Oh the subtle wickedness of Elizabeth Taylor. Could anyone who classifies her as cosily domestic have really read her, I wonder? Nothing much happens, some say.
This week, I began to feel that I’d been written by her.
It started after I’d been discussing one of her short stories, The Blush, with my current reading group. We up-turned a few ideas, and by reading between the lines, set some subversive ripples into play. I confess she’s near the top of my crowded list of favourite writers, so I like to feel I’ve made fresh readers go back to her for another look.
Returning home, I shifted some of the books smothering the kitchen table to my office. The tidying impulse infected me, and I put some effort into the heaps that had formed around my desk. That was when I finally found At Mrs Lippincote’s, the Christmas present I’ve been searching for since the beginning of January. It was in the useful, large, lidded box that I’d temporarily stashed under my desk.
It is now the first week of February, and that box has been blocking access to my workspace since around boxing day…have I an excuse for this implied absence from my writing place? Well, it was warmer in the kitchen, and seemed more economical to heat a shared space. So can I mitigate with some green credentials? I probably shouldn’t.
Along with the novel were several other oddments I’d half-forgotten, but would have been looking for shortly. Beneath them was the detritus that seems always to manifest in corners, those inexplicable drifts of dirt and fluff. Where does it come from?
More to the point, is it only me who doesn’t manage to control it? I’ve always marvelled at those fictional characters who inhabit huge immaculate houses. In classical fiction, of course, the space is maintained by servants. But in modern fiction, all to often the houses seem to maintain themselves.
My office is minute, yet I don’t seem to have the skills or interests to keep on top of the debris. As I read of Julia’s struggles to manage the house she and her family are renting from Mrs Lippencote, I caught mirrored glimpses of myself.
The disintegration of the house resulted from neglect, from the accumulation of jobs to be done to-morrow. Cupboards and dark corners there were which Julia avoided, which she felt she never could clear out.
How can a reader not recognise the importance of describing someone who is forced into the woman’s traditional role when they are so clearly not a natural domestic?
Written in 1945, at a point when women were about to be directed back to their homes, after many had tasted the freedoms of the workplace, At Mrs Lippincote’s is beautifully, subtly, subversive.
Discussing the schooling of his daughter with Julia, the Wing Commander says, ‘They will try to stuff her head with Virgil and Pliny and Greek Irregular Verbs.’
‘All Greek verbs are irregular,’ Julia murmured.
‘I think it nonsense. What use will it be to her when she leaves school? Will it cook her husband’s dinner?’
‘No, it won’t do that, but it will help her to endure doing it, perhaps. If she is to cook while she is at school, then there will be that thing less for her to learn when she’s grown-up: but if she isn’t to learn Greek at school, then she will never learn it afterwards. And learning Greek at school is like storing honey against the winter.’
‘But what use is it?’ he persisted.
‘Men can be educated; women must be trained,’ she said sorrowfully.
How can anyone not feel the tiny crack that Taylor creates here? I wish I’d learned Greek.
Valerie Martin, describes Taylor as ‘the thinking person’s dangerous housewife,‘ and I can’t think of a better way to think about her writing.
Interesting that you write this with an undertone of guilt, Cath. Or is it self-castigation at your perceived inability to keep on top of things. It is baffling where those clumps of fluff come from. I like to think of it as a symptom of an interesting life; one which is preoccupied with weightier matters than dust and neatness. Many of course would not agree and there are those who manage to live full lives and have debris-free corners. I can only conclude that they are superwomen who seldom sleep.
It strikes me that your writer was ahead of her time. I love the idea that learning Greek at school creates a tolerance store for enduring those mundane wifely duties for which the heroine is destined. ‘Storing honey against the winter.’ Lovely.
I confess I’ve never read Elizabeth Taylor. Can you recommend a title to start me off?
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Thanks for the fellow feeling – I don’t think it’s guilt I feel, so much as bafflement, where does time go? I can never seem to justify housework-time.
Where to start with Elizabeth Taylor? I’ve a preference for her short stories, which are quite often ‘wickedly’ funny – though you need to dig a little to see what she’s saying.
If you can find her short story The Devastating Boys, that’s a cracker. Another interesting short that I love is, I Live In a World of Make-believe.
I’ll be interested to hear what you make of her.
Dust bunnies have a right to live somewhere. It may as well be at my house as anywhere else. I am happy being undomesticated and a poor housekeeper. I do the minimum unlike Quentin Crisp.
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Ahh, give them a cute name, and suddenly they become less offensive. Thanks Lynda, I’ll have to remember that one.
I hold my hand up too! Dust bunnies, cobwebs and that fine dust from every time I open the woodstove. But hey, there’s more interesting things to do in life. Thank you for introducing me to Taylor, not an author I’d come across before. I read At Mrs Lippincote’s last night, wicked!
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I’m impressed at the speed with which you found a copy, and so glad you enjoyed it.