Elizabeth Taylor Centenary

I spend a lot of time talking about under-read and underrated mid century women writers. There is a great deal of injustice in the literary world, and sadly women have borne the brunt of it. The magnificent writing of the likes of Dorothy Whipple, Dorothy Canfield, E M Delafield, Elizabeth Taylor, Enid Bagnold, Winifred Holtby, Elizabeth Bowen, Marghanita Laski and Rosamund Lehmann, just to name a few, has been largely forgotten, despite acclaim and popularity during their lifetimes. Most of them went out of print until the advent of specialist feminist publishers Virago and Persephone, who quite rightly have brought many of their novels back into the light of day. It is easy for those of us who read off the beaten path to assume that these novelists are widely known, but unfortunately the vast majority of average readers would respond with a puzzled look at the mention of their names, and their books are not exactly flying off the shelves.

Only Elizabeth Taylor would probably get a nod of recognition, followed by confusion over just what sort of books Elizabeth Taylor managed to write in between making her films. Nicola Beauman didn’t call her biography of this remarkable, stylish and rather viciously honest portrayer of ordinary humanity The Other Elizabeth Taylor for nothing; sharing a name with someone so stratospherically famous can be rather a curse. I only discovered Elizabeth Taylor through stumbling upon the world of book blogs while googling the title of an old book I had bought; otherwise, I am sure I would never have independently come across her writing and if I’d seen a book by her in the shops I’d have assumed it was by the film star. She was never mentioned in any of my English lessons at school, nor was she in any of the academic texts I read for university. I consider myself to be well and widely read, but the vast swathes of middle class women writers who were producing beautifully wrought works of art during the early to middle years of the 20th century just hadn’t ever crossed my path until I found the book blogging community. So, when I read my first Elizabeth Taylor, Angel, which I found in a charity shop, I was blown away. So much elegance, so much finesse, so much malicious, poisonous rage seething under the surface of such controlled, polished writing. Who was this woman, and why wasn’t she celebrated as the genius she most certainly was?

I’ve since read more of her books, though Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is the only one I’ve read since starting blogging, and each has been as phenomenal as the last. This year would have been her 100th birthday, and to mark the occasion, the Virago Modern Classics group on Librarything are reading all of her books in order of publication over the course of the year. Laura of Laura’s Musings has brought this readalong into the blogosphere by asking bloggers to ‘host’ one of the books, and I am delighted to say that I shall be hosting the reading of Palladian next month. If you’ve never read any Taylor and I’ve managed to pique your interest, please do consider joining in. Palladian is in print and  it’s also available for the Kindle for those of you who have embraced the digital age. I won’t be posting about it until mid to late February so there’s plenty of time to get yourselves ready – no excuses!!

44 comments

  1. I did wonder when I first started blogging and saw Elizabeth Taylor mentioned how she managed to write so many novels in between husbands!

    I was soon corrected but I have yet to read one, I can see me having to look out for one of the books and giving her a go.

    Thanks always Rachel for the points in new book directions.

    1. I know! It’s like when I thought Vera Brittain was Vera Lynn…she could sing AND write?! Oh my ignorance!😉

      Jo you must try her – don’t read Angel first though because it’s not very typical. I’d go for Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont or At Mrs Lippincote’s.

  2. Lovely post, Rachel, and thank you for promoting the Elizabeth Taylor Centenary Read on LibraryThing! As you know about the Virago Modern Classics Readers page on FB, if you are interested, I think it would be excellent if you could post your Virago related topics there as well! As always, your blog is a delight to read and I’ve enjoyed your ‘transition’ from that fabulous year in NYC to your adventures in returning home.
    Warm Regards,
    Cate

    1. Thanks Cate, it’s my pleasure to be taking part! I will indeed come over and post links on facebook, to make sure as many people can take part as possible.

      Thank you so much – how lovely of you to say so and I’m so glad you’ve been enjoying reading along! x

  3. I love Elizabeth Taylor – so far I have only read 6 of her books as well as Nicola Beauman’s biography of her – and I am so looking forward to reading the rest of her novels. I will be joining the librarything Virago group reading Palladian in February. Thanks for this lovely piece about a sadly overlooked writer.

    1. ‘Only’ read 6 books, Ali?! I think that’s more than most of us! I’m really glad you’ll be reading Palladian and I hope you’ll come by and share your thoughts!

  4. The world of book blogs (particularly yours!) is doing such great things for raising awareness about these writers. I stumbled across Elizabeth Taylor a couple of years ago when I read ‘Slipstream’ – the memoir of Elizabeth Jane Howard who knew her and describes her work in terms of the highest praise – but your blog has piqued my interest in so many incredible writers I had never even heard of. I am currently enthralled by Elizabeth von Arnim and Elizabeth Bowen. And I’m incredibly lucky to work in a University Library that actually keeps copies of most of the works I read about on your blog – my ‘to read’ piles have grown larger than ever! I know you are hoping to focus in on some Classics this year but I just wanted to say how rich and rewarding it has been reading along with you in what I guess is more the margins of the established ‘Canon’ – each new author has been like discovering another little sparkling gem.

    1. Thank you Posy – and you have reminded me that I must read Elizabeth Jane Howard. I have never opened one of her novels and I am sure I would like her writing, as she was so closely linked to other authors I love.

      I am SO glad to hear I have encouraged you to read Von Arnim and Bowen – two magnificent authors indeed. Have you read To the North yet? My goodness, my heart still skips a beat when I think of it.

      How lucky you are to have such a rich resource at your fingertips – I’m so pleased for you!

      Thank you so much – what a lovely thing to say and I am very touched – it’s a pleasure to spread the word about great literature to those who truly appreciate it!

      1. Oh you MUST read EJH! Start with her Cazalet books if you can (I think the order is: ‘The Light Years’, ‘Marking Time’, ‘Confusion’, and ‘Casting Off’). I read them all straight through one summer and fell in love with them, the characters and the time – I felt truly bereft when I got to the end of the last one! They are set from just prior through to just after WWII and are such a fascinating and intimate portrayal of the period.

  5. I’ve only read the one book of hers so far – In a summer season, but loved it enough to acquire about four more, but I’ve not been moved to read them yet. Knowing it’s her centenary, might do the trick as I’m sure I’ll love them too.

    1. Oh Annabel, I do that with loads of authors. Elizabeth Taylor has been a victim too – I haven’t even touched the surface of my collection of her novels! Hope you find the time to pick a couple up this year!

  6. Hi Rachel, I didn’t know it was the Elizabeth Taylor centennary or that there was any related blog activity, so thank you for this… I will seek out a copy of Palladian. I really enjoyed In A Summer Season and At Mrs Lippincott’s, but could not get into A View of the Harbour so will look forward to hearing Simon T’s view on that.

    I agree with Posy, you and others have opened a whole new world of sparkling gems to me. I had absolutely no idea of any such novels apart from those in the “established canon”. Some of my favourite discoveries are those of Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Von Arnim, Elizabeth Bowen, Elizabeth Taylor, FM Mayor, EF Benson, Ann Bridge, Stella Gibbons, Rose Macauley, Ada Leveson, Nancy Mitford, Marganita Laski, Elizabeth Goudge, Winifred Holtby, Vita Sackville West. (I freely admit a very strong bias to British authors.)

    1. You’re welcome Merenia and I’m so glad you’ll be joining in!

      It’s been such an education, being part of the book blogging world. I have also discovered so many wonderful authors and I will be eternally grateful for it! I’m so pleased you too have benefited and had your reading life enriched!

  7. Wonderful! I just got Palladian for my Kindle. I read and loved At Mrs Lippincote’s last year and am ready for more Elizabeth Taylor. I had never heard of her before reading reviews on book blogs, including yours…another very nice discovery.

  8. Oh happy day! I was under the impression that discussions would take place on the first of the month and knowing I’d never have Palladian finished (it’s not even started) I thought all was lost. But this later date is fabulous news, Rachel…count me in! I’m really interested to discover just how reminiscent of Jane Eyre this book really is.

    (Just got into A House in Paris by Bowen today and I’ve been swept away already)

    1. Oh goodness no Darlene, I’d never have had the time either! End of the month it shall be and I will be delighted to have you! Me too – I have heard that it parodies a fair few novels so we will have to see what references we come up with!

      Ooooh can’t wait for your review…it’s next on my Bowen reading list!!

  9. Like others, I thought Elizabeth Taylor was the esteemed actress, until you introduced her, Rachel, though I have yet to invite her into my home. I’ll try to remedy that soon. I’ve learned of so many authors I might not have otherwise known of through you and have been amazed at all the wonderful, and wonderfully well-written bookish blogs.

    1. It’s a joy to spread the word Penny and I’m so pleased you’ll be willing to try her out. Book blogs have been such an education for me too – my life is richer for them!🙂

  10. I am a big fan of Elizabeth Bowen, but have not read the other writers you mentioned, though I have heard of all of them. I will start with Elizabeth Taylor since so many readers recommend her books. I really enjoyed this post and am inspired to read all of the women writers you mentioned. Bringing attention to these talented writers is very important!

    1. I’m always delighted to hear of Elizabeth Bowen fans! I’m so pleased this post has inspired you to go off in search of these authors…I promise you won’t be disappointed!

  11. I love Elizabeth Taylor, and indeed all the other women you mention here. I’ve read quite a few of ET’s novels but did not know it was her centenary — must see what else remains and get reading soon.

    1. Oh Harriet, you have such impeccable taste! Glad to hear you’ll be reading along…I am still at the very beginning of Taylor and am excited about all the books of hers I have to read!

  12. I’m excited to be reading more Elizabeth Taylor this year, even though I have so far failed to read the January book, and don’t have Palladian – but I will leap into action hosting March’s read of A View of the Harbour! I find ET easier to admire than to love (with the exception of Angel, which I both love and admire ardently) but I am intending to change that this year, and end up loving her all the more!

    And, dear Rachel, what was the book you Googled which led you to the blogosphere??

    1. Me too! March is a good month to start things anyway – springtime and all that. I hope by the time you’ve hosted you will have fallen in love!

      I THINK it was Tea with Mr Rochester. I didn’t even like it that much, but look what it led to!

  13. Well said, Rachel!
    Although I’ve read the authors you’ve mentioned, I hardly know E Taylor. Treats in store.

    For me, the first half of the 20th century produced the best writers we have, far outshining the likes of… (I’d better let you fill in the gaps) whose recent novels seem over-praised and lightweight. And when they are made into films I really despair.

    I think I’ll start with Angel, as Simon T seems so keen.

    1. Thanks Chrissy! I quite agree – there is so much richness to be found in that period and it’s so disappointing that it’s largely ignored!

      Angel is a bit ‘out there’….maybe you might be better with At Mrs Lippincote’s to start?

  14. I’ve long wanted to read Elizabeth Taylor and I even own a few of her novels, but I’ve never found the right time to try her. I think this may be the time! Reading along with a group of people always inspires me to read novels that I otherwise would not pick up. Thanks for offering us this opportunity!

    1. I own loads too Anbolyn and just haven’t read them, so I’m pleased I’ve been given a kick up the backside! Glad you’ll be joining in – I look forward to the discussions!

  15. I only discovered this website last Sunday evening, then rushed to pick out my old Virago copy of At Mrs Lippincote’s and started to reread; haven’t quite had time to finish it before end of January but Palladian has arrived from Amazon today (first time I’ve ever paid more than £2.99 for an ET novel and I’ve been reading her for nearly 20 years). On third reading, Mrs Lippincote is better than ever, small nuances and connections noticed for first time give pleasure and reinforce my admiration for this wonderful craftswoman. Criggall

    1. Hi Claire, glad you have discovered me, and just in time to read Palladian along with us, too! I am yet to read At Mrs Lippincote’s – I missed the boat for the January readalong – but I am going to be reading all my Taylor’s this year for the Centenary and I can’t wait to read it after what you’ve said! Look forward to hearing your thoughts on Palladian!

  16. Like Claire, above, I was even more impressed with my re-read of At Mrs L’s than I was with my first reading of it (I liked it well enough and it sure didn’t hurt ET’s status as one of my Must Read Everything authors, but didn’t remember loving it either). So I’m now quite looking forward to re-reading Palladian next month to see what I missed in it the first time around. In theory, I’d like to read through each of her works as the group reads along in the year, but of course the best reading plans have the occasional hiccup, right? But I’m definitely in for February: thanks for hosting!

    1. Oh of course – I am playing catch up already as I missed At Mrs Lipponcote’s. I can’t wait to read that after what everyone has said about it! I have amassed loads of Taylors but haven’t read any in years…need to address that pronto! I’m so looking forward to the Palladian read and to hearing everyone’s opinions!

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