So although I am not a big fan of short stories, I decided to read Taylor’s Complete Short Stories, and ,amazingly, have found them richer and more graceful than her novels.
This is the centenary of Elizabeth Taylor’s birth, and the English press has beaten the drums for her. Every reviewer of The Complete Short Stories avows that “she is not as widely read as she deserves” (The Guardian), is “claimed to be the most underrated writer of the 20th century” (The Telegraph–but I think “claimed” says it all), and “her work …did not secure what most writers truly covet: fair public acknowledgment” (The Irish Times).
I’m not sure she is neglected, as I found pre-Virago editions of her books in the ’80s in an American public library, and talked at a party to a man (ok, he was a book reviewer) who said she was his favorite writer.
Nonetheless, The Complete Short Stories is a find, revealing a much wider range than the novels.
In the opening novella, “Hester Lilly,” Taylor tips her hat to Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome. Both Taylor and Wharton describe triangular relationships involving a married couple and a cousin who comes to live with them.
Taylor describes the strain on a marriage when Robert, a headmaster, and Muriel, his neurotic wife, feel obligated to invite a young homeless cousin to live with them. Muriel dreads the arrival of Hester, who has lost her father and written countless obsessive letters to Robert. Muriel, who has not been allowed to read them, has observed what she considers Robert’s “guilty love” in response.
And she is not far wrong.
When Hester arrives, unthreatening and awkward, Muriel briefly deceives herself about her emotions.
I will take her under my wing, Muriel promised herself. The idea of an unformed personality to be moulded and high-lighted invigorated her, and the desire to tamper with–as in those fashion magazines in which ugly duckling is so disastrously changed to swan before our wistful eyes–made her impulsive and welcoming. She came quickly across the hall and laid her cheek against the girl’s, murmuring affectionately. Deception enveloped them.”
Robert knows otherwise. He knows his wife. And she tortures Hester subtly.
Hester is naive, terrified, and confused. She didn’t pay attention at secretarial school, her shorthand is execrable, and now she must work as a secretary to Robert. She doesn’t know how to talk to men. But she does flirt with Robert, and no wife could like it. When Muriel confronts Hester, saying she knows about her love and it is to be expected at her age and will soon be gotten over, Hester falls apart.
There is even a broken china scene, reminiscent of the scene in Ethan Frome in which Mattie breaks Zeena’s favorite china. But “Hester Lilly” is a less obvious story than Ethan Frome, and Taylor pulls invisible strings to manipulate characters who have more options than Ethan, Zeena, and Mattie. They are not stuck in New England, thank God! (But Hester’s fate seem a bit…no, I won’t say it.)
Taylor writes comedies, too. In “Summer Schools,” two unmarried schoolteacher sisters who live together fall out over a summer trip. Ursula has been invited by an old friend, Pamela, to visit her in London, and the jealous sister, Melanie, who also knows Pamela, can’t understand why she hasn’t been invited, too. Melanie decides she won’t stay home with the cat, and will attend a conference on 19th-century literature (there was a talk on Trollope that I’d like to attend).
The vacations don’t turn out quite as the sisters think they will. The people they meet aren’t who they thought they’d meet. But each sister deals with it in a unique way.
One of the lighter stories is “The Thames Spread Out.” Periodically the river floods, and Rose, a former secretary who lives alone, enjoys looking out over the flooded field from her solitary house. Although the downstairs of the house is flooded, she is serene. She is relieved that Gilbert, her former boss, who now supports her, will not be there for the weekend. The rest of the week she is alone.
With the world quiet around her, she makes tea on her primus stove, and everything is a joy to her. She loves seeing her neighbors rowing a boat over the flooded fields from the train. She doesn’t know her neighbors and has kept to herself over the years,because she doesn’t want anyone to know she is Gilbert’s mistress. But an encounter during the flood with two neighbors changes her perspective.
I’m halfway through the short stories, and somehow I’m reminded of the brilliant William Trevor.
If you’re looking for middlebrow cozies, these stories won’t fit the bill. (Though some of her novels do fit into this category, I think. But feel free to disagree.)