‘It changed my life!’ people sometimes exclaim about a book. While I am fairly certain that has never happened to me, a book certainly changed my book. In the summer of 2004 I had finished writing a history of the home front in the Second World War. The manuscript was overdue and overlong, but at last it was in production and making a lot of work for everyone to ensure that it could be published in time for Christmas.
Then one evening, sitting in the garden, I began to read At Mrs Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor. And I knew I’d found what I didn’t know I was looking for, in three sentences at the beginning of Chapter 4:
Julia . . . noticed thick drops of blood running from the shopping bag. The Daily Worker (for Eleanor now veered towards class-consciousness under the influence of a visiting carpentry master) is an admirable newspaper in many ways, but for wrapping up any meat other than imported pork it is entirely inadequate. When she had unstuck the liver from the racing pages she sped upstairs . . . ‘I don’t like to have our meat wrapped in other people’s newspapers,’ said Roddy, meaning newspapers that have probably been read by the working-class.
It was a perfect small, barbed distillation of wartime conditions, uniting rationing, class, politics and fear of the future. It would have to go into my book as an epigraph, and the chapter it prefaced would have to be rewritten and reordered, to make it obvious why Taylor’s vignette was so sublime – so right. So, to gloss over the difficulties, that is what happened. It was just as Elizabeth Taylor had written to Elizabeth Bowen – a writer she greatly admired, and who greatly admired her – in 1949: ‘You rake up the dead leaves in our hearts and say many things which we did not know how to say ourselves . . .’
At Mrs Lippincote’s was Elizabeth Taylor’s first book, published in 1945. She had written
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