‘The Fly-Paper’ was rejected by William Maxwell at the New Yorker and subsequently turned into an episode of Tales of the Unexpected; I didn’t know either of these things when I first read it.
Although all Elizabeth Taylor’s short stories are currently available as one huge tome, they are more easily enjoyed in the editions in which they were originally published: Hester Lilley (1954), The Blush (1958), A Dedicated Man (1965) and The Devastating Boys (1972). The latter is my favourite of the four because of the range of subject matter and because there isn’t a sentence in it, anywhere, that is anything other than flawless. Taylor was a genius of fancy prose but, unlike VN, she didn’t like to talk about it.
I read ‘The Fly-Paper’ aloud from beginning to end at a festival a few years ago and, steadily, it froze a room full of people into absolute shock, not because of the ‘unexpected’ denouement – it isn’t, particularly – but because of the horrible truth of what precedes it: the elegant apprehension of quotidian, human evil.
First published in The Devastating Boys, Chatto and Windus Ltd, 1972; Collected in Complete Short Stories, Virago Press, 2012
While this may not be Elizabeth Taylor’s best story (I’m still working my way through them, slowly but surely), it’s certainly one of her most memorable. A lonely middle-aged woman named Emily is preparing to meet a man she has been writing to for the last ten years. Over the years, she has confided such intimacies in Edmund – he had always seemed so approachable and attentive at a distance, perhaps overly so. As she waits for Edmund to arrive at her cottage for lunch, Emily worries that their meeting will be a mistake. Can she live up to the impressions created by her letters? Will Edmund be disappointed by the real Emily once he meets her in the flesh? Will he ever write to her again? Somewhat inevitably, the lunch is rather strained – the atmosphere made all the more difficult by the most awkward of starts and the interference of a nosy neighbour, the pushy Mrs Waterlow. The story itself is quietly devastating, and yet there is a glimmer of hope at the end.
First published in Cornhill Magazine. Collected in The Blush and Other Stories, Peter Davies 1958, republished by Virago Modern Classics, 1986. Also in Complete Short Stories, Virago, 2012
The TV series ‘Tales of the Unexpected’ provided my introduction to the short story. How wonderful after a Sunday night bath to watch a macabre tale involving perhaps murder, human taxidermy or people turning into bees. A bit of grand guignolbefore getting your school-bag ready for the next day was always welcome. My favourite was an adaptation of an Elizabeth Taylor story. An unhappy child, Sylvia, is harassed on a bus by a strange and overbearing older man, but a woman comes to the girl’s rescue and takes her home. The tale moves to a deeply shocking conclusion which involves the careful laying out of three tea-cups. The child observes a fly-paper hanging in the window: “Some of the flies were still half alive, and striving hopelessly to free themselves. But they were caught forever.”
First published in The Cornhill Magazine, Spring 1969. Collected in The Devastating Boys, 1972, and Complete Short Stories, 2012, both Virago Modern Classics
Elizabeth Taylor was on my bedside table in the hospital when I gave birth to my first child. ‘The Devastating Boys’ is about a childless woman in a prim English village fosters who fosters two rough little boys from London just after the war. Nothing dramatic happens: it’s just a devastatingly real portrayal of what love is like, and how it will run its own roads through your life – a bit like ‘Livvie’ I suppose.
First published in McCalls, 1966 and collected in The Devastating Boys (1972) and the Virago Complete Short Stories, 2012