Elizabeth Taylor’s Letters to Barbara Pym

Elizabeth Taylor and Barbara Pym: Correspondence in the Bodleian: 1951 -68

Elizabeth Taylor (1912 – 1975) and Barbara Pym (1913 – 1980) were contemporaries and ‘sister writers’, encouraging each other, occasionally attending PEN meetings together, and sharing friends and acquaintances.

The letters, only 17 in all, held in the Pym Special Collection at the Bodleian library in Oxford give an impression of a very genteel, polite, and caring relationship. It is a shame, through, that while Pym must have carefully preserved her letters, the instruction to destroy Taylor’s letters after her death, was, as far as we know, obeyed. Robert Liddell was a friend and correspondent of both the writers, but the absence of any of Taylor’s to him is an abiding tragedy. It seems likely that their exchanges were not so polite about other writers of the day as were those between Taylor and Pym!

All the same it was a treat to see Elizabeth’s elegant handwriting on the letters when I visited the collection last November. I have left the summary in the form of bullet points rather than a longer narrative.

Letters from Elizabeth Taylor to Barbara Pym, from Penn Cottage, Bucks

  • Feb 25th 1951

In beautiful handwriting, with polite and carefully detailed praise.

Seems to lack confidence in dealing with Ivy CB. Doesn’t know how to sign off letters; surprised at Ivy’s matey/jaunty ‘yours ever’.

Ref to Maud (Geddes, a mutual friend to whom Taylor dedicated A Wreath of Roses in 1949), and visit to Highgate cemetery

In response to BP’s praise for ET’s novel (GOHS?); ‘Most people seem to have been annoyed by it’

‘At the moment I feel I shall never begin again, but it is awfully habit-forming’

  • Sep/Oct 1952

Invites BP to go with her to a talk about ‘Dialogue in the Novel’ (PEN?). Shy about going alone. Meet for early dinner, or drinks before, but nowhere open that early (6.30) (in London?!), except for ‘sitting up’ cafes. B Pym must have gone but been unwell.

ET ‘enchanted at first glimpse of sister novelists’

  • Nov 3rd. 1952

Exchange about hats; ref to Robert Liddell (friend to both) about ‘hats in literature’. ET has one with ‘knitted rissoles’ on it.

‘Busy thinking about my coronation hat. Also my separates. I shall plump for the Tudor trend’. Shared humour!

About BP’s publisher’s champagne party. Re. ET’s publisher; ‘Peter never gives them. He hates parties, authors and nearly all books. The literary world makes him shudder… he thinks he is a cross between a midwife and a commercial traveller’. ET wishes BP to ‘remember carefully to tell me about it’.

  • 1952

Praise for BP’s second novel (Excellent Women). Maud Geddes was a mutual friend and ET mentions her to BP. Not heard from her ‘further away than in Sarawak, and much more exiled’. ‘I miss her very much’.

  • 1953

Praise for the new BP novel (Jane and Prudence?). Enjoys glimpse of other circles; church, parochial, learned academics, ‘talk about theses, about their failings and can often be childish, even “paltry”, ‘a very nice word a charwoman friend of mine uses to good effect’. (Much in this exchange to get idea of ET’s world as very different from BP’s. Also, telling that she calls the charwoman a friend)

Unclear date for this: heard from Maud who is having bother with deafness.

Just had miscarriage, so early technically abortion. ‘In view of my great age I am made to stay in bed…  fagged and peevish’. Has to pretend to have a chill or children will be scandalised!!

  • 1954

After ET’s short story collection, ‘Hester Lilly’. Now getting letters from Maud every week, but ‘scarcely ever gives any idea of how she is’. Afraid she’s not very happy’.

  • Skips to Feb 7th.. after short story collection, ‘The Blush’.

After son Renny’s ‘awful motor accident’. He was in hospital til Christmas.

Tried to get back to work, but the ‘dead thing I was confronted with was frightful’ (In a Summer Season).

She likes Father Thames in Glass of Blessings. (Later introduces her own cleric with a funny name, Father Blizzard in In a Summer Season).

But ‘so long since I saw you and since dear Maud died, I believe’.

  • Jumps to 1968

(Pym’s period in the wilderness of not being published is conspicuous by its absence)).

About Robert Liddell in Greece (at time of the Generals’ coup) ‘Awful in Greece’ (Elizabeth, a lifelong socialist, would not visit Greece after that)

Asks about BP’s thinking of retirement. Irked by husband John’s retirement ‘For better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, but not for lunch!’   ‘He hasn’t got books to write, like you’.

Daughter Joanna has been ill, ‘wishes she had a Pym to read, in absence of that she turns to Mansfield Park’.

SADLY, THAT’S All!

Bodleian Special Collections

Accessed November 2nd 2015

MS Pym 162/3 fol. 1-21

MS Pym 167     fol. 64