A few months ago I attended the Elizabeth Taylor day at Reading library with my friend Liz. It was a very good day, but as I said at the time the elephant in the room was this book. Although Nicola Beauman had permission for this book from John Taylor, Elizabeth’s husband, her son and daughter and some of her friends, notably Elizabeth Jane Howard, (who spoke that day) were very angered by it.
In this chronologically arranged biography of Elizabeth Taylor’s life and work, Nicola Beauman has written with affection, understanding and honesty. Although a great friend of Elizabeth Bowan, Ivy Compton Burnett and Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Taylor didn't really move in literary circles - she didn't attend the sort of events that many other contemporary writers did. She mainly stayed quietly at home, and was a wife and mother first, a writer second. Nicola Beauman asks the inevitable question, had Elizabeth Taylor been a writer first, would she have been a greater writer than she was? And did her name play a part in her having been so overlooked. For she has been overlooked, both by the literary establishment of the time - despite many really excellent reviews by other well thought of writers - and as a great English novelist since her death. For example Olivia Manning inexplicably loathed her work (as did others) and was often quite vicious about her. Elizabeth took any criticism terribly to heart, and it frequently led to her doubting her own abilities. She was short listed for the Booker prize for Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont in 1971 but failed to win any awards during her life.
Of course at the centre of this biography, and what makes it controversial, for some, are the extracts from letters between Elizabeth and her lover Ray Russell. Elizabeth Taylor married in 1936, and later at the end of the 1930’s she became friends with Ray Russell, they later became lovers. They corresponded for years, and when her husband told her it had to end, she ended it. Her family were very important to her, they came first. However she continued to write to Ray, though they didn’t meet again. Sadly it seems that Ray always loved her, and the view we have of him, presented to us by Nicola Beauman, is of a sad old man never reaching his full potential, he married late, and never got over the one great thing that happened to him. Elizabeth Taylor was a wonderful letter writer, many of the letters she wrote to others were destroyed long ago as were her instructions (she too would have hated this biography) but many of the letters to Ray Russell survived, and they show us how even in private she was a gifted, emotional writer.
While reading I couldn’t help but put myself into the shoes of Joanna Kingham and Renny Taylor, Elizabeth Taylor’s daughter and son. If Nicola Beauman had been writing about my mother (who is a similar age to Joanna Kingham) I would have been enraged, and offended. One thing that I hadn’t picked up on last time I read this book, leapt off the page for me this time. Nicola Beaman tells us that Elizabeth knew David Blakely – the man murdered by Ruth Ellis the last woman to be hung in England. She suggests that Elizabeth Taylor may have been slightly attracted to him; he was a man who seemed to attract older women. He is apparently the basis for the character of Dermot in In a Summer Season. I found this fascinating but had Elizabeth Taylor been my mother – I have found the following slightly offensive.
“Finally, Elizabeth – ironically and savagely – used herself as a model. She knew that despite the public persona of the well-behaved housewife to whom not much ever happened, she had a streak in her, indeed more than a streak, of the angry, obsessive, ruthlessly focused egotist. Privately she may not have set herself apart from Ruth Ellis the year before: one of the reasons for her anguish may have been that she thought, there but for the grace of God…”
Yet, for the enthusiastic reader of Elizabeth Taylor, this biography is a must, it is utterly compelling and the Elizabeth Taylor, who emerges from the inevitable shadows that all biographies leave behind them, is a woman I like enormously.