Lost Classics: Novelist Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth_Taylor_(novelist)No, not that Elizabeth Taylor – she of the ostentatious makeup and jewelry; that many-times-married friend of Michael Jackson. Perhaps you haven’t even heard of English novelist Elizabeth Taylor? Born in my current hometown of Reading, Berkshire, she lived from 1912 to 1975 and worked as a librarian and governess before marrying and turning to fiction. She wrote 12 novels and four books of short stories (many published in the New Yorker), collected in one volume by Virago Press in 2012.

The London Times calls her work “extremely funny, incisive, sympathetic and beautifully written…it can also make us squirm with uneasy recognition…wicked and subversive.” Novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard writes that “I reread Elizabeth Taylor’s novels because she increases my sense of reality.” In an appreciation article in the Guardian, Charlotte Mendelson calls her a “writer’s writer” and likens her to Elizabeth Bowen, Anne Tyler and even Jane Austen. She’s also been championed by Hilary Mantel and Sarah Waters. So why haven’t you heard of her?

Mendelson suggests several reasons why Taylor has been underrated in the nearly four decades since her death. One, alas, is her name – everyone thinks of that other Ms. Taylor. Also, her titles can be unusual – somewhat forgettable, or making references that most people won’t get nowadays. For example: In a Summer Season, A Wreath of Roses and Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont. A final problem Mendelson proposes relates to women’s fiction generally: it is often confined to the domestic sphere, which means it is considered to be of lesser importance than male literary fiction.

Angel TaylorI hadn’t read anything by Taylor until 2012, when her novel Angel (1957) was a preliminary selection for my work book club. It takes place in a fictionalized version of Reading town center, which Taylor calls Norley. Angelica Deverell, known as Angel, was named after the little girl at the manor where her aunt is in service. From the start she has a desperate yearning to escape her class, refusing to work as a maid and spurning her upbringing. After she and her mother move up in the world and out to the country, they never speak to their old neighbors again.

Angel becomes a successful novelist while she’s still a teenager; she has such an overblown style that her teachers think she’s plagiarized one of the Victorians, maybe Oscar Wilde or Walter Pater. She writes raunchy historical romances set in ancient Greece or in Russia (that one sounds like Dr. Zhivago). Angel’s novels become favorite victims of the critics’ barbs. Even in her own publishing house she is a figure of fun, yet she has no sense of humor; she takes herself and her work utterly seriously. All along Taylor is making it clear that quality and profit do not go hand-in-hand in the literary world.

Later portions of the novel are taken up with Angel’s relationship with her husband Esmé. She is only able to maintain the pretense that their marriage is perfect because he dies young (he drowns in their pond – was it suicide?), after losing a leg in the Second World War. Decades later she finds a letter revealing that he spent his wartime leave periods with a mistress. Angel never allows herself to grieve this betrayal, but just throws herself back into her work.

Angel is kinder to animals than she ever is to the humans in her life – taking up vegetarianism, for instance. The novel’s supporting characters are all rather pathetic: Angel’s mother is totally taken for granted; and Nora, Angel’s friend and later sister-in-law, virtually becomes her maid. One day Angel is able to buy “Paradise House,” the mansion she’s admired from afar as a little girl – just as Dickens did with his Gad’s Hill home in Kent. She becomes ensconced there, like Miss Havisham does in his Great Expectations, obsessed with a long-gone love affair.

I would have liked to spend more time with the young Angel, that precocious fifteen-year-old novelist. The book becomes much less interesting as the years go by. What I will probably remember most from it are those hints of Dickens and of D.H. Lawrence: the theme of escaping the lower class echoes his Sons and Lovers, and having a cripple for a husband is one element of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Mendelson offers this tribute to Taylor’s lasting importance in the literary canon: “There is hope, because her characters are real; they live real lives. And they suffer…Their lives are full of drama invisible to other eyes. Finding the extraordinary detail that illuminates a superficially ordinary life is harder than it looks.”

Rebecca Foster

American transplant to England. Former library assistant turned full-time freelance writer and book reviewer. Check out all my articles.