Review: The Other Elizabeth Taylor, by Nicola Beauman

The Elizabeth Taylor in this biography was a British novelist (1912-1975).  Although she was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize (for Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont), to the average reader she is a complete unknown.  I discovered her work through Virago Modern Classics, and she quickly became a favorite author.  So this year, to celebrate the centenary of her birth, I thought I’d learn more about the life of this talented, but very private, woman.

This is a classic chronological biography, beginning with Taylor’s childhood and her secondary school education at the best school for girls in Reading, her home town.  Beauman shows how Taylor developed as a writer, even as she also became a wife, a mother, and even a mistress.  She was dedicated to writing even as she juggled these other roles, but it wasn’t until she was 32 that her first novel was published.  From that point on she had a lucrative career with twelve novels and a considerable number of short stories, many of which were published in The New Yorker magazine.  Despite her success, she never wanted to play the game expected of authors, making public appearances and so on.  This probably cost her some fame, but allowed her to stay a devoted wife and mother, which she valued highly.  Still, Taylor’s career had a certain arc.  Her first few novels were considered her best, and the 1960s brought a shift in public sentiment where readers gradually began seeking out other authors with more modern points of view.

I was pleasantly surprised by this book.  All too often, biographies are dry, factual accounts.  Nicola Beauman’s thorough research infused this biography with real people and emotion.  In the course of her research she was able to meet with a man who had been Taylor’s lover in the 1930s.  He never stopped loving her, and Beauman’s meeting with him was quite touching.  Beauman also successfully conveyed Taylor’s emotions during difficult periods, like when her later work attracted negative reviews.

By the end of this year I will have read all of Elizabeth Taylor’s twelve novels.  I plan to use this book as a reading companion, returning to it with each novel to remind myself of what was happening in Taylor’s life at that time, and of how her life experiences influenced each book.

11 thoughts on “Review: The Other Elizabeth Taylor, by Nicola Beauman

  1. I am quite drawn to non-fiction but it’s rare to want to hug a book to my chest once I’ve finished reading it. Nicola’s sensitive treatment made me do just that. I loved this book and have returned to it again and again to rediscover Taylor’s thoughts on certain titles. An absolute must for anyone who admires Elizabeth Taylor’s writing!

    • Darlene, I agree this was a “sensitive treatment” of Taylor’s life, and a “must read” for Taylor fans. I understand her children were not at all pleased with it, which is so unfortunate.

    • BIP, I have most if not all of her short story collections and would definitely like to read them, but will probably save them for next year. I don’t want to overdo it this year and besides, once I’ve read them all, I’ve read them all, and then what will I do? (I know, re-read, but … so many books …)

  2. I loved this biog of Elizabeth Taylor I thought it was very honest and that Nicola Beauman did a brilliant job at bringing her to life for us. The meetings between the author and Elizabeth Taylors former lover were obviously poignant and illuminating.
    This book made me want to read more of Elizabeth Taylor’s work.

    • Ali, I’m glad you enjoyed this, too. I was a bit worried about spoilers because the biography discusses certain plot elements from her novels, but after a while it got all mixed up in my head so I think I’ll be OK when I get to those novels later this year. I think reading her work chronologically will map nicely to the bio and provide some unique insight.

  3. I’m curious about how her point of view was not “modern” and thus fell out of favor in the 1960s. Could you elaborate? Thanks!

    • Amy, Taylor’s early books were published just after WW II, and portrayed a slice of British society during that time period. The 60s ushered in radical social change, which made her stories appear old-fashioned to some readers. Hope that helps clarify!

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