You’ll Enjoy it When You Get There by Elizabeth Taylor – stories from The Blush

I’ve been reading some of Elizabeth Taylor’s stories over the last month or so, dipping in and out of her collections in between novels and other things. Even though I already had some of the old green Viragos, I couldn’t resist buying this beautiful NYRB edition of a selection of her stories curated by Margaret Drabble. The NYRB – You’ll Enjoy it When You Get There – comprises twenty-nine stories from different phases of Taylor’s career including seven from her 1958 collection The Blush. These are the stories I’m going to cover in this piece. (I’ve already written about her earlier collection, Hester Lilly – link here.)

As regular readers of this blog will know, I’ve written before about my admiration for Taylor – in particular, her ability to capture a character in one or two perfectly judged sentences. In almost every case, these individuals are drawn in such a way that conveys an acute understanding of their immediate situation – their hopes and dreams, their day-to-day preoccupations and concerns.

Even though these stories were written sixty years ago, the emotions they portray are still universally recognisable today. Here we see people facing up to dashed dreams, acute social embarrassment and the realities of their lonely, marginalised lives.

In The Blush, a respectable middle-class woman, Mrs Allen, gets inadvertently drawn into the private life of her daily help, the ever-grumbling Mrs Lacey. It is only when Mrs Allen receives a visit from the woman’s husband that the depth of Mrs Lacey’s deception of those around her becomes truly apparent.

He was a man utterly, bewilderedly at sea. His married life had been too much for him, with so much in it that he could not understand. (p. 117)

This is an interesting story, quite short but very effective.

Next up we have The Letter-Writers, which is probably my favourite piece here. In this story, a lonely middle-aged woman named Emily is preparing to meet a man she has been writing letters to for the last ten years. Over the years, she has confided such intimacies in Edmund – at a distance he had seemed so approachable and attentive.

As she waits for Edmund to arrive at her cottage for lunch, Emily worries that their meeting will be a mistake. Can she live up to the impressions created by her letters? Will Edmund be disappointed by the real Emily once he meets her in the flesh? Will he ever write to her again?

She had been so safe with him. They could not have wounded one another, but now they might. In ten years there had been no inadvertent hurts of rivalry, jealousy, or neglect. It had not occurred to either to wonder if the other would sometimes cease to write; the letters would come as surely as the sun.

“But will they now?” Emily was wondering now. (p. 123)

Somewhat inevitably, the lunch is rather strained – the atmosphere made all the more difficult by the most awkward of starts and the interference of a nosy neighbour, the pushy Mrs Waterlow. The story itself is quietly devastating, and yet there is a glimmer of hope at the end. One of Taylor’s best, I suspect.

In a somewhat similar vein, we have Summer Schools, a story that focuses on the experiences of two middle-aged sisters who live together but who seem to have very little in common. The emptiness and quiet tragedies of their respective lives are thrown into sharp relief when they take separate holidays, neither of which live up to their hopes or expectations.

In The Rose, the Mauve, the White, three young girls – all friends from school – attend a formal dance. As the plainest of the three, Frances feels the most exposed – the embarrassment of being left on the sidelines as her friends are whirled around the dancefloor is all too acute.

Frances had attached herself to Charles and Natalie, so that she would not seem to leave the floor alone; but she knew that Mrs Pollard had seen her standing there by the door, without a partner, and for the last waltz of all things. To be seen by her hostess in such a predicament underlined her failure.

“Did you enjoy it, Frances?” Myra asked. And wasn’t that the only way to put her question, Frances thought, the one she was so very anxious to know— “Did you dance much?” (pp.170-171)

Other stories feature a pair of newlyweds whose first night together is scuppered by the husband’s fondness for drink; a young girl whose best friend is now married to her father, thereby putting both girls in very difficult positions at home; and a young girl who ends up making a massive faux-pas at an important function.

While much of the subject matter may sound very melancholy, there are flashes of dark humour in quite a few of these stories – particularly The Blush, The Letter-Writers and Perhaps a Family Failing (that’s the one about the newlyweds). Taylor’s ability to balance these tones so effectively is one of her key strengths.

In summary, these are beautifully understated stories full of insight, nuance and compassion. Overall, The Blush seems to be a stronger, more even collection of pieces than Hester Lilly, which may be a reflection of Taylor’s development as a writer. Highly recommended for lovers of character-driven fiction and short stories in general.

You’ll Enjoy It When You Get There is published by NYRB Classics, The Blush by Virago; personal copies.

37 thoughts on “You’ll Enjoy it When You Get There by Elizabeth Taylor – stories from The Blush

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      She’s certainly one of my favourites – along with Richard Yates, Penelope Fitzgerald and Barbara Pym. It’s nice to see her getting the recognition she so richly deserves.

      Reply
      1. Tina

        Taylor and Pym are my favourites too.I agree short stories need to be dipped into now and again.I must re read A VIEW OF THE HARBOUR soon–i have only read it once about 10 years ago.

        Reply
  1. clodge2013

    Lovely review. You capture Elizabeth Taylor’s ability to reveal those small but all important actions, thoughts, revelations which are the heart of her writing. I love her short stories as much as her novels.

    The idea of meeting someone known initially only as a letter writing correspondent is also used in A Wreath of Roses when a Morland Beddoes turns up to meet Frances for the first time, having bought a painting from her years before and corresponded ever since. We know people partially and in different ways, she seems to reveal.

    I think I will be going back to dip into my copy of her Complete Stories again very soon thanks to you review.
    Thanks Caroline

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Caroline, for your lovely comment about Elizabeth Taylor (I know she’s one of your favourite writers too). She seems to have that ability to capture her characters in their most private of moments. As you say, it’s often those small yet crucial details that are so important, the little gestures and inner reflections which reveal something of a individual’s demeanour.

      How interesting to hear about the appearance of a letter writer in A Wreath or Roses, particularly as I’m hoping that will be my next Taylor. It’s next in the sequence, so to speak!

      Reply
  2. A Life in Books

    I read several of Taylor’s novels many years ago – the lure of those old green Viragos! – but now that I’m a short story convert you’ve made me think I should pick up one of her collections. Is there one you’d particularly recommend?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Well, if you can get hold of a copy of this NYRB I would thoroughly recommend you do so, particularly as it includes a selection of stories from each of her individual collections. They’ve almost certainly cherry-picked the best pieces. Failing that, you could go for The Blush – or one of her later collections, A Dedicated Man or The Devastating Boys. Whichever one you chose, you’re sure to be in for treat!

      Reply
  3. heavenali

    I hadn’t heard of this particular collection. I have all Taylor’s short stories in various volumes. There is one collection of five that I still haven’t read, I think I have been saving it for years. Taylor is a quite wonderful short story writer, and those you talk about like The Blush and The Letter Writers come back so clearly to me. A sign, surely of a great storyteller. One of her stories I am unable to forget years later is called The Fly Paper. One of those Tales of the Unexpected was based on it, and was available on YouTube, and probably still is. It is shattering. Her keen observational eye is so suited to the short form. I must dig out that last volume Dangerous Calm and finally read it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’ve done very well to save that final collection for so long — but then again, it’s always nice to have something to look forward to, especially if it’s by a favourite writer (which I know to be true in this case). The Letter-Writers is the one that will really stay with me, I’m sure. It’s been quite a few months since I read the first couple of stories, and yet in some ways it seems like only yesterday. Several images have remained in my mind, particularly those involving the debacle over lunch and the presence of Mrs Waterlow as she lingers in the room. The Blush is another keeper too.

      I think I’ve heard a little bit about The Fly Paper. Andy Miller may have mentioned it on Twitter or his Backlisted podcast? Either way, it sounds superb. I used to love Tales of the Unexpected as a child, so your comparison to Dahl can only be a good thing.

      Reply
  4. Brian Joseph

    I really need to read Elizabeth Taylor. Based on your commentary and other thinks that I have read on various blogs, I know that I would like her books. You raise a good point about the emotions thaf she wrote about being still recognizable. I think that universality over time is a component of great literature.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, indeed. Even though times have changes quite markedly, we can all relate to these feelings of disappointment, embarrassment and isolation – it’s just the social context and other circumstances that have changed. I think you would like this author very much, especially given your fondness for character-driven fiction. Her powers of observation and levels of precision are particularly good.

      Reply
  5. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely review Jacqui. It’s tempting to seek out a copy, even though I have a lovely volume of complete stories which (whispers) I haven’t actually read yet! Having read all of her novels in fairly quick succession, I think I needed a break from her writing at the time. But maybe I should dust down the book soon. Her writing can certainly be quite devastating.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that Virago edition of her complete stories is very appealing. I’m sure you’ll have everything you need right there whenever it takes you fancy. That’s understandable, the need to take a break after reading so many of her novels in quick succession – I’m guessing it was part of a readalong to celebrate Taylor’s centenary in 2012? Too much of a good thing, and all that. I recall you saying that you had a similar experience with Barbara Pym!

      Reply
      1. kaggsysbookishramblings

        Yes, the 2012 Virago readalong, and I ended up hosting one of the books early on in my time as a blogger. It was fun reading the books but quite intense. I burned out with Pym, though not with Taylor, but I definitely needed a gap!

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Gosh, that must have been nice but somewhat stressful! I still recall the responsibility of co-hosting the Reading Rhys event a few years ago. A very rewarding experience, albeit a rather busy one at the time.

          Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      A little like Richard Yates, I think she had the skills to pull off beautifully crafted short stories as well as the character development more suited to the longer form. Not many writers can do that so successfully…

      Reply
  6. Scott W.

    “the pushy Mrs Waterlow”

    For all of the emotional and psychological depth Taylor explores, she can be so funny. I’m definitely putting this on the list; it sounds as though Taylor is just as adept at the short form as in her longer novels.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Some of her characters are quite wonderful! Mrs Waterlow is so nosy, pushing her way into the living room to get a better look at Emily’s visitor. She then proceeds to hang around in the background, observing the couple under the ruse of wanting to look something up in Emily’s Encyclopaedia. It’s very funny and excruciatingly painful at the same time. I’m sure you’d enjoy it.

      Reply
  7. bookbii

    I love those little excerpts, so evocative and demonstrative of Taylor’s skill in skewering a character with an economy of words. I still balk at short stories, I’m not sure if I’ll ever quite get over that odd aversion (which doesn’t reflect in any way my actual enjoyment of the work) but it sounds like Taylor is just as much at home in the short form as the long one.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha, I know what you mean about that aversion to reading short stories. It was the same for me for several years. I always seem to enjoy them once I get going, but I do have to push myself every now and again to pick them up. It often seems so much more appealing to go for a novel instead!

      Anyway, these stories are great – as you say, we’re in the hands of a writer who seems equally at home with both of these forms.

      Reply
  8. Grier

    For some reason I haven’t been reading many short story collections as part of ACOB and one of my reading goals post-ACOB is to read more short stories. I have the NYRB edition of Taylor’s stories and am looking forward to reading it now more than ever after reading your review.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I’m glad to hear that you have the same edition as it’s a lovely piece of work. One gets that feeling that a lot of care and attention has been lavished on the selection of these stories and their presentation in the book. It really is a superb collection, definitely something to look forward to.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’ll be her collected stories, I suspect. A couple of her early ones are a bit uneven — but even so, it’s always interesting to follow a writer’s development over time.

      Reply
  9. Caroline

    I own the same collection Guy mentions. I think it was a mistake as it’s so hard to hold. I only read the The Rose, The Mauve, The White and liked it as much as you did. I might go and read Summer Schools and The Letter-Writers they both sound so good. She has such a sharp eye.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It is a bit of chunkster, that book! Mind you, it’s nice to have all her stories together in one place, especially if you want to read them in chronological order. I loved The Letter-Writers and I’m sure you will too – definitely one of the highlights of the Blush section for me. Yes, she was such a great observer of people and situations. And so economical with her prose, too – she had that ability to portray so much about a character by the way they spoke or carried themselves in company.

      Reply
  10. Reese Warner

    I’ve been reading and loving her novels and have the NYRB volume on my TBR pile. I’m less of a short story person, but I may have to get reading. Thanks for the review!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome! I think you’ll find lots of similarities between the novels and these short stories, particularly Taylor’s insights into her characters’ inner lives. I do hope you enjoy them.

      Reply
  11. Pingback: My Reading List for The Classics Club | JacquiWine's Journal

  12. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

Leave a comment or reply - I'd love to hear your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.