If you are in search of an author with a wealth of novels to immerse yourself in, whose writing is poetic, funny and full of class politics and deeply felt emotions, it is time to pick-up the ‘other’ Elizabeth Taylor.
Elizabeth Taylor (1912-1975) is increasingly recognised as one of the best British writers of the twentieth century. She wrote her first book, At Mrs Lippincote’s, during the war while her husband was in the Royal Air Force, and this was followed by eleven further novels and a children’s book, Mossy Trotter. Her acclaimed short stories appeared in publications including Vogue, the New Yorker and Harper’s Bazaar.
Don’t be fooled by the prim titles – Taylor’s novels are witty, savage and full of loneliness. Her characters wield their propriety like armour, much as their author hid her own more rebellious streak behind that string of pearls. Her writing subverts domestic routine with sly humour and careful observation, while the seemingly arbitrary events of her plots – casual deaths, unexpected coincidences – highlight the confusion and disorder lurking behind the surface of everyday life. Scroll down to discover the fourteen Elizabeth Taylor books Virago publish, in order of their original publication.
‘How deeply I envy any reader coming to her for the first time!’ Elizabeth Jane Howard
‘Jane Austen, Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Bowen – soul-sisters all’ Anne Tyler
‘Elizabeth Taylor is finally being recognised as an important British author: an author of great subtlety, great compassion and great depth’ Sarah Waters
‘One of the most underrated novelists of the twentieth century, Elizabeth Taylor writes with a wonderful precision and grace’ Antonia Fraser
ELIZABETH TAYLOR READING GUIDE
Where to start with Elizabeth Taylor, a guide to the fourteen Elizabeth Taylor books Virago publish, in order of their original publication:
At Mrs Lippincote’s was Elizabeth Taylor’s debut novel, first published in 1945. It was republished on the Virago Modern Classics list in 1988 and most recently reissued with a new cover (pictured above) in 2018.
Mrs Lippincote’s house, with its mahogany furniture and yellowing photographs, stands as a reminder of all the certainties that have vanished with the advent of war. Temporarily, this is home for Julia, who has joined her husband Roddy at the behest of the RAF. Although she can accept the pomposities of service life, Julia’s honesty and sense of humour prevent her from taking her role as seriously as her husband, that leader of men, might wish; for Roddy, merely love cannot suffice – he needs homage as well as admiration. And Julia, while she may be a most unsatisfactory officer’s wife, is certainly no hypocrite.
First published in 1946, it was republished on the Virago Modern Classics list in 1985. Palladian was most recently reissued with a new cover, featured above, in 2018.
INTRODUCED BY NEEL MUKHERJEE
In this devastating but comic novel of a young governess looking for love, Elizabeth Taylor pays homage to Jane Eyre, in her own, inimitable way.
When newly orphaned Cassandra Dashwood arrives as governess to little Sophy, the scene seems set for the archetypal romance between young girl and austere widowed employer. Strange secrets abound in the ramshackle house. But conventions are subverted in this atmospheric novel: one of its worlds is suffused with classical scholarship and literary romance, but the other is chaotic, quarrelsome and even farcical. Cassandra is to discover that in real life, tragedy, comedy and acute embarrassment are never far apart.
‘Elizabeth Taylor has an eye as sharply all-seeing as her prose is elegant – even the humdrum becomes astonishing when told in language that always aims for descriptive integrity, without a cliché in sight. As a result, Taylor excels in conveying the tragicomic poignancy of the everyday’ Daily Telegraph
First published in 1947, A View of the Harbour was brought to the Virago Modern Classics list in 1987. In 2018, this remarkable novel was included in the Virago Modern Classics 40th Anniversary collection.
INTRODUCED BY SARAH WATERS
In the faded coastal village of Newby, everyone looks out for – and in on – each other, and beneath the deceptively sleepy exterior, passions run high.
Beautiful divorcee Tory is secretly involved with her neighbour, Robert, while his wife Beth, Tory’s best friend, is consumed by the worlds she creates in her novels, oblivious to the relationship developing next door. Their daughter Prudence is aware, however, and is appalled by the treachery she observes. Mrs Bracey, an invalid whose grasp on life is slipping, forever peers from her window, constantly prodding her daughters for news of the outside world. And Lily Wilson, a lonely young widow, is frightened of her own home. Into their lives steps Bertram, a retired naval officer with the unfortunate capacity to inflict lasting damage while trying to do good.
‘Her stories remain with one, indelibly, as though they had been some turning-point in one’s own experience’ Elizabeth Bowen
‘Always intelligent, often subversive and never dull, Elizabeth Taylor is the thinking person’s dangerous housewife. Her sophisticated prose combines elegance, icy wit and freshness in a stimulating cocktail’ Valerie Martin
First published in 1949, A Wreath of Roses was first published on the Virago Modern Classics list in 1994. The most recent edition, with the cover featured above, was published in 2017.
INTRODUCED BY HELEN DUNMORE
Elizabeth Taylor’s darkest novel is a skillful exploration of the danger we’ll go to to avoid loneliness. Taylor is increasingly recognised as one of the best writers of the twentieth century, and this little-known novel displays her range admirably.
Spending her annual holiday with friends, as she has for many years, Camilla finds that their private absorptions – Frances with her painting and Liz with her baby – exclude her from the gossipy intimacies of previous summers. Anxious that she will remain encased in her solitary life as a school secretary, Camilla steps into an unlikely liaison with Richard Elton who is handsome, assured – and dangerous liar.
‘Taylor is a fearsome writer, ruthless in her examination of solitude, and a sparkling chronicler of ordinary lives’ Daily Telegraph
‘A marvellous, dark novel . . . The psychological damage wrought by the recent war subtly and convincingly underpins this account of three variously unhappy women . . . The writing is so perfectly pitched’ Guardian
First published in 1951, A Game of Hide and Seek was published on the Virago Modern Classics list in 1986.
A Game of Hide and Seek adeptly showcases two of Taylor’s strengths as a novelist: piercing insight and keen wit.
‘Her stories remain with one, indelibly, as though they had been some turning-point in one’s own experience’ Elizabeth Bowen, author of The Heat of the Day
During summer games of hide-and-seek Harriet falls in love with Vesey and his elusive, teasing ways. When he goes to Oxford she cherishes his photograph and waits for the letter that never comes. Then Charles enters her life, and Harriet stifles her imaginings. With a husband and daughter, she excels at respectability: ornaments on the mantlepiece, remembered birthdays and jars of lilac. But when Vesey reappears, her marriage seems to melt away. Harriet is older, it is much too late, but she is still in love with him.
First published in 1953, The Sleeping Beauty was first published on the Virago Modern Classics list in 1982. This novel is a subtle, beautifully written love story.
INTRODUCED BY DAVID BADDIEL
First published in 1957, Angel was first published as a Virago Modern Classic in 1984. In 2007, Angel was turned into a movie by French director François Ozon.
Writing stories that are extravagant and fanciful, fifteen-year old Angel retreats to a world of romance, escaping the drabness of provincial life. She knows she is different, that she is destined to become a feted authoress, owner of great riches and of Paradise House . . .
After reading The Lady Irania, publishers Brace and Gilchrist are certain the novel will be a success, in spite of – perhaps because of – its overblown style. But they are curious as to who could have written such a book – an elderly lady, romanticising behind lace curtains? A mustachioed rogue?
They were not expecting it to be the pale, serious teenage girl, sitting before them without a hint of irony in her soul.
INTRODUCED BY HILARY MANTEL
First published in 1961, In a Summer Season was published on the Virago Modern Classics list in 1983.
In a Summer Season is considered to be one of Elizabeth Taylor’s finest novels. Through the pages of In a Summer Season Taylor, in a moving and powerful climax, reveals love to be the thing it is: beautiful, often funny, and sometimes tragic.
‘You taste of rain’, he said, kissing her. ‘People say I married her for her money’, he thought contentedly, and for the moment was full of the self-respect that loving her had given him.
Kate Heron is a wealthy, charming widow who marries, much to the disapproval of friends and neighbours, a man ten years her junior: the attractive, feckless Dermot. Then comes the return of Kate’s old friend Charles – intelligent, kind and now widowed, with his beautiful young daughter. Kate watches happily as their two families are drawn together, finding his presence reassuringly familiar, but slowly she becomes aware of subtle undercurrents that begin to disturb the calm surface of their friendship. Before long, even she cannot ignore the gathering storm . . .
Elegant, blonde and beautiful, Flora has everything under control: her perfect home, her husband Richard, her friend Meg, adoring Kit, and the writer Patrick.
Flora entrances everyone, dangling visions of happiness and success before their spellbound eyes. All are bewitched by this golden tyrant. Except, that is, for the clear-eyed painter, Liz, who can see that Flora’s kindness is the sweetest poison of them all.
First published in 1968, The Wedding Group was published as a Virago Modern Classic in 1985. A new edition was published in 2019 (cover featured above).
‘”You know,'”Midge began, and paused. She was rather taken aback, and could not at once think of anything to say. “Perhaps there’s nothing so dangerous as having led a sheltered life.”‘
INTRODUCED BY CHARLOTTE MENDELSON
Cressy has grown up in a world of women, presided over by her eccentric, artist grandfather Harry Bretton. Rebelling against the wholesome, organic values of her home life, Cressy decides to leave home in search of more ephemeral pleasures. Taking a job in an antiques shop, she meets David, a self-satisfied journalist, also looking for means of fleeing the family nest. But as Cressy cannot fend for herself and David is securely tied to his mother’s apron strings, this act of escape for both of them proves a powerful form of bondage.
‘It is time that justice was done to Elizabeth Taylor… All her writings could be described as coming into the category of comedy. Comedy is the best vehicle for truths that are too fierce to be borne’ Anita Brookner
Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1971. It was Taylor’s eleventh novel and was first published as a Virago Modern Classic in 1982. The novel was adapted for television in 1973 and was the basis for a 2005 film.
On a rainy Sunday in January, the recently widowed Mrs Palfrey arrives at the Claremont Hotel where she will spend her remaining days. Her fellow residents are magnificently eccentric and endlessly curious, living off crumbs of affection and snippets of gossip. Together, upper lips stiffened, they fight off their twin enemies: boredom and the Grim Reaper.
Then one day Mrs Palfrey strikes up an unlikely friendship with an impoverished young writer, Ludo, who sees her as inspiration for his novel.
‘Elizabeth Taylor’s exquisitely drawn character study of eccentricity in old age is a sharp and witty portrait of genteel postwar English life facing the changes taking shape in the 60s . . . Much of the reader’s joy lies in the exquisite subtlety in Taylor’s depiction of all the relationships, the sharp brevity of her wit, and the apparently effortless way the plot unfolds’ Robert McCrum ‘the 100 best novels’, Guardian
First published posthumously in 1976. Blaming was published on the Virago Modern Classics list in 1992.
Blaming is a finely nuanced exploration of responsibility, snobbery and culture clash.
When Amy is suddenly left widowed and alone while on holiday in Istanbul, Martha, an American traveller, comforts her and accompanies her back to England. Upon their return, however, Amy is ungratefully reluctant to maintain their relationship, recognising that, under any other circumstances, the two women would not be friends. But guilt is a hard taskmaster, and Martha has away of getting under one’s skin . . .
‘No writer has described the English middle classes with more gently devastating accuracy’ Rebecca Abrams, Spectator
This collection of Taylor’s short stories was published by Virago in 2012, to mark the centenary of her birth. It was the first time her acclaimed short stories were collected in one volume. The collection includes rediscovered stories that had never before been published in book form.
From the awkward passions of lonely holiday-makers to the anticipation of three school friends preparing for their first dance, from the minor jealousies and triumphs of marriage to tales of outsiders struggling to adapt to the genteel English countryside, with a delicate, witty touch Elizabeth Taylor illuminates the nuances of ordinary lives.
‘Taylor has remarkable skill. In all the stories there is a peculiarly satisfying mixture of wit and generosity. Their human depth is such that they can be read again and again’ Margaret Drabble
First published in 1967.