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A Wreath of Roses by Elizabeth Taylor
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A Wreath of Roses (1949)

by Elizabeth Taylor

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Showing 1-5 of 13 (next | show all)
“A fear of being left out inspired her, a feeling that life was enriching everyone but herself, that education had taken the place of experience and conversation the place of action.”

“in the centre of the earth, in the heart of life, in the core of even everyday things, is there not violence with flames wheeling, turmoil, pain, chaos?”

“Parting the leaves to look for treasure, love, adventure, she inadvertently disclosed evil and recoiled.”


Every summer school-teacher Camilla travels by train to stay for a month with her friend, Liz, at the flint cottage belonging to Frances Rutherford, Liz’s childhood governess. There had been hints that life was changing—that the pleasant routine was breaking up—the previous summer: Liz, then only recently married, was pregnant and plagued with morning sickness. This summer, even the journey to the village where Frances lives seems to bode ill. While waiting for a branch-line train, Camilla and a male passenger (Richard Elton) witness a man commit suicide by jumping from a footbridge. Although Elton’s clothing, movie-star good looks, and bearing suggest to Camilla that he is a man “whose existence could not touch hers . . . and counted its values in a different way”, after the suicide occurs, the two are drawn together. They get to talking when they’ve finally boarded the branch-line train.

It’s clear from the start that something is not quite right with Richard Elton. Even his name, Camilla muses, is the “sort of name that people don’t have . . . [that] a woman writer might choose for a nom-de-plume perhaps . . . or for the name of her hero”. Elton quickly assesses prim, buttoned-up Camilla, and he creates a persona that will appeal to her. He leads her to believe that he was a spy during the war, that he is working on a memoir about his wartime experiences, and that he is making a “sentimental journey” to the very town in which Camilla will stay with her friends. (The reader gets lots of hints, both subtle and not so subtle, that Elton doesn’t actually know the town at all, and that this is as good a place as any for a man on the run to stop.) Just when Elton is certain he’s got Camilla’s attention, he turns to reading a newspaper article about the grisly murder and dismemberment of a young woman. (His preoccupation with newspapers will only continue.) Elton will later leave the train in Abingford, just as Camilla does, and install himself in an upstairs room at the Griffin, a stale, dark pub.

Elizabeth Taylor shows a predilection for working with a small cast of characters. Her plots are quite minimal; the “action”, such as it is, is mostly psychological. The story of one character generally takes centre stage, but the narratives of the others are still well developed. In this novel, Camilla’s ill-advised involvement with the psychopathic Richard Elton is the major focus, but her friends’ stories and dilemmas are carefully depicted, too. They are of interest in their own right, but they also enhance and amplify aspects of Camilla’s experience. Take the elderly Frances: the former governess believes she wasted her life teaching foolish young girls when she ought to have dedicated herself to art. Frances is now finding a new way with her painting, shaking off the prettiness and sentimentality that characterized her earlier work in favour of something more raw and true. She is forthright and gruff with her young friends, heaping scorn on novel-reading and sharply correcting any of their tendencies to pretension and self-delusion. To Camilla, who likes to cultivate an image of herself as fine and sensitive, for example, Frances observes: “You try to enlarge yourself by everything that happens, even other people’s misfortunes. As if you had special feelings.” Frances’s old-maid status is a kind of caution to Camilla, an image of what she could become.

Liz’s personality and story provide a counterpoint to Camilla’s. Impulsive, emotional, and willing to engage with others, Liz has what Camilla lacks: spontaneity, a marriage, and a child. Even so, she, too, struggles with the realities of her situation.

Those characters in the novel who are aware that Camilla is associating with the disturbed Richard Elton, a man capable of causing real harm to a woman, attempt to warn her against him. Elton’s emptiness, falseness, and manipulation are actually evident to Camilla, but her discernment is always threatened by her consuming need to be loved and desired by him—by some man. Camilla’s psychological conflicts create most of the tension in this novel.

A Wreathe of Roses is a darkly compelling novel that explores a number of themes: loneliness, art, marriage, old age, friendship, the psychological impact of war, psychopathology, and the even larger question of the place of humans in the universe. The novel is mostly expertly realized. However, I think Frances is portrayed in an occasionally clunky manner. From time to time, she holds forth on philosophical matters in an inauthentic and even stagey way, appearing to be too much the author’s mouthpiece. Morland Beddoes, a middle-aged film director and great admirer of Frances’s paintings, is also a somewhat problematic character. He comes on the scene rather late, and I found his too-quick integration into the group and his rapid, almost preternatural assessment of Richard Elton’s capacity to do harm a bit hard to credit. (Beddoes is certainly one of Taylor’s “types”: the unmarried older man, a spectator and a listener, in whom women readily confide.) Having said all this, I still think A Wreath of Roses is a rich, dark gem of a novel, one well worth reading—or re-reading, as was the case for me. I found that I actually appreciated the novel much more the second time. ( )
  fountainoverflows | Dec 13, 2018 |
“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 |
Showing 1-5 of 13 (next | show all)
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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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Epigraph
"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

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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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