IF THE ENGLISH WRITER Elizabeth Taylor is not widely known in this country, maybe it's because most of her books were published back when people still spoke of "women's novels" without so much as a set of quotation marks to excuse the phrase. She did write exceptionally quiet tales--at least on the surface. She had a quiet, if excellent, reputation. And she admitted to enjoying "books in which practically nothing ever happens"--a charge leveled at her own work by more than one critic.
Even her life was quiet. Born in Reading, Berkshire, in 1912, the daughter of an insurance inspector, she was educated at the Abbey School, which took its name and its philosophy from the school attended by Jane Austen. Upon graduation she worked first as a governess, then as a librarian, and at 24 married a businessman, after which she devoted herself to her Buckinghamshire household and her two children. Although she had wanted since childhood to be a writer, she published nothing until she was past 30--when, to fill the time while her husband was away with the Air Force during the Second World War, she wrote her first novel, At Mrs. Lippincote's (1945).
Over the next 30 years, until her death of cancer in 1975, she produced a total of 12 novels, four volumes of short stories, a children's book, and a study of Ivy Compton-Burnett; yet she remained firmly aloof from the literary whirl. She had no hobbies and she disliked travel. She was intensely, consciously English. Her work seems to have sprung not from passion but from painstaking care and thoughtfulness; it sometimes took a whole page of crossings-out to produce a single sentence. The result was a prose that Elizabeth Janeway called "one of the most beautiful and exact instruments of precision in use today." On the other hand, some reviewers judged her books too unemphatic, too short on substance, too civilized.
Like Jane Austen, like Barbara Pym, like Elizabeth Bowen--soul-sisters all-- Elizabeth Taylor made it her business to explore the quirky underside of so-called civilization. She cut straight to the heart of things; she could demonstrate in a phrase, in a gesture (though she would never, never be so crass as to tell us outright) that the human soul is a remarkably dark and funny object. In her delicate way, she could be absolutely savage.
To our good fortune, the Virago Modern Classic series has now brought out four of her novels in handsome paperback editions. More are to follow, but for the moment we must content ourselves with these--her sixth, eighth, ninth, and 11th novels. For readers newly coming upon her, they are canny choices. They give a good sense of her depth and range.
The Sleeping Beauty, first published in 1953, is the most romantic of the four. It concerns a man who falls in love with a mysterious, beautiful woman whom he first observes striding along a windswept coast. Even here, though--happily for us --the author cannot resist a few sly digs. The hero, if you can call him that, is a nearly professional condolence-offerer whose "letters to the bereaved never expressed inadequacy on his part: they seemed simply to be the reason for his existence." And his hearty mother, the wonderfully named Mrs. Tumulty, is so insistent upon etiquette that "when she and her husband were on safari in Africa, she had always expected him to make an effort of standing up when she entered his tent, even if he bent double in doing so."
In a Summer Season (1961) deals with a middle-aged widow who marries a much younger man, to the distress of her extended family. The book resembles one of those old electric-company ads that showed a cross-section of a teeming house with every inhabitant busy at some unrelated activity. There's a wealth of hilarious scenes, including what must be literature's most mismatched dinner party, a movie date that causes the surrounding audience nearly to murder the dating couple, and a conversation during which a young woman in a dress too tight to permit visits to the bathroom keeps gauging the amount of liquid in the drinks she is offered. The ending is too neat--a convenient death occurs at the very best possible moment--but as a comic, incisive summing up of a whole small world of characters, the book is unsurpassed.
The Soul of Kindness is a mischievous study of a sweet-faced Botticelli blond who is given to wrenching observers' hearts with her "Early Christian look," complete with lifted chin and radiant eyes. While reading Henry Miller, she often says to her husband, "What does this word mean, Richard? Truly? Well, I suppose it had to be called something." Because Flora is such an obvious target for irony, this novel is the least subtle of the four--and in fact, the least likeable. But it does reveal the knife edge of Elizabeth Taylor's humor.
Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont (1971) is the penultimate of all her novels, and it is sadder and more haunting than the other three. (If you're wondering, it is also sadder than the very last, the posthumously published Blaming; so there seems no clear downward pattern here.) Mrs. Palfrey is a firm, dignified old widow with the look of "some famous general in drag." We meet her as she's moving to a dismal residential hotel where she expects to end her days. She is lonely, bereft, without a shred of hope that her life will ever be any brighter than it is at this moment. No neat endings here; Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont is human tragedy, despite the wit that percolates through. It is also brilliant-- an unforgettable piece of writing.
What emerges from the four novels, finally, is a sense of the power of details --the supposedly inconsequential details of domestic life. The people here spend their time exchanging recipes and diet plans, buying corsets, watering ferns, attending lectures on spiritualism and social pragmatism, tracking down gloves to match a blouse, caking their faces with white clay mudpacks. They are defined by objects: by trunks bearing labels of countries that no longer exist, by picnic hampers, Gladstone bags, bird glasses, black japanned boxes full of fungus collections, nutmegs carried in a sweater pocket to ward off rheumatism, mildewed books, homemade birthday cards, ships in bottles, collapsible butter coolers, pith helmets, ear trumpets, buttonhooks not used in 50 years.
Trivial, you say? Perhaps, but the end result is that the characters themselves, outlined by their details like those 3-D drawings outlined by red and blue, leap out at us and strike us to the heart. Mrs. Palfrey, waiting to cross a street, knows all at once that she will never again have anyone to take her arm or truly care for her, and because we have so vividly seen the bleak rituals of her life at the Claremont, we can also vividly sense her pain. A man whose marriage proposal digresses ludicrously to the future joint parties he envisions--to the wines he imagines serving, the black diamond cheese and the brie and the stilton--betrays by brand names alone the hours he must have spent in pathetic, yearning fantasy.
And a woman newly hired as a paid companion--just an incidental character, someone who will free our heroine to marry--turns out to be ancient and flat-chested, the size of a 9-year-old boy, with thin, short hair and rosy-veined cheeks and an expression very like a child's, "timid and eager to be loved." Can't you see her? Don't you know her? A lesser novelist would have tossed her off with a single phrase, as the mere convenience that she is. Instead, she's with us intimately, every stitch of her, reminding us forever of the sad tentativeness of old people forced to make new lives for themselves in unfamiliar places.
When you're reading the works of Elizabeth Taylor, there's always an element of self-congratulation. Oh, what you've caught! How it must have slid right by a less attentive reader! She is so devious, so innocently malicious; little clues insert themselves like those thorns that are so slender, you don't feel the prick until they fester. But even in the act of pointing out her characters' foibles, she is gentle, amused, affectionate. These are not cruel books; only knowing.
"It is all cups of tea," says one of her characters, hearing the cook fill the kettle after a death has occurred. It is indeed-- or very nearly all. And Elizabeth Taylor, with her sparkling, piercing, oh-so-civilized eye, knew exactly what those cups of tea could signify.