I like novels that seem to create a complete world of their own that barely relies on the real one. A novel can reveal unknown regions and customs and riches and in A Game of Hide and Seek I think Elizabeth Taylor achieves this new-worldiness, despite the setting being unfailingly English and provincial and even familiar. How does she do it!
The subject of this novel is unremarkable: Harriet Claridge falls in love as a teenager with her unpromising childhood friend Vesey, but nothing quite comes of it. Years later she marries another man and has a child, but one day Vesey reappears and Harriet finds herself still powerfully drawn to him.
What makes this tale so compelling and original are the layers of thriving communities almost livelier than life that fill the novel. When Harriet leaves school and finds work in a high-class gown shop her colleagues are a tour de force of comedy and camaraderie. Their lunch-hour life is ambitiously undertaken: Taylor has them grilling chops, discussing their love affairs and waxing the down on their faces, while expressing their very best wishes for Harriet’s virginity. Warm-hearted and splendid, ‘We are not shop girls but sales ladies,’ Miss Lazenby proclaims.
Later the dynamic between Harriet, her mother-in-law Julia – ‘a woman whose white hair was patchily gilded as if it had been brushed over with yolk of egg’ – and her staunch housekeeper Mrs Curzon, creates another winning sphere. Mrs Curzon looks ‘certainly more handsome now that her moustache is grey,’ Julia casually remarks. A remote and unfathomable Dutch au pair completes the household and is wittily described by Harriet’s teenage daughter Betsy as being ‘like Ruth amid the alien cornflakes.’
We are shown the mistresses at Betsy’s school arguing about the pupils who have crushes on them, saying, ‘Let us not use words like “love”…’ We glimpse an invalid’s sense of exhilaration that his death-bed visitors may soon be lovers. Even fossilised, terrible-looking cakes in a teashop window, that somehow fail to convince as cakes, seem to draw us into another way of experiencing things. All this bright life is underwritten by Harriet’s shadowy fidelity to a sensation first experienced in childhood, for the novel knows well that these loyalties can be amongst the strongest that humans forge.
The 2011 Mslexia Writer's Diary contains a series of monthly inspirations from current Virago authors who each discuss a Virago Modern Classic.
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