A Wreath of Roses by Elizabeth Taylor

Readers of this blog will be familiar with my love of Elizabeth Taylor’s fiction, the perfectly executed stories of human nature, the small-scale dramas of domestic life, typically characterised by careful observation and insight. First published in 1949, A Wreath of Roses is one of Taylor’s earliest novels – and quite possibly her darkest too with its exploration of fear, loneliness, mortality and lies. It also feels like one of her most accomplished works, a novel in which the characters seem credible and fully realised in light of the interactions that take place during. (In short, I adored it.)

As the novel opens, Camilla – an unmarried secretary at a girls’ school – is travelling by train to Abingford where she will spend the summer with her friend, Liz, and Liz’s former governess, Frances. The holiday is an annual tradition, hosted by Frances – now a mature spinster – in her cottage in the country.

The novel’s unsettling tone is evident right from the start when a horrific incident occurs at the station as Camilla is waiting for her train. As a consequence, Camilla is drawn into conversation with a stranger – also a witness to the event – even though he is the type of man she would generally avoid. Their exchange is prickly, somewhat terse in fact; and yet Camilla finds herself strangely attracted to this man with his air of mystery and good looks.

The stranger is Richard Elton, a man who claims to be travelling to Abingford on a sort of nostalgia trip, having visited the location as a child. The reader, however, will soon begin to doubt the veracity of Elton’s account, peppered as it is with clues to the man’s true background and persona. While Camilla doesn’t like Elton, she is drawn to him – enough to make a mental note that he will be staying at The Griffin pub during his visit.

Once the two friends – Liz and Camilla – are installed in Frances’ cottage, it becomes clear that the lives of all three woman are in flux. Concerned that she has wasted too much of her life teaching children, the aged Frances is preoccupied with thoughts of the transience of life and her impending mortality.

‘No one ever came to me,’ she [Frances] thought. ‘I never lay in bed and talked to anyone. But I felt tenderness for people, and love. Hid it, though, with my prim ways as soon Camilla will, and from the same motives, fear and pride. Pride does not come before a fall. Nothing happens after pride. It closes the way. Life does not come to us. Or comes too late…’ (p. 144)

Painting remains a significant interest for Frances, something she has cultivated for many years. Recently, however, her style has changed dramatically from the gentle portraits and scenes of still life to more ferocious, abstract works. Camilla is particularly worried about the degree to which Frances has aged over the past year, now viewing her host as rather frail and diminished in spirit.

As for Camilla’s relationship with Liz, there are worrying signs of change here too. Much to Camilla’s annoyance, Liz is wrapped up in the care of her baby, a new arrival on the scene since the friends’ last holiday together the previous summer. To make matters worse, Camilla has taken a dislike to Liz’s husband, Arthur, whom she views as rather boring and self-important, especially as he seems to be more interested in the women of his parish than in Liz.

In truth, the two friends are opposites of one another. While Liz is warm, outgoing and capricious, Camilla is cold, sarcastic and self-contained. In her defence against life’s disappointments, Camilla has surrounded herself with a kind of protective armour, a shell that accentuates her withdrawal from the world. If she is not careful, Camilla may end up like Frances – a rather forthright older woman preoccupied with her artworks.

In her youth, discipline, over-niceness had isolated her [Camilla]. Shyness, perhaps, or pride, had started her off in life with a false step, on the wrong foot. The first little mistake initiated all the others. So life gathered momentum and bore her away; she became colder, prouder, more deeply committed; and, because she had once refused, no more was offered. Her habit now was negative. A great effort would be needed to break out of this isolation, which was her punishment from life for having been too exclusive; she must be humbled, be shamed in her own eyes, scheme and dissemble for what she wanted or it would be too late. (p. 82)

It is against this background – the sense that life is passing her by, a feeling of jealousy and exclusion from Liz’s new life – that Camilla falls prey to the charms of the sinister Richard Elton. Taylor is brilliant at capturing the deceptions we create for ourselves, the degree of tension in our emotions as they shift and change. There is a sense that Camilla is at least partially aware of Elton’s shortcomings, his insincerity and shallowness; and yet, she persists in making a play for him to counteract her loneliness. In part, she views her attraction to Elton as something of an adventure, a much-needed element of excitement in her life.

Others, however, are more suspicious of Elton, viewing him as a potentially dangerous influence on Camilla (and other women too). Perhaps the most significant individual here is the perceptive Morland Beddoes, a longstanding admirer of Frances’ paintings (and the artist herself), who has come to Abingford to meet the object of his desire. Mr Beddoes keeps bumping into Elton around the town, observing his behaviour with interest and suspicion. It is Beddoes whom Elton is most worried about, fearing him to be a member of the authorities or the police.  

He [Elton] 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. He had banished reality and now it was as if he were only reflected back from the mirrors of other people’s minds.

And he was frightened of Mr Beddoes. He felt him to be more than a match for him, with his quiet waiting game. But he would escape him. In two days, three days, he would slip away. And tonight the thought of meeting Camilla offered a temporary safety. (p.190)

There is a sinister undercurrent running through this novel, largely due to Richard Elton and our fears of his psychopathic tendencies. (It is clear – to the reader at least – that Elton is on the run from something terrible, possibly serious enough to be reported in the newspapers.)

Alongside this darkness, there is some brightness too, especially in Taylor’s slyly humorous portrait of Mrs Parsons, Frances’ gossipy charlady. Taylor is particularly good on chars, and Mrs Parsons is one of the best examples, replete with her worries over daughter, Euniss, being ‘in trouble’ – either as a consequence of her intended, Ernie, or the man who came to read the gas meter (name unknown). There are also some lovely descriptive passages in the portrayal of Abingford, a typically English town during a hot and oppressive summer.

Alongside the leading players, the minor characters are fully realised, too – most notably Morland Beddoes, Frances’ thoughtful admirer. Taylor’s insights into the ‘smallness’ of Beddoes’ life are beautifully observed, conveying a sense of the things this man has missed out on over time. Nevertheless, Frances’ paintings have been a source of great pleasure for Mr Beddoes, enabling him to see the beauty in life either differently or more clearly.

In summary, then, A Wreath of Roses is a brilliantly realised novel of deceptions, fears, loneliness and unsuitable attachments. The ending is especially unnerving, opening up a new seam of darkness in Taylor’s writing for me. As a consequence, this novel is right up there with my other favourites by Taylor: A View of the Harbour, The Soul of Kindness and, of course, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont – any of which I would be happy to revisit at some point in the future.

A Wreath of Roses is published by Virago press; personal copy.  

36 thoughts on “A Wreath of Roses by Elizabeth Taylor

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Which one do you have? She’s probably one of my top five favourite writers now; virtually everything I’ve read so far has been wonderful.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          I try very hard not tell people that they ‘must read’ a particular book, but on this occasion I may have to make an exception! You have such a treat in store with Mrs Palfrey. It’s a perfectly-observed, bittersweet novel – an understated gem. I’ve read it twice now and could quite happily read it again if there were no unread books in the house. Enjoy it, Claire; I envy you coming to it for the first time.

          Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, A Game of Hide and Seek is probably one of her best novels. It’s so subtle, especially with the shifts in Harriet and Vesey’s relationship over time. I think I’d like to revisit it at some point as it feels like the sort of book that would yield even more on a second reading.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Hurrah! I’ll be interested to hear what you think of this one. It feels more sinister to me than her other novels, not just melancholic but rather ominous too.

      Reply
  1. Brian Joseph

    It is often interesting to go back and read an author’s early works. Sometimes one can see how ideas and themes became prominent.

    Both the plot and characters sound well done here. A little bit of darkness can be intriguing in such a book.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, she’s one of my ‘must read everything’ authors, so it’s interesting to see the progression. I’ve been wondering if the darkness here is a bit of a hangover from the Second World War, a time when individuals could ‘disappear’ or change their identity relatively easily. It’s a possibility, I guess…

      Reply
  2. clodge2013

    This is such a great book, and I think you have done it justice with your comments. I think the scene at the railway station is brilliant, especially as I recall standing at our local station, waiting for the steam train, just as the characters do in this novel. It is so well observed, the lives of every character changing, meaning they will leave each other behind. She is such an excellent writer. Thank you for this

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Many thanks for your comments, Caroline. I’m so glad you feel I’ve captured something of the book in my post. Elizabeth Taylor is such a subtle writer, a factor that makes her all the more challenging to do justice to in a piece. As you say, that opening scene at the railway station is so brilliantly conveyed. I can see it in my mind, almost akin to something out of Brief Encounter as the periods are so similar.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think I need to revisit Palladian at some point. I have read it, but my timing was off leaving me with virtually no lasting impression of it. Hopefully you’ll be able to jog my memory later this year!

      Reply
  3. heavenali

    Excellent review, I have read this a couple of times and agree with you about how good it is. It is definitely her darkest book, and I think Richard Elton is written with great subtlety which somehow makes him feel more sinister. I always think that the opening paragraphs of this novel are so wonderfully evocative of place, sublime writing.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, the opening is terrific here. It really sets everything up, particularly in terms of tone. And you’re right about Elton. Taylor’s portrayal of him is very nuanced, leaving just the right amount of ambiguity about his motives and actions. It’s wonderful stuff.

      Reply
  4. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely post, Jacqui! It is excellent, isn’t it? This my first Elizabeth Taylor and I was absolutely knocked out. The opening is so wonderfully evocative and the whole atmosphere of the country setting brilliantly written. I still think this might be my favourite of hers!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      What a one to start with! Yes, the opening is so unnerving, setting up that feeling of brooding tension that ripples through the book. It definitely seems like one of her best novels.

      Reply
  5. Julé Cunningham

    A beautiful write-up on a book that sounds right up my alley. I’ve read a few Elizabeth Taylors, but have much to look forward to. It might be interesting to read her books in order to see her development as a writer.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you. Yes, I’ve jumped around a little in my reading of her books, but I’d quite like to read the remaining ones in order of publication. And I ought to revisit Palladian, a novel I didn’t particularly connect with when I read it a few years ago. It was probably just a timing thing rather than any failing of the part of the book, so another reading is probably in order. :)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s definitely a Taylor I would recommend to you, probably for the darkness. The opening in particular is very sinister, setting the tone for the various developments that follow.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you. Yes, I can imagine wanting to go back to this one at some point in the future. In some respects, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the relationship between Camilla and Richard Elton, and yet there’s so much going on with Frances too. I’m sure a second read would enable me to see more of her character.

      Reply
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  7. buriedinprint

    She is one of my MustReadEverything authors too (but I still have one novel and most of her stories to read) and I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting this novel through your review. (And I feel sure you’ll love Palladian when you return to it, as I think you’ll find different threads there, especially having read this one!)

    In this one, I marked a few passages about words and writing, like this one: “When I write, something goes out of me. It runs down my arm and out through my fingers…spills over on to the page. It quietens me.” And this: “To go back to the beginnings of words is like imagining the skeletons of our friends.” And the advice she quotes (from Flaubert) about being regular and ordinary in your life so you can be violent and original in your work. I feel like I get a different glimpse of the author here (but perhaps that’s not entirely true).

    Have you read Nicola Beauman’s biography of her (source of some controversy and containing some spoilers, but those passages are easy to skip as they’re clearly heralded)?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I love that concept from Flaubert about being ordinary in your life so as to be daring in your work. It suggests an alternate personality, a sense that art and creativity can facilitate this expression in a way that day-to-day experience cannot. Taylor writes about writers in another book too. A View of the Harbour, I think, where Beth is busy working away on her novel while her husband plays around with the divorcee next door.

      I’m looking forward to revisiting Palladian. It must have been poor timing on my part as I can’t recall anything about it, not even the characters names! Another time, hopefully.

      As for the Beauman, I haven’t read it but would very much like to at some point. Taylor lived quite close to here — less than 10 miles away, in fact — so in many ways she feels like someone I ought to get to know!

      PS You have such a treat in store with the stories. I’m rather curious to see what you think of them given your fondness for Gallant.

      Reply
      1. buriedinprint

        Really?! Oh, you’re so fortunate. Are you close enough, then, to see the home where she grew up? In another locale, but not far as I understand it? It’s my understanding that her childhood home is still intact. (If you don’t know the address, feel free to reach out backchannel and I’ll share the little I know.) Maybe her later-life home is also still intact. In Toronto, it seems a 50/50 chance of whether an author’s/artist’s home remains today.

        Coincidentally I’ve been dipping into my Taylor files this week and I was able to check and see that I have twice as many notes from the skinny little Palladian as any of the others and I usually have at least a full page of quotations after I’ve finished one of her books.I could be wrong, because I’m hardly a Janeite, but I have a feeling that Palladian might be to Taylor as Northanger Abbey is to Austen. Similar but different?

        Taylor is a top contender for my next short story reading project, so I have read about six stories, those which received the most attention in the Beauman biography, but I’ve been content to wait until I could immerse myself. Maybe soon though, maaayyybe.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Yes, I am quite close to Berkshire, so in theory I could get to her childhood home, but not in the foreseeable future due to the lockdown…

          That’s interesting about the volume of notes you jotted down on Palladian. And yes, I think you’re right about it being akin to Northanger Abbey’s position in the Austen oeuvre – somewhat different to the others but noticeably the work of the same author nonetheless. I’ll definitely re-read it at some point, maybe later in the year.

          Taylor would be a great choice for one of your short story projects, particularly given her skills in this area. I for one would love to see that…as would Heaven Ali, I’m sure!

          Reply
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  9. qaneighbor

    Hi, I loved the review and it made me enjoy the book even more having just read it. I am a little uncertain about the ending and I was wondering if you could tell me what happened (perhaps via email so as not to spoil it for others)? Thank you!

    Reply

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