A Master of Miniaturism

Article excerpt

Rebecca Abrams on Elizabeth Taylor, one of the great neglected voices of English fiction

"The infallible test of a blameless style is its untranslateableness without injury to meaning," wrote Coleridge. Judged by this measure alone, there is little to fault Elizabeth Taylor. Her novels strenuously resist summary and paraphrase for exactly this reason. Described events are, literally, only half the story; significance lies where you least expect it; major revelations take place in the spaces between the words.

In one of Taylor's best novels, In a Summer Season, a fragile marriage is severely undermined by a casual after-dinner chat. Kate and her old friend Charles, who has recently returned to the village after a long absence, are idly comparing a local bigwig to a character in a novel. Kate's young and feckless husband, Dermot, misses the literary reference and says he has never met her. Charles sees Kate's embarrassment; Dermot does not. In context, this is a heart-stopping moment, the point at which Kate's careful suppression of what she knows about her marriage breaks down. Taylor manages the scene without fuss, and to maximum effect. The full implications are revealed 20 pages later, when Dermot casually picks up the very novel in which the character features, and discovers his mistake. His sense of humiliation sounds the marriage's death knell. From this point on, some kind of tragedy is inevitable, but only six pages before the end do we find out what and when.

Taylor died at the age of 63 in 1975, with 12 novels and five collections of short stories to her name. The quality of her writing is consistently high, and her books form an artistically impressive body of work. In her lifetime, she sold well, both here and abroad. Her work was regularly dramatised for radio, and two of her novels were filmed for television. More than 25 years after her death, nearly all her novels are still in print.

Yet, for all that, Taylor's literary reputation is far from what it should be. For every reader who knows and deeply admires her novels, there are four or five others who have never heard of her. Mention her name and the most likely response is: "Do you mean the actress?" Barbara Pym, to whom she is often compared (to the intense irritation of Taylor fans), has had 12 books written about her work, Taylor not one.

One explanation is that her subject matter is simply not fashionable. At a time when the bad boys of Eng lit were busy plundering the gritty riches of working-class life, Taylor's eye fell unwaveringly on the English middle classes. Children are often at boarding school; husbands wouldn't dream of cooking supper or changing nappies; gardens have gardeners and kitchens have cooks. For this apparent narrowness of scope, Taylor was chastised, in her lifetime and beyond. Her obituarist in the Times commented snidely and obtusely that "the true asperities of modern life seemed to elude her". Interestingly, Charlotte Brontd once levelled a very similar criticism at Jane Austen.

But while it is true that all these gardeners and cooks can give her work a dated feel, it is quite wrong to relegate Taylor to the ranks of the middlebrow because of it. She applies the same precise scrutiny to the relationship between employer and housekeeper as to that between mother and son, husband and wife. For example, in Blaming, Taylor's last novel, written as she was dying and published posthumously, the recently widowed Amy endures an excruciating, unavoidable intimacy with her elderly housekeeper, Ernie Pounce.

In all of Taylor's novels and short stories, there is subtle humour, acute psychological perception and great tenderness. …