Tracey Thorn: Every angle, every light

Elizabeth Taylor is an unfairly underrated writer. Her novels of middle-class manners are much more complex than they look.

Shadows fall. Photograph: Getty Images

It was Virago Modern Classics that introduced me to Elizabeth Taylor, just as Virago had introduced me to so many other women writers years earlier. At Hull University in the early 1980s, I’d had a shelf-ful of green-spined books and they marked me out as a “rad fem” student just as surely as did my side-shaved haircut and big, clumpy boots. My education up to that point hadn’t fully alerted me to the existence of something called “the canon”, but a year or so in to my degree course, I was happily challenging it at every turn, thumbing my nose and waving my Virago paperbacks in the face of the literary patriarchy.

It would be another 30 years before I discovered Taylor when Virago reissued her novels in a set of chic new covers resembling 1960s film posters. On each was a black-and-white photo, full-face, extreme close-up, with a band of bold colour below. They looked simple and modern, with a vintage twist. In 2010 I bought one to take on holiday and within a day I was hooked.

She wasn’t necessarily the kind of writer I would have liked all those years ago in Hull. Back then my taste veered more towards the “madwoman in the attic”; I was fiercely feminist and wanted my reading to reflect this. Subtlety was not always top of my list of requirements. But by the time I read Taylor for the first time I was in my mid-forties, no less feminist, but perhaps differently feminist, and more receptive to the kind of wit and wisdom her novels offered. Her voice seemed to be a voice of experience, the insights those of a woman who had lived a few years, watching and listening, taking notes. I felt I was ready for her.

I started with A Game of Hide and Seek, her fifth novel, first published in 1951, which traces the arc of an intense but thwarted love affair. It is a finely detailed and perceptive book, constructed with a discreet skill that you hardly notice. As part one ends, the young lovers, Harriet and Vesey, seem doomed to be parted for ever, their love for each other undermined by his indolent flippancy, her timidity. Yet you turn the page and begin part two with something of a jolt – Harriet is in Vesey’s arms at a dance. “Has it all come right after all?” you think. But no. Twenty years have passed in the blink of an eye. Harriet is married to someone else and has a teenage daughter and Vesey has returned like a spectre from the past to threaten all the calm and respectability of Harriet’s adult life. What follows is a kind of tortuous non-affair, a not-quite-above-board friendship that can’t fail to be slightly sordid, while never being properly illicit.

They make a funny pair of romantic leads – he is half-hearted and she, frankly, is a bit of a drip, forever blushing and bursting into tears – but their plight is moving for all that. Nothing much happens; there’s a walk in an icy park, a Brief Encounter-style meeting on a foggy station platform, passion that goes mostly unexpressed. Yet Taylor has you believe in them as lovers, by first making you believe in them as people. As in all great writing, the joy lies in the closeness of the observation, the eye for detail. Taylor writes of Harriet that “In her diary, she walked right round Vesey and viewed him from every angle and in every light” and in just such a way does Taylor scrutinise her characters. Hers is an unflinching eye that does not glance away from an insight just because it seems cruel – “He knew that she was a good wife, though a bore.” Relatively narrow in focus, she homes in on the middle classes in a domestic setting, but though she writes about “nice” people, she is not particularly nice about them.

After A Game of Hide and Seek I went on to devour her other novels. I found out that she had shied away from publicity during her career, keeping her writing and her family life in a perfect and fiercely guarded balance. Elizabeth Jane Howard, in her introduction to A Game of Hide and Seek, writes of interviewing her on a television book programme, during which she answered monosyllabically and looked “like a trapped and rather beautiful owl”. I realised she was a woman after my own heart. She was shy, and she understood the shy. In The Soul of Kindness (1964) two of her characters agree: “ ‘I could never tell anyone how terrible it is. The dreadful awkwardness and embarrassment.’

‘They are under-rated forms of suffering.’” This reserve informs the very style of Taylor’s fiction, in which subtlety, economy and understatement reign supreme. Even her humour – and she is an extremely funny writer – is dry and precise, capturing moments when characters believe they are unobserved; as if she were eavesdropping on private conversations.

In A Game of Hide and Seek, for instance, she pinpoints the way shopgirls talk when men are out of earshot, a wonderful mixture of the genteel and the bawdy – “Harriet’s virginity they marvelled over a great deal. It seemed a privilege to have it under the same roof. They were always kindly enquiring after it, as if it were a sick relative.” She is the kind of writer you long to have had as a friend. How witty she would have been to talk to, with that sharpness that misses nothing, that wry acceptance of the way things are.

This acceptance extends to all her characters. Despite the acuity of her observations, she is never cold towards them, seeming rather to understand and forgive her most monstrous creations. And some of them are outright monsters – Flora in The Soul of Kindness is a manipulative, passive-aggressive nightmare (“she had inconvenient plans for other people’s pleasure, and ideas differing from her own she was not able to imagine”), while Angelica Deverell, the heroine of Angel (1957), is a hilarious personi - fication of self-delusion (“she saw nothing as it was, everything as it should be”). I think “Angel” is my favourite of all Taylor’s characters. Proud, arrogant, ambitious, mad and lonely, she is every fictional artist rolled into one, the twist being that she is completely talentless. Hers is an  archetypal struggle – the portrait of the artist as a young woman – rewritten as comedy, even farce. It’s like reading the early-years story of Jeanette Winterson only for her to end up writing the novels of Barbara Cartland. It’s terribly funny, and terribly sad.

I think when I was younger I liked my books to have heroes, or, even better, heroines. One of the great things about getting older is you don’t need that so much; you don’t look to every book for self-verification, or confirmation of your identity. I find I don’t care so much whether or not I like the characters in a book. I just want them to seem true, and for a writer to show me things that seem real. Elizabeth Taylor does exactly this; she finds interest and drama in the tiniest details, the dustiest corners of our lives, and in revealing these details to us so accurately and gracefully she transforms the mundane into something vivid; she makes sometimes dull lives seem worth noticing, and so worth living.

Tracey Thorn’s memoir, “Bedsit Disco Queen”, will be published by Virago in February “Complete Short Stories” by Elizabeth Taylor is published by Virago (£14.99).