Wil­fred De’ath

The Oldie - - NEWS -

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.

Wil­fred De’ath

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