Thursday 20 August 2009

The Other Elizabeth Taylor

Nicola Beauman, of Persephone Books, very kindly sent me a copy of her book The Other Elizabeth Taylor months and months ago, and I've been reading it gradually for most of that time. I finished it quite a while ago now, and have been meaning to write about it for a long time - but I wanted to ponder it, and give the book a proper response. As Persephone Reading Week kicks off on Monday, it seemed a good way to whet appetites. I shouldn't think there will be much confusion on this site, but I'll make clear from the start: we're talking about Elizabeth Taylor the novelist (who wrote books I've chatted about such as Angel and Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont) rather than Elizabeth Taylor the actress, who has - as far as I'm aware - warranted no mention yet at Stuck-in-a-Book.
The Other Elizabeth Taylor is the first (and maybe last?) Persephone Life, a biography which Beauman wrote over the course of fifteen years. As one might expect of a biography, it runs from 3rd July 1912 when Betty Coles was born, to 19th November 1975 when Elizabeth Taylor died - but the focus of the biography is largely twofold. Her writing and her relationships. If, like me, you find an author's writing life of paramount significance, there is plenty in this biography to satisfy. Though writing from 1940s - 1970s, there is a sense in which Elizabeth Taylor's novels fit with the spirit of the 1920s and '30s. To quote Jocelyn Brooke, cited in The Other Elizabeth Taylor, Taylor is

in the best sense old-fashioned; that is to say, she writes an elegant, witty prose, has a decent respect for the Queen's English, and is not obsessed by crime, violence, madness or homosexuality.

As well as looking at the situations and inspirations for Elizabeth Taylor's novels, the biography has a great deal of information about her short stories - both the ones published and those which weren't. This does lead to quite a lot of little plot summaries, but I appreciate the effort of a biography to be comprehensive - and the practical process of writing is always the most fascinating part of an author's biography, to me. These sections also furthered my interest in William Maxwell, the novelist Cornflower introduced me to, in his capacity of New Yorker editor. Their relationship is fascinating - Maxwell was capable of being both friend and professional. He recognised her talent, spoke of 'the excitement, the bliss, of reading' one of her stories, but continued to turn down some of her stories throughout the rest of her writing career. How strong their bond must have been to survive that - especially to a woman who took criticism so much to heart.

It is these sections of the biography which Beauman really brings to life: Elizabeth Taylor's relationship with other authors. Though the biography often remarks with surprise that Taylor chose a middle-class, almost provincial life, instead of the hustle and bustle of London (whereas I can never understand why anybody would choose London over the countryside - the former seems so much more isolated than the latter!) she had several significant literary friendships. The most influential seems to have been with Elizabeth Bowen, who was not shy of offering praise: 'This is a case of the genius which I do know you have'. The most interesting to me is Ivy Compton-Burnett, and I have already gone and bought Robert Liddell's Elizabeth and Ivy based on Beauman's mentions of it.

I said the biography had dual focuses; the big discovery in Beauman's research, and the main reason the book was delayed until after Taylor's husband's dea
th, was the relationship between Taylor and Ray Russell. Hundreds of his letters have emerged, and Beauman interviewed Russell. Though Taylor's marriage seems more or less undisrupted by this ongoing relationship, which lost any mutual romance quite early on, it remains something to shake the image of Elizabeth Taylor as a model middle-class wife. Though perhaps the biographer's biggest claim to breaking new territory, it was this section of the book which interested me least. It might alter her reputation and character - but I didn't know anything about her extant reputation or character before I started reading the biography. It was enough to earn Beauman the antagonism of Taylor's children, though. I would be unable to write this review without mentioning the striking footnote which every review has mentioned: 'Elizabeth Taylor's daughter has commented [concerning a section on David Blakeley]: "Most of what Nicola has written is untrue and the rest hurtful to many people"'. The Acknowledgements add that they are 'alas "very angry and distressed" about the book and have asked to be disassociated from it.' I don't know how to respond to either their fierce rejection of the book (one can only imagine how hurtful that has been to its author) nor the very honest publication of their opinion - the ethics of biography is a whole other topic, one which Elaine touches on interestingly in her review of The Other Elizabeth Taylor.

I think the key to appreciating The Other Elizabeth Taylor and Nicola Beauman's writing is to recognise that she approaches biography predominantly as a reader, rather than a writer. That is not to say that her research is not impeccable - the heart Beauman brings to the project means the research is likely to be all the more scrupulous. But the book is not scholarly in the way that, say Hermione Lee's biographies are scholarly - opinion is permitted, informalities allowed. Discussions of books will lead into a more personal point - indeed, the writing is almost always personal. In discussing a situation in Taylor's life which is reflected in her novel Blaming, Beauman writes:

Whether she was as much to blame as she believed no one can say; we have all written letters saying 'I am sorry', failed our friends when they needed us. If she was to blame for her small lapse - then we are to blame, everyday, for similar failures.

It is an approach I like, it is one which fits in with the ethos of Persephone. In the pen of another biographer there might have been fewer evaluative comments; fewer emotive responses, but perhaps that is not the brand of biographer appropriate for Elizabeth Taylor. This is an appreciation as much as a biography. Like any reader, Beauman isn't always sure how to esteem the writer. Alongside Elizabeth Bowen, Beauman uses the word 'genius', but elsewhere debates why Taylor is not a 'great' writer. The Other Elizabeth Taylor is, subtly, probably unintentionally, also an exploration of Nicola Beauman's decades-long relationship with the writer through her books. Accepted on this level, Beauman has pushed the boundaries of biography, and written a book which should be recognised as - in its own way - experimental rather than simply informal. I do not believe Beauman set out to challenge the perimeters of biography - but I do think there is a case for suggesting that she has done so.

Perhaps one can see why Taylor's children complained. I dare say any book about one's own parents must cause offence somehow - especially about someone so ardently private as Elizabeth Taylor. The vitriol of Taylors Junior can't really have poured oil on troubled waters, though, and they have done Beauman a huge disservice in their assessment of the biography. The Other Elizabeth Taylor is a warm, original, caring portrait of the middle-class literary highflier; the wealthy socialist; the domestic career woman; the determinedly private woman whose life is so very interesting, despite her contest protestations that it was not.


  1. Thank you for such a superb and well thought out review, Simon. I definitely want to read this, but am planning on waiting until I have read more of Taylor's books. From reading Beauman's 'A Very Great Profession' I find her a very personal and passionate writer who isn't afraid to proffer her own opinion on thorny subjects, and I will be very interested to see how that writing style transfers to biography.

  2. This is a great review Simon. I have very much enjoyed those of ET's novels that I have read and would be interested to read this. On the subject of biographies upsetting family members, I have been on the receiving end of this myself and feel a great deal of sympathy for Beauman. As Elaine says, people can't accept that their mother (or father son daughter brother etc) was not a saint which seems to me to be sad and shortsighted.

  3. Simon, London isn't very isolated at all once you actually live here. I have found it to be one of the most congenial and friendly cities I have ever lived in, contrary to popularly held opinion (including mine before I came down here) I think. London, while undeniably busy can also be a place for quiet contemplation.
    I somehow don't think I will convince you of this!

    Thank you for the interesting review of the biography of the life of Taylor.

  4. Like Rachel, I would like to read this book once I've read a few more of Taylor's books. Last week I placed an order for A Game of Hide and Seek and just recently finished In a Summer Season. It must have been quite an experience to write a review for a book whose author you know, to hear her voice as you read it. Well done Simon!

  5. I loved Palfrey and I await two other (the) Elizabeth Taylor* books.

    *Who is the other Elizabeth Taylor? An actress, you say?

  6. What an illuminating review, Simon! I was oblivious to the controversy but, if anything, it piques my interest and makes me want to read it; like Rachel and Darlene, however, I am waiting until I read any (let alone more) Taylor.
    I too loved the style of A Very Great Profession; it's highly accessible, informative, and enjoyable.
    How kind of Nicola to send you a copy but not surprising; she is a lovely woman and she had warm things to say about you when I visited a few weeks ago on behalf of mine and Verity's challenge.
    Timely post!

  7. Great review of the book Simon. I had a really good chat with Nicola when we met at Port Eliot recently about my post on this book and some of my thoughts and hers which was all fascinating. I think everyone involved feels desperately sad for Elizabeth's children in all this and the pain of that is evident in those notes in the book. I keep thinking how I might have reacted if this had been my mum and I doubt it would have been much differently to them. But quoting JM Coetzee earlier this week and his novel Summertime (which threw biography into paroxysms of confusion for me) authors eventually belong to all of us (or words to that effect)and that's quite an interesting thought in relation to all this.

  8. Simon, this is one of the best reviews you've written.
    It was very fair, honest and thoughtful and has your 'voice' which I do enjoy. No doubt it was a difficult task to review the work of a friend.

    I agree with Rachel and Paperback Reader, that it sounds like The Other Elizabeth Taylor is very similar in style to A Very Great Profession - personal, extremely readable and with generous use of the author's opinion, but somehow coming over as completely polished, professional and informative. I will write more on A V Great Profession during 'Persephone week', somehow or other, as I don't have a blog of my own; instead have two babies and a snatch of reading at 11pm each evening!

  9. A brilliant timing as far as I am concerned as I picked up 'The Devastating Boys' in a charity shop this morning. I am afraid I have not read anything by ET before so it is interesting to see something about her life as well as other people's comments on some of her other books.

  10. You make me want to pick this up right now, but like so many other readers I wouldn't mind having a few more books by ET under my belt first. I didn't realize that she was friends with Wm Maxwell (am reading his The Folded Leaf right now). I wonder why he did turn down some of her stories? The few I've read are really quite brilliant. I read a memoir by Elizabeth Jane Howard in the last year or so and she was also friends with ET and spoke highly of her. Must get Elizabeth Bowen's take as well! Thanks for such a great review!

  11. Simon, this is a brilliant piece of writing. I think you should try and publish it somewhere.

  12. I never properly thanked you for all your kind and thoughtful comments - thank you! I really enjoyed working at this review, put much more time and thought into it than usual as I felt the book really deserved it.

    Dark Puss - nice try! I'm afraid all cities are fairly isolated places in my mind... people not knowing their neighbours, not having silly village shows and fetes and power cuts...


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