I promised a Virago Modern Classic, and a Virago Modern Classic I will deliver. I’ve already read a couple Elizabeth Taylor novels, Angel and Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont (click on the titles if you fancy reading my thoughts on them, but to summarise – they’re very good) and Nicola Beauman’s biography of Elizabeth Taylor, but there’s plenty of way to go – and when my supervisor told me I should take a look at A Game of Hide and Seek, how could I resist?
The ‘game’ in question is both literal and metaphorical. The novel opens with Harriet and Vesey (query: is this actually a name?) playing a game of hide-and-seek – and this game follows them throughout the rest of their lives… they chase each other, misunderstanding each other’s emotions and failing to say the right thing at the right times, and often saying the wrong thing. Vesey goes to Oxford; Harriet remains behind – and marries somebody else. Later, of course, Vesey reappears – and the same old feelings reappear as well.
I didn’t really want to write out the plot of A Game of Hide and Seek because, like so many of the best novels, the plot isn’t that important. A thousand novelists have written novels with this plot (for another good one, see EM Delafield’s Late and Soon) and explored the emotions that such a recrudescence can have. But few of them will have Elizabeth Taylor’s talent.
Confession time: I read the first half of this on the bus to and from London, and wasn’t very excited about it. I was tired, I had a headache, I was reading the words but not really getting anything out of it. It was only when I returned, busless, to my reading that I understood what an exceptionally well written novel A Game of Hide and Seek was. Taylor excels at the metaphor which is unusual and yet exactly conveys an image. One of my favourites was this:
Harriet tried to put on a polite and considering look. She loved the music, but could not allow herself to enjoy it among strangers. Sunk too far back in her too large chair, she felt helpless, like a beetle turned on its back; and as if she could never rise again, nor find the right phrases of appreciation. How many authors would think of that image, of a beetle turned on its back? And yet it works so very well. That is, to my mind, what sets Taylor apart from other authors – and makes it hard to explain exactly why – that she writes the sort of novel that many could write, but concentrates so much on avoiding cliche and finding new life in her characters, that she is on another level. Another example? It’s always difficult to ‘show’ good writing, isn’t it? But this is a paragraph I highlighted as being representative – the sort of writing which one has to read slowly, to enjoy it fully. The fog lay close to the windows. The train seemed to be grovelling its way towards London, but the banks on either side were obscured. Harriet wondered if they were passing open fields or the backs of factories, and she cleaned a space on the window with her glove, but all she could see reflected were her own frightened eyes.You can just tell that every word is carefully chosen, can’t you? This is all sounding a bit earnest, so I’m also going to quote my favourite line from the novel, which is often humorous as well as serious: “The meat has over-excited them,” Harriet thought. She had always heard that it inflamed the baser instincts.Quite so, Elizabeth, quite so.
I won’t go over the top, this isn’t the best novel I’ve ever read – but it is some of the best writing that I’ve read for a while. If you chose novels for their plot, you might not think too much of A Game of Hide and Seek. If you chose novels for their writing style and characterisation, this may well be something you’ll love – and admire. Not often that those two can go hand in hand – but Elizabeth Taylor is the woman for the job.