Back in 2012 I read or re-read all Elizabeth Taylor’s novels along with other readers from the Librarything virago group for her centenary. I also read two of her five collections of short stories, saving the other three for a rainy day. I really hadn’t meant to leave it quite so long to get back to Elizabeth Taylor, one of my favourite writers, although it was nice to have these stories to look forward to. A Dedicated Man was the third of four collections published during Elizabeth Taylor’s lifetime, a fifth collection Dangerous Calm of previously unpublished pieces came out in the 1990’s.
Elizabeth Taylor is a superb short story writer, she observes her characters with a cool and practised eye, highlighting their absurdities, snobberies and everyday concerns.
Reviewing short stories is always a challenge I find, I almost always end up saying either too much or too little (generally the former), when all that’s wanted is a slight flavour. Therefore, I am not going to talk about each story – but pick out a few key pieces for particular attention.
Elizabeth Taylor shows us many sides of English middle class life, a world she understood from the inside. In this collection of twelve stories we meet both the middle aged and young, at home and abroad. In these stories Elizabeth Taylor considers the relationships between mothers and daughters, and husbands and wives, between neighbours and that terrifying creature the Englishman/woman abroad. We meet a kept woman marooned in the upstairs of her home when the Thames is in Flood, an elderly woman, ignored, laughed at by her neighbours, befriends a young boy, and we meet Silcox, the dedicated man of the title as he manipulates his way into his dream job.
In the opening story; Girl Reading, we meet fifteen-year-old Etta, staying with her best friend’s family, during school holidays. Etta lives in a small dark terrace house with her single, working mother when not away at school. Her friend Sarah is part of a bigger, livelier family, their larger much smarter home is often filled with interesting guests. It is a world to which Etta desires more than anything to belong. Her mother is suspicious of this family, where it is obvious her daughter enjoys going, and so Etta is a little alarmed when her mother makes an unscheduled appearance during her latest visit.
“Mrs Salkeld had contrived the visit because she wanted to understand and hope to approve of her daughter’s friends. Seeing the lawns, the light reflected from the water. Later this large, bright room, and the beautiful poppy-seed cake the Hungarian cook had made for tea, she understood completely and felt pained. She could see then, with Etta’s eyes, their own dark, narrow house, and she thought of the lonely hours she spent there reading on days of imprisoning rain.”
(from Girl Reading)
In the title story A Dedicated man, Silcox, a waiter at a seaside hotel persuades his junior waitress colleague Edith to masquerade as his wife, in order that they can swap their positions at a tawdry holiday hotel for the Royal George Hotel in the home counties, well away from the sea. The two must learn how to live modestly together in the room provided to a married couple. Knowing little about each other, and living uncomfortably closely, all for the sake of a job which better suits their snobby pretensions . Silcox and Edith had resented waiting on loud mouthed, sunburned holiday makers in their indecent holiday clothing.
“In Edith’s new life there were one or two difficulties – one was trying to remember not to fidget with the wedding ring as if she were not used to wearing it, the another was being obliged to call Silcox ‘Maurice’. This she thought unseemly, like all familiarities, and to be constant in it required continual vigilance. He. Being her superior, had called her Edith from the start.”
(from A Dedicated Man)
In As if I Should Care we meet probably the least likeable character in the whole collection, and yet Rita is brilliantly drawn in all her unpleasant selfishness. A young girl of older parents, Rita learned a secret about her birth, some years earlier, which she has kept to herself and brooded on ever since. Over the years, Rita’s resentment towards her parents, and grandmother at home has grown. Now working at a hair salon, she spends her money sending off for suede jackets, goes out to dances, and fantasises about going to Canada. At home her father lies ill in his bedroom upstairs, Rita is aware that her mother has not revealed to him the seriousness of his illness. With shocking callousness and unconcern, Rita finds a way to use this to her own advantage.
Two stories, The Voices and In the Sun depict the English on holiday abroad. In the first story, Laura alone in her hotel room listens to the voices of the two women in the room next door. Through the snatches of their conversation she lives their holiday vicariously, comparing it to her own rather unfulfilled experience. In the next story, In the Sun,two couples, the Troughtons and the Crouches meet on holiday in the sun, swap stories and embark on that kind of temporary holiday acquaintance which will end with the holiday itself. Deirdre and Bunny Wallace; a third couple arrive and become the focus of speculation by the first two couples. Their observations and surmises are based solely on their own prejudices and snobberies. Deirdre is similarly taken to passing judgement on her fellow guests.
“People come out here,’ said Deirdre, glaring at the bodies about her, ‘and bake themselves all day, only glad if they can go back home the colour that they punish other people for being.”
‘So true’ said Bunny.
Without discussing where they should sit, they moved apart from the others and spread towels out on the sand. Bunny removed his hat and shirt, and went trotting down to the sea, his crooked arms jerking back and forth like a long-distance runner’s.”
(from In the Sun)
Such brilliantly astute observations like this of how people behave in different situations, for me show Elizabeth Taylor’s genius. She allows her reader to develop their own relationship with the characters and story, in the way she stands slightly removed from them. These stories are simply brilliant, compulsively readable and make me want to re-read all those exceptional novels again. Before I do though, there are two more volumes of stories I have yet to read.