The Jewish Chronicle
Elisabeth Russell Taylor
Novelist whose dark and unsettling work mingled the elegant with the grotesque
BEST KNOWN as a writer of novels and short stories, Elisabeth Russell Taylor, who has died aged 90, was hailed by critics for her “brilliant, dark and unsettling” work, “mingling the elegant with the grotesque”. Born in London in 1930, she grew up in intellectual Jewish circles in Hampstead and St John’s Wood. She attended Francis Holland School and then the Garden School in West Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, an “alternative school”, where she read widely, played hockey, sang, listened to music and did some gardening. She regretted receiving very little formal education there but felt she had learned a great deal about human nature.
She went to Switzerland in 1946, and studied French. Returning to London, she worked in various jobs and spent time in museums and art galleries where she indulged her interest in modern painting and sculpture. Music, too, was a passion and she appeared as an extra in a Covent Garden production of Verdi’s Aida.
In 1950, she married Freddie Silberman, the managing director of a luxury leather goods company but the marriage did not last. On a visit to Paris, she met Marcel Van Thienen, a composer and later sculptor, and spent the next two and a half years with him in a very chilly loft. While there, she also studied at the Sorbonne. The relationship ended when Van Thienen was posted to Haiti as director of the National Conservatory of Music and Elisabeth refused to accompany him. Instead, she chose to travel alone, first to South Africa, as a volunteer with the antiapartheid campaigner, Bishop Trevor Huddleston, and as a paid translator.
She then joined a kibbutz in Israel and stopped in Florence to look at paintings on her way back to London. But it was Paris that provided the inspiration for her writing debut . Her first novel, Swann Song (1988) was inspired by her love of the work of Marcel Proust. Some later novels such as Divide and Rule, (1989) and Pillion Riders, (1993) feature heroines who abandon conventional comforts and security and reach out for things beyond.
Tomorrow, first published in 1991 and later reissued by Daunt Books in 2018, is considered by many as the most harrowing of her novels. Set on a tiny Danish island it follows the heroine’s annual pilgrimage to the same hotel, describing the various, often eccentric guests. However, what is to come is a horror that has characterised Russell Taylor’s literary output.
A more autobiographical novel is Mother Country, with the heroine, Antonia, experiencing a similar unhappy childhood to that of the author, whose traumas remain unresolved.
Back in London, Elisabeth worked as a lingerie designer for Marks and Spencer, sold antiques in Bermondsey market and designed interiors. Her designs featured in such publications as House and Garden and The Times. She then organised American shows for a group of British sculptors in America. In 1957, she had a brief second marriage to Russell Taylor, then a student at Oxford, and after their divorce carried both of his names with her as her own. But it was in 1962 that she met Tom Fairs, a painter and stainedglass artist, whom she married in 1987. It was after meeting Tom that Elisabeth took a degree in English Literature at King’s College, London and began writing in earnest, with Tom’s constant encouragement. She also studied for a PhD on the preservation of self in women’s biographical literature and taught at King’s College London and Royal Holloway.
Elisabeth’s non-fiction, included a guide to social services. She also wrote fiction for children. Her adult fiction was influenced primarily by racism, dysfunctional families, psychoanalytic theory and social and financial inequality. She was a committed socialist and hoped to see significant changes in the distribution of property and the abolition of public schools and their charity status. She also supported assisted death.
She died after a long illness and is survived by her brother Charles and by Jonathan, her son from her first marriage. Tom predeceased her in 2007.
Elisabeth Russell Taylor: born May 14, 1930. Died September 1, 2020.