How the Other Elizabeth Taylor Reconciled Family Life and Art

The novelist Elizabeth Taylor’s career began with a stroke of bad luck. She sold her first book, an understated satire about a young wife on an Air Force base in wartime Britain, in 1945. A few months earlier, “National Velvet” had made the twelve-year-old actress Elizabeth Taylor an international star. Over the next thirty years, as one Taylor became a household name, the other published eleven more novels and several collections of short stories. She died in 1975, a few weeks after her namesake’s remarriage to Richard Burton.

Taylor, the writer, spent most of her life in the suburbs outside London with her husband, the owner of a local confectionary factory. Her quiet routine, she said, gave her time to write. In interviews, she described working out the plots of her books while she did the ironing. “I have had a rather uneventful life, thank God,” she told the London Times, in 1971. But, she added, “another, more eventful world intrudes from time to time in the form of fan letters to the other Elizabeth Taylor. Men write to me and ask for a picture of me in my bikini. My husband thinks I should send one and shake them, but I have not got a bikini.”

Taylor, who published short stories in the New Yorker from the late forties to the end of the sixties, may be best known as a practitioner of the plotless, slice-of-life magazine story (though it’s also been said that she’s “best known for not being better known”). Her main subject is the placid daily existence of middle-class suburban women: cooking, cleaning, gardening, caring for children, chatting with friends. Like her stories, her novels are stitched together out of a series of fragmented scenes. They are remarkable, and occasionally frustrating, for their implacable evenness of sympathy and lack of a unifying consciousness—often, just as a character’s narrative interest has been established, Taylor’s focus will swing away, almost perversely, to a new point of view. Like E. M. Forster, who, along with Virginia Woolf, is one of Taylor’s most obvious influences, she relies on seemingly arbitrary events—casual deaths, unexpected coincidences—to suggest the confusion and disorder underneath the surface of everyday life. Almost invariably, her books end on a note of irresolution, falling into silence like exhausted debaters at the end of a long argument.

Taylor was praised by writers who worked in a similar style, such as Elizabeth Bowen and Rosamond Lehmann; Kingsley Amis, perhaps her most vehement supporter, called her “one of the best English novelists born in this century.” But her novels were alternately criticized for their self-consciously artistic form and their circumscribed subject matter—and Taylor herself was sometimes characterized as a watered-down Virginia Woolf who lacked Woolf’s high bohemian glamour. Saul Bellow, a judge for the Booker Prize the year Taylor’s novel “Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont” was nominated, opened the first meeting with the words, “I seem to hear the tinkle of teacups.” Even Taylor’s biographer, Nicola Beauman, bemoans her subject’s conventional life choices, and speculates that some trauma in Taylor’s past must have led her “to dread the idea of a room of one’s own, of the courage needed to go into it and close the door.”

Domestic routine has long been seen as the enemy of artistic ambition—at best, an annoying interruption; at worst, a dangerous distraction. But many writers have lately reclaimed the work done in the home—cooking, cleaning, caring for children—as a subject for fiction. And Taylor’s writing, with its sly humor and careful observations about everyday life, has enjoyed a resurgence of interest. The feminist press Virago has reissued her novels in the U.K., and NYRB Classics has now published three of her novels (as well as a selection of her stories) in the U.S. The latest of these, “A View of the Harbour,” may be Taylor’s most nuanced study of the push and pull between domestic and artistic labor. The book reflects her struggle to reconcile the two, and makes an implicit argument that even the most mundane matters of family and home are worth everyone’s attention.

Taylor was born in 1912 and grew up outside London, near a stretch of the Thames popular with artists and intellectuals during her childhood. In Beauman’s biography, she comes across as precocious and single-minded: by twelve, she was submitting poetry to the Bloomsbury journal Life and Letters; by sixteen, she had written three “very sad” novels and several plays. Despite being from a lower-middle-class family—her father was an insurance agent and her mother trained as a dressmaker—Taylor attended the best girls’ school in the area, where she took private Greek lessons, won the English prize every year, and refused to do any math. She became an atheist, played the lead in amateur theatricals, and went swimming naked in the Thames with sensitive young men.

None of her early novels were published; the sensitive young men didn’t pan out; a firework went off during one of the plays and left the vision in her left eye permanently damaged. Barred from university by her math grades, she trained, briefly and miserably, as a typist, and worked as a governess, a kindergarten teacher, and a librarian. Eventually, she turned to politics, and to marriage. By 1937, she had a husband, a child, and an active membership in the Communist Party.

Taylor’s published fiction bears few overt traces of her early enthusiasm. But the heroic artists of her childhood left their mark. One of her central themes is the conflict between creative autonomy and social responsibility; seven of her twelve novels feature writers or painters as characters. Like other writers who grew up on the edge of the cultural ferment of the twenties—that “perpetual summer,” as a character in one of her stories calls the period—Taylor, in her fiction, examines that older generation with a half envious, half critical eye: the vantage point of a younger sister watching her elder siblings get ready for a dance.

“A View of the Harbour,” Taylor’s third novel, was published in 1947. It is set in a declining coastal town in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, and, as the title suggests, it is a study in perspective. Taylor builds up a picture of the town through the eyes of a dozen of its inhabitants. The organizing symbol is a lighthouse, wheeling around and momentarily illuminating each character’s thoughts in turn.

The image of the lighthouse and the way Taylor dips in and out of the minds of her characters inevitably recalls Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse.” But the range of characters in “A View of the Harbour”—a retired shopkeeper, hugely fat and paralyzed from the waist down; her listless daughters; their tenant, who works on a fishing boat and can’t decide which daughter he’s in love with—is broader than any in Woolf’s fiction. A good part of the novel is devoted to the inner lives of women who cook other people’s food, serve their drinks, clean their clothes, and take care of their children. A subtle but persistent undercurrent of sexual longing and frustration runs through almost every scene.

Tying all this together is an argument about the proper subject of art and the conditions under which it can be made. The novel sets up two artistic types: Bertram, a retired naval officer hoping to begin a second career as a painter of coastal scenes, and Beth, an old-fashioned domestic novelist married to the town doctor. Bertram is a visitor, the only artist to come to town since the war. His last name—Hemingway, a cruel name for a watercolor painter—marks him as a caricature of a certain sort of solitary artist. “All his life at sea,” Taylor writes, “he had thought of retiring thus, of taking rooms at some harbour pub, of painting those aspects of the sea which for thirty or more years he had felt awaited his recognition.” Bertram’s qualifications for this position appear to be a sensitivity to light and color, a knowledge of basic painting terms, and an unencumbered schedule. Sketching the harbor from the lighthouse, he sees the town as a series of luminous details: the white and green of the ocean, the “cubist effect” of the harbor buildings, the peeling sky-blue and apricot plaster of their walls.

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