Elizabeth Taylor is the next author to be featured in Jane’s Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors, a project which has been running throughout 2018 and which has already introduced me to some wonderful new books and authors. Elizabeth Taylor is an author I only became aware of after I started blogging and following book blogs; before that, if you had mentioned her name to me, I would probably have thought you were talking about the actress of the same name. Over the last few years, though, I have seen other bloggers reading her books and have been meaning to try one myself, so I decided to put A Game of Hide and Seek on both my Classics Club list and my 20 Books of Summer list to ensure that I got to it sooner rather than later.
Published in 1951, this is a beautifully written novel about love and loss. It begins in the summer – a long, hot summer between the two world wars. Eighteen-year-old Vesey is staying with his Aunt Caroline and Uncle Hugo and has become reacquainted with his childhood friend, Harriet, a girl of the same age. Harriet’s mother and Vesey’s Aunt Caroline are good friends, having once been suffragettes together, so Harriet and Vesey have known each other all their lives. As they spend more and more time together that summer, going for walks and playing hide and seek with Vesey’s young cousins, Harriet falls passionately in love.
When the summer comes to an end, Vesey goes off to university and Harriet is left behind. Over time, their lives drift apart and Harriet gets a job in a shop selling ladies’ gowns until, following the death of her mother, she agrees to marry Charles Jephcott. As a thirty-five-year-old solicitor, Charles provides Harriet with a nice home and a comfortable lifestyle; she could have been happy, except for the fact that she doesn’t love him. And then, fifteen years later, Vesey walks back into her life, reawakening old passions and leaving her more confused than ever.
A Game of Hide and Seek is one of those books which seems quite simple on the surface – there’s not much more to the plot than I’ve already described above – but which is much more complex than it sounds, because it is written with so much insight and wisdom and depth of emotion. It’s such a poignant story; there’s a sense that Harriet’s whole life has been a compromise and that her regret at things not turning out the way she hoped has made it impossible for her to move on. Here her friend Kitty sums up what she thinks is the explanation for Harriet’s enduring love for Vesey:
‘Our feelings about people change as we grow up: but if we are left with an idea instead of a person, perhaps that never changes. After every mistake Charles made, I expect you thought: “Vesey wouldn’t have done that.” But an idea can’t ever make mistakes. He led a perfect life in your brain.’
I liked Harriet from the beginning. I sympathised with the position she was in – as the daughter of a former suffragette, being expected to take advantage of the opportunities and freedoms for which her mother’s generation had fought, yet lacking the talent or ambition to live up to expectations. I found the appeal of Vesey harder to understand, but I did warm to him eventually; there was something very sad about his reappearance later in the book, lonely, dejected and still in love with a woman he can’t have.
There are little touches of humour too, mainly provided by the other sales girls who work in the shop with Harriet and, later, the Jephcotts’ servants, the Dutch maid Elke and the cleaning lady Mrs Curzon. Other memorable characters include Julia, Charles’ mother, a former actress who dislikes Harriet and would love to see her marriage to Charles break down, and fifteen-year-old schoolgirl Betsy, who is infatuated with one of her teachers. But this really is Harriet’s story and Vesey’s – and throughout the novel, Taylor keeps the reader wondering whether there will be a second chance for them and, if so, whether they will take it. The ending, when it comes, is ambiguous and left me with a lot to think about as there are probably a few different ways it could be interpreted.
I’m sure I will be reading more books by Elizabeth Taylor. If you have read any of them, which one do you think I should read next?
This is book 2/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.
This is also book 5/50 from my second Classics Club list.