Monday, November 26, 2007

Reading Journal: "Miss A. and Miss M."

Since an essay appeared about her in the September 2007 Atlantic Monthly, thoughtful people have been flocking to read Elizabeth Taylor’s short story “Miss A and Miss M,” which Benjamin Schwartz in the Atlantic calls her “most technically accomplished story.” The story is vintage Elizabeth Taylor: quiet, understated, full of literary allusions, deriving its drama from the unspoken currents that flow between people. There is a depth of feeling beneath its light, shimmering surface. The story is set in the 1920s at a middle-class holiday guest-house in the still-unspoiled English countryside, narrated by a middle-aged woman looking back at her childhood—and a childhood landscape now bisected and defaced by a motorway. “In that place,” the narrator says, “we had put down roots.” Near the guest-house, she remembers, was a delightful spot, full of scents and butterflies, called the Cherry Orchard—and of course, knowing Elizabeth Taylor, we are meant to think of Chekov. Elizabeth Taylor is interested in ordinary life, and in how that life is colored by our reading and our illusions. (One of my favorite Taylor characters, the little boy Oliver in At Mrs. Lippincote’s, imagines that he is young Jane Eyre.) We attempt, not always successfully, to match up our ordinary life with our often romantic illusions about how things and people ought to be. Miss A is flamboyant and vain and, to the narrator, intensely romantic; Miss M is sensible and down-to-earth and rather dull. One has the sense that Miss M is a much more suitable influence on the narrator than Miss A is; Miss M offers grounding, Miss A only encourages the narrator’s flightiness. Miss M tries to teach the narrator logic and grammar, but the narrator prefers to rely on “instinct and intuition and inspiration.” In “Miss A. and Miss M.,” the narrator learns that the grammar can’t survive without the inspiration.

Favorite sentence: “Looking back, I see that my mother was far more attractive, lovable, than any of the ladies I describe; but there it was—she was my mother.”

The story, published in the collection The Devastating Boys and Other Stories (Virago Modern Classics 1984), has been reviewed recently on several book blogs, including A Curious Singularity, The Book Mine Set, and A Work in Progress. I blogged on Elizabeth Taylor last year on my Sabbatical blog.


John Mutford said...

I want to see what others see in Taylor but I just can't shake the feeling that they read more into her work than is actually there. Even after certain aspects are explained or justified, the magic still seems to slip by me. Remember those Hidden 3D Stereogram pictures? I could never see those either.

Regardless, I'm glad people have found a piece of literature that they enjoy.

Anonymous said...

I have several Elizabeth Taylor titles on the bookshelf thanks to my 'Virago habit'. However, I haven't read a single one - yet, but I am feeling a little pressured ;)

Would we be disappointed if there wasn't a gulf between our ordinary life and our illusions about a more ideal version of it?

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .