Authors: Elizabeth Taylor,Caleb Crain
ELIZABETH TAYLOR (1912â1975) was born into a middle-class family in Berkshire, England. She held a variety of positions, including librarian and governess, before marrying a businessman in 1936. Nine years later, her first novel, At Mrs. Lippincote's, appeared. She would go on to publish eleven more novels, including Angel (available as an NYRB Classic), four collections of short stories (many of which originally appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's, and other magazines), and a children's book, Mossy Trotter, while living with her husband and two children in Buckinghamshire. Long championed by Ivy Compton-Burnett, Barbara Pym, Robert Liddell, Kingsley Amis, and Elizabeth Jane Howard, Taylor's novels and stories have been the basis for a number of films, including Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont (2005), starring Joan Plowright, and FranÃ§ois Ozon's Angel (2007). In 2013 NYRB Classics will publish a new selection of Taylor's short stories.
CALEB CRAIN is the author of American Sympathy, a study of friendship between men in early American literature. He has written for The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and n+1. His novel Necessary Errors will be published in 2013.
A GAME OF HIDE AND SEEK
Even as a child, Betty Coles wrote fiction. “Before I was sixteen,” she was to recall, “I had finished my third novel.” An English teacher who was unable to believe in her precocious talent once accused her of plagiarism. She was conscious of her ambition. As a schoolgirl, she used to leaf through “the History of English Literature and imagine my name going in between Coleridge and Collins,” she later remembered.
A failure in math, however, barred Coles from a university education, and no fiction that she wrote as an adult was published until she was thirty-one. The delay doesn't quite qualify her as a late bloomer; one can think of worse cases, such as William Dean Howells or Penelope Fitzgerald. Nonetheless, it can't have been easy to live through. Such an interval offers writers opportunities to betray themselves. Coles was menaced by marriage, which, as the poet Marianne Moore once wrote, requires all one's criminal ingenuity to avoid. Coles didn't manage to avoid it. In 1934, she met John Taylor, the son of a prominent businessman in High Wycombe, a small town where she had taken a job as a librarian. John was a provincial actor at the time, as was Betty herself. A week after their 1936 marriage, the newlyweds appeared on stage together in
The Case of the Frightened Lady.
She was already pregnant, though evidently not so much so as to impair performance before either altar or footlights.
John Taylor was not a bohemian, despite his interest in amateur theatricals. He had been put in charge of his family's candy manufacturing business at age twenty-three, and his father was soon to be elected High Wycombe's mayor. Not long after marrying Betty, who now went by the grander name Elizabeth, John seems to have given up the stage to focus on candy manufacturing. Perhaps, as an artist, Elizabeth became a little frightened by her decision to choose such a respectable, bourgeois life. Just before marriage, as if in anticipatory compensation, she joined the Communist Party, and it was at a Party meeting that she first became aware of a painter named Raymond Russell. At the meeting she said something about William Morris; Russell sharply contradicted her. He was to be her lover, on and off, between 1938 and 1945. With him, she later remembered, she was “happy in a sort of agonised way.”
Taylor and Russell exchanged hundreds of letters. At one point, suspecting a pregnancy, she administered to herself a home remedy of quinine, and upon becoming ill, she feared that she might die and that her and Russell's letters might be discovered. She burned all the letters in her possession. “Every single loving word you have written to me is gone,” she wrote to him. “I cannot endure the thought of it. No one has ever written to me like that before, or said such wonderful things to me, & now I have nothing left.” She seems to have asked him to destroy hers as well, but he copied her early letters into a notebook before doing so, modestly changing some of the names as he transcribed. Later, apparently repenting of even this much discretion, he resumed saving the letters she sent. Their survival, and the fact of Taylor's affair with Russell, was disclosed in Nicola Beauman's 2009 biography,
The Other Elizabeth Taylor.
Passion at cross-purposes with respectabilityâpassion at cross-purposes, even, with happinessâwas to be a great theme in Taylor's fiction. “We do not appear to seek what will give us pleasure,” the heroine of one of her novels reflects, when tempted to sleep with a friend's husband, “nor to feel ourselves satisfied by mere happiness.”
A Game of Hide and Seek
, Taylor's fifth novel, the passion arises between two teenagers, Harriet and Vesey. Harriet is timid. She is mortified by her mother's pride in having spent a night in jail as a youthful suffragette, and her idea of a romantic overture is to loan a boy a book and hope that he will intuit that the return of it could be an opportunity for further communication. Vesey, too, is shy, though he hides behind outbursts of a somewhat studied malice. He is the sort of boy who teases the family housekeeper with explicit descriptions of gore and who sneaks into his mother's bedroom to try on her nail polish. Alike in being misunderstood, neither Harriet nor Vesey seems to look forward to much of a future. Vesey, like Taylor herself as a child, daydreams of finding his name in the index of a literary history, in his case, his last name being Macmillan, between Machiavelli and Sir Thomas Malory, but by the time he reaches university it is evident that his waywardness, though originally defensive, is becoming too much for him. Harriet, for her part, fails the exams that might have taken her to university and soon finds herself trapped in the drab life of a shopgirl.
The germ of the story may be found in Taylor's previous novel,
A Wreath of Roses
, whose heroine recalls a kiss that she received as a teenager during a game of hide-and-seekâa kiss that left her melancholy for years afterward because she could not forget it and it had no sequel. In
A Game of Hide and Seek,
Taylor elaborates this long-remembered kiss into a lifelong tragedy: What if a man and woman recognized each other as true loves in youth but through lack of self-awareness and because of external circumstances were unable to reveal their hearts to each other until much laterâuntil, perhaps, it was too late?
The attraction that Harriet and Vesey feel is painful, and the pain may at first puzzle a reader. Vesey is often cruel to Harriet, as he himself recognizes: “When I am touched,” he thinks to himself, “I give a false note, like a cracked glass's. A note of cruelty, or scorn.” When the couple embrace, Harriet experiences something very unlike girlish bliss: Taylor writes that “A great silence, of despair, ennui, disappointment with herself, widened in her, like a yawn.” One way to interpret this darkness is to see it as a retrospective coloringâas a shade cast, somewhat illogically, by disillusionments known to the teller of the story even though they would not have been known in the moment to the young lovers themselves.
Another way, though, is to read it as writtenâas a record of a romantic and sexual awakening that was indeed experienced as pain. Taylor scattered allusions to the BrontÃ«s throughout her fictionâin her first novel, the heroine is given a copy of
by a man who has fallen for her; in her second, a governess upbraids herself for answering her employer with un-BrontÃ«-like meekness; in her third, a censorious librarian stamps “For Adults Only” in the front and back of
âand she seems to have shared the sisters' conviction that attachment is not all sweetness and light. It's hardly a coincidence, in
that when Mr. Rochester first meets Jane, he is thrown off his horse and badly injured. In
the brutality of Heathcliff is far from lessening Catherine's attraction; on the contrary, the pain that Heathcliff lives in is seductive; it renders him more vivid than anyone polite and respectable could be. Perhaps
A Game of Hide and Seek
should be understood in the spirit of a BrontÃ« novel, as representing a world in which love is more easily distinguished by the shadows it throws than by any light it may cast. “I can never get used to kindness,” Vesey says at one point, in a line that on a first reading sounds like no more than a polite response to a compliment. But maybe he really couldn't get used to it.
A reader in sturdy psychological health may wonder what Harriet and Vesey see in each other. She isn't blind to his anger, nor he to her lack of courage, but the drama between them isn't about power. On the contrary, they seem to feel sorry about their roles, and in the break between the first and second halves of the bookâTaylor confided to her friend Elizabeth Bowen that “a great darkness” came over the novel and it “cracked in two”âthey exchange them: Harriet becomes strong, and Vesey weak. What they share is a recognition, which Taylor seems to have understood as a thing like the wind, invisible to a novelist except by an inventory of its effects.
Vesey's cruelty is one such effect. Biography can't explain it away. In the letters quoted by Beauman, there is no evidence that Russell was cruel to Taylor; in fact, Beauman remarks on Russell's devotion and speculates that Taylor was drawn to him because he treated her as an equal and paid her such close attention. Nor is it evident that Russell came to think of his own life as a bleak one, as Vesey seems to. Though Russell stayed in touch with Taylor until her death, he sufficiently recovered from the affair to marry in 1952, and he and his wife had a son in 1960. In other words, Taylor either invented Vesey's cruelty and misery, or drew those traits from a source other than her affair with Russell.
What if, in creating Vesey, Taylor was drawing on her feelings about her writerly self? As mentioned, Vesey shares Taylor's own childish ambition. And in the sort of sly transposition characteristic of novelists, Taylor gives to Vesey her husband's avocation rather than her lover's, as if to suggest that her fidelity was never to any person but to a pursuit. Like art, Vesey is ironic, rebellious, hungry, susceptible to misunderstanding, and liable to failure. Perhaps in the early years of marriage, when Taylor feared that she might neglect her art, her art appealed to her with an uncanny harshness. “It's the other side of love,” a character in the novel explains, of the guilt and ferocity that accompany attachment. A difficulty in seeing what one wants is part of the game, after all. One begins to play by covering one's eyes.
Sometimes in the long summer's evenings, which are so marked a part of our youth, Harriet and Vesey played hide-and-seek with the younger children, running across the tufted meadows, their shoes yellow with the pollen of buttercups. They could not run fast across those uneven fields; nor did they wish to, since to find the hiding children was to lose their time together, to run faster was to run away from one another. The jog-trot was a game devised from shyness and uncertainty. Neither dared to assume that the other wished to pause and inexperience barred them both from testing this.
At first, the younger children were pleased to foil them, but soon grew bored, sitting up in the branches of oak-trees, or crouching among bales of scratchy hay. Their whispers and giggles would grow into talk and laughter; they would examine their gnat bites, pick at their scratches and soon begin to sing taunting songs and cry out in mockery. Though they did not care to be caught, they were vexed when after so long nothing happened. Sometimes they would see Harriet and Vesey coming across the fields, their long shadows going before them. Then they would quicken with excitement and call out in disguised voices or imitate a cuckoo. But mostly they were silent. They watched the shadows thinning and lengthening and the cows moving indifferently through the grasses.