Did You Have Bombs?
- BuyThe Other Elizabeth Taylor by Nicola Beauman
Persephone, 444 pp, £15.00, April 2009, ISBN 978 1 906462 10 9
Do novelists come nicer than Elizabeth Taylor? Her mother died of politeness – she developed appendicitis over Christmas, and didn’t want to interrupt the doctor’s holiday – but rather than renounce good manners on the spot, her biographer Nicola Beauman writes, Taylor ‘cared about good manners very much indeed’ to the end of her days. So attentive a wife was she, so doting a mother, that her adolescent daughter was supposedly shocked to discover that Taylor wrote books. In her letters, Taylor sometimes worried that being a Buckinghamshire housewife hurt her writing: ‘How can I have anything to write about when nothing happens to me?’ A different world intruded only in the form of mistakenly delivered fan letters intended for her namesake. ‘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.’ She was sometimes wounded by criticism that her fiction was unadventurous: too many exemplary Thames Valley women baking sponges for bring and buy sales, arranging flowers, giving tea parties, ‘even sometimes, daringly, sherry parties’. But she could only write convincingly about what she had experienced herself, she didn’t like to travel, and her friends were few and from her own class. Her situation, she comforted herself, was like Jane Austen’s. She was contented: ‘I have had a rather uneventful life, thank God.’ Her greatest grief (‘almost’), Beauman writes, was when, near the end of her life, the New Yorker stopped accepting her stories.
Vol. 31 No. 17 · 10 September 2009
Deborah Friedell’s review of a biography of the writer Elizabeth Taylor made me feel that she is one of those authors onto whom other writers project the image they wish to see (LRB, 6 August). Thus, in his entry on Taylor in the DNB, Paul Bailey is lyrical about her gifts as a short-story writer, where most readers would probably rate her novels higher. Friedell, however, dismisses these same stories as simply purveying an easy picture of England for American consumption. The novels are given little notice. Mostly Friedell is concerned to emphasise Taylor’s supposed dullness and conventionality of character. There seems to be more to Taylor than this.
Young Elizabeth Coles, as she then was, grew up near Pigotts, Eric Gill’s art and sex commune in the Chilterns. Fiona MacCarthy’s eye-opening revelations about Pigotts were published in 1989 in her fine biography of Gill. Coles was one of Gill’s young female visitors. On a trip to Germany in 1930, Gill startled his aristocratic host, MacCarthy reports, ‘by getting out his sketchbook and showing a series of nude drawings of a girl with a fine figure in poses which John Rothenstein’ – another guest – ‘described as “of startling impropriety”’. MacCarthy reckons that the model was Coles, then in her late teens.
These may be some of the drawings which ended up, after Gill’s death, in what was then the British Museum’s ‘Private Case’. The Royal College of Surgeons had rejected them for its own museum as ‘not showing any pathological condition’. MacCarthy also records that Coles had a love affair with one of Gill’s assistants. Later, and by then safely married, Taylor wrote rather sharply about Pigotts in her novel The Wedding Group (1968). But this seems to be one case where a writer concealed more than she revealed.
Deborah Friedell writes: Paul Barker must be referring to the first edition of Fiona MacCarthy’s biography. As Nicola Beauman notes, by the time MacCarthy revised her book for the paperback edition in 1990, she’d decided that Gill’s nude model had not been Taylor after all: ‘It was not, apparently, another young librarian, Elizabeth Coles, better known as Elizabeth Taylor.’