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