The Other Elizabeth Taylor
I was eager to read Nicola Beauman’s biography of the wonderful novelist and short story writer, Elizabeth Taylor. I’ve admired since quite by chance I picked up an old Penguin copy of A VIEW OF THE HARBOUR about twenty-five years ago in Austin’s second-hard furniture emporium in Peckham (long closed, alas). I was actually looking for a wardrobe – and I bought one too.
THE OTHER ELIZABETH TAYLOR certainly gripped me, because as well as being the other Elizabeth Taylor, a middle-class mother and housewife, married to a sweet manufacturer, she had another life as a member of the Communist party and as the lover of a fellow communist, an ten-year affair which began soon after her marriage in the early 1930s. I had no idea either that she knew David Blakely, who was murdered by Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in England.
And yet as I read on, I became ever more uneasy. There was so much speculation: ‘Elizabeth must have thought . . . Elizabeth would surely’ and so on. She was a very private person, so perhaps this was inevitable to some extent, but there was an awful lot of it. What I found even harder to take was a reference to ‘poor Elizabeth.’ The biographer’s relationship with their subject is a delicate one and in my view the biographer should never presume or patronise. I didn’t always agree with Beauman’s assessment of the novels either
The biography was authorized by Elizabeth Taylor’s husband, John, and the biographer certainly met him, yet there is a curious void where one would have expected him to be. I had little sense of him as a person and there isn’t even a photograph of him. Taylor’s children were, to use their own words, quoted by Beauman, ‘very angry and distressed’ when they read the manuscript and would not endorse it. Was this because of the book recounts extra-marital affairs on the part of both parents? It’s not made clear.
When I finished the book, I had a strange feeling. It was as if I had glimpsed Elizabeth Taylor in a mirror that had slightly distorted her.