ELIZABETH TAYLOR—the English novelist, not the American actress, which is part of the problem—is one of those writers who gets periodically picked up and dusted off. “Look at this,” people say, wondering why such a lovely, delicate thing should be left to molder. But there are a few obvious reasons why: the bad luck of the name; Taylor’s own reluctance to proclaim herself a writer (she rarely gave interviews or associated with the literati); the “lending-library aura that hangs around her work,” as her biographer, Nicola Beauman, gently put it; Taylor’s interest in the foibles of the Thames Valley bourgeoisie at a time when England was getting plain fed up with that class; the clean sporting elegance of her language, which perhaps began to feel antiquated around about 1964.
It may be unfair to add to this list the protective, almost cloying warmth of her supporters, but it is certainly tempting. If after fifty years of articles exclaiming that we must, must read Elizabeth Taylor, we are a bit less inclined to, who can blame us? Kingsley Amis, who did more than anyone to undo her wallpapered-parlor image through a series of powerfully worded, almost angry reviews during her lifetime, still wrote defensively after her death in 1975 that Taylor’s “deeply unsensational style and subject-matter saw to it that, in life, she never received her due as one of the best English novelists born in this century. I hope she will in the future.” By 1986, Anita Brookner was noting: “it is time that justice was done to Elizabeth Taylor, the Jane Austen of the 1950s and 1960s, a writer so beautifully modest that few have taken up the cudgels on her behalf.” The frequent comparison to Austen, as well as to other underappreciated, “lending-library”-type female writers like Elizabeth Bowen or Barbara Pym, seems particularly counterproductive.
Under these circumstances, the New York Review Books Classics re-issue of two Taylor novels, A Game of Hide and Seek and Angel, and the planned release of a third novel and a collection of short stories in 2013, is truly exciting. For years, Taylor’s short stories—painfully smart, hilarious, dark—have been entirely out of print in the United States, and available only through the Virago Press in Britain. These editions came with thoughtful introductions, but off-putting Easter-egg-colored covers showing what look like dramatic stills from black-and-white movies, entirely distinct from the book’s contents. The aim was evidently to gussy Taylor up as an a la mode woman’s writer (Valerie Martin in her introduction to At Mrs. Lippincote’s: “Taylor is the thinking person’s dangerous housewife”), a pigeonhole that, however necessary marketing-wise, still does her some damage.
The new editions, blessedly, sell themselves with broader ambition. The covers are not pastel. The jacket copy compares Taylor to Graham Greene, Richard Yates, and Michelangelo Antonioni, without a single mention of Jane Austen. Angel includes an astute introduction from the Virago edition by Hilary Mantel; Caleb Crain does a subtle job placing A Game of Hide and Seek in the context of Taylor’s own life and work. We are thus free to enjoy the novels without feeling that we are participating in some awkward posthumous dress-up party.
A Game of Hide and Seek, first published in 1951, tells an inconvenient and painful love story. Harriet’s mother and Vesey’s aunt are best friends, bonded by their years in the suffragette movement. But Harriet and Vesey are both disappointments: Harriet is unambitious, showing “no inclination to become a doctor or a lawyer, still less to storm some still masculine stronghold, the Stock-Exchange or holy orders”; Vesey is dramatic and manipulative, an overcompensation for the haphazard affections of his self-centered mother. In their teens, playing complicated games with the younger cousins Harriet is meant to be babysitting, the two fall in love; on Harriet’s end, swooningly and awkwardly, with lots of jotting in her diaries and squirreling away of keepsakes; on Vesey’s end, no less sincerely, but with a great deal of teenage cruelty mingled with “its other side of appalled tenderness.” The two are splintered both by their own flaws—Vesey’s insensitivity, Harriet’s inability to openly stake a claim—and by the ungenerous interventions of their elders. Vesey is packed off to university, while Harriet starts a new job in a gown shop and falls into a relationship with Charles Jephcott, “an elderly man of about thirty-five,” out of passivity and loneliness. After Vesey stands her up at a dance—and after her mother dies, and Charles tends her through her grief—Harriet submits to marrying Charles.