Anita Brookner

Shy of the crowd

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Elizabeth Taylor: Complete Short Stories

Elizabeth Taylor

Virago, pp. 640, £

Elizabeth Taylor, the best-kept secret in English fiction, wrote novels and short stories in the 1950s and 1960s and thus contributed to the nostalgia for that modest period so keenly felt today by those who lived through it. She is an honourable writer; no publicity, no interviews, no mission statements — merely an unwavering production of impeccable work. Writing before feminism became encoded in dogma, she nevertheless had an unfailing and unmistakable female intelligence: wry, observant and discreet. She herself, whatever secrets she may have harboured, is invisible behind the screen of her impeccable style.

Taylor appears to have had no problem with the discrepancy between her utterly conventional life — which encompassed an early marriage, a village setting, the birth of a son and a daughter — and her life as a writer, with its silences and withdrawals. Her short stories bear witness to her industry: the present hefty volume contains over 60, many of them originally published in the New Yorker, and thus no doubt contributing to a picture of a legendary England in the American mind. They are no less startling than much of contemporary fiction, which appears lurid in comparison. This is perhaps due to the infinitesimal distance she maintains between herself and her material, never identifying with her characters and indeed not always sympathetic towards them, but invariably attentive and scrupulous. The result is a complete account of whatever subject she is addressing, so that she is completely confident of her material, a confidence she imparts to her readers.

In ‘Hester Lilly’ for example, her portrait of a frigid but ardent woman, intensely suspicious of her husband’s orphaned cousin, is a story of imperfectly concealed frustration which might well cause uneasiness in unsuspecting readers. Her range is considerable, although kept in check by the apparent modesty of the context. This modesty is rare, and misleading. She herself is absent, not writing in the first person, and never showing her hand.

‘Hester Lilly’ is a long story, almost a novella. Others are shorter, almost fleeting, touching on weighty matters but without undue emphasis: the love of children, particularly girls, for their mothers, the indifference of widows, the boredom of certain all female conversations (‘I was hours with Jennifer’), the patience of husbands having to deal with complaints to which they have become accustomed. This is something of a given, and no real offence is taken on either side. Despite their mutual irritation, husbands and wives remain together. Custom is everything; familiarity is unchallenged. And there may be reconciliation in the fading light, for the seasons have their part to play in both the natural and the human dramas.

So closely are the stories composed that it is difficult, almost impossible, to quote from them, and indeed to do so is almost an offence to their seamless construction. In ‘Swan-upping’, which is about the transfer of a swan from a muddy pond to a stretch of clearer water, the vicar, who conducts the ceremony, announces to the onlookers:

‘Stand afar off’. So important was the occasion that he fell easily into biblical oratory and might have added, ‘All of ye’ without noticing or being noticed.

This is a not untypical example of mimesis, kept within limits and never intrusive. Whether the stories were as effortless to write as they are to read is unclear. The novels are another matter, dealing as they do with more complex emotions. ‘Angel’ which is about a monstrous and celebrated novelist of the Marie Corelli persuasion, delves deeply into the matter of the artist’s egotism. Today this is familiar from the vogue for female porn, but Elizabeth Taylor’s public is spared any suggestion of impropriety or bad manners. She herself is absent from what is on the page, impartial, and all the more persuasive for that reason. The stories in the present volume are best read in a different frame of mind, one nostalgic for good behaviour. Apparently undemanding, they speak of a writing life well spent. They will reward all readers not familiar with Elizabeth Taylor’s work and will consolidate her reputation as a significant presence in the history of English letters.