Elizabeth Taylor’s Short Stories

There, lurking in the sub-consciousness of some writers, is The Template. The wiring in their brains keeps producing the same story, or attempts at trapping ‘that’ story.(Secondary dictionary definition of Template: biochemistry:the molecular pattern governing the assembly of a protein etc.)

There are others who have this characteristic – and I shall be going through their work too – but Elizabeth Taylor is a prime example.Like a trainee surgeon or forensic examiner, the author continues to examine the same situation again and again, from all angles.

The short stories of Elizabeth Taylor inhabit the safe world of the Home Counties couple,usually childless, with a commuting husband (London,Lloyds, of course);the dependable ‘help’ from the village; the glass of whisky and the totally unoccupied wife.Page 141, “She had nothing to do all day but keep herself cool.”
Or, page 154, “Is it because they’ve never had children, I wonder? The glamour wasn’t worn off by all those nursery troubles. All their love kept for one another.”

It is ironic that William Maxwell, at the New Yorker sent her a telegram “I don’t suppose you could give us the recipe for ‘Perogative of Love’ so we could pass it around. Then we’d really have a magazine.” (12th August 1959.)

More: page 280 “She was keeping the house beautiful for Eric’s first leave.”

We are let in, via the French windows, into the drawing room, like tamed spies.Totally puzzled as to the dates, I thought we were in the time of Katherine Mansfield, and sure enough she turns up in Summer Schools, her ‘Journal’ covered with dust.(Katharine Mansfield is 1888-1923, Elizabeth Taylor is 1912-1975; their paths almost crossed.)

We are in the village territory of Agatha Christie but without the drama of a murder or two or the thrill of the chase, and no denouement. All the drama is underground, or in infinitesimal phrases.
And then the shock begins.

Don’t read these stories if your New Year’s Resolution was to give up drink. References to drink abound.Eventually they took up all my attention – in these pages, viz:(well, in fact I’ll scatter them in between other paragraphs, as they are overwhelming otherwise.)
The only other contenders are hollyhocks, which appear often, constantly in bloom.It is amazing; am I the only person who has noticed this? Agents,editors, publishers, reviewers, critics- no one picked it up?

18-beer,22-pint, a nice brown,30-beer,31-beer,40-midday champagne, 41 -so much champagne; champagne, 43- whisky;whisky,44 -champagne,46-champagne;champagne 48 -mild& bitter, 49-a pint, 50-beer 54- brown ale, ginger beer, 55 -sherry, 56- brown ale 60 -cocktail parties, 61 -cocktail parties,
67 sherry;sherry, 68-wine,sherry,wine,70 sherry;sherry, 71 wineglass, 95-wine,

104-port,106-gin and orange, 107-stout,109-port,

And then – bingo! Action! The passive wife runs to the rescue of the gypsy woman who is being beaten, in “Husbands and Wives.” In contrast, when her own husband, Eric, appears on leave (nineteen forties)they have a “serene pleasant evening …listening to the gramophone, supper by the fire, with chops and a little omelette laced with rum.”(No comment.)

With a wonderful coup de theatre, Elizabeth Taylor twists this ending by having the wife burst into tears when Eric says that their minds were like brother and sister, close, sympathetic and nothing could ever part them. The wife’s tears -another childless marriage-are provoked by this contrast with the intensity of the gypsies’ relationship and the shocking violence it contained.She has encountered something outside her normal range of emotion and has bravely defended the children in the night.

111-gin, 119-bottles clinking, 120-gin, 123-vodka,

The exceptions to the recipe? “Spry Character” is a lively, wonderfully fleshed-out sketch of a blind old man who keeps his independence. It shows just what Elizabeth Taylor could achieve when she let herself off her self-imposed leash. This is a sharp-and morally complex – story, far beyond the Middle England niceties of most of the others.

130-sherry, 135-sherry,dry martini,gin, 136-sherry, 137-dry martini, sherry, 142-wine, 144-drink, 147-drink, 148-gin, 149-gin, 150-claret, 151-kirsch!
159-bitter, 164-beer, 166-sherry, 167-lager,Bass,light ale, 174-gin, 177-brandy, 189 -brandy (medicinal), 190-brandy (ditto),

The Devastating Boys, where the black child, Benny, misunderstands what a ‘help’ is – here Elizabeth Taylor is laughing at herself and her like. Almost the only story without any named drink in it.

217- two hours’ steady drinking, 218-half bottle of rose, 225-light ale, 226-gin & tonic, 232-a bedroom gin

Sex is a no-go area. 249 “Once in bed, they had always been safe,” and it is the next-door couple in the Hotel du Commerce who have a disturbing and tempestuous night, with its repercussions.And, in Summer Schools it is not admitted about, by or between the two whether sex has taken place, but on page 101 “her own squalid – though hazily recollected – escapade” Ursula tries to exclude the remembrance. Her sister sits up in bed reading a volume of Keats’ letters. Romance comes in second-hand, filtered through reading.Spinster sisters or close friends drift into a dead spinsterhood, empty and lax.

In The Dedicated Man a couple “lay every night side by side in twin beds, they were always decorous in their behaviour, fanatically prim.” This tale, of a couple who are pretending to be married as part of their hotel job, is a bizarre version of avoidance.

In the one romantic assignation, “Flesh” the holiday affair (“and the drinks were so reasonable”) is scuppered by Phyl’s throbbing sunburn “her flesh was on fire,” and Stanley’s gout “his foot burned so that he thought it would burst.” They have different experiences of that night – she wakes only once “It was the best night’s sleep she’d had for a week.” Stanley, on the other hand, wakes several times during that night.But they do have the advantage of some bedroom gin.

237-sherry parties, 238 sherry, 245-sherry,
259-sherry,”There was no wine. No one drank anything alcoholic, that I remember.Sherry was kept for trifle, and that was it, and the new world of cocktail parties was elsewhere.” You can feel the condemnation -and the strain- here.

290-whisky, 292-whisky, 301-sherry, whisky;whisky,
305-whisky;whisky,312-whisky, campari, brandy, 316-brandy;brandy (medicinal), 318 ‘no spirits or beer. Just sherry’;sherry 326 Guinness,
328 -“Do you still drink as much? he asked in a polite voice.” 331-port, 333-stout, mild, beer.

I have left some out here and there,references to wineglasses, bottles, cocktail cabinets, and several visits to pubs or bars.In three stories the woman owns or works in a bar. The same characters and settings reappear constantly,giving a detailed portrait of a small corner of England in the years during and just after the 1939-45 War.”Oddments of drab-coloured wool- a great deal of khaki left over from the war.”
Four collections of short stories and twelve novels make up her fiction.And, strangely, she had two children and worked as a governess and in a library; it’s not autobiography in these mischievous stories.

With thanks to Dangerous Calm – 21 selected stories of Elizabeth Taylor, edited by Lynn Knight, 338 pages, Virago 1995.

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