I was delighted when I managed to persuade my very small book group to read Elizabeth Taylor. A Game of Hide and Seek, a novel I had only read once before, is considered by some to be her best novel (others claim that, that accolade belongs to Angel – perhaps it depends on the reader). I first read this novel in 2012 – and although that’s only four years ago, I was surprised at how many details I had forgotten, and how my sympathy for one character completely disappeared this time around. For two of my friends this was their first experience of reading Elizabeth Taylor – and it proved a big hit.
In A Game of Hide and Seek Elizabeth Taylor created a delicately poignant love story. I imagine the story was shaped largely by events in Elizabeth Taylor’s own life – and this shows in the writing of domestic disappointment with what feels for the reader, as complete authenticity. Although she remained happily married until she died, and had two children, Elizabeth Taylor did have a relationship with another man during her marriage. It is this relationship which is honestly portrayed in the only biography about Elizabeth Taylor to have been written to date. Nicola Beauman; the author of The Other Elizabeth Taylor considers the character of Harriet – along with that of Julia in At Mrs Lippincote’s to be the characters most like Elizabeth Taylor herself.
The daily routines of a conventional wife and mother are brilliantly reproduced. The conversations between Harriet and her daily help Mrs Curzon, the frustrations with her mother in law, the dullness and disappointments of life. These are the preoccupations of many middle-class women and Elizabeth Taylor’s view of them is sharp. Even Harriet’s view of foreigners seems so like Elizabeth Taylor’s would have been, rather modern by the standards of the time she absolutely understood how it would feel to be cast adrift in a new country – the confusion and incomprehension of England and its ways. Children are done brilliantly as ever – their little observations and worries beautifully observed. Time and again in her writing Elizabeth Taylor shows how wonderfully well she understands children. It is often in these wonderful observations of children and childhood that we see some of the best examples of Elizabeth Taylor’s wonderful wit.
“Deirdre suddenly remembered that she would get infantile paralysis if she ate ice cream that had not been made in her own home.”
At eighteen Harriet and Vesey have already known each other for years, his aunt and her mother were great friends, suffragettes once imprisoned together. They sacrificed their liberty, endured derision and scandal for the sake of Harriet’s generation, there is a sense sometimes, that they don’t fully appreciate it. During the summers, Vesey comes to stay with his aunt, escaping the suffocation of his mother, for a more relaxed atmosphere. The novel opens the summer before Vesey goes to Oxford, he and Harriet spend time with Vesey’s young cousins, giving them ample excuse to be together, both though still unsure exactly how it is they should act toward each other.
“Sometimes in the long summer’s evenings, which are so marked a part of our youth, Harriet and Vesey played hide and seek with the younger children, running across the tufted meadows, their shoes yellow with the pollen of buttercups. They could not run fast across those uneven fields; nor did they wish to, since to find the hiding children was to lose their time together, to run faster was to run away from one another. The jog-trot was a game devised from shyness and uncertainty. Neither dared to assume that the other wished to pause and inexperience barred them both from testing this.”
Vesey is carelessly rebellious, unreliable, amusing and irresistible. Harriet loves him quietly and nervously. When Vesey goes to Oxford – their lives begin to diverge. Harriet looks forward to the next summer, it feels a long way off – and in the meantime life changes. She gets herself a job as a sales assistant, working alongside a brilliantly drawn group of women who make quite a ceremony of brewing up their morning tea. Following the death of her mother Harriet marries Charles, older and dependable he provides her with a lovely conventional home, and draws her into a social circle that includes Kitty and Tiny. Taylor’s depiction of 1950s domestic middle class life is perfect. Harriet doesn’t work she is a mother, a wife, a daughter-in-law, she has a daily who she gossips with. Social evenings of dancing, fuelled by strong drink punctuate the year, and accompanying Charles and Harriet is always Kitty and Tiny. Kitty who married the man who could provide her with the kind of life she wanted, is cynical and weary.
Vesey is never forgotten by Harriet who carries him with her over the years which follow. Taylor reminds us how so often our memory/fantasy of someone cannot always be trusted. She glimpses him only briefly thereafter – until he returns to her when they are both middle aged – he a rather down at heel actor she a mother of a fifteen-year-old daughter. Harriet finds herself disregarding her marriage to see more of Vesey, a situation that Charles and Kitty soon become aware of. Charles’s jealousy nearly gets the better of him, he has never coped very well with the idea of Harriet’s relationship with Vesey – the memories and past they share, Vesey was always a shadow.
Harriet finds herself surprised by the passage of time – suddenly she is middle aged with an almost grown daughter, more than once she wishes she could be young again – that she and Vesey could have their time over.
“If only we were young again!” she said in a tired voice “And mi ght have a second chance”
It was delightful re-visiting this novel, and I was so glad that my friends enjoyed it too. It reminded me how re-reading an old favourite can often enhance the book for me, I often find I discover new points of interest.