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 Times Literary Supplement
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 entire section is 208 words.)
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...
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["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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James R. Frakes
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 entire section is 203 words.)
Katherine Gauss Jackson
[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.
(The entire section is 180 words.)
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 face, dark eyebrows and a neatly folded jowl. She would have made a distinguished-looking man and, sometimes, wearing evening dress, looked like some famous general in drag.
Adams would hardly have survived being introduced in such terms.
The one so introduced is, naturally, Mrs Palfrey, and the Claremont is a hotel in the Cromwell Road where old widowed people like herself come to spend their penultimate days…. And the principal subject of the novel is loneliness, old age and approaching death, and I must warn those who dislike this triad of prospects that they will not like it any better on finishing Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont.
Among her and other residents …...
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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, she waited to be discovered." Except that "without fretting" suggests a tranquillity that does not suit well with the fierceness, the controlled energy that exist just below the surface of Elizabeth Taylor's stories of elderly Brompton Road widows, uneasy marriages in Thames Valley commuting villages. Under their sheeps' clothing—Boots' Lending Library, Barchester, 1950—all her books are sleek wolves.
If to some extent they do wait to be discovered, however, Blaming is not really the one with which to make converts. Her more powerful and concentrated writing is in the earlier books; in the later ones irony and polish often take the place of passion. Blaming is late, slight, even shorter than her other...
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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 Taylor with all her old artistry—that enviable compound of beady-eyed detachment and sympathetic understanding. Under her steady gaze, Amy is allowed to get away with nothing. Grief makes this privileged woman in her pretty house by the Thames even more exasperated, even more suspicious of other people's motives. She 'puts a brave face on things' (there are dozens of 'brave faces' in Mrs Taylor's fiction) more out of custom than consideration. The strongest emotion she feels is fury—fury with Nick for dying; fury with the solicitous Martha, who escorts her back to England and then has the nerve to intrude on her privacy; fury with her son and his wife and their two daughters. It is the fury of someone who doesn't want help, who doesn't...
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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 accommodation of pain. In this she is reminiscent of Muriel Spark: neither writer seeks a solution in goodness, that fabled and irrelevant state, neither subscribes to a notion of progress. The effect is of someone writing with a permanent moral headache. Blaming is an uncomfortable comfort in the world that everyone must sometimes inhabit: the world without transcendent love. (p. 29)
Nick Totton, "Trekking," in The Spectator (© 1976 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 237, No. 7734, September 18, 1976, pp. 29-30.∗
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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 under an elegant, sinuous flower. A cool, clear story reveals a youngish grand-mother's reactions to her husband's sudden death, the wretched readjustments, and her friends' help, at first necessary, ultimately infuriating. The normal decencies that sustain society are dissected, shown to conceal resentment, guilt, dislike, venomous heads always ready to lift soundlessly from the herbacious border. Much of life is a search for someone to blame, not least oneself. Mourning, reflects one character, seems to give the go-ahead to every sort of rudeness and selfishness. Also, to the observer, considerable entertainment. Mrs Taylor's wit can be caustic…. The book is a taut meditation not only on death but renewal from one who, in another cliché,...
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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 flesh. While she satirises the dream of respectability, she confirms the potency of the vision of ecstasy. Respectability is vulnerable, it can be routed by the merest breath, by a whisper of scandalous truth.
Susannah Clapp, in her perceptive introduction to this edition, quotes Elizabeth Taylor as saying 'I write in scenes, rather than in narrative, which I find boring'. She is at her best writing minute accounts of the ways in which nice women (nearly always women, this book is melancholy with the wastage of untouched female flesh) reconcile the appearance of propriety with some fairly seedy facts.
Miss Taylor's descriptions have a housewifely exactness. Vinny, imagining a wished-for outing with Emily, sees...
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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, sad, funny; often (such is the Taylor chemistry) all three at once.
She evolved, over long years of "despairing struggle", a fresh, translucent style; she learned to be frugal with words, paring back until in her later work she sometimes pared to the bone. She has been called a writer's writer, and the average reader may well take her unselfassertive skills for granted, and fail to appreciate (in Robert Liddell's phrases) "the exactly chosen word, the delicately placed adverb, the admirable rhythm of a paragraph". For the most part she was well reviewed (Angus Wilson and Kingsley Amis being among her champions) but it has to be said that in her novels the plums are better than the whole pudding, which is not surprising in...
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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 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.
[Of the four novels recently reprinted],...
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