The Blush by Elizabeth TaylorI have been having a bit of an Elizabeth Taylor “fest” this past few days: we’re reading all her novels in chronological order over in the LibraryThing Virago Group, and through that group I heard about an Elizabeth Taylor Day being run in Reading on Saturday 21 April. My good friend, Ali, and I decided to go to that, and so I read one book ahead in the schedule (A Game of Hide and Seek) so as to immerse myself in Taylor, then borrowed Ali’s copy of Mrs Palfrey, because I wanted to go to the book group discussion of it on the Day. Then I decided to read The Blush on the bus journey to the day, because obviously you can pick up short stories for a little time but put them aside if you want to read a whole novel between Birmingham and Reading, for example …

Elizabeth Taylor – “A Game of Hide and Seek”

(30 March 1994)

A re-read, but as it was originally read in 1994, I didn’t remember much, except one character reminded me of someone I knew – and they still did remind me of that person (who I still know, although not so closely!) when I read it this time round. A poignant tale of first, lost love and what happens when you “settle” but then that love comes back to get you. Marvellous cameos from the rather tragic figure of Kitty, and the shop ladies in their little feminine enclave of soup and waxing. There were some excellent mothers, too, as usual in Taylor – I adored Charles’ theatrical mother, all gestures and faces. Most poignant of all was a little meditation of the loss of an old friend in middle age. In fact, looking back at the book from a few days’ distance, all kinds of love are included here: for a son; for a mother; lost; rekindled; friendship; colleagues; pashes on teachers. Mature, devastating and mysterious of ending – a marvellous read.

Elizabeth Taylor – “Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont”


I gulped this down on the train between Birmingham and Reading; yes, I did read every word, but I have read this before, although I’m not sure when. Mrs Palfrey, a fine and formidable woman who can look like a general in drag, is installing herself at a residential hotel as the novel opens. She observes the other inmates: pain-wracked Mrs Arbuthnot, brave Mrs Burton, fighting age until the end (and at the Day we were alerted to the fact that she shares a surname with the person who to us, surely, is the “other” Elizabeth Taylor), and the others. Mrs Palfrey hopes for a visit from her grandson but when she meets a rather Iris Murdochian young impoverished writer (with yet another feckless mother), she brings him into her life – and into some degree of deception. Horrors, of course, ensue. A cast of brilliantly drawn characters seen in various environments including a scream of a party, each with their horrors and their redeeming features. Although the subject matter is depressing, the book isn’t, in an odd way that is testament to the power of the author.

Elizabeth Taylor – “The Blush”


The sticky-backed plastic covering and “Elizabeth”-era bookplate proclaim this to have been bought before I was 17 1/2 and off to University. One of the best collections of short stories I have ever read, each with a proper story, in that old-fashioned and infinitely (to me) preferable way, each deftly skewering the fears, cover-ups or pretensions inherent within the family and out in society. The first story, “The Ambush” is an amazing portrait of grief, while “The Rose, The Mauve, The White” and “You’ll Enjoy it When You Get There” both capture the agonies of youthful shyness (“‘Shyness is common,’ Rhoda’s mother insisted. ‘I was never allowed to be shy when I was a girl'”). One sentence in the latter story seems to capture the essence of Taylor (and why I love her):

“I’m afraid I don’t care for cats,” said the Mayor, in the voice of simple pride in which this remark is always made.

Elizabeth Taylor Day

Ali has captured the day beautifully on her blog but I will add a few words here. First of all, I’m very glad that Ali enthused me into coming along, and thank you, Battle Library, for a great event. It was great to meet friends from the LibraryThing group and very special to “meet” and hear from Taylor’s son and daughter. Seeing Elizabeth Jane Howard was another treat, although I don’t think I’ve read any of her books (that will soon be remedied). The day was a good mix of discussion and learning, and the book group discussions both excellent and different enough to be very valuable. I was very glad to have read Mrs Palfrey on the way down, and it was lovely to finally meet Dovegreyreader, whose blog I have been following and interacting with for a few years now.

As Simon said, Taylor seems to be the best-known “undervalued” author, regularly making lists of people who should be more appreciated. But, as was mentioned at the Day, she is, at least, reliably in print (thank you, Virago Press, although we would ALL like to see the old covers back). I found it interesting that when a rough poll was taken, about half of the 100 or so attendees were there because they were already big Taylor fans (I’ve been reading her since I was about 16), and half had been drawn in and encouraged to read her books by the event itself, so hopefully we have made some more fans along the way.