Monthly Archives: August 2013

A Game of Hide-and-Seek by Elizabeth Taylor

After the stress and upheaval of moving I was anticipating pleasure and relaxation when I started to read Elizabeth Taylor’s fifth novel, A Game of Hide-and-Seek. But what I got was more tension, and more stress.

48 Hide & Seek

This is a love story. The tension in Part One arises from two young people becoming aware of feelings of love. Harriet and Vesey are in their late teens. Neither has much going for them. Vesey is staying with his aunt Caroline, before going up to Oxford. He has all the bad grace and gaucheness of an adolescent, is very absorbed in himself. His behaviour towards Harriet is sometimes hurtful and unreliable.

Harriet has done badly at school and lives in the shadow of her suffragette mother, Lilian. She goes to work for her mother’s greatest friend and comrade-in-arms, Caroline. She types letters and looks after the children. She cries at everything.

The events of Part Two take place twenty years later. The Second World War has taken place before Vesey reappears in Harriet’s life. They quickly realise that they are still in love. Vesey has not been able to make much of himself, left Oxford early, and after the war has joined a touring company as an actor, playing Laertes to someone else’s Hamlet. Harriet however has made a life for herself, represented by the house in Jessica Terrace, with its tasteful middle-class décor. She married Charles, who is older than her. He is honest, solid, dependable and plays the piano. They have a daughter, Betsy, who is 15. As Vesey was in his late teens, she is very absorbed with herself, forever striking poses, prone to unsuitable flights of fancy. She also falls for people, first her Greek teacher Miss Bell and then Vesey.

The central question of the novel is what will happen to Vesey and Harriet now they have reconnected? Harriet is the stronger of the two and the one who must consider what to do. Whatever course of action she takes other people will be hurt. And there is the troubling question of what is right – to follow one’s heart or to honour loyalty and the duties of motherhood and marriage? While she prevaricates Charles behaves jealously and discomforts them both. Betsy reads her mother’s letters from Vesey and decides that he is her father. She goes off the rails at school.

The resolution, any resolution, will be painful. A Game of Hide-and-Seek is an intense exploration of fidelity and loyalty, the dilemmas of marriage and love and loneliness.

37 E Taylor 2

It is a challenge for a writer to create consistent but authentic characters when the action is separated by twenty years. Elizabeth Taylor manages this through the quality of her prose, the precision of the details that shows the nuances of the love affair. Compare these two walks that the lovers take.

For the first ten minutes they were explaining to one another why they had chosen to go for this walk together. Boredom had driven them to it, they decided; a fear, on Vesey’s part, lest he should be asked by Hugo to mow and mark the tennis-lawn; a wish on Harriet’s part, to collect wild-flowers for the children to draw. If the walk turned out badly, it could be the fault of neither, for neither had desired it nor attached importance to it. In a few years’ time, they would be dissembling the other way; professing pleasure they did not feel, undreamed of eagerness. They had not yet learned to gush. Their protestations were of an oafish kind.

When they had established their lack of interest in being together, they became silent. Harriet gathered a large bunch of quaking-grass from under a hedge. Vesey kicked a stone down the middle of the road. (p11)

The second walk is their first time together as mature adults.

At the edge of the lake there were iron seats. When they sat down, some ducks came up through the reeds as if waiting to be fed. After a while, they dispersed again, diving into the water disconsolately. Vesey put his arm inside Harriet’s coat and drew her close to him. Sitting with his cheek against her hair, he did not kiss her, but stared across the water of the lake. For a long while they sat peacefully together. (p145)

Both walks serve to indicate the commitment of the lovers to each other, but their moods are quite different. The silence of the later meeting reveals as much as the reported speech of their earlier walk. We recognise them as the same people, as they do themselves, but in the later encounter they have experience, insight and less awkwardness. The simple phrase, ‘he did not kiss her’ reveals a great deal about their relationship, about its transcending the physical at this moment. In the early encounter they pursue different objects – Harriet the grass, Vesey the stone. But on the later occasion, the time they spent divided from each other has dissolved and now they can sit peacefully together.

As I read her novels in the order they were published, I enjoy three details of her writing. The first is her references to other writers and novels. In A Game of Hide-and-Seek, Vesey announced to Harriet that he wanted to be a writer, but not a novelist.

“The novel is practically finished as an art form,” he replied.

“I suppose it is,” said Harriet.

“Virginia Woolf has brought it to the edge of ruin.”

“Yes,” said Harriet.

“But it was inevitable,” he added, laying no blame. (p13)

I like the layers of humour implied in this little exchange; Vesey is confident and wrong; Harriet is unable to add anything; the writer is letting us know a thing or two about the couple while smiling at a joke about novels. Charles likes reading Persuasion, rather a bad choice for one who fears enduring love. And Harriet’s friend Kitty cautions her against following her feelings by warning her of the fate of Madame Bovary.

Second, I am increasingly admiring the cast of other characters, who are not ciphers. They often provide much of the humour. After Vesey has left Caroline’s house, Harriet takes a job at a dress shop and this provides her with an education – about men, depilatory methods, what to wear on special occasions, how to treat the boss. Her co-workers are a carefully differentiated trio of single women, Misses Brimpton, Lazenby and Lovelace. This is the brief but knowing description of Miss Lovelace:

Warm, large-bosomed, full of dove-like murmurings, she bridged, and had bridged, for many married men the gulf between mother and wife; she encouraged them in self-pity and was an exciting mixture of paramour and nursery-governess. There was no sort of woman that she had not been at one time or another. (p60)

And third, Elizabeth Taylor frequently includes a character with a derivative of her own first name. There is Beth in A View of the Harbour, and Liz in A Wreath of Roses, for example. In this novel it is Betsy, the rather histrionic daughter. These are not self-portraits. Perhaps it was a kind of game she was playing.

A Game of Hide-and-Seek was published in 1951; Elizabeth Taylor had been producing novels at the rate of one a year since her first, At Mrs Lippincote’s, was published in 1945. The next Elizabeth Taylor novel to be read in this project – her sixth – is The Sleeping Beauty. It will be reviewed in September.

A note: the introduction in the Virago edition by Elizabeth Jane Howard is one the best in this series so far.

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The Writing Group Contract

I have been meeting with two other writers every month for just over a year. Writing courses can forge relationships that feel significant for the participants; together writers hear the work of others, struggle with them to help them improve their work, encourage them, want to know more about the progress of writers with whom they have formed a bond. Not surprising then that at the end of every writing course someone says, ‘let’s stay in touch’. And someone else says ‘let’s meet again’.

Lynda, Katerina and I got together after a writing course at City Lit. Occasionally another participant joins us, but we three are the core of the group. Our normal practice is similar to other groups’ no doubt: one person emails about 2000 words on which they are working to the others. We give feedback on this. We also find time to talk about aspects of writing, where we are, what we do about this problem or what we find useful about some practice or other. And we recommend useful activities and books.

47 Wr group

On the last occasion we met we included a very tasty supper, discussed a scene from Lynda’s novel, and I asked Lynda and Katerina to answer these three questions:

  • What do you want from a writing group?
  • Can you give some examples of what the writing group has helped you with?
  • Any advice for writers?

Perhaps like me you assume you know why people belong to writing groups, but I decided it was time to check out my friends’ reasons and to write about it on the blog. Here are their answers.

 

What do you want from a writing group?

K: When I write I appreciate feedback and want to be involved with like-minded people. It’s my connection to writing, as a part-time writer I need it. And nice people.

L: I want feedback. I love being forced to be brave and give things to people to read. Doing that with clever, sympathetic and reflective people – that really helps. I like being in the situation where I can talk about writing without being self-conscious.

K: Me too. I don’t have people to talk about writing with. Do you?

L: Yes. And no. This is what’s special. I do have friends and family members who want to read my writing, but I don’t want them to in the early stages.  I want to wait until I’m fairly happy with what I’ve done. It’s super with people who are contracting to read early drafts and be honest about them.

I worry about family and friends not being honest. And if they were honest and didn’t like what I showed them, I’d be upset – at least until I was confident about it myself.

K: Yes, it’s frustrating to give someone a piece and they just give it back and say ‘nice’. I don’t want ‘nice’. Friends and family can’t give you constructive criticism.

In the group we’re all going through our own stuff, and reading other people’s and you can bring in where you are with your stuff, your problems,

Can you give some examples of what the writing group has helped you with?

K: It made me look at planning my novel – that time we looked at a timeline and chart and I went away and did something similar for mine. It was in my head but it was nice to get it down.

L Practical, detailed comment from people who read your writing carefully.

K: It’s nice to know what does and doesn’t work, whether the reader gets a particular message. Or if they haven’t got the point.

L: It’s useful knowing how other people are reading what you are writing, especially early on.

K: Different readers see different things.

L: I am very unselfconscious when I write, it just comes out. There are the inevitable contradictions, confusions and other people can point these out.

Any advice for writers?

L: Oooooh it’s so presumptuous to give advice. But how about: write first as if nobody is going to read it. Get it all out.

K: Believe in yourself, even through the bad bits.

L: Write through the doubts.

K: That’s good. You should enjoy it.

L: Say to yourself – be strong. Isosh as they say in Ethiopia.

 

So if you belong to a writing group what do you get out of it? What are your experiences?

 

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Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

Claudia Hampton is 76 years old and approaching the end of her life. In fiction final days are serene, composed, moving calmly towards reconciliation and conclusion. Or it might be a gloomy time, full of regrets for those who will live on as well as for the dying. In Moon Tiger Penelope Lively gives us an alternative to both the serene and the gloomy end of days. Claudia is spending hers as vividly as she lived the rest of her life.

46 Moon Tiger

The structure of the novel reflects a view of life not as linear (no journey metaphors here), but as happening all at once. Claudia’s life is an accretion of her experiences, of her achievements and failures, of those she has loved. As she lies in hospital, attended by medical staff, she is visited by people she has known, and by memories of her life. The story is told from multiple and rapidly shifting perspectives. At some points we are with her in her hospital bed, then shift to her visitors, whose different experience of the same events is caught by a slight changes.

She has a project.

‘I’m writing a history of the world,’ she says. And the hands of the nurse are arrested for a moment: she looks down at this old woman, this old ill woman. ‘Well, my goodness,’ the nurse says. ‘That’s quite a thing to be doing, isn’t it?’ And she becomes busy again, she heaves and tucks and smooths – ‘Upsy a bit dear, there’s a good girl – then we’ll get you a cup of tea.’ (p1)

This is the opening paragraph. The history of the world is in immediate contrast with the infantalising language of the nurse (‘Upsy a bit dear, there’s a good girl’). We may be amused by Claudia’s intention, but by the end of the novel we understand that it was a good description of her occupation, even if it was composed in her head

On the next page, ‘the doctor glances at his notes and says that yes, she does seem to have been someone.’ (p2)

As an old person she has been written off, no longer ‘someone’, but the reader soon learns that Claudia has a continuing, rich and fecund inner life. The novel was first published in 1987 (it was the Booker prize winner that year). Can we be confident that medical staff are less patronising today, recognise that a person is still a being, even on their deathbed?

From childhood Claudia’s life has been a challenge to the accepted view of how a woman should live in the twentieth century. In her first years she regarded her brother Gordon as her equal, tied together in argument and competition. In her early adulthood she became a war correspondent in Egypt in the 40s, a career shared by very few women. In the desert she met and fell in love with Tom, but he was killed. Fiction often presents the love of a woman’s life as her main story. With Tom’s death Claudia’s life should, in conventional terms, have been over, or at least ruined, and without further interest to a reader. But her life continued, for forty more eventful years. After the war she had a long affair with Jasper, an exploitative opportunist, and still did not marry, despite having a daughter. Asked why she has attracted so few proposals of marriage her reply suggested a truth – men have had a good sense of self preservation. The daughter, Lisa, was raised by grandmothers. Claudia wrote successful popular history, out of kilter with the grand narratives of post-war academic writing. Old women are usually thought of as moderating their stance towards the world but Claudia does not do this. She lives a life that is too challenging.

The novel then refutes the conventional narrative of what a woman should be and that the endpoint, the purpose of her life is marriage, and motherhood. The ‘happily ever after’ that threads through fairy stories, school stories, romances, and much of ‘women’s’ fiction is not Claudia’s ambition. She has forty more eventful years after Tom’s death.

Neither Claudia nor Penelope Lively accepts the fiction writer’s traditional focus for women. In the conventional version, women’s lives after marriage, when children have been reared and become adults, are of little interest. (There are exceptions: see the growing list of books with strong older women in fiction.) How many years to live after that, in maturity and old age? More than half your life. How to be someone when the world tells you – you should have gone? (A phrase a colleague came across recently is coffin-dodger.)

And the final days and hours? Claudia spends these as she has lived. She examines her life, the final days are another accretion of events, strata laid down as in geology. Addressing her long-dead lover, Tom, in the final chapter, she says,

I am twice your age, You are young; I am old. You are in some ways unreachable, shut away beyond a glass screen of time; you know nothing of the forty years of history and forty years of my life; you seem innocent, like a person in another century. But you are also, now, a part of me, as immediate and as close as my own other selves, all the Claudias of whom I am composed; I talk to you almost as I would talk to myself.

… I need you, Gordon, Jasper, Lisa, all of them. And I can only explain this need by extravagance: my history and the world’s. Because unless I am a part of everything I am nothing. (p206-7)

As in life, so in places, as Claudia describes when she revisited Cairo, the site of her love affair.

The place didn’t look the same but it felt the same, sensations clutched and transformed me. I stood outside some concrete and plate-glass tower-block, picked a handful of eucalyptus leaves from a branch, crushed them in my hand, smelt, and tears came to my eyes, Sixty-seven-year-old Claudia, on a pavement awash with packaged American matrons, crying not in grief but in wonder that nothing is ever lost, that everything can be retrieved, that a lifetime is not linear but instant. That, inside the head, everything happens at once. (p68)

Penelope Lively was interviewed in 2009 (two decades after Moon Tiger was published) by Sarah Crown in the Guardian. ‘The idea that memory is linear is nonsense, What we have in our heads is a collection of frames. As to time itself – can it be linear when all these snatches of other presents exist at once in your mind? A very elusive and tricky concept, time.’

We should not assume too close an identification of Claudia with the author, not least because Penelope Lively was not in her 70s when she created the character and she is still very much with us. She said, ‘while she is not me, I did give her some of my thoughts about the operation of memory and the nature of evidence. I never entirely liked Claudia, but I had great respect for her, and envied her ability to crash through life in a way that I cannot.’

It’s an unsettling book. The comfortable cliché of the journey’s end is rejected. I suspect that some people find Claudia too difficult, an unsympathetic character. She is not prepared to live as other people want or expect. Do we need to like Claudia in order to see that she offers a different approach to being an older woman?

 

I am indebted to Jeanette King’s book Discourses of Ageing in Fiction and Feminism: the invisible woman, published in 2013 by Palgrave McMillan.

This readalong is the first on this blog exploring older women in fiction. Next, in October, will be Dorothy Whipple’s Greenbanks.

 

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Ten books to make me think

I took inspiration from Tales from the Reading Room and her post Ten Books that Make You Think. I think every book should make you think. I can’t see why you would bother reading it if it didn’t. I’m going to take it to mean books that made me change the way I see something. I started with ten books, but decided to go for five that made me think and five that I should read because I think they will make me think. And it was an easy list to compile.

Five books that stimulated me to change the way I saw something.

45 catch-22

  1. Joseph Heller  Catch-22: The power of both the novel and of humour, relating the absurdity of people’s behaviour, these were the things I found in Heller’s novel of 1955. His genius was to observe the phenomenon that we all recognize which gave the book its title.
  2. Ursula le Guin The Earthsea Trilogy: I read these as an adult, although they are packaged for children. I was impressed by the theme of naming. You have power over something if you can name it. This, I understand, is the power of literacy. The trilogy led me to her other novels, fantasy and sci-fi, which have also made me think about human behaviour.
  3. Carolyn G Heilbrun Writing a Woman’s Life: short, erudite and very challenging about how the scripts or narratives written for women have made it so hard and so necessary to tell (writing and speaking) of alternative lives. She provides examples to guide us. I re-read this to find again how other women have written their lives in ways that can inspire rather contain female experiences.
  4. Robert Macfarlane The Old Ways: a journey on foot: You can read a landscape, you can view paths as the writing by users on the landscape. Walking as writing, paths as a form of text. This is a journey in a book.
  5. Our Bodies Ourselves: This book was published by a collective, such a brave move. It’s a guide book for women, to encourage women to be more confident physically in health and sickness. It’s hard to remember now but when it was first published medical records were not to be read by patients, and women had to have their husband’s permission for contraception to be prescribed.

45 ourbodies

And five books that I still have to read that I am sure will make me see things differently.

  1. Charles Dickens David Copperfield: I really should read this.
  2. Cervantes Don Quixote: And this.
  3. David Kynaston A World to Build 1945-48: I have a persistent interest in post-war Britain and its social history. There is some great fiction from this period as well, Elizabeth Taylor, for example.
  4. Joseph Roth The Radetsky March: Recommended by my friend Rose, who always makes challenging recommendations and talks about books in such interesting ways.
  5. Rebecca Solnit Wanderlust: A History of Walking: This writer is frequently referred to by other writer-walkers (see 4 above). She is clearly influential in the field of literary walkers, which includes WG Sebald, of course, among others.
  6. RSPB Pocket Guide to British Birds because in my new cottage I am going to have a bird table and learn more about garden birds.

45 Radetsky red

Yes I know, that’s six books. But I’ll always have room for another book.

What’s in your lists? What book/s changed the way you saw life?

NOTE: For those of you who might be wondering about my move to Devon, well, it all happened, despite the reluctance of my piano to accompany me. There was a carnival in the village on Saturday, and the removals lorry brought down several strands of bunting, before reaching my door. Enough of that. This is a book and word blog.

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She’s leaving home …

Indulge me! After 28 years I’m leaving Stoke Newington (North London). My house has been sold, the papers signed, keys ready to hand over and I’m off – tomorrow! What follows are my reflections on my literary time here.

44 Sold

Stoke Newington has always attracted dissenters. The non-conformists of the 1790s lived around Newington Green. I think of them every time I catch the 73 bus (no tubes in Hackney). Focused on the Unitarian chapel, which is still here, a group of radical thinkers met and talked and wrote their views on the repression instituted by the government following the French Revolution. They included Tom Paine, Richard Price, Joseph Priestley, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. She lived and taught here. There is a wall painting of her on the side of the Unitarian chapel.

44 M Wolst

I made a special study of Mary Wollstonecraft as part of my undergraduate degree, studying with another dissenter, EP Thompson, at Warwick University. Unaffiliated and pursued for a definition of his ideas, he famously announced in one lecture that he was a Marxist Muggletonian.

On Stoke Newington Church Street one of the houses is called Defoe House. Here lived the first novelist, Daniel Defoe. Perhaps he spent the plague years here, for Stoke Newington was a village outside London in the 17th and 18th Centuries. The young Samuel Pepys was sent here as a child, for his health. Defoe was sentenced to the pillory for his writing, but, according to legend and Wikipedia ‘the publication of his poem Hymn to the Pillory caused his audience at the pillory to throw flowers instead of the customary harmful and noxious objects and to drink to his health’. My kind of dissenter, one who turns the tables.

When I came here in the early 1980s houses were cheap (in London terms) and attracted public sector workers, especially teachers and social workers. We were mostly in our 30s. The women of this tribe were called drabbies. Mary Wollstonecraft was the original drabby perhaps. Nowadays it’s renown as a good place to bring up children, and is choked by those up-cycling chops and three wheel drive buggies. Where are the drabbies and dissenters of yesteryear?

They reassemble at the Stoke Newington literary festival, established a few years ago. Unlike other literary festivals, it does not rely on Radio 4-type audiences hanging on the words of (mainly male) news presenters, politicians including members of the House of Lords and tv gardeners turned novelists. Rather the buzz comes from radicals and outspoken thinkers in fiction, poetry, journalism, humour and other cultural areas. Lindsey Hilsum talking about her experiences in Libya, for example. Jacky Kay reading from her short stories. And lots of other original women and men.

And there have been other delights to feed the literary soul: there has been an independent bookshop here for as long as I have walked up the High Street. Independent bookshops are treasures. Stoke Newington Bookshop seems to be thriving. And the library – no praise is too much for the service from London libraries, the on-line ordering service, the ability to reserve books from anywhere in Greater London, the pleasure of seeing the library used day in and day out by Hackney residents. And I have had access to a very wide range of writing classes: two at the Faber Academy in Bloomsbury and several at City Lit. Spread the Word run great workshops and other events.

Moving house is making me nostalgic in another way. Packing up and decluttering my stuff means discovering items from 28 and more years ago. I have come across a collection of juvenilia. But here is my earliest extant writing:

44 diarey

            1955

18/9/55

Name: Caroline

Diarey.

Yesterday I went to the fair. I liked the swing-Boats. Mummy could not come. She had to fech granny. I liked it very muech.

Six days later, the second entry shows more grasp of narrative.

24/9/55

Yesterday I had an apple. When I was counting how many bettle holes, on the last one a bettle came out. I went and told mummy. Fuzz [my aunt] came to get it, but when we got there it was gone.

A flurry of misspelling occurred on 25th September:

Yesterday I went to the ceinama. I liked it verey much. I saw a buffaloa. I[t] was lovley.

The first entry was illustrated with a swing-boat and the second with an apple and a bettle making off. It is clear why I stuck with writing (despite my spelling) rather than developing my drawing skills.

The collection also includes several school exercise books of novels – the start of three or four novels, with my favoured nom de plume. There is a playscript or two and copies of the school magazine to which I contributed.

In this house I have written all my published books (on education and on retiring), drafted my novel, edited my short stories, written my assignments, dissertation and thesis for my higher degrees.

The bulk of my books are here, despite considerable de-cluttering. Every morning I sit at my writing table and look out of the window at the cherry tree, the apple tree (both planted since I arrived) and the people in the windows of the houses next door. (I’ll miss you, naked man, getting up every morning at 6.50!) I’m writing my Morning Pages.

I’m giving all this up – Mary Wollstonecraft, the library, my peaceful writing room, but not my books, volumes of morning pages, juvenilia or writing amibitions.

I’m going to a village in Devon – a cottage in a village in Devon. I’ll have a writing room with a view of Dartmoor. It’s a new adventure for an ageing drabby. Normal blogging will resume shortly.

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A Wreath of Roses by Elizabeth Taylor

With her fourth novel Elizabeth Taylor had become more confident, more capable of handling the complexities of her theme of loneliness. She achieved new depths in the exploration of women’s lives and their relationships with each other and with men. I loved her first three novels, but with A Wreath of Roses (published in 1949) it is evident that she had become a wise, precise and elegant writer. This is how the novel begins, for example:

Afternoons seem unending on branch-line stations in England in summer time. The spiked shelter prints an unmoving shadow on the platform, geraniums blaze, whitewashed stones assault the eye. Such trains as come only add to the air of fantasy, to the idea of the scene being symbolic, or encountered at one level while suggesting another even more alienating. (p1)

 

43 stationWe have been warned. The scene seems unchanging, stultifying. We encounter the second level after this wonderful sentence.

Then, with a collapsing sound, the signal dropped. (p2)

43 signal

Three people on the platform, Camilla, another traveller and the stationmaster, observe the approach of the through train.

All at once, the man on the footbridge swung himself up on the parapet and, just as Camilla was putting out her arms in a ridiculous gesture as if to stop him, he clumsily jumped, a sprawling jump, an ill-devised death, since he fell wide of the express train.

This happening broke the afternoon in two. The feeling of eternity had vanished. (p3)

She was confident enough to create one sentence in which the reader and the three people waiting on the platform, at the same moment understand the intentions of the man on the footbridge. As if this wasn’t enough for one sentence to carry she adds Camilla’s futile but understandable gesture (the reader almost makes the same gesture). And further, she includes the bathetic details of ‘an ill-devised death’. She had prefigured the descent of the anonymous man with the collapsing sound of the signal.

This baleful scene takes us to three women who have been spending August together for years. Like the afternoon at the station, it seems at first a permanent arrangement, but all is changing. A visitor sums up the unhappinesses of the three women to Frances, the oldest of the three.

‘Liz is unhappy about her baby. Camilla – that’s a lovely name. It has the smoothness of ice – she’s unhappy about her life; embittered, waspish. You’re unhappy about the world.’ (p172)

Frances, whose cottage is the venue for the holiday, is a painter and once Liz’s governess. She is feeling the physical limitations of her age, wanting to move away from her previous style of painting to reflect her current thoughts about the world.

For was I not guilty of making ugliness charming? An English sadness like a veil over all I painted, until it became ladylike and nostalgic, governessy, utterly lacking in ferocity, brutality, violence. Whereas in the centre of the earth, in the heart of life, in the core of even everyday things is there not violence, with flames wheeling, turmoil, pain, chaos?

Her paintings this year, she knew, were four utter failures to express her new feelings, her rejection of prettiness, her tearing-down of the veils of sadness, of charm. She had become abstract, incoherent, lost. (p42)

Liz appears be a perpetual child when we first met her, despite having a baby son with her, but she matures enough to see that her marriage has some advantages, not least because she has the baby. And Camilla, more or less the central character of this novel, is on the cusp of becoming, in the terms of the time, an old maid. She is jealous of Liz and her marriage and fearful of her small life as a school secretary.

The opening scene brought Camilla into contact with Richard, the other passenger who witnessed the suicide. He is the kind of man ‘who could never be part of her life’. The scene also introduces us to the idea of impermanence and transition. Camilla and Richard are both on journeys. She is travelling to Abingford to spend August with her friends. He is in flight from his past, looking for respite.

After the dramatic opening there is little action, just shifts and playing out of the relationships, as the trio interact with the men, the villagers, the dog, the requirements of life. Each of the three women has a man to contend with. Morland Beddoes is a film director, who comes to see Frances’s paintings, having bought one before the war and been in correspondence ever since. Frances has to face the possibility that at their first meeting she wont live up to Beddoes’s view of her that has been nurtured over two decades, including the time he spent in a pow camp.

Liz has her husband, and his extension – the baby. Arthur is a clergyman, who loves flirting with women and making himself agreeable. Liz is uncertain about her marriage at the outset of the novel, but she comes to see that it does provide her with the context she needs to thrive.

Camilla feels herself shut out by both Liz and Frances, preoccupied as they are respectively with the baby and painting. She is attracted to Richard, even though she knows he is a man who will always take advantage. Camilla takes risks in her friendship with him because she yearns for attention, fears the narrow life she lives for eleven months of the year as a school secretary. She wants something to take back to her regular life, to live off during the cold winters. He is a dangerous man, but neither Camilla nor the reader learn quite how dangerous until the final scenes.

As in all her novels Elizabeth Taylor is exploring loneliness. All six of these characters are lonely and must deal with it, give in to it, or battle with it. The women have to make decisions about aloneness or compromise, about friendship between women and what happens when men come between them. And they have to face up to the changes that are brought by age, children, marriage, the demands of the village life. Things change all the time, for everybody, life is change.

The Wreath of Roses is darker than Elizabeth Taylor’s previous novels, more assured in the quietness of the writer’s observations. My only reservation is that some of the dialogue, especially between Liz and Camilla, seemed inauthentic. Would they really be so brutal about each other, Liz’s husband, their intentions? The fracturing of their relationship, however, is painfully and poignantly depicted. And the minor characters are a joy, especially Mrs Parsons, ‘who does’.

Have you read A Wreath of Roses? What did you think?

43 Wreath & Hide

Reminder: The next Elizabeth Taylor novel to be read in this project – her fifth – is A Game of Hide and Seek. It will be reviewed here towards the end of August.

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Filed under Books, Elizabeth Taylor's novels, Reading, Reviews