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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

AT MRS LIPPINCOTE’S by Elizabeth Taylor

When I grow up, I want to be Elizabeth Taylor. Not the film star, the oddly underappreciated English novelist.

Well, maybe I don’t want to be her, she died in 1976 for one thing, but boy, would I like to write like her. Even just a little bit like her.

I say she’s underappreciated, but that’s probably the wrong word – it’s more that she is not as widely known and read as she should be. For those who have read her books, she is unanimously highly regarded.

Looking at the reviews in this edition she is lauded by several of my other favourite authors, Elizabeth Jane Howard, Anne Tyler, Jilly Cooper and – one of my all-time literary heroines – the goddess Rosamond Lehmann.

Even that famous misogynist Kingsley Amis (father of the more attractive Martin) rated her so highly he called her ‘One of the best novelists born in this [20th] century…’

This is only the second of her books that I’ve read. As I said in an earlier post, after reading In A Summer Season, I was so astonished by the luck of coming across such a distinguished author with ten more novels still to read, I decided to eek them out like a box of very special chocolates.

I made the mistake with Barbara Kingsolver of reading all her novels in one great guzzling, right after The Poisonwood Bible and I think I wasted some reading pleasure in the process.

So I won’t even allow myself to buy another Elizabeth Taylor for a while, lest the temptation should prove too great. In the meantime I have been trying to emulate her style.

As an exercise I wrote my last short story using the omniscient point of view, which I think Taylor does better than anyone else I’ve ever read.

This means that the story unfolds equally through the eyes of all involved, as if related by an all-knowing narrator, who describes how each person experiences a situation and what they think and feel about it.

From sentence to sentence the viewpoint can change from one character to another.

It’s a form aspiring authors are advised to steer well clear of, because it's technically hard to pull off (as I discovered when I tried it...) Omniscience can also give the book a pompous tone, which stops the reader developing the close relationship with the protagonists that the first person – which I have written all my novels in, so far – promotes.

What Taylor manages so extraordinarily well, is to be all knowing and all seeing about her characters in this way, without ever seeming like a superior being.

Rather than giving the impression of some omnipresent deity hovering over the action, as some male Victorian novelists do, she makes you feel she is inside the head of whichever character’s point of view she is conveying. And she can switch from an eight year old girl to a Wing Commander without missing a beat.

There is no sense of her judging her characters, just the keenest observation of human fraility - and virtue - exquisitely and succinctly conveyed. As a result, her characters are subtly vivid - quite a feat.

This is her first novel and while I didn’t find it quite so swooningly marvellous as In A Summer Season, I did love it. There are sentences and phrases in it which made me want to clap. They made me thrilled to be alive – and able to read.

They probably won’t work in isolation, but I marked these two, as so concisely evocative of the stuffy suburban house to which an RAF family have been billeted, just after World War I:

‘Golden privet was unremitting in its attempt to cheer.’

‘Summer rain darkened the rooms entirely; not only the sheets of rain, but all the dripping foliage as well. The house seemed glued up…’

The house seemed glued up. I was so excited by that phrase when I found it, I hugged the book to my chest.

So, to those of you who are yet to read a novel by Elizabeth Taylor, I commend her to you, but I would read In A Summer Season first.

PS I have just remembered another thing which delighted me in this book. Two of the characters discover that their share a love of Charlotte Bronte's less well-known novel Villette - one of my favourite ever books.

It's the first time I've read someone else expression this opinion, which I fervently share:
'Jane Eyre is NOTHING to Villette,' he observed.

Reading satisfaction: 9
Un-put-downable-ness: 4
Recommend to best girlfriend: 10
Recommend to mother: 10
Recommend to niece: 9
Recommend to gay best friend: 8
Recommend to man pal: 8
Recommend to Helen Razer: 9
Read on public transport: 10

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