A Fiendish Mood
The mid-century novels of "the other Elizabeth Taylor"
Jan 1, 2008
28 Min read time
A flippant, though not entirely untrue explanation for the mid-20th-century English novelist Elizabeth Taylor’s inexplicable lack of renown has been her name. Imagine going through life bearing the name of one of Hollywood’s most recognizable icons while working in a profession as far removed as possible—as it was then, and especially to her—from the glamour and publicity of the silver screen. Most of my friends, when informed that I was writing an essay on her, exclaimed, “My god, I didn’t know she also wrote!” Taylor seemed to have been acutely conscious of the absurdity: while spending a recuperative weekend after a mastectomy at the home of her friends and admirers, the novelist couple Elizabeth Jane Howard and Kingsley Amis, she said to Howard, “Imagine if it’d been the other Elizabeth Taylor’s breast....It would be headline news.”
She was born Elizabeth Coles in Reading in 1912, went to the Abbey School, Reading, worked as a governess and, later, as a librarian, before marrying John William Kendall Taylor at the age of 24, and spent most of her life in the village of Penn in Buckinghamshire. She had a son, Renny, and a daughter, Joanna, from the marriage. She died of cancer in 1975. Her first novel, At Mrs. Lippincote’s, was published in 1945, and in the remaining thirty years of her life she wrote ten more novels, four collections of short stories, and a children’s book. Her final novel, Blaming, was published posthumously in 1976. That’s sixteen books in thirty years, a dizzying flurry of creative activity. In the dust-jacket of the first edition of her first novel, she wrote,
I have been writing since I was a child. ...I gave up writing when the children were born, except for a few stories printed in obscure magazines... After a while I grew used to children breathing down my neck while I wrote and scribbling on the MS., and have learnt to write (as I have written everything) while answering questions, settling quarrels and cooking dinners. I write slowly and without enjoyment, and think it all out while I am doing the ironing.
This ironic account of the place where a woman writes could be raw material for A Room of One’s Own and, consequently, signals a conjoined problem: the place of writing by women.
The intractability of gender politics has had its baneful effect on Taylor’s fame. She wrote at a time when creatures called “women novelists” roamed the earth. She writes about it, with characteristic mordancy, in A View of the Harbour (1947): the salacious, bullying librarian—a man—says with breathtaking condescension to the lonely, timorous widow, Lily Wilson, as she takes up a book written by a “woman novelist,”
That’s a fine and powerful story. ...No need to be prejudiced against lady novelists. In literature the wind bloweth where it listeth. ...Ladies – and you notice I say “ladies” – have their own contribution to make. A nice domestic romance. Why ape men?
The irony is both corrosive and coruscating. Taylor was part of a long generation of “women writers” working in post-First World War Britain—Ivy Compton-Burnett, Rosamond Lehmann, Elizabeth Bowen, Barbara Pym, Sybille Bedford, Rose Macaulay—whose reputations have remained trapped within the prison of “domestic romance.” It was an astonishing efflorescence; the fact that most of them were overshadowed by a younger generation of, at best, extremely mediocre Angry Young Men makes it all the more galling. In her lifetime, Taylor was seen as such a domestic writer, writing about women’s themes and women’s lives and women’s concerns (domesticity, marriages, children, love, servants, infidelity, the middle-classes) while the Big Issues were being tackled by the post-Second World War generation of “angries”: John Wain, John Osborne, Alan Sillitoe, William Cooper, Kingsley Amis, John Braine. Most of these men have fallen off the map, almost all of them have dated very badly, and some are downright unreadable. It is an irony Taylor would have savored, this twist in posterity’s judgment, but silently, privately.
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Taylor’s teachers were Austen and the Brontës (she was obsessed with them). But her brand of bourgeois realism, with its minute calibration of and hyperattentive ear to interiority, owes as much to James and Woolf. She was also a bookish writer; indeed, books and their authors appear often in her novels, while literary allusions dart and gleam like shoals of bright fish among her words. At Mrs. Lippincote’s, for example, is saturated with the presence of the Brontë sisters: there is frequent talk of them and their books; the novel’s protagonist, Julia Davenant, strikes up a friendship with her husband’s boss, Wing Commander Mallory, the novel’s Mr. Rochester figure, on the basis of their shared love for the Brontës; there is even a madwoman in the attic, in the form of unexpected and unwelcome visits from the landlady’s unhinged daughter, driven to madness, it is implied, by having been abandoned at the altar. She lets herself in with a spare key and roots around in the attic for wedding outfits. Even the food in the novel is literary: at a dinner hosted by Julia, she lets on that the recipe for the much-admired baked apples is from Villette. From there the talk moves on naturally to food in literature, and Taylor dazzles with two jokes in quick succession: one, Mrs. Mallory’s question “And don’t men describe food well?” is answered with the narrator’s pithy “No one could remember”; the second, following immediately after Julia’s rhapsody over the boeuf en daube in To the Lighthouse, is this:
“Virginia Woolf is a little too modern for me,” said the Wing Commander. “She has not stood the test of time. She has not been approved by posterity.”
“We have none of us been that,” said Julia. “But we can still enjoy a meal.”
Women’s cooking and writing, domestic role versus the creative instinct; such a familiar, universal yet potentially hostile, yoking, inverted, and compressed into layered irony: it’s one of the most effortless examples of what Rosamond Lehmann called Taylor’s “stripped, piercing feminine wit.”
Her novels are radiant with this kind of astringent humor. The jokes spring from a deep intelligence, from what the Augustans would have called “wit”—a perfect appositeness. And she uses them with an economy of expression that reminds the reader of the possibilities of the English language in the way, say, Alexander Pope does. Of an amateur drawing of Aphrodite, she remarks, “She looked, not dewy-eyed with surprise like Botticelli’s achievement on the same lines, but rather smug at having kept her hair dry.” Here’s another one from At Mrs. Lippincote’s, at the height of a blazing quarrel between Julia and Eleanor, her husband Roddy’s cousin, who lives with them:
“There’s no love in this house,” cried Eleanor. “There never has been. You’ve despised me always and gone to very little trouble to disguise your ...”
“Despision,” said Julia gently. She was in a fiendish mood.
A change of tone with one word. Take the conversation between Ludovic and the greedy, callow, dim Rosie, the shop assistant he is trying to seduce, in Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (1971):
“I did my best [Ludovic says]. With my father. Tried to buck him up a bit. If you don’t praise people just sometimes a little early on they die of despair, or turn into Hitlers, you know.”
“Who they?” Rosie asked.
The chapter ends there. It has taken her two words and the perfectly timed ending of the chapter (and the resounding silence that follows) to skewer a character.
Much of the most scintillating examples of this kind of wit appear in her passages on servants and above-stairs-below-stairs dynamics. She is worth reading for her observations on servants and the simmering class war alone. In fact, she may be one of the best (and one of the last) English writers—and there is bristling competition in this field—to have written about servants. In Palladian (1946), the terrifying yet hilarious bully Mrs. Veal, the old nanny who has been retained in the Vanbrugh household out of pity, could be straight out of Dickens, except better, because of Taylor’s economy with words. Mrs. Veal keeps up an innuendo-laced vitriolic commentary on what she assumes are the various goings-on in the house, past and present, and Taylor’s ear for the vocabulary, accents, and rhythms of working-class speech is miraculous. In one instance, Cassandra, the young governess, comes downstairs to the kitchen to fetch some milk for Sophy, her charge. Mrs. Veal instantly resorts to barely suppressed bullying of Cassandra, whom she doesn’t approve of in the slightest:
“I expect [the milk’s] gone sour,” said Nanny. “Mrs Adams did her best with it. We ought to have one of them ’frig’s. These houses are all swank at the front and inconvenience at the back. If I had babies in the house I’d stand out for one—milk turning overnight and green spots on the blackcurrant pureay.”
This is an extraordinary passage, with a seamless combination of authenticity of character and authorial irony: the faithful rendition of working-class speech is transformed into a brilliant send-up of affectation with the orthographic trick of changing the word “purée” to “pureay.” Mrs. Veal affects educated speech with the governess, trips up on it, and Taylor pounces. Ivy Compton-Burnett, whose work she admired and loved, and who was a friend, once remarked of the younger novelist, “She’s a young woman who looks as if she had never had to wash her gloves.” Perhaps belonging to that class gave her unique insight into the world of servants, but I’d put it down to her preternaturally well-attuned ear.
To return to the theme of her literariness, Taylor’s second novel, Palladian, is a witty rewriting of Jane Eyre, in which references to Shakespeare, Homer, John Webster easefully babble and chatter throughout. A View of the Harbour (1947) owes as much to As You Like It as it does to Mozart’s late operas. A Wreath of Roses (1949) glances briefly and glitteringly at Dorothea Brooke of Middlemarch, while A Game of Hide-and-Seek (1951) is Yevgeny Onegin domesticated to the Home Counties by way of Persuasion and Madame Bovary (perhaps the book that has the most conspicuous presence in Taylor’s novels).Her most popular novel, Angel (1957), is modeled on the life and career of Marie Corelli and, therefore, knowledgeable of the kind of overblown melodramatic tosh that Corelli wrote. It is, on one level, Taylor’s novel about bad novels.
The bookishness in her novels is refracted as a playful and allusive self-consciousness of the literary and authorial influences behind her. Yes, she wrote chiefly about the middle-class woman’s world, but she was too clever, too literary, and too literate not to position herself within the bigger map of writing. A kind of subset to the feminine theme thus opens up within the fabric of her novels, a subset whose constituent elements may be seen as a dialogue with other writers and their works, a delineation of a kind of micromap of literary progenitors and progeny, and a featherlight encoding of writing-about-writing without ever toppling over into arid postmodern games and textual shenanigans. She was a careful follower of form, rather than a form-breaker, and literary judgment has traditionally tended to valorize the latter. The craft of her novels belongs more to the world of perfectly turned Meissen porcelain rather than to the fractured angularities of Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.” It is easy—and, I think, lazy—to categorize her works, therefore, as conservative. Her psychological realism is deep; the precision of the inner worlds of her characters, the flow and process of their thoughts, the infinitesimally subtle shifts in thought and feeling, and the awareness they display of their own and others’ unarticulated thinking—all these mark her out as someone practicing within the grand tradition of the 19th-century novel rather than breaking apart the form like, say, Joyce or Beckett. It is an unsensational, unshowy, and deeply convincing practice of realism, that great “as if” mode where the illusionary transparence between “real life” and the life in the novels is a thing of consummate perfection. It might not be obvious, and her restrained, elegant, pitch-perfect prose might have something to do with it, but she is a careful student of James.
The allusiveness of At Mrs. Lippincote’s is slyer, more indirect than its deep and displayed Brontëphilia. In a way, we can see it as playfully diverting our attention, however fixed it has been on the serious and ambitious lineage she has drawn from the Brontës, away from the real inspiration for the book, Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Julia’s discovery, toward the end of the novel, of her husband’s unfaithfulness exposes the whole business of playing happy family during his posting, as a Royal Air Force officer, away from their hometown, as exactly that: a play. As the real reason for his fear and reluctance of being reposted to another town is revealed, Julia absorbs the knowledge but, significantly, does not walk out like Nora does at the end of Ibsen’s play. In keeping with the type of textual games she plays, Taylor mentions Nora Helmer in the novel, and at a crucial, pointed juncture, too, when the Davenants are packing up all their belongings to leave the house rented from Mrs. Lippincote, making the allusion transparent, almost literal: the house is being packed up as if it has been a prop in a scene from a play that is now over, and has to be discarded, like a plaything, a doll’s house.
In her next novel, Palladian, young Cassandra Dashwood—yes, a salute to Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and a little joke too, for Austen’s sister was called Cassandra—takes up the post of governess to Sophy Vanbrugh in the crumbling ruins of Cropthorne Manor and ends up marrying Sophy’s father, Marion Vanbrugh. Yet, the unflinchingly bleak insights into the human condition belie the so-called provincialism of her manicured, well-mannered novel and the aura of a “woman novelist.” Here is Cassandra’s view of life and human beings:
Quite separate....Each quite separate. That is the only safe way of looking at it. And we can never be safe unless we believe we are great and that human life is abiding and the sun constant and that we matter. Once broken, that fragile illusion would disclose the secret panic, the vacuity within us. Life then could not be tolerable.
We are at the very heart of existential angst. And here is its more personal and emotional correlate, triggered by the last few hours of a dying pet:
Cassandra thought the cat would not last the night. It had reached the point she had seen before in her parents’ illness, when hope, carefully fostered, turns all at once to acceptance and indifference. It is a scarcely perceptible change, quick like the spinning of a coin; but once the coin lies flat there is no more to be done. There is a limit to our hold on life.
The insight is undeluded and has the harsh clarity of a searchlight. Her novels sing with this kind of plangent music, a music that touches on the core of something far deeper than the lives of her protagonists, something at once universal and existential, while remaining firmly tethered to the characters and plot, to the very solidity and “realness” of her people. The books are all the more powerful for this anchor.
Her fourth novel, A Wreath of Roses (1949), could be summed up in Salvatore Quasimodo’s famous epigram: “Each of us is alone on the heart of the earth / pierced by a ray of sun: / and suddenly it’s evening.” Indeed, it is a trope that underpins all her novels, the utter, inexorable solitariness of human life. This one tells of two friends, the unmarried Camellia Hill, on the threshold of middle age, and Liz, a wife and new mother, who come to spend a month every summer with the aging painter and Liz’s former governess, Frances Rutherford. In her house, loneliness is a fearful and feared thing. The only marriage in the novel, Liz and Arthur’s, is a relationship between the bullied and the bullying, “a sordid, morbid relationship,” as Liz declares, but it staves off ever-encroaching solitude, that rot at the heart of existence. Frances Rutherford is Taylor’s second creative artist—there will be several more—and her vision here is bleak and uncomforting:
Life’s not simplicity...Not loving-kindness either. It’s darkness, and the terrible things we do to one another, and to ourselves. The sooner we are out of it the better. And paintings don’t matter. They are like making daisy-chains in the shadow of a volcano. Pathetic and childish.
Life and Art, summed up with the economy, vision, and precision of Beckett: the domestic novel by women suddenly seems such a labile and accommodating form.
Her first artist figure, though, appears in A View of the Harbour. Beth, married to a doctor, Robert Cazabon, and the mother of two, is a novelist. They live in a charming, sleepy, and boring little southern English seaside town, with a sweeping view of the harbor. Beth stays at home and writes away while her husband, who takes no interest whatsoever in her work, carries on an affair with Beth’s best friend, the beautiful divorcee Tory Foyle, who lives next door. While Robert is blind to his wife’s inner creative life, Beth is blind to external reality: she remains ignorant of her husband and best friend’s betrayal throughout. It’s Taylor’s lightest novel, and by that I mean that it’s done with an exquisite lightness of touch. It has a large cast, a musical rondo-like structure, and it’s her happiest novel, too, but happy in the way of, say, Così fan tutte or Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, where the infelicities of life are shown through the prism of an exquisitely aesthetic sensibility. There is no dodging of dark themes and no escape, but only a filtering.
And Taylor remains without illusion about the salvation of art. Tory remarks of Beth, “She is about the only happy person I know. Don’t you see how she is to be envied? Nothing people do can ever break her,” the implication being that her art will always save her. But it comes at the cost of blindness. You might argue that in much wisdom lies much sorrow and that such ignorance is what brings happiness, but in an earlier outburst, Tory, the novel’s most worldly creature, articulates the counter-argument too:
Writers are ruined people. As a person, you’re done for. Everywhere you go, all you see and do, you are working up into something unreal, something to go on to paper....I’ve watched you for years and I’ve seen you gradually becoming inhuman, outside life, a machine....You are so used to twisting things that you can see nothing straight. One day something will happen to you, as it has to me, that you can’t twist into anything at all, it will go on staying straight, and being itself, and you will have to be yourself and put up with it, and I promise you you’ll be a bloody old woman before you can make a novel out of that.
In a move very rare for Taylor, the novel ends with the resolutions of comedy, but those of Shakespeare’s “problem comedies” from his middle and late years, so not of unclouded happiness but of a fragile, provisional contentment. Actually, we can argue that it is not even that, but rather a settling for the second best, a harmony reminiscent of the jagged irresolutions of Così fan tutte or All’s Well That Ends Well; yes, Ferrando and Dorabella, Guglielmo and Fiordiligi, Helena and Bertram are all united in the end, but we wonder whether they are going to be happily united. Are the unions unproblematic? We wonder the same about Tory and Bertram’s marriage, of Robert and Beth’s, in A View of the Harbour. Taylor metaphorically indicates the possibilities in a small, private rebellion that the ditsy, head-in-the-clouds Beth mounts in the domestic sphere when she shocks her husband by daring to speak up, at the dinner table in front of their daughter, about his daily rudenesses and discourtesies, and his “patronizing airs, as if only men’s work is important, and my writing an irritating and rather shameful habit... ‘If we ignore it, she will grow out of it,’ you seem to imply.” Never quite the domestic goddess, with her slovenly habits and neglect of housekeeping and disinterest in providing meals for her family, Beth steps out of the domestic role foisted on her to deliver the rebuke, then settles in for the final slap, all the more powerful for her step back into the role of imperfect wife: “ ‘There is nothing else to eat,’ Beth said, and stood up with an air of triumph. ‘The junket has not set and there is no cheese.’” Touché.
Taylor was to revisit her favorite novel, Madame Bovary, in A Game of Hide-and-Seek (1951). In her adolescence, Harriet’s love for the indifferent Vesey goes unrequited and they fall out of touch. But years later, while Harriet dutifully plays the wife in her passionless marriage to the much older Charles, Vesey reappears, brimming with the love and passion he had so cruelly withheld all those years ago. This is where the story parts company with Pushkin’s Yevgeny Onegin and follows the broad lineaments of Flaubert’s novel, for Harriet, who has never forgotten Vesey nor extinguished her love for him, embarks on an adulterous relationship. It is one of her most allusive novels but not in any recondite way, partly because of the universality of the literary references, but also because she extends—and this is a measure of her playful wit—an invitation to the reader to join her in the game. One way she achieves this is by name checking, within her own book, the author, work, or fictional character whose shadows stalk it. Harriet’s friend Kitty, a somewhat coarse yet shrewd woman, who sniffs out Harriet’s secret love, warns her, “Think of consequences. Remember Madame Bovary.” This is, in effect, handing the reader a key for unlocking further resonances in her text.
Like most of Taylor’s books, A Game of Hide-and-Seek ends with tragedy. When her friend, novelist and critic Robert Liddell, expressed his “regret that Vesey should be marked for death,” Taylor replied that it was “the kindest thing” she could devise for the lovers. That statement opens up a whole vista on to the mind of Taylor and the world she inhabited. Rather death than the sordidness of an extramarital affair, with its furtive assignations in hotel rooms or in the squalid bedsits of the impecunious Vesey, the prurience of others, the condemnation, the fall from grace, the breakup of Harriet and Charles’s family. After Julia discovers Roddy’s unfaithfulness in At Mrs. Lippincote’s, she dismisses a brief moment of fantasy about love with another man with the following thought:
I never wanted to be Madame Bovary. That way for ever—literature teaches us as much, if life doesn’t—lies disillusion and destruction. I would rather be a good mother, a fairly good wife, and at peace.
This decision to “mark Vesey for death” can only obtain in an inflexibly rule-bound world, a world of duties and obligations almost every bit as hierarchical and unforgiving as the New York society of The Age of Innocence or Washington Square. Taylor herself was a creature of such a world—interwar and post-war England was not the most liberal of places—but beyond that it points to a moral denominator that has determined and animated the very idea of the novel since its inception. She belonged to a world that was governed by rules: Taylor and Liddell used to laugh at a fictional character who served onion soup and bouillabaisse for luncheon—that would have been the exact word—in Provence in the summer. In a more elastic, relaxed, democratized world, that joke means nothing.
Although marred by a slightly forced ending, In a Summer Season (1961) remains one of my favorite novels. Kate Heron, a rich widow, marries a man ten years her junior—not much older than her son, Tom—the handsome bounder, Dermot. When Charles, her old friend and neighbor, now widowed, returns to town, Kate’s long history and past with her friends, a whole spectrum of experience and life naturally unknown to and unshareable with Dermot, makes the insecure younger man even more jittery. There is a wonderful moment when Charles, immediately after returning to his old house, asks Kate about everyone:
“There is a lot for me to get used to—Tom and Lou, too—completely altered, I suppose. And how is dear Ethel? And Dermot?” he added, coming rather late to him, he realized, and putting an extra note of enthusiasm into his voice to make up for it. Kate, not missing it, thought how very well she knew him.
This kind of reactive interiority is what distinguishes her psychological realism, this business of people thinking of what others are thinking and reacting to that, a true definition of consciousness. Again, it is reminiscent of James.
True enough, in keeping with her playful allusions to authorial hauntings, she brings in James through the subtly important role she gives his The Spoils of Poynton. It was one of Kate’s dead husband Alan’s favorite novels, and it makes its first appearance when Dermot discovers a copy of the book, with its dedication from Donne—“Who is so safe as we? Where none can do / Treason to us, except one of us two”—inside the cover, along with the names of Alan and Kate and the date of their engagement. He feels excluded, insecure—he is not a reader and has never even heard of James—and Taylor widens the chasm later, once again by bringing in the book. At a dinner hosted by Kate, a Lady Asperley, at whose home Kate and Alan had met Dermot years ago, is being discussed.
She [Lady Asperley] was a fastidious woman. Charles and Kate thought her like Mrs Gereth in The Spoils of Poynton—a novel they had read aloud on quiet evenings in the past—and often called her by that name. From kindness, Kate—so she now explained—did not often invite her to the house. “Those curtains embarrass her—they are cotton damask and she is as shamed by the varnished cabinet in the drawing room as I am. It actually makes her blush.”
“Who blushes?” Dermot asked.
“Mrs Gereth,” said Charles.
“May Asperley,” Kate added quickly. The Spoils of Poynton meant nothing to Dermot, and since Alan had died she had half forgotten the name they had once given to their friend.
“We have always thought of her so much like Mrs Gereth,” Charles explained.
“I’ve never met Mrs Gereth,” Dermot said. “But poor old May, how tedious she is with all her things—‘pieces’ doesn’t she call them? I broke some old china bowl once and I thought she was going to faint.”
Now Kate was blushing, Charles noticed. “I could never have married a man who didn’t simply dote on Jane Austen or Henry James,” she had said years ago.
Kate knows that Charles has noticed—he launches garrulously into meaningless prattle about canapés to shield her embarrassment—while he knows that she knows that he has indeed noticed. This chain of reactions set off by the minutest cog clicks on the wheels of thought, exquisitely calibrated and judged, is Taylor at her most incandescently precise; it is almost as if she had eavesdropped on the innermost ticking of our minds and hearts while we were not looking. There is more yet: in a remarkably Jamesian scene, Taylor makes Dermot discover his ignorance and faux pas while taking a stab at reading The Spoils of Poynton, and thus learn how they “had preferred to gloss over his ignorance” to cover Kate’s embarrassment: “Dermot had thrown the book across the floor and a pressed violet fell out—and dropped to pieces, he was glad to see.” This pressed violet was a keepsake from the days of Kate and Alan’s courtship. In a symbolic way, the book hastens Dermot’s undoing. Taylor only hints at this when Kate breaks down, for the first time after Dermot’s death in a car crash that had also taken the life of Charles’s daughter, when she discovers the novel in his briefcase. Note the consistency in the inner worlds of her characters:
There was nothing inside it [Dermot’s leather case] but an evening newspaper and her own copy of The Spoils of Poynton with a bus ticket between the pages to mark a place. “He didn’t get very far,” she thought.
He wouldn’t have, would he?
The tacked-on ending—Kate and Charles get married—on the final page of the novel is an eloquent flaw. Each has lost someone precious in the accident: Kate, her husband; Charles, his daughter. Paradoxically, the marriage harks back to Taylor’s central theme of loneliness: what is marriage but a union of two people, irremediably reduced by loss, attempting to form a whole by coming together? It is here that we can prize open the apparent contradiction between theme and style, between her recurrent obsession with solitariness and her lapidary incisiveness about inner worlds and psychological truths. Awareness of other people’s interiorities is not necessarily a salve or even redemptive; people still remain marooned on their isolated islands. If anything, this consciousness results in inhibition rather than empathy: for all Camilla’s education, cleverness, and sharp, defensive sarcasm, Richard remains beyond readability until it’s too late in A Wreath of Roses. Dermot himself is a telling example; like Hamlet, he is uneasy in his own skin, forever trying to fit into something that he thinks others would like to see in him—that reactive interiority again—and forever failing. And so much of Taylor’s oeuvre explores the flip side of this kind of consciousness, of blindness, misreading, and a lack of understanding of others’ inner worlds. Angelica Deverell is a study in near-pathological solipsism, while Flora in The Soul of Kindness (1964) is so insulated from everyone’s inner world, even possibly her own, that the havoc wreaked is, with tragic irony, on other lives, not hers.
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Nowhere is Taylor’s great theme of the essential solitariness of humankind more affecting, more stripped down to its elements, than in the last novel published in her lifetime, Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont. The Claremont is a hotel that doubles as an old people’s home; it is, in effect, God’s waiting room. Here, the genteel Laura Palfrey joins a band of others like her. They are divided by sensibility but united by the common afflictions of physical decrepitude, loneliness, and abandonment by relatives, and by the viscosity of time—the dilemma of how to fill up the days, minute by minute, when life has shrunk to so little. A street accident leads to a chance meeting between Mrs. Palfrey and a young, aspiring novelist named Ludovic. While the old woman invests in him the emotions one usually keeps in reserve for a last-minute lifeline, albeit with dignity and, of course, a very English tendency not to appear demanding or needy, Ludo uses her ruthlessly as research for his first book. It’s an intransigent novel; Taylor never took the most affirming and sunny view of human relationships, but this novel is even less melioristic than anything that had gone before and its style marks a radical change. Gone is her fluent elegance, her deeply pleasurable sentences that bring to mind Pope at one moment, Austen at another. Instead, there is a spiky, even minimalist austerity beating rhythm to the staccato alternation between characters and plot lines. I am reminded of Adorno’s comments on late style: “The maturity of the late works does not resemble the kind one finds in fruit. They are . . . not round, but furrowed, even ravaged. Devoid of sweetness, bitter and spiny, they do not surrender themselves to mere delectation.”
Taylor shunned public appearances at a time when they were not de rigueur for authors, and she was painfully, almost clinically, shy. “Her genuine distaste for any kind of publicity”—Kingsley Amis’s words in his obituary for the Observer—;could not have done her reputation any favors. When approached by Taylor’s widower, John, to write her biography, Howard refused on the grounds that “she led a life that contained very little incident.”
There is also little in the way of firsthand accounts. Taylor corresponded with Robert Liddell from the late ’40s until the end of her life, and we have fascinating and often long excerpts from these letters quoted by Liddell in his book Elizabeth and Ivy (1986), on the three-sided epistolary friendship between himself, Ivy Compton-Burnett, and Taylor. But these are mere glimpses, made all the more tantalizing by her request that Liddell destroy all her letters after her death. (After the suicide of her friend, Maud Geddes, she destroyed all of Maud’s letters and when her own letters to Geddes were returned to her, she destroyed those too). It is important to understand these acts as springing not only from a deep and, to our world, alien, desire for privacy but also from an unshakeable courtesy and gentleness: the correspondents did not wish to cause the slightest hurt or dismay to people who may have been mentioned less than kindly. It boils down, ultimately, to civility and manners. With her express permission, Liddell retained some of her letters, which would be of literary interest to future generations, and it is only from these that he quotes in Elizabeth and Ivy.
Taylor despaired for her books’ afterlives; toward the end of her life she wrote to the novelist Paul Bailey, “I feel, after a time, that my books have dropped into a pit, and must lie there for ever and ever.” That sentence is both true and false; it is true that she is not as well-known as some of her male contemporaries, such as Greene, Waugh, or Orwell, but the pit in which she envisioned her novels languishing forever is teeming and alive with a passionate coterie of devotees. And since Virago Modern Classics started reprinting her novels in the early ’80s—she was originally published by Peter Davies and, in the last few years of her life, by Chatto and Windus—they have never been out of print. “Well-kept secret” is a term exhausted by overuse, but in Taylor’s case it is quite appropriate: her admirers zealously guard against the indiscriminate dissemination of her name with jealous possessiveness. Her undeserved reputation as a member of the white-glove-wearing classes has persisted for too long. Believe me, those gloves come off, but never with anything less than impeccable style and elegance.
January 01, 2008
28 Min read time