Tag Archives: A Wreath of Roses

A themed post about books and trains

From time to time I like to consider books linked by titles or themes or in some other way. Today the link is trains. Trains take people away from loved ones, and towards others. The cast of characters is random and usually constant, at least while the train is moving. These features make trains ideal settings for murder mysteries: think Murder on the Orient Expressby Agatha Christie (1934), or Strangers on a Trainby Patricia Highsmith (1950). And a station obscured by steam is a perfect setting for dramatic events: Anna Karenina by Tolstoy (1877) is an example.

My list of train books is slightly quirky. It includes two novels, two wartime accounts and the events on a station that led to the most significant publishing revolution of the last century.

The Underground Railroadby Colson Whitehead (2016)

The underground railroad was a means by which slaves from the American Southern States were helped to escape and find freedom in the North. Making the railroad a concrete thing, with stations, tracks, engines, engineers and boxcars, was a daring move by Colson Whitehead. It had the effect of emphasising the hard work of building the network, maintaining it and it also exposed the vulnerability of the routes to freedom and the many ways to disrupt it. This is hard and important read. Here’s a link to the reviewof this book on Bookword in October 2017. 

A Wreath of Rosesby Elizabeth Taylor (1949)

This novel is not primarily about trains or train journeys, but the train is significant in the scene that opens the novel and announces the changes that Elizabeth Taylor will explore. 

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. (1)

We have been warned. The scene seems unchanging, stultifying. We encounter something else after this wonderful sentence.

Then, with a collapsing sound, the signal dropped. (2)

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. (3)


The opening scene 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. This is a dark novel exploring loneliness as so many of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels do. You can find the full review here.

A Train in Winter: A story of Resistance, Friendship and Survival in Auschwitz by Caroline Moorehead  (2011)

Trains played an infamous role in the Holocaust. 230 French women were sent to Auschwitz in January 1943, arrested for anti-German activities. This book is a depressing account of their experience of barbarity, inhumanity and suffering.

The culpability of the Vichy government, the French police, the German occupiers of France, the many who betrayed the communists and members of the Resistance, the guards and commanders of the camps, the medical staff, the Kapos is overwhelming. And so is the disappointment of the women who were largely ignored on their return to France.

What kept the 49 women who survived alive? Friendship, care for each other, courage, hope and a determination to tell the story of what they had experienced and seen. 

Train to Nowhereby Anita Leslie (1948)

The title of this book could be considered misleading, as no train appears in it. The title refers to the journey being over. This train is going nowhere.

Another wartime book, this time the account of a well-connected young woman who joined the MTC as a mechanic and was sent to the Middle East during the Second World War. She drove ambulances, until the war moved away. Then she became a journalist, chasing stories and promoting circulation of the newspaper for the troops. When she could see that there was no prospect for action, she transferred to Italy, and followed the Allies up through Italy, pausing for the last days of the Battle of Cassino. As the British Army and Red Cross would not allow ambulance drivers near the front line she transferred to the French army and supported the battles in Alsace and then into Germany.

Her account is especially sparkling when it refers to the people she worked with, met on her travels, the lunches she was invited to (including by Churchill as she was his cousin) and several ranking army personnel. But the strongest impression is of the bravery as her division went into battle and the drivers ferried the wounded to hastily set up, often fast moving, medical facilities.

Exeter Station and a publishing revolution

The story goes that in 1934 returning from a weekend with Agatha Christie, at Greenway above the River Dart, Allen Lane had to wait on the Exeter St David’s station platform. Already working for Bodley Head, frustrated by the shortage of cheap and portable books, and no doubt influenced by recent contact with a popular author he conceived the idea for the Penguin paperback. 

The original format was soon expanded to Pelicans (non-fiction and blue) and Puffins (for children). The original orange covers of the Penguins later diversified into green for detective novels, black for classics, and other colours, such as purple for essays. Allen Lane’s intentions were anti-elitist. In All About Penguin Books in The BooksellerMay 1935 he said the project would be a success if

these Penguins are the means of converting book borrowers in to book-buyers. 

He was, he said, aiming at nothing less than

the popularisation of the bookshop and the increased sale of books.

You can find the full story here.

Please suggest more books with train links.

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The Dark Flood Rises by Margaret Drabble

I grew up with Margaret Drabble’s novels, keeping step as she pushed the boundaries with A Summer Bird Cage and The Millstone, looking at the lives of intelligent young women in the 60s. The Dark Flood Rises is her 20th novel and still she is asking questions that concern me, and people of my age. This novel is about growing older and facing death in the 21st Century.

The title is taken from DH Lawrence’s The Ship of Death.

Piecemeal the body dies, and the timid soul

Has her footing washed away, as the dark flood rises.

302-dark-flood-cover

This is the 24th in the series Older Women in Fiction on this blog. You can see the complete list of reviews and readers recommendations on the page About the Older Women in Fiction Series at the top of the blog.

‘What I do worry about is living’

Margaret Drabble wrote about death and approaching death in an article in the Guardian in October just before the publication of this novel. She referred to ‘the delusion of an afterlife’, no longer shared by many, if it ever was. But we still ‘struggle with the meaning of death’, she suggests. And she has this to add about increased longevity, faced by many of us.

Through our mortal ingenuity, we are reaching a biological phase when we are beginning to fear old age and longevity more than we fear death. We can no longer look forward to the possibility of a sudden, unexpected, merciful release, or falling asleep in bed reading a book (as my mother did), or ceasing on the midnight with no pain. Nor can we make plans to celebrate our departure as a grand culmination of our life’s endeavours, with gracious and grateful and possibly public farewell. That’s because we know that officious folk are going to strive to keep us alive for as long as they possibly can, until we can no longer enjoy anything. Just to prove that hey can. [Guardian 29th October 2016]

I disagree with much of this, believing we should celebrate increased longevity and take advantage of it in others as well as in ourselves. Indeed I have co-written about this and published a book on it this year. (The New Age of Ageing).

But increased longevity does mean paying more attention to that period we call old age. ‘What I do worry about is living,’ says Margaret Drabble. I agree with her. This is new territory, and as the author has said, (in the Paris Review in 1978) it is the function of fiction to explore it, and she has made an accessible approach with The Dark Flood Rises.

A summary

Fran and older people connected to her, and some younger ones, look at death. Fran is in her 70s but fit, caring for her bedbound ex-husband by preparing and delivering meals for him. Her son Christopher lost his partner suddenly in the Canaries. He returns there and is befriended by two gay men, Bennett Carpenter renown but sinking slowly into genteel disability, and Ivor increasingly acting as Bennett’s carer rather than his partner. They are trapped by European economics, and the failure to invest when they had capital. Fran’s daughter Poppet is concerned about the death of the earth. Two of Fran’s older female friends face and then undergo death.

Fran

It is Fran’s story with which the novel opens and to which we return at frequent intervals. She is doing ageing very well: she has a no-nonsense approach to it, keeps healthy and active, even undertaking paid work advising on meeting the housing needs of the elderly. This is a good device for some discrete observations about how these needs are widely neglected. Fran is determined not to become a burden on others, in fact to remain useful. She is, we can see, doing all the right things. This does not make her happy (see below for the opening paragraph).

Margaret Drabble is not afraid to enumerate the physical aspects of the ageing body. Or to refer to those things that are no longer problematic. There is a kind of tongue in cheek pleasure in the writing about these, for example the dream Fran has about Tampax. She has driven to a hotel the day before and in the morning she puts her reaction to the dream in order.

… she wonders whether it had sprung from the redness of the meal of the night before, or from her motorway thoughts about Macbeth, or from some new and about-to-be-apprehended aspect of time and the ageing experience.

For ageing is, says Fran to herself gamely as she presses the lift button to go down to her breakfast, a fascinating journey into the unknown. Or that’s one rather good way of looking at it. The thin flow was the blood of life, not of death, reminding her that she is still the same woman, she who once had been the bleeding girl. (20)

The writing

The novel is not divided into chapters, but into short segments. And it is written in the present tense. Here are the opening sentences of the novel, from Fran’s point of view.

She has often suspected that her last words to herself and in the world will prove to be ‘You bloody old fool’ or, perhaps, depending on the mood of the day or the time of the night, ‘you fucking idiot’. As the speeding car hits the tree, or the unserviced boiler explodes, or the smoke and flames fill the hallway, or the grip on the high guttering gives way, those will be her last words. She isn’t to know for sure that it will be so, but she suspects it. In her latter years, she’s become deeply interested in the phrase ‘Call no man happy until he is dead’. Or no woman come to that. ‘Call no woman happy until she is dead.’ (1)

The present tense narration brings a curious slow but immediate impact. It reminds us that these people live alongside us, are us. Time moves onwards, but we can linger in this time of life. The prose has a slightly superior tone, which may be intended to represent the mindset of this group of older people.

The novel does not stay with Fran, but roams among the other characters as they pass their days in the shadow of death’s approach. We see the preoccupations of Fran’s women friends, her ex-husband Claude, Bennett and Ivor trapped in the Canaries and attend a hospital bed and a funeral or two.

43 Wreath & Hide

There are many erudite references in The Dark Flood Rises. One I especially enjoyed was to Elizabeth Taylor, and her novel A Wreath of Roses. Margaret Drabble is very well read and her well-educated cast of characters have various interests which enable her to refer to many other writers and what they said about ageing and dying.

There is a great deal of humour, and pathos, in the doings of these characters. There is selflessness and selfishness, affluence and poverty, friendship and admiration. Some of these people have been very eminent in their professional lives in earlier times. Bennett Carpenter is a notable historian of Spain. Claude was a highly regarded surgeon. Some of the older people are immersing themselves in rather narrow interests. For example, Jo develops a researcher’s interest in novels about marriage to the DWS (deceased wife’s sister). Claude wants to listen to endless Maria Callas, while cuddling his carer. Many of these old people are lonely, have lost partners and are fearful of intruding upon their children’s lives.

And I want to mention that the story references population movements too, especially across the Mediterranean and especially the treacherous, desperate voyages that see the end of so many lives as people escape violence.

Rescue off the Canaries, November 15th 2006. Noborder Network via WikiCommons.

Rescue off the Canaries, November 15th 2006. Noborder Network via WikiCommons.

The Dark Flood Rises by Margaret Drabble, published by Canongate in 2016. 326 pp

Related posts

Margaret Drabble’s article in the Guardian, ‘I’m not afraid of death. I worry about living’ October 2016.

My review of Elizabeth Taylor’s A Wreath of Roses.

The previous post in the older woman in fiction series was A Year of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman.

 

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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