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.