It’s week four of our read-along of “In a Summer Season” by Elizabeth Taylor, and hopefully everyone is getting along well with the book. This week I would like to consider a slightly controversial aspect of the novel as highlighted in Nicola Beaman’s biography of the writer. I suppose I should nail my colours to the mast here and state that I rate the biography very highly. I think Beauman did a remarkable job of presenting a balanced and fair book, straying on the side of discretion and handling the objections of the family as best she could. I accept that for some reason Taylor’s son and daughter objected to the book, but bearing in mind that Taylor’s husband had given his permission, I cannot see why. It’s not as if Beauman was portraying Taylor as a mad axe-murdered or child-abuser, after all, and it can’t be said that her behaviour resembled that of the narrator of “The Aspern Papers”! However, accepting that there are differing opinions, if you aren’t happy with the elements of the Beauman biog it may be best to look away now!

According to Beauman, in the mid 1950s while the Taylor family were living in Penn Cottage, they were friendly with the Blakely family. The son, David, is best known nowadays as having been killed by Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain. This is not the place to debate the rights and wrongs of the case or the hanging – I would simply refer you to the case of Edith Thompson and advise a reading of F. Tennyson Jesse’s “A Pin to See The Peepshow” (incidentally one of the best books I have ever read). But David was a friend of the Taylor family, had spent time with Elizabeth’s son Renny while he was ill, and Beauman asserts that the character of Dermot is based on David Blakely. Taylor’s daughter disputes this, but whatever the truth, Beauman quotes a letter from Taylor to Ivy Compton-Burnett admitting that she had been attracted to David and much of IASS is concerned with the aspect of the attractions of a younger man for an older woman. David Blakely was no young innocent (Wikipedia describes him as a hard-drinking racer, and he is reported to have beaten his girlfriend) and Dermot in IASS has some traits in common with him, with his fast cars and constant need for the nearest pub or bottle of whisky. Indeed, Dermot’s fecklessness and bad behaviour is portrayed as attractive and indulged at the start of the book but becomes dangerous and even fatal by the climax.

The milieu the characters occupy is that in which Taylor and her friends and family moved, and it is hard not to feel that Taylor is using her life and her surroundings in her art. Nicola Beauman considers this to be one of Taylor’s strongest books owing to the fact that she was writing about characters and places she knew well. I tend to agree with this view and I actually felt that this is the best Taylor I have read so far. But it is a common tendency in readers to conflate the writer and his/her characters and so it is hard to actually quantify how much of her own life Taylor put into her books.

So many of the Virago books we read could be described as presenting everyday life as art, and it occurs to me that this might be a particularly female type of writing.  Of course, I do feel that all authors use their lives in their work to a varying degree, and because of the limitations and constrictions of women’s lives in the past, their experience would be largely domestic. What do other readers think?

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