Alex Peake-Tomkinson and Helen Brocklebank discuss Anthony Quinn’s fifth novel, Freya, over breakfast, and ask whether literary prizes still matter.
Kingsley Amis called her “one of the best English novelists born in this century“, Elizabeth Jane Howard envied “any reader coming to her for the first time”, Antonia Fraser called her “one of the most underrated writers of the 20th century”. David Baddiel (Taylor has an eclectic fan base) described her as “the missing link between Jane Austen and John Updike“. My Virago edition of In a Summer Season describes Elizabeth Taylor as ‘quietly distinguished’. Whenever one hears about Taylor, her talent is often qualified by ‘quiet’ or ‘hidden’ – perhaps it’s because she writes about comfortable, middle-class lives, but beneath the polite surface seethes passion, anger, betrayals. They are funny and savage; as Rachel Cooke, another of her fans, says “For her characters, as for their author, propriety is a survival mechanism, a way of keeping the show on the road.”
In a Summer Season is the story of Kate Heron, affluent and charming, married for the second time to a younger man, Dermot, in whom the Protestant work ethic is not strong, and who often likes to get in a second pre-lunch drink whilst he thinks no one is looking. It seems a mismatch to the idle gossipers in the pub, and to Kate’s daughter, Lou, who can’t see that, although unconventional, their marriage is a happy one. On a short break in the Cotswolds they “gave rise to much conjecture in bar parlours where they sat drinking alone, not talking much, though clearly intent upon each other. a strangely matched pair, it was thought. The difference in their ages puzzled the country people, who were convinced -by their too positive happiness – of something illicit between them.” Their love arms them against the world until it is disrupted when an old friend of Kate comes back into their lives.
Nicola Beauman, of Persephone Books, has written a tremendously well-researched biography of Taylor, but perhaps start with her novels: Sleeping Beauty or Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont join In a Summer Season as three of her best.
Buy: In a Summer Season, Elizabeth Taylor