Wednesday, May 18, 2011
The Other Elizabeth Taylor by Nicola Beauman
It was the afterword in Blaming in which Taylor's daughter, Joanna, wrote how her mother had included some humourous dialogue from when she was a child that made me want to know more about the sort of woman Taylor was at home. Ironically, Elizabeth Taylor's children were not pleased with Beauman writing about their mother. However, I am very glad that she did.
I couldn't have asked for a more perfect resource to find out more about an author I have come to admire. The quality that strikes me most is how ordinary this author's life was as a mother struggling to find uninterrupted time to write while her children were at school or asleep. Loving the countryside and eschewing a materialistic lifestyle, Taylor wrote from her domestic surroundings in Buckinghamshire rather than the hustle and bustle of London where she would have been surrounded by many of her contemporaries. Which is not to say that she didn't long for the intellectual stimulation or ponder with frustration that unmarried women authors, or males, could write at their leisure without the interruptions of childcare and housework.
Elizabeth Taylor had very close friendships with Barbara Pym and Elizabeth Bowen. I particularly enjoyed reading about a time when Taylor went to stay with Bowen and they spent their days in separate rooms while they wrote, joining each other later for drinks and conversation. Taylor commented that the air in Bowen's room was so filled with smoke you needed a very sharp knife to cut through it. But I was startled to learn there was a group referred to by Robert Liddell as 'The Lady-Novelists Anti-Elizabeth League', consisting of authors such as Kate O'Brien, Pamela Hansford Johnson, Kathleen Farrell and Olivia Manning, who ridiculed Taylor's work and lifestyle. With a childish sense of relief and loyalty I am happy that none of these authors grace my bookshelves.
One drawback of reading a biography before you've completed an author's oeuvre is that you discover the endings of unread novels. I'm counting on the sort of mental lapse which has me forgetting why I went dashing into a room in the first place on keeping plots fresh for future reads. But how delightful to find out that Elizabeth and her husband, John, had boys to stay with them just as in The Devastating Boys and how sad to learn that Martha's character who ends up committing suicide in Blaming is based on Elizabeth's friend, Maud.
Beauman has done a marvellous job of painting a picture of the Elizabeth Taylor I wanted to know more about. In fact, twice my eyes stung with tears, not at any particularly poignant moment but from the sheer bliss of a fabulous read. Despite some sensational moments in her life the images that stay with me are of a woman quietly sipping tea in a restaurant or something stronger in her local while she takes inspiration from customers for future characters. And of a woman who could paint beautiful scenes with words on paper but was rendered practically speechless by interviewers due to her shyness.
Elizabeth Taylor passed away in 1975, I wish she knew how much I am enjoying her writing and that her books will, hopefully, be in print for many years to come. To Nicola Beauman, thank you for all of your efforts over the fifteen years it took to bring this book to print, it was everything I had hoped for.