Should anyone ever ask me for an example of an outstanding first chapter to a novel, I would recommend the opening chapter of A Wreath of Roses. It captures the themes of the novel while providing a vivid scene: surface evenness disturbed by violence; loneliness; change; aftermath of war; summer nostalgia. We are in the post-war era and a woman waits at a small railway station for a connecting train to take her to her usual summer holiday. The summer calm is broken by a violent act, which was also witnessed by another passenger. Both passengers are shaken by the events and soon it is evident that he has something to hide.
The title warns us: roses have thorns. Wreaths are significant at funerals. Whoever thought of Elizabeth Taylor as chintzy and cosy should read this dark novel with its themes of the pain of change and of loneliness.
A Wreath of Roses
This is the fourth time I have read this novel. Although it has a dark, almost melodramatic sub-plot in contrast to her previous work, she continues to demonstrate that she can create and control a story full of complex characters, who have different perceptions and contrasting needs and are each changing as the narrative progresses.
Everything changes and comes to an end in the short time span of this novel. The war has not long finished; journeys come to an end, as does the traditional holiday of three women; attitudes to life and friendship change; the friendship group will not meet again in the same way; a life comes to an end and so on.
The woman at the station in the opening chapter is Camilla, who works as a secretary in a school and is feeling that she should change her life and its unchanging routines. She is met at the end of her train journey by her friend Liz, who has a baby son, having married a clergyman about 18 months before. Liz and Camilla met at boarding school in Switzerland before the war and have spent a month together every summer since. They stay with Frances, Liz’s former governess, who now devotes herself to painting.
Each of this trio are at a bit of a crossroads. Frances is finding it harder to paint in the way that she wishes and is facing ill health in her old age. Liz is having a hard time adjusting to her baby and to the demands of life as a vicar’s wife. She and Camilla are finding it hard to maintain their intimacy. They are each unhappy, as a visitor suggests to Frances:
“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.” (172)
They each bring a man to the story: Morland Beddoes has admired Frances’s painting from afar for years and corresponded with her even while a prisoner of war; Arnold is the vicar who is married to Liz, and despite Camilla’s jealousy is a good sort; Richard Elton (probably not his real name) meets Camilla on the train, and is clearly not a good sort, but a bad ‘un. She is drawn to him, although she has doubts about him too. She is attracted by the possibility of adventure and being desired, breaking down her habitual reserve and defences.
The story plays out over a few days, as the women try to recapture the pleasures of former holidays. The men and the baby are drawn in, for example to the annual picnic, and their presence reminds the reader how their circle is changing.
Among the pleasures of this novel is the background of the local town and village and the steadiness of life in this rural setting.
Camilla walked with Hotchkiss [the dog] along the quiet lanes. Trees and the hedgerows were dark as blackberries against a starry sky; a little owl took off from the telegraph-post, floating noiselessly across a field of stubble. Outside the Hand and Flowers a knot of villagers said goodnight to one another. They dispersed along the lanes, singing in slurred voices. Their ‘goodnights’ rang between the hedges. The bar with its uncurtained window was blue with smoke; the landlord crossed and recrossed it, carrying tankards, behind him on the wall a great tarnished fish in a glass case.
From the cottages all along the village came blurred and muted wireless music. Some of the doors stood open to the scented night, revealing little pictures of interiors, fleeting and enchanting, those cottage rooms that Frances loved so dearly, with their ornaments, their coronation mugs, their tabby cats. Night scented stocks lined garden-paths, curled shells were arranged on window-sills, and on drawn blinds were printed shadows of geraniums or a bird-cage shrouded for the night. (75)
In contrast to this beautifully captured scene, there is real fear in this novel. Camilla and Richard walked up to the Saxon earth works but got caught in the rain one evening. They seek shelter in an abandoned house.
She went slowly upstairs in front of him. Rain swept across the landing window. The bannisters were coated with dust.
At the turn of the stairs, he came close behind her, and put his hands round her waist, Fear leapt through her at his touch. She stopped and turned round, her hand clutching at the bannisters. She could feel sweat breaking out over her body.
“I don’t want to go any farther,” she whispered. Her lips stiffened so that she could scarcely speak. “I can’t bear this house a moment longer.” He only stared at her. “Richard!” she said pleadingly, afraid of the silence.
“But I want to stay.” He caught her wrist and held it very tightly. “I have something to say to you.” (245-6)
There have only been a few days between the beginning of the novel, at a railway station, and the ending, again at a station. The circle of the friendship group has changed for ever, and each of the three women have a new reality to face. Nothing is yet resolved, but somehow it is a satisfactory ending for the novel.
I have been rereading the novels of Elizabeth Taylor recently. You can find my comments on rereading At Mrs Lippincote’s in December 2022 here.
A Wreath of Roses by Elizabeth Taylor, first published in 1949. I used the Virago Classic edition of 1994, with an introduction by Candia McWilliam. 253pp
Related postA Wreath of Roses by Elizabeth Taylor (August 2013). This is the link to the first post about reading this novel on Bookword.