In 1948, at the age of thirty-six, Elizabeth Taylor penned a letter to the writer Robert Liddell after she had read his novel The Last Enchantments. She was already the author of three novels, and had been championed by many of her contemporaries, Elizabeth Bowen and Barbara Pym, among them. According to Liddell, who had left England for Egypt, and later settled in Greece, she didn’t say much in her letter, other than that “the book might have been written for her, and that she had laughed and cried in all the right places.” For Taylor, who lived in a village in Buckinghamshire, with her husband and two kids, and kept literary life in London largely at bay, the letter was the beginning of a twenty-two-year correspondence, one of her most intimate friendships. To the great disappointment of her readers and biographers, Liddell destroyed nearly all her letters, respecting Taylor’s wishes “most scrupulously” after her death. “And yet she was (I think) the best letter-writer of the century.”
Many elements of this literary friendship emerge in Taylor’s 1969 story “The Letter-Writers,” which was first published in The New Yorker and is now collected in You’ll Enjoy it When You Get There, the third of her works to be re-released by NYRB Classics, following the novels A Game of Hide and Seek and Angel. The story is about Emily Fairchild, a bookish, cripplingly sensitive woman, as she prepares for the arrival of Edmund Fabry, a famous novelist, to her home in the country. “She stood before an alarming crisis, one that she had hoped to avoid for as long as ever she lived; the crisis of meeting for the first time the person whom she knew best in the world.” In the story, Taylor is sympathetic to Emily’s anxiety, and evokes it in her every movement and in the movements of the village. As she heads into town for lobsters for their lunch, the heat unsteadies the air; the flag on the church tower, waving in the breeze, appears “as if it were flapping under water. The sun seemed to touch her bones—her spine, her shoulderblades, her skull. In her thoughts, she walked nakedly, picking her way, over dry-as-dust cow-dung, along the lane.”
Like Liddell, Edmund has come to England from abroad—Rome, in this case— their distance having encouraged an intimacy that she fears will burden their meeting rather than lighten it. “‘What will he be like?’ did not worry her. She knew what he was like. If he turned out differently, it would be a mistake.” Taylor is too intelligent a writer to spare Emily the injury of meeting Edmund. Even before he arrives, we are prepared for disaster as Emily drinks herself tipsy. She becomes awkward and clumsy, and arrives at the door bleeding from her cheek, the result of an injury sustained while scolding her cat. As conversation between Emily and Edmund inevitably falters, she cannot allow herself any relief. She sees in Edmund’s kindness and understanding only polite shades of pity and embarrassment. Having proven herself right, she scolds herself for believing that the two planes of their friendship could ever have existed comfortably side by side. The truth of their letters is the truth of fiction, whereas the truth of their meeting can be nothing other than what it is. “It was like seeing a ghost in reverse—the insubstantial suddenly solidifying into a patchy and shabby reality.”
The story is arguably the best in the collection; throughout her writing, Taylor is consistently remarkable in her evocation of character and place, but here she turns inward with such uncompromising intensity that the reader encounters the sort of sustained feeling one does in Virginia Woolf, stretched and made taut and always threatening to break. “It is something done quickly,” Taylor wrote to a friend on the art of the short story, “all in one atmosphere & mood like a Van Gogh painting. And is very much akin to poetry (well, lyric poetry) for that reason. And is an expression of urgent inspiration.” She later references impressionist painting, again, likening it to fiction; in impressionism’s experiments with line and form, Taylor must have seen an attempt less to distort reality than to distill it. But there is something not quite right about her comparison: she is a deeply realistic writer, with a sharp eye for the comedy and pathos of interwar and post-war English life. She is less formally radical than Virginia Woolf, whom she counted among her influences. Though she was eager to express her distaste for the rigid mechanisms of plot, her stories still fit within a conventional narrative frame. It is most clear in the collection the debt she owes to Austen and Chekhov, and with You’ll Enjoy It When You Get There, Taylor reveals herself to be one of the English language’s best practitioners of the form.
Elizabeth Taylor was born Betty Coles, in 1912, in Reading, England. She married John Taylor, a candy manufacturer and son of the mayor of High Wycombe, when she was twenty-three. She and John met at the High Wycombe Theater Club, and in the week following their wedding they both starred in a three-run performance of The Case of the Frightened Lady by Edgar Wallace. A local paper noted, “Elizabeth Taylor revealed unsuspected histrionic ability in her simulation of terror as the ‘frightened lady.’ . . . John Taylor, playing appropriately enough opposite his bride of a week ago, gave a natural performance.” Politically active, Taylor also belonged to the local branch of the Communist Party in High Wycombe, and there, in 1938, met Raymond Russell—Ray, in their letters—an aspiring painter who remained her friend and on-and-off lover for the next ten years.