Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Friday, July 10, 2020

Sisters - A Short Story by Elizabeth Taylor - first published in The New Yorker June 21, 1969

Sisters - A Short Story by Elizabeth Taylor - first published in The New Yorker June 21, 1969

Paris in The Thirties as seen from a small town in England about 1960

My readings so far for July in Paris 2020

1. Forain” - a set in Paris Short Story by Mavis Gallant
2. “Winter Rain” - a Short story by Alice Adams about an American woman living in Paris after World War Two
3. Marc Chagall by Jonathan Wilson
4. Missing Person by Patrick Modiano
5. “Sisters” by Elizabeth Taylor.

“Sisters” is Included in The Complete Short Stories of Elizabeth Taylor 

Elizabeth Taylor

July 3, 1912 - Reading, England

November 19, 1975 -Penn, England

"Taylor’s sentences are like Renaissance jewelry, intricate, composed, flawless." Roxana Robinson

“Sisters is my third venture into the work of Elizabeth Taylor.  On November 21, 2013 I posted on “The Blush”, one of her short stories.  Then on June 16, 2015 I posted on one of her eleven novels, A  View from the Harbour”.

Now I am five years later posting on another of her short stories, “Sisters”.

I feel a need to share the start of my post on A View from the Harbour”:

"‘A man,’ she thought suddenly, ‘would consider this a business outing. But, then, a man would not have to cook the meals for the day overnight, nor consign his child to a friend, nor leave half-done the ironing, nor forget the grocery order as I now discover I have forgotten it. The artfulness of men,’ she thought. ‘They implant in us, foster in us, instincts which it is to their advantage for us to have, and which, in the end, we feel shame at not possessing.’ She opened her eyes and glared with scorn at a middle-aged man reading a newspaper. ‘A man like that,’ she thought, ‘a worthless creature, yet so long has his kind lorded it that I (who, if only I could have been ruthless and single-minded about my work as men are, could have been a good writer) feel slightly guilty at not being back at the kitchen-sink.’ ". From A View of the Harbour

I completely agree with Roxana Robinson's assessment of the sentences of Elizabeth Taylor, "Taylor’s sentences are like Renaissance jewelry, intricate, composed, flawless."  My first experience with Elixabeth Taylor (1912 to 1975, England) was last year when I read her delightful story about infidelity, "Blush".  I was very grateful when The New York Review of Books offered me a review copy of her 1947 novel, A View from the Harbour.  The novel is set in a run town coastal town in England.  It is a very gossipy novel that focuses on the lives of the residents.  

Taylor is a very acute observer of small details.  I think her remark, from a female novelist who is one of the book's characters, that I quote above will ring painfully true to legions of writers.  

The characters in the story are all connected in one way or another.  Several are working through the consequences of recently failed relationships.

It is the exquiste sentences and the many wonderful observations that made A View of the Harbour such a delight to read.  

I not too long ago acquired The Complete Short Stories of Elizabeth Taylor. (Very much a value at $3.95 for The Kindle Edition.). I was so happy to find at least two Short Stories that tie in with Paris in July.

“Sisters” is wonderful short story.  Set in a smallish English town around 1965, the most important on stage character is Mrs Mason, a widow of a dentist. The plot begins when a young man pays her a visit, he is writing a biography on her sister, a famous writer,  who died about thirty years ago in Paris.

“On a Thursday morning, soon after Mrs Mason returned from shopping – in fact she had not yet taken off her hat – a neat young man wearing a dark suit and spectacles, half-gold, half-mock tortoiseshell, and carrying a rolled umbrella, called at the house, and brought her to the edge of ruin. He gave a name, which meant nothing to her, and she invited him in, thinking he was about insurance, or someone from her solicitor. He stood in the sitting-room, looking keenly about him, until she asked him to sit down and tell her his business. ‘Your sister,’ he began. ‘Your sister Marion,’ and Mrs Mason’s hand flew up to her cheek. She gazed at him in alarmed astonishment, then closed her eyes. In this town, where she had lived all her married life, Mrs Mason was respected, even mildly loved. No one had a word to say against her, so it followed there were no strong feelings either way. She seemed to have been made for widowhood, and had her own little set, for bridge and coffee mornings, and her committee-meetings..”

Her sister Marion lived in Paris in the twenties and thirties.  She wrote stories about her childhood, exposing things deeply repressed by Mrs Mason.  To make it worse she was involved with numerous other writers and artists of time, leading scandalous lives, swapping bed bed mates and seeking sexual experiences way beyond what was acceptable to Mrs Mason.  Her husband refused to have Marion in the house he was so offended by his sister in law’s Life Style.

The story follows conversation of the biographer and Mrs Mason.  He tries hard to draw her out but at first she resists him.

“‘Were you and Marion close to one another?’ ‘We were sisters,’ she said primly. ‘And you kept in touch? I should think that you enjoyed basking in the reflected glory.’ He knew that she had not kept in touch, and was sure by now that she had done no basking. ‘She went to live in Paris, as no doubt you know.’”

Finally she begins to open up:

‘Did you ever meet Godwin? Or any of that set?’ ‘Of course not. My husband wouldn’t have had them in the house.’ The young man nodded. Oh, that dreadful clique. She was ashamed to have it mentioned to her by someone of the opposite sex, a complete stranger. She had been embarrassed to speak of it to her own husband, who had been so extraordinarily kind and forgiving about everything connected with Marion. But that raffish life in Paris in the thirties! Her sister living with the man Godwin, or turn and turn about with others of her set. They all had switched from one partner to the other; sometimes – she clasped her hands together so tightly that her rings hurt her fingers – to others of the same sex. She knew about it; the world knew; no doubt her friends knew, although it was not the sort of thing they would have discussed. Books had been written about that Paris lot, as Mrs Mason thought of them, and their correspondence published. Godwin, and Miranda Braun, the painter, and Grant Opie, the American, who wrote obscene books; and many of the others”.

Finally at the end just before she tells him to leave Mrs. Mason shocks The biographer.

I hope this Month to read her story about a Middle Class English couple on vacation in France.   

Today for $0.99 i acquired one of her novels, Mrs Pelfrey at The Claremont.  I hope to read it soon.


Marg said...

Thank you for this introduction to Elizabeth Taylor - the writer!

Brona said...

I have a Taylor tucked away on my TBR pile I think. After reading that amazing first paragraph, I've just bumped her up to the top of the pile. She sounds like my kind of writer!

Buried In Print said...

Not that I wish to distract you from her stories - most of which I have yet to read myself - but oh, oh, OH, you have a copy of Mrs. Palfrey. Maybe I'm wrong, but I think you will absolutely love it. And it's also very can think of it as a novella and read it in an evening.

Thank you for reminding me that I need to get to more of her stories.