I couldn’t! I have never been to a funeral in my life. I shouldn’t know what to do. I should hate it.”
The love between Beth and Robert is resolved sensitively, though not explicitly, one of the delicate triumphs of this novel. But in her refusal to engage with the world Beth emerges as a prototype of Angelica Deverell, main character of Angel and a kind of Madame Bovary armed with a pen.
There are times, early in the novel, when Angel is “menaced by intimations of the truth”. She knows at those moments that she is the less than lovely daughter of a respectable though poor widow, that she lives in mean rooms above her mother’s shop, and that she is “bereft of the power to rescue herself, the brains or the beauty by which other young women made their escape”. But she quickly overcomes such episodes, “learning to triumph over reality” until “the truth was beginning to leave her in peace”.
So from the beginning we confront a writer intent not on rendering human lives as they are but the opposite, one for whom truth is anathema, and for whom febrile fantasies have become a necessity, almost like a drug.
Angel is all fancy and no imagination; she is also humourless and dangerously grandiose. And despite the torrid melodramas that have made her so successful, “like many romantic, narcissistic women she shied away from the final act of love-making. She would have lived in a world of courtship and hand-kissing . . . [Sex] was a sudden reversal, not a continuation, of the delights of being wooed.” Her honeymoon, especially Greece, with its tiresome “fallen masonry”, disappoints her because “it was nothing like her novels.”

Purple prose
We never glimpse a passage of Angel’s prose, but we can imagine how purple and emotionally counterfeit it is, in contrast to the lucidity with which her life is observed throughout Angel . Yet one day she speaks candidly of a moment from her past to her fiance, who thinks, “I wish that she would write of things like that, instead of all that dishonest nonsense.”

Angel is one of “these sports which ordinary . . . people throw off: they belong nowhere and are insatiable.” And in Hilary Mantel’s fine introduction she is described as “callous in pursuit of the preservation of her glorified image of herself”. So she is an object lesson in the perils of vainglory. But she is also determined and brave, and Mantel observes that “good writers and bad writers . . . sound remarkably the same. Their early struggles are the same. Their inner triumphs feel the same.”
If there is a major flaw in Angel , it may lie in the fact that we must spend an entire novel in the company of a main character who (once again according to Mantel) “does not learn; nor could you learn from her books”. At times the hothouse, pseudo-Greco-Roman-Medieval-Gothic atmosphere of Angel’s novels influences Angel itself, leaving the reader feeling somewhat stifled. Still, this is an extremely fine book, and one wonders who Taylor might have had in mind when she created its heroine: perhaps Marie Corelli, although Angel’s lurid get-ups (a purple dress and hat for tea at Buckingham Palace) put one more in mind of Barbara Cartland.
Surprisingly, as it takes place in a hotel for elderly residents, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont does not suffer from the emotional airlessness that sometimes afflicts Angel , perhaps because the redoubtable Mrs Palfrey is such an appealing character, or perhaps because this book is so funny. In fact it is funnier than it has any right to be. The denizens of the Claremont are old and largely forgotten by the world, so this should be a sad story, but each character, from the appalling Lady Swayne to bitter Mrs Arbuthnot to young aspiring novelist Ludo to Mr Osmond, who writes indignant letters to the newspapers, is depicted so vividly and with such compassion that we are delighted to read this novel.
Elizabeth Taylor may seem to embody a certain English style of decorum: like many of her characters she was well brought up, a woman of privilege. But a renegade spirit courses through the three novels in this series. Briefly a Communist Party member, and a lifelong Labour supporter, Taylor brilliantly depicted working-class characters such as Mrs Bracey and her daughters, and wrote without coyness or sentimentality about sex and other violent passions.
A View of the Harbour , introduced by Sarah Waters, Angel , by Mantel, and Mrs Palfrey , by Paul Bailey, are all deep and moving books, and we are lucky to have them in these attractive but inexpensive Virago hardbacks.

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