Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

A Palladian Wreath of Hide and Seek

taylor_hideandseekElizabeth Taylor is one of my very favourite writers. Having undertaken to write about her for VL, I tried to find some way to explain the extraordinary nature of her work and especially the queasy magnetism of her more or less monstrous characters (Angel Deverell, Vesey Macmillan, Flora Quartermaine, Richard Elton, etc.): people you would never willingly deal with in real life, but whose dreadful progress is so fascinating to watch. (That was traumatic, you think: is there any more?)

Of course it was an impossible task, so I fell back on pastiche. You’ll have to imagine the introductory paragraph(s), describing the southern English countryside as seen from the train window, for yourself. Taylor did that sort of thing better than anyone, and I’ve murdered her style quite enough as it is.

“What are you reading?”

The man who had spoken was not of the kind she considered attractive. Too chiselled, with the wrong kind of jaw; or perhaps he was too slim and fair, the sort of man who might wear a velvet jacket without irony. At any rate, he was not her type, nor she his.

“It is Elizabeth Taylor,” she said, and braced herself for his critique.

“Women’s fiction!” he said. “All that damn head-hopping. I can hardly stand it.”

“It is the convention of the time. You have listened too much to your creative writing teacher.”

Her tone struck him as insufferably cool. “You are going about it all wrong, anyway,” he observed. “You ought to be eating sandwiches discreetly from a damask napkin in your lap as you read.”

He had intended to wound her, and had found his mark. She was painfully conscious of her inability to eat a sandwich discreetly, without getting bits of egg stuck to her lipstick—for it was always egg—and crumbs in the lap of her dress. It was, she felt, her great failing. “I suppose you are going to launch into one of those expository monologues,” she said spitefully. “I only hope it’s internal.”

“I do so far too often. I accost young women in trains and criticise their reading matter. It is because I cannot love—I cannot love normally—so I must rant and carp and say wild strange things, and I do it again and again because, you see, it is compelling. What would become of me if I did not self-dramatise, but loved quietly and steadily? I should no longer be worthy of notice.”

It is compelling, she thought, and I scarcely know why. Surely nobody talks like this, not in real life; and yet he does, and it draws me to him. I shall be in his arms before long, and the readers will shout and rail and beg me to change my mind, but they too will be in thrall. They will follow me to the end, and it will be bitter; and, reeling from the shock of it, they will turn back and begin to read again. “I wish you would not make a scene.”

“I must make a scene. I cannot do otherwise.” He cast down his newspaper with the cryptic crossword half-done, flinging his pencil away and catching an elderly businessman in the left ear. “It is my stop,” he cried.

“I suppose you live in some great and dying place, with a malevolent beetle-woman keeping house and ivy thrusting its fingers through the cracks in the window frames.”

He picked up his case. “And you would prefer me to be in filthy digs somewhere, or perhaps a bleak seafront terrace next door to my lover?”

“Anything would be an improvement,” she said, thinking of her sterile spinster’s room, with its gas fire and Pliny.

“Well, come on, then.”

He went to the door, and she rose and followed him as if in a dream. As the train slowed and the station, with its sunstruck white paint and red geraniums, came into view, she thought she could hear the distant cries of the readers.

Elizabeth Taylor’s novels have been reissued by Virago Modern Classics. They are all available for e-reader. A Game of Hide and Seek, In a Summer Season, A Wreath of Roses and The Soul of Kindness are my favourites: what about yours?

15 comments on “A Palladian Wreath of Hide and Seek

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings
    May 15, 2014

    Brilliant! I probably liked A Game of Hide and Seek best – or possibly A View of the Harbour??

  2. kirstyjane
    May 15, 2014

    Oh yes, A View of the Harbour! I love that one, but I had to read it twice before I came to love it — not sure why.

  3. Kate
    May 15, 2014

    LOVE. I don’t care for Elizabeth Taylor’s fiction, because I’ve only read one or two novels, and thought: what is the point? But I loved this, it said everything I dislike about her style so well. I’d rather be laughing than suffering silently.

  4. kirstyjane
    May 15, 2014

    I’m glad it can be appreciated from the other side of the line🙂 Actually, it was a devil to write because “trying to write like Elizabeth Taylor” is kind of my default mode, so I kept parodying myself by accident.

  5. gertloveday
    May 15, 2014

    Oh no, I protest! You don’t give any sense of her transcendental bleakness e.g
    To The North, which I think may have been her first book but one of her best in my opinion.

  6. kirstyjane
    May 15, 2014

    I know *hangs head* It’s an impossible task to do any justice to Taylor — I don’t pretend otherwise. I already left out the whole charming/playful side (e.g. At Mrs. Lippincote’s, which was her first novel IIRC) as it is.

  7. Conor
    May 15, 2014

    Very enjoyable. It makes me want to pick one up right now.

    Some say ‘Angel’ is her best, but I’m glad I didn’t read it for a long time, as it would have put me off her. Luckily I was drawn in by ‘At Mrs L’, which shocked me, and ‘Mrs Palfrey at the C’, which nicely developed the subject of rebellion against a restricted life.

    Then a lot of short stories, all very good, and I was now delighted to have found another subtle explorer of ordinary life like Jane Austen but much easier to read.
    Next ‘Angel’, which puzzled me as I lost interest. Then ‘A Game of Hide and Seek’, which was its opposite, written from the heart and disturbing in the best way.

    I see her compared to Barbara Pym, who wrote ‘Excellent Women’, and Elizabeth Bowen, who wrote ‘To the North’, so I have another writer to try now. I think the Victorian Mrs Oliphant would delight readers of these too. The short ‘The Rector’ would be a good place to begin.

    There’s a series of beautifully produced paperbacks from Persephone Books, which publishes forgotten women’s fiction from around the thirties, and people love them.

    Who are you going to write like next for us?

  8. kirstyjane
    May 15, 2014

    Thank you for the kind comment, Conor! I do feel divided about Angel. It’s beautifully done, but so sickening that I can’t enjoy it as much as the others. She is very good on writers and writing, isn’t she? Beth’s perspective in A View of the Harbour is so well done: “that drugged sinking into another world.”

  9. Hilary
    May 15, 2014

    Brilliant. Fabulous. I just looked out of the window, and the sky is still there, it has not fallen. It is a long time since I read many of ET’s novels, apart from one that is on my ‘reread any time, any place’ list (with Excellent Women, Conor!), which is The Soul Of Kindness (plugs own review, ahem, sorry) – one of those novels, like EW and The Tortoise And The Hare that I think are quite audacious in the new ground they break with characters and perceptions. She’s great at monsters, and not just Angel – some hide their monstrosity more effectively than that. I devoured Angel and relished it because it seemed so untypical of her work. Time for a re-read of A Wreath Of Roses – you’ve made me think fondly of it!

  10. heavenali
    May 15, 2014

    I have loved all her novels so much, it is so hard to qualify her absolute genius. I loved your piece, you do her well🙂

  11. Hilary
    May 15, 2014

    PS What’s with these latest Virago covers? Really, really do not like them!

  12. kirstyjane
    May 15, 2014

    Thank you for lovely comments. I’m so glad this piece has gone over well — I was lying-awake worried about putting it up! And how wonderful to be among fellow Taylorites.

  13. Erica
    May 19, 2014

    Oh, you made me chortle. Love it.

  14. Pingback: Two Quite Different Things | Kirsty Jane McCluskey

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