Elizabeth Taylor Taylor, Elizabeth (Vol. 2) - Essay

Elizabeth Coles

Taylor, Elizabeth (Vol. 2)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.