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Back in her day as a writer, encompassing the years between the 1945 publication of her first novel, At Mrs. Lippincote’s, and the 1976 posthumous publication of her last novel, Blaming, Elizabeth Taylor enjoyed acclaim as one of Britain’s finest postwar fiction writers. These days, however, her work has suffered neglect, and for Taylor to have lost any degree of popular and critical attention is, in a word, shameful.
Fortunately, New York Review Books is stepping up to the plate to win Taylor new readership and regard. This new selection of her short stories follows the publisher’s recent reissue of two of Taylor’s most highly regarded novels, A Game of Hide and Seek (1951) and Angel (1957). What emerges from this gathering of 29 stories is not only a restatement of Taylor’s prowess as a subtle social satirist but also the primacy of short fiction within her oeuvre. These stories, selected by esteemed British novelist Margaret Drabble, herself a witty and discerning chronicler of middle-class social mores, were drawn from Taylor’s four original collections, Hester Lily (1954), The Blush (1958), A Dedicated Man (1965), and The Devastating Boys (1972).
Taylor has indicated in interviews that her favorite writer was Jane Austen, whose back-of-her-hand familiarity with her patch of county England was matched by Taylor’s second-nature understanding of her own backyard, which was village life in the Thames Valley. Quiet, unsensational, but at the same time never fusty, her stories reveal a keen eye for the foibles of the middle class living in relatively comfortable circumstances. Her perception has been applauded by critics since the beginning of her career; she creates her characters with both gentle humor and sympathetic pity, which attracted readers during her lifetime and should attract new readers today.
Her short stories are undeserving of the label “delicate,” which, as a pejorative, has often been thrown in their direction. To the contrary, Taylor’s fiction demonstrates a quick, sharp vitality, appropriately delivered in a greatly economical style, which pleases with its brevity, clarity, and avoidance of overworked images and metaphors. In fact, her style so perfectly matches her milieu that it is transparent, and for that reason, her fiction will remind contemporary readers, in its subtle accuracy, of the work of Alice Munro.
It may seem a small factor initially, but readers of her short fiction will soon appreciate her brilliance at opening lines, which certainly is an asset in immediately bringing readers into the narrative, which in turn is an asset for the necessary speed with which short fiction must attract and deliver. Take, for example, the first two lines of “The Benefactress”: “Four widows lived in the almshouse beside the church. On the other side of the wall, their husband’s graves were handy.” The story that is thus introduced is about two village women feeling sorry for each other, each one believing her attitude constitutes charitable work. A subtle story premise, yes, but the execution is flawless.
The opening line of “Flesh”—“Phyl was always one of the first to come into the bar in the evenings, for what she called her aperitif, and which, in reality, amounted to two hours’ steady drinking”—finds Taylor visiting her customary characters as they behave in ways predictable to them but, on this occasion, in a foreign land. In this story, an affair threatens to ensnare a middle-aged married woman who goes on holiday with the purpose of getting her stamina back after surgery. The result is a typical Taylor amalgam of humor and understanding.
“Tall Boy” is an interesting story that opens with this line: “This Sunday had begun well, by not having begun too early.” Jasper, a West Indian, lives an isolated existence in one of the most populous cities in the world, London. His story takes readers away from traditional Taylor territory, but the insight she exercises is typical. For instance, about Jasper, she says, “Poverty from the earliest days—which makes some spry and crafty—had left him diffident and child-like.”
It is hoped that Taylor will soon emerge from her years of neglect, and this collection’s exhibition of her mastery can only aid in the resurrection.
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