October 2014

Will Mawhood


You'll Enjoy It When You Get There: The Stories of Elizabeth Taylor selected by Margaret Drabble

Elizabeth Taylor is a writer so regularly described as underrated that she seems in serious danger of becoming rated. Every couple of years, an article on her appears in the British press. All follow more or less the same formula: listing her virtues -- she will be described as sharp, sympathetic, subtle -- selecting one work in specific, usually Angel, and bemoaning the fact of her neglect. In the last decade, pieces by Philip Hensher in The Telegraph, Sam Jordison in The Guardian, and Tracey Thorn in The New Statesman have followed more or less this format in praising Taylor and her apparently gentle, actually savage tales of -- generally -- English middle-class life. All mention this mysterious lack of attention, and offer their own (fairly similar) theories as to why. New York Review Books has at least made good on this general feeling of injustice and, a couple of years ago, reissued two of her early novels, Angel and A Game of Hide and Seek; now comes You'll Enjoy It When You Get There, which presents Taylor's short stories, probably her most impressive achievement.

Taylor has, it's true, a biography that invites yawning and inattention: she was married early, to a successful businessman who later became mayor of a small town in the Home Counties. After that, by most accounts, she seemed outwardly little different from what would be expected from the wife of a public figure at that place at that time, although, as is often mentioned, she was briefly a member of the Communist party -- never a powerful organisation within English suburbia -- and remained decidedly on the left throughout her life. It's fair to say that her own life was not a page-turner, although this is true of many writers, I suppose. Her fiction deals primarily, almost exclusively, with the world in which she was waist-deep: the successful middle-classes of the Southeast: despite occasional convulsive events (particularly endings) her dramas were usually founded on omission -- things not said, not done. What's more, she was, in the UK at least, often dismissed as a "woman's writer," despite praise from well-known male writers including Kingsley Amis and John Betjeman; the US, perhaps considering her primarily English concerns more exotic, was a good deal more open to her work. Margaret Drabble, whose selection of stories this is, reminds us in her introduction of an interesting fact that illuminates her receptions in the US, and in her own country: one of her earliest and best stories, "Gravement Endommage," appeared in The New Yorker stateside, whereas at home, its first publication was in Woman and Beauty.

It's an attitude I can understand from personal experience: I seemed always to have been aware of the presence of my mother's battered, moss-green Virago copies of Angel and Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont among the more colorful other titles present; for a long time, I suppose, although I never really thought of it in such specific terms, these books, particularly the latter, seemed to me to symbolize all that was dull, and ultimately pointless, about fiction written for adults, and especially women. Some lady, one with a tediously English name, residing (temporarily, maybe, who cared?) at a place with an equally tediously English name: someone had gone to some trouble to create another world that simply reflected the dullest aspects of my own; my mother's explanation once that it was "about a young man who befriends an old woman" did little to make me think otherwise -- how nice. It was only ten or so years later when, prompted by some kind of personal crisis and convinced that I was probably wrong about everything, I picked up the book -- and discovered that Mrs Palfrey is despite its apparently cozy setting of an old people's home, a brilliant, as well as rather savage and bleak work. The young man, Ludo, an aspiring writer, does indeed help out the old woman when she is in need, but he befriends her for reasons more complicated than simple altruism; he is often disgusted by her, and uses her primarily as a source for his fiction. The book is depressing and despairing as often -- if not more often -- as heartwarming. It is by turns unsparing and sympathetic about the inhabitants of the old people's home, placidly setting out the jealousies, jibes, and kindnesses that give their lives meaning and that they think will defer pain. It's a world founded on platitude and conventions, slashed to pieces in its presentation.

A very, very typical Taylor line appears in that same story the readers of Woman and Beauty encountered sometime in the 1950s: a brief account of a marital dispute in a bar in the bleak environment of an immediately post-war, semi-ruined French town: "she tried to give two different smiles at once." One of these is bland, to reassure the barman that their relationship is all that would be expected, the other is a sardonic negation of itself; a dark warning to her husband that their quarrel is not over. Yes, perhaps inevitably, for a writer so immersed, perhaps trapped, in the cozy marsh of middle England, Taylor's true subject is social codes, and how they affect humans, how we try to smuggle our true feelings through them. It's a world of affairs, silent competitions, certain things mysteriously considered "common." It is the battle to remain oneself, without making oneself a social pariah.

She was tied to England in most of her fiction, and to quite a small chunk of it: "the quiet, lovely countryside" that rings and muffles London. She was also bound quite closely to a specific time period, although she made efforts to escape it. The stories of 1940s and '50s life that make up the first of the collection are not technically better than those from the next two decades (Taylor died in 1975), but they are more immersive, seeming the result of observation rather than research. These, of course, are strange, stiff decades for a modern reader, seeming in many ways closer to the Edwardian age than the pop-culture dominated years that would follow, I started to make my own list of features that pleasingly identified it as being from this time period: people saying "rum" to mean strange, "cappuccino" carefully italicized, references to petticoats, "cupboards full of Crown Derby," nannies and countless puddings based on almost identical ingredients, the words "I simply dote" being used in any context whatsoever; most strikingly, "God Save the Queen" played at the end of a dance. The last detail, in particular, shows the odd position she's in: recent enough that the national anthem played still refers to the same actual person, but long enough ago that the action seems not only odd but unthinkable, a weird lingering Victorianism. It exemplifies the difficulty Taylor now faces in addition to her understated material; her best work is now neither plausibly relevant, nor entirely historical in terms of the interest it creates.

This is not to say that she doesn't attempt to reflect the changes that took place in Britain during her writing career; she did, in fact, in a brave manner that defies her reputation for small-scale representation and conservatism (aesthetic, not political). "Vron and Willie" and "The Prerogative of Love" take on the irruption of youth culture and the consumer society; "Tall Boy" and "The Devastating Boys" the beginning of large-scale immigration from the Caribbean. All are audacious, and succeed just by the skin of their teeth, overcoming tangible flaws: the first, the story of a pair of siblings leaving school and trying to make their way in the capital, takes a scalpel to just-beginning-to-swing London. Taylor sees the emerging romance of the era, but refuses to be seduced by it. Always a surprisingly hardheaded writer, she considers first and foremost how the ordinary person can possibly pay for such a lifestyle, can truly enjoy this suddenly bright city that causes, as Taylor puts it, "some sort of saliva of the spirit" to flow? In Vron and Willie's case, only shoplifting allows them to realize the world of records and clothes they dream of, leading to a mounting excitement and complacency Taylor calmly sketched. The concept is brilliant, the execution flawless; it's only the shaky characterization that puts a distance between us, however, with the titular pair appearing a little too blank, impassively seeking material goods, with little attempt made to explain or understand. This is unusual for Taylor, and seems the first example of material sourced from newspapers rather than personal experience; combined with a rather stereotypical well-meaning but ineffective aunt, it becomes a story that seems oddly Marxist in its effect -- characters a means to illustrate a social truth.

"Tall Boy" suffers from a similar, while not identical, problem. The sympathetic portrait of a West Indian immigrant that makes real attempts to understand the particular predicament of the first entrants into a gray, monocultural, often monosyllabic land, it is hamstrung by a soft focus: the sharp take of London weather and London people, and a surprising downplaying of the racism to be found in 1960s Britain, is followed by improbably vague evocations of his home -- we are not even sure which island in the Caribbean he is from. Both stories suffer from atypically viewing characters at a distance, presenting them for us to remark upon rather than understand: the young immigrant has hair "as harsh as steel wool"; Vron and Willie dance "non-stop, gay as birds in April," and in both cases we are unavoidably distanced from the characters, invited to remark upon their exoticism, or feel very slightly superior. The same is the case with Arabella, the beautiful, self-absorbed model who interrupts her aunt and uncle's party in "The Prerogative of Love," wonderfully oblivious to the feathers she ruffles; we laugh, but sense that it would have been a strain for Taylor to shift to her perspective.

With other aspects of the changing country, such as the rise of package vacations to the Mediterranean, however, Taylor was sharp and perceptive: stories like "In the Sun" and "The Voices" present English vacationers competing to be as "un-English" as they can, proudly trying out short phrases in foreign languages, reading up on monuments, anxious not to be disappointed. It's a shame that "In a Different Light" was excluded, though: it takes on a similar subject -- the English view of the sun as redemptive -- and tops them all.

Foreign characters, when they do appear, seem there principally to provide a background to hold the English up against, to show up their idiosyncrasies more sharply. "Plenty Good Fiesta," one of the most perfectly realized stories here, presents a young Catalan, a refugee from the Spanish Civil War, staying with a middleclass English couple. Although it is related from the couple's point of view, the English appear suddenly bizarre and artificial when set against the boy's less constrained behavior, raising questions about whether Taylor's fiction would even be possible in a less convention-bound, spontaneous culture: when he arrives, the narrator relates "he pushed back his chair and went round the table, spearing with his fork whatever took his fancy." That "whatever took his fancy" must be voiced with controlled astonishment; it's hard not to feel that a Spanish Elizabeth Taylor would have nothing to write about.

"Plenty Good Fiesta" has quite a conventional structure: setting its scene nicely, building through frustration of desire to a satisfyingly unexpected conclusion. In general, however, Taylor was a little uncomfortable with plotting, as the mysteriously overpraised Angel, the sentimental and implausible tale of a writer of sentimental and implausible tales, demonstrates. A handful of stories here suffer from occasional panicked button-pushing, and most of the best ones are effectively post-plot, starting just after some climatic, unsettling event. This allows Taylor to show people frantically forced to reconfigure themselves and their behavior, disturbed in their preconceptions: the flooding of the ground floor of a kept mistress's house in "The Thames Spread Out," the marriage of the protagonist's father to her best friend in "A Troubled State of Mind." She takes a real pleasure in introducing elements of anarchism and surrealism into the mundane suburbia she writes about: the Catalan refugee in "Plenty Good Fiesta": attacks a roadside sign of the Cyclists' Touring Club, whose "whirling arrangement of legs" he mistakes for a swastika; in "Oasis of Gaiety," two young people throw a garden gnome into a pond, a small strange act of rebellion against a dull party, and against a wider world of boredom and hypocrisy.

Taylor's sympathy for her characters is a characteristic often mentioned by her admirers, perhaps unintentionally putting off other readers not keen on the idea of writers smothering their creations with understanding and love. But her sympathy is rarely made explicit, consisting largely in the way she frames her characters, showing both public and private selves, attempts to follow codes, before honing in on moments of discordance, of crisis. But this quality does not lessen the fundamental bleakness of many of her stories: people's desires are irreconcilable, things are the way things are. Take "Girl Reading," a quiet masterpiece, as an example of this. The story shows us Etta, the daughter of a hardworking, impoverished, rather puritan widow, on her visits to the Lippmanns', the wealthy, vivacious family of a schoolmate. The surface contrasts between the two families are immediately obvious, but a number of others are left, brilliantly, for us to elucidate ourselves. When we are told about Mrs. Lippmann's self-deprecating sense of humor, about her fondness for relating, with a laugh, embarrassing situations she has found herself in that she refers to as "Mummy's humiliations," we know, as we are meant to, that these stories are told because they are not truly humiliating, because it is very hard to truly humiliate someone who already has everything; that, in her place, Etta's mother would have been quietly crushed, and would have mentioned it again.

The love Etta's mother feels for her is real, the pride that she has raised her successfully against all odds, intense, and yet this is nothing against the glamor and carefreeness of the family she's spent time with. It finishes with Etta returning home, but deciding "this was merely a place of transit, a temporary residence." Despite her image, Taylor is a tough, unsparing writer, fond of ending her stories with crushing little lines of dialogue demonstrating continued misunderstanding between characters.

Any quibbling aside, she is generally as subtle and brave a writer as her age produced, a true wolf in sheep's clothing. The selection is obviously debatable -- I feel filled with fury that Drabble has chosen to exclude "A Dedicated Man," possibly her greatest story, but that is between her and her conscience. Once again, the U.S. has led the way in giving Elizabeth Taylor her real due, and this collection will, one hopes, win her the many more readers she deserves.

You'll Enjoy It When You Get There: The Stories of Elizabeth Taylor selected by Margaret Drabble
NYRB Classics
ISBN: 978-1590177273
400 pages