You’ll Enjoy It When You Get There by Elizabeth Taylor. NYRB Classics. $15.95. 400 pp.
Angel by Elizabeth Taylor. NYRB Classics. $15.95. 272 pp.
A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor. NYRB Classics. $15.95. 328 pp.
In 1948, at the age of thirty-six, Elizabeth Taylor penned a letter to the writer Robert Liddell after she had read his novel The Last Enchantments. She was already the author of three novels, and had been championed by many of her contemporaries, Elizabeth Bowen and Barbara Pym, among them. According to Liddell, who had left England for Egypt, and later settled in Greece, she didn’t say much in her letter, other than that “the book might have been written for her, and that she had laughed and cried in all the right places.” For Taylor, who lived in a village in Buckinghamshire, with her husband and two kids, and kept literary life in London largely at bay, the letter was the beginning of a twenty-two-year correspondence, one of her most intimate friendships. To the great disappointment of her readers and biographers, Liddell destroyed nearly all her letters, respecting Taylor’s wishes “most scrupulously” after her death. “And yet she was (I think) the best letter-writer of the century.”
Many elements of this literary friendship emerge in Taylor’s 1969 story “The Letter-Writers,” which was first published in The New Yorker and is now collected in You’ll Enjoy it When You Get There, the third of her works to be re-released by NYRB Classics, following the novels A Game of Hide and Seek and Angel. The story is about Emily Fairchild, a bookish, cripplingly sensitive woman, as she prepares for the arrival of Edmund Fabry, a famous novelist, to her home in the country. “She stood before an alarming crisis, one that she had hoped to avoid for as long as ever she lived; the crisis of meeting for the first time the person whom she knew best in the world.” In the story, Taylor is sympathetic to Emily’s anxiety, and evokes it in her every movement and in the movements of the village. As she heads into town for lobsters for their lunch, the heat unsteadies the air; the flag on the church tower, waving in the breeze, appears “as if it were flapping under water. The sun seemed to touch her bones—her spine, her shoulderblades, her skull. In her thoughts, she walked nakedly, picking her way, over dry-as-dust cow-dung, along the lane.”
Like Liddell, Edmund has come to England from abroad—Rome, in this case— their distance having encouraged an intimacy that she fears will burden their meeting rather than lighten it. “‘What will he be like?’ did not worry her. She knew what he was like. If he turned out differently, it would be a mistake.” Taylor is too intelligent a writer to spare Emily the injury of meeting Edmund. Even before he arrives, we are prepared for disaster as Emily drinks herself tipsy. She becomes awkward and clumsy, and arrives at the door bleeding from her cheek, the result of an injury sustained while scolding her cat. As conversation between Emily and Edmund inevitably falters, she cannot allow herself any relief. She sees in Edmund’s kindness and understanding only polite shades of pity and embarrassment. Having proven herself right, she scolds herself for believing that the two planes of their friendship could ever have existed comfortably side by side. The truth of their letters is the truth of fiction, whereas the truth of their meeting can be nothing other than what it is. “It was like seeing a ghost in reverse—the insubstantial suddenly solidifying into a patchy and shabby reality.”
The story is arguably the best in the collection; throughout her writing, Taylor is consistently remarkable in her evocation of character and place, but here she turns inward with such uncompromising intensity that the reader encounters the sort of sustained feeling one does in Virginia Woolf, stretched and made taut and always threatening to break. “It is something done quickly,” Taylor wrote to a friend on the art of the short story, “all in one atmosphere & mood like a Van Gogh painting. And is very much akin to poetry (well, lyric poetry) for that reason. And is an expression of urgent inspiration.” She later references impressionist painting, again, likening it to fiction; in impressionism’s experiments with line and form, Taylor must have seen an attempt less to distort reality than to distill it. But there is something not quite right about her comparison: she is a deeply realistic writer, with a sharp eye for the comedy and pathos of interwar and post-war English life. She is less formally radical than Virginia Woolf, whom she counted among her influences. Though she was eager to express her distaste for the rigid mechanisms of plot, her stories still fit within a conventional narrative frame. It is most clear in the collection the debt she owes to Austen and Chekhov, and with You’ll Enjoy It When You Get There, Taylor reveals herself to be one of the English language’s best practitioners of the form.
* * * *
Elizabeth Taylor was born Betty Coles, in 1912, in Reading, England. She married John Taylor, a candy manufacturer and son of the mayor of High Wycombe, when she was twenty-three. She and John met at the High Wycombe Theater Club, and in the week following their wedding they both starred in a three-run performance of The Case of the Frightened Lady by Edgar Wallace. A local paper noted, “Elizabeth Taylor revealed unsuspected histrionic ability in her simulation of terror as the ‘frightened lady.’ . . . John Taylor, playing appropriately enough opposite his bride of a week ago, gave a natural performance.” Politically active, Taylor also belonged to the local branch of the Communist Party in High Wycombe, and there, in 1938, met Raymond Russell—Ray, in their letters—an aspiring painter who remained her friend and on-and-off lover for the next ten years.
In Nicola Beauman’s biography of the author, The Other Elizabeth Taylor, the portrait that emerges is of an intensely ambitious writer, timid and self-doubting, who both sought out the comfort and stability of domestic life and was tormented by its constraints. In a letter to Ray, who kept all their correspondence, she wrote:
I don’t think anything enrages me as much as seeing in famous men’s autobiographies photographs of their studies, libraries, quiet places where they work. Then I think of Harriet Beecher Stowe with the yelling baby in one arm & a pen in the other hand. What happened to that baby? How did it fare? People who’ve done anything in literature have practically all had a good or fair education & some leisure. Working-class women never do anything enduring. Naturally. There is no education & no leisure. Oh, now I’m doing a huge Room of One’s Own, I will stop.
That she should feel caught between these conflicting imperatives may be the condition of the modern writer in his or her natural habitat; it may also be the reason she found such comfort in her relationship with Ray, who took her, and her writing, seriously. With the publication of her first novel, At Mrs. Lippincote’s, in 1945, she began to see critical success, despite a lukewarm reception in America. She and John moved High Wycombe to Buckinghamshire, and her relationship with Ray soon suffered.
The story “Sisters,” first collected in The Devastating Boys in 1972, captures well the nightmarish encroachment that is embodied in Beauman’s biography. It is about Mrs. Mason, who receives a visit from a “hideously glinty young man.” He is writing a biography of her sister, Marion, a deceased novelist, whom Mrs. Mason and her husband have disowned, at least in name. In contrast to her sister, who fled to Paris years before “with that dreadful clique,” Mrs. Mason has a perfectly respectable, ordinary existence; she has gotten by on the small comforts of village life. “She had few other disappointments,” Taylor writes, “nothing much more than an unexpected shower of rain, or a tough cutlet, or the girl at the hairdresser’s getting her rinse wrong.”
Rendering Mrs. Mason’s obstinacy and prudery with a very loving touch, Taylor very quickly carries the comedy of their introduction to grayer territory. For Mrs. Mason, the biographer’s intrusion no longer presents an assault on the architecture of the present but on her memory of the past. “Come!” he says. “You had your childhoods together. We know about those only from the stories. The beautiful stories. That wonderful house by the sea.” Mrs. Mason does not allow herself to be cornered; she refuses to say anything about her sister or herself. But her mind has already traveled back their youth and the house by the sea:
She could see the picture of the house with windows open, and towels and bathing-costumes drying on upstairs sills and canvas shoes, newly whitened, drying too, in readiness for the next day’s tennis. It had all been so familiar and comforting; but her sister, Marion, had complained of dullness, had ungratefully chafed and rowed and rebelled—although using it all (twisting it) in later years to make a name for herself. It had never, never been as she had written of it.
Is it for the sake of her reputation in the village that she does not disclose her own stories of that time—the untwisted ones? Or does she keep silent because her sister’s fiction has already somehow impeached the truth? Taylor delights in puzzling out the estrangement between memory and language. As in life, the two are often at odds in her fiction. Mrs. Mason’s feeling of injustice is never cheapened by her inability to see the value that the biographer does in her sister’s fiction, and Taylor, a friend to both sides, seems to ask, How there can be room for tragedy in that?
One wonders why Taylor, who was hailed by Kingsley Amis as “one of the best English novelists born in this century,” has fallen so far from view in the forty years following her death. She was often faulted by her critics for placing a premium on style over content, with a hint that this style was derivative and dull. Robert Liddell jokingly referred to The Lady-Novelists Anti-Elizabeth League, whose founding members included Kay Dick, Kathleen Farrell, Kate O’Brien, Pamela Hansford Johnson, Stevie Smith, and Olivia Manning. If one were to accept any of these criticisms, it would be that Taylor can, on occasion, be dull; a few stories in You’ll Enjoy It When You Get There feel like labors of language and never quite get off the ground. But it goes without saying that Taylor’s voice is uniquely her own. As William Maxwell put it, “Everything of yours that I have ever read has been identified as yours . . . There isn’t a moment when it doesn’t come through.” Following the reissue of two of her novels, A Game of Hide and Seek and Angel, the addition of the stories collected here will rightly make the claim for her place among the very best in English letters.
Then again, in name alone, Elizabeth Taylor has always had the uncanny ability to be overlooked. You might call it unlucky that the other Elizabeth Taylor’s star-making vehicle, National Velvet, came out the year before the publication of At Mrs. Lippincote’s, in 1945. As a result of the celebrity that the actress brought to her name, search results will forever require disambiguation. But the irony that such a degree of fame would brush against such a private person was not lost on Taylor. “I have had a rather uneventful life, thank God,” she said in a 1971 interview with The Times, four years before her death. “[But] another, more eventful world intrudes from time to time in the form of fan letters to the other Elizabeth Taylor. Men write to me and ask for a picture of me in my bikini. My husband thinks I should send one and shake them, but I have not got a bikini.”
Adam Z. Levy is a writer and translator. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Music & Literature, The American Reader, The Millions, and World Literature Today, among others.
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