I have admired Elizabeth Taylor’s novels for many years so I waited impatiently for the arrival of The Other Elizabeth Taylor by Nicola Beauman. It’s the first ‘Persephone Life’ and handsomely produced. The book was planned as an authorised biography but Beauman decided publication must be postponed until Elizabeth Taylor’s husband John had died. Their children then objected to the book and disowned it. It’s not clear if this was because they didn’t like the truth being told about aspects of their mother’s life or because they felt there were things in the book that were not true. Controversy usually assists sales but sensation-seekers will not find much to excite them. The real problem with a life of Elizabeth Taylor is the lack of sources. She was intensely private, threw out many of her own papers before her death and insisted that her friend Robert Liddell destroy all the letters she had written to him. So there are no diaries and few reminiscences and the book is based largely on internal evidence from the novels (dangerous) and the letters which did survive: those written to Taylor’s one-time lover, Ray Russell.
Elizabeth Taylor grew up in Reading and attended the famous Abbey School there. She excelled at English (she got 99% in her School Certificate exam) and loved Greek in a romantic way. Her failure at maths meant she couldn’t go on to higher education (did she want to?) and she had no career in mind except writing. The family moved to Buckinghamshire, where she met John Taylor through amateur dramatics. She became pregnant, her mother died suddenly and she married John. Almost immediately she began an affair with a local fellow Communist, Ray Russell and had one, possibly two abortions. She continued to write to him when he was a POW during the war and on his return resumed the affair. She became pregnant again and this time told her husband, who insisted that she stop seeing Ray. She did so, writing to say that she could not hurt John any more. Instead of making a clean break, though, she went on writing to him. This seems to me breathtakingly selfish and unfair on Ray, who seems never to have got over it and kept her letters until the end of his life.
By this time her first two novels had been published: At Mrs Lippincote’s and Palladian. For the rest of her life she lived in a pleasant, comfortable way in leafy Bucks; keeping house, socializing locally and making time to write in the afternoons ‘with lunch tidied away and Woman’s Hour over.’ This is where subject and biographer can never meet. Early in the book Nicola Beauman says, ‘that she chose the gin and tonic and The Daily Telegraph' (obviously Beauman's idea of a fate worse than death) 'is one of the great mysteries of her life.’ Later, she opines that ‘readers of this biography might have preferred’ that Elizabeth had been less self-effacing, indeed that she had chosen a bohemian life over middle class security with John. What a nerve! What is the point of wailing, ‘Oh dear, if only she hadn’t married a nice sweet-manufacturer and had children, she might have written a really great novel!’? It was Taylor’s choice to stay with her husband and bring up the children she loved so much; her choice to mix with ‘the Penn gentry’ rather than with literary types. She had made it clear that she ‘never wanted to be Madame Bovary’, which was also the attitude of Harriet in A Game of Hide and Seek.
This is one of my favourite Elizabeth Taylor novels and after reading the biography, it’s hard not to see parallels with the author’s own life.
‘When she married Charles, she seemed to wed also a social order. A convert to it, and to provincial life, and keeping-house, she had pursued it fanatically and as if she feared censure. No one had entertained more methodically, or better bolstered up social interplay. She had been indefatigable in writing letters of condolence, telegrams of congratulation; remembered birthdays and anniversaries; remembered bread-and-butter letters and telephone-messages after parties.’
In the book Harriet, as an immature girl, has been in love with unreliable Vesey. Oxford and the army take him away, he never writes; her mother dies; she marries Charles, an older, kindly solicitor. Twenty years later Vesey reappears, as Charles has always feared he would, and Harriet begins an unhappy life of home versus secret, guilt-inducing meetings. There is a strong hint of Brief Encounter in the journeys in dirty trains and meetings in cafés; even a reference to the film, albeit a derogatory one made by an unpleasant character. Provincial life is brilliantly portrayed, especially the importance of the beautiful home, contrasted with Vesey’s seedy bed-sitter. Here are Harriet’s daughter Betsy and her friend on their way home from school:
‘They thought of fires made up especially for their return; of mothers waiting; of the last crumpet in the dish, porous, soggy with butter; sweet tea; swiss-rolls; the day beautifully shut out.’
A whole way of life is summed up perfectly and, as Kingsley Amis said of her writing (quoted in the biography), ‘such a world is as valid as any other, and more valid than many, for exploration by the serious novelist.’ Amis was an astute critic and not one to admire a book for being merely literary; he championed Elizabeth Taylor’s writing until his own death.
The Other Elizabeth Taylor is intended to bring Elizabeth Taylor’s novels to a wider audience. It is really a literary biography, with, in my opinion, a large gin-and-tonic-and-Daily Telegraph-shaped hole in it. It’s very well worth reading and I hope it will persuade more people to read Elizabeth Taylor’s novels and short stories. I'd recommend A Wreath of Roses, A Game of Hide and Seek and In a Summer Season.