Did You Have Bombs?

Deborah Friedell

  • The 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.

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