Saturday, September 27, 2014

Elizabeth Taylor the Fiction Writer

Elizabeth Taylor, née Coles, was an English fiction writer who lived from 1912 to 1975. Critics who have written about Elizabeth Taylor the novelist have speculated that part of the reason for her relative obscurity might be because she was eclipsed by the actor Elizabeth Taylor, who was born twenty years after the novelist. Despite their age difference, both the fiction writer and the actor flourished at the same time in the 1950s and 60s, because the more famous Elizabeth Taylor achieved celebrity as a child actress.

The fiction writer Elizabeth Taylor
I stumbled on the work of the fiction writer Elizabeth Taylor through the film Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, a delightful movie that stars the great Joan Plowright in the title role. Mrs. Palfrey, based on one of Taylor’s final novels, is representative of much of Taylor’s work in that it involves two themes the author was fond of: a woman alone, and a person caught in a fictitious or false role that she has created.

The Wikipedia article on Taylor mentions that she was briefly a member of the Communist Party, and afterwards a lifelong supporter of the Labour Party. Her political persuasions do occasionally enter into her writing in a subtle way. But one of Taylor’s outstanding qualities as an author is that she almost never oversteps the role of the writer as an objective observer of personality. Her endings are nearly flawless in their even-handed meting out of fates to the characters.

I’ve read a couple of Taylor's works of fictions, including the novel The Wedding Group, a wry look at the culture of self-realization of the late 1960s. Each character is determined to have what only he or she wants, with no regard to the well-being of others. In the end, no character really arrives at a satisfactory life.

I’ve also enjoyed a short story collection of Taylor's, A Dedicated Man and Other Stories. One benefit of reading short stories, as opposed to novels, is that they give a quick overview of the kinds of plots and characters that a writer is drawn to. A specialty of Taylor’s that appears in several of the stories is her insight into the conversations of couples talking about other couples, including their friends. There is that strange distancing after a dinner party, where a couple sizes up the other duos, making little remarks that showcase their own relationship as the party line.

There is a wonderful story in A Dedicated Man called “The Prerogative of Love,” first published in the New Yorker, about a couple who are giving a dinner party for another couple on a sweltering summer night at their home in the suburbs of London. The lady of the house, Lillah, is a beautiful, childless woman, renowned among their circle of friends for her romantic marriage to a man named Richard. Overcome by the heat, Lillah seems unable to lift a finger to do anything to make the evening a success, leaving the entertaining to her husband and the food preparation to the cook. Richard rather resents that his wife has been home all day but has done nothing to get ready for the party, leaving him no time for a quick dip in the river after his long commute home from London.

In barges Lillah’s niece, Arabella, a fashion model, even more self-preoccupied than her aunt. In fact, all the characters in this story could be placed on a continuum of selflessness or self-absorbtion, with Lillah and Arabella the most concerned with themselves, and the cook at the other end of the spectrum, since she is almost psychically attuned to the needs of others. (The author’s class politics do sneak in from time to time.)

The couple who come to dinner, John and Helen Forester, are somewhere in the middle of this scale, rather conventional English parents who breed dogs as a hobby and have none of the glamour of their hosts. Helen falls all over Lillah with admiration, and her husband develops a fantasy crush on the young model.

The point of view at the end of the story switches to the Foresters, as they dissect the evening when they drive home from the party. (Taylor is quite unattached to any one point of view in her stories, moving fluidly from one character’s perspective to another—a technique writers can learn from her stories.) Taylor begins with the wife’s comment about the hostess’s dress, but the husband, still thinking about the young model, misunderstands her:

“A really beautiful frock,” she was saying.
“Unusual,” he replied. “Not much of it.” He suddenly laughed.
“I meant Lillah’s.”
Presently she sighed and said, “He’s so wonderful to her always.”
John knew the pattern—the excited admiration invariably turned to dissatisfaction in the end—one of the reasons why these evenings ruffled him.
“I’m sure that to him she’s as beautiful as on the day they married,” she went on.
“Still a very fine woman,” he replied.
“Is it because they’ve never had children, I wonder? The glamour hasn’t worn off by all those nursery troubles. All their love kept for one another.”
“It is better to have children,” John said.
“Well, of course. Who ever’d deny it? You know I didn’t think that. But I wondered if it had drawn them close together, not having them. They never seem to take one another for granted.” “As we do,” she left unspoken, though her sigh was explicit.
“Well, we musn’t compare ourselves with them,” he said rather smartly. “And who are we to be talking about love? They’re the ones. They’re famous for it, after all. It’s their prerogative.”

Taylor laces this brief conversation with many rich ironies. First of all, the wife, Helen, is scolding her husband for his lingering thoughts of the young model’s skimpy outfit, then making a pointed comment that their hosts have a much more romantic relationship.
Meanwhile, the husband, John, is humoring his wife’s fascination with the hosts, remarking slightly sarcastically that only couples such as Richard and Lillah have a right to be considered not only as a domestic unit but as a romantic one.
Most ironic is the author’s own viewpoint. Earlier in the story, the author has let us in on the secret that Lillah certainly does take Richard for granted, and is quite spoiled. Taylor seems to be criticizing the way that love is linked in most people’s minds with the personality of self-indulgent beauties, rather than with more selfless personalities, such as that of the cook, who is able to anticipate her employers’ every need.

I’d also like to give a shout out to another short story of Elizabeth Taylor's that I love, “The Letter Writers,” from The Blush, also collected in You’ll Enjoy It When You Get There: The Stories of Elizabeth Taylor. “The Letter Writers” is a delicious story about a celebrated male novelist and a woman fan of his who have corresponded regularly for ten years without ever meeting, until... Well, I won’t give it away. You have to experience this fabulous story for yourself.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
How to Be an American Writer

1 comment:

  1. Ah, I had wondered about the other Elizabeth Taylor. Fascinating that she would change POV so fluidly. Not many writers do that, but it can and does work. (I often think of that Chekov story where, at the very end, the POV switches to that of a fish.)