Elizabeth Taylor still, after all these years, the best known unknown writer: Rediscovering writers

February 20, 2013 § Leave a comment

At regular intervals someone writing in the Guardian (Review) brings Elizabeth Taylor to readers’ attention. I wonder how she can have escaped their attention, if they have been reading the Guardian in the last ten years. Haven’t articles about her appeared in the Review no less than three times?

Many years ago a journalist friend of my mother’s recommended Elizabeth Taylor to her. So those articles in the Guardian were not the revelation to me that they might have been. (I wish the Guardian would discover some writer for me.)  In a Summer Season, a yellow hardback, I found at home in Dublin was the first Elizabeth Taylor I read. Later, I bought some of my own in green Virago covers which ultimately disappeared. I now have copies of the Virago reissued, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, In a Summer SeasonAt Mrs Lippincote’s, A view of  [not from] the Harbour, Blaming, an old Virago edition of Angel and a penguin edition of A Wreath of Roses (reprinted 1984).

When I first read In a Summer Season I was younger than Arminta, now I am a good bit older, but Arminta (Minty) has remained, for me, one of the high points of that book. Sometimes you are sorry to reread a book, after a long interval, and discover you cannot recapture the pleasure you once took in the characters or the story. All you do is spoil the memory of that pleasure.

I have read most of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels twice and some three times, possibly more. Every so often, Elizabeth Taylor crops up in my reading cycle, and I read a handful. Some such as At Mrs Lippincote’s and A Game of Hide and Seek, I don’t feel inclined to read again. Yet I am very taken with Julia and her son in the first, and the romance between Harriet and Vesey in the second. However, both books were spoilt by secondary scenes with ancillary characters. At Mrs Lippincotes was spoilt by Roddy’s cousin Eleanor and her communist friends, A Game of Hide and Seek by the too frequent appearances of Mrs Brimpton and other shop assistants. Robert Liddell (Ivy and Elizabeth ) does not share my feelings about this book: Mrs Curzon, her ‘lady-cleaner’, is in the great tradition of comic servants, always so well done in this author’s work.

For me the appearance of these servants in various guises has sometimes made me sigh. I think of them as stock Elizabeth Taylor characters, just as I often think of a difficult adolescent girl (with the exception of Portia, Death of the Heart) as a stock Elizabeth Bowen character. Yet I enjoyed Ernie Pounce—another servant, perhaps his being a man introduces a necessary variation—in Blaming.

Why hasn’t Elizabeth Taylor’s popularity grown, despite repeated rediscovery? Some people, Sarah Waters included (in her introduction to A View of the Harbour) is of this opinion: This is due partly, I think—and it’s a daft reason, but by no means a trivial one—to the eclipsing of her reputation by the other Liz Taylor; for even booksellers confuse the two, as I discovered when I asked for ‘anything by Elizabeth Taylor’ in a second-hand bookshop recently, and was promptly offered a book on the making of Cleopatra.

A well-known name, shared with a film star, should not do much damage. Surely anything that rescues you from obscurity works in your favour. In the future, the similarity in names may be of less importance; the actress may become less famous. Not long ago, I was told of a young person who did not know who Elizabeth Taylor (the actress) was.

It is easier to advance a reason for Elizabeth Taylor’s repeated discovery—the consistency of her work—than to explain why she is not more popular. Although I don’t like some of her books as much as others, they are all well-written. It is a remarkable achievement to have written so many readable (and good) books. Most authors don’t achieve such consistency. Sometimes we can’t believe that a writer of books, we have admired, produces one which is not at all as good. Was The Zigzag Way really written by the same person (Anita Desai) who wrote Fire on the Mountain and Clear Light of Day?

Besides, Elizabeth Taylor offers not only quality but quantity: twelve novels and four collections of short stories (included with other uncollected work in Complete Short Stories) make her a writer well worth discovering. What other unknown writer is likely to offer us such a treasure trove?

If I recall correctly, Nicola Beauman in The Other Elizabeth Taylor mentions that Elizabeth Taylor described herself as the best known unknown writer. She has retained this title for years. Do the Guardian’s stores of information on unknown writers, worth discovering, contain just one name: Elizabeth Taylor?

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