The Other Elizabeth Taylor

The reason (yet again) for my lengthy blogging absence is due to the dreaded lurgi. When people tell you about the many tricky things that come hand in hand with having children (lack of sleep, abundance of mess, inability to enjoy a flight ever again…) why don’t they tell you about nursery bugs? More often than not, Vita goes to nursery, comes home, and a day later gets ill. Then follow a hellish few nights of fever and not sleeping, and then, just as she’s turning the corner, down falls the husband, and – soon after – me! Somehow, three weeks disappear and all you’ve done is either try to occupy the child, or try to get someone else to occupy the child while you are confined to bed.

In these instances, I feel it is best to disappear into some kind of other world. The husband and I watched all the Harry Potter films, and were practically talking to each other in spells by the end of it. I also managed to do a bit of reading and a tiny bit of – albeit rather feverish – work:

Here is my review of Deborah Levy’s powerful new novel Hot Milk for the Spectator. Here is my interview with the brilliant Tracy Chevalier about her favourite fictional trees for lovely website Five Books. And my review of Helen Oyeyemi’s bizarre and beautiful short stories What is Not Yours is Not Yours should be coming out in Country Life in the next couple of weeks. Watch this space, as they say. Also, a reminder that Emily’s Walking Book Club is meeting this Sunday to discuss Elizabeth and her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim, which is the most heavenly book– all about gardening, and marriage, and trying to evade one’s responsibilities.

When I last wrote here, I was on my way up to Moniack Mhor, a writers’ retreat in Scotland in order to take the writers on an Emily’s Walking Book Club special.

Moniack Mhor walking book club

We wandered through a beautiful beech wood and along a mossy glen, while talking about Angel by Elizabeth Taylor, which is about a girl who becomes a rather ridiculous writer.This is what prompted me to read Nicola Beauman’s biography of the writer, The Other Elizabeth Taylor.

The Other Elizabeth TaylorNicola Beauman founded Persephone Books, whose gorgeous grey-covered books include such gems as Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple, Mariana by Monica Dickens, The Far Cry by Emma Smith, The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal, Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins (and many more). So I was rather in awe of this biography – not only is it about a great writer, it is written by a very amazing woman!

One of its great joys is that you can hear Nicola Beauman’s voice, very distinctly, throughout. It is full of asides and parentheses which make her opinion absolutely felt. It can be something as slight as: ‘At one the speaker goes on talking for too long, as speakers do …’ or, when discussing the somewhat unconventional name of Elizabeth Taylor’s first son, noting that it ‘must have caused comment at Atlast’, the home of her very middle-class in-laws.

Occasionally Beauman takes us off on a longer personal digression. Particularly moving, is when she writes about going to visit Ray Russell. Elizabeth and Ray had an affair which lasted for many years. In the Acknowledgements, Beauman notes that ‘she believed it was inappropriate to publish the book’ until after the death of John Taylor, Elizabeth’s husband, who authorised the biography. Then, ‘following his death, she submitted the manuscript to John and Elizabeth Taylor’s son and daughter: They are, alas “very angry and distressed” about the book and have asked to be disassociated from it.’ One suspects that this is largely due to Beauman’s writing about Elizabeth’s affair with Ray, but surely a biographer is supposed to unearth these things? Not least because the hundreds of letters that Elizabeth wrote to Ray not only ‘chart an extended love affair’, but – crucially – ‘they reveal the development of a writer’s art over the decade that Elizabeth would call wasted because she was not published’.

I’ll quote Beauman’s aside about going to visit Ray at length, because I think it’s so powerful:

(Reading the letter Elizabeth would write to Ray only minutes after she had parted from him seems embarrassingly if not callously intrusive. Reading the letters in an upstairs room in Hull with the elderly Ray sitting and watching me copy them out, sometimes reminiscing, sometimes producing photographs, sometimes sketching me, was exhausting and depressing: exhausting, obviously because of the sheer physical labour involved in getting to Hull and then copying, copying, copying; depressing because one knew the sad end of the affair, yet one of the lovers was sitting there, his sadness written in every line of his body … I only rarely glimpsed the exhilaration that a biographer is meant to feel when he or she stumbles on a cache of papers; mostly I muttered over and over, “life is so sad”. How can one reconcile Elizabeth’s writing to Ray that “there were never two people so near to one another as we” with the sadness of what would then happen to the two of them?)

I’ve not read many biographies, so can’t say if this is the norm or the exception, but I loved how personal this one is. I had the same feeling as when I read The Hare with Amber Eyes and felt that I was on the journey of discovery hand-in-hand Edmund de Waal; or when reading Penelope Fitzgerald’s letters, in which she writes about her awful struggles with L.P. Hartley’s family for her attempted, eventually abandoned, biography. I could almost see Ray sitting there with the ‘sadness written in every line of his body’, and absolutely shared Beauman’s ambivalence on discovering this cache of letters.

Another of the book’s great pleasures, is that we are taken on a tour of all Taylor’s work – her novels, and also her numerous short stories. Little synopses are given, and we are also informed as to where the story was published, how much was paid for it, and any gossipy ins and outs of the correspondence between Elizabeth and her editor. This is all fascinating. Again, Beauman’s personal angle is a treat – lovely to know some of her own favourite lines, to be told when she thinks something is influenced by E.M. Forster, and informed of possible real-life inspirations too. I particularly liked Beauman’s argument for Taylor to be appreciated as a modernist writer, pointing out that she writes ‘in scenes, in “moments of being”,’ rather than the traditional narrative of ‘and then and then’. She argues that critics have struggled to call Taylor a modernist because of her domestic subjects:

Virginia Woolf was a modernist but because she eschewed the domestic she could be labelled as such: Elizabeth, because she wrote about women and children and housework and dailiness, could not be.

Later, she makes a nice point:

When Elizabeth said, as she often did, that she wrote in scenes not narrative, perhaps she was suggesting that women have to write in scenes because narrative needs leisure and an uninterrupted run of time to write it.

She calls upon the example of Taylor’s character Beth in A View of the Harbour:

Because she has a pram in the hall her work has to be stitched together, it cannot flow uninterruptedly. When she looks at her books she knows that: “Here I nursed Prudence with bronchitis; here Stevie was ill for a month; here I put down my pen to bottle fruit (which fermented); there Mrs Flitcroft forsook me.”

Reading this, while my own writing was so interrupted by family illness, I could only agree! (I also rather wished I had the help of a Mrs Flitcroft, even if I were to run the risk of her forsaking me …)

I loved The Other Elizabeth Taylor, just as much as I loved the two Elizabeth Taylor novels I’ve read. It left me longing to read more, and as soon as I finished it, I whizzed off to buy Elizabeth Taylor’s At Mrs Lippincote’s and A Game of Hide and Seek. Heaven to have these two treats in store even if they will probably be read, alas, when we’re next all ill.

Elizabeth Taylor

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12 Responses to “The Other Elizabeth Taylor”

  1. elizabethwix Says:

    Dear Emily,
    What a lovely post! I do so hope all the horrid illnesses are are in abeyance – at least for a little while. Very frustrating and irritating and sometimes alarming. I loved Nicola’s book about women writers and have read everything Elizabeth Taylor wrote. Do you know the story of the table in the Persephone bookshop? How have I managed not to have read this biography?
    So glad you are as big a fan as I am of The Hare with Amber Eyes.
    I’m currently reading the wonderful Mavis Gallant.

    • emilybooks Says:

      What table in the Persephone bookshop? No! Please tell me the story! Well you certainly have a treat in store with this biography – sounds like it will be right up your street. Mavis Gallant, I think, was like Elizabeth Taylor in that she too made lots of money by selling stories to the New Yorker. Thanks, Elizabeth – lovely to hear from you and yes, the illnesses are conquered for now.

  2. elizabethwix Says:

    Such a lovely snippet of literary trivia. The excellent table was made by Elizabeth Taylor’s lover. It has leaves and gets bigger etc. I’m sure Nicola told me about how she ended up with it but I can’t remember the details. Do ask her or I will when I get to London next month.

    • emilybooks Says:

      Amazing trivia, thanks Elizabeth. Perhaps it was obtained during one of the painful visits to Ray.

  3. Amanda Craig (@AmandaPCraig) Says:

    Also very sorry to learn to the nasty bug, but what a lovely post. A shame the Taylors’ children so upset, because Beauman writes with such a love for her subject’s work, and with considerable delicacy and tact too. She has been a great champion of the novels.

  4. BookerTalk Says:

    Love e image of you and your other half speakin in HP.

    • emilybooks Says:

      Oh thanks! I tell you it was rather less than lovely at the time… Stupify! Was a particularly useful one.

  5. Cosy Books Says:

    Elizabeth Taylor’s novels were being reissued just as I found this circle of bloggers so as they came out, I ordered and read. Ridiculously though, I’ve saved The Sleeping Beauty so there’s one more to discover. Nicola’s biography is so wonderful!
    And now I’m intrigued about the table at Persephone…

    p.s. – the first five years of motherhood, and working in the children’s area of the library, were the worst for catching every bug going. Just imagine your immune system becoming stronger with every fever and cold…any comfort at all?

    • emilybooks Says:

      Ha, thank you that is some comfort… Sort of. Luckily it is very easy to forget the horrors of family illness as soon as we’re out the other side of it anyway. Glad that you love the books and the biography too. I know that feeling of saving one because of the panic of having read them all, but even f you do finish the lot, there is always the joy of rereading…

  6. James Says:

    I’m lucky enough to have Ray Russell’s collection of Taylor’s books, many inscribed to him by her and others marked with his own observations (“Liz’s greatest triumph” in Mrs Palfrey). I assume they went through Beauman’s hands too. Rather poignant.

    • emilybooks Says:

      Wow! Rather poignant to say the least – how lucky to have them and to think of all the things that were said in the margins. Thanks for sharing!

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