Elizabeth Taylor’s Novels: Where to Begin, Which to Reread?

At Mrs. Lippincote's by Elizabeth Taylor

English author (not the actress) Elizabeth Taylor (1912 – 1975) published seventeen books: four collections of stories, one children’s book, and twelve novels. If you’re just discovering this under-appreciated author and wondering where to begin or considering a reread, here is a glimpse of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels.

She’s “not like most novelists,” Elizabeth Jane Howard observes; she’s “one in a thousand: how deeply I envy any reader coming to her for the first time.”

In Contemporary Novelists, Elizabeth explained her process: “I write in scenes, rather than in narrative, which I find boring. I am pleased if the look of a page is interesting, broken by paragraphs or dialogue, not just one dense slab of print.”

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At Mrs Lippincote’s (1945)

At Mrs. Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor

It was Mr Lippincote’s house too, but Elizabeth Taylor is keenly interested in women’s lives. Here we have the Davenant family—Roddy and Julia, with their son, Oliver—moving into this house with “every comfort,” near the RAF base where Roddy works.

With them is Eleanor, Roddy’s cousin and an unmarried school-teacher, who tries “not to behave like a spinster in a book.” Julia, unsatisfied with married life and with conversations “about butchers and laundries” with other wives, prefers to discuss the Brontës with the Wing Commander.

Paragraphs of dialogue outnumber expository passages, and the novel is a pleasure to read but poses a bolder question: what can this intelligent and ambitious woman expect from this world, beyond a Mrs Davenant’s house?

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Palladian (1946)

Palladian by Elizabeth Taylor

Cassandra arrives at Cropthorne Manor to be a governess, but she has “nothing to recommend her to such a profession,” beyond a “proper willingness to fall in love, the more despairingly the better with her employer.”

Bookish readers will relate to Cassandra’s struggle to reconcile her bookish expectations with her reality. Taylor’s Palladian, compared to her body of work, is like Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey to Austen’s better-known novels, all-of-a-piece but with a sharpness and witty, peculiar darkness.

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A View of the Harbour (1947)

A View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor

Just as artwork plays a key role in Palladian, the central character in Taylor’s third novel is a painter. Bertram Hemingway is a retired naval officer, who anticipates hours spent painting the Newby harbor. It should make a “fine picture,” and indeed, Bertram’s narrative showcases the author’s appreciation of light and color.

But even more absorbing are the layers of relationships in this fishing community, where “everyone looks out for—and in on—each other.”

Her longest work yet, The View of the Harbour shifts perspectives between residents. Each character is developed meticulously and engagingly (though they’re not always likeable) and readers feel both intimately involved and isolated, as do many villagers.

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A Wreath of Roses (1949)

A wreath of roses by Elizabeth Taylor

This could have been an idyllic novel about three women vacationing in summer, but something happens when Camilla is traveling to meet her friend Liz (at Frances’ house, Frances having been Liz’s governess).

A tragedy at the railway station situates Camilla’s holiday in an unsettled state, but Taylor’s humor soothes the sinister elements.

One might say that the book is about the little things, like a hot summer in an English town, the elements of everyday that inspire Frances’ paintings: “But not little. That is life. Its loving kindness and simplicity, and it lay there all the time in [her] pictures, implicit in every petal and every jug [she] ever painted.”

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A Game of Hide and Seek (1951)

A game of hide and seek by elizabeth taylor

When they were children, Harriet and Vesey entertained the younger children with hide-and-seek, always hiding together, in the hayloft. To have hidden independently would have seemed a betrayal: they committed to each other in the simplest terms. All of the children in Taylor’s fiction are remarkably credible.

When they are separated while Vesey attends Oxford, Harriet takes a position in a gown shop to distract herself from his absence; perhaps in search of a more permanent distraction, she marries another man.

When Harriet and Vesey reconnect—accidentally and enthusiastically—in middle-age, dynamics shift. This is quintessential Taylor territory: commitment and compromise, disappointment and desire, what we hide and what we seek.

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The Sleeping Beauty (1953)

The sleeping beauty by Elizabeth Taylor

In her introduction to Virago’s 1983 reprint of Taylor’s sixth novel, Susannah Clapp extolls the author’s “careful and unreverent documentation of middle-class life.”

Taylor, Clapp says, writes about “people who are comfortably off and who feel uncomfortable.” Isabella is the epitome of uncomfortable, when Vinny arrives to comfort her, in the wake of her husband’s death.

When Vinny meets Emily, this new relationship takes precedence: Clapp writes that “he is within a smile of being a cad.” Isabelle occupies her time with Evalie and something-like-normal resumes, so their talk “skimmed along, chocolates were chosen from the box, tea drunk, sherry sipped.”

Grief plays a role, but more important is what Clapp describes as the “daily piling-up of small losses or small lies.”

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Angel (1957)

Angel by Elizabeth Taylor

A particular delight for readers with an interest in writing and publishing, Angelica Deverell is a prolific and successful romance writer. Inspired by two biographies about popular English novelist Marie Corelli (one by Eileen Bigland published in 1953 and the other by Amanda McKittrick Ros published in 1954), Taylor considers the relationship between invention and desperation.

The worlds that Angelica Deverell’s characters inhabit are lush and extravagant; in one way, the world she inhabits as authoress is also like that, but, in another, her world is barren and lonely.

What and how we create, how we retreat into fantasy, the dreams we harbor about romance: Angel could be viewed as a cautionary tale, but Taylor’s characterization of Angelica makes it more complicated than that. Film buffs take note: Angel was filmed in 2007, directed by François Ozon and starring Romola Garai.

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In a Summer Season (1961)

In a Summer Season by Elizabeth Taylor

Kate’s second marriage is to a man ten years her junior; also occupying the Herons’ home are the children from her first marriage (her twenty-two-year-old son and sixteen-year-old daughter), an elderly aunt, and a cook.

Relationships revolving around each household member are of interest, but at the core of the novel is the triangle between Kate and Dermot and Charles—an old family friend whose arrival (with his daughter) disrupts the family home.

Taylor’s eye for detail and ear for dialogue make easy reading of dysfunctional family life: “In the summer, white jasmine made the dark flint walls less gloomy.”

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The Soul of Kindness (1964)

The soul of kindness by Elizabeth Taylor

In contrast to Angel, Taylor’s ninth novel focuses on several characters once more; in that sense, it’s more like A View of the Harbour, but with fewer shifts. At the core of the story is the Secretan mother-and-daughter pair, and the novel opens with the daughter’s wedding.

Flora and Richard recall other married couples in Taylor’s fiction, including her debut, whose expectations and reality collide also. But here the focus is on how people build and break key relationships, not only marriages.

One member of the cast who stands out is Miss Folley, the housekeeper (who brings to mind Mrs Parsons, Frances’ charlady in A Wreath of Roses, and Mrs Curzon, Harriet’s hired help in A Game of Hide and Seek).

How we maintain our homes, small comforts and small ceremonies: The Soul of Kindness is rich with character and the thematic reverberations reward a close reading.

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The Wedding Group (1968)

The wedding group by elizabeth taylor

The charwoman in this novel is the “only sign of life” in the communal “world of women” that Cressy inhabits. One of the women there tells Cressy that she has “a wicked little head on those young shoulders” and Cressy hears the echo of her mother’s disapproval there too.

When she ultimately leaves the commune and works in an antique shop, Cressy appears to move toward independence. When she meets and marries David, whose relationship with his mother is tedious and demanding, Cressy trades her fledgling independence for another form of dependence.

Fascinating for its portrayal of power and its complex shifts in agency, this is one of Taylor’s most uncomfortable novels. 

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Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (1971)

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

A suitable companion for Cressy’s story, with its theme of independence, this novel features Laura Palfrey as she is taking up residence with other elderly women (and a single man) at the Hotel Claremont. In the dining room, the other residents “look as if they had been sitting there for years” as they anticipate their celery soup.

In this scene, Mrs Palfrey appears to fit outwardly. But readers know that she does not, and soon the evidence—in the form of a handsome, young writer named Ludo—is clear to other residents too.

Delicately and deliberately constructed, this portrait of aging is invigorating and deservedly lauded. This novel has also been a BBC Book at Bedtime, and a film, directed by Dan Ireland in 2005—from a screenplay by Ruth Sacks Caplin written for television in the 1970s—and starring Joan Plowright.

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Blaming (1976)

Blaming by Elizabeth Taylor

Written and edited after Taylor’s cancer diagnosis and treatment, it’s unsurprising that this slim novel deals with grief. At the forefront, however, is a complicated friendship that erupts and develops after Anne’s husband dies on holiday.

Martha’s assistance is useful in the immediate aftermath, but the women struggle to maintain a connection after Anne returns to England. Questions of responsibility and disassociation, guilt and denial, feature prominently in the novel.

And despite its heavy themes, Taylor’s use of dialogue (particularly with the children) and her astute social observations make this posthumously published novel a rewarding read.

On the back of the 1995 edition of A View of the Harbour, this blurb appears from Anne Tyler: “Jane Austen, Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Bowen—soul sisters all.” If you’re looking for a soul sister to add to your bookshelves, look no further.

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Contributed by Marcie McCauley, a graduate of the University of Western Ontario and the Humber College Creative Writing Program. She writes and reads (mostly women writers!) in Toronto, Canada. And she chats about it on Buried In Print and @buriedinprint


More about Elizabeth Taylor on this site

5 Responses to “Elizabeth Taylor’s Novels: Where to Begin, Which to Reread?”

  1. I don’t usually read short stories, i find them unsatisfying. But The Colonels Daughters by Elizabeth drew me into her glorious world and I’ve since read many of her novels. The CD’s was thr set book for an access course back in the 80s. We picked it to pieces. The humour was delicious. I wonder if you’ve read it? Thank you so much for sharing your collection with short synopses, Lovers of women’s literature will I trust enjoy them as much as we have.

    • Hello — all of our site’s Elizabeth Taylor articles were contributed by Marcie MacCauley, so I have to admit I haven’t yet delved into her work. Marcie has ready a lot of it! I do have her on my to-read (or to-listen list and hope to get to her sooner than later.

      • Thank you! you’re right, they’re not very professionally narrated. Also you seem to have to claim to have a reading disability to access them.
        I wonder if this outfit bought the rights, which is why Audible can’t produce them? Because they would be snapped up! I’ve listed to all the Barbara Pyms on audible and just wish my other favourite author was available!

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