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Hands across the Tea-shop Table

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Sometimes in the long summer’s evenings, which are so marked a part of our youth, Harriet and Vesey played hide-and-seek with the younger children, running across the tufted meadows, their shoes yellow with the pollen of buttercups. They could not run fast across those uneven fields; nor did they wish to, since to find the hiding children was to lose their time together, to run faster was to run away from one another. The jog-trot was a game devised from shyness and uncertainty. Neither dared to assume that the other wished to pause and inexperience barred them both from testing this.

I first read A Game of Hide and Seek in my teens, at about the same age as Harriet and Vesey, running through the buttercup field in those opening lines, and I loved it so much that it hurt. For years I could hardly look at the dust jacket on the Book Club edition of 1951, given to my mother by her favourite niece, without an ache of the sadness and longing which Elizabeth Taylor so powerfully evokes in the story of two people who have always loved one another, but who will never be together.

I read it again in my thirties and still fell under its spell. One might despise Vesey, as other characters do, for his strangeness – his very name; his unappetizing white skin, gnat-bitten on those summer evenings; his casual rudeness and cruelties, both to the family with whom he stays in school holidays and to Harriet, who loves him so – and yet, like Harriet, I found him mesmerizing.

With the publication in 2009 of Nicola Beauman’s excellent biography, The Other Elizabeth Taylor, I read the novel again, and this time was disenchanted. It felt stiff, contrived, full of set pieces. But this year, in Philip Hensher’s Penguin collection of British short stories, I came upon Taylor’s gloriously sharp and funny

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Sometimes in the long summer’s evenings, which are so marked a part of our youth, Harriet and Vesey played hide-and-seek with the younger children, running across the tufted meadows, their shoes yellow with the pollen of buttercups. They could not run fast across those uneven fields; nor did they wish to, since to find the hiding children was to lose their time together, to run faster was to run away from one another. The jog-trot was a game devised from shyness and uncertainty. Neither dared to assume that the other wished to pause and inexperience barred them both from testing this.

I first read A Game of Hide and Seek in my teens, at about the same age as Harriet and Vesey, running through the buttercup field in those opening lines, and I loved it so much that it hurt. For years I could hardly look at the dust jacket on the Book Club edition of 1951, given to my mother by her favourite niece, without an ache of the sadness and longing which Elizabeth Taylor so powerfully evokes in the story of two people who have always loved one another, but who will never be together. I read it again in my thirties and still fell under its spell. One might despise Vesey, as other characters do, for his strangeness – his very name; his unappetizing white skin, gnat-bitten on those summer evenings; his casual rudeness and cruelties, both to the family with whom he stays in school holidays and to Harriet, who loves him so – and yet, like Harriet, I found him mesmerizing. With the publication in 2009 of Nicola Beauman’s excellent biography, The Other Elizabeth Taylor, I read the novel again, and this time was disenchanted. It felt stiff, contrived, full of set pieces. But this year, in Philip Hensher’s Penguin collection of British short stories, I came upon Taylor’s gloriously sharp and funny ‘In and Out the Houses’, in which she portrays the vicissitudes of village life through the activities of a clever little girl. Once more I reread A Game of Hide and Seek – set in a Buckinghamshire village and market town. I remembered its visceral importance in my younger days, and knew I must write about it. The novel is set in the 1920s and 1940s. Both world wars are elided, the one before it opens, the other between one chapter and the next, but in the background is the fierce struggle of the suffragettes, when Lilian, Harriet’s mother, had been sent to prison. A clever, principled woman, widowed young, she despairs of her daughter, who has left school without an exam or an ambition, and sends her to help look after the two children of Caroline Macmillan, one-time fellow suffragette, still dearest friend. It is in this worthy, book-lined, vegetarian household that Harriet falls for Vesey, nephew of Caroline’s husband. Vesey is waiting to go up to Oxford. His father has long been absent; his mother, a London beautician, has long neglected him. Like Harriet he is directionless, unmoored; unlike her, he is educated and clever, confessing to her that his real ambition is to be a writer. All her focus during this summer is on him, but for much of the time she has no idea if her feelings are reciprocated. By turns he is languid, mischievous (encouraging the children to eat meat on an outing), teasing, suddenly perceptive. They walk and talk; the children are always with them. One afternoon they come upon a deserted old house and, in a sunlit, dusty bedroom, exchange a passionate kiss. Neither can quite believe this has happened. But within two days Caroline, discovering the meat episode, has asked Vesey to leave. Suddenly awkward again, their goodbyes are polite exchanges. Harriet mourns terribly, hears nothing. She goes to work in a gown shop: a vividly written episode with past-it older women taking a keen interest in their younger colleague – particularly once she begins to go out with Charles Jephcott. He, a solicitor with a broken engagement behind him, has come to live in the village with his mother Julia, a retired actress clinging to past glories. She invites Lilian and Harriet to tea; Charles falls for Harriet’s innocence and lost air; when her mother becomes suddenly ill and dies, she knows he will look after her. In a very short time they are married. When we meet her again, Harriet is transformed. A mature, well-read and accomplished wife and mother, she runs a lovely home, complete with mother’s help and cleaning lady; gives dinner parties, sits on committees, attends meetings at her daughter Betsy’s school. This comfortable, ordered life is disturbed when Vesey – who dropped out of Oxford – reappears. He has become not a writer but an actor, living an impoverished life in rep: Hamlet has come to Market Swanford. They meet again; Harriet takes Betsy to the play. And now the unspoken love of their youth is unstoppably reignited. In this story of a provincial married woman who longs for what she cannot have, two great literary influences are immediately apparent. One is Madame Bovary, the other Brief Encounter. That unforgettable film clearly stands behind all the snatched and secret meetings Harriet and Vesey have in London, where he has his wretched digs: the railway station and freezing trains, the foggy lamp-lit streets, the hands across the tea-shop table. It stands, too, behind the agonized conversations between Harriet and good, solid, wounded Charles. Elizabeth Taylor saw the film in 1946, but the origins of the love triangle explored in A Game of Hide and Seek lie far deeper. She spent much of her life fending off questions about the relationship between her life and her books, and with good reason. A complex, clever, interesting woman, she was, in her early twenties, something of a free spirit, a creative person in embryo. She tutored the bright little son of Dilwyn Knox (see SF no. 49) and made herself useful at Pigotts, the nearby studio of Eric Gill. Surprisingly, she then married, as Nicola Beauman eloquently puts it, not the corduroy trousers of a bohemian but the Daily Telegraph. In 1936 she became the wife of John Taylor, the respectable, well-off son of a local sweet manufacturer. In that same year she joined the Communist Party. Set against the domestic intimacies of her fiction, this fact is also startling. But perhaps Pigotts had radicalized her, and, though ‘never a joiner’, she was clear about her reasons. ‘I did not see why economic freedom would not lead to the other more important liberties – of speech and thought and expression,’ she wrote after the war, and she threw herself into meetings, selling the Daily Worker on the streets of High Wycombe with a young working-class comrade, Ray Russell. Within a year, she had fallen deeply in love. ‘I didn’t know I had the capacity for loving anyone as I love you,’ she wrote to him, and she continued to love him for years, while outwardly living the life of a writer who was also a contented wife and mother. It was a meeting of minds, as well as a passionate affair, and their long conversations explored questions of artistic practice, as well as politics. She joined the Left Book Club and for a long time felt that her own (so far unpublished) writing should be politically engaged. But in 1943 she wrote to Ray, ‘What utter cock it all was. We had only to look around us to see what literature is. What it does not do is reflect contemporary history. All the great novels shriek this to the housetops . . . Only private life is there, how this and that person lived.’ She left the Party in 1948. And in 1951 A Game of Hide and Seek appeared, its focus almost exclusively on the private life, on a woman torn – as she herself must have been – between the claims of duty and passion. ‘An uneventful life, thank God,’ she told the world, concealing what was perhaps the greatest event of her life. It found its coded way into this novel, which Elizabeth Bowen hailed as her finest. Not everyone agreed. Blanche Knopf, her US editor, wanted many minor characters cut out, and the focus to be tighter. And after all my rereadings, I do find it flawed. There are small but abrasive carelessnesses: Betsy, the daughter, has her own long story, but unaccountably she is not in the house during a crucial scene between her parents. It is as if she had never existed. Then, on the rain-swept journey to their first weekend away, Harriet tells Vesey, ‘All my relations are near Oxford.’ Really? Who they? Until now she has been presented as quite without family once her mother has died. One or two larger things are unconvincing. So sensitively has Taylor portrayed Harriet as a hesitant, yearning, uneducated adolescent that it’s hard to believe that in adult life she becomes so mature in her duties. Would she not shrink from meetings with Betsy’s teachers, when her own schooldays had been so hopeless? Would she really be a useful committee person? And so on. Yet, as a novel of its times, it still has extraordinary power. Taylor’s great strength is atmosphere – a hallmark of romantic fiction, and this is undeniably a romantic novel. And if one had to point to one moment in the whole which lifts it above so much else, it is the ending. I shall not reveal it, but only say that the uncertainty all at once stirred by those subtle Chekhovian lines (and Chekhov was another great influence on Elizabeth Taylor) is indeed a masterstroke.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 58 © Sue Gee 2018


About the contributor

Sue Gee’s latest novel, Trio, features a group of young musicians in the 1930s, and is undeniably romantic.

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