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  • A Very Private Person
  • Mairi MacInnes (bio)
The Other Elizabeth Taylor, by Nicola Beauman. (Persephone Books, 2009. xviii + 444 pages. Illustrated. $25 pb)

Elizabeth Taylor the writer lived from 1912 to 1975, for the most part in the Thames Valley, in pretty places and nice houses. She didn’t qualify for the university though she was a clever girl, and an industrious and passionate one, especially when writing was concerned. She left school at sixteen and went to work as a governess and then as a librarian; and, when she was twenty-three, she married the owner of a sweets factory, and they had two children. She lived a quiet private life, with help in the house, and a leisured existence. These banal details, however, must have concealed a remarkably strong character. She turned herself into not only a very well-read writer but also a highly skilled one who made full use of her imagination and had a grasp of astonishing sympathies. In today’s jargon her work shows rare soul.

It has been often said—and Nicola Beauman follows the trend here—that Elizabeth Taylor is an overlooked writer. Yet my public library has all her fiction, and in my city two big bookstores belonging to well-known chains have several titles of hers on their shelves. It has been said too that many influential critics heard in her work the tinkle of china teacups and the tinkle of “nice” English ladies’ voices and therefore dismissed it. Beauman only follows the trend in saying that Taylor has been overlooked. There is a gap here. Perhaps the common reader once again has better taste than she or he is given credit for.

Certainly the story of Elizabeth Taylor’s circumstances comes as a surprise to those who know her only through her work. Wised up, we may find it ironic that the married life that gave her the space and leisure to write led to her easy dismissal as a serious writer. But Nicola Beauman writes in her preface to Taylor’s biography that “modern literary biography throws light on the work and leads the reader to a deeper understanding of it.” In this case I wonder. What does it matter to see how commonplace the background was when the worth of the writing comes from another dimension—the consideration of morality, apprehensions of the natural world, the differences among human beings of their ideas of love, reputation, and so on? What does it matter to have repeated to us what a genius the writer was if we can see clearly how true that judgment is?

Beauman worked on her biography some fifteen years, and she got John Taylor, Elizabeth’s widower, to authorize its writing as well as her investigation of published and unpublished material. She felt it inappropriate to publish the biography while he was still alive, and after he died she submitted the script to the son and daughter of the marriage. It must have been surprising to find them not at all pleased with the praise that the biographer heaps on her subject, but “alas, very angry and distressed” and wishing to be dissociated from it.

Why? One reads in vain. Didn’t they appreciate their mother’s genius? Did they not wish to learn [End Page lxix] the very particular truth of her work and the experience and thought it came from? What were they angry and distressed about? Their father’s infidelities? Elizabeth’s lifelong love of Ray Russell—met in the year of her marriage at a local meeting of the Communist Party which she joined, like many an idealist, before the horrors of the Soviet régime became known, believing that communism might offer an alternative to the poverty and unemployment brought on by the Depression? Did they object to the hundreds of letters written to Russell while he was a prisoner of war that are a remarkable commentary on her artistic development? Or can it be they thought that public revelation of a private life is in itself an outrage? She was pregnant at the time of her marriage and lost the baby, a source of grief. Perhaps the son...


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