About three months ago, I got a copy of The Wedding Group by Elizabeth Taylor. No, not that Elizabeth Taylor. The other Elizabeth Taylor. These are a couple of published reactions when articles are written about that other Elizabeth, a British writer in the mid-1900s. Unfortunately, that shared name may be one big reason so many people have not heard of her. I, for instance, only discovered her, as I was googling for writers who write like Jane Austen.
Yes, she has been called the Jane Austen of the 50s and 60s by at least one other British novelist (award-winning Anita Brookner). I imagine she’s earned that comparison for her preoccupation with the ordinary domestic lives of the British middle class of her time, as well as for her incisive vision.
Ms. Taylor manages, in spare but elegant language, to tell you so much. To wit, the opening sentence of The Wedding Group:
The Quayne ladies, adjusting their mantillas, hurried across the courtyard to the chapel.
She could have written this sentence several ways. For instance:
The Quaynes were a closely-knit family of Catholics, whose women went to church regularly. The Quayne ladies, observing the traditional custom of wearing veils, hurried across the courtyard to the chapel.
While this second version conveys what Ms. Taylor writes in her one sentence, her construction is arguably more graceful and pithy. Besides, it does more showing than telling and also exemplifies what Francine Prose calls energetic, specific (I would add “efficient”) use of language. I also think the choice of the word mantillas (from which I infer “Catholic”) is quite extraordinary. It is more evocative than veil, suggesting exoticism and grace.
Nothing truly sensational happens in this story about a Quayne daughter who attempts to escape the constricting atmosphere of her family and its tyrannical patriarch. It is a sort of coming of age, but you never feel that this young woman really matures. She does change, within her own limitations.
The other principal characters are just as intriguingly undefinable. You could say complex. They change, too, but not necessarily from their own initiative. Somehow that is all right because most of us don’t fully know ourselves and life does find us just bopping along. Life is like that. Or as the French say, “C’est la vie.”