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.
Péter Nádas is Hungary’s leading contemporary writer. A scholar not only of literature, but of culture, horticulture, and above all the human body and its communications, Nádas presents a picture of temperament and elegance in the great tradition of the European intellectual. He has often been compared, perhaps syntactically, to the high realists Robert Musil and Marcel Proust. Susan Sontag, one of Nádas’s earliest and most vocal champions, compares his plays to the “encounter-dramas of Pina Bausch” and the “declamatory plays of Thomas Bernhard.” I myself see him, in many ways, as the Thomas Mann of our times.
Born into a fascinating literary culture, isolated from but enveloped by the vast history of Christian Europe, in a denuded country just rebuilding from World War II, the worst catastrophe in its tumultuous thousand-year history, Nádas chronicles the peaceful prison that was (and is) Hungary in a passionate, playful, and eloquent voice. His perspicacity is disconcertingly palpabl…
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…
Charles Lamb once told a story about having Thomas De Quincey to supper. Lamb was Samuel Coleridge’s oldest friend and De Quincey was Coleridge’s greatest fan, so their talk naturally centred on the poet. While De Quincey badgered his host for information about his hero, Lamb, to alleviate his boredom, pretended to mock “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, a poem he in fact greatly admired. (“I was never so affected with any human Tale,” Lamb wrote; on first reading Coleridge’s ballad, he had been “totally possessed with it for many days”. In response to Wordsworth’s complaint that the mariner had no character, Lamb explained to him that the trials undergone by the seafarer both “overwhelm and bury all individuality or memory of what he was”, erasing “all consciousness of personality”, “like the state of a man in a Bad dream”.) On this occasion, however, to wind up De Quincey, Lamb described the sailors who died aboard the mariner’s ship – Coleridge’s “many men, so beautiful” – as noth…