Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

Nicola Beauman’s The Other Elizabeth Taylor (2009)

When actress Elizabeth Taylor was appearing in “National Velvet”, novelist Elizabeth Taylor (nee Coles) was publishing her first novel, At Mrs Lippincote’s.

It seems like everybody knows about Elizabeth Taylor the actress; Nicola Beauman’s biography considers The Other Elizabeth Taylor.

The biographer opens her work by explaining that she is aware that her subject “would have greatly disliked the idea of a biography”, and she destroyed most of her papers in the months preceding her death in 1975.

She kept letters from family members, letters of literary importance, and she kept the notebooks into which she copied the second drafts of her novels. “But an enormous amount was thrown away.”

It is clear that the biographer was aware of her subject’s preferences but so, too, was John Taylor, who authorized Nicola Beauman’s work with both published and unpublished material.

Nonetheless, she declined to publish while he was still alive. Though after his death, she approached the author’s son and daughter with her work, and they disapproved.

This recent controversy is presented in her acknowledgements, but readers of Persephone Books and Elizabeth Taylor’s fiction have, in most cases, caught wind of this debate, have fallen on one side or the other.

(Before I read this biography, I was concerned that perhaps it was too revealing, imagining how difficult it would be, as a son or daughter, to have certain kinds of information revealed to a reading public, but it reads, to me, as a respectful exploration of a writer’s life, acknowledging certain truths that some would obviously have preferred were kept private but which, obviously, impacted her fiction dramatically.)

Of interest to the bookish is the discussion of Elizabeth Taylor’s literary influences. They were not her mother’s favourites (Hardy, Adam Bede, Gissing); she grew out of Dostoevsky, disliked Dickens, thought Lawrence a “bloody crosspatch” and believed that Mansfield moaned too much.

Instead, she admired  Austen, Chekov, Forster and Woolf. “The writers with whom she identified most were more radical, they were people like Naomi Mitchison, Winifred Holtby or Sylvia Townsend Warner, women who wrote for Time and Tide, the New Statesman, the CP monthly Country Standard and, most influential of all, Left Review….”

In a letter, she wrote: “Just as my very dearest books are those in which people do hardly anything at all.” These are the kinds of stories that she sought to tell.

Nicola Beauman suggests that the subject matter influenced the critical reception of her work: “Virginia was a modernist but because she eschewed the domestic she could be labeled as such; Elizabeth, because she wrote about women and children and housework and dailiness, could not be.”

Although she found success on both sides of the Atlantic, Elizabeth Taylor’s style was not appreciated consistently. Nicola Beauman also refers to what Robert Liddell called the Lady Novelists Anti-Elizabeth League, which included founding members, Kay Dick, Kathleen Farrell, Kate O’Brien, Pamela Hansford Johnson, Stevie Smith, and Olivia Manning.

(Admittedly, just hearing this made me want to move their works to another shelf where they could mingle amongst themselves; it makes me cranky when creative folk denounce the creative work of others.)

Even outright attack aside, her life as a novelist was rather lonely at times. “Elizabeth did not have the right people to talk to: letters were a substitute and became her talking.”

In many of her letters she discussed the challenges or her craft and her desire to perfect it.

“One day I will write well. I have not done so up till now. I have written very badly & sentimentally, with only here & there the seeds of reality scattered among the falsity of the whole. I wrote before because I wanted to get things straight. Well, that’s understandable. It may be necessary as a means of finding one’s way. Now I am grown up. I took a long time doing it. My childhood went on too long. But now I begin to understand.”

Despite the constant demands of a full household, she managed to find a routine that allowed her to work.

“I dislike much travel or change of environment and prefer the days (each with its own domestic flavor) to come round almost the same week after week. Only in such circumstances can I find time or peace in which to write.”

Nicola Beauman suggests that the decision to keep her household priorities in place impacted her work and she wonders whether that impact was altogether positive. (Obviously in some ways it was; for instance, the depiction of children in Elizabeth Taylor’s work is clearly informed by considerable observation and experience of her own children.)

“They were her choices and we must respect them, of course we must. Nobody, certainly not a biographer, must criticize what other people choose to do. It is just that one wonders whether it was a choice, whether a determination to stick with the conventional…with being a good mother (above all else a good mother), was gradually crushing her personality and her writing. It was almost as if she was in shock; as though the loneliness of the war years, combined with the loss of [name omitted] as her best friend, lover, psychiatrist and correspondent, and [name omitted]‘s ultimatum (a kind, forgiving ultimatum, but that is what it was) led her to dread the idea of a room of one’s own and of the courage needed to go into it and close the door.”

(This is rather a long quote, I realize, but I feel it represents the overarching tone of the work, which is more querying than judging, more curious than condemning. I’ve deleted the names so that readers who are not aware of the facts herein can discover them as they read, rather than here, out of context.)

The tone of the work is consistent throughout. The chapters are divided by place names and spans of years, and the substance is drawn from secondary documents and from the author’s work. (There is also a set of letters that Elizabeth Taylor had asked to have destroyed, which the recipient had rewritten into another notebook; this resource is quoted extensively, and it adds an integral layer to a reader’s understanding of the author.) Particular attention is paid to the short stories, which is refreshing,

The images included are inserted without captions, which lends the volume the sense of a scrapbook rather than a scholarly work. (Sometimes I really wanted to know what some of them identified while casually leafing through, but I pieced it together from the text alongside when I read through properly.) On the side of professionalism, the notes are easy to follow, the index is thorough, and the book’s presentation is impeccable.

In all, a balanced study which adds to a reader’s understanding of this writer’s life and work. Whether you are intrigued by the writing life, enjoy biographies, or have particularly admired Elizabeth Taylor, Nicola Beauman’s biography is a worthwhile volume.

 

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5 comments to Nicola Beauman’s The Other Elizabeth Taylor (2009)

  • Lovely review and I think you’re exactly right when you use the word “respectful”. I personally don’t feel that complaint can be made against this book and I found it enlightened and informed my reading of Elizabeth Taylor’s work – which surely can only be a good thing!

  • What an excellent review, thank you. I was actually in the Persephone bookstore today and saw the piles of this biography. I wish I’d picked it up now! Ah well, I daresay I will another time.

  • Thanks, Kaggsy: I was curious to see what you’d think of it. It adds immeasurably to the experience of reading her fiction, IMO, especially of AGofH&S.

    Thanks, Litlove: I think you’ll enjoy it, when you do get to it. Her approach to the writing life/a woman’s life makes it quite a valuable addition to the shelves of the bookish. How I wish I could wander the P bookshop… *sigh*

  • I also felt this was a “respectful” book. The “Lady Novelists Anti-Elizabeth League” had me seething — reminded me of the film “Mean Girls”! Anyway, I’ve referred to the bio time and again as I’ve read my way through Taylor’s novels this year.

  • Oh, I know, Laura! I haven’t lost the taste of that even yet. Some of those authors I’ve collected quite diligently (thanks to their inclusion in the VMC series) but I really don’t feel the same draw to them now…

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