Born in London in 1930, the English writer Elisabeth Russell Taylor – not to be confused with the other Elizabeth Taylor – wrote six novels and three short-story collections during her lifetime. The most prominent of these is perhaps Tomorrow, first published in 1991 and reissued by Daunt Books in 2018. Fans of Anita Brookner’s work will find much to enjoy here. It’s an exquisitely written story of love and loss – a deeply poignant lament to the sweeping away of a glorious existence, a world of innocence and sanctuary in the run-up to WW2.
Tomorrow revolves around Elisabeth Danzinger, a quiet, solitary forty-year-old woman who works as a housekeeper in London. Every summer, Elisabeth returns to The Tamarisks, a beautifully furnished guest house on the Danish island of Møn, a place that holds many memories of a once-idyllic past, particularly the time she spent there with her cousin and lover, Daniel Eberhardt.
Early in the novel, we learn of Elisabeth’s family background, which is highly significant to the story. During the interwar years, Elisabeth’s father, Jurgen – a man of Aryan stock – taught English at a northern German University. By contrast, her mother, Anna, had a very different upbringing, hailing from a wealthy, cultured German Jewish family in Baden-Baden. Also relevant here are the Danzingers’ close relatives, the Eberhardts, due to the multiple connections between the two families. While Jurgen was teaching English in Germany, Horst Eberhardt – his best friend since their modest shared childhood in Hunsrück – specialised in Italian at the same university. Moreover, Horst’s wife, Charlotte, was in fact Anna’s twin sister – another cultured woman who found herself at risk from the growing prejudices against the Jews.
Thinking back to the Hunsrück the men remembered the extent to which their families were indivisible from their land. But they ignored the fact that German soil was being raked over for an unprecedented crop of anti-semitism; that less accomplished academics than they, jealous of their intellectual prowess and material privilege, revelled in the growing uncertainty that, tainted by association through their wives, the two would someday be checked. (p. 21)
In 1927, the Danzingers and the Eberhardts bought two adjacent holiday homes on Møn, partly as a retreat from the hustle and bustle of university life and partly as an insurance policy in case the situation in Europe escalated (which it subsequently did). The Danzingers’ second home was The Tamarisks, a beautiful house designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens in the classic Elizabethan fashion. Meanwhile, the Eberhardts took charge of the nearby Tuscan Villa, which they tastefully furnished in the Italian style.
The bulk of Russell Taylor’s novella takes place over a week in August 1960 as the forty-year-old Elisabeth Danzinger makes her annual trip to Møn. Being a steadfast creature of habit, Elisabeth inhabits the same ‘yellow’ room at The Tamarisks each year; and from there, she makes the same visits to each familiar place on her itinerary, ruminating on deeply ingrained sorrows as she goes about her pilgrimage.
She was filled with an overwhelming sense of loss as she wondered from tree to tree, recognising many, feeling herself accused: she had overstayed her welcome in the world. Life conducted itself independently of her. The scents from the sodden earth filled with an intolerable weight of memory; not that of individual occasions but of the entire past. (pp. 54–55)
During her time on Møn, Elisabeth revisits various personal landmarks – a tree bearing the initials ‘E’ and ‘D’, and a bench inscribed with ‘à l’amitié pure’ (‘in pure friendship’) from a note they made in adolescence – testaments to her relationship with Daniel that have weathered the test of time. In each instance, Elisabeth runs her hands over the markings, contemplating their endurance in a world where so much has changed. There are other reminders of the cousins’ love for one another too, perhaps most notably a box containing a tiny ammonite and a note of the lovers’ bond with one another, hidden away behind the bath panel in Elisabeth’s room.
As this haunting, achingly sad story unfolds, there are flashbacks to 1939 – memories of an idyllic summer Elisabeth and Daniel spent together on Møn while their parents holidayed in South America. Returning to 1939, we follow the cousins as they work on survey of the island, visiting places of interest to take photographs for their collection. Over the summer, the lovers also deepen their shared love of music, planning a programme for a future recital before their time together runs out. Nevertheless, as the political situation in Europe reaches a crisis point, everything these two families hold dear is about to be shattered, their happiness at risk of being obliterated as the Nazis close in…
We know from the novella’s opening that this is a tragic story, but to reveal anything more at this stage might spoil it for potential readers. Elisabeth has a specific reason for these annual pilgrimages to the island, honouring her past with Daniel every August without fail. Once again, the reason for these visits is best left unsaid, enabling future readers to discover this for themselves.
This really is an exquisitely written book, full of painterly images of the mercurial island of Møn – sometimes quiet and peaceful, other times brooding and menacing as signs of darkness burst through the light. Russell Taylor makes excellent use of the unpredictability of the natural world here, harnessing the fickle nature of the sun, wind and sea, elements that can change in outlook in the blink of an eye.
The clouds parted and through them a beam of light fell on Sandweg church. It penetrated a stained-glass window, spreading lozenge shapes of iridescent purple, yellow, red and blue on the tiled floor. And then the clouds re-formed over the sun and the colours vanished, like spilt blood vanishes in the dark at the scene of a crime (p. 81)
Over a barely discernible grey sheet of water was thrown an equally grey shroud of sky, but the shroud was torn in places to reveal streaks of blood red and aquamarine blue. (p. 51)
Tomorrow shares something in common with Hotel du Lac, especially in style and content (although it’s fair to say that Russell Taylor’s novella is more devastating than the Brookner). The settings in particular feel quite similar. For instance, there’s a sense of quiet efficiency about Fru Møller’s management of The Tamarisks, which is reminiscent of the Lac – an austere formality, perhaps, and an air of mutual respect.
Fru Møller’s expertise was nowhere more striking than in the dining-room. She succeeded an exercising complete control over the smooth running of mealtimes without appearing to be more than a vague presence in the Hall. […] At the end of dinner she gently persuaded her guests into the study, where she presided over the Cona coffee machine and orchestrated conversation between strangers. (p. 33)
And, just like the Hotel du Lac, The Tamarisks is frequented by a small coterie of eccentric regulars, idiosyncratic characters that Russell Taylor portrays with a wickedly comic flair. Most notable are the Colonel and his elderly wife Bo-Bo, a former actress who remains frozen in childhood, fussing over her dolls as if they were children with feelings. Bo-Bo’s world revolves around clothes, food and these toy-like figures, while the Colonel remains largely indifferent. In truth, he would like little more than to settle down to a life of companionship with Miss Danzinger, recognising in Elisabeth a like-minded soul.
In Tomorrow, Elisabeth Russell Taylor has gifted us a poignant, achingly sad story conveyed with elegance and grace – a haunting elegy to the loss of a generation as the horrors of Elisabeth’s past and present are gradually revealed. I’m definitely going to keep an eye out for more of this author’s fiction with its melancholy, steely edge.
You’re joking? There’s ANOTHER Elizabeth Taylor who’s an author?
Hard to believe, isn’t it? There’s an interesting obituary here:
Goodness, and she lived in Belsize Park, possibly near where I lived once as a student. How had I never heard of her?
I only came across her when Daunt reissued this a few years ago…Isn’t it funny how some authors (often very good ones) just disappear from view for no apparent reason, other than the whims of publishers and perhaps the prevailing fashions? Now that I’ve experienced Russell Taylor for myself, I’m interested to see what her other books are like, especially the one(s) published by Virago Press.
Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
Sounds very interesting stuff and worth reading too!
Thanks for sharing my post.
Another great find on your part. I looked her up and see she only died in 2020 after living an impressively bohemian life. Well done Daunt books yet again. I see she also wrote a piece for Slightly Foxed, ‘ Attics with Attitude, a hymn to cooking in confined spaces.’
Yes, that’s right! I really want to read that piece she wrote for Slightly Foxed. It sounds right up my alley, so to speak…
Very much like the sound of this, Jacqui, not least for its unusual setting.
I think you’d like this very much, Susan. She writes beautifully about the natural world, capturing something of the beauty and brutality of this island location.
And I’m yet to read the other Elizabeth Taylor as well; This sounds excellent though with the story and conclusion that it seems to have, one will have to brace oneself a little before starting.
Yes, definitely. It’s a little like an iron fist in a velvet glove – quite controlled and precise on the surface with a steeliness underneath…
Oh, wonderful review Jacqui – this sounds marvellous! I think I’ve come across the author’s name before, when searching for the other ET, but I knew nothing about her. The period and setting are very appealing, as are the quotes. I’ll keep the author and this book on my radar!
Thanks, Karen. I found an obituary when I was putting this piece together, if you’re interested in discovering more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/oct/19/elisabeth-russell-taylor-obituary
Funnily enough, there’s a hint of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis about this book, especially in the rarefied atmosphere on the island (a place of sanctuary) as the war creeps ever closer. I couldn’t help but think of Micol as I was reading the flashback scenes with Elisabeth and Daniel. There’s a very similar ‘feel’ to the idyllic summer on Møn…
You’re not making this easy to resist… ;D
Sorry! It is very Brooknerish though, so you might not take to that aspect?
That remains to be seen – I still have to get to the two I bought a little while back – so many other books are getting in the way!!!
That’s what I was thinking. Best for you to try either A Start in Life or Look at Me first to see how you get on… :-)
I have a few titles by this author waiting….
I’ll be interested to hear what you think…
Well how have I not heard of this writer? This sounds like a beautifullly affecting novella. The setting is particularly appealing. Thank you so much for the introduction.
You’re very welcome|! Funnily enough, I’ve been wondering whether you might have read her, especially as a couple of her novels were published as VMCs. Cate (@bleuroses) kindly supplied the titles: Pillion Riders and Mother Country. I’ve ordered a copy of Pillion Riders (readily available from Abe Books etc.) – partly on the strength of Tomorrow and partly because it’s a Virago.
This sounds wonderful Jacqui. I’ve not heard of this author at all, but I very much want to try her now.
Glad you like the sound of it, Madame Bibi. I found this copy in the local Oxfam Bookshop (hooray for the charity shops!), so fingers crossed you’ll be lucky too. :)
I’d not head of her, either, so I’m glad to be slightly late to the party (as always) and see I’m not alone. This sounds amazing, and she’s definitely someone for a lot of us to watch out for.
I only came across her when Daunt reissued this book a few years ago. (I actually remember making a mental note of it at the time as it looked very ‘me’!) She’s definitely a writer I’d like to explore further…
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