All hail the other Elizabeth Taylor

Sat, Jul 14, 2012, 01:00

FICTION:Complete Short Stories By Elizabeth Taylor. Virago, 626pp. £14.99

SHE WAS AN ENGLISH writer at a time when the need to write in a style generally referred to as European did not exist; her contemporaries included Ivy Compton-Burnett, Elizabeth Bowen and Sylvia Townsend Warner. Although her work was read and recognised, Elizabeth Taylor’s output of 12 novels, four short-story collections and a children’s book did not secure what most writers truly covet: fair public acknowledgment.

To my shame there were times three or four decades ago when, browsing book titles and finding one with the author name Elizabeth Taylor on it, I’d assume it had to be some outpouring on the turbulent life of the sapphire-eyed actor of that name, so I’d pass by and pick up Anaïs Nin’s diaries or some other book of the moment instead.

Such myopia only partially explains Taylor’s invisibility within canonical literature, despite her work being championed by the likes of Kingsley Amis and Elizabeth Jane Howard. Now, in the year that marks the centenary of her birth, Virago Modern Classics is trying to rectify the situation by publishing Complete Short Stories, the final volume in a series of reissues of her work.

Although her temperament may have had something to do with her being overlooked during her lifetime – for Taylor was a shy, unpushy writer who largely avoided the London literary set – there is another reason that is more serious, because it reflects the way reputation so often depends on what some influential person decides is the correct literary ideology of the day. In Taylor’s case her subjects were often middle class and family centred, while her studies of female lives (which did not interest most male readers) may have set her at odds with a postwar milieu that valued the accounts of Angry Young Men and those more interested in working-class experience. Ironically, she was briefly a member of the Communist Party before becoming a lifelong Labour supporter.

With self-deception one of her strongest themes, many of her characters misread either themselves or others in a manner that creates a delicious thrill of recognition. In the story Hôtel du Commerce, a honeymooning wife finds herself irritated by her predictable husband’s insistence on unpacking his suitcase, resulting in her missing the glorious late-afternoon illumination of the stained glass of Chartres cathedral’s rose window. During the night they are shocked to overhear a serious row between a couple in the next room, so much so that they consider calling the police. Yet, the following morning, it is the rowing couple who emerge on the hotel corridor, laughing, tactile and surprisingly in love, while the honeymooners proceed sullenly towards the restrained doom of their new marriage.

Often, Taylor’s lives contain an unspecified note of impending disaster, and she is expert at revealing the prejudices on which the middle and lower classes thrived almost symbiotically. In A Dedicated Man two snobbish servants pretend to be married to one another so they can escape the rowdiness of an establishment in which they wait on people “who wore freakish and indecent holiday clothes and could not pronounce crêpes de volaille, let alone understand what it meant”. But their new Home Counties hotel, which requires a couple to be married, brings its own cache of pain when the couple’s attempt to maintain the impression of married bliss backfires dramatically.

Taylor’s genius rests in her sometimes humorous scrutiny of the mendacity and hypocrisy of socialised behaviour. With the lightest of touches, tongue firmly in cheek, she deconstructs middle-class sobriety in a kind of “who, me?” style that is never quite innocent and is always completely self-possessed. Her characters are often married, or they define themselves in terms of their relationship to someone else. Mothers, sisters, daughters, aunties and couples tend to dominate, everyone rigidly aware of their role and its demands in the little play that is life.

Thus, in the story Sisters, we see the ill feeling of a dead writer’s sister laid bare when a visiting academic tries to pry from her some tasty nuggets of information about their childhood. It’s one of those stories that writers will savour, if only to reflect on the timidity, misunderstanding and (sometimes justified) resentment that prevails among those who are written about so cavalierly.

Nor are the stories confined to safe havens of hearth and heart. Taylor is a writer whose sophisticated awareness of the dark hem of the truly wicked produces lasting portraits of classical value. The story The Fly Paper is a parable of horrors that builds from the moment an 11-year-old girl hops on a bus, where she is pestered by an older man. We watch with some relief as she is apparently rescued from her predator by a kindly woman, only to have hope destroyed in a scene that fizzes with the strategic finality of evil.

Too often condescension has accompanied readings of Taylor’s writing, but the aspect that signals her importance is the observant language she uses to wrest from experience the contradictions of human behaviour. At the same time her narrative scalpel dissects relationships to the point that we are obliged to recognise them for what they so often are: unknowable, fragile with subterfuge.

This wonderful writer deserves to be read and no longer remembered as an afterthought.

Mary O’Donnell is a short-story writer, novelist and poet. She teaches creative writing at NUI Maynooth and at Carlow University in Pittsburgh

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