Lonely Monsters

This year marks the centenary of the birth of Elizabeth Taylor, the English novelist and short-story writer whose books go in and out of print in some mysterious cycle. Just now they are on their way in again, with New York Review Books republishing two this year: A Game of Hide and Seek (with an introduction by Caleb Crain) and Angel (with an introduction by Hilary Mantel), novels originally published in 1951 and 1957, respectively. The same house will republish a collection of her stories and another novel next year. If you are not acquainted with Taylor’s work, you may wish to know that it has something in common with Barbara Pym’s and Penelope Fitzgerald’s, a property that might be called the comedy of resignation.

A Game of Hide and Seek is the story of an enduring, infelicitous passion. Harriet and Vesey meet when they are eighteen, thrown together while she is looking after his aunt’s children. Though drawn to each other, they are unable to share a “simple intimacy,” their relationship confounded by a “confusion of shyness, pride, self-consciousness, fear of rebuff or misunderstanding.” Vesey has literary ambitions, or at least dreams: “At school he had often turned to the index of a History of Literature and in his mind inserted his own name — Vesey Patrick Macmillan — between Machiavelli and Sir Thomas Malory.” He is also inattentive, contrary, and feckless, and is sent away by his aunt — a decision which brings to an end, for a time, whatever there is between the two young people.

Harriet is devastated. But after a wonderfully portrayed stint working in a dress shop, she eventually marries Charles, a man somewhat older than herself. In this she has acted, if not romantically, at least sensibly. He is solid and dependable in everything except his mother, Julia. She is a former actress who, no longer receiving the attention of audiences, devotes herself to bullying her paid companion and stirring up trouble. Harriet and Charles have one child, Betsy, who is fifteen when we first meet her. This is when Vesey, who has ended up as a down-at-the-heels actor in a touring company, reappears, hoping to kindle the old attraction into an affair. The trouble that ensues is observed from many misapprehending viewpoints, most tellingly from Julia’s and Betsy’s. Misunderstanding, choked communication, balked desire, and the very dreadfulness of the possibility that Harriet — who is both happy in her marriage and in love with Vesey — will succumb, produce a terrible feeling of constriction. It would be grim were it not for the redeeming tartness and wicked social comedy that Taylor sets jouncing alongside the torment.

You could see the novel Angel as a dark fancy, as the tale of the overweening vanity, penchant for embellishment, and willfulness that rumbles in the depths of every writer, even in such an exquisitely controlled one as Taylor. We meet Angel Deverell in 1901, as the much-cosseted daughter of a village shopkeeper’s widow, Emmy, whose sister, Lottie, is a lady’s maid at a grand country house nearby. Both sisters are intent on giving Angel advantages they never had, paying her fees at a private school in the expectation that she will secure a job in an office, “with good money and meeting nice people” — an odious, unthinkable fate in Angel’s view. She lives in her imagination, a glorious arena of highborn splendor and forbidden love, a vision she passes on as her secret history to two village children. When they, in turn, pass this interesting news on to their parents, a great social humiliation follows, and Angel refuses to return to school. Instead she sets herself to writing a novel, which she eventually sends off to the Oxford University Press, having found its address in one of her old schoolbooks.

A couple of rejections later, the manuscript gains a publisher and becomes a commercial success. Angel, it emerges, has an animal facility for conjuring the fantasies of a large female readership, of serving up the lives of rich and reckless aristocrats, bedizened — as she herself might put it — in richly garbed, jewel-studded prose, stories that are decidedly louche. Angel’s mother and aunt are scandalized:

     “Emmy!” Aunt Lottie lowered her voice and her cheeks flushed. “Tell me, where did she find out all that…you know…the facts of life.”
     “Certainly not from me,” said Mrs Deverell proudly.

The critics are exuberant in their scorn, much to Angel’s mortified fury. Still, her triumphs continue; her ego swells; her publisher pays her arduous homage; she takes the husband she desires; and all is well — as far as she is aware, which is all that counts — until she takes her pen off her public’s pulse and begins to write novels with social messages. Angel’s decline is as fantastic as her ascent, but, strangely, we have come to feel for this vain, demanding, lonely woman, a person in whom naiveté and pig ignorance are inseparable, and who is “for ever exhorting some unknown power — not God, but some vague enemy, the one who upset her plans and frustrated her at every turn.”

Angel comes from a milieu in which respectability and niceness are bywords; Harriet, a cut above her in social class, from one in which, for women especially, life’s guiding principle is to act “sensibly.” The particularly cramping economic and social circumstances of Taylor’s characters and the premises of her plots are pretty much obsolete today; yet the human predicament she lays out, the conflict between desire and order, indeed between desire and happiness, is enduring. Taylor goes at it, in part, by way of comedies of manners, possessing a special gift for stuffed shirts and their pronouncements, for little acts of selfishness, for displays of petty spite and one-upmanship, and for scenes of social discomfiture (“The words seemed to freeze in crossing the room and broke with a brittle commotion in Mrs Deverell’s head”).

But the novels are also pervaded by loneliness and guilt, conveyed and amplified through depictions of mid-twentieth-century England. Lack of variety, absence of heat, pervasive damp, and the social taboos and stifling narrowness of women’s opportunity are matched up with a sense of free-floating obligation and inadequacy which seems to be woman’s lot — that is, unless she’s a lonely monster like Angel. Somehow Elizabeth Taylor makes it all both austerely poignant and ineffably funny, presenting this world with an understated humor that rarely makes you laugh outright but keeps you simmering with quiet, unholy joy.