Who was the author, anyway?

Can a writer be unravelled from her writing? I’ve been discussing Elizabeth Taylor short stories again, this week, and as she was getting published at a time when another Elizabeth Taylor was regularly in the headlines, this has involved some investigation into the writer’s life.

The role of the author was one of the questions we examined when I was at University. I’m remembering in particular, the 1967 essay, Death of the Author, by the French critic and theorist Roland Barthes.

Barthes argued that reading with an awareness of the experiences and biases of the author, limits our experience of the text. He suggested that it is only when the text is anonymous, that we can see multiple layers of meaning drawn from “innumerable centres of culture”.

He went on to propose that the reader was more important than the writer. It’s a useful thought for a reading group, from an essay that was intended to raise debate.

If ever there was an author who seems perfectly fitted to this warning to read the text without expectations, it’s surely Elizabeth Taylor. Here was a woman who looked middle-class, was married to a successful businessman, had two children and lived in a large country house. A lot of her stories involve just such women, and a lot more don’t. Yet somehow she came to be seen as a writer who was always looking back. Worse, she wrote about domestic situations, so in Britain, she became known as a woman’s writer.

One way to counter this narrow approach might be to read Nicola Beauman’s biography, The Other Elizabeth Taylor. It contains some surprising revelations about the life of the woman who in 1953, told The New York Herald Tribune:

I am always disconcerted when asked for my life story, for nothing sensational, thank heavens, has ever happened.

Our idea about how this statement works depends on the definition we assign to that word sensational. But put that aside, because even if you decide that Elizabeth Taylor was being evasive with her answer, reading the biography still returns us to the question of ‘so what?’, in terms of how we read her fiction. Do the unexpected aspects of her life mean her writing should be read in a specific way?

Perhaps we should turn to another author to think about this. In 1986, her friend Robert Liddell published a memoir about his friendship with Elizabeth Taylor and Ivy Compton-Burnett.

“Later we were  both shocked (as Ivy was) by the betrayal of Rose Macaulay by her literary executor, who published some of her intimate correspondence, and Elizabeth remarked how coy and silly letters could look when seen out of context.  We both detested Katherine Mansfield and her whining, coarse letters, and we were aware that our private jokes and Ivyisms would look no better to outsiders than her Dickensianism and her ‘my strikes!’ […] in the course of the years, there were some letters that were painful, and meant for no other eyes: and no other eyes will see them.

Elizabeth and Ivy by R Liddell

How tricky it is to hold true to the wishes of the dead. I might condemn John Middleton Murray for going against his wife’s bar on publishing her private letters and diaries, but I’ve read them. I claim it was background for my reading groups, as I do all the material I’ve looked at for Elizabeth Taylor, Elizabeth Gaskell, Somerset Maugham, T.H. White, Kate Atkinson…

I’m left with the question that I keep taking to my reading groups: does knowing more about the lives of writers inform us as readers, and/or writers, or is story enough?