Elizabeth Taylor - a writer who can do a lot with very little

If it wasn’t for Paul Theroux, I might never have got around to reading Elizabeth Taylor. In the face of a succession of articles that praise her, and bemoan the fact she is ignored, I continued to ignore her. But when I heard Theroux reading her 1958 story The Letter Writers, I suddenly knew I was missing out.

The Letter Writers takes place in an English coastal village where Emily, a middle-aged spinster, is nervously preparing for the visit of a man called Edmund, a writer she has been corresponding with for a decade. They have become close without meeting – although Emily did once stand outside his apartment in Rome without having the courage to announce herself.

In fact, Emily values their not having met: “She had written to his mind only. He seemed to have no face, and certainly no voice. Although photographs had once passed between them, they had seemed meaningless.” The highest hopes she seems to have for their planned lunch are that Edmund won’t find her foolish, or dull: “Too much was at stake and, for herself, she would not have taken the risk.” Taylor’s characters often find themselves in situations like this, where little is to be gained, but everything to be lost.

But there is another layer to Emily’s fluster: a remarkable moment on the first page suggests an element of sexual anticipation that she herself is not fully aware of:
Over her bare arms the warm air flowed, her skirt seemed to divide as she walked, pressed in a hollow between her legs, like drapery on a statue.
How much there is packed in here: the warm air dividing Emily’s skirt, suggesting the heat of sexual arousal and the searching hands of a lover; the simile “like drapery on a statue” giving the illusion of malleability to something in fact frigid and immovable. Nevertheless, the paragraph twists again as Emily imagines herself walking “nakedly, picking her way, over dry-as-dust cow-dung, along the lane”.

Taylor is a writer who can do a lot with very little. “I feel happier about my stories than about my novels,” she wrote in the London Magazine in 1970, asserting that for a story to be successful “there must be immediate impact, more scene and less narrative”. She considered these “beautiful and exciting restrictions”.

One restriction she had little time for, however, was sticking to a single point of view. Almost all her stories are written in the third person, and almost all of them access the thoughts of multiple characters. Sometimes she flicks briefly into the thoughts of an incidental character (in The Letter Writers it is a nosy neighbour who intrudes on Emily’s lunch), while elsewhere she cycles more methodically through a story’s cast, building a scene from multiple perspectives. Oasis of Gaiety (1951), about a boozy afternoon party, is a bravura example.

This roving point of view has a bearing on the harsh streak that runs through Taylor’s writing. She is a dispassionate chronicler of her characters’ faults, sometimes to the point of cruelty. They tend to be tough on themselves as well, but however self-critical we think we are, we are often spared the potential unpleasantness of knowing exactly what others think of us. Taylor removes that buffer, giving the reader an overview, like a general on a hill, of all the many disconnects between perception and reality.

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