A Game of Hide and Seek
by Elizabeth Taylor
“The whole point is that writing has a pattern and life hasn't. Life is so untidy. Art is so short and life so long. It is not possible to have perfection in life but it is possible to have perfection in a novel.” ― Elizabeth Taylor
Hide and Seek is a novel of passion and star-crossed love. It begins with two teenagers, Harriet and Vesey. Harriet is a timid girl and Vesey, while also shy, is prone to outbursts of malice that may be found in episodes like his excessive teasing of the housekeeper. Vesey dreams of writing great literature and has the mind to make that possible while Harriet's dreams are somewhat less. She is unambitious and both her desire and her mind fail her when necessary to pass the exams for entrance to university. Vesey is dramatic and manipulative, an overcompensation for the haphazard affections of his self-centered mother. In their teens, playing complicated games with the younger cousins Harriet is meant to be babysitting, the two fall in love; on Harriet’s end, swooningly and awkwardly. The first part of Hide and Seek is all about the games they play. Harriet's developing passion for Vesey and her own sexual awakening elicit a response from Vesey, but his mood swings and a penchant for the dramatic combined with a manipulative manner that seems like indifference is painful for Harriet. The two are splintered both by their own flaws—Vesey’s insensitivity, Harriet’s inability to openly stake a claim—and by the ungenerous interventions of their elders. Vesey is packed off to university, while Harriet starts a new job in a gown shop and falls into a relationship with Charles Jephcott, “an elderly man of about thirty-five,” out of passivity and loneliness. After Vesey stands her up at a dance—and after her mother dies, and Charles tends her through her grief—Harriet submits to marrying Charles.
The second part of the novel begins sixteen years later. Harriet has a teenage-daughter, Betsy, and is in a pleasant if somewhat passionless marriage when Vesey returns. She has spent the time attempting to make up for not loving her husband through feverish housekeeping: “When she married Charles, she had seemed to wed also a social order. A convert to it, and to provincial life, and keeping house, she had pursued it fanatically and as if she feared censure.” Vesey, meanwhile, is a failing actor, playing Laertes in gaudy productions of Hamlet. When they reconnect, his old cruel arrogance has been dissolved by time and misfortune, and Harriet begins risking her hard-won, if deadening, stability to meet him in sordid railway cafes and on park benches. They both feel, as Vesey puts it to himself, the “desire to unpack his life in her presence, to lay before her treasure after treasure (or, rather, loss, laughter, disappointment).” On the home front Charles finds that, "As his relations with other people improved, his life with Harriet deteriorated." Unfortunately Betsy discovers hints of the affair and her life, which was much more promising than her mother's at the same age, begins to unravel. Any imagined possibilities for Harriet and Vesey as a reunited couple also begin to come apart. The ending is ambiguous but did not disappoint in being so.
What impressed me was the characterization which brought the main players alive but made the supporting roles, like Harriet's mother, Vesey's Uncle Hugo, and Betsy's greek teacher, interesting as well. Taylor's prose reminded me of Anita Brookner or Barbara Pym in its lucid smoothness. The combination of psychological insight and great prose makes this a memorable novel from a British author who should be better known.
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