Truth is on the last step down

One of the people I’m writing about in my shyness book is the novelist Elizabeth Taylor, who was shy, and wrote about it beautifully. Her world is one of home-counties commuterly comfort, clipped lawns, bridge and gymkhanas. Nothing much happens in her writing because, for the shy, daily life requires enough courage as it is. She never uses the first person, so you see her characters from the outside, getting glimpses of the thinking, feeling beings swarming on the underside of our social platitudes. Their lives are full of melodrama, lived out invisibly and silently in their own heads.

‘Someone must talk to me, she thought, for it seemed to her that, through lack of conversation, her expression was growing sullen. She tried to reorganise her features into a look of animation or calm pleasure … she put on a little confidence with her pretty frock; but, practising radiant smiles in the looking-glass, she was sure that they were only grimaces.’

Taylor was distraught when, in April 1960, her publisher Peter Davies threw himself under a tube train. When Davies had founded his publishing house in 1926 with the help of his guardian, J.M. Barrie, it was under the unassuming name of Peter Davies Ltd – minus the middle name that would have identified him as one of the Llewelyn Davies children who inspired Peter Pan, a book he loathed being linked with and called ‘that terrible masterpiece’. Taylor saw him as a kindred shy person in a profession that, she felt, relied increasingly on vulgar PR. ‘Peter Davies never gives parties and hates parties, authors and nearly all books,’ she wrote approvingly to another epistolary (and shy) friend, the novelist Barbara Pym. ‘The literary world makes him shudder. He scorns his profession – saying he is a cross between a midwife and a commercial traveller.’

One of my favourite Taylor quotes is a comment she made about her sort-of friend Ivy Compton-Burnett’s work: ‘Truth is on the last step down. We do not climb towards it in any exalted way, but descend down flights of hypocrisy, deceit and self-infatuation to find it lying at our feet.’ (‘A Novelist and her Novels’, Vogue, July 1951, quoted in N.H. Reeve, Elizabeth Taylor (Northcote House, 2008), p. 4)

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