There is the late famous American film star Elizabeth Taylor and there is the (also late) distinguished English novelist Elizabeth Taylor, inhabitant of Buckinghamshire. David Baddiel, with uncharacteristic perceptiveness, has described her as the literary link between Jane Austen and John Updike. And Kingsley Amis, no less, once called her the best lady writer in England in the 20th century. Good on yer, Kingers!
Two of her best-known novels, Angel and Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, have been done on television – but there is another, A Game of Hide and Seek, which I consider her best – certainly the best novel about love ever written.
Back in 1975, shortly after her death (agonising, from throat cancer), I decided to try to write an article about her for the Cia-funded magazine
Encounter, now defunct. Its then editor Anthony Thwaite (an old colleague from BBC Radio Features – the last man standing now, myself apart) was encouraging at first, then ‘cooled’ on the idea, since he didn’t think Mrs Taylor was ‘well-known’ enough. That has always been the problem, compounded by the confusion with the internationally famous namesake.
Nevertheless, for research, I went down to Penn, in leafy Buckinghamshire, where she had lived, to interview her widower husband, John Taylor, a toy manufacturer. Over lunch he confided to me, to my astonishment, that so secretive had Elizabeth been about her writing that, until he died, he had no idea he had been married to a distinguished novelist. Incredible but true.
Elizabeth Taylor was middle-class to the core (some say upper middle-class). She kept up this lifestyle to the end of her days with weekly visits, costumed and begloved to ‘town’ (Harrods) and she never let husband John or daughter Joanna (now Kington, editor of her wonderful short stories) know what she was up to in her drawing room. Like her great predecessor Jane Austen she would cover up her MS with her handbag or a sheet of blotting paper whenever anybody came in to disturb her.
John spoke very fondly of his late wife but, reading between the lines of her novels, most especially A Game of Hide and Seek, I suspect there were infidelities on both sides.
As one who has risen, thanks to an Oxford education, from the lower-middle to the middle class, I consider her the greatest exponent of the lives of middleclass English people. I have recently re-read all her nine novels, as well as her brilliant short stories – an enriching, life-enhancing experience. My opinion of her work is even higher now.
If you get the chance, go down to ‘leafy’ Buckinghamshire. It is the one English county that has everything, from rolling hills to exquisite, unspoilt villages.
Many of Taylor’s stories are set in a village, ‘Market Swanford’. High Wycombe? That will have changed for the worse, but Bucks remains idyllic, a place where middle-class life remains unchanged. If you have no time to visit, do read A Game of Hide and Seek, which I have been reading and rereading since 1951. Your life, your love life especially, will never be the same again.