Taylor, Elizabeth (1912–1975)
Taylor, Elizabeth (1912–1975)
English novelist and short-story writer. Born in Reading, Berkshire, England, on July 3, 1912; died of cancer on November 19, 1975; daughter of Oliver Coles and Elsie Coles; graduated from Abbey School, Reading, 1930; married John William Kendal Taylor (a manufacturer), in 1936; children: son Renny (b. 1937); daughter Joanna (b. 1941).
While husband was in Royal Air Force, lived in Scarborough, Yorkshire (1940–45); published first novel, At Mrs. Lippincote's (1945); last novel, Blaming, published posthumously (1976).
At Mrs. Lippincote's (London: Davies, 1945); Palladian (London: Davies, 1946); A View of the Harbour (London: Davies, 1947); A Wreath of Roses (London: Davies, 1949); A Game of Hide-and-Seek (London: Davies, 1951); The Sleeping Beauty (London: Davies, 1953); Hester Lilly and Twelve Short Stories (London: Davies, 1954); Angel (London: Davies, 1957); The Blush and Other Stories (London: Davies, 1958); In a Summer Season (London: Davies, 1961); The Soul of Kindness (London: Chatto & Windus, 1964); A Dedicated Man and Other Stories (London: Chatto & Windus, 1965); Mossy Trotter (London: Chatto & Windus, 1967); The Wedding Group (London: Chatto & Windus, 1968); Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont (London: Chatto & Windus, 1971); The Devastating Boys (London: Chatto & Windus, 1972); Blaming (London: Chatto & Windus, 1976).
The writer Ivy Compton-Burnett described her friend Elizabeth Taylor as "a young woman who looks as if she never had to wash her gloves." Quiet dignity, "elegance and femininity" characterize Taylor both as a writer and a woman. Though little is known of her personal life, a great deal can be gleaned about her attitudes, interests, and views of the human condition from her twelve novels and four collections of short stories. She was unpretentious and pessimistic, loved few people, and did not believe in God. The daughter of Oliver and Elsie Coles , she was born on July 3, 1912, in Reading, Berkshire, England. After graduating from Abbey School in 1930, she worked as a governess and later as a librarian, married John William Kendal Taylor, who worked in the confectionery business, in 1936 and stopped working. In 1937, she gave birth to a son Renny, and in 1941 to a daughter Joanna. But behind the façade of quiet middle-class domesticity which characterized her public persona one finds a keen observer of human foibles, of the individual's desperate attempt to deal with isolation and loneliness.
When Taylor began writing in 1945, England was experiencing war-weariness, social upheaval, economic austerity, and an uncertain future. Contemporary writers strove to liberate literature "from the tyranny of a taste based on a world of wealth and leisure" that had defined "Englishness" in the years prior to World War II. Socialism, the "Welfare-State world," and the leveling of social classes "that aimed toward the lowest common denominator" promoted the rise of a working-class literature. The "angry young men" who railed against the class structure, and the smug, comfortable middle and upper-middle classes, were antithetical to the world Taylor chose to depict, to the world in which she lived.
Instead of dwelling on the drab conditions of life in the industrial areas of England, Taylor describes the lives of privileged classes who inhabit the Thames Valley, "an attractive—and very selective—part of England, the region she comes from and knows best." She writes about outwardly respectable, well-to-do, well-bred people, "a microcosm, a small section of English life" of which she was a member. Taylor regretted the mediocrity, the crass modernization that brought pollution, supermarkets, garish street lighting, and blocks of subsidized housing. So she ignored it and wrote about the people and places with which she was familiar. Like Virginia Woolf , she preferred "books in which practically nothing happens" and emphasized the lives of her characters rather than plot or setting. Moreover, like one of her favorite authors, Jane Austen (also an Abbey School graduate), Taylor was interested in domestic situations involving few characters.
Taylor's first two novels, At Mrs. Lippincote's and Palladian, are autobiographical; in the first, she describes the life of a woman (Julia) married to an RAF officer during World War II, trying to adjust to military life in northern England. Through Julia, Taylor evokes a mood of nostalgia and fear of the future in what she sees as a disintegrating, alien world. One of Taylor's central themes in all her writings is introduced here: "the theme of transition between two worlds," the genteel, complacent, and secure pre-1945 era that had been obliterated during the war, and the modern world shaken by social conflicts and economic austerity. Other common themes in her work include the failure of human relationships and loneliness. Julia and her husband Roddy do not "connect"; she resents being dependent on him, but lacks the spirit to challenge her situation. The plot of Palladian reveals Taylor's experiences while working as a governess: the story of a young woman who falls in love with her employer. The characters are, however, vague and unconvincing, and the use of cliché and stereotypes, plus a weak ending, make this novel "disappointing," Florence Leclercq notes.
Taylor refused to reveal anything about her personal life, even to such close friends as Ivy Compton-Burnett and Robert Liddell; she maintained that she was "always disconcerted when I am asked for my life story, for nothing sensational, thank heavens, has ever happened. I dislike much travel or change of environment, and prefer the days … to come round almost the
same, week after week." These attitudes are reflected in her work. Moreover, as she told Liddell, "I wouldn't describe anything that was not what I had gone through and understood myself—in my experience or out of my imagination and other people's words wouldn't do." Undoubtedly, her novels and short stories are windows into her inner self. Pessimism is pervasive in all her writing as she chronicles human failures, the "wasted lives" and "the uselessness of all human purposes, the vanity of men's efforts." Taylor herself chose a quiet, routine existence which allowed her to write. Liddell recalled that she "loved life indeed—but critically, fastidiously, and intelligently. She loved few people, but those very much." Elizabeth Taylor lived in, and wrote about, a restricted world of artists and writers and lonely men and women. But as she reveals, behind the walls of fine houses and gracious lifestyles, everyone suffers from loneliness, from self-imposed isolation, in "a closed world." This was Taylor's situation, for she, too, "avoided contact with the realities of the postwar world."
There appears to be a dark side to Taylor's personality—"her basic pessimism and lack of faith in human nature." Love, a sense of humor, and man's ability to survive are all one has in Taylor's world without God. To Taylor doing one's duty to oneself and others constituted morality. Her bleak view of humankind and the modern world did not, however, admit her to the ranks of the contemporary "angry" young writers in postwar Britain. Despite the grim, unsettled circumstances of post-1945 England, Taylor loved her native country: "It would be painful for me to consider living any other place. I find it so beautiful, harmonious and evocative, its landscape, style, tradition, even its climate." Taylor had the ability to ignore conditions outside of her own limited milieu in her life and her work. As one reviewer noted, "There is a peculiar and soothing Englishness about everything Mrs. Taylor writes." This accounts in large part for the success of her short stories that appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's, and Harper's Bazaar in the United States.
Elizabeth Taylor was not a part of the revival of realism in literature after 1945. Notes Leclercq, "Her lack of anger, failure to denounce class structure, her sympathy for the world she lives in, her gentleness, her quiet tone … have excluded her from the main drift of the contemporary English novel." But Taylor knew, and revealed, that behind the civilized, polite and mannered world she depicted, lurked the lonely individuals who through missed opportunities and wrong choices existed in quiet desperation. In A Wreath of Roses, the main character Frances is an artist whose pictures present a view of the world that is "ladylike and nostalgic, governessy, utterly lacking in ferocity, brutality, violence." Taylor's words could be applied to her own view. However, she was also aware "that beauty always hides ugliness, that underneath goodness lies evil." Her pessimism is seen when one of her characters admits, "Life's not simplicity. Not loving-kindness either. It's darkness and the terrible things we do to one another and to ourselves." Leclercq observes that Taylor "can be pitiless" in dealing with mankind.
It is striking that many of Taylor's main characters are creative artists and writers who fail to achieve fulfillment in their work or their lives. Their talents and efforts are never fully recognized, and despite their abilities, as one of Taylor's protagonists says, "in the things that really matter to us, we are entirely alone." Likewise, Taylor never "earned a literary reputation that would reflect the generally good reviews of her work," according to K.M. Stemmler. Kingsley Amis attributes her lack of recognition to her concentration on domestic life, what some critics labeled "women's" novels that were "frequently vilified." The writer Anne Tyler agrees with this assessment and points out that Taylor's work appeared at a time "when people spoke of 'women's novels' without so much as a set of quotation marks to excuse the phrase." Few knew the private side of Elizabeth Taylor, but she admitted that she gathered her subjects from personal observation, and as Tyler says, she "made it her business to explore the quirky underside of so-called civilization" and found "that the human soul is a remarkably dark and funny thing." And in her "delicate way, she could be absolutely savage." Taylor's "restraint and quietness" did not appeal to everyone. Her work is "within a certain tradition, about a certain class of people whom she knows well, about places she has lived all her life," writes Leclercq. But her writing is not "trivial." That Taylor wrote about what and who she knew lends an element of realism to her work and allows the reader a glimpse of the personality and life of the author.
Elizabeth Taylor traveled for only short periods outside of England. She drew her inspiration and her subjects closer to home. In 1948, she began corresponding with Robert Liddell, and visited him several times in Greece. After the "Colonels' Revolution" in 1967, Taylor refused to visit Greece under their regime. Later, she was "blacklisted" because she "said something disobliging in an interview" about this government, according to Liddell. But she and her husband John continued to visit Corsica, France, Crete, North Africa, and Istanbul.
During the 1970s, Taylor began to deal with the indignities and loneliness of the elderly. In Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, she creates an atmosphere of "resigned doom" among the residents of a retirement hotel in London. The old have nothing to give to society, and they are as dependent on others as children—one begins and ends one's life in a state of dependency. The old are redundant in a culture that worships youth. Taylor did not live long enough to endure the ravages of old age; in 1972, she contracted cancer which went into remission until the summer of 1975. She worked on her last novel, Blaming, until she died; it was published posthumously by her husband in 1976. In the final stages of the disease, she refused treatment that would have resulted in baldness: "I refuse to be a bed-ridden crone in a crooked wig," she wrote to Liddell. Elizabeth Taylor died on her "name-day," November 19, the feast day of St. Elizabeth of Hungary .
Leclercq, Florence. Elizabeth Taylor. Boston, MA: Twayne, 1985.
Liddell, Robert. Elizabeth and Ivy. London: Peter Owen, 1986.
Stemmler, K.M. "Elizabeth Taylor," in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 139. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1994, pp. 234–244.
Amis, Kingsley. "At Mrs. Taylor's," in Spectator. June 14, 1957, p. 786.
Hicks, Granville. "Amour on the Thames," in Saturday Review. Vol. 44. January 21, 1961, p. 62.
Liddell, Robert. "Elizabeth Taylor," in Contemporary Novelists. Edited by James Vinson. NY: St. Martin's Press, 1972, pp. 1223–1225.
Wallace, Frances. "Elizabeth Taylor," in Wilson Library Bulletin. Vol. 22. April 1948, p. 580.
Jeanne A. Ojala , Professor Emerita, Department of History, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah