Was Elizabeth Taylor the Best British Novelist of the Postwar Era?

Was Elizabeth Taylor the Best British Novelist of the Postwar Era? 1

MRS PALFREY AT THE CLAREMONT
By Elizabeth Taylor

It’s possible to make a point by missing the point, to show the way by heading in a misleading direction. So, as a way of identifying the signature qualities of the English writer Elizabeth Taylor, we’ll begin by asking which American writer she most closely resembles. John Cheever is a good fit chronologically (both were born in 1912; Taylor predeceased him by seven years in 1975) and thematically: domestic life in the suburbs and countryside, booze, stifled desire. But Cheever’s collected stories became a monumental success and our awareness of him was heightened by the posthumous evidence of delirium (tremens), torment and wreckage. When Taylor died, the sense of there being something middling about both her brow and status subsided into a kind of well-disposed neglect. (The unfortunate name didn’t help — doubly unfortunate since Betty Coles chose to use her married name as her pen name.) She became known for being less known than she deserved.

If the comparison with Cheever breaks down almost as soon as it is made, that is indicative of the larger point — which may also be a smaller point — that there can be no American equivalent of a writer defined so thoroughly by her Englishness. “Essentially English,” remarks a character in “A Wreath of Roses” as he reads the names on gravestones in a country churchyard. Taylor’s novels often feature writers, and in her last, the posthumously published “Blaming,” Martha, an American novelist, is fascinated by the voice of her friend Amy: “the light, clear English tone, all syllables articulate, the disposition quite detached. ‘Terribly good, don’t you think?’ No one in America talked like that.”

It’s largely to the credit of William Maxwell that Taylor’s stories found a willing home in the pages of The New Yorker when some of the clearest pleasures of her work — nuances of language and class — are muffled to anyone not steeped in the class consciousness of the host nation. “I seem to hear the tinkle of teacups,” said Saul Bellow, one of the Booker judges in 1971 when “Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont” crept onto the shortlist. Pushed to the margins by the global reach of V. S. Naipaul (that year’s eventual winner) or Graham Greene, by the sweep of Anthony Powell — no sniggering at the back! — or the intellectual penetration of Iris Murdoch — and no yawning either! — Taylor became a perennial wallflower: a nice lady novelist of modest ambition and talent whose books, when you actually read them, are a revelation. And devastating.

I preach with the enthusiasm of the convert. It was only in September, after a fittingly intoxicated evening, that I followed the advice of Tessa Hadley (also fittingly) and read “A Game of Hide and Seek.” I was instantly besotted by the subtlety of gestural and psychological observation; the determining arrangement of landscape, architecture and furnishings; the unshowy and slightly wonky evidence of full authorial control. There was also the pleasing quiet created by a lack — the lack, that is, of the grinding gears of plot — which played a part in the feeling of being fully immersed in a world. That world is geographically restricted, but the serial blandness of Taylor’s titles encourages an unhindered commute from whatever a given volume happens to be called (“Summer Something”?) to whichever comes next: “Something Kindness”? The transition is even easier in her stories — available in a hefty selection called “You’ll Enjoy It When You Get There” — which can be read almost without pause, like chapters in a haphazard epic with a cast of hundreds.

Having gulped down half of her dozen novels — none have disappointed — I find myself most awfully reluctant to read anyone else. Even as the reasons for Taylor’s undercooked reputation are adduced, it still seems hard to credit, given the quantity of quality she routinely dished up — unless consideration is given to a disturbing possibility: that the books being so easy to read actually worked to her detriment.

Take “Mrs Palfrey,” her penultimate novel. It’s a doddle, about doddery old folks eking out their retirement years in a Kensington hotel that is a way station on the journey to assisted living and whatever might lie beyond. For Mrs. Palfrey that beyond extends no further than a few streets and the odd shop (Harrods, admittedly).

The ancient cast comes as a bit of a surprise at first because Taylor is so good on the obliviousness and power of youth, especially the hypnotic hold of beautiful girls over middle-aged men. A young person — called Ludo, playfully — duly shows up, but the book’s dodgy heart is clogged with a gerontian assortment of shakes, incontinence and falls (preludes to broken bones and pneumonia). It’s the late 1960s and although, in neighboring Chelsea, London might be swinging, attention at the Claremont is focused on the dessert trolley “with its load of wobbling red jellies, slopping fruit salad (mostly, Mrs. Palfrey noted, sliced apples and bananas).”

That parenthetical detail is a state-of-the-nation diagnosis, fresh in its day but expressive, like the sleigh rides in Tolstoy, of a timeless (and, in Taylor’s case, dismal) truth. The same holds good for everything that follows, but there’s a stranger aspect to Taylor’s vision too. Mrs. Arbuthnot, one of the ailing denizens of the Claremont, turns her eyes in Mrs. Palfrey’s direction. “They were such very pale blue eyes as to make Mrs. Palfrey uneasy. She thought that blue eyes get paler and madder as the years go by.” Read that and you wonder about every pair of blue eyes you’ve ever seen, or ever will see.

Madness is always beckoning here — a repressed, specifically English variant that pinches the bunioned psyche like a shoe growing tighter by the day (especially as mores grow more relaxed elsewhere). This mania is more extreme in the work of Taylor’s friend Ivy Compton-Burnett, that lunatic in chief of English writers, but Taylor shares with her a relish for dialogue that, while fiercely leashed, insists on plunging headlong into absurdity. Mrs. Arbuthnot has “ears sharpened by malice,” and there is often dishevelment and danger lurking at Taylor’s side. Something literally murderous underwrites the “English sadness” that pervades “A Wreath of Roses.” In the novella “Hester Lilly” and the novel “Angel” it’s the hideous darkness of fairy tales. In “A View of the Harbour” the monstrous is thoroughly domesticated — and vice versa: “Prudence had cooked two cods’ heads for the cats. She lifted the lid off the saucepan and out rushed an evil-smelling steam, and two pairs of boiled, reproachful eyes stared up at her.”

With “Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont” we’re in the strictly realist topography of “slimed pavements,” minor related hazards and hazardous relatives. The primordial and the well-to-do are not just in close proximity but, as in Henry James, constantly merging. Especially once the sherry takes hold and conversation becomes blurred, slippery. Even without lubrication purposes are easily crossed, generating gags that would fit in to the repertoire of a stand-up at the London Palladium. Asked if she had a local anesthetic for an operation on her nose, Mrs. Post replies, “No, we were living in Norfolk at the time, and my husband insisted on my coming to London.” The cross talk is screwball for the elderly, which means that it’s also a dialogue of the deaf. When Mrs. Palfrey is invited to a ladies’ night at the Masons by Mr. Osmond (an allusive descendant from James’s “Portrait of a Lady”?) this reaches a level of near hysteria. As it ought because, frankly, how can any writer claim to have a serious interest in the human psyche — let alone anything approaching wisdom — without a bottomless capacity for the hilarious and ridiculous?

Mercifully advanced in England, this quality might not be unrelated to the end of empire. It’s not just that the characters’ salad days are long past; they are also, as Michael Hofmann points out in his insightful introduction to this reissue, leftovers in the postimperial gloaming, with Mrs. Palfrey as a wobbly and eventually toppled statue. This is not fanciful. Mrs. Palfrey spent much of her earlier life in Burma, where Orwell famously saw “the dirty work of empire at close quarters.” On the home front, Taylor observes everything up close, close enough to discern — to read — the verbs that power any action, mentally and mechanically, as when we glimpse Colonel Mildmay tackling a cutlet,” or Mrs. Burton (another bit of self-reflexive name play?) after she has lit a cigarette “and yawned out smoke.”

Taylor’s world is symbol-strewn but even under the most excruciating academic inquisition, all objects persist in the function for which they were intended, and heavy rain remains just another storm to be weathered. Possessed of the quality of total composure and attention — so that the whole is present in every part of a given book — Taylor was a novelist from the tips of her fingers to the depths of her brain. D. H. Lawrence would have insisted on “bowels” rather than “brain,” and it’s pleasing to remark that Taylor’s unfaltering stylistic deportment does not make her prim: “‘Well, another Sunday nearly gone,’ Mrs. Post said quickly, to cover a little fart. She had presence of mind.”

She does indeed. For too long the question was whether Taylor had been unreasonably excluded from a head count of the best fictional minds of her generation. The answer makes us pose another question, requiring further critical precision and refinement: Was there any better chronicler of English life as it unfolded in the 30-year period after the end of World War II?