Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

Elizabeth Taylor: A Wreath of Roses

It’s not all cozy rooms with lace curtains, plants in pots, ticking clocks, ornaments and coronation mugs, the wireless playing, and tabby cats waiting.

1949; Penguin Books, 1984

It’s true that, when A Wreath of Roses opens, Camilla is waiting for the train which will take her to the countryside, to vacation for a month with her friend, Liz, and their hostess, the aging artist, Frances.

But this is not a summer country-house story. And the reader knows that within two pages, though this ominous passage appears thirty-odd pages into the novel:

“Whereas 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?”

The women do spend large chunks of time lounging about, perhaps reading or painting. They gossip and laugh and reminisce about past summer holidays they’ve shared in this old house.

On one hand, it is a very ordinary story with its cozy rooms and quaint hotels.

On the other hand, the bar is blue with smoke, the pavement blisters, and the dog slobbers.

There is a graveyard scene and a suicide.  Windows are dusty and framed pictures seem to have been dipped in soup.

The chalk breaks through the earthworks like bones beneath the soil.

But Elizabeth Taylor’s way with description (isn’t that last bit striking?) can make even harsh observations a little lighter.

Take this brief exchange between the aging Frances, who lectures Camilla about men and, in particular about Liz’s husband, who is a vicar:

“A man’s work is twisted into the roots of his existence. His conscience is involved. He can’t divide himself.”

But Camilla’s response is quick-witted and acute, not at all dimmed by Frances’ claim to superiority on the matter:

“On the contrary, Arthur seems to have a genius for cutting himself up into little pieces. He hands himself round among the ladies as if he were a plate of scones.”

Camilla’s wit has an edge to it, however; she does not view herself as someone who fits easily into the world around her.

She thinks of herself as “stiffening into an old maid, recoiling fastidiously from life”. She is awkward with other relationships.

The two people who matter the most to her are Frances and Liz. And she is accustomed to spending a great deal of time alone, when she is not on holiday.

“She made the mistake always of thinking people would like what she herself liked; she put herself too much in other people’s places, instead of allowing them to stay there themselves.”

Nonetheless, she does find herself entangled in new relationships in A Wreath of Roses. Expected relationships — Liz’s infant boy and, on occasion, Liz’s husband — and unexpected ones.

“He wants security from me. I want adventure from him. Two opposite things. The dullness of my life attracts him, seems a refuge from all the adventure he has been through, the tension he suffers.”

Elizabeth Taylor’s fourth novel is characterized by a quiet tension; it embodies the heavy heat of summer, that sense of having an itch that you cannot reach to ease.

Readers will want to read on to discover the root of that sensation. But readers will also be impressed by the crafting of this novel.

As with her other works, this novel’s structure appears organic, but contains subtle links throughout.

Some of the connections are drawn with a broad stroke, like common sets. There are, for instance, multiple scenes at train stations: Camilla begins her journey, in the middle of the novel she travels to pick up a visitor at the same station she once arrived at herself, and there is one last scene as well.

And there are other images which repeat with less overt images. There are many windowpanes and mirrors in this novel, means by which the self can be reflected.

[In one striking scene, Camilla appears in a mirror next to a man, and the observation is made that it’s as though the reflected selves could have independent existences. Several pages later, two short scenes appear in parallel, one with Camilla and one with the man, and it’s clear that each feels tremendously lonely. Camilla again appears in a mirror, but in a very different manner, and the man appears with his diary, writing in a frankly confessional style. Two selves reflected, literally and figuratively.]

These are such tiny details, that readers new to Elizabeth Taylor might think the connections are accidental. But she is all about the little stuff.

That’s what a visitor observes about Frances’ paintings too, insisting on the value of these little things.

“But not little. That is life. It’s loving kindness and simplicity, and it lay there all the time in your pictures, implicit in every petal and every jug you ever painted.”

It sounds lovely, when he puts it like that, doesn’t it?

But here is Frances’ response and it suits Elizabeth Taylor’s view of the world as it appears in A Wreath of Roses too:

“Life’s not simplicity,” she said slowly. “Not loving kindness either. It’s darkness and the terrible things we do to one another, and to ourselves.”

What makes it all bearable, is that there is loving kindness alongside those terrible things. That, and Elizabeth Taylor’s skill.

Have you read this novel of hers — or others? What do you think?

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