Tag Archives: re-reading

A Wreath of Roses by Elizabeth Taylor

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.

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Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively ten years on

I read this novel nearly a decade ago. It was one of the first to be featured in the series Older Women in Fiction on this blog. I found in it a refreshingly unsentimental view of ageing in an intelligent woman. 

I noticed that it was chosen by the novelist Taiye Selassi in What Writers Read, which I reviewed very recently on this blog. She described how reading this book had a significant effect on her writing and claimed it as a ‘masterpiece’. Her comments encouraged me to reread it.

Moon Tiger

On my first reading I noticed how the protagonist, 76-year-old Claudia Hampton, is infantilised by the medical staff in the hospital. 

‘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)

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

These two small incidents set the tone for the care of the old woman who was a very successful writer and historian. Such lack of respect, the ‘old dear’ view of older women, is distressing and can still be met with today, despite a better understanding of respecting the old.

The other, and much more significant idea in the novel is that memory and life are not understood as linear, not a long succession of events. Rather, Claudia’s life is an accretion of all the experiences and relationships she has had: as a sister, lover, mother, foster mother and writer. Those experiences are still with her, have formed her and are still part of her understanding of herself. She understands that ‘nothing is ever lost ‘and ‘a lifetime is not linear but instant’.

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, competition, and physical attraction. In her early adulthood she became a war correspondent in Egypt in the 40s, a career shared by very few women. 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. She lived a life that is challenging.

Working as a correspondent in Egypt was a vivid and important phase in her life. She revisited Cairo much later and makes this observation.

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)

It was in Cairo during the war that she met and fell in love with Tom, who was serving on the tanks. They had a passionate affair and planned to share their lives after the war. But he was killed. Although this is undoubtedly the main passion of her life, she has forty more years as she reflects as she approaches her own death.

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. (206)

Most novels would have made the love affair the climax of the narrative. But it is in keeping with the idea of the plurality of experiences that make up a life that this novel provides the reader with a different experience.

These features of Moon Tiger were what impressed Taiye Selassi when she first read it, and her reading encouraged her to continue with her own writing.

Bouncing back and forth between past tense to present tense, starting sentences without subjects, ending paragraphs with ellipses, moving from first person subjective to first person omniscient to third person objective and back again was the wildest, freest, most thrilling prose I’d ever read. It left me giddy, wondrous. Was writing allowed to be so free?! Was a writer? (115 in What Writers Read)

In that first reading she wondered at the ‘rebellious prose’, ‘dazzling structure’, and ‘unfurling of form’. And from understanding and admiring these characteristics of the writer’s craft and noticing the author’s confidence in her writing, Taiye Selassi felt empowered to write her own novel (Ghana Must Go). 

And all over again I found myself admiring the richness and intelligence of this wonderful book.

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively, published in 1987. I used the Penguin edition of 1988. 208pp

Winner of the Booker Prize in 1987

Related posts

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively. The original post from August 2013.

How it all began by Penelope Lively, also in the Older Women in Fiction Series in February 2018

Books about Reading and Writers, including What Writers Read, edited by Pandora Sykes, in January 2023.

The Bookword page about the series Older Women in Fiction can be found here

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Books and the pursuit of the new

I thought my blog was getting a little tired. And then I noticed that it was me that was getting a little tired of the blog. But I can see that the blogger who is tired of blogging is tired of … Later, it occurred to me that what I am actually tired of is the relentless pursuit of the new book. 

So here’s a slight rant and a resolution.

The Pursuit of the New

Early this year I wrote a post called Six ways to choose books to read. You can link to it here. I stand by these sources, but I have come to see that I might be unnecessarily chasing too many new books. Many of my ideas for books to read and comment on come from those who are obviously going to promote the new:

  • Publishers
  • Prizes
  • Reviews in newspapers
  • Bookshops
  • Lists of bestsellers.

For example, I look at the list in the Guardian Review of the bestsellers of 2018 called Chart of the Year. I amuse myself with the table. 27% of books in the chart are by women The #1 seller is one of those: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine  by Gail Honeyman. I have only read three of the books on that magic 100 chart. And the feeling that I might be missing something was itself disappearing.

Then I listened to some comments from a group of travellers who expressed their opinion of much new fiction: “tosh”. I removed several novels from my tbr pile. And it felt good.

The enjoyment of the established

Elizabeth Bowen

And then I found myself doing the following

  • rereading some books
  • reading unread books by familiar authors, published some time ago
  • enjoying the blog’s Decades Project of children’s classics from 1900 
  • agreeing with the editors of the excellent Slightly Foxed periodical about the attractions of books published some time ago
  • enjoying perusing Persephone Books lists
  • Visiting second-hand bookshops
The Second Self

One bookshop I have been keen to visit is The Second Selfin Soho, London, specialising in early editions of women’s writing. I spent a very happy hour there recently and a lot of money. I was shown Jane Austen’s best friend’s copy of Sense and Sensibility. Very foxed, very beautifully bound in three leather volumes and very pricey of course.

My haul from The Second Shelf

Resolution

Muriel Spark

So here’s my resolution. I am going to read more Muriel Spark, some Henry James, Elizabeth Bowen, some classics, Sanditon by Jane Austen, The Juniper Tree  by Barbara Comyns and as few new titles as the whim takes me. And of course, more children’s literature from the twentieth century. And you can expect to read more of the old on this blog.

Happy reading.

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Filed under Books, Books for children, Elizabeth Bowen, Reading, Reviews, The Decade project