The Wedding Group by Elizabeth Taylor

First published in 1968, towards the end of the swinging sixties, The Wedding Group is one of Taylor’s later novels, and while it’s not as polished or tightly focused as some of her other work, it still has much to recommend it. The bohemian mood of the 1960s is present, particularly in the central character, Cressy, a young woman who longs to be part of that alluring world, despite her naivete and inexperience.

As the novel opens, eighteen-year-old Cressida (‘Cressy’) MacPhail has just returned from convent school to Quayne, the MacPhail family’s artistic community and home. Quayne is overseen by Cressy’s grandfather, Harry Bretton, a rather self-absorbed man who resembles the sculptor and artist, Eric Gill. Bretton, who is known as ‘The Master’, likes nothing more than the sound of his own voice, as he presides over the self-sufficient commune like the leader of a religious cult.

Cressy, who was considered something of a rebel and a bad influence on the other girls at school, wants nothing to do with the wholesome, virtuous activities of the Quayne community – cooking, gardening, and weaving hold no appeal for her. Instead, she longs for the novelty of a normal life – shop-bought clothes, synthetic sandals, tinned food, friends, boys and cars. A more disposable, consumerist life than the ‘good life’ of Quayne.

It was to that world beyond the beech woods that Cressy was looking. She dreamed of Wimpy Bars and a young man with a sports car, of cheap and fashionable clothes that would fall apart before she tired of them. In that world she might find a place for herself. It was worth trying; for there was none here. (p. 8)

In an attempt to break free from the austere world of Quayne and the life Cressy’s mother, Rose, has imagined for her, Cressy gets a job at the village antique shop – a charming, idiosyncratic establishment run by two siblings, Alexia and Toby. They’re a cultured, sophisticated pair who hope young Cressy will not infringe too much on their privacy. Cressy, for her part, seems content with her new bohemian life, existing on beans on toast and similar tinned suppers.

Also of significance here is Alexia and Toby’s friend, David, a journalist who writes articles for one of the newspaper colour supplements. When David makes some mistakes about Cressy in a piece about Quayne, Cressy writes to him, expressing her indignance over his errors. It is a childish, petulant letter, but David is amused and shares it with his mother, Midge. In truth, David feels rather sorry for the girl and is happy to see her break away from Quayne.

David is an interesting character with a somewhat unconventional family background of his own. His father, Archie, upped and left Midge several years ago – not for another woman, but to get away from his wife. A rather eccentric chap at heart, Archie lives in a dark, dilapidated house in the outskirts of London, the sort of place that time seems to have forgotten. His evenings are spent polishing the silver and caring for elderly Aunt Sylvie, who lives alongside him. It’s a sad, isolated existence, punctuated by the occasional visit from David.

On this evening of David’s visit, Archie had been in the kitchen, cleaning silver, and he led his son back along the passage, and sat down again at the table and went on with his job, wearing an apron over his velvet smoking-jacket. It was his evening for the finger-bowls and candelabra. (p. 30)

David, for his part, is tied to his mother’s apron strings, content to enjoy her cooking and general fussing. Midge is another of Taylor’s frightful creations – less obvious than Flora in the Soul of Kindness or Angelica Deverell in Angel, but a manipulative woman nonetheless, a point that Elizabeth Jane Howard highlights in her introduction. Without David, Midge has no life, only time to spend ‘perfecting what he would return to’. Consequently, she feels restless when he stays away for work, preferring instead the buzz of his company and the security it confers. Midge accepts her son’s girlfriends, as long as they don’t threaten the status quo – the last thing she would want is for David to leave her.

That evening seemed one of the worst of all to Midge. She could not nudge away thoughts of the future – those thoughts that so often spoiled the present. She wondered about old age, when her life might be like this all the time, with no hope, as now, of David’s returning… (p. 67)

In time, as Cressy and David grow closer, Midge finds herself warming to the young girl, viewing her as a child or sort of pet to marvel at and fuss over. It is only once the couple become engaged that Midge feels threatened. Covertly, and without David realising it, Midge conspires to keep her son and his partner close, installing them in a gloomy, isolated cottage nearby, thereby ensuring her security remains intact.

Hand-woven curtains, a wedding-gift from Rose, hung at every window, and a white-painted surround strove to make a feature of the fireplace tiles, but no one was ever seen to be taken with mirth at the sight of them. The furniture was a strange jumble – resulting from David’s mistakes, Cressy’s apathy, and Midge’s advice, discernment, and generosity. The effect was of everything cancelled out, and Toby and Alexia thought they had never seen such a conglomeration. Neither cosiness nor beauty had been achieved. (p. 130)

The cottage itself is hideous – damp, cold and poorly decorated – prompting Cressy to make regular visits to Midge, especially when David is away. But having been raised in an unconventional, sheltered existence, Cressy is ill-prepared for a life of marriage, motherhood and domesticity, a situation that David soon realises and begins to regret.

David’s comfort was gone, and he mourned it: and responsibility had come, and irked him. Like a child, Cressy both exasperated him and endeared herself to him. (p. 143)

As the narrative plays out, the reader wonders what will happen to Cressy and David as Midge carefully encourages the couple’s dependency on her, through a combination of cooking, childcare and general mollycoddling.

The novel is at its best when depicting loneliness and dependency, especially in old age. Midge can see all too well the kind of life that awaits her – the long, lonely days stretching out ahead, all merging into one, save for visits from Mrs Brindle, her obliging charlady. Then there is Archie, a lonely old man in failing health, his evenings crumbling away to nothing but polishing the silver. It’s there too in a family Midge sees in The Three Horseshoes pub – the elderly mother ‘buttoned up in navy serge’, being taken out for her ‘treat’ like an invalid or halfwit.

David shouting at me in a pub one day, Midge thought. Taking me for my treat, and everyone saying how patient and good he is. (p.72)

As ever, Taylor’s observations are remarkably perceptive, highlighting the sides of our characters we would prefer to keep hidden. There are echoes too of Barbara Comyns and Olivia Manning, particularly in the portrayal of Cressy in her innocence and naivety. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Sophia from Our Spoons Came from Woolworths and Ellie from The Doves of Venus as I was reading this book.  

The Wedding Group is published by Virago Press; personal copy.  

32 thoughts on “The Wedding Group by Elizabeth Taylor

  1. MarinaSofia

    What a brilliant review, as always! This is one I remember reading in my youth, my sympathy all for Cressy. I wonder how I would feel about Midge now that I’m older. Awful woman, but some of her impulses are understandable, as you say.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks! It’s interesting, isn’t it, how our sympathies can shift as we age and see life from a range of different perspectives. That said, I still had a lot more sympathy for Cressy than for Midge. There’s little excuse for the latter’s calculating behaviour, despite her personal circumstances and concerns…

      Reply
  2. Marcie McCauley

    When I think of this book, I recall reading it on the move, in hotel rooms and on transit, and I’ve always wondered if that interfered with my enjoyment of it, because it’s not been one that I consider a real favourite. But one thing that your review reminds me of, apart from that, is how well Taylor depicts different women’s natures. There’s no danger of thinking that all women are the same based on her fiction: the women in her stories who are manipulative, whether out of selfishness or insecurity, feel just as true-to-life as the kinder, gentler women she imagines.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I completely agree with your observations about Taylor’s women. She has quite a broad range, from gentle, vulnerable individuals such as Mrs Palfrey to monsters like Flora (from The Soul of Kindness) – and all shades in between. Her child characters are also worthy of a mention too. She knows them so well (e,g. the girls in her posthumous novel, Blaming).

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I recall you mentioning Palladian before. I must revisit that novel at some point. It’s one of two I’d like to re-read to see how they’ve changed.

      Reply
  3. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Great post, Jacqui! It’s quite a while since I read this (2012!) but looking back at my review I see that I picked up that theme of dependency which runs through the book, and in fact Taylor does tackle a lot of themes here. I enjoyed seeing her contrasting the two very different worlds and the relationship between Midge and David just proves that life outside the commune set-up is not necessarily any better!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, that’s a good point! Midge’s life with David is far from a bed of roses, for sure. It definitely remindes me of Our Spoons Came from Woolworths at that point. Comyns’ Sophia (a semi-autobiographical portrayal of the author herself, I believe) also has her worth cut out with marriage and motherhood in the early stages, much to her dismay…

      Reply
  4. heavenali

    This is one of the Taylor’s I have only read once. I remember it as being rather different to some of her others, and I thought aspects of it were a little bit Iris Murdoch like. Especially that odd little world of Quayne. It’s definitely one I want to re-read.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’ve only read one Iris Murdoch (Under the Net, which I really enjoyed), but from what little I know, the Quayne community does sound a little like something out of The Bell…

      Reply
  5. Julé Cunningham

    Oh dear, I’m so far behind with reading Elizabeth Taylor books and they always seem so appealing. I really need to put a couple of them at the front of the reading list. Though Midge does sound like a bit of a monster, I have a sneaking sympathy for her situation too.

    Reply
  6. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

    Fab review as always! I read this one years ago, before I became a fully-fledged Taylor enthusiast. I remember that I liked it without being overwhelmed by it. Your review reminded me of just how great Taylor can be when she’s delineating character; this is definitely due for a re-read. I loved the cover of your Virago edition BTW (I have a different Virago edition, with an intro by Charlotte Mendelson).
    I also clicked on your review of Olivia Manning’s Doves of Venus. Manning is such an interesting writer, a fact that superbly conveyed. I’ve read her trilogies but not any of her stand alone novels; Doves is now on my “must read” list (a special sub-set of my TBR!)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s great – I loved The Doves of Venus! It’s a novel that doesn’t get the kind of attention it truly deserves, partly because The Fortunes of War trilogies overshadow everything else that Manning wrote. There are some beautiful descriptive passages in Doves, very much the product of a writer with a painterly eye – and I couldn’t help but be reminded of Ellie as I was reading about Cressy. (Interestingly, Taylor and Manning knew one another but didn’t get on – at least that’s the impression I’ve formed from reading Taylor’s biography!)

      Reply
  7. Jane

    I still haven’t read anything by Elizabeth Taylor or the other titles you mention but they must all go on my list, people are so fascinating and I love these observations. Midge sounds terrifying and yet the idea of being the person taken out for a treat, even more so. Thank you for your great review Jacqui and I hope you’re feeling better?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Jane. The shingles is still quite painful – the GP has warned me that the nerve pain may continue for weeks (oh joy). One section section of the rash is quite near my right eye, so I can’t read very much without feeling tired. (Luckily, I’d already written 90% of this posts and two others from my review backlog by the time all this started, so the blog can tick along for a few weeks as necessary.)

      As for Elizabeth Taylor, she’s amazing. If I could read only one writer for the rest of my life, it would probably be her. The Wedding Group is very, very good, but probably not top-tier Taylor (I agree, the idea of being taken out for a necessary ‘treat’ fills me with horror, too. As a scene, it’s so well-written and sad – like something out of Mike Leigh’s film High Hopes.) I’d suggest starting with something like Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, which is beautifully bittersweet. It’s a sad novel, but there are wonderful moments of humour too – plus, it’ll give you a feel for Taylor’s economical style and gifts with character. A superb book.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Liz. Funnily enough, Ali mentioned Iris Murdoch, too. I’ve only read one of Murdoch’s novel – Under the Net, which might not be typical of her work, but I liked it a lot. The Quayne community sounds a little like the group in The Bell, from what I know of that novel’s setting…

      Reply
  8. 1streading

    This is one of Taylor’s novels that I haven’t read yet – perhaps if, as you say, it’s not one of her best, I haven’t heard it praised as much. Still, as I suspect you will to, I do intend to read them all!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Absolutely! In fact, I have only one unread Taylor left on the shelf – a short story collection, The Devastating Boys. While The Wedding Group isn’t quite as focused as some of her other novels, there’s still so much to enjoy here. Even a second-tier Taylor would trump many other novels from this era, hands down!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Absolutely! I think it reminded me just how good she is with the supporting characters. They’re always so well crafted and beautifully drawn – and in the case of Midge, painfully believable to boot.

      Reply
  9. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  10. philipanderton00

    Thank you for reviewing this Jacqui. I have the same Virago edition on my shelves bought in 1985 and, I’m ashamed to admit, unread. I think it’s the last of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels I have to read having bought most of them at that time. Like you, I’m a huge fan of her writing, crafted with a uniquely mordant pen.
    So your review has made me unearth it and I am about to start it. £2.95’s worth of literary craftsmanship – albeit 1980s prices!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      A pleasure, Philip – I really hope you enjoy it. She’s such a brilliant writer, right up there with the very best when it comes to capturing a character in a few sentences. I also love her ability to catch people in their private moments, just when they think they cannot be observed. These little details are often so revealing…

      Reply

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