Elizabeth Taylor said that one basic difference between the short story and the novel is that, whereas the novel is conscious scheming, short stories are inspired, “breathed in a couple of breaths.” For them to succeed, she argued, there must be an immediate impact resulting from suggestiveness and compression. Indeed, critics have suggested that what makes Taylor’s stories so fascinating is her ability to crystallize a particular “moment of being.”
Great short stories, said Taylor, are so charged with a sense of unity, they are like lyric poetry, thus giving a “lovely impression of perfection, of being lifted into another world, instead of sinking into it, as one does with longer fiction.” Many of Taylor’s stories are social comedies that satirize class distinctions and social expectations; however, the best of them begin as social comedies, only to become subtle evocations of characters caught in elusive psychological conflicts.
“The First Death of Her Life”
This popular anthology piece is so short and slight that many readers may feel it is not a story at all, but rather a simple emotional reaction to, as the title suggests, the first death the central character has experienced. Although the story starts with tears, it immediately moves to writing, in this case, the protagonist’s writing a letter in her mind telling her boss why she will not be in to work for the next four days.
The basic method the story uses to communicate emotion is Chekhovian, for instead of focusing on feelings, it focuses on concrete details—either in the present or in the past—that evoke emotion. The thoughts of the protagonist shift first to an image of her father riding through the streets on his bicycle and then to images of her mother, most of which recall the boredom, drabness, and denial of her life. The detail at the end of the story—when the protagonist opens the window and thinks that it is like the end of a film, but without music rising up and engulfing the viewer—suggests that the story is about one of those experiences that is such a disruption of everyday reality it seems unreal. The final image of the father propping his bicycle against the wall and running across the wet gravel completes in actuality what the protagonist earlier imagined.
“A Red-Letter Day”
The story opens with a gothic ominousness—leaves “dripping with deadly intensity, as if each falling drop were a drop of acid.” The “malevolent” landscape is redolent with the horrors of family life: rotting cabbages, rakish privies, rubbish heaps, and gray napkins drooping on clotheslines. The central female character, Tory Foyle (a figure from Taylor’s novel A View of the Harbour), is attending Visiting Day at her son’s school, but without a husband. Because Tory’s husband has asked for a divorce, her own life is frail and precarious; she feels she and her son are amateurs without tradition and no gift for the job. On Tory’s arrival at the school, the point of view shifts to her son Edward, age eleven. When the mother and son go to the Museum at the Guildhall to see...
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Taylor, Elizabeth (Vol. 2)
Taylor, Elizabeth 1912–
An English novelist and short story writer, Mrs. Taylor is often compared to Jane Austen. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-14.)
Mrs. Taylor's mastery is such that she can express her characters' feelings about one another through their exasperation with one another's children and chows. In a story which attains the almost irascible nervousness of Katherine Mansfield, the sheer youth, sexual attractiveness and narcissism of an uninvited guest disrupt a dinner-party like a too heavy pollen in the air giving everyone hay fever.
Mrs. Taylor has always been an excellently unpretentious writer: if she had a fault it used to be that she was (artistically) under-ambitious. These stories [in A Dedicated Man] seem to me to rise wholly to her talent. The title story is a classic—in the simple sense that, now she has revealed its shape, it is perfectly obvious (and unforgetable): it is what all our imaginations ought to have discovered while dwelling on (as they surely all have done) the graven presence of a waiter in a staid hotel. I can only express my gratitude for A Dedicated Man and declare myself Mrs. Taylor's dedicated fan.
Brigid Brophy, "Elizabeth Taylor" (1965), in her Don't Never Forget: Collected Views and Reviews (copyright © 1966 by Brigid Brophy; reprinted by permission of Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.), Holt, 1966, pp. 162-64.
A novelist like Elizabeth Taylor is uncradled by current cults, since her characters have motives, acutely conscious desires, revealing bodies and eventful lives—which the presumptuous author actually explains to the reader. Moreover, she's rash enough to allow her men and women to make precise observations, such as, "The dead can become too important, just by dying." In fact, she's a stunningly upsetting writer, who mingles horrors and delights that are valid for any period, as long as the two sexes continue to capsize each other.
Violence appears as her primary preoccuption in most of her books—violence in a neat, leisurely, rural world of red geraniums and punctual meals, good grooming and clipped lawns….
Some of Mrs. Taylor's early books seem overly modest; this one ["The Wedding Group"] is actually insubstantial. But its publication should stimulate readers to turn to her very best work: "A View of the Harbour," "Angel," and many stories in her recent collections, "The Blush" and "A Dedicated Man."
Nora Sayre, "Violence is Primary," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1968 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 31, 1968.
Elizabeth Taylor, whom Authur Mizener has called "the modern man's Jane Austen" has to her credit a list of several novels; not all cut from the same cloth, happily, but all showing the same keen understanding of people, the ability to share that understanding with her readers, a sense of humor, and a gift and feeling for words.
Alice McCahill, in Best Sellers, April 1, 1968.
Mrs. Taylor often chooses to tell rather ordinary stories but to tell them with the full range of her chilly gifts. Her grim jokes and her unostentatiously observant eye provide an interest which is sometimes almost independent of the characters and events. We have been going through a period in which the main stream of attention has been flowing elsewhere…. Her early novels not merely stick in the memory but live in it. She has tremendous professional toughness and, as current fictional modes get quickly exhausted, taste seems to be swinging back her way. While so many novelists have been making things easy for themselves by being outré, she has generally stuck close to the traditional subject-matter of fiction; her individuality is in her tone.
R. G. G. Price, in Punch (© Punch, London), May 1, 1968.
Almost every approving epithet which springs to mind about Mrs. Taylor's talent sounds, nowadays, like damning with soft praise: "feminine", "perceptive", "middle-class", "domestic", "English", "ironic"—all, of course, words which, applied to Jane Austen, would seem genuine tributes. Perhaps the comparison may help to give Mrs. Taylor the credit she has long deserved, for her new novel [The Wedding Group] is as sharp, as witty, and as sardonically unsentimental as any Janeite could wish….
And yet, even with all its skilful balance of jealousies and weaknesses, the novel is not as satisfying as the first chapters promise. It is as though, crediting her readers with the intelligence to read between the lines, Mrs. Taylor had left too much unsaid, too many superb opportunities to expand a scene or a character only half explored…. Perhaps this is an inevitable criticism of any writer who excels at short stories; Mrs. Taylor economizes and sketches where she might have squandered some loaded paintbrushes. It is part of her considerable insight into the English middle class that she recognizes and accepts the way violent emotions and vicious antagonisms almost never surface, but fester beneath a compromise of insincerity and good manners; it would be a great pity if Mrs. Taylor's talent remained forever so beautifully under control, producing a compromise, however enjoyable for the reader, between the perfect short story and the large, ambitious, untidy novel with no holds barred.
"Home From Home," in Times Literary Supplement, May 9, 1968.
Elizabeth Taylor … is known as an ironist, an impeccable New Yorker fictionist, and worse yet, a modern man's Jane Austen. The Wedding Group might seem fair game for somebody's wanting out of all this class, but the fact is that class tells and that this ironist's power lies in her carefulness not to put her thumb on the scales. The book is about a weak man who marries a foolish, rather attractive girl and gives her over to his mother who smothers her with kindness. The mutual relationships are defined by solicitousness, selfless good-humor, and scrupulous regard for what another must feel: the results are horrendous and made truly so by Elizabeth Taylor's refusal to know more, say more than her characters are allowed to say to each other. This is a novel that reads so well it rouses suspicion; yet it leaves us with no secure place on which to stand, view what we've seen with understanding, nor learn any possible lesson about life. Satire and realism aren't significantly distinguishable.
William H. Pritchard, in Hudson Review, Summer, 1968, pp. 373-74.
There is a distressing similarity between [Elizabeth] Taylor's many stories—an assumption, which sometimes destroys a reader's enjoyment of her art, that the people she deals with in her fiction are not people, but characters. They are imagined as interior creations, existing within the confines of their particular stories; and they are made to be, and even to feel, inferior.
For instance, The Devastating Boys (Miss Taylor's 15th book, and quite representative of her writing): The title story presents us with a classically comic, potentially "hilarious" situation which has been done too often before, the somewhat misguided charity of a well-to-do English couple, who have invited two immigrant boys to stay at their country home, as part of a campaign to give under-privileged London children the experience of living in the country. The story could have transcended its familiar subject matter, but Miss Taylor can imagine for us only the most commonplace of characters, extremely easy targets for her gentle satire (and, presumably, to assure our feelings of superiority).
Joyce Carol Oates, "'Real' People or Characters," in Book World (© The Washington Post), April 30, 1972, p. 6.
Taylor, Elizabeth (Vol. 29)
Elizabeth Taylor 1912–1975
English novelist and short story writer.
Taylor has been compared to Jane Austen as a writer who focuses on the details of human relationships within quiet English communities. Taylor's novels, many of which have recently been reprinted, have been especially praised for their elegant prose, well-crafted structure, and the subtlety with which they reveal the humor and irony of human affairs. While some critics feel that her stories are so quiet and unassuming as to have little emotional impact, others contend that the power of Taylor's writing has been underrated.
(See also CLC, Vols. 2, 4; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.; and Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 9.)
The sleeping beauty of Miss Taylor's title is Emily, terribly injured in a car accident, who does not recognize the beauty of the new face created for her by plastic surgery and lives in nunnish seclusion, looking after the mentally defective daughter of her sister Rose. Emily is warmed to life again by a middle-aged Jamesian figure named Vinny who has already a wife living, but makes a bigamous alliance with Emily which is enduring happily at the end of the book. The plot of The Sleeping Beauty is grotesque: but once it has been accepted, or ignored, there can be little but admiration for the subtlety and humour with which Miss Taylor has invested her whole curious fairy-story…. [The] book is full of … moments in which the pathos and comedy of social incongruities are neatly caught. It is Miss Taylor's comic sense, conveyed through many passages of conversation between minor characters that owe something to Miss Compton-Burnett, which makes the book such a pleasure to read. The love story of Vinny and Emily, upon which she has perhaps spent more pains, is much less satisfactory.
"Human Incongruity," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1953; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 2670, April 3, 1953, p. 217.∗
The concern in [The Sleeping Beauty] (which the reader instantly shares) is with people in transition, moving from one pattern of life to another: Isabella drifts from a conventionally settled marriage through bereavement into the frivolities of the Turkish baths; her son, Lawrence, escapes from the servitude of his inarticulate adolescence and a deep-bitten inferiority toward some capacity for independence, pleasure and happiness which, with unerring instinct, he looks for through a simple servant girl; Vinny is the romantic, dallying bachelor whose mauve masculinity takes on deeper, surer tones as he moves toward his first genuine experience of love; and Emily, the strangely beautiful recluse, hiding in the refuge of her sister's possessiveness, must be lured back to life.
Mrs. Taylor possesses a fine sense of the interplay of feeling. She also possesses so fine an ear for the English idiom that her American readers will be reminded how we only partly share this "common language" of ours, for by listening carefully, as one must, to her speech, we discover differences in responses and attitudes between ourselves and a people with whom we are prone to assume a too great likeness or identity at the expense of failing to see them and ourselves as we really are.
Also, in this novel, which is her fifth, Mrs. Taylor again exhibits a meticulous craftsmanship, being seriously concerned with the problems of form and structure. Many authors write with notable insight, comprehension and imagination, but fewer manage, as does she, to fix definitely and irrevocably the rationale of her characters' lives by an artistry which forestalls question: this is the way it all was and nothing could have been otherwise. (pp. 569-70)
Adrienne Foulke, "Patterns of Transition," in Commonweal (copyright © 1953, renewed 1981, Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Foundation), Vol. LVIII, No. 23, September 11, 1953, pp. 569-70.
["In a Summer Season"] is, on the surface, the most explicit of Elizabeth Taylor's fine, subtle novels. It has to do with conflict that seems more open and obvious than that in her earlier books, more easily caught and described.
Kate, left a widow by a successful and rather stuffy husband, has remarried. Her choice is quite wrong, but quite understandable. Dermot is a charming drifter, ten years her junior. He did not marry Kate for her money (though he is continually expecting people to think so); he loves her, and this love is the best and most hopeful thing about him. Still, marrying Kate has insured that he need not look too hard for a new job….
None the less, the action of the book turns largely on the question of "a job for Dermot."…
The first half of the book establishes both the likelihood of this marriage, and the likelihood of its doom. Then two new characters appear, Charles Thornton and his daughter Araminta, and between them—perfectly naturally—they precipitate disaster…. [With Charles] return the values that had governed Kate's earlier life. We see Kate as she once had been, and against this background her marriage to Dermot becomes ever more bizarre: as if a dog had married a cat. (p. 5)
So disaster comes, apparently accidental, but quite thoroughly foreshadowed; and after it, life wrenches itself around and goes on. The cats are destroyed, the dogs...
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A quietly perceptive friend once told me of his conviction that people who "mean well" are the most dangerous of human beings, but I never fully realized the awful implications of this twisted truism until I witnessed Mrs. Taylor's genteel flaying of Flora Quartermaine [the subject of The Soul of Kindness] model wife, daughter, and friend, as ingenuously destructive as a rabid lamb, Flora's worries were always other people's worries; her pink, smiling face creased unbelievingly at intimations that people could possibly resent her kind solicitude; she arranged the lives of her family and friends as she would lilies in a vase—even if she had to snap a stem here, force a recalcitrant bud there….
As admirable example of strategic characterization and fictional grace, this novel reaffirms Mrs. Taylor's dedication to economy of means. When she describes a walk by the Thames, by God, it works in the book. When a character lights a cigarette, the gesture functions! Even the flowers are observed and described not decoratively but selectively and meaningfully; as with Colette, they are not "just background," but tremulous with life.
James R. Frakes, "A Unique Garden Variety," in Book Week—The Sunday Herald Tribune (© 1964, The Washington Post), July 12, 1964, p. 18.
[The Soul of Kindness is] a story that holds one's interest from first to last. Yet I found it disappointing, as if I'd just finished reading brilliant notes for a novel instead of the finished product. My mind was full of questions. It is the story of a (we are told) devastatingly beautiful and charming girl…. The real weakness of the book, it seems to me, lies in the fact that though the heroine is described again and again as exquisite and charming, the reader is not convinced. One can't see why even weak people would fall under the spell of what seems a transparently selfish character.
However, Miss Taylor couldn't write an inelegant sentence if she tried and her prose is a delight as always; there is a wonderful supporting cast and secondary plot, and the London backgrounds are all vivid enough to touch and smell.
Katherine Gauss Jackson, in a review of "The Soul of Kindness," in Harper's Magazine (copyright © 1964 by Harper's Magazine; all rights reserved; reprinted from the August, 1964 issue by special permission), Vol. 229, No. 1371, August, 1964, p. 104.
Mrs Taylor is one of those novelists who look homogeneous, as if working within a single mood, and turn out to be varied and wide-ranging. There is a deceptive smoothness in her tone, or tone of voice, as in that of Evelyn Waugh; not a far-fetched comparison, for in the work of both writers the funny and the appalling lie side by side in close amity. After the fashion of Angel, her best book to date, though without any hint of self-repetition, Mrs Taylor presents to us here [in Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont] somebody both ridiculous and dignified—not just laughable and dignified, like, say, Fielding's Parson Adams.
She was a tall woman with big bones and a noble...
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The making of a literary reputation is an awkward, unfair business. "One of our foremost novelists", Angus Wilson is quoted as saying on the jacket of one Elizabeth Taylor novel; James Agate, in 1945, "chortled from the first page to the last" of another one; the TLS managed a comparison with Chekhov, Amis, Hartley, Priestley, Bowen, Betjeman—a chorus of praise from fellow-writers of various sorts fills up the blurbs of her fifteen books. Yet it would not be entirely farfetched to apply what she says about her character Martha, in this last and posthumous novel, to Martha's creator: "Her … books were handsomely printed, widely spaced on good paper, well-reviewed, and more or less unknown. Without fretting,...
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Amy Henderson, the central character in [Blaming] …, is a woman of average intelligence and limited sensibility. She is 'nice' to the extent that she does her best to conceal the boredom and irritation seething inside her, but otherwise she isn't particularly likeable. She has the good manners of the thoughtless, the tact of the uninvolved. She knows only her own problems. She bears a striking resemblance to a hell of a lot of people.
Blaming is largely about Amy's widowhood—how she endures it, and how it changes her. The book covers a year in her life. Her slight progress from total absorption in her own misery to a state of mind bordering on the self-forgetful is charted by Mrs...
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Blaming is Elizabeth Taylor's last novel, completed shortly before her death. And death is the dominant theme: not the experience of facing death oneself, but the ways in which the living face the deaths of those they know. Blaming oneself, blaming others—these are easy, available, but destructive responses. In this novel, the living are shown to be indeed responsible in some sense for two deaths; but the argument is that such responsibility must not and cannot be borne if life is to go on….
Elizabeth Taylor has written a book about guilt and its overcoming in which all the characters are ordinary, selfish muddlers. There are no epiphanies here, and no teachers; just the everyday...
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I have not read [Elizabeth Taylor's] previous novels but familiar ghosts of thirty years of reviews flutter down. 'Formidably intelligent', 'ironic wit', 'delicate impressionism', 'penetrating psychological insights', succeeding 'quiet authority', 'nervous prose', 'exquisite touches', even 'exquisite sensitivity'. They induced misgivings, a hint of small beer in the opulent homesteads of those with too little to do. Actually, Blaming so justifies the above commendations that there is little to add. Set in the trimmed careful properties of North London, it is very personal, lacking the metaphysics that reviewers find in Iris Murdoch. The jacket aptly shows a woman hopelessly slumped at a table, a snake coiled...
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[In a] passage from The Sleeping Beauty, first published in 1953 and now reissued …, Elizabeth Taylor refers to two of the dreams dearest to the English middle class's collective unconscious. One is the fantasy of unbridled passion. The other is the vision of bourgeois bliss….
Miss Taylor is both realist and romantic. She writes, with a precision which leaves no space in which sentimentality could be accommodated, about the squalid, silly, intermittently charming lives and personalities of ordinary people. She records the minor deceptions by which they preserve appearances, and thereby renders those appearances absurd. But she loves and respects the pleasures and the yearnings of the...
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[Elizabeth Taylor] wrote twelve novels and produced four volumes of short stories, many of the latter reprinted from the New Yorker magazine—in itself a sign that she was rather more than the comfortable chronicler of domesticity that she was sometimes taken to be. In fact, she scrutinized the people around her with a peculiarly cool, detached eye, though with her gift of deadly observation went a deep and compassionate human sympathy. Probing beneath the surface of life in comfortable homes, she found nothing more sensational than loneliness, ennui, diffidence, disappointment, or simply time ticking away, leaving little to show for its passing. Commonplace things—but to her eye they were appalling,...
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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. (p. 1)
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...
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Taylor, Elizabeth (Vol. 4)
Taylor, Elizabeth 1912–
An English novelist and short story writer, Ms Taylor is a quietly elegant stylist whose principal themes are loneliness and isolation. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-14.)
Elizabeth Taylor is a pastel stylist, a celebrant of delicately-drawn losers….
In Miss Taylor's epiphanies, pitiful frauds are exposed, and old wounds laid bare. Yet the tone of her fiction is urbane rather than morbid. Her characters have enough vitality to be interesting, but not enough to be tragic.
Martin Levin, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 23, 1972, p. 41.
Elizabeth Taylor must surely now be among the four or five most distinguished living practitioners of the art of the short story in the English-speaking world. Some have reservations—this reviewer among them—about her range as a novelist; there is an assumption of English middle-class habits, preoccupations, and woes which, however accurately and indeed sometimes waspishly documented, excludes perhaps too much of modern experience to give her broader canvases the significance she herself might intend. And harking back to Jane Austen is not, in the media-influenced society we now have, a relevant rejoinder.
But when it comes to the isolation—in the symbolic as well as technical sense—of a particular relationship, a particular incident in which the apparently ordinary, stock individual is momentarily exposed, then there is no writer so skilled at imprinting forever on the reader's mind how significant that moment can be….
[The] gentle reminder, implied even in Mrs Taylor's most sardonic descriptive details [in The Devastating Boys and Other Stories] that we are all as ludicrously self-seeking, as blind and petty, as … faded snapshot figures…. Perhaps it is the humble wisdom of experience that all story-tellers need to focus the moment against the insignificant wastes of time that lie around.
"Escape Into Irony," in The Times Literary Supplement (reproduced by permission), June 9, 1972, p. 649.
Elizabeth Taylor's fifteenth book [The Devastating Boys and Other Stories] contains eleven elegant stories that decisively demonstrate her mastery of the techniques of traditional fiction. And yet, the reader wonders, so what?
Miss Taylor evokes middle-class Englishmen and English-women at home and abroad…. All the characters function in realistic settings and obey the laws of psychological verisimilitude. They press flowers, have black children to the country, or risk a middle-life sex affair while on Mediterranean holidays. The stories have tension, suggestion, mood, irony, insight, humor, compassion, and complete believability. The book is flawless—and totally unmemorable….
The techniques she employs here were developed to reflect the realities and sensibilities of another era; they do not reflect our own. In 1972 one does not write fiction under the banner of Guy de Maupassant. These stories about and for the upper middle class do little more than provide minor insights and provoke minor questions. The accepted language and form correspond to the accepted society they describe, and, like it, resist acknowledgment of change or even the need for change.
William Beauchamp, in Saturday Review of Science (copyright © 1972 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), June 10, 1972, p. 69.