We had a delightful reading group the other day reading Elizabeth Taylor and Ivy Compton-Burnett. I have long thought that Taylor is one of the best novelists of the twentieth century, but Compton-Burnett – well, I try to read her and I fail. She is widely acknowledged as a ‘marmite’ author: you either love her or hate her. (See Stuck in a Book for lots on Ivy and how she divides people.)
Taylor, on the other hand, always impresses people. Is there anyone who out there who doesn’t like Taylor? I have yet to find a reader unimpressed by her novels. Except, of course, when she was alive. George Orwell wrote of her first novel At Mrs Lippincote’s (1945):
a waste of talent … It was written with real distinction, and the author gives the impression of feeling very strongly about something or other, but just what are the meaning and purpose of the book it would be hard to say … Probably this book means something, but the meaning fails to get through. (‘A Waste of Talent’, Manchester Evening News, 11 October 1945)
So, he recognises the quality of her writing, but really can’t get his head around what the point of it all is. Part of the problem is the age-old issue of Taylor’s subject matter: she writes about the domestic lives of middle-class women. What’s the point of that? But it is also her narrative technique, which is full of subtle irony, requiring a reader highly attuned to a commentary that is never explicitly stated.
I chose to pair Taylor and Compton-Burnett together for a reading group because Taylor became a good friend of Ivy in the 1950s. They greatly admired each other’s work, though Ivy said of Taylor “She is a young woman who looks as if she never had to wash her own gloves”. I am not sure if this is meant as a compliment (to Ivy, a person with a strict sense of hierarchy, perhaps so) but it also encourages the misplaced view that Taylor was a privileged and insulated middle-class woman. Taylor would write to her friend Robert Liddell about her trips to see Ivy, and after their deaths he wrote a memoir Elizabeth and Ivy, which is worth of look.
I tried to read Pastors and Masters by Ivy for the reading group, and short as it is, again I failed to finish. But I do finally see something of the point of Ivy after George Simmers’ account of her novel A House and Its Head, which I will post next.