I often read the best books of the year in December. Sometimes they don’t make it on the Top 10 list because I read them so late in the year. Luckily I’ve read Elizabeth Taylor’s fifth novel A Game of Hide and Seek just in time. This is my third Elizabeth Taylor novel and every time I read her I’m amazed to find out again how good she is. As much as I liked Blaming and Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, A Game of Hide and Seek is even better. It’s larger in scope, richer in themes, with many more protagonists, and stretches over decades. The mood and atmosphere reminded me a lot of Rosamond Lehmann’s Dusty Answer and David Lean’s movie Brief Encounter, both of which are favourites of mine.
The main story of A Game of Hide and Seek is the love story between Harriet and Vesey, an unfulfilled love story that lasts a life time. They meet as children when Vesey spends his summer vacations at his aunt Caroline’s house. Caroline is the best friend of Harriet’s mother Lilian. Caroline and Lilian are very modern, emancipated women, former suffragettes and, when younger, spent some time in prison together. Lilian is surprised to see that, in spite of their battles, the younger generation goes back to old ways.
“It took us years to get rid of those cumbersome skirts and now you go all meekly back in them like a herd of sheep. And all this make-up. You look like a woman of uneasy virtue,” Lilian had said with vague distress.
Harriet is very different from her mother. She has no ambition and fails in school. When the book starts, she’s about eighteen and helps Caroline with her paper work. In the evenings she often plays hide and seek with Vesey and his small cousins. When they are in each other’s presence, they are both awkward, muted by their feelings, exhilarated and fearful at the same time.
Harriet is mortified by her feelings because Vesey is such an imperfect person. He likes to provoke, is careless and selfish. He even manages to upset Caroline and her husband although they are the most tolerant people one could imagine. One of Caroline’s mottos is “houses are for people” – not the other way around- , which means, she doesn’t care whether its appearance is neglected. It doesn’t have to be clean, it has to be welcoming. The children and dogs are allowed to do everything they want. Nobody has to follow strict rules. The only thing she’s insisting on is vegetarianism. When Vesey and Harriet take out the children, Vesey reveals his recalcitrant character once again and orders steak for them. It’s the final transgression and he’s sent back home immediately. Harriet will never recover from this loss. She will never find anyone she’ll love as much.
A few years later Harriet works a sales girl. She’s part of a tight-knit group of women; some have boyfriends or fiancés, others have lovers. They tease Harriet until she meets Charles who’s much older and quite rich. Harriet likes him and finally marries him. They live in a big house and have one daughter, Betsy. Life is quiet. But then Vesey reappears. He’s become an unsuccesful actor, living under precarious conditions as his family doesn’t support him. All the feelings Harriet had been able to contain, break free.
The love story between Harriet and Vesey is one of the most intense and mysterious I’ve come across in literature. With only a few words, Elizabeth Taylor manages to convey the intensity of their feelings, the turmoil, the confusion that keeps them apart at first and then draws them to each other almost violently.
“His climate!” Harriet thought, staring down at the fire until her eyes smarted. The word expressed something of her feelings at being with him: how she had loved, when she was young, merely to stand close to him. When he had drawn away, he took something miraculous from her.
It is amazing how multi-layered the characters are although there are so many. Everyone is wonderfully well rendered. The main and the minor characters alike. Interestingly they are all flawed but even the most mundane person is fascinating because we see their strengths and their shortcomings, their hopes and lost dreams. Thanks to the number, there are many different themes and moods. Scenes in which Betsy, Harriet’s daughter occupies centre-stage, are light and playful. Harriet’s and Vesey’s scenes are often melancholic and nostalgic. I couldn’t think of any other novel in which even the minor characters come alive like this and whole lives are rendered in a few sentences. Lilian and Caroline’s friendship for example, their struggle for women’s rights, the way they live their lives – it only takes up a dozen pages but we feel we know them.
A part I enjoyed a lot was the part in which we see Harriet as a sales girl. It’s interesting to read about the work conditions of these early professional women. The camaraderie between the women is touching; their little ruses funny.
Their hours were long; they went up to the elevenses at ten, were often missing while they cut out from paper patterns, set their hair, washed their stockings, drank tea. Nothing was done in their own time that could be done in the firm’s. They were underpaid so they took what they could; not money in actual coins, but telephone-calls, stamps, boxes of matches, soaps; later when these were marked down as soiled, they bought them at the staff-price, a penny in the shilling discount.
The end of the novel is as mysterious as the love story between Harriet and Vesey.
What contributes to the scope of the novel is that we first see Harriet as a young woman and then as a middle-aged wife and mother, looking back, reminiscing, comparing how she thought of middle age and how she lives it now that she is in her forties.
I’m aware I wasn’t able to capture this book because it contains so many themes (childhood, first love, passion, married life, women’s rights, work, education, memory, growing older . . .) and is so rich— there’s a wonderful, bitter-sweet love story, accurate descriptions of a period, lifelike, flawed characters, and humourous observations. It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year. I even added it to my list of all-time favourite books.
Have you read Elizabeth Taylor? Do you have a favourite Elizabeth Taylor novel?