I finished Elizabeth Taylor’s The Sleeping Beauty recently, the second Taylor novel I’ve read in a few months. I like reading multiple books by the same author like this — I did this also with Muriel Spark recently — but I don’t do it much. Too many other books by new authors I haven’t read before are out there enticing me to try them. But spending a little more time with an author than just one book yields so many insights into the way that author works. To put it in boring English teacher terms, you can do some comparing and contrasting and draw some deeper conclusions.
I’m seeing about Taylor that she writes about middle-aged women very well; both books I’ve read have women of that age at their center. The Sleeping Beauty has a younger woman as a love interest — the sleeping beauty herself, but at least as interesting is Isabella, a widow with a grown son, who hopes to be the love interest and is disappointed. In a Summer Season tells about a woman who has married a significantly younger man and how this enlivens and disrupts her rather sedate life. Taylor writes about middle-class sexual repression and expression extremely well. The Sleeping Beauty isn’t set in a town called Seething for nothing. Isabella and her friend Evalie spend a significant amount of time and money on beauty treatments trying to make themselves look younger and more sexually attractive, all the while interfering when they can in the love lives of others. The class issue arises most clearly when Isabella insults her son’s girlfriend, who is a nanny, and therefore unacceptable for her educated, talented son. Another character, Rose, does what she can to keep her sister Emily locked up in the prison of her home, keeping her from wandering out into the larger world where she might meet a man who will take her away.
And yet the surface of Taylor’s novels is serene and quiet. Both books took a while to get some momentum, and, although events do happen in them, they don’t happen often and they aren’t described dramatically. These are books that you should read slowly, because if you rush through them, you might miss the subtle dynamics of a conversation, which is where the story lies. Taylor excels at writing scenes charged with emotion, but with emotion that is usually kept hidden, below the surface. She is at her best in The Sleeping Beauty describing a particularly excruciating tea with Isabella, her son, his girlfriend, and two other guests, an event that goes so horribly wrong I’m left cringing at the brutality of it, even though no actual violence occurs. Middle-class decorum is forever at odds with jealousy, fear, and fury. And hypocrisy — Isabel and Evalie condemn gambling one moment and the next moment are whispering to each other about what horse to bet on. They both project self-satisfaction and self-righteousness, but their actions are, arguably, the cruelest in the novel.
I like the way Taylor shows the dark side of lives that seem so sedate and ordinary. Behind any normal-looking comfortable small-town or country home can lurk suffering and longing and regret. And most of all — interesting stories.