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A Wreath of Roses by Elizabeth Taylor

A Wreath of Roses (1949)

by Elizabeth Taylor

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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2261273,300 (4.11)1 / 80



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“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.”

Three women spend a week together in the country. They have done this for many years, but this year something has changed.

Liz has married and she has a baby son, but she is uncertain in the role of wife and mother. Camilla is a school secretary, and she is acutely aware that her friend's life has changed while hers has not. Frances, their hostess, used to be Liz’s governess before she became an artist, and her increasing awareness of her mortality is beginning to influence her painting.

They all know that things have changed, but not one of them will admit it.

The plot is moved forward by the arrivals of three men.

Liz’s husband comes to reclaim her for just a little while. Frances meets an admirer of her work, a man she has corresponded with for many years, for the first time. And Camilla forms a relationship with a man she has doubts about, a man she met at the station when they were both witnesses to a tragedy.

The plot is light, but it is enough.

The joy of this book is in Elizabeth Taylor’s crystal clear drawing of her characters and their relationships, in the perectly realised world she creates for them in the country, and in the profound truths she illuminates.

Elizabeth Jane Howard, writing about another of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels, expresses it so much better than I can:

“… this book displays the full spectrum of her talents – the economy with which she can present a character, the skill with which she build the environment and the daily lives of her people so that you feel you know exactly what they might be doing even when they are not on the scene, her delicious funniness which is born of her own unique blend of humanity and razor-sharp observation that enables her to be sardonic, devastating, witty and sly, but mysteriously without malice …”

This is a book that will draw you in, take possession of your heart and soul, and linger long after you turn the final page.

There is so much that could be said, but I don’t have the words.

Others have said much so very well: Nicola Beauman in ‘The Other Elizabeth Taylor,’ Susannah Clapp in the introduction to the first virago edition, Helen Dunmore in the introduction to the new Virago edition …

I just want to think and feel. ( )
  BeyondEdenRock | Dec 1, 2016 |
I first came across Taylor via François Ozon’s adaptation of her novel Angel, starring Romola Garai, which I reviewed for Videovista (see here) and liked. Prior to that, I’d not known there was a writer who shared a name with the famous actress. I later stumbled across a copy of Taylor’s Blaming, read it and enjoyed it… and so she became a name to look out for in charity shops. Which is where I found this copy of A Wreath of Roses. Camilla and Liz are visiting Liz’s ex-governess, Frances, for the summer, something they have done for many years. Liz is now married to a vicar and has a small baby, Camilla is a school secretary at a private girl’s school, and Frances has been a painter since giving up her profession many years before. Something about this particular summer is not as idyllic as previous ones – perhaps it’s the presence of Liz’s baby, or that the years are beginning to weigh on Frances, or that Camilla finds herself unaccountably attracted to a man she met on the train who is now staying in a local inn… This is a very English novel, depicting a post-war south England which seems chiefly characterised by its landscape, flora and fauna than by the depredations of the recent war. All three of the women are flawed, and it’s their fears which essentially drive the story. There’s a bit of condescension to a working-class woman who cleans for Frances, and a film director who collects her paintings doesn’t seem entirely convincing when he appears. But there’s a pleasing manneredness to Taylor’s prose, and while I prefer Olivia Manning’s tales of expats, the two writers are enough alike that I’ll continue to read Taylor’s novels when I find them. Happily, all of her novels are still in print, and there is even a collection of her Complete Short Stories available. ( )
  iansales | Nov 19, 2016 |
Super dark - unexpectedly so - but exquisite and the parts told from the pov of Frances were remarkable and so moving. ( )
  laurenbufferd | Nov 14, 2016 |
The early chapters didn’t sparkle very much for me but I sense a change and the emergence of a psychologically darker tone. It’s a story about three women who were very close for several years and spent many idyllic summers together in the country. But as the novel begins and they meet once again for their holiday, each of them is conscious of how much their lives have changed.

The once young and carefree Liz is struggling with her new role as a mother and vicar’s wife. Frances, the eldest of the trio, having swapped her life as teacher and governess to become a successful painter in later life, now finds her new work taking on a darker, more disturbing tone. Such changes leave the central character Camilla feeling estranged and disenchanted with the direction her own life has taken. The handsome man she meets by accident at the train station suggests an escape ..but Richard Elton seems to have an all too different agenda.

That was the point at which I decided it was worth reading further. I’d enjoyed some of the descriptive passages thanks to Taylor’s very painterly but the characters hadn’t really come to life so I didn’t particularly care what they thought or felt. It wasn’t until the narrative switched to Richard’s point of view and glimpses of his disturbed personality, were revealed that the book took on a new dimension. ( )
  Mercury57 | Oct 21, 2012 |
"An old woman, who had seemed to be a mound of rusty clothes, stirred and lifted her head. Her hands lay on her lap as if they were separate from her body, two little sleeping animals."


"The sun seemed to touch their bones, poured into them as if they were hollow like cups. Even the trees below in the valley looked dazed. Nothing moved, but the heat shimmering until the view was like a bad photograph."

Camilla, Frances and Liz have always spent summers together in a contented trio of perfect female friendship at the cottage owned by Frances, but things are different this summer, and Camilla feels more lonely and detached from the two other women than ever. Frances has always had her painting to sustain her, though she's also always gone out of her way to dispel any notion that she might be an eccentric artist and would rather be praised for her crab apple jelly than her painting. This year however, she is suffering more than ever from the effects of old age and her painting style has gone through a dramatic change, and not necessarily for the better. Liz, for her part, has found some kind of contentment in a marriage to a man she is not sure she loves, but in any case, her newborn baby occupies her completely and creates a distance between the two women, who've been used to sharing late night secrets and laughter together, to the annoyance of their old friend. Small wonder then, that Camilla should find herself irresistibly drawn to a shady but very handsome man she's met on the train to this fictional town of Abingford. We know from the beginning of the novel that something is bound to go terribly wrong, if the gruesome event Camilla and Richard have witnessed at the train station and which has acted as an icebreaker between them is to be taken as any kind of omen. Not very much happens, other than the normal activities one does on vacation; sitting in pubs, taking walks on the grassy hill-side, a picnic, a drive, picking wild flowers, another walk, in the driving rain this time. Yet so much happens in the interactions of Taylor's fascinating characters and the complexity of their own thoughts and feelings. There is that, and there is the gorgeous prose. The gorgeous prose which seems effortless, yet is so very evocative and for me, a wealth of imagery worthy of several paintigs. My third book by Elizabeth Taylor, and I look forward to many more. ( )
2 vote Smiler69 | Sep 4, 2012 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Elizabeth Taylorprimary authorall editionscalculated
Dunmore, HelenIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
McWilliam, CandiaIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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"So terrible was life that I held up shade after shade. Look at life through this, look at life through that; let there be rose leaves, let there be vine leaves - I covered the whole street, Oxford Street, Piccadilly Circus, with the blaze and ripple of my mind, with vine leaves and rose leaves." ~ Virginia Woolf: The Waves

To Maud Geddes
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Afternoons seem unending on branch-line stations in England in summer time.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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'We go on for years at a jog-trot,' Frances said, 'and then suddenly we are beset with doubts, the landscape darkens, we feel lost and alone.'
Spending the holiday with friends, as she has for many years, Camilla finds that their private absorptions - Frances with her painting and Liz with her baby - seem to exclude her from the gossipy intimacies of previous summers. Anxious that she will remain encased in her solitary life as a school secretary, Camilla steps into an unlikely liaison with Richard Elton, a handsome, assured - and dangerous - liar. Replete with the subtle wit that is her hallmark, and a tender and perfectly evoked portrait of friendship between women, A Wreath of Roses is nonetheless Elizabeth Taylor's darkest novel: an astute exploration of the fear of loneliness and its emotional armour.

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Spending the holiday with friends, as she has for many years, Camilla finds that their private absorptions - Frances with her painting and Liz with her baby - seem to exclude her from the gossipy intimacies of previous summers. Anxious that she will remain encased in her solitary life as a school secretary, Camilla steps into an unlikesly liaison with Richard Elton, a handsome, assured - and dangerous - liar.… (more)

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