Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 725
Elizabeth Taylor was born to Oliver Coles, an insurance inspector, and Elsie Fewtrell Coles, whom Taylor credited with nurturing her imagination and creating an interest in literature. As a child, Elizabeth Coles spent a lot of time in the Reading public library. She attended the Abbey School in Reading. In 1930, at the age of eighteen, she became a governess and a few years later a librarian at High Wycombe. In 1936 she married John William Kendell Taylor, a manufacturer, with whom she had a son, Renny, and a daughter, Joanna.
Elizabeth Taylor began to write in the years following her marriage. Several short stories were published in Time and Tide, Harper’s Bazaar, Harper’s Magazine, and Adelphi. During World War II she lived at Scarborough while her husband was in the Royal Air Force. She drew upon this experience for her first published novel, At Mrs. Lippincote’s, a comedy of manners that portrays life in wartime England.
After the war she and her family settled in the country village of Penn, Buckinghamshire, which Taylor considered a congenial atmosphere for a novelist. There she wrote a total of twelve novels, four short story collections, and a children’s book. A View of the Harbour is a satire of the gothic novel. Taylor’s lighthearted treatment of the genre is reminiscent of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1818). A View of the Harbour, which depicts life in an English seaside village, was praised by reviewers for its economy of expression, scenic accuracy, and objective characterizations.
One of Taylor’s interests was painting, and in 1949 she presented, in A Wreath of Roses, a main character who lives for her art but whose career and idyllic village life are threatened by violence in the form of a strangler—a situation symbolic of the precarious position of civilization in a competitive, materialistic, violent world.
Critics tended to praise Taylor, often comparing her to Austen, Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen, and Barbara Pym, but she never became widely popular. Bowen and Ivy Compton-Burnett, respected novelists who shared the problem of reaching an audience, wrote to Taylor to offer their appreciation of A Game of Hide and Seek in 1951. Bowen compared it to Austen’s Persuasion (1818) and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847). Taylor’s 1953 novel The Sleeping Beauty was another critical success. One aspect that was cited—the comic sense conveyed through the conversation of minor characters—was a technique associated with the work of Compton-Burnett, a writer much admired by Taylor. Her critical study of Compton-Burnett’s novels was published by Vogue.
In 1954, Hester Lilly, and Twelve Short Stories was published, the first of four books of short stories. Taylor’s work in this genre produced further critical acclaim. She was called one of the greatest living short-story writers by a critic who, ironically, was not appreciative of her novels. Many of the stories originally appeared in The New Yorker. Her association with the magazine helped to increase her popularity, and it also indicated to some critics that she was more than a chronicler of domestic tranquillity. More recent promoters of her fiction include the famous novelists Angus Wilson, Kingsley Amis, Elizabeth Jane Howard, and Anne Tyler.
The 1957 novel Angel is considered by many to be the high point of Taylor’s output. In 1984 the Book Marketing Council selected it as one of the “Best Novels of Our Time.” The work tells the story of Angelica Deverell, a popular author of romantic novels, who is not gifted enough to realize how bad her writing is. Taylor’s ability to make this “purveyor of twaddle” into a sympathetic character is an indication of her artistry.
In a Summer Season deals with a middle-aged woman who, to the disapproval of friends, neighbors, and relatives, marries a much younger man. The results are both funny and tragic and are revealed with great skill and elegance, something that can be said about most of Taylor’s works. Her subsequent books—The Soul of Kindness; A Dedicated Man, and Other Stories, The Wedding Group, Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, The Devastating Boys, and Other Stories, and the posthumously published Blaming—appeared to much critical acclaim but were appreciated by only a small readership. This situation changed, however, in the 1980’s, when many of her books were reissued and won a new and much larger audience for Taylor.
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