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.
Elizabeth 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?
On Monday, Simon will talk about the long-delayed joy of Beverley Nichols.
On Wednesday, we’ll have a Vulpes Random – tbd (EXCITING, no?)
On Friday, Hilary feeds her dreams of actually living in an actual bookshop with Jeremy Mercer’s memoir 'Books, Baguettes & Bedbugs. The Left Bank World of Shakespeare & Co.'