The Sleeping Beauty (Virago Modern Classics) Paperback – 3 Nov 2011
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Elizabeth Taylor is finally being recognised as an important British author: an author of great subtlety, great compassion and great depth. As a reader, I have found huge pleasure in returning to Taylor's novels and short stories many times over. As a writer I've returned to her too - in awe of her achievements, and trying to work out how she does it (Sarah Waters)
She is the kind of writer you long to have had as a friend. How witty she would have been to talk to, with that sharpness that misses nothing, that wry acceptance of the way things are (Tracey Thorn Spectator)
I find the writing of Elizabeth Taylor fresh, and inevitably hitting the right nail on the head in every sentence. In fact I find her so unbelievably good, kind, stimulating, catty and subtle that I forget I'm a critic (John Betjeman)
Jane Austen, Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Bowen - soul-sisters all (Anne Tyler)
Elizabeth Taylor has an eye as sharply all-seeing as her prose is elegant - even the humdrum becomes astonishing when told in language that always aims for descriptive integrity, without a cliché in sight. As a result, Taylor excels in conveying the tragicomic poignancy of the everyday (Daily Telegraph)
A subtle love story by one of the most accomplished writers of the 20th centurySee all Product description
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There are two love affairs developing over the course of this novel. Vinny, a middle-aged, middle-class, gently spoken, thoughtful man, falls in love with Emily, a mysterious widow he bumps into on the beach - this is the main thread of the novel. Emily is somewhat reclusive because of the car accident she was involved in that killed her husband; it required her to undergo plastic surgery, an accident that is the possible cause of her niece's mental disability. She lives with her sister Rose in a guest house; their relationship is unhealthily dependent. Emily is the sleeping beauty of the title, who Vinny succeeds in awakening, releasing her from a self-imposed, psychologically induced imprisonment (though he too is awakened, by her). Shadowing this - as all good Shakespearean comedies do - is a more commonplace romance between Laurence, a young soldier, and Betty, nursemaid to a family, the Tillotsons, who are a staying at the guest house. Vinny begins the novel by visiting an old friend Isabella, also a widow, mother of Laurence. Though she's half in love with Vinny, and has a tendency to put down her son, she provides, with her coeval Evadne, some of the comic turns in the novel, their sour gossip and secret flutters on the horses being a nice counterpoint to the serious atmosphere of the guest house. As you'd expect in novels of this kind, in this period, class differences and ingrained snobberies exist everywhere. This is a time when a man felt he could not stay under the roof of his widowed friend for fear of gossip 'besmirching' her reputation; a time when families had nannies and nursemaids and cooks; when divorce was difficult - a world in living memory but now very much of a period long gone. No one catches such a world of subtle disapproval than Taylor, and she does it not with satire but a finely tuned wit.
In this world secrets thrive. Vinny, desperately in love with Emily, has a wife who he's never actually lived with. Bigamy looms, but the secret gets out. How will Emily react when she discovers it? That is the climax of the novel. How Taylor handles this climax - undramatically - some readers find disappointing (was she leant on by the publisher?), but it seems to me that Taylor's touch is always to be trusted, is always finely judged and mature: she would have considered the restrained ending with all her usual care. A brilliant, understated but deeply satisfying novel.
Austen's world is one of social manners and marriages in stilted and simple English.Taylor's prose is silkily sensuous witty, urbane, descriptive and rather modern. I find her delicate style more similar to Colette for instance; the incredible observational powers, the delicacy and wit- Taylor is seamless.
There are pithy aphoristic conversations, dark secrets, and enormous good humour. Sexuality depicts the psychological 'setting' of each character.
The Sleeping Beuaty of this book is a once promiscuous and thorough;y modern girl, now an inert and frozen child's companion. Both are damaged, the child an accident of birth, a woman damaged by life.Her secrets are bittersweet and painful. Her would-be lover, Vinnie Tumulty finds himself at first repelled and aroused by her mask like loveliness and then entranced by the compassion he feels for her. Compassion is his greatest weakness and also his greatest strength. He also has a secret, a wife of which he cannot rid himself having given way to pretending she did not exist for so very long.
In between this Mills and Boon type scenario great dark humour fizzles and flowers in conversations between his lady friends and their secret passion for betting.
Ageing is dealt with great humour and the effect of face creams analysed with 'almost Oriental politeness'. Their breasts are remarked as being sick of one another, Marron meringues are refused and then devoured as deference to attractiveness gives way to petty greeds and desires, which finally surface as uncontrolled bitchiness and destructive and casually vindictive jealousy.
Then there are hilarious exchanges between Nanny and the nursemaid, a strange changeling child and a controlling bleakly tamped down sister who dominates the Sleeping Beauty as she did her own husband, by stealth, fake maladies and
small displays of pique.
There is a subtext of power: the powere that women have over men and vice versa, the power of the unkind word, the pathetic subterfuges that women resort to finding themselves without youth or social standing.
Of course this is all rather in retrospect, but you will recognise the pettiness of the English middle classes at a time when a woman would allow herself to be groped by a stranger in a cinema rather than cause embarrassment.
In a way we are all Sleeping Beauties until we are awoken, and this is what happens to every character in this marvellous novel; whether by breavement, shock, sex, love or change, we are all affected by the shifting effect of our lives as they touch on others, like the shifting light on a changing sea.
In the end, the message is presented in the most humane and unromantic way; however flawed or lives, true love is everything.