Friday, August 24, 2007

Sharp claws, warm heart...

Elizabeth Taylor (1912-1975)
English Novelist

While Mrs. P was going on about excellent women and things of that nature, it brought to my mind Elizabeth Taylor. No, no, the other one, the novelist. Never heard of her? Well, that's not surprising, Benjamin Schwarz writes that "she is best known for not being better known". Part of the group of mid-20th-century women fiction writers like Rose Macaulay, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Rosamond Lehmann and Barbara Pym, to name a few, who dealt with the domestic lives of middle and upper-middle-class women. She is considered to be one of the hidden treasures of the English novel. Her shrewd but affectionate portrayals of middle-class English life won her a discriminating audience but she never quite got the recognition she deserved during her lifetime. Noted for her precise use of language and scrupulously understated style, her enthusiasts have been as tireless as they have been unsuccessful in securing for her what Kingsley Amis called "her due as one of the best English novelists born in this century".

Like Austen, to whom she is most often compared, Taylor led a very tame and parochial life. She eschewed publicity and the London literary scene and, of course, her name obviously didn't help. She was the epitome of the upper-middle-class-housewife novelist. Of course, what she wrote about became terribly out of fashion during the time she wrote it, not exactly the stuff of the Angry Young Men. Elizabeth Jane Howard hailed her as one of the 20th century's most unfairly underread and underappreciated authors. But no one seems to have been able to influence whoever or whatever it is that decides who gets canonized and who doesn't.

But, as luck would have it, some of her books are still in print, courtesy of the UK publishing house Virago. If excellent women are your thing, there are none more excellent than she. As Mr. Schwarz notes: "...with her cool style, flexible and sharp-edged, she shunned sentimentality; her assessments were disconcertingly no-nonsense..." She had, as Angus Wilson said, "sharp claws" but a "warm heart". Look into it, when you find the time.