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