Reviewed by Gill Davies
When you were a child did you ever hunt for a lost ball among ferns and leaves and parting them quick to look … come suddenly upon a great toad, sitting there, very ugly and watchful. All the time there, though you didn’t know it, under the leaves. The shock, the recoil!
This question, in a conversation between two women friends, encapsulates the atmosphere and power of Elizabeth Taylor’s novel. It opens on an English summer’s day in the Adlestrop-like setting of a country railway station – ‘Afternoons seem unending on branch-lines in England in summer time.’ But there is something sinister under the surface stillness: the ‘spiked shelter prints an unmoving shadow on the platform, geraniums blaze, whitewashed stones assault the eye.’ Already there is a suggestion of the unsettling and violent mood to come, and within three pages there is a shocking event. Thus, Taylor begins this remarkable novel, interspersing everyday events with the secrets, deceptions and miseries that lie underneath, encompassing suicide, terror and murder.
It is midsummer just after the War and three women are about to get together for their annual holiday. Each year they meet at Frances’s cottage in the country, reviving shared memories of girlhood and growing up. Camilla and Liz were at school together, Frances was Liz’s governess. Liz is now married to a vicar called Arthur; Camilla is unmarried and works as a school secretary; Frances has developed as a serious painter since her retirement but is now struggling with health problems that may end her artistic career. Between the three women there is an openness and warmth as they share memories, familiar stories, jokes – but also frustrations with their current situation, expressed through irritation with each other. Taylor captures this mood brilliantly with a lightness of touch, expressed through the characters’ frank, often humorous conversational exchanges.
At times we seem to be in a cosy English upper-middle class world, concerned only with the familiar, unimportant lives of these women. But the light tone is deceptive and is Taylor’s way of drawing us into a clinical examination of relationships, desires, aspirations and disappointments. It also balances the growing darkness that accompanies the presence in the novel of another character, Richard, a menacing figure to whom Camilla is drawn after a chance encounter at the station.
The setting and weather are idyllic but we know there is a coming storm and are gripped by the way that dangerous events begin to unfold, from Liz’s doubts about her marriage, to Camilla’s reckless encounter with Richard. Even Frances’s meeting after many years with her patron and admirer, Morland Beddoes, raises anxieties. Camilla charges that Liz was always attracted to a man who ‘is no good to you’. Liz counters that ‘“I did think though, that a clergyman would have something more in him than was obvious at first glance. But I discovered that there was even less.”’ Liz now has a baby and this changes all their lives (our first glimpse of the chocolate-box country cottage includes nappies hanging on the line!). Camilla, while critical of Arthur, is also jealous of Liz’s newly-settled life and her preoccupation with the baby. Frances is visibly getting old – and has switched from painting ‘everyday things with tenderness and intimacy’ to newly angry, even violent pictures. (As, we might equally say, has Elizabeth Taylor, in this, – as Helen Dunmore writes in her Introduction – her ‘darkest novel’.) All their previous lives are culminating in the events of this summer: Frances’s frustration at the decline of her physical power; Liz’s physical easiness and emotional frankness colliding with her awareness that marriage and maternity are the end of something; and Camilla’s life-long restraint breaking down with awful results.
The reactions of the characters to each other are brilliantly conveyed in their internal monologues. We know much more about each character’s thoughts and feelings than they do about each other, and possibly sometimes even about themselves. Camilla facing herself in the mirror, reflects that ‘discipline, over-niceness had isolated her. Shyness, perhaps, or pride, had started her off in life with a false step, on the wrong foot…. and, because she had once refused, no more was offered.’ Richard, a self-deluding, cruel fantasist ‘had always told lies, always invented sources of self-pity. If he had an audience he was saved. When he was alone, he was afraid.’ And he becomes especially afraid of Mr Beddoes. The plump, middle-aged Beddoes is a film director, and a former prisoner of war, with a sharp awareness of other people who is able to identify Richard‘s threat before anyone else.
I have stressed the dark psychological quality of the novel – which is clearly its chief strength and originality. But I should also say that it very funny at times and the wonderful quality of the writing makes one want to quote page after page. There is a lot of humour in the women’s conversations. For example, Liz asks her former governess.
‘By the way, why did you never marry any of your employers?’
‘Their wives wouldn’t have liked it.’ …
‘Surely they knew better than to survive childbirth?’
‘No, they seemed not to know.’
‘You would think literature would have taught them as much.’
There is also a sharp satirical vein in the depiction of English post-war attitudes and values. For example, Beddoes reflects on Richard:
Young men like him, spoilt by despised but doting mothers, ruined by good looks, were always about the film studios, no panache to distract from their shabbiness, or their lack of talent. He had met them there, met them sponging in bars, half-listened to their everlasting jokes about homosexuality, their lisping innuendo, their anti-semitism, … their voices raised for famous names, lowered only to decry one another.
If you haven’t read Elizabeth Taylor before, this will be a revelation. The Virago Modern Classics reprint comes with a very thoughtful introduction by Helen Dunmore. Do read it!
Elizabeth Taylor, A Wreath of Roses (1949; Virago, London, 2017). 978-1844087129, 206 pp., paperback.
BUY A Wreath of Roses from the Book Depository.