In the acknowledgments at the end of this book Nicola Beauman tells us that this biography was authorised by the late John Taylor and she was to quote from all published and unpublished copyright material. Because of the sensitivity of some of this material, which included a cache of letters between Elizabeth and her lover during the first years of her married life, which John Taylor was aware of, she felt 'it was inappropriate to publish the book while he was still alive'. The author also tells us that she submitted the manuscript to John and Elizabeth's son and daughter who were very 'angry and distressed' about the book and have asked to be disassociated from it.
This situation must pose a dilemma to any biographer. Nicola Beauman had permission from John Taylor to write this biography but as it has been some fifteen years in the making, one assumes that the children were perhaps not told of this projected book by their father or were hoping that perhaps it would never happen. This is pure conjecture on my part.
So what does a biographer do?
A few weeks ago I attended a play The Fascinating Mrs Inchbald at the Theatre Royal at Bury St Edmunds, a one hander, written and acted by the author. Elizabeth Inchbald was a well known actress and playwright of her time and a theme of the play was the guarding of her reputation. The point was made that the name of Mary Wollstonecraft, a friend of Mrs Inchbald, had been tarnished after her death because of the memoir written about her by her widower, Charles Godwin and that we remember more of the scandalous facts about her than anything else. It was rumoured that because of this Elizabeth Inchbald destroyed her own writings about her life so that no scandal would emerge and she would be judged on her writing alone.
Then there Edith Wharton's short story, The Touchstone which touches on the same problem. Stephen Glennard wishes to marry his beautiful fiance but is hampered by lack of money and progression in his career. However, he has in his keeping a series of letters written to him by 'the eminent and now deceased author, Margaret Aubyn'. He silences his conscience and sells these letters and then has to stand by and see their publication become the subject of a hunt to discover the identity of the man who has betrayed his past love so irrevocably.
Reputation is a fragile thing. It is always rather lowering to discover that a great writer or actor or artist, is capable of behaving just as badly as anybody else, and this knowledge can certainly alter our perception of future viewing/reading now that we know more than perhaps we should.
I would like to say straight away after reading this portrayal of Elizabeth Taylor that much though the writing of this book may have caused the family distress, it is clear to me that Nicola Beaumann has a huge admiration and love for their mother's writing and has given us a portrait of this writer that clearly reflects this. I found it a very personal piece of writing and rather unusual in style for a biography as the author allows us into her reaction and feelings almost all the way through. There are plenty of asides, comments and footnotes (which I have to be honest, I felt were rather too numerous at times), but my feeling is that Nicola Beauman was trying very hard to be scrupulously fair towards her subject and (I am once again making an assumption) that as she had very restricted access to papers and documentation, she had to rely on perhaps second hand sources and wanted to make quite sure that she entered a caveat if she could not confirm a fact with 100% certainty.
The picture which emerges from this biography is that of an intensely private woman, who after the end of her love affair, at the request of her husband, then becomes the perfect wife and mother, living a life of domesticity in the country and writing sitting in an armchair in the living room, always available and liable to constant interruption. Because of her reticence and lack of involvement in the literary circles of the time, she was viewed by other contemporary women authors with disparagement and rather dismissed and it seems that Olivia Manning and Pamela Hansford Johnson were particularly unkind.
"What did not help was that Elizabeth's perceptions, her interests, her awareness were essentially feminine; then there is her reticence, the domestic subject matter, the lending library aura that surrounds her work, the Thames Valley settings, the being married to a sweet manufacturer....the assumption that her work is predictable...one could go on.
And as for her style...........too many reviewers found it too feminine, missed the humour, missed the bleakness, could only see the subject material was domestic and then condemned the entire oeuvre as minor, certainly incapable of greatness"
Nicola Beauman, as we all know, is the founder of Persephone which specialises in the republication of books by mainly women authors, who have fallen out of favour so therefore she is going to be sympathetic towards books written in such a setting as quoted above. When we look at the range of authors who fall into this so called 'domestic' category, Susan Glaspell, the much maligned Dorothy Whipple and Elizabeth Cambridge, to name just a few, we can only marvel at the dismissive way they have been treated. The fact that Elizabeth Taylor is still published by Virago perhaps gives us a clue that she is not so middle class and boring as one would believe.
I have not read a great deal of Elilzaneth Taylor, but what I have read I enjoyed though perhaps some of the subtleties of her writing may have passed me by. With this book under my belt, with its helpful synopses of her short stories and themes in her novels, I am certainly going to revisit them. One I do remember very clearly is Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, a portrayal of loneliness and fear of old age among a group of residents at a hotel, which was the book that made me realise that here was a writer worth reading. It is still my favourite.
"Will she at last be bracketed with Elizabeth Bowen and Rebecca West and Rosamond Lehmann as one of the most important writers of the last century.......? Will the tide turn? I can only hope so and one day, when the tide does turn she will be the Elizabeth Taylor".
On the face of it the title of this biography refers to the fact that the subject of the book shared her name with The Elizabeth Taylor, the Hollywood film star, but I also wonder if the author is referring to the fact that there might be another personality hidden under the face that the writer presented to the world, one that she kept carefully hidden and a one which is protected by her children?
I doubt if we shall ever know, but I think Nicola Beauman has written a warm and sympathetic book which has clearly been a labour of love and produced under difficult circumstances.