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Artillery Row

The other Elizabeth Taylor

Discover “one of the finest novelists of her and our time.” 

Elizabeth Taylor’s 1968 story “In and Out the Houses” follows a young girl called Kitty as she visits neighbours in her village. “You are on your rounds again,” the vicar tells her. “Spreading light and succour about the parish.” 

But Kitty is also spreading gossip. Some of the news she garners and relays is trivial: Mrs Prout is making her own ravioli and Mrs De Vries’ bitch is on heat. Some of what she learns and circulates is serious: Mrs Glazier has “the change of life” and Mrs Saddler has taken a turn for the worse and won’t last the day. 

Some of this shouldn’t be public knowledge. However, some information is worth broadcasting, and villagers intent on showing off and standing out take advantage of Kitty’s big mouth by throwing her choice titbits — pertinent facts, embellished truths, even downright lies — for her to broadcast far and wide.

Its humour is light and witty but also dark and biting

This sprightly tale contains many of Taylor’s signature tropes. It plays out in a self-enclosed world. It is powered by well-crafted scenes rather than the mechanics of plot. It revolves around and makes fun of English middle-class attitudes and anxieties. Its female characters, though only barely sketched, quickly make their presence felt and their agendas known. Its humour is light and witty but also dark and biting. 

At first glance not a lot happens and style seems to be prioritised over substance. Look closer and we discover shrewd insights into flawed individuals as they grapple with the rough and smooth of everyday life. 

Taylor produced many such stories over the course of her thirty-year career. She also wrote twelve novels which were, for the most part, favourably received. And yet during her lifetime she never got the recognition she deserved. It didn’t help that she was overshadowed, and at times even mistaken for, her more famous and more glamorous counterpart. “Men write to me and ask for a picture of me in my bikini,” she once revealed. 

It also didn’t help that Taylor kept a low profile. She refused to discuss her work or defend it from detractors who dismissed it as lightweight domestic fluff. Uncomfortable during interviews, she would tell her interrogators that she led an uneventful life. 

It certainly seemed so. Born in Reading in 1912, Taylor worked as a governess and a librarian before marrying a sweet manufacturer and settling down in Penn, Buckinghamshire. There she wrote and raised two children. Apart from an on-off affair and a brief stint in the Communist Party, she didn’t do anything particularly untoward. “Authors should be as ordinary as they can be,” she insisted, “and not be special or removed or bohemian.” 

When she died in 1975, her obituaries were filled with the faintest of praise

Hilary Mantel has highlighted a drawback to this ordinariness: “Elizabeth Taylor was not the sort of writer who lives so as to excite prospective biographers.” When she died in 1975, her obituaries were filled with the faintest of praise. Kingsley Amis read at her funeral but later said the ceremony was “in no way suitable to the departure of one of the finest novelists of her and our time.” 

In 1982, Virago attempted something of a literary salvage operation and began to reprint Taylor’s books. Since then, her reputation has steadily grown — although still not enough. She remains a writer who readers discover through word-of-mouth recommendations; a writer whose exquisite novels continue to be mislabelled as genteel comedies of manners. 

A suitable entry-point to Taylor’s work is her debut novel. At Mrs Lippincote’s was published in 1945 and marked a significant breakthrough after many long years spent trying to get into print. It centres upon a young woman, Julia Davenant, who moves to a rented house in a different town with her RAF officer husband and their sickly son. Taylor charts Julia’s progress as she familiarises herself with her new surroundings. But then the menace of war rears its ugly head and cracks appear in her marriage.

A Wreath of Roses (1949) is laced with darker streaks. Taylor called it “my personal statement about life, that all beauty is pathetic, that writing is like Ophelia handing out flowers, that horror lies under every leaf.” Two strangers, Camilla and Richard, are brought together one afternoon after witnessing a man’s clumsy yet effective suicide. Taylor starts as she means to go on by depicting scenes of relative calm and then breaching the peace with a hint of queasy foreboding or nasty surprise — such as Richard’s confession to Camilla that he murdered a woman. 

Some of Taylor’s protagonists are writers, both published and aspiring. When not being a super-spreader of gossip around her village, Kitty works away at a novel in her school holidays and gets “lost in the joy of authorship”. Novelist Beth in A View of the Harbour (1947) gets so lost in the joy of authorship that she has no idea her husband is having an affair with the divorcee next door. 

Martha, the American novelist in the death-tinged and posthumously published Blaming (1976), shares Taylor’s standing: her books are “well-received, and more or less unknown.” And Angelica Deverell in Angel (1957) achieves huge success churning out trashy bestsellers — until she fades from the public eye and ends up mired in anger, self-delusion and loneliness. 

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is a perfectly calibrated character study

Loneliness is common currency in Taylor’s work. It is most keenly felt in her masterpiece, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, published fifty years ago. The only one of her novels to make the shortlist for the Booker Prize, and the only one to be adapted into a film, it is a perfectly calibrated character study of an elderly woman in search of a new lease of life. 

The eponymous heroine is recently widowed and determined not to wish away her remaining days. Rather than live alone, she takes a room at the Claremont Hotel. The place is “like a reduced and desiccated world of school” but at least her fellow residents are in the same boat and of a similar age. They include motormouth Mrs de Salis, whisky-sozzled Mrs Burton, and Mr Osmond who likes nothing better than to fire off irate letters to newspapers about the dire state of the nation. 

When Mrs Palfrey falls in the street, she is rescued by Ludo Myers, a young wannabe writer going nowhere fast. An unlikely friendship develops and each gives the other a sense of purpose. She passes him off as her grandson to her Claremont cronies and repays his kindness with gifts and dinners. But eventually Ludo tires of her attention, and specifically her affection, and abandons her, leaving her adrift, bereft, and at the mercy of an unwanted admirer. 

This is a desperately sad novel. Again and again, Taylor tugs at her readers’ heart-strings. Mrs Palfrey’s real grandson never visits her, and her daughter no longer needs her — “indeed, her dread is that it might one day be the other way about.” Most importantly, despite their outward appearances, all the characters are lonely souls. “One has a sort of loneliness there,” says Mr Osmond about life in the Claremont, “and a lack of looking forward.”

Gem-like descriptions stud Taylor’s narratives

However, the novel is really a tragicomedy for the sombre moments are offset by witty one-liners like “Mrs Arbuthnot had become incontinent, and in the nicest possible way.” Then there is the memorable portrait of Mrs Palfrey in the opening pages: “She would have made a distinguished-looking man and, sometimes, wearing evening dress, looked like some famous general in drag.” Such gem-like descriptions stud Taylor’s narratives. Equally characteristic, and every bit as rewarding, is Taylor’s steady display of lyrical prose, crisp dialogue, and emotionally charged upheavals.

Taylor believed that readers came to her novels for another key component, namely “the light thrown on little daily situations.” Sometimes that light picks out frivolities and banalities. At other times it illuminates seismic struggles and feelings — heartache, fear, dislocation and desire. We should hunt out that light and be captivated by its glow. We should read Elizabeth Taylor.

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