Rediscovering Elizabeth Taylor – the brilliant novelist
"No one bought her books, and only the middle aged or elderly had ever read them: she did not know she was now a legend of which the young had vaguely heard..."
So wrote Elizabeth Taylor (no, not that one, although the fact that you thought so is indicative of the problem) in 1957, about the eccentric hero of her novel Angel. But the words now seem all to relevant to her own case. Have you heard of the other Elizabeth Taylor? Have you read any of her books?
If you haven't, you aren't alone. She is, as Philip Hensher describes her, "one of the hidden treasures of the English novel" – or as this excellent article in the Atlantic puts it, "best known for not being better known". It was an exquisite cruelty of fate that in the very year that Elizabeth Taylor was starting to make a name for herself with the release of her first novel At Mrs Lippincote's, the film National Velvet blasted a certain other someone into the Hollywood stratosphere. The novelist, with her understated and apparently old-fashioned stories about servants and madams, housewives and marital complications, couldn't hope to compete. She was doomed to be the other Elizabeth Taylor, Elizabeth Taylor the writer, no, not that Elizabeth Taylor.
But if you're one of the few for whom her name does mean more than an unlucky coincidence, you're in exalted company. Kingsley Amis named her "one of the best English novelists born in this century"; Antonia Fraser called her "one of the most underrated writers of the 20th century". Hilary Mantel says that she is "deft, accomplished and somewhat underrated"; Rosamund Lehmann that she is "sophisticated, sensitive and brilliantly amusing, with a kind of stripped, piercing feminine wit". Jilly Cooper hails her as "a wonderful novelist." Both Paul Bailey and Elizabeth Jane Howard, meanwhile, declare that they "envy any reader coming to her for the first time".
I belong to that latter group. I can't claim any special knowledge; until a few weeks ago, I'd barely heard of Elizabeth-Taylor-the-writer either. My interest was piqued when Colm Toibin mentioned her on the New Yorker fiction podcast (even though he wasn't particularly flattering), and by chance a publicist from Virago got in touch a few days later to inform me that the 100th anniversary of Taylor's birth was on the way. I took the bait and read the aforementioned Angel. It is marvellous.
As my opening quote suggests, the book describes a novelist who finds great fame – and then finds herself losing it. "Lightening laced and veined the sky" is about the only sample of her novelist Angel's writing that Taylor gives us, but that quote, combined with the astonished mocking reactions of all who read her, tell us everything we need to know. Angel is jawdroppingly bad – and all the more popular because of it.
In 1935, Diego Rivera masterfully created ‘The Flower Carrier’ (known in its original language as ‘Cargador de Flores’). Like many of Rivera’s paintings, ‘The Flower Carrier’ imparts simplicity, yet exudes much symbolism and meaning. The vibrant colors are rubbed into the masonite, a most common method for painting on hard surfaces.
The colourful painting displays a peasant man in white clothing with a yellow sombrero, struggling on all fours with a dramatically oversized basket of flowers that is strapped to his back with a yellow sling. A woman, most likely the peasant’s wife, stands behind him trying to help with the support of the basket as he attempts to rise to his feet. While the flowers in the basket are strikingly beautiful to the viewer, the man does not see their beauty, but only their value as he carries them to the market for sale or exchange. The geometric shapes offer bold and intense contrasts, with each figure, item, and foliage illustrated to reflect individualism. …
Anne Brontë started writing her first novel some time between 1840 and 1845 while she was working as a governess for the Robinson family, at Thorp Green near York. I imagine she must have made her excuses in the evenings, and escaped the drawing room, where she had to do the boring bits of her pupils’ sewing, and often felt awkward and humiliated – excluded from the conversation because she was not considered a lady, yet not allowed to sit with the servants either, because governesses had to be something of a lady, or how could they teach their pupils to be ladies?
Anne must have stolen away to her room and pulled out her small, portable writing desk. Leaning on the desk’s writing slope (which was decadently lined in pink velvet), Anne could go on with her novel. She had to write in secret because she was skewering her haughty employers and her peremptory pupils on the page. Although her job was difficult and thankless, she had realised that it was providing her with excellent material…
In 1911, a Boston publisher called Gorham Press brought out a small scarlet-bound book with gilt-edged pages. The title was written in gold lettering on the cover: “The Henry James Year Book.” Inside were quotations from James’s novels, stories, and essays, one for every day of the year, “selected and arranged” by Evelyn Garnaut Smalley. Smalley had arranged for the work’s publication, too: Gorham was a vanity press avant la lettre. She was a family friend of James’s, as well as a devotee of his work. Her father, a prominent American journalist living in London, had introduced the newly expatriated James to English society some four decades earlier, when Smalley was a child.
The “Year Book” was not a commercial success, and though two other presses have reissued the work since—one, in England, in 1912, and another, in Pennsylvania, in 1970—it has largely escaped the notice of even the most enthusiastic James readers and scholars. (It isn’t, for instance, mentioned in Leon Edel’s five-v…