A Game of Hide and Seek: Elizabeth Taylor

I’ve read four Elizabeth Taylor novels so far. Loved a couple of them and liked the others. A Game of Hide and Seek–a subtle, clever novel about middle-aged regret falls into the latter category.

The novel opens with its two central characters, Vesey and Harriet during the holidays in the countryside. Vesey is going off to Oxford in the autumn, “his next steps would take him over the threshold of a new and promising world” but for the moment he’s staying with his aunt Caroline and Uncle Hugo and their two children, Deirdre and Joseph. Former suffragette Caroline is best friends with Harriet’s mother, Lilian, and both women were once arrested for their beliefs. There’s the sense that there’s an immense gap between generations. Harriet “fulfilled none of the ambitious desires” of her mother, and Vesey is an annoyance to his uncle:

Hugo Macmillan had still much of that poetic ebullience which distinguished so many young men just before the 1914 war. He suggested in middle-age, a type of masculinity now perhaps vanished to the world; the walking tours in perfect spring weather, Theocritus in pocket: an aesthetic virility. He had gone on being Rupert Brooke all through the war–a tremendous achievement–and was only now, much later, finding his enthusiasms hardening into prejudices and, sometimes, especially with Vesey, into a techy disapproval of what he did not understand. His old-fashioned liberalism now contained elements of class-hatred; his patriotism had become the most arrogant nationalism. His love and sympathy for the women of his youth, his support in their fight for a wider kind of life, made him unsympathetic to the younger women who came after. Every feminality these young girls (he even called them Flappers) felt free to adopt and they were fewer than usual at that time) he openly despised.

Although Taylor never overworks this idea, there’s the sense that this younger generation are a disappointment for their elders: Hugo, who fought and survived WWI, feels “antagonism” for Vesey’s “laziness and his cynicism.” These days feminism is “a weird abnormality,” and Caroline and Lillian wonder what they fought for.

a game of hide and seekLong summer days are spent by Vesey and Harriet playing hide-and-seek with the children and while the game spins away the hours, it’s also a way for 18-year-old Vesey and Harriet to spend time together alone. Harriet is in love with Vesey, but Vesey looks forward to what he assumes is his brilliant future. While Caroline predicts a mediocre academic career for Vesey, he imagines himself as an influential “literary figure [rather] than as a man at work.” There’s an arrogance there that translates to occasional cruelty towards Harriet. Harriet’s romance with Vesey is brought to an abrupt halt, and Harriet begins work as a junior shop assistant in a dress shop. The “senior” assistants are all single women, desperate and rather sad, given to extreme beauty treatments geared towards increasing their shelf life–including man-eater Miss Lazenby who “was always plucking her eyebrows ” until she “had scarcely any eyebrows left, only an inflamed expanse.”

Harriet is gently courted by solicitor Charles Jephcott, a much older man who assumes a fatherly role rather than a romantic one. Charles is boring, respectable, courteous–everything probably to balance the outrageousness of his famous actress mother, Julia, whose main goal in life, and one in which she succeeds admirably, is to “draw attention to herself.” And so, at a bad time in her life, and because she has loved and lost,  Harriet agrees to marry Charles.

Fast forward almost twenty years, and Vesey, now a down-on-his-heels, second-rate actor returns, and all of Harriet’s feelings are reawakened….

A Game of Hide and Seek has some marvellously drawn scenes, for example when Charles insists Harriet attend a performance of Hamlet with Vesey playing Laertes. Charles knows full well that the play will be shabby, and he hopes that the performance will take some of the gilt from Vesey. Possibly the best aspect of the novel is its wonderful secondary characters: the shop assistants at the dress shop, the Jephcott’s Dutch servant Elke, who writes long letters home explaining her confusion about the English, Harriet’s daughter, Betsey who appears to have inherited her grandmother’s histrionic tendencies, and Charles’s awful mother Julia who finds Harriet “dull and slavish,” as she “hovers round [Charles] like a Praying Mantis.” She’s waiting for the marriage to crack and is delighted by the idea that her daughter-in-law might have a lover.

The novel, while exploring the depths of a revived love affair, is not sentimental or even romantic. Instead the novel asks questions such as: Do we get second chances in love?  Or is there a point at which it’s too late to begin again? There’s something very poignant about Vesey, twenty years on, stripped of his youthful arrogance, and what of Harriet who is afraid of showing her middle-aged body?

While I really liked the novel, and find that it sits well in my memory, I couldn’t help the sneaking thought that the sum of the story was not equal to its parts. The secondary characters remain very strongly in my mind, and their creation required a sharp, wicked sense of humour. However, for this reader, I wasn’t entirely convinced that Vesey would have fallen for the middle-aged Harriet any more than he fell for the 18-year-old version–although I did contemplate that perhaps she represented, for him, the moment in his youth when he thought he had the world at his feet. Living with Charles for twenty years has caused his dullness to infect Harriet, and although we know that she’s unhappy and unfulfilled, yet still I wasn’t convinced that Vesey was ever serious about Harriet. But then again, perhaps he wasn’t….Back to that game of hide-and-seek.

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15 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Taylor, Elizabeth

15 responses to “A Game of Hide and Seek: Elizabeth Taylor

  1. Jonathan

    I had issues with the main plot and characters but Taylor’s style and supporting characters were brilliant. I read ‘Mrs Palfrey’ afterwards and loved that one. I’ll certainly try some more of her books – I may try some short stories.

  2. Mrs P was the first Taylor I read and then I decided that I’d discovered someone I’d really enjoy. The next novel … not so much. This one seemed to just miss being really excellent.

  3. I haven’t read this one but I think I can identify with your feelings about teh sum of the parts. I’ve felt with Elizabeth Taylor before that each book is really just another “being Elizabeth Taylor” exercise- she writes so well and is so acute that you enjoy it, but at the end there’s a certain deja vu.

  4. I’m a little worried that I may have started with the best of Elizabeth Taylor as Mrs Palfrey was simply excellent. All the characters were very distinctive and finely drawn: Mrs P, Ludo and each member of the supporting cast. Nevertheless, I’m very keen to try a few of her other novels. Glad you’ve reviewed this one as it’s useful to get a feel for its strengths and limitations. A View of the Harbour kept coming up in the conversation when I was reading Mr P; three or four people recommended it to me and I get the feeling it’s one of her best-loved novels. It’ll probably be my next Taylor.

  5. I have heard very good things about Elizabeth Taylor and I want to read her books.

    The plot of this one sounds very good. I do believe in the second chance rekindled love thing only because I have heard of it happening in real life. On the other hand if it was not presented in a believable way, it would get in the way of my enjoyment of a book. Thus, this might not be the best Taylor novel for me to begin with.

  6. OK, so Mrs Palfrey is a better place to start. (or not because then you’ve read the best one from the start?)
    From your review, the main characters seem a little dull.

    • Mrs P is the one I’ve liked best so far, so it all depends on if you want to go straight to that. Jacqui is right. After that one, none of the others, for me, have hit that pitch, so I wonder the same thing as Jacqui ‘did I read the best one first?’

  7. I loved this when I read it earlier this year. I can’t say I liked it less than Mrs. Palfrey. But I agree, the parts are in a way better than the whole. I loved the mood in tis one.

  8. Hm, I definitely intend to read Mrs Palfrey, not sure about this though. I may be a one-Taylor reader.

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