First published in January 2019.
I originally purchased Elizabeth Taylor’s A Wreath of Roses in order to participate in a group read, but was unable to wait, and started it almost as soon as I received a copy. I adore Elizabeth Taylor; she is one of my favourite authors, and without Virago’s republication of her novels and short stories, it may well have taken me far longer to discover her. A Wreath of Roses is number 392 on the Virago Modern Classics list, and was first published in 1949.
Of her writing, fellow Virago-published author Rosamond Lehmann said it is ‘sophisticated, sensitive and brilliantly amusing, with a kind of stripped, piercing feminine wit.’ The Daily Telegraph calls her a ‘fearsome writer, ruthless in her examination of solitude, and a sparkling chronicler of ordinary lives.’ Kingsley Amis regarded her as ‘one of the best English novelists born in this century.
The Virago edition which I read included a warm introduction written by Helen Dunmore. She writes that A Wreath of Roses has been ‘called Elizabeth Taylor’s darkest novel, dealing as it does with murder, loneliness, terror and suicide.’ She goes on to make a comparison between Taylor and Virginia Woolf. She writes: ‘Like Woolf, Taylor is fearless in her handling of tragedy and mental suffering’.
The protagonist of A Wreath of Roses is a young woman named Camilla Hill. Each year, she spends the summer in the countryside with two women who are very dear to her. ‘But this year,’ notes the novel’s blurb, ‘their private absorptions – Frances with her painting and Liz with her baby – seem to exclude her from the gossipy intimacies of previous holidays. Feeling lonely, and that life and love are passing her by, Camilla steps into an unlikely liaison with Richard Elton, handsome, assured – and a dangerous liar.’ The novel is set in the aftermath of the Second World War, and takes place in a small village named Abingford somewhere in England, within ‘the blazing heart of an English summer.’ This village, writes Dunmore, is ‘hypnotically beautiful, but never idyllic.’ She deems this an ‘unflinching novel, which probes deep into the self-deceptions that grow up in order to soften life, and end up by choking it like so many weeds.’
A Wreath of Roses begins at the train station of this small English village, where Camilla spots a man on the platform. Taylor’s description of their staunch British behaviour is demonstrated thus: ‘Once the train which had left them on the platform had drawn out,’ writes Taylor, ‘the man and woman trod separately up and down, read time-tables in turn, were conscious of one another in the way that strangers are, when thrown together without a reason for conversation. A word or two would have put them at ease, but there were no words to say. The heat of the afternoon was beyond comment and could not draw them together as hailstones might have done.’
It is not long afterwards that Camilla sees a ‘shabby man’ throw himself from the train bridge, and Taylor comments upon how this event drastically impacts upon Camilla: ‘This happening broke the afternoon in two. The feeling of eternity had vanished. What had been timeless and silent became chaotic and disorganised, with feet running along the echoing boards, voices staccato, and the afternoon darkening with the vultures of disaster, who felt the presence of death and arrived from the village to savour it and to explain the happening to one another.’
Taylor’s novels are beautiful, and full of depth. She is an author who is so perceptive of the tiny things which make up a life. A Wreath of Roses is no different in this respect. Dunmore believes that ‘she writes with a sensuous richness of language that draws the reader down the most shadowy paths.’ She goes on to further describe Taylor’s writing style, pointing out that she ‘has a way of seeming to be one kind of writer, and then revealing herself to be quite another, or, perhaps, to be a writer who is capable of inhabiting many selves at the same time.’ Dunmore beautifully comments upon the essence of her art, when she writes that ‘Taylor makes the living moment present, touchable, disturbing, enchanting.’ The imagery which she creates is rich, and often quite lovely. For instance, Taylor writes of an English summer night in the following way: ‘Trees and the hedgerows were as dark as blackberries against the starry sky; a little owl took off from a telegraph-post, floating down noiselessly across a field of stubble.’
Taylor seems to effortlessly capture real, human feelings, and the way in which relationships can shift and change so quickly. She is perhaps most understanding of protagonist Camilla’s altered position, both in life and in Abingford: she ‘felt as if the day had been a dream, that she would come out of it soon, lifting fold after fold of muffling web; for this could not be real – meeting Liz again after eleven months and finding herself so alienated from her that she would show off to her about a man.’ Throughout, the reader is given hints about Richard’s sinister edge, but these are hidden from Camilla. In this way, we are forced to watch the somewhat dark consequences of the relationship which she embarks upon with him. Through these characters, Taylor explores in great deal how the expectations which we have of someone, and the effects which they have upon us, can be so terribly damaging. The tenseness within the novel builds, and is masterfully put in place until it feels almost claustrophobic.
I could hardly bear to put A Wreath of Roses down. Taylor has a style all of her own, and whilst this novel is in some ways quite different to the rest of her oeuvre, it is characteristically hers. I was surprised by the twists which this story takes, and the ending completely surprised me. A Wreath of Roses is a masterful novel, which shows an author at the peak of her power.