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.

Still, a biographer must fill her pages with something. So Beauman gives a thorough report of the time when Taylor, almost an old lady, invited two friends to luncheon in 1969 and they came on the wrong day:

Herman declared Elizabeth had got it wrong and then sent what must have been a forged carbon copy of his original acceptance card ‘proving’ they had been due a day later. But Elizabeth, without ever admitting it to Herman or to Francis, had kept his original letter. Forging a letter because Herman ‘liked always to be in the right’ is the kind of morally reprehensible incident of which Henry James would have made much; he would also have made something out of Elizabeth’s being so upset that he did not come (she had cooked pheasant, John drove to the station) and, more interestingly, out of her decision to grovel rather than embarrass, and annoy, Herman by saying, here is the original letter, why on earth did you pretend to send a carbon? She knew, of course, Herman would never forgive her if he was humiliated; anxious to continue the friendship with him . . . she instinctively grovelled rather than challenge him . . . What could be more embarrassing for both parties than for her to tell Herman, ‘I’m afraid I have a letter which shows that my date was the right one’?

What indeed? It’s a sign of how intensely Beauman has identified with her subject that this story, or the details of Taylor’s participation in various amateur theatre groups (first the High Wycombe Little Theatre Club, then the Naphill Village Players), or her perpetual anxiety that her daily help, Mrs Howard, might quit, are related at greater length and with more acuity than the world-historical events that seem only barely to have affected her. As a young woman, in the early 1930s, she had gone so far as to join the Communist Party, but Beauman is right to make little of this. Really Taylor just admired how the early British Communists seemed to follow ‘the teachings of Christ with the sharing of possessions and private property’, and she quit as soon as someone told her that things were bad in Russia. It was a bit of a relief: Party members had criticised her stories for their lack of political engagement, and ‘made me ashamed of the sort of talent I had, so that I stifled it and was shy’. During the Spanish Civil War, her support for the Republicans took the form of taking in a refugee child, whom she patiently cured of bedwetting. But it was exhausting, and so there her politics ended, ‘stopped at the Spanish War. After that, it was too late. I was fair wore-out, too, and cannot take such emotional interest in a war ever again.’ If anyone in England could be said to have sat out the Second World War, it was Taylor. Her husband joined the RAF, but was too old to be a pilot, and was sent only as far as Uxbridge. The war years were when she gave birth to her son, then her daughter, and she was overwhelmed by how much she loved them. In late 1942, she imagined someone in the future asking where she’d been during the Battle of Stalingrad and answering, ‘Oh, yes – I was at home minding the children.’

She was also writing, but was sufficiently well-bred to feel embarrassed about it: ‘I have no choice about whether I should write. If I had, I’d choose not, I believe.’ But where would she publish these perfectly nuanced tales of middle-class domesticity? She didn’t want to write about ‘violence, brutality, passion, religion, all the things that had been better left out’. For Taylor, fiction was a cure for solipsism, a way out of our own heads. ‘What it does not do is reflect contemporary history. All the great novels shriek this to the housetops . . . Only private life there, how this and that person lived.’ Elizabeth Bowen praised her stories for their ‘quiet ordinariness’ at the same time that Cyril Connolly’s manifesto for Horizon had made clear that stories which were merely ‘a picture of our ordinary lives’ would have no place in his pages. Other British magazines followed suit. The obvious home for her work was America, which still believed that literature was to be found in tidy English villages if it was to be found anywhere. Each of Mollie Panter-Downes’s graceful Letters from London in the New Yorker made the same argument: no amount of rationing would ever prevent the English from being more naturally refined – wittier, more sophisticated, more interesting – than you are. Anglophilia showed itself in the magazine’s politics (Thomas Kunkel’s biography of Harold Ross describes him praying for Britain before America’s entry into the war) and its choice of subjects and contributors. Edmund Wilson, reviewing one of Taylor’s novels, adduced it as ‘one more proof that the English can do a certain kind of novel – intelligent, ironic, and just this side of penetrating – better than anybody else’. From the first sentence of the first story of Taylor’s the New Yorker published – ‘The hedgerow was beaded with silver. In the English November fog, the leaves dripped with a deadly intensity, as if each falling drop were a drop of acid’ – the editors were charmed.

For years, the New Yorker published nearly every story she finished, 35 of them between 1948 and 1969. William Maxwell claimed that job applicants were given her stories to edit as a test, ‘and if they touched a hair of its head, by God, they were no editors’. There wasn’t much to tinker with: her style was spare, usually shorn of adverbs and adjectives, and her plots were similarly unencumbered. When Michael Chabon decries the tyranny of the ‘contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory short story – a.k.a. the New Yorker short story’, it’s Taylor who is probably to blame. She thought that dramatic situations were unnecessary: normal living requires enough courage as it is. For a woman in one of her novels, ‘even breakfast is a test of character’ beside which war is as nothing. In her last novel, Blaming (1976), an intrusive American visitor is disappointed that no one seems as excited by the Blitz as they should be:

‘I’ve wondered what it was like – what London, being in London – was really like. Were you here, in this house?’

‘No, in Kent.’

‘Did you have bombs?’

‘Yes, of course. Nearly everyone had bombs.’

‘What was that like, then. Being bombed?’

  ‘I’ve practically forgotten.’

The Englishwoman, Amy, is being glib, but she speaks for the author: ‘It’s all been written about and about.’ Yet Taylor wasn’t being stiffupperlippy. She understood that coming home to an empty house, if you’re afraid of the dark, could be no less frightening than sirens and shelters:

Lily Wilson let herself into the dark house. She moved quietly as if there were those inside who slept. When a mouse stirred – and she knew that there were mice – fear rushed through her, she felt as if fingers were locked tightly round her ankles. She went stealthily to begin with, and then with a little rush up the last few stairs into the room whose door she could lock. She switched on the light and crossed to the window to draw the curtains. Sweat had sprung from her and now felt cold at her armpits, the back of her knees.

There is no murderer on the loose. There never is. Nothing remarkable happens to her characters, but they nevertheless tend to exist in a state of heightened anxiety. The word ‘dread’ comes up frequently: an older woman ‘feeling very sick, with dread’ awaits the train carrying two poor black boys, whom her husband has agreed to let stay with them as part of a charity scheme to give London children a summer holiday. She isn’t a racist, just scared the boys won’t like her. Or a young mother visits her son at boarding school, and ‘nervous dread made her feel fretful and vicious’; he’s a sweet boy, but she wonders how she’ll entertain him for a whole day. The story ‘The Letter Writers’ begins with ‘an alarming crisis, one that she had hoped to avoid for as long as ever she lived’ – that is, the crisis of a woman preparing to meet the penpal with whom she has corresponded for ten years. What if they don’t get on in person, and the letters stop?

The plots are easy to parody, so many moral decisions writ small. But Taylor’s gift was to create interest and sympathy where they hadn’t existed before. The settings have even grown exotic, now that few women spend their mornings preparing their husbands’ lunches. She failed only when writing about people in circumstances she hadn’t experienced herself, spinster schoolteachers growing bitterly old alone or bedsit loners who buy their own birthday cards so that the occasion doesn’t go unmarked (has anyone ever done this?). These stories are told so pitifully that some verge on cruelty. Miss Smythe, who has ‘given her life’ to the gown department of a large shop, gives a retirement speech in the story ‘Praises’ that is all the more pathetic for being sincerely meant: ‘May I for a moment be personal? For this place has been my life . . . And I have never wanted another. I remember the great days. It has been my privilege to serve – and to have for friends – the highest in the land’: that is, the women who come to her for fittings. ‘It has been a – a very glamorous life.’ She doesn’t notice the younger shop girls laughing at her delusions. (This one the New Yorker did reject.)

Much of Beauman’s biography is taken up with Taylor’s improbable sexual affair with an itinerant furniture-designer when she was in her twenties; he is the only person thanked by name in Beauman’s acknowledgments, and she breathlessly describes reading his stash of Taylor’s letters in front of him: ‘Ray sitting and watching me copy them out, sometimes reminiscing, sometimes producing photographs, sometimes sketching me.’ Beauman insists that what Taylor and Ray Russell had was true love, and she is horrified by Taylor’s decision to give him up at the insistence of her husband, a businessman: ‘That she chose the gin and tonic and the Daily Telegraph is one of the great mysteries of her life.’ But the explanation can be found in Taylor’s writing: sexual passion is fleeting, unlike mortgages and children. Her stories and novels insist that there is value and interest in the life she chose. In a Summer Season (1961) is Middlemarch in reverse: the woman rashly marries a charmer with little money, whose death gives her a lucky escape; in the closing pages she enters into a promising union with the ‘jolly nice old codger’ next door. (His first wife was called Dorothea.) In A View of the Harbour (1947), Bertram marries Tory even though he knows she is in love with someone else:

He felt tenderness and admiration for Tory, but felt, too, that it was better that she did not love him to distraction. He was more jealous of her old, easy, undemanding relationship with her erstwhile husband than of the ungovernable passion she felt for Robert. He rather relied on this passion keeping their marriage on more placid and companionable lines.

When Tory worries about her son at boarding school, Bertram suggests they call the matron. ‘That “we” took a great burden from her. For so long she had been alone in her anxieties, now here was Bertram entering into her difficulties and the relief was so immediate that she felt completely reassured’ – relief was worth more to her than any lover. And also, to Taylor, worth more than being a great novelist. Although her family may have enlarged Taylor’s world more than she realised, she was convinced that ‘writers shouldn’t be mothers, for they cannot be ruthless . . . A certain single-mindedness is denied them.’ Out of this anxiety came the fantasy Angel (1957), her autobiography by other means: the story of the novelist Taylor might have been if she’d been all id, no manners, no children, no taste. Angel will be famous, journalists will seek her out. But her publisher looks at her with pity:

He could not imagine any brightness or ease ahead of her. Her sternness, the rigorousness of her working days, her pursuit of fame, had made her inflexible: she was eccentric, implacable, self-absorbed. Love, which calls for compliance, resilience, lavishness, would be a shock to her spirit, an upset to the rhythm of her days. She would never achieve it, he was sure. For all the love in her books, it would be beyond her in her life.

For years Elizabeth Taylor’s fans have hoped that a biography would complicate the received version of her life and lead to a resurgence of interest in her writing. ‘Doubtless some literary sleuth will dig beneath the placid surface of the bland facts which currently constitute her biography,’ one critic promised. It does not seem likely.