All hail the other Elizabeth Taylor
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.