Francis King

A delicate talent

The Other Elizabeth Taylor, by Nicola Beauman

Text settings

The Other Elizabeth Taylor

Nicola Beauman

Persephone, pp. 444, £

When, 15 years ago, Nicola Beauman embarked on this life of ‘the other Elizabeth Taylor’, the novelist and not the film star, she had been deprived of documents that would certainly have been of tremendous use to her. These were the letters that, over a period of some three decades, Taylor wrote regularly and at length to the novelist Robert Liddell, living in self-exile in Greece. Aware that she was terminally ill, she asked him to burn her side of their correspondence, and no less regrettably then destroyed his. Was he right to obey this injunction from a woman whom he himself described as the best letter-writer of the 20th century? I myself, as I told him at the time, thought not; but others, perhaps morally more scrupulous, approved.

The reason usually given for Taylor’s demand is that, intensely private and discreet, she did not wish revelations about her life or the lives of her neighbours to gain general currency. I have an additional explanation. Writers have a way of embellishing reality in order to make it more arresting and amusing; and from the little that Liddell preserved of the letters in his book Elizabeth and Ivy, I suspect that this is what had happened in this case. May not Taylor have not wanted her embellishments eventually to be shown up as fakes and have therefore decided on the holocaust?

The curious thing is that this friendship was, until its final few years, an entirely epistolary one. On holidays in Greece, Taylor could easily have called on Liddell but decided not to do so. When she eventually paid a visit, he has recorded her extreme nervousness as she first stepped over his threshold. ‘She might have been entering a hospital theatre for a life-or-death operation’ was how he described it to me. I regard Taylor’s ’s regular penning of confidences to a man whom she had never met as similar to the way in which an ignored child chats to a doll or a lonely OAP to a cat or a dog. In effect, she was conversing less with him than with herself.

Fortunately, Beauman had access to another, no less important cache of letters, written by Taylor over a period of more than ten years to a young working-class draughtsman and part-time painter, Ray Russell, originally encountered at communist party meetings at the High Wycombe Trades and Labour Club and Institute. Soon after the birth of her first child, Taylor started an affair with him, in part, I should guess, as a riposte to her husband John’s serial infidelities. As the correspondence — which surely deserves to be published in its entirety — reveals, two abortions subsequently had to be performed.

This revelation may amaze many of those who thought that they knew Taylor well. But it does not amaze me. I have always felt that there was another Elizabeth Taylor, in a sense different from that in which Beauman uses the phrase. This other Elizabeth Taylor was the antithetical self that she had suppressed when she had made what, for a lower-middle-class girl, would be regarded as a ‘good’ marriage to the well-to-do managing director of a family confectionery business. With him, she had settled down to a comfortable existence in an attractive house in Penn (‘the Chelsea of the Chilterns’, as John Betjeman dubbed it). Soon she had become the sort of woman who had her hair done weekly and wore a hat and gloves even when slipping down to the local store for a pint of milk. The couple enjoyed the services of a daily ‘treasure’ and a gardener, and could afford to send their two children to boarding school.

Suppressed now was the unconventional free spirit described to me by one of my sisters, who had been a wartime neighbour and friend, and by the novelist Oliver Knox, to whom, when he was 11, Taylor had briefly acted as an efficient and sometimes peremptory governess. This free spirit had briefly been a part of Eric Gill’s incestuous circle and perhaps, it was rumoured by John Rothenstein and others, even his nude model and lover, had touted copies of the Daily Worker in High Wycombe High Street, and had indefatigably knocked on the doors of strangers to rally support for the Communist cause. On one occasion, years later, this usually self-controlled woman amazed me by a ferocious diatribe against Rebecca West. I now realise that this repudiation of the passionate and unconventional West paralleled a repudiation of her own no less passionate and unconventional early self.

Since, unassuming and shy, Taylor was a hopeless interviewee and public speaker and exasperated her publishers by refusing ever to join in any promotion of her books, many people may find it difficult to understand why, as Beauman piquantly records, so many of her fellow women novelists disparaged her so constantly and cruelly. But the answer is clear: envy. Not only did she appear to have an entirely happy marriage, but her work was so highly regarded in the States that she never lacked for a large income of her own to supplement her husband’s equally large one. She was also guilty of something even more reprehensible than happiness and prosperity: she was a better writer than any of her detractors.

For Taylor, the three supreme contemporary novelists were E. M. Forster, Elizabeth Bowen and Ivy Compton-Burnett. The first of these she briefly met on a Swan Hellenic tour; the other two became her closest literary friends. In all her books one comes on sentences or phrases that might well have been written by one of the trio. Beauman postulates that Taylor deliberately introduced such echoes as a form of secret homage; but I feel it to be more plausible that they are unconscious, or even conscious, pastiche.

My one major criticism of this informative and perceptive book is that Beauman does too little to recreate the childhood years spent in comparative poverty with a distant, insurance inspector father, a vivacious mother and a hare-lipped brother, who eventually was to run a garage for 40 years. In adulthood people all too often try either to recreate their happy childhoods or to flee from their unsatisfactory ones. In the case of Taylor, so determined to achieve a prosperous, staid, upper-middle-class existence, the latter was clearly the case.

Beauman rightly regards Taylor’s short stories as the summit of her achievement. But it was surely an error to produce so many summaries of their plots. Unlike the stories of Maupassant and Maugham, hers do not exert their lure because of teasing twists and turns of narrative, followed by some ironic or shattering denouement. Her method — which she herself described as ‘I break in at a certain stage of people’s emotional developments, not the beginning, and leave them with the end merely indicated’ — is akin to that of Chekhov. Of course, no one would claim that, largely confining herself to characters, for the most part female, of the English middle classes, she possesses Chekhov’s range. But like him she is extraordinarily sensitive to wispy nuances of emotion and the life-shaking decisions that may arise from them like the destruction that follows the faint, far-off tremor of an earthquake. In addition, she is one of those writers, like Anita Brookner and Sybille Bedford, who are incapable of ever writing badly or even carelessly.

For those who wish to make the acquaintance of this remarkable novelist still chiefly known for not being better known, Beauman would clearly recommend Taylor’s fifth book A Game of Hide and Seek, which she describes as her ‘most flawless novel’ (not all that happy a phrase). But though that book has an extraordinary stylistic radiance and romantic intensity, I myself would opt for the posthumously published Blaming, which, to my surprise, Beauman clearly does not rate all that highly. Written when, in her early sixties, Taylor knew that she was terminally ill with an insidiously creeping cancer, its unsparing account of how people constantly blame not m erely others but also themselves has, uncharacteristically, a gritty relentlessness that is profoundly impressive.

In her Acknowledgements Beauman records that her book has made Taylor’s son and daughter ‘very angry and distressed’ (their own words). I am amazed. She seems to me to have done full justice both to an exceptional woman and to an exceptional writer. Taylor’s is certainly a delicate talent in comparison with the robust and ebullient ones of such her contemporaries as Anthony Burgess and her lifetime admirer Kingsley Amis. But my hunch is that she will continue to be cherished when many such writers have been sucked down into the oubliette of critical and reader indifference.