Elizabeth Taylor: A Game of Hide and Seek (1951)

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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?

47 thoughts on “Elizabeth Taylor: A Game of Hide and Seek (1951)

  1. I love Elizabeth Taylor’s writing, and though I haven’t read this one I can imagine that the match of story and author would work beautifully.

    It’s difficult to pick a favourite, because I haven’t read them all and because I love different books for different reasons, but if you pushed me I would say Angel. Or maybe Palladian ….

    • I’m glad to hear you feel the same about her writing. I’m so glad I’ve got Angel. It will be the next I read.
      She’s amazing and in this book she really excells. It must be one of her best.

    • She’s one of those authors I discovered through blogging and I’m so glad. I want to read all of her.
      I’m not surprised this is your favourite. I’m preytty sure it will be hard to find another one I love more. It so, so good.

  2. I have discovered Elizabeth Taylor quite recently – just when I thought I had exhausted the best mid 20th century authors – and I am enthralled by her writing. As soon as I began to read her work, I knew that this was how I aspired to write myself. I have a long way to go to catch up with her! So far, I have particularly enjoyed her short stories collection and Mrs Palfrey. Oh and A Wreath of Roses was wonderful too. I have treated myself to Angel for christmas and can’t wait to start it, hopefully on Boxing Day with a large tub of chocolates.

    • Enthralled is a good way to put it. She really is amazing and this book contains everything and so much more I knew from her.
      We might be reading Angel at the same time because I’m planning to pick it up soon.
      You’ve certainly chose a wonderful writer as a model. It sounds like your writing should be very subtle.

  3. I’ve read a couple of Elizabeth Taylor novels and really liked them. But I haven’t enough to say that there’s a solid favourite as I have feeling that as I read more, titles will compete for the “best” spot. You’ve really made me think I should pull another off the shelf.

    • I don’t know why it took me so long to return to her.
      Maybe I’ll experinece the same and the next ne I’ll read will be the new favourite.
      I hope you’ll return to her soon. I’d be interested to see which one you will pick. I’ve never seen anyone mention this one. I was lucky to find it a t a book shop.

  4. I read all of Elizabeth Taylor a couple of years ago – a wonderful experience! This was definitely one of my favourites, although I’m also fond of “A Wreath of Roses”.

    • Yes, I think ‘A Wreathe of Roses’ is almost faultless. There’s a true story underlying it. As well as all her other excellences Elizabeth Taylor captures her time – post-War Britain – with a piercing accuracy. This was my childhood, the shadows if those shop-blinds on those pavements.

      • I have read it myself by now. It’s wonderful. I didn’t know there was a true story behind it.
        She excels in so many ways.
        How interesting to hear you knew this particular time.

  5. I’m hoping to finally read Elizabeth Taylor next year. I had planned to start with Angel, but this one sounds really good as well. It will probably come down to which book is available at the library.

  6. Great review, Caroline, and your enthusiasm for this book really shines through. I love Elizabeth Taylor’s writing too even though I’ve only read her short stories so far. I have Mrs Palfrey and Angel in my TBR – looking forward to trying one next year. Hide and Seek sounds wonderful.

    • Thanks, Jacqui. I’m always thinking I’m not able to convey how much I liked a book, so I’m glad to hear it shines through.
      Mrs Palfrey is a wonderful book too. One I’d like to re-read although I rarely re-read books.
      I’ll watch out for your reviews.

  7. The story and complexity do make this sound appealing. I find that novels that span a good part of a lifetime have the potential to be very affecting, especially when they tell stories of things that are unfulfilled.

  8. I have a bio of ET on a shelf somewhere. I must get around to reading it soon. I haven’t read Hide and Seek, although I’ve borrowed it from the library a couple of times. There are just too many books and I read too slowly! I’m glad it’s good, though. I had to laugh at the quote about the morher’s distress over how her daughter dressed. It’s a lament I hear often from feminist women. History repeats itself. 🙂

    • I think you’d like the two mother’s in this book. They sound so modern which shows indeed that history does run in circles.
      There are too many books. I read a couple of really not very good, new books and now I’m annoyed with myself. Yeah well. I’ll pick another Elizabeth Taylor soon.
      I wonder if her biography is interesting. I hope you gett o read it soon.

  9. Elizabeth Taylor is one of those writers whom I’ve read everything they wrote, and ‘A Game of Hide-and-Seek’ is one of her best. Soon I will want to begin re-reading her novels.

    • I’m so glad to hear that. I was surprised when I read it that people mostly mention Mrs Palfrey, Angel, and maybe Blaming, while this is such an astonishing book.
      I want to read everything she’s written too.

  10. I do love her and have read a lot by her, though not this one (I own a copy of it!). It’s really hard to say which have been my favourites as I’ve enjoyed them all – A View of the Harbour, Angel, Mrs Palfrey, Palladian, The Sleeping Beauty. They’ve all been fab – I agree wholeheartedly with what you say. She’s an amazing novelist, full of subtlety.

    • I had feeling she’s your kind of author. Yes, she is fab, so I’m not surprised you can’t name a favourite.
      I’ll read Angel next and then a Wreath of Roses as it has been suggested a few times.

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  12. Your enthusiasm is contagious.
    It goes on the TBR.

    PS: I’m waiting for the last day of the year to publish my 2014 best books list. Currently reading a great one.

  13. You should read Angel next–she is not a very likable character, but it is such a good and interesting book. I think ET couldn’t write a bad book to be honest–some are just a little better than others! I have this–had to have the new edition when it was released–I am going to read it this year, I think! Especially as you compare it to Dusty Answer which I also loved. That makes it a must read for me. Now I must look up Brief Encounter, too….. Isn’t she marvelous?!

    • She really is wonderful. Next year I want to read all of the novels I haven’t read yet. I think I will pick Angel next.
      Brief Encounter is such a lovely film. I have to re-watch it. I wonder if you feel the same about the comparison to Dusty Answer.

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