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Betty Coles became Elizabeth Taylor upon her marriage in 1936. Her first novel appeared in the same year, 1945, as the actress Elizabeth Taylor was appearing in National Velvet and began her ascent to stardom. Meanwhile, over the next thirty years, ‘the other Elizabeth Taylor’ lived and worked in Buckinghamshire and published eleven more novels and four volumes of short stories.
Elizabeth Taylor would have greatly disliked the idea of a biography and destroyed most of her papers in the last months before her death in 1975. She kept the original notebooks into which she copied the second draft of her novels. She kept letters of any obviously literary significance (from other writers, from her publisher). And of course she kept letters from her family. But an enormous amount was thrown away. She professed to be, and wanted to be seen as, a very private person, and would have abhorred the biographer’s intrusion into her personal life. She anticipated its horror in a 1969 short story called ‘Sisters’. This is about Mrs Mason, who has led a life of impeccable respectability and few disappointments, ‘nothing much more than an unexpected shower of rain, or a tough cutlet, or the girl at the hairdresser’s getting her rinse wrong.’ Then she is visited by someone writing the biography of her rackety sister. ‘He had small, even teeth… They glinted, like his spectacles, the buttons on his jacket and the signet ring on his hand’; as he tries to tease out revelations he settles back in his chair ‘clasping his ladylike hands’. But ‘during all the years of public interest, Mrs Mason had kept her silence, and lately had been able to bask indeed, in the neglect which had fallen upon her sister, as it falls upon most great writers at some period after their death’. Although she gives little away to the biographer, she never-theless feels shaken and exposed. A 1972 reviewer of the collection in which this story appeared wrote that it ‘suggests the kind of betrayal and violation described by Henry James in The Aspern Papers.’
Indeed it does, and it was to fend off this violation that Elizabeth threw so much away. She wanted to preserve the reputation built up so assiduously of the Home Counties wife of the sweet manufacturer to whom nothing much, ‘thank heavens’ ever happens, who managed out of her imagination to write her heartfelt, emotionally charged novels about anguish, loneliness and despair. After she died her remaining papers were sold; she had also insisted that her correspondence with the writer Robert Liddell, which had been a long, extremely intimate one, should be destroyed, and this he apparently respected. But many would agree with the critic John Carey when he expressed the wish that the letters ‘had fallen into less scrupulous hands’, adding that Robert Liddell’s account (in his book about Elizabeth and Ivy Compton-Burnett) of ‘the pleaures he has no intention of sharing with us strikes an unfortunately prim and possessive note.’ Hilary Spurling, Ivy Compton-Burnett’s biographer, who saw the letters relating to her, also thought that the destruction of the letters meant Elizabeth ‘will not now have the reputation she otherwise surely would have had as a great letter-writer.’ But Robert Liddell insisted that ‘her chief wish was that noth-ing should survive that could hurt anyone about whom she had been funny – and very funny she was’ – and that he had to respect this.
However, in 1936, Elizabeth had met Ray Russell, a young man of her own age who was a fellow member of the High Wycombe branch of the Communist Party. They fell in love. And as important as their affair, over the next twelve years, during four of which Ray was a prisoner of war in Austria and Elizabeth was a young mother at home in High Wycombe, she wrote him some of the most remarkable letters of the twentieth century. What she did not realise, or we have to assume she did not realise, was that the letters still exist. It is these letters that allow us to understand her development as a person and as a writer.
So the question accompanied the writer of this biography through-out the long haul – is the intrusion justified? The answer has to be that it is, and for the following reason: modern literary biography throws light on the work and leads the reader to a deeper understanding of it. A selective chronicle of the writer’s life might be pleasant but it would be completely irrelevant to the twenty-first century. For the last forty years literary biography as a genre has been, above all things, an attempt to be accurate. To leave out the truth, if it can be established as truth, is simply not possible.
Not possible, and also disastrous for Elizabeth’s reputation. She was one of the most important English novelists writing in the middle years of the last century; and yet has not been considered as such. A literary biography which describes her influences, her milieu, her working methods, how her work was received, can only enhance the way her work is perceived; and the discovery of five hundred extraordinary letters, a hitherto unpublished novel, and several unpublished short stories, is part of this process.
Certainly, the name did not help. And Elizabeth’s perceptions, her interests, her awareness, were essentially feminine; unfashionably, she was a miniaturist Then there was her reticence, the domestic subject matter, the lending-library aura that hangs round her work, her slightly unmemorable titles, the assumption that her work is predictable instead of full of surprises. And although she was a modernist, she was not seen as one: too many reviewers found her style too feminine, too domestic, and then condemned the entire oeuvre. The Other Elizabeth Taylor tries to give this marvellous novelist her due while describing her life as truthfully as possible.
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