A Wreath of Roses by Elizabeth Taylor

Roses

I recently went to a brilliant conference in Chichester called ‘Undervalued British Women Writers 1930-1960’. I mean, the only way this could have been more perfect for me is if they’d shifted those dates back to 1920-1950 – but I overlooked that, because there were papers on beloved authors including E.M. Delafield, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Barbara Comyns, Muriel Spark, Elizabeth Taylor, Marghanita Laski, and more. My paper was on Rachel Ferguson’s The Brontes Went to Woolworths, which was great fun to talk about.

Once the conference programme came out, I did a bit of homework – reading Laski’s To Bed With Grand Music (review forthcoming) and Taylor’s A Wreath of Roses. I didn’t quite finish A Wreath of Roses (1949) in time to hear the excellent paper about it on my panel, but I’ve finished it now and it’s excellent. It’s vying with At Mrs Lippincote’s for my all-time fave Taylor novel.

It certainly starts more dramatically than most Taylor novels. I’m not going to spoil what happens in the opening pages, because it came as a very effective shock to me, but it’s something that Camilla witnesses as she is about to go and visit her friend Liz and Liz’s old governess. The moment is dramatic, but Taylor cleverly leaves the details undeveloped and the effect unspoken – it just quietly haunts both Camilla and the reader for the rest of the novel.

Like many Taylor heroines, Camilla is intelligent, literary, sensitive, and slightly wary of her way in the world. On the train, on the way to her friend, she meets Richard Elton – it is, she muses, the sort of name that an author would make up for a hero – and the meeting is not an immediate success. He is handsome and mysterious, but he also rebuffs her reference to Emily Bronte, and she ‘felt she had sacrificed Emily Bronte, throwing her in as a spur to conversation, uselessly’. There’s a great bit (not least for my conference paper) on how she and her childhood friend Liz had imaginary childhood tea parties for various literary luminaries – identified only as Emily, Charlotte, Jane, Ivy, and… Katie? Not sure who the last is.

When she arrives with Liz (and the slightly cranky ex-governess), she falls into trying to resurrect a friendship that has the significant obstacle of Liz having married a man (a vicar, no less) who Camilla intensely dislikes. He isn’t there, for the most part, but it colours their friendship – as does Liz’s baby boy, though that is a more nuanced obstacle, being chiefly a path down which Camilla cannot follow her friend. Oh, and the governess – Frances – is no stock character. I don’t think Taylor would know how to wrote one of those. She is a painter who, in her final years, is branching out into a whole new style of painting. In the midst of all this, two men arrive – one, a correspondent Frances has had for many years and never met; the other, Richard Elton back on the scene, darkly mysterious and intriguing.

There’s no author quite like Taylor for depending on my mood. Sometimes I love reading her beautiful writing; sometimes I find her writing impenetrable – and I think it must depend on how I’m feeling, rather than her writing. I’ll have to go back to A Wreath of Roses another time to see if I find it more of an obstacle then (though why would I put that to the test?) – this time, I was just able to soak in how good the prose was. Here’s the opening paragraph, to give you a flavour:

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. 

She is even better when she is writing about people. Time and again, Taylor shows everyday thoughts and moments in a nuanced, clear light. While A Wreath of Roses includes events that are much less ‘everyday’ than those in most of her other novels, and is certainly darker and more gothic, she still excels are crystallising the slippery truths behind friendships, enmities, uncertainties and identities.

I read bits of this in a graveyard next to a half-ruined priory, which was a pretty ideal place to read it – though the weather was warm and lovely, rather than hauntingly gothic. Context – my mood, the weather, font size, whatever – may have a lot to do with it – but I’m still going to say that this is one of the best Taylor novels I’ve read so far, and one I would certainly re-read.

 

Others who got Stuck into it:

“The characters are brilliantly observed, and this novel is a wonderful exploration of friendships.” – Heavenali

“It’s not all cozy rooms with lace curtains, plants in pots, ticking clocks, ornaments and coronation mugs, the wireless playing, and tabby cats waiting.” – Buried in Print

“One of the most moving and valuable studies of human isolation ever committed to print.” – Bentley Rumble

 

22 thoughts on “A Wreath of Roses by Elizabeth Taylor

  • June 7, 2017 at 7:29 am
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    Thanks for this smashing review, Simon. I’ve just read Dave’s Chichester paper (I had a difficult choice to make, as always!). This sure is her darkest novel, full of Gothic undertones. I’m puzzled about who ‘little Katie’ is, too! Not sure it displaces At Mrs Lippincote’s as my fave, though.

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    • June 15, 2017 at 11:45 pm
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      Thanks Sue! And wasn’t Dave’s paper interesting – AND wasn’t it infuriating to have to miss such excellent-sounding papers?

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  • June 7, 2017 at 8:53 am
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    What a brilliant conference! I’m so glad events like that are taking place, although it would be good if the papers or findings would be more widely circulated. (You are making a start about that, so thank you for that.) This is an Elizabeth Taylor novel I have not read, so I’ll try and find it. It’s such a shame that my local library network seems to have given up on these ‘lady authors’. Ten years ago they had lots of them on their shelves, now I can barely find any!

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    • June 15, 2017 at 11:46 pm
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      If you’re on Facebook, Marina, do look up the ‘Undervalued British Woman Writers 1930 to 1960’ Facebook group – which launched the conference. So many like-minded friends :)

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  • June 7, 2017 at 12:51 pm
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    That conferance sounds excellent – I knew about it through Facebook but had missed the fact you were doing that.
    I love A Wreath of Roses although my favourite Taylor is probably A Game of Hide and seek.

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    • June 15, 2017 at 11:47 pm
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      That’s the one I found perfectly crystallised my response to Taylor – struggled for the first half; thought the second half was extraordinary. And I think both halves were very similar – just my response was different.

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  • June 7, 2017 at 12:52 pm
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    I’d’ve loved to attend such an event: how amazing it must have been to have been in a room of people all with similarly “odd” reading passions. *grins* And what a pleasure to read of your enthusiasm for this volume. Whenever I hear someone say that they love ET but not this one (or not as much), I feel a little sad for it, because I think there’s a shocking number of things going on in it and it’s definitely worth rereading. I wonder if Katie might have been Katherine Mansfield. It’s been a long time since I read anything about either author, but I see Mel mentioned in his Katherine Mansfield reading project that those close to KM called her Katie, and it could fit with ET’s style of writing short fiction too?

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    • June 12, 2017 at 3:58 pm
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      I was just thinking the same about KM; I can’t think of anyone else who would fit. Simon, I was only thinking today about the Elizabeth Taylor day when we met a few years ago; Darlene e-mailed me about getting together and I couldn’t believe it was so long!

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    • June 15, 2017 at 11:49 pm
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      It was SUCH a fun conference! And I hadn’t realised this Taylor novel was a bit of a pariah – glad that you also champion it.

      I did wonder about Mansfield, but I’d never heard her called Katie before – but I like your gathering of evidence!

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  • June 7, 2017 at 2:31 pm
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    Poignantly my copy has an introduction by Helen Dunmore. Time for a re-read I think.

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    • June 15, 2017 at 11:50 pm
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      Ah, yes, a very fitting tribute

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  • June 7, 2017 at 3:46 pm
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    I love that book, too. I would have liked to go to the conference but it didn’t work for me. Hoping to get to the Iris Murdoch one there in September though I have no material for a paper this time. What a lovely re-read!

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    • June 15, 2017 at 11:50 pm
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      There was SO much Iris Murdoch – but I managed to avoid all of them ;) The papers on her clashed with the ones I really wanted to hear.

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  • June 7, 2017 at 4:10 pm
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    Wreath is my favourite Taylor. The most uncanny, the most challenging to (misleading) characterizations of her as “cozy” or “sweet.” Your excellent post makes me want to read it again.

    This is the Taylor that most reminds me of Elizabeth Bowen, who coincidentally is the writer for me most depending on mood/context–sometimes impenetrable, sometimes riveting. I really liked that description of how certain writers affect us.

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    • June 15, 2017 at 11:51 pm
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      YES – Bowen is very definitely in that category for me too. And thanks for the nice things you say about my post :)

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  • June 7, 2017 at 6:33 pm
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    Excellent review Simon and the conference sounds fab! I think this was the first Taylor I read and I loved it – it probably is my favourite. Interestingly, I know what you mean about not always gelling with her. I think that’s not necessarily exclusive to Taylor and our response to a book depends so much on mood, context, location etc. I’ve failed with a book and then gone back to it years later and loved it – “Suite Francaise” being a case in point.

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    • June 15, 2017 at 11:52 pm
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      Thanks Karen! And yes, revisiting One Fine Day made me love it so much more – should we all be re-visiting the books we only thought mediocre the first time around?

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  • June 8, 2017 at 3:54 pm
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    I should have put a Taylor into my 20 summer books – an opportunity missed. I’ve enjoyed both the ones I’ve read – and I have my mum’s old paperback of this one.

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    • June 15, 2017 at 11:52 pm
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      Oh, lovely. Well, she’ll keep!

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  • June 11, 2017 at 11:21 pm
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    Thank you, Simon, for this excellent piece on Elizabeth Taylor. Along the way, you put into words what I have thought about several writers from time to time but never articulated:

    “Sometimes I love reading her beautiful writing; sometimes I find her writing impenetrable – and I think it must depend on how I’m feeling, rather than her writing.”

    Perhaps this explains why a later attempt at reading an unfinished book can be so rewarding.

    PS: I have loved Taylor’s novels for years but too often must explain “No, not that Elizabeth Taylor.” :)

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    • June 15, 2017 at 11:53 pm
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      Thanks Susan :)
      I’ve become so immersed in the book blogging world that I forget that people usually mean the other Elizabeth Taylor!

      Reply

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