A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor

I am woefully out of sync with the novels being read every month for the Elizabeth Taylor Centenary; A Game of Hide and Seek was last month’s book. I read everyone else’s reviews with jealousy; they had all thought it was brilliant, and I really felt like I was missing out. As such, I packed this with me for my holiday and I read it in one scorching afternoon while I sunbathed on the beach. I devoured every page with a greed that was insatiable; writing this good, characters this alive, emotions this raw, are rare in fiction. Elizabeth Taylor wrote with a fearlessness that I admire immensely. She mercilessly reveals the hidden secrets, fears, griefs and disappointments that pulse underneath each of our skins, capturing the darker side of human existence in words that are submerged deeply in the sadnesses that flow beneath all of our lives. However, her books don’t leave the reader with a bitter taste in the mouth;  Taylor has a wickedly funny sense of humour and a magnificent talent for capturing the absurd, both of which remind us of the joy and pleasure to be found amidst the realities of navigating our path through life. Of all the novels of hers I have read, which is a fair few now, I think A Game of Hide and Seek is her finest. It’s simply heartbreaking, in so many ways.

Harriet and Vesey have known each other since childhood. Harriet’s mother and Vesey’s aunt are best friends, once suffragettes who were imprisoned together and now neighbours in a countryside backwater. Harriet’s mother had great plans for her daughter, wanting her to take advantage of the freedoms she and Caroline had fought so hard to win for her generation. Unfortunately, Harriet turns out to be a disappointment; a shy, nervous girl, not very academic and not particularly ambitious, there is no chance of her going off to university or having a brilliant career. As such, when she reaches 18, Caroline offers to have her in as a tutor to her children over the summer; this will prove to be a fateful decision. Caroline’s languid, fanciful and overconfident nephew Vesey, a budding actor, has been sent for a stay in the country, and Harriet instantly falls passionately in love with him. During the course of the next few weeks, they spend more and more time together, culminating in a trip to a ruined house. Here they share a chaste, awkward kiss that will cement Vesey’s hold over Harriet’s heart and mind for the rest of her life.

At the end of the summer, Vesey is sent packing to university and Harriet is left to nurse a broken heart. She gets a job in a ‘gown shop’ (definitely not a dress shop), where her colleagues are a rapidly ageing set of unhappily single women, delighting in ribbing each other over their latest young men and advising on the best methods of removing facial hair. Harriet is miserable, feeling stifled in the uneventful life she sees no escape from. When Charles, a staid solicitor fifteen years her senior, starts taking an interest in her, she allows herself to be attached to him. Giving up her dreams of Vesey, she marries Charles and settles down to the life of a respectable home counties housewife, producing a fine daughter and managing the smooth running of an enviable home. However, Harriet has never forgotten Vesey, and when he reappears after a long absence, a failed actor, crumpled, lonely, and still in love with her, everything starts to fall apart…

This is absolutely heartbreaking, gut-wrenching stuff. Harriet marries Charles because she is afraid of being alone; Vesey goes off to become an actor because he is running away from himself and any sense of responsibility. Both of them love one another, but neither are brave enough, wise enough or mature enough to make it work when it matters, and the gnawing pain of knowing that they have left it too late is agonising to read. Harriet and Vesey live empty lives, neither of them able to achieve what it is they long for. Harriet wanted passion to give her life meaning; Vesey wanted to be loved and adored. They could have had it from one other, of course, but they were young and inexperienced and scared and it was too much to ask when they were free to pose the question. As such Harriet married Charles, and Vesey joined a theatre troupe, and so twenty years pass uneventfully, effortlessly. Harriet has found a measure of happiness in her daughter and her home, her friends and her daily routine, but it is not enough, not nearly enough. When Vesey reappears, he ignites in her the passionate dreams of her youth, and everything she has turns to dust and ashes. Taylor is brilliant at displaying their yearning for one another, their desperation, and also their bewilderment at how everything managed to become so different from what they had dreamed. She is also fantastic at drawing some excellent supporting cast members. Harriet’s fellow sales girls in the shop are wittily and sympathetically drawn, providing some real laugh out loud scenes. They display the alternative for girls like Harriet if they failed to catch a husband, which gives us a better understanding of why Harriet made the decision she did. Kitty, Harriet’s rather tragic friend, is haunting; a figure of great sadness and disappointment who, like Harriet, married the wrong man. The best of the lot, though, is Charles’ poisonous mother, a former actress for whom all of life is a performance, and every woman a rival. She needs a novel of her own.

I really can’t recommend this enough. A darker Jane Austen for the 20th century, Taylor writes exquisite, sharp, tightly focused novels that show the unsavoury underbelly of domestic life. One of my favourite lines from the entire novel is her description of how mothers tire of family holidays after the first few days, already thinking of the washing they’ll have to do when they get back. This sums Taylor up perfectly; realistic, pragmatic, shamelessly unromantic. This is life, and she doesn’t dress it up for us. The fantastic, ambiguous ending of A Game of Hide and Seek echoes this attitude too; there is no such thing as a neat and tidy happy ending in life – there will always be things unsaid, ties left loose. Taylor is brilliant, unique, and criminally underread. I really can’t understand why. If you haven’t tried her yet, start with this. You won’t be disappointed. Afterwards, watch Brief Encounter, which has to be the ultimate in cinematic portrayals of forbidden love and I should think that Taylor must have seen it. I imagined Harriet as Laura, all respectability with her little shopping basket and Boots’ library books, until she locks eyes with a handsome stranger in a station tea room…

20 comments

  1. By virtue of a total coincidence and having nothing to do with Elizabeth Taylor week, I am reading this book right now. I left off only to catch up on some blogs etc. Rachel, as usual you are right on target with your assessment. This may well be her best of many brilliant novels but you will have to excuse me now. I need to get back to my reading.

  2. Brilliant review – you’ve brought back every wonderful word of that book. I can’t wait to re=read Angel now – even though I think it’s my least favourite of her books.

    1. Thanks Ali! Angel was my first Taylor – I read it years ago now – and I found it so utterly strange and mesmerising that I knew Taylor was going to be a special voice. I hope you’ll enjoy it more the second time around. Have you seen the film, by any chance?

  3. Fascinating — I love everything of ET’s that I’v read, a fair few like you, but this was definitely not my favourite. I think that’s what so great about her novels — different ones appeal to different tastes. In case you’re interested, A Wreath of Roses is my current favourite, but that could change!

    1. Yes absolutely – I have definitely enjoyed some Taylors more than others, though I think all of her novels are brilliant in their own ways. I am yet to read A Wreath of Roses – though I’m looking forward to getting it now you’ve said it’s your favourite!

  4. what a fantastic review! made my reading of this book an absolute necessity – im obviously totally in the minority here but i havent read a single ET – no, not one – so unless you advise differently i will start with this one!

  5. I’ve got to hold my hands up and confess that I’ve never read anything by Ms. Taylor, but after reading this review of yours, Rachel, as well as one other book of hers you had reviewed a couple of months back, I definitely must add her name to my list of must read authors and/or books.As always, thanks for sharing and for having such wonderful taste in literature, and expressing your enthusiasm for these great books and these great authors.

    1. I’m glad that you want to give her a go, June – this one is definitely a good place to start. I hope you can find something of hers in your local library! Thank you for your lovely compliment – I do my best!🙂

  6. Really? I found this book a frightful bore. The characters are limp and only a quarter drawn. There is little insight into people, no profound thoughts going on, very little of anything. Betsy is especially tedious and malformed as a character. Vesey is hopeless and so is Harriet. No one talks to anyone, no one feels anything much and no one thinks anything at all. An utterly pointless book and exercise in reading. Humour? Well no, I didn’t find much at all. I have read this book, A wreath of roses, and Angel. I only liked Angel, which in fact I loved. A wreath of roses was again turgid and stuck in mud. I think I shall not bother with any more Elizabeth Taylor. She picks the most boring characters and then writes about them in the most boring and depressing un-lively, un-lifelike way imaginable. Her books just die on their feet.

    Also, a book ‘review’ is not a synopsis. The book is quite spoiled for people who haven’t read it when you give a plot summary. A review and synopsis are quite different. Reviews are what most people are looking for, not spoilers.

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