Read for the libraything Elizabeth Taylor centenary readalong – Liz Taylor readers beware – there are SPOIERS ahead.
The Sleeping Beauty was Elizabeth Taylor’s sixth novel, published in 1953. It is set in the fictional coastal town of Seething (a name which mirrors the tumultuous emotions and jealousies of the inhabitants.) Unusually though for Elizabeth Taylor – it has a male protagonist at the centre of the narrative.
“She walked on at the same pace, her head erect, as if she noticed nothing at all, or else always the same thing ahead of her. Her arms were folded, her hands thrust up the wide sleeves of her dark coat. They made the most beautiful picture, Vinny thought; mysterious, romantic.”
When Vinny arrives in the town, it is to comfort an old friend Isabella who has been recently widowed. Catching a glimpse of woman walking on the beach, middle aged Vinny falls in love, for the first time. Emily is the sleeping beauty of the title, living at the guest house run by her widowed sister Rose; caring for her sister’s disabled child she carries the scars both physical and mental of a car accident some years earlier. Although this is apparently Elizabeth Taylor’s most romantic novel- it is not conventionally so and could never be described as cosy (Elizabeth Taylor’s novels are many things – but never that). Vinny is not all that he seems – he is in fact that wonderfully old fashioned thing – a bit of a cad. Vinny has a wife – one that not even his mother knows exists. She, Rita a dance school teacher – whose friends believe her to be the widow of a war hero – will not divorce Vinny.
Meanwhile, Isabella has begun to have her own expectations of Vinny – unaware of his feelings for Emily. She meets regularly with her friend Evalie Hobson, makes surreptitious bets on horses, plasters her skin with face masks hoping to hold back time, and ultimately betrays Vinny. Her son Laurence starts a relationship with Betty a nursery maid staying with her employers at Rose’s guest house.
Elizabeth Taylor’s portrayal of sad, lonely middle-age in the characters of Isabella, Evalie and Rose is utterly brilliant. They are self-righteous, ageing often lonely, but viewed however with Elizabeth Taylor’s characteristically caustic humour. They are flawed characters, not always very likeable but not wholly unsympathetic either.
I would say that this will not be my favourite novel by Elizabeth Taylor – but it is still hugely readable, and I enjoyed it immensely. Her writing is simply lovely; I always feel I understand her characters – even if I don’t like them. Vinny redeems himself slightly at the end of this novel – his rescue of Emily makes him a sort of hero – but he too is deeply flawed. Like the last Elizabeth Taylor novel I read “A Game of Hide and Seek” the ending is slightly ambiguous – does Vinny get away with it – is in a way up to the reader to decide. I do appreciate how Elizabeth Taylor allows her readers to make these decisions themselves.