The Other Elizabeth Taylor

Editor’s Choice: The late English writer is overdue for the recognition and readers she deserves.
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The English author Elizabeth Taylor (1912–1975) is best known for not being better known. She was a member of that characteristically British tribe of mid-20th-century women fiction writers that includes E. H. Young, Rose Macaulay, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Elizabeth Bowen, Rosamond Lehmann, Mollie Panter-Downes, Sybille Bedford, Barbara Pym, and Edith Templeton. Such a large group necessarily contains a range of sensibilities, talents, and styles, though most of its members took as their subject the domestic lives of middle- and upper-middle-class women, and nearly all preferred wit and well-bred understatement to zeal or exploring Big Themes. Some were stellar, others high-second-tier. None had—or has—as passionate and select a coterie of devotees as Taylor. Her enthusiasts, driven during her lifetime and, most poignantly, after her death, have been as tireless as they have been unsuccessful in securing for her what her stalwart admirer Kingsley Amis called in 1976 “her due as one of the best English novelists born in this century.”

In the 1980s, the U.K. publisher Virago rereleased all of Taylor’s novels and short-story collections, bound in lovely floral covers and sporting introductions by cele­brated British writers of the era, including her friend and champion Elizabeth Jane Howard, who hailed her as one of the 20th century’s most unfairly under­read and under­appreciated authors. But although those critics and writers who’ve read her nearly universally praise her, this big push, like previous efforts on behalf of Taylor’s reputation, failed to budge whoever or whatever is in charge of canonizing authors. Now Virago has doggedly reissued six of Taylor’s novels (Trafalgar Square is distributing the Virago volumes here), this time with snappy, mod covers and with new introductions by fancy writers such as Hilary Mantel and Jonathan Keates, all of whom extol her work and bemoan her neglect.

Taylor’s lack of recognition springs from accident and temperament, from literary tastes and prejudices, and from her artistic approach and ambitions. National Velvet came out in 1944, the year before Taylor’s first novel, At Mrs. Lippincote’s, was published. For her entire career, living and posthumous, every conversation and article about her, and every request for her books, has had to begin “Elizabeth Taylor the writer.” Moreover, Taylor eschewed the London literary scene; she had, as Amis recalled, a “genuine distaste for any kind of publicity—that rarest of qualities in a writer.” Although universally regarded as an extraordinarily thoughtful and polite woman, she was nearly pathologically shy. (Howard recalled trying to interview her on a television show: Taylor, “looking like a trapped and rather beautiful owl,” answered 30 questions in a minute and a half.) Most crucial, in many ways Taylor’s biography fit her subject, and neither appealed to the literary tastemakers.

Like Jane Austen, the writer with whom she’s most often compared, Taylor led a perversely mild and parochial life. Before she was married, she worked as a governess and a librarian. With her husband, the director of his family’s confectionery company, she had a boy and a girl (her fiction displays a remarkable ear for the speech of children and a subtle grasp of their peculiar obsessions, suspicions, and insecurities). Ensconced in an upper-middle-class Buckinghamshire village, she was fascinated and deeply comforted by the daily routine of domestic life, the details of which she gave minute attention in her fiction. “I dislike much travel or change of environment and prefer the days … to come round almost the same, week after week,” she said.

That steady rhythm allowed for her regular and admirable output—although she began to publish only when she was 34, wrote “slowly and without enjoyment, and think it all out when I am doing the ironing,” and regularly put her work aside to attend to her children and household (!), she produced 12 novels, four story collections, and one children’s book in 30 years. (She wrote her last novel while dying of cancer; “She had great stamina and no arrogance,” Howard remembered.) Her preferences in fiction mirrored a life in which, as she acknowledged, “nothing sensational, thank heavens, has ever happened.” Favoring novels and stories true to her experience, she wrote “in scenes, rather than in narrative, which I find boring,” and preferred writing and reading books in which “practically nothing happens” and very little gets resolved—a fact that makes summarizing her books pointless and, well, boring. While her writing betrays a keen and obviously knowledgeable interest in horse betting (she spiced her work with just a pinch of the louche), which was quite out of keeping in her milieu, and while her politics weren’t what her detractors assumed (although happily at home in the broker belt, Taylor had in fact been a Communist in the 1930s and thereafter voted Labour), she confined her fiction largely to her limited social field: the relationships and inner lives of well-heeled women in the pretty villages of the Home Counties and in shabby-genteel Kensington and Chelsea.

All this could not have been more out of fashion, more seemingly retrograde, at a time when the gritty working-class realism of the Angry Young Men was ascendant. And although Taylor didn’t limit herself to haute-bourgeois women, the other characters she explored—barmaids, as well as governesses, cooks, and other retainers of the gentry—were hardly proletarian. (In “A Dedicated Man,” probably her best-known short story, Taylor unnervingly balances social comedy and pathos in her study of the duplicitous relationship at a tony country hotel between a waiter and waitress, and of the latter’s emerging madness.) Indeed, as the writer Philip Hensher noted, Taylor “must be the last serious English novelist with a consistent interest in domestic servants”—an interest that, as Orwell observed about Dickens, would seem to confirm an author as hopelessly backward-looking. In the “Angry Decade” and in the socially and politically conscious 1950s and ’60s, when, as Paul Bailey nicely puts it, the rage in fiction was “size, scope, relevance and Importance,” Taylor’s work was too often condescended to as high-class “women’s novels.”

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Benjamin Schwarz is the former literary and national editor for The Atlantic. He is writing a book about Winston Churchill for Random House. More

His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

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