You’ll Enjoy It When You Get There: The Stories of Elizabeth Taylor
IN THE INTRODUCTION to her 1998 Selected Stories, Alice Munro described the short story as a house the reader explores at will: “You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows,” she wrote. “You can go back again and again and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time.”
I’ve always loved this metaphor of Munro’s for evoking how the best stories feel at once spacious and enclosed, loosely structured yet perfectly controlled. I thought of it when reading another volume of selected stories, this one by Elizabeth Taylor, a British writer who is, as Benjamin Schwarz once put it in TheAtlantic, “best known for not being better known.” Taylor’s stories, like Munro’s, are beautifully architected homes; elegant and funny, they are miracles of compression, with sharply turned endings that rise up suddenly and then linger at length in the mind. She specializes in witty descriptions (a character sits on a jump seat with his arms folded “like a collapsible model of a man, especially designed for carrying in taxis”) and slyly deadpan dialogue (“a grave is no place for self-expression,” remarks an elderly drunk woman laying a bland bouquet on a cemetery marker).
Taylor wrote 12 novels and five collections of stories, most of which were published in The New Yorker. Her work is exquisite; so why isn’t she more famous? A list of possible reasons given by critics over the years includes the following: Because her life was not sensational. Because she abhorred publicity. Because she competed for name recognition with a screen goddess. Because her books were too funny and too accessible. Because her characters’ lives were too privileged. Because she excelled at the short story. Because she wrote no single book that could be called her “masterpiece.” Because she was a woman. Many of these seem to me like dumb reasons for a writer to be under-recognized; but just because something is dumb doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
A contemporary of Elizabeth Bowen and Ivy Compton-Burnett, both of whom were her friends, Taylor was born in 1912 in Reading. Her books sold reasonably well during her life, though she never won any major prizes and the reviews ranged from ecstatic to mixed. After her death in 1975, her reputation, lacking champions, faded. But in the past ten years, this has changed. Her work has been been reissued, she is the subject of a chatty, appreciative biography by Nicola Beauman, and two film adaptations of her novels have been made. The forthcoming publication of her selected stories is the latest event in this sequence, and I hope people will pay attention to it. The book reaffirms her rank, as the Times Literary Supplement wrote in 1972, “among the four or five most distinguished living practitioners of the art of the short story in the English-speaking world.”
The child of a family without great means, Taylor lost her mother young and her indifferent grades prevented her from pursuing higher education. She wasn’t left with many options; she worked as a librarian and governess and briefly joined the Communist Party. Eventually she married a successful businessman from a prosperous family and settled into a quiet life as a wife, mother, and writer. In the few interviews she gave, she spoke mainly of the blessings of routine, emphasizing her stolidly uneventful life. She seems to have wanted to present her life as boringly as possible.
Beauman’s biography, The Other Elizabeth Taylor, uses letters that Taylor herself wanted burned to inform us that this outwardly uneventful life contained its share of inward drama. Taylor had a decade-long, off-and-on extramarital affair with a man of few prospects but with whom she shared political leanings and artistic drive. He was an artist, she a writer; they understood each other. But Taylor had made a decision to live a less bohemian life. After discovering the affair, Taylor’s husband asked her to break it off — although he had also been unfaithful — and she complied. Her letters to her lover show her as passionately romantic, and also passionately ambitious, to the point of self-involvement. When he was a prisoner of war in Austria, she wrote him long letters about how her writing was going. Whatever degree of security and calm she craved in her domestic arrangement, she was intensely, even explosively devoted to her writing from the time she was a teenager.
Had she known that her lover would save the letters and even share them with a biographer, Taylor would have been mortified. If she can have been said to have a religion, it was privacy. She resisted at every turn the cult of personality that conflates a writer’s life with her work; she was the anti-Knausgaard of her time. And she succeeded — perhaps too well — in projecting a level of personal dullness that may have allowed people to see her work as quieter and less subversive than it actually is. After she died, Kingsley Amis wrote that “her 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.”
Even now, some critical re-appraisals of Taylor’s newly republished work seem to diminish it. They place undue emphasis on her work as domestic miniatures; she has been described as “the thinking person’s dangerous housewife” writing about “the quiet horror of domestic life” (Valerie Martin). This language is both highly gendered and reductive. It’s true that Taylor is a domestic writer, in the sense that Fitzgerald or Forster are domestic writers: she presents the lives of individuals, seen close up, mostly in relationship to their personal lives. Home life is the context for her stories, not the heart of them. Perhaps she so needed and believed in privacy because she understood how fragile are our interior lives, how dearly they must be protected. Her true subject is our painstaking attempt to maintain the crumbling edifice of the self.