Elizabeth Taylor is the first repeat author we’ve chosen in my F2F book club: for our last meeting, we read Angel, which was such a surprise hit we agreed we’d like to try more of Taylor’s novels. By “surprise hit” I mean in part that because we had no expectations, we were surprised to find ourselves so engaged with the book (which is not to say everyone loved it, but we all liked discussing it). But I also mean that we were surprised by its particulars: by how many things about it are unlike other books any of us had read. It is strange and dark and sad and comic and grim and satirical, all at once. And talk about an unlikable heroine! And yet we all found her a perversely captivating one.
So we’ve moved on to A Game of Hide and Seek, which is the other of Taylor’s novels recently reissued by New York Review Books. We haven’t met to discuss it yet, and I’m quite curious to find out how the others responded. For me it was surprising all over again, because at first it didn’t seem very much like Angel. And yet the more I think about it, the more I realize that despite the fairly different story and structure, it does resemble Angel, not in its characters or events but in its attitude. Both novels proceed with a relentless lack of sentimentality that is all the more unexpected in A Game of Hide and Seek because it tells what might be called a love story.
A Game of Hide and Seek tracks the awkward, uneven relationship between reticent Harriet and erratic Vesey. Harriet knows she loves Vesey from early on, but for some time she is tormented by uncertainty about how he feels about her — or, indeed, whether he feels anything at all. Believing there is nothing between them, she marries Charles — older, steadier, uneasy because he knows she nurses a secret passion for Vesey, who, after being both emotionally and then physically absent while Harriet yearned for him, turns up again now that Harriet is unavailable. Harriet and Vesey flirt (though that seems too perky a word) first with each other and then with outright adultery.
I found it impossible to root for a consummation of their love: Harriet is a drip, and Vesey is a bit of a jerk. It is love, though, I suppose, that is hiding and being sought, though the novel doesn’t give a very encouraging idea of what, exactly, love is. Harriet’s early infatuation is completely inexplicable: is that perhaps the point, that love is something that trumps or eludes reason? Or perhaps, as Harriet’s friend Kitty cautions her, the problem is loving an idea instead of a person: Harriet longs for love, and she believes Vesey to be her love, while he does just enough — he is just enough — to sustain the fantasy.
It’s the idea of Vesey and Charles’s knowledge of Harriet’s longing for him that undermine Charles and Harriet’s marriage. Taylor is very good at evoking the isolation that comes with unhappy intimacy:
Beyond their familiarity and nakedness, they could now sense their true isolation and were more perfectly strange to one another than people passing in a street.
After Vesey’s re-entrance into Harriet’s life, her daughter Betsy develops her own crush on him. In an odd twist, Betsy comes to believe Vesey is actually her father, which is at once traumatizing and gratifying:
That life was so unlike Greek literature had been the worse for life, to her mind. To-night it came — on the strength of a cryptic note, a faded photograph — magnificently near to it.
Her other crush, her Greek teacher Miss Bell, urges her not to “be such a slave to [her] feelings.” Miss Bell herself eventually has to leave for a new school, and one reason is that she has made too much of a favorite of Betsy: the lesson she carries away is “never [to] grown fond of any of them.” Is it possibly better that love be neither sought nor found?
A further facet of the novel is its suffragette backstory: Harriet’s mother and Vesey’s aunt are close friends who were once “hustled, gripped above the elbows by policemen, up the steps of a police-station.” Their heroism embarrasses more than it inspires Harriet, who shows no particular interest in the bright future they fought to win for her. Her one independent move is going off to work in a dress shop, but this is a prelude only to her marriage, not to any assertion of herself or pursuit of a more rewarding career. It’s Betsy who finds her grandmother’s adventures exciting. I don’t know how to put this piece together with Harriet and Vesey’s strange affair. Maybe I’m not supposed to: maybe it’s just there, rather than there as part of an aesthetic or thematic unity. Some people’s mothers really were suffragettes: does it have to mean anything? Why do I always seek unifying ideas?
Yet there are teasing intertextual moments that make me think it’s not wrong to try to solve the novel’s puzzles, as when Charles sits reading Persuasion while entirely conscious that something is afoot with Harriet and Vesey:
‘What a novel to choose!’ Charles thought. ‘Only the happy in love should ever read it. It is unbearable to have expression given to our painful solitariness, to rake up the dead leaves in our hearts, when we have nothing that can follow (no heaven dawning beautifully in Union Street), except in dreams, as perhaps Jane Austen herself never had but on the page she wrote.
Persuasion is another novel of love lost and regained; A Game of Hide and Seek could certainly be read as the anti-Persuasion, in that its lovers have aged but not grown, while their past love does not seem worth either remembering or reviving — even though they both remember and try to resuscitate it. Anne and Wentworth learn to fight for the love that will enable a new, better life; Harriet and Vesey, in contrast, can barely see what would be right, much less fight for it. Not knowing where they are, or where they’re going, is liberating at first, even though at the last minute they realize they have been stumbling towards a big mistake:
He walked beside her with the rose hanging from his hand. The taste of the fog was at the back of their throats. They could see only the shape of one another and, when they spoke, so private, so safe did they feel that they neither paused nor dissembled. In this blurred world, words were more beautiful and they used them more truthfully than at other times.
Taylor’s writing is a bit like that. Sentences can be meandering and difficult to follow, leaving you disoriented:
This morning, however, she was ruffled herself, felt that a real sequence was so broken that the punctual arrival of the milk-man, the charwoman coming in at the back door at her usual time, were small mockeries, piteous pretences, like the first meal after a beloved one’s death, not even reaffirming that the world goes on as usual, that in the midst of death we are in life.
But then ideas emerge clearly out of the fog, giving you a distinct outline of feeling or intent:
‘Nowadays,’ she thought, ‘perhaps always, happiness has to be isolated. Only when we block out all that surrounds it, can we have it perfect, as we so often have perfect grief.’ She felt that she must not grope backwards over her conscience, or forwards over her desires, but keep her contentment in this different climate while she could.
A lot seems blurry in A Game of Hide and Seek: character, motive, plot, morality, meaning. Taylor creates a climate of yearning and dissatisfaction, though, in which words seem sometimes beautiful and sometimes true.