Desperate Reader’s enthusiastic review of The Blush by Elizabeth Taylor a few weeks ago sent me to the tbr shelves to grab my own copy. I’m sorry to say it had been languishing there since 1994. I’ve certainly proved the worth of my tbr shelves this year. This year of buying fewer books has been studded with the discovery of books I bought so long ago with every intention of reading immediately but, only now, after reading a review or suddenly being seized with an enthusiasm for the author or period, getting around to reading them. Elizabeth Taylor is an author I’ve read with great enjoyment over the years. I’ve read several of her novels, At Mrs Lippincote’s is an especial favourite, but although I have a couple of volumes of her short stories on the shelves, until this year I haven’t read many short stories. I always thought I wasn’t a fan although I seem to have collected quite a few volumes. Like many fellow bloggers, I find it almost impossible to leave a Virago in a second-hand bookshop & The Blush was one of these. I often choose short stories as my lunchtime reading at work & last week, I read The Blush.
Desperate Reader highlighted Perhaps A Family Failing as her favourite story & I certainly agree that the picture of a disastrous wedding night was funny & tragic. I found the picture of the bride, reading women’s magazines to find out how to be a wife so sad. Her pathetic insistence on all the proprieties during their courtship, keeping him at arms length, conducting the whole relationship as instructed by Women’s Own was heartbreaking. The wedding was everything, the reason for the relationship. She hadn’t given a thought to what came after, apart from buying a chiffon nightie to tempt her husband on the honeymoon. She thought that would guarantee the success of the marriage. Did these two people know each other at all?
My favourite story was The Letter Writers. Emily, a spinster living in an English village, has been writing to Edmund, a writer living in Rome, for years. They’ve never met until now, when he’s visiting England & proposes a visit. They’ve built up an image of each other & of their lives & Emily is apprehensive about meeting him. She lives her life in anticipation of writing to him. Incidents of village life become amusing stories for her letters. Even when she visited Rome, she had avoided seeing him, unwilling to break the spell. As she prepares for his visit, Emily remembers their wonderful correspondence. She becomes almost frightened of the meeting, they know each other so well yet not at all,
‘He knows too much about me, so where can we begin?’ she wondered. She had confided such intimacies in him. At that distance, he was as safe as the confessional, with the added freedom from hearing any words said aloud. She had written to his mind only. He seemed to have no face, & certainly no voice… She had been so safe with him. They could not have wounded one another, but now they might.
This story was based on a relationship Taylor had with a young writer, Robert Liddell, who lived in Greece. They were both apprehensive about meeting after a long, intimate correspondence. Luckily, they liked each other in person as well as on the page. Emily & Edmund’s meeting isn’t as successful as Emily descends into small talk & confusion, not helped by her cat eating the lobster that was destined for lunch. There are several cats in these stories. Elizabeth Taylor was obviously a cat lover & knew the havoc they can wreak.
I enjoyed reading these stories & if you’re a lover of the middlebrow short story, I’d recommend The Blush. If you would like to explore Taylor’s short stories in more depth, I can also recommend Nicola Beauman’s biography, The Other Elizabeth Taylor. As well as a fascinating biography of a very private woman, Beauman concentrates on the short stories as they have been very little written about in the critical works on Taylor.