Tuesday, 1 May 2012
The event was sold-out, hardcore Taylor fans having travelled from all over the country. No surprise to find Simon there and it was lovely to meet Dovegreyreader who was leading the session on Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont.
It could hardly have been a better day had Elizabeth Taylor - famously shy - been there herself. But how she would have hated it, said her daughter; there's no way she would have agreed to attend. The speakers included both of Taylor's children - her daughter Joanna Kingham and son Renny Taylor - and apparently there were grandchildren and even great-grandchildren in the audience. And how poignant it was to hear Elizabeth Jane Howard speak so movingly of her late friend. 'We never talked about our writing. Ever,' she said. 'I didn't dare to. I felt very much in awe of her. And she didn't want to.'
The family reminiscences were fascinating. Taylor wrote by hand in cardboard-covered exercise books. 'It didn't interfere with her being a housewife,' said her son. 'If we came home, she'd put the books away and start cooking.' If she overheard anything interesting when she was on a bus, she scribbled it down on the back of her shopping list. And whoever would have thought that the ladylike Mrs Taylor was a very good pub darts player? Her son bought her a workman's donkey jacket and daubed it with fluorescent paint so that she wouldn't get knocked down on the busy country road to the pub.
But the lumbering, great elephant in the room ... all the more evident for being unmentioned all day, to the point where really it was ridiculous not to acknowledge that it was there ... was Nicola Beauman's very affectionate, even hagiographic, biography The Other Elizabeth Taylor. Which was all too obviously not on sale on the bookstall. But I'm not afraid of elephants so I broached it with Joanna Kingham to ask whether she had mellowed towards the book since it came out. She hadn't. Nicola Beauman is 'that dreadful woman.'
The biography was originally authorised by Elizabeth Taylor's husband, but Nicola Beauman delayed its publication for many years until after his death. She acknowledges that Taylor's son and daughter are 'very angry and distressed' and want nothing to do with it. Joanna Kingham said that she felt the book was unfair to her father, and it's understandable that she would feel that way. She criticised what seems a fairly minor inaccuracy, if inaccuracy it is, claiming that the character Dermot, from In a Summer Season was not based on David Blakely who was murdered by Ruth Ellis; a difference of opinion that Beauman has freely acknowledged in a footnote. Of course, it is the family's prerogative not to cooperate with a biographer, but why complain about inaccuracy if you have refused to correct it?
Finally, Nicola Beauman stands accused ... and I'm afraid only politeness stopped me from laughing ... of 'digging around like one of those journalists,' (Elizabeth Jane Howard's words, in an aside; the only time the biography was mentioned all day) and had the temerity to have spoken to some of Taylor's old schoolfriends.
Poor Nicola Beauman ... she would make a very feeble journalist. Of Taylor's lover Ray Russell, she wrote, describing what seems to have been a life blighted by the ending of their affair, 'It is impossible for the biographer to ask, cheerfully, and how did you feel in the late '40s and early '50s as you nursed your broken heart ... ? This one cannot do.'
For heaven's sake, I muttered, when I read this. (Okay. What I really said was, Bloody hell, you stupid woman, stop pussy-footing around.) Of course, you can ask - although 'cheerfully' is possibly not the best way to approach it.
It is sad, of course, that people should be angry and distressed. I felt that Nicola Beauman was very restrained and, at the very least, has written a long overdue biography of a brilliant and neglected writer, tiptoeing or blundering - depending on how you view it - through a minefield of issues of ownership and control. (I do think that Ray Russell had every right to make his correspondence with Taylor available. It was his story, too.)
Well, I know what I'd have done ... publish and be damned.