I have just finished reading ‘Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont’ by Elizabeth Taylor – and cannot imagine how I have managed to get to this stage in life without reading it before. But then, as Taylor is described in the notes in my paperback copy, she is ‘the unsung heroine of British 20th century fiction.’ Born in 1912, working as a governess and librarian before her marriage in 1936, she spent almost all her life living in Penn, Buckinghamshire, publishing 12 novels, 5 volumes of short stories and a children’s story. And although she gained some regard and popularity as a novelist during her lifetime, hers is a name that so many seem to overlook when considering the great writers of a generation.
Possibly because she writes so quietly. Brilliantly, accurately, sensitively – and with an economy of language that puts most of us to shame – and there are no gimmicks. No tricks or teases. Simply an evocation of mood, atmosphere, moment and emotion so that each character in ‘Mrs Palfrey’ can be seen, imagined, lived with. And a story, of course. There is no sacrifice of plot and story when defining and drawing her desperately real, domestically tragic characters. And all in a mere 200 pages or so.
Or then again, perhaps she is overlooked or delegated to a minor status because she is a woman.
Persephone Books in Lamb’s Conduit Street in London is a wonderful treasure trove of a bookshop for discovering so many of these ‘unsung heroines of British 20th century fiction’ that Persephone Books uncovers and publishes. And of course their beautifully produced and presented books are available online too. But shuffling around their tiny, intimate and informal shop – more like a writer’s study than a commercial enterprise – somehow makes the discovery of some of these writers all the more rewarding. Of course there are the well-known names: Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Von Arnim- but what about the others that have slipped out of libraries, book shops and memories? Dorothy Whipple, Cicely Hamilton, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Mollie Panter-Downes, Jocelyn Playfair – I could go on and on. And there’s also the discovery of some novels for adults by writers that we only associate with children’s fiction – who knew that Noel Streatfield wrote a novel called ‘Saplings’ and that Enid Bagnold wrote ‘The Squire?’ Perhaps, once they had written their first successful children’s novel these writers were pigeon-holed and their adult novels deprived the attention they deserved and consequently sunk into oblivion.
Recently, I read one of Persephone Books’ non-fiction titles: ‘A Woman’s Place 1910-1975’ by Ruth Adam. This is a highly accessible social history by Adam, a novelist-historian, and, of course, reading it now with the hindsight of over 40 years makes it all the more fascinating. It also introduced me to so many women from the past who were striving for a more equable society a hundred years ago. We all know about the Pankhursts, Millicent Fawcett and Emily Wilding Davison -but what about Josephine Butler, Mary Macarthur, Mary Agnes Hamilton, Eleanor Rathbone and their like? Ruth Adam’s book invites us to know so much more about the women in the last century intrinsic to forming the society we find ourselves living in as women today. Names, like so many on Persephone’s lists, that have been largely forgotten by our present generation.
As a writer and reader, I know I will now be reading everything else I can find by Elizabeth Taylor, in sheer admiration for her understated, poignant and precise prose. If you haven’t already discovered her (and perhaps I have been very slow and you are all way ahead of me and signed up members of her fan club)I highly recommend her. And I also intend to work my way through many of the writers now published by Persephone who deserve attention and recognition in the 21st century.