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.

Review: A Book of Secrets, by Michael Holroyd

In A Book of Secrets: Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers, Michael Holroyd unravels the lives of three early twentieth century women, and joins them together through loose connections to Ernest Beckett, the second Lord Grimthorpe, and his Italian residence, the Villa Cimbrone.  If this sounds a bit obscure, well, it is.  Holroyd set out to write “not so much a traditional biographical narrative, but … a set of thematically related stories” about three interesting, if lesser-known, women.

The first, Eve Fairfax, nearly married Beckett after the death of his first wife.  Beckett commissioned a bust from the French sculptor, Rodin, but was ultimately unable to pay for the work.  Eve’s reasons for refusing Beckett are unclear.  She spent most of her life in poverty, living off various friends and lugging around a huge book in which her visitors composed pithy thoughts.  The second woman, Catherine Till, believes herself to be the illegitimate daughter of Beckett’s grandson.  Holroyd accompanied Catherine on a research project at the Villa Cimbrone.  And finally, there is Violet Trefusis, the best known of the three.  An author who had a notorious affair with Vita Sackville-West, Violet was likely Beckett’s illegitimate daughter, the result of his affair with Alice Keppel (later the mistress of King Edward VII).

Each woman’s story is interesting in its own right, as is the allure of Villa Cimbrone and the many literary figures and society members who graced its halls.  As a fan of Virago Modern Classics, I especially enjoyed reading Violet’s story.  Holroyd presents a fairly balanced picture of the woman and her controversial romantic liaisons.  On the one hand I felt sorry for her, forced by her family to marry a man and cover up her lesbian relationships.  On the other hand, her arrogant, controlling nature made her a less sympathetic figure.

I was also intrigued by Holroyd’s attempts to assemble a coherent history, when in fact many trails go nowhere, DNA evidence is not available, and there are no tell-all documents or definitive sources.  And then there’s the theme of illegitimacy, which manifests itself in various ways:

Illegitimacy is a word with several meanings. Ernest’s wife Luie was to die in her twenties producing a legitimate heir to the Grimthorpe title. Eve Fairfax was illegitimate in the sense that, not marrying Ernest, she lost her legitimate place in society. Her Book is a unique testament to the enduring pride that kept her afloat. And then there is Ernest’s extraordinary illegitimate daughter Violet who, exiled from England, was to compensate for her outcast state by claiming the King of England as her father. Such fantasies were a balm for the pain of lost love. But fact and fantasy are held in subtle equilibrium in the best of her novels, which may yet find a legitimate place in European literature for the name Violet Trefusis.

Holroyd’s style, mingling traditional biography with personal experience, results in an engaging book which will appeal to anyone who enjoys English history and literature.

Review: Flush, by Virginia Woolf

This is not your typical Virginia Woolf.  Written as a light break after finishing The Waves, Flush is a “biography” of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel.  Drawing on Browning’s writing and other details of her life, Woolf imagines the life Browning’s dog must have led.  Being Flush’s life story, it is told entirely from his perspective.  His life began in the country, and he moved to London when Flush went to live with Elizabeth.  He adjusted to the confines of city life, and bonded with his new mistress.  But when Robert Browning began to call on Elizabeth, Flush felt excluded and jealous:

He resolved to meet his enemy face to face and alone. No third person should interrupt this final conflict. It should be fought out by the principals themselves. On the afternoon of Tuesday, the 21st of July, therefore, he slipped downstairs and waited in the hall. He had not long to wait.  Soon he heard the tramp of familiar footstep in the street; he heard the familiar rap on the door.  Mr. Browning was admitted. Vaguely aware of the impending attack and determined to meet it in the most conciliatory of spirits, Mr. Browning had come provided with a parcel of cakes. … Flush sprang upon his enemy with unparalleled violence.  (p. 67)

Flush gradually came to terms with Elizabeth’s relationship, survived the hazards of nineteenth-century London, and accompanied his owners to Italy when they married.  There he discovered new smells, and new types of dogs.  And when a baby arrived, he once again had to adjust to changes in the family.

A book like this is often dreadfully cute and silly.  But Flush is written by a master, who loved dogs and had a brilliant way with words.  The result is a delightful balance between fiction and non-fiction that makes for a delightful read.

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Review: Eleanor of Aquitaine, by Alison Weir

Eleanor of Aquitaine was one of the most powerful women in 12th-century Europe. Heiress to a vast region of what is now France, she was first married to Louis VII of France and, later, to Henry II of England.  As Queen of England, she founded a long line of monarchs who ruled England and many other European countries for centuries to come.  As Alison Weir writes in this biography:

There were then, as now, women of strong character who ruled feudal states and kingdoms, as Eleanor did; who made decisions, ran farms and businesses, fought lawsuits, and even, by sheer force of personality, dominated their husbands. … The fact remained that the social constraints upon women were so rigidly enforced by both Church and state that few women ever thought to question them. Eleanor herself caused ripples in twelfth-century society because she was a spirited woman who was determined to do as she pleased. (p. 4)

The unfortunate reality is that most written history is focused on men and their achievements. Weir pieced together evidence from contemporary sources in an attempt to illuminate the life of this “spirited woman,” but this book was much more about Eleanor’s actions as they related to her husbands and sons, and their quest for dominance of feudal society.  Weir portrays Eleanor as strong and intelligent, and the men as violent, power-hungry philanderers.  She fails to explain why Eleanor would work so hard to preserve their power.  Reading this book increased my knowledge of Henry II, his sons Richard and John, and the constant power-brokering of that age.  Eleanor was present throughout, always on the scene and sometimes playing a role in negotiations.  But who was she, really?  What motivated her?  How did she feel about being separated from her children, sometimes for years at a time?  I was hoping for more insight to Eleanor as a person, but I suspect there just isn’t enough evidence to produce a comprehensive portrait.

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