by Elizabeth Taylor, introduction by Caleb Crain
Peter Davies, 1951, Virago, 1986,NYRB, 2012
Reviewed by Seana Graham
I knew of the novelist Elizabeth Taylor long before I ever read her. This is because the Virago Modern Classics imprint, with its iconic dark green jackets, was quite devoted to bringing Taylor’s novels to light again in the 1980s. And though there may be some disadvantages to sharing a name with one of the most famous 20th century celebrities, lack of name recognition isn’t one of them.
The title that got me on to actually reading Taylor some years later was Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont. Not long after, it was made into a movie, with Mrs. Palfrey played by Joan Plowright, but my own reading of the book was purely an impulse. I was struck by Taylor’s descriptive powers and moved by this sad tale of the end of a life spent in a cheap hotel, which was enlivened a little, but only a little, by an unexpected friendship.
A Game of Hide and Seek, reissued more recently by New York Review Books, is an earlier novel and describes an earlier period of her characters’ lives,though loneliness and quiet desperation are themes here too. Despite the title’s metaphoric meaning, it begins with a quite literal game of hide and seek, which two very young adults are engaged in playing to entertain some younger children. Harriet and Vesey are poised between childhood and a more sophisticated adult awareness of attraction:
“They could not run fast across those uneven fields; nor did they wish to, since to find the hiding children was to lose their time together, to run faster was to run away from one another. The jog-trot was a game devised from shyness and uncertainty. Neither dared to assume that the other wished to pause and inexperience barred them both from testing this.”
They do somehow manage to stumble into each other’s arms at last, but not for long. Vesey is only a guest in his aunt and uncle’s house and he is not very well understood by anyone but Harriet. His aunt finds him a troubling influence on her young children, and in the brutal yet largely unconscious way that adults can sometimes arrange the affairs of younger people dependent on them, they abruptly decide to send Vesey home. Thus the pair is rent in two before they can articulate their feelings, and the rest of the novel describes the long shadow that this decision casts.
In reading this book with an online book group, I found that several people wondered, “What does she see in Vesey?” while others asked, “But what does Vesey see in her?” Vesey is a complicated and self-protective person who does not announce his true feelings to Harriet even when it might have saved everyone a lot of grief. Harriet is a quiet young woman who does not feel herself to be destined for the greater things in life that Vesey does at the novel’s outset. But I found the sympathy between them, which comes not just from this one summer but from having known each other since childhood, to be consistently and convincingly expressed.
Because she is not brilliant at school, Harriet ends up working in a shop, largely, it seems, to fill the void left by Vesey.In contrast to the muted portrayal of her central characters, Taylor’s descriptions of minor characters is often lively. Of the shopgirls, Taylor writes:
“Their hours were long, so they spared themselves any hard work, filched what time they could; went up to elevenses at ten, were often missing while they cut out paper patterns, set their hair, washed stockings, drank tea. Nothing was done in their own time that could be done in the firm’s. They were underpaid, so they took what they could; not money in actual coins, but telephone calls, stamps, boxes of matches, soap. They borrowed clothes from stock; later when they were marked down as soiled, they bought them at the staff-price, a penny in the shilling discount.”
There are many wonderful observations in this novel even if you don’t happen to care about the romance of Harriet and Vesey–though I’ll be the first to admit that I did.