"A Game of Hide-and-Seek", first published in 1951, opens in the 1920s. Harriet and Vesey are two teenagers playing the game with their young charges:
"They could not run fast across those uneven fields; nor did they wish to, since to find the hiding children was to lose their time together, to run faster was to run away from one another. The jog-trot was a game devised from shyness and uncertainty. Neither dared to assume that the other wished to pause and inexperience barred them both from testing this."
Harriet is kind and shy whilst Vesey hides his insecurity with selfishness and cruelty. The game with which the book opens is played, in one form or another, throughout their lives which are marked by regret, repression, and things unsaid.
Elizabeth Taylor is a quiet writer, completely in control of her material. A character or a situation can be captured in one perfect sentence. For example a bad repertory performance of "Hamlet" is described thus: "Scene after scene, shot with loveliness, threadbare with use, had lumbered by". Taylor's writing can be both very funny and achingly sad, and her description was such that I felt post-war England being built up street by street in vivid detail.
This is a book that rewards attention since its deceptively simple prose is filled with subtle ironies, implications, and connections. The narrative moves in fits and starts with much action happening off-stage (perhaps another allusion to the title). I agree with another reviewer that this didn't feel as tight as "A Wreath of Roses", and thinking about the book as a whole it seems elusive, not forming a coherent entity. This lack of unity, however, is also a reflection of life which, as the book shows, does not always unroll in a neat satisfying way.
on 7 November 2001
The novel is a love story, and not a happy one, but it is also extremely funny. The main characters, Harriet and Vesey, conduct a love affair mainly in his absence over a period of perhaps fifteen years. In the meantime Harriet takes a job in a gown shop (yes, "gown," not "dress") and marries an older man, Charles, who knows a little about Vesey, just enough to feel constantly undermined by him. The part of the novel dealing with the shop is especially hilarious, with the antics of the other assistants.
Vesey, effete and ineffective, is yet somehow a powerful character who exerts his influence not only over Harriet and Charles, but over their daughter as well. In fact, the daughter is convinced that Vesey is her real father. He is perceived always as a malign influence, whereas the truth is that he never quite has the energy to achieve anything, not even adultery with Harriet.
The minor characters, like Charles' mother Julia, are excellent. Julia is a former actress and a great drama queen still - quite a nasty piece of work. At one point she makes a reference to the film "Brief Encounter," which is unlike any other you will come across. The former suffragette Caroline and her husband Hugo, who had spent 1914-18 as a Rupert Brooke replica, are also very funny. Caroline is alarmingly principled and is self-righteous; Hugo is resigned: "He knew she was a good wife, though a bore." The principles in this case revolve around a nut-rissole, Caroline being of course a vegetarian.
The novel's end is ambiguous, and I have never been able to decide "what happens."
on 14 October 2014
This is a novel that means something different to a reader at different ages (I have read it about a dozen times, and my hard back copy, which cost 10p years ago from a jumble sale, is falling apart).
The story is really distressing, telling of wasted lives, missed opportunities, ageing, time passing, and difficult relationships within families. Without the flashes of humour, it would be unbearable, though often the humour has a hard edge.
The heroine of Sue Gee’s novel 'Coming Home' borrows 'A Game of Hide and Seek' from Boots’ lending library, describing it as a love story. It is, but it is more than that.
The plot concerns a long-unconsummated affair between childhood almost-sweethearts Harriet and Vesey. There is something a little 'Brief Encounter'-ish about it; there is even a scene on a train, and a reference to the film.
In the novel are at least four only children, and some awkward parent-child relationships. Even the one solid marriage, that between Hugo and Caroline (he a dashing Rupert Brooke type figure, she an ex-Suffragette, excessively principled) has its moments. ‘He knew that she was a good wife, though a bore,’ thinks Hugo at one point, after a silly argument about the last nut rissole.
Vesey, however, they think, lacks backbone. He seems to be related to Piers Longridge in Barbara Pym’s novel 'A Glass of Blessings,' both of them gifted and charismatic characters who somehow fail to make a material success of life. When Vesey turns up after a long absence to find Harriet married to Charles, ‘an elderly man of thirty-five,’ he is an actor in a second-or-third rate company. His stage combat skills are not up to much; playing Laertes, his attempts at fighting merely amuse the audience.
Many of the characters have illusions. Charles believes that the absent Vesey has undermined his marriage to Harriet. Their daughter Betsy not only has illusions about Vesey’s acting ability, but believes, on the evidence of an old photograph and a short note, that Vesey is her father. Misunderstandings are rife; Harriet asks another Dutch girl to visit her own Dutch au pair, Elke, not realising that the visitor is from a lower social class, therefore quite unsuitable as a companion.
Elizabeth Taylor takes great care even with the minor characters. Harriet’s mother-in-law, for instance, a former actress now playing the grande dame in a small village, and Vesey’s slightly tarty colleague, entertaining a group of men after a performance as Ophelia with anecdotes of putting the risqué bits back into the script when she has a hangover.
The women who work with Harriet in the dress shop appear for only a short time, but stay in the mind, simultaneously waxing their upper lips and boiling chicken broth in their squalid staff room.
At the end, Vesey redeems himself by making a sacrifice – at least, that is how I read it.
A Game of Hide and Seek, published in 1951 and recently republished as a New York Review Book Classic, is one of author Elizabeth Taylor's most intensely psychological novels, the story of two young people - Harriet and Vesey - who spend their time in self-imposed isolation, their paths crossing briefly when, as teenagers they find themselves sharing summer vacations. Though they sometimes use hide-and-seek games so they can be together while they wait for the younger children in the family to find them, they are, shy, innocent, and self-conscious. They end up "hiding" in the loft or the barn "among old pots of paint, boxes of bulbs, stacks of cobwebbed deck-chairs, rather far apart and in silence...The only interruption was when one of them timidly swallowed an accumulation of saliva."
From this inauspicious beginning of the novel, which is further complicated for the reader because the first thirty pages of the novel "tell about" the past with little dialogue to enliven it, the author develops the relationship between Harriet and Vesey over the next thirty years. As a teenager enamored of Vesey but unsure of herself and of him, she obsesses over a quick kiss he gives her as he prepares to go on to school and invents stories of meeting him secretly, as she writes in her diary in excruciating detail about every action or movement he makes. Vesey, too, is also isolated, but his reaction when he is in school is the opposite of Harriet's. Instead of being timid, he becomes "disruptive, cheeky...and the same sort of little monkey that he had been at home." His disappearance part way through the summer on their last year together is devastating to Harriet.
The novel divides into two parts. Eventually, Harriet meets "an elderly man of thirty-five," a solicitor who plays concert piano for Harriet and her mother when they visit. In a surprise to no one, Harriet and Charles eventually connect, though her feelings for Charles are closer to toleration than love. Harriet's personality changes after her marriage, and she becomes somewhat more assertive, more willing to take chances. Occasionally, over the years, she and Vesey meet secretly, something that gives Harriet something to look forward to in her boring marriage, "a frayed and tangled thing made by two strangers."
This novel, despite its slow start, becomes all-consuming as Taylor creates real people with real feelings from a society which is socially poles apart from our own. Still, she manages to make the reader understand Harriet as she changes, along with the shallow Vesey, the responsible but insecure Charles, the lonely and romantic Betsy desperate for love, and the parents and friends of all of them, providing a context for Harriet, Vesey, and Charles and explaining their thinking. Darkly humorous in some places, it is almost unbearably sad in other places as the reader observes the characters struggling to create some vestige of happiness which most of us experience spontaneously. What keeps them all going, apparently, is the idea that "Another day is another world..."
on 12 April 2011
Elizabeth Taylor, not to be confused with the late movie star, is one of the finest British novelists of the 20th century, yet she still doesn't get the attention she deserves.Hers is, on the surface, a small world but like a great miniaturist she paints it in such insightful detail that it comes to represent something much bigger: human emotions in all their complexity. Time and again you find yourself saying 'she's got that dead right.'Don't expect nail-biting action or sweaty sex but do expect infinite and entertaining subtlety, wicked and highly relishable wit, the sadness of hopes denied and an uncompromising scan of the human heart.
on 27 April 2016
I am slogging my way through Elizabeth Taylor's books, without any enjoyment, since so many people adore her, and in theory, so should I, since I love domestic fiction from that time period. However. I am coming to the sad conclusion that Elizabeth Taylor didn't like life very much, unless she just thought it smart to be cynical. Every character in her books is unhappy. Worse still, she doesn't seem to like them herself. It is hard to warm to a character, when it's own creator is sneering at it. In A Summer Season was bearable, but this book is just point blank depressing. In Elizabeth Taylor's world, everyone is deeply dissatisfied, frustrated, and miserable, all of the time. Which is not realistic, and not pleasant to read about. An added frustration with this book is the staccato sentences, especially dialogue. Who speaks like that? Too much stylising, not enough reality.
on 18 June 2009
Unlike the reviewer above, I didn't find this powerful and unsettling novel particularly funny. It is however devastatingly truthful, with complex and entirely convincing characters. It sounds putting off to say that most are trapped in their own particular brand of failure and despair, and yet it is its truthfulness that makes this fine novel optimistic, in showing how the characters cope with their troubles and surmount or come to terms with them in different ways. A good read.
on 30 November 2009
Not one of her best in my opinion. Disappointing, because I have great admiration for Taylor's astute observation, her painterly descriptive prose, her sense of moral purpose linked to a subtle and profound 'reading' of the human condition. However, this novel is not as tightly written as, say, 'A Wreath of Roses'and does not really 'take off' until the last section where her ability to depict the ebb and flow of relationships is fully realised. Here Taylor's honesty and refusal to seek easy narrative solutions give the work a hardness, a soundness lacking in the earlier part of the novel.
on 12 January 2016
This is a very well-written story but the subject matter is somehow so disappointing. It is the story of an unrequited and, ultimately, tainted love. Vesey and Harriet are such pathetic individuals and their behaviour is not calculated to evoke sympathy. Nevertheless the quality of the writing makes up for a lot.
on 17 November 2012
The author plays a game of hide and seek with the reader - setting up expectations of outcomes that are then turned around. The writing is beautifully understated, and encourages the reader to view the characters as if through his or her own eyes. I am looking forward to reading more books by this author.