Authors: Elizabeth Taylor
Elizabeth Taylor (1912–1975) is increasingly being recognised as one of the best writers of the twentieth century. She wrote her first book,
At Mrs Lippincote’s
, during the war while her husband was in the Royal Airforce, and this was followed by eleven further novels and a children’s book,
. Her short stories appeared in publications including
, and have been collected in five volumes. Rosamond Lehmann considered her witing ‘sophisticated, sensitive and brilliantly amusing, with a kind of stripped, piercing feminine wit’ and Kingsley Amis regarded her as ‘one of the best English novelists born in this century’.
At Mrs Lippincote’s
A View of the Harbour
A Game of Hide and Seek
The Sleeping Beauty
In a Summer Season
The Soul of Kindness
The Wedding Group
Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont
Short Story Collections
Hester Lilly and Other Stories
The Blush and Other Stories
A Dedicated Man and Other Stories
The Devastating Boys
Published by Hachette Digital
All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public
domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely
Copyright © Elizabeth Taylor 1949
Introduction copyright © Helen Dunmore 2011
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a
retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior
permission in writing of the publisher.
Little, Brown Book Group
100 Victoria Embankment
London, EC4Y 0DY
To Maud Geddes
‘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.’
Wreath of Roses
has been called Elizabeth Taylor’s darkest novel, dealing as it does with murder, loneliness, terror and suicide. The aftertaste of the Second World War is still on everyone’s tongue. Young men who have been formed by the extremes of violence must find a way of adjusting to civilian life, and out of the chaos discover a coherent story to tell themselves about their futures. Taylor prefaces the novel with a quote from Virginia Woolf’s
‘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 ripples of my mind, with vine leaves and rose leaves.’ Like Woolf, Taylor is fearless in her handling of tragedy and mental suffering. Like Woolf again, she writes with a sensuous richness of language that draws the reader down the most shadowy paths.
The action of A
Wreath of Roses
takes place in an English village in the blazing heart of an English summer; it is hypnotically beautiful, but never idyllic. Landscape is always a character in Taylor’s novels, and in A
Wreath of Roses
earthworks known as the Clumps brood over the sharply observed present tense of village life. The Clumps are fortifications, and have defined the valley for ever. They retain their power, although people picnic there now and leave behind ‘broken bottles and the remains of bonfires’. They are a place of holiday and of menace, and throughout the novel these two states remain intertwined.
Wreath of Roses
opens on a railway platform in the heat of the afternoon. A man and a woman wait separately for a train. The woman yawns behind her fist while the man observes that ‘the little beauty she possessed could be in the eyes of only a few beholders, so much was it left to fend for itself.’ There is no connection between the two, and it seems as if there never can be. The train will come, and the human grouping on the platform will dissolve as if it had never been. Meanwhile the stationmaster’s chair scrapes, a waiting horse shifts its feet and it seems as if station, creatures and human beings have fallen into a cleft of time. Suddenly, though, the signal drops ‘with a collapsing sound’, and muddle, anguish and death rip through the fabric of the scene.
Elizabeth Taylor has a way of seeming to be one kind of writer, and then revealing herself to be quite another, or, perhaps, to be a writer who is capable of inhabiting many selves at the same time. Her scenes are painterly: two women share a bedroom full of ‘green darkness’ from an overshadowing pear tree; a breast-fed baby ‘flung out an arm, his eyes wandering, milky dribble running from a corner of his mouth.’ She is intensely aware of interior and exterior realities, and the ways in which the imagination shifts from one to the other. Rooms are seen from outside, lit up and strangely emphatic, like stage-sets. Minds curl over their secrets, in hiding.
The woman at the railway station is Camilla Hill, a school secretary who holidays every summer with her dearest friend,
Liz, and Liz’s former governess Frances, who has become a well-known painter. For years their summers have been contained within a rhythm of confidences, convoluted literary jokes, apple-peeling, pea-podding, painting and rambling. But this year everything is different, even before Camilla witnesses death at the railway station, and is changed utterly. Liz has married a clergyman and become a mother. Frances has grown suddenly old, and has begun to paint dark, terrifying landscapes: ‘She felt ashamed of her preoccupation with stillness, with her aerial flowers, her delicate colours, her femininity. She was tempted outside her range as an artist, and for the first time painted from an inner darkness, groping and undisciplined, as if in an act of relief from her own turmoil.’
Camilla interprets these changes as losses, and becomes painfully aware of her own loneliness. The sight of Liz feeding or changing her child stirs violent emotion. She has lost Liz, but has not gained an equal intimacy with any other creature. She is in a mood to lunge ‘outside her range’ just as Frances has done, but more dangerously. The man on the railway platform, Richard Elton, seizes her sexual imagination. Her desire for him is corrupted by a form of pity, a wish to make him happy which is as lacking in self-knowledge as it is in realism about male behaviour.
Taylor reveals far more to the reader about Richard Elton than Camilla observes. We see him alone in his room, writing a diary ‘as if he were controlled by the pen itself.’ This is the polar opposite of Liz and Camilla’s complex play with language; it is more like automatic writing, without a coherent author or narrative. What he writes is frightening enough: ‘And because she is the last thing that will ever happen to me, it shall be different from all that went before. More important. I shall make it different and perfect. And I shall never touch her or harm her or lay hands upon her …’ Instantly, the reader understands that
ideas of harm are never far from Richard’s mind. Reality, for him, is what he wills it to be – at the time. The terrifying possibilities of what might happen if his mood were to switch are embedded in the novel even when a scene between Richard and Camilla appears harmless or even benign. Camilla, for all her intelligence, completely fails to see the threat.
Camilla’s intellect and Frances’s gifts as a painter are facts, not solutions. Frances is in the middle of the sudden, startling transition from self-sufficiency to the weakness of old age. Her right arm is failing; soon she will not be able to paint. She wrestles with a vision, but cannot make the first stroke, while pain ‘spread out its clinging fingers like ivy on a tree.’ Frances, like Lily Briscoe in Woolf’s
To the Lighthouse
, remains anguished but fundamentally unshaken. She has had her vision, and besides that she possesses a wisdom which Camilla lacks. Frances understands that the vulnerable are, in the end, safer than the armoured: ‘Life persists in the vulnerable, the sensitive,’ she said,
carry it on.’