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?

Advertisements

Six degrees of literary separation: from Atonement to Demon Lover.

This week I’m joining in with a reading meme run by Kate, on the booksaremyfavouriteandbest blog. What is a meme? The dictionary says:

an image, video, piece of text, etc, typically humorous in nature, that is copied and spread rapidly by Internet users, often with slight variations.

I’ll let Kate explain:

The meme was inspired by Hungarian writer and poet Frigyes Karinthy. In his 1929 short story, Chains, Karinthy coined the phrase ‘six degrees of separation’. The phrase was popularised by a 1990 play written by John Guare, which was later made into a film starring Stockard Channing. Since then, the idea that everyone in the world is separated from everyone else by just six links has been explored in many ways… And now it’s a meme for readers.

On the first Saturday of every month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. Readers and bloggers are invited to join in by creating their own ‘chain’ leading from the selected book.

Here are the rules:

6degrees-rulesThis month’s starter-title is, Atonement, by Ian McEwan.  I’m adapting the rules, and creating my chain from short stories.

borden-600x445My first link, is ‘Blind‘, by Mary Borden. I came across it in The Penguin Book of First World War Stories, but it was originally published in 1929.  Blind draws from Borden’s behind-the-lines nursing experiences.  In it, the nurse narrator treats a soldier with a serious head wound.  It reminded me of Atonement so strongly, that I had to skim through the novel again.  Sure enough, Briony Tallis experiences a similar situation, though with contrasting outcome and intention.

Bayswater Omnibus, George William Joy 1895Mary Borden had been a suffragette, so too was Evelyn Sharp.  Link two is her story, ‘In Dull Brown’, written in 1896.  It describes a flirtation between a ‘modern’ working girl, and a professional gentleman.  Imagine yourself into the historical context, and it is a subversive and involving argument about the obstacles faced by respectable women who wished to have a career.

On first glance though, ‘In Dull Brown’ is tame stuff (hence the title), just like, ‘The Daughters of the Late Colonel‘, by Katherine Mansfield.  I remember reading it when I was about fifteen. I’d heard Mansfield was an amazing writer, but I couldn’t understand the story. Why did it end like that?  What was it saying about the death of their father? Years later I tried again, and found an old, and previously undervalued friend, waiting for me to catch up.

Thinking of loss, and friendship, takes me to ‘Friend of My Youth’ by Alice Munro. The anonymous narrator tells the story of her mother’s relationship with Flora, using letters, dreams and memories.  It pushes us to consider how far we can ever know anyone.

As does, the penultimate title in my chain, Elizabeth Taylor’s, ‘The Letter Writers’. Can a man and a woman be friends without becoming lovers?  Read this one too fast and you’re liable to miss the layers.  It’s subtle, and wry.

My final link involves letters and a former lover, or rather fiancé.  Elizabeth Bowen’s, Demon Lover sends a shiver down my spine every time I return to it.  To say more, would give too much away, you need to read it.  Coincidentally, like a large part of Atonement, it’s set in London, during the second World War.

Six degrees from Atonement and I’m close to the place I started from, where, I wonder would you be?

Domestic details in fiction.

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?

spring-cleaningMore 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.

 

Appreciating Elizabeth Taylor’s short stories.

I heard Phil Jupitus talking about paintings to Susan Calman on Radio 4 this week.  Amongst other sensible and intriguing things, he said that there are some paintings he just has to stand and study, because the details ‘have made me laugh out loud with how brilliant they are.’

Cat & Lobster, by Picasso

Cat & Lobster, by Picasso

It struck a chord with me, because I’ve been having a similar experience reading Elizabeth Taylor’s short stories.  Have I just been lucky in picking out the best of her writing from amongst the Complete Short Stories volume that we’re using for the reading group class?  Because so far, they’re providing masses of material for discussion.

Take The Letter-writers, which we discussed this week.  It’s about two people who, after ten years of exchanging letters, are meeting for the first time. Most assessments of the story will include the fact of Taylor’s letters to Robert Liddell, another novelist.

‘The correspondence between Elizabeth and me, begun in the autumn of 1948, was to become increasingly frequent and intimate, and it lasted to within a month of Elizabeth’s death, when she was no longer able to hold a pen.’

He lived in Cairo, Alexandria and then Athens, and it has been suggested that this story is a fictionalized account of their first meeting.

The Letter-writers was first published in 1958, and portrays a rural spinster living a quiet, contained life.  You could read it as that and enjoy the details of characterisation:

For years, Emily had looked into mirrors only to see if her hair were tidy or her petticoat showing below her dress.  This morning, she tried to take herself by surprise, to see herself as a stranger might, but failed.

and the descriptions,

The heat unsteadied the air, light shimmered and glanced off leaves and telegraph wires and the flag on the church tower spreading out in a small breeze, then dropping, wavered against the sky, as if it were flapping under water.

However, if you work on the assumption that this is a carefully constructed story, and therefore every word has been deliberately chosen, then you have to look again at how the narration is operating.

Is it just the air that is unsteadied?  Why does the light ‘glance’ off the leaves and telegraph wires?  When I attack the text with my highlighter, tracing patterns, clues within the text, I begin to see an alternative, contrary reading.  I’m reading now from a new perspective, asking myself, why would it be a crisis for Emily to meet, ‘the person she knew best in all the world’?

The theory I’m shaping suggests something beautifully, elegantly, clever.  Can a writer really create something so subtle that it can have multiple, even contradictory meanings?

Consider how Taylor describes Emily’s approach to writing.

Emily, smiling to herself as she passed by, had thoughts so delightful that she began to tidy them into sentences to put in a letter to Edmund.

If you carry the idea of this apparently simple description on into the story, Edmund will tell us how carefully Emily ‘tidies’ her words:

In Emily’s letters, Mrs Waterlow had been funny; but she was not in real life and he wondered how Emily could suffer so much, before transforming it.

Words then are not simple tools.  Writers, like painters, arrange the details of the world they are portraying.  They decide which perspective to show us, arrange the light and shade, and order the components to create a specific effect.  Nothing in a good painting is chance, it is designed.  So I ask myself, was Taylor also transforming some thing, with her story about writing?

At first he thought her a novelist manqué, then he realized that letter-writing is an art by itself, a different kind of skill, though with perhaps a similar motive – and one at which Englishwomen have excelled.