Published in 1949, A Wreath of Roses was Elizabeth Taylor’s fourth novel and the sixth I’ve read. Usually, when I decide to read everything by an author, I try to read in chronological order, not so in Elizabeth Taylor’s case. I seem to jump back and forth in time. I can’t say it minimizes my enjoyment but I might be less aware of her development as an author.
Every summer, Camilla, Liz and Frances meet for a month at Frances’ house in the country. Camilla and Liz have been friends for years. The much older Frances, who is now a painter, was Liz’s governess. For years, the month in the country was the highlight of their year, but this year things have changed. Liz who is newly married and wonders if she’s made a mistake, has brought her baby and is constantly afraid something might happen to him. Frances is getting very old and can hardly paint anymore. And Camilla, the main point of view character, is scared of old age as a spinster. All three of them are aware that things are not like they used to be. They still talk openly but they aren’t lighthearted anymore. While they still enjoy each other’s company, the changes and differences also bring out their darker sides.
The novel begins with Camilla waiting for a train. Richard, a very handsome man, is waiting next to her. He’s the kind of man she would never be interested in normally but the two witness a horrible tragedy and when they meet again, later at the local pub, they talk and she’s suddenly attracted. Liz who is there as well warns her. She has a bad feeling about this man. She is not the only one. Frances has invited an admirer of her paintings, Mr Morland, who stays at the same hotel as Richard. He finds him sneaky and dishonest. Richard is that and much worse. He’s a notorious liar and, as Camilla will find out, very dangerous.
Camilla’s affair with Richard stands in stark contrast to the rest of the novel, which explores the friendship of the three women and their characters. The book is filled with wonderful, psychologically astute character descriptions. The three women are very honest with each other and accept each other in spite of their differences and the many changes they have undergone. Some of their exchanges are wonderfully outspoken. Camilla doesn’t even shy away from telling Liz she hates her husband.
Loneliness is a theme in almost all of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels. In A Wreath of Roses, she excels at exploring it from different angles. All of the characters are to some extent afraid of loneliness and try to combat or prevent it in different ways. Liz has married, almost out of the blue, a very pompous man, whom Camilla dislikes. Camilla has begun the affair with Richard because she dreads the idea of another lonely, uneventful year as a secretary in a school. And Frances, the most independent of the three, not only accepts Morland’s friendship but Liz’s offer to possibly live with her and her husband in the future.
Of the three women, Camilla is the one the reader gets to know best. She’s in many ways the most tragic because she’s alone although she’d like to be in a relationship. Only she hasn’t found the right man. Richard is only a distraction. In their discussions, the women speak openly about marriage and gender roles. They don’t seem to think that there could be camaraderie between a husband and a wife, but they know there is companionship, which might be preferable to loneliness. This view of marriage is quite pessimistic but what struck me even more is that the life of a single woman is portrayed in an equally pessimistic way. Unless a woman has a vocation that fulfils her completely, like Frances has her art, she will end up sad and lonely. On the other hand, marriage might stifle her development.
A Wreath of Roses caught me by surprise for many reasons. I didn’t expect to like it as much as I did and certainly wasn’t prepared for something as sinister. But there was also a small disappointment. I didn’t appreciate the somewhat circular structure and the way it ended. Those who have read it will now what I’m talking about. But don’t get me wrong, it’s a minor reservation. Otherwise, this is one of Elizabeth Taylor’s richest and most nuanced novels. It combines a wonderful cast of characters with a tone and mood that is at times acerbic but mostly bitter-sweet and melancholic. An interesting combination, for sure. In spite of the somewhat puzzling ending, A Wreath of Roses has become one of my favourites, together with Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont and A Game of Hide and Seek.