International Women’s Day is celebrated on Tuesday March 8.In honour of the occasion we are highlighting the work of the British novelist Elizabeth Taylor, described by Antonia Fraser as “One of the most underrated writers of the 20th century.”
Born in Reading, Berkshire the daughter of Oliver Coles, an insurance inspector, and his wife, Elsie May Fewtrell, Elizabeth was educated at the Abbey School, reading and then worked as a governess, tutor, and librarian. She married John Taylor, owner of a confectionery company, in 1936. They lived in Penn, Buckinghamshire for almost all their married life. She was briefly a member of the British Communist Party, then a lifelong Labour Party supporter.
Taylor’s first novel, At Mrs. Lippincote’s, was published in 1945 and was followed by eleven more. Her short stories were published in magazines and collected in four volumes. She also wrote a children’s book.
Taylor’s work is mainly concerned with the nuances of everyday life and situations, which she writes about with dexterity. Her shrewd but affectionate portrayals of middle-class and upper middle-class English life won her an audience of discriminating readers, as well as loyal friends in the world of letters. Her fiction tends to focus on women and the constraints placed upon relationships and self-actualization by the demands of conventional, often well-to-do society. Having drawn comparison to author Jane Austen, Taylor also paid close attention to the lives and thinking of domestic workers and the working class, looking at the schism between rich and poor, and was able to convincingly showcase the inner and outer lives of children.
She was a friend of the novelist Ivy Compton-Burnett and of the novelist and critic Robert Liddell . Her long correspondence with the latter forms the subject of one of her short stories, “The Letter Writers” (published in The Blush, 1951), but the letters were unfortunately destroyed, in line with her general policy of keeping her private life private. A horror of publicity is the subject of another celebrated short story, “Sisters”, written in 1969.
Anne Tyler once compared Taylor to Jane Austen Barbara Pym and Elizabeth Bowen – “soul sisters all,” in Tyler’s words.
Though some writers and readers cite Taylor as one of the greats of 20th-century literature, some believe that she wasn’t more popular because the sensibilities of her books weren’t in vogue and she had no desire for publicity. Another theory offered is that she was eclipsed in name recognition by the actress Elizabeth Taylor, who started out in film around the same time as Mrs. Lippincote’s release.
Taylor died from cancer on November 19, 1975. Several of her novels have been reissued under the Virago Modern Classics imprint and New York Review of Books, and in 2012 Virago published Elizabeth Taylor: Complete Short Stories. Additionally, both Angel and Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont (a work shortlisted for the Booker Prize) were adapted to film in 2005 and 2009, respectively.
Said to be an intensely private person who didn’t take part in literary scenes, Taylor destroyed much of her papers, yet researchers have still been able to locate details about her life. Long-form biographies include Elizabeth Taylor (1985) by Florence Leclercq and The Other Elizabeth Taylor (2009) by Nicola Beauman.