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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.

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).

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the political cartoon?

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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the political cartoon?