Elizabeth Taylor: A Wreath of Roses (1949)


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.

33 thoughts on “Elizabeth Taylor: A Wreath of Roses (1949)

  1. Cthese was the first Taylor book that I read and I wasn’t struck by it. Fortunately I went in search of other works and enjoyed them far more especially Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

  2. It’s so interesting to read your review of this one as I’ve actually heard mixed reports about it. It definitely sounds darker than some of her others. I’m rather tempted to make it my next Taylor to see how I fare with it…

  3. I really enjoyed this novel, I have read it twice and the darker turn of events does seem a departure for Elizabeth Taylor. I also love the opening, it’s so wonderfully evocative.

    • Surprisingly dark. The opening is so well done. I just didn’t like that she cicled back to it in the end. I don’t want to say more here.
      But overall, I think it’s one of her best.

  4. I keep reading about Elizabeth Taylor books. I think that I would like them. I plan on giving one a try this year.

    Your observations about the book’s take on women’s happiness, marriage, being single and art, remind me a little of the theme’s explored in Middlemarch.

    • I hope you will. I’d love to know what you think.
      I should read Middlemarch. I read somewhere about the themes but hadn’t made the connection. You’re right, the themes are very similar.

    • It seems to be important which one you choose first. My first one was Blaning and I thought it wasn’t a bad start. I think, I’ve I ever read her again, I’d do so chronologically as well.

    • Thanks, Karen. I thought the character descriptions were stellar. Really possibly the best I’ve read so far. And the mood and atmosphere. Only the story was lacking a bit.

  5. It sounds like a Taylor to build to once one’s read some others, rather than an early Taylor (and that’s what you did of course). Interesting, and powerful from the sound of it in its exploration of women’s lives of the period, but given I’ve only read one so far probably not my next.

    • My thoughts exactly. Not one to read early on but it’s a powerful book. Honest. Outspoken. I’d keep it for later. I loved how it captures those last moments when choices for women were still minimal. I wasn’t sure about the time. I think it was set between the wars.

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  7. Like you, I plan to read all of Taylor’s work, and I’m also failing to read them in chronological order. Her last novel, Blaming, also has a darker heart.
    I have a copy of this and will hopefully get to it soon.

  8. “All of the characters are to some extent afraid of loneliness and try to combat or prevent it in different ways.” This line intrigues me, because I am not lonely now, but I well remember times in my life when I have been. What a theme to write about, an interesting one that can lead us down some complicated paths. I can’t believe I haven’t read Elizabeth Taylor yet, although I’ve been intrigued since seeing her on Jacqui’s blog and, of course, yours.

    I see you’re reading The Thief. Interesting, but not one of my favorites. I wonder how you’ll like it.

    • Same here. It reminded me as well. And it’s well captured. The difference if loneliness if a young woman, versus that of old age. I hope you will read her. I think you’ll like her very much. She’s such an astute writer.
      The Thief . . . It’s a quick read but not my favourite either. I gave so many books to review, it possible I’ll only do a short review. Something is lacking , in my opinion. No atmosphere.

  9. I think that darkness is always present in Taylor, but it’s strongest in this one and Blaming. I adore this novel. It’s my favourite Taylor (though admittedly I’ve only read about half of them) and I really wish it were in print in the US so that I could assign it to my classes.

    Sinister is the right word. For me, this is where the Venn diagram of Taylor and Elizabeth Bowen intersects.

    • I was not so keen on the ending but it’s an excellent book. I can see why you adore it. I could have added pages and pages of quotes. My first Taylor was Blaming and immediately reminded me of Bowen. This one less because I hear the echo of the other books I’ve read. Like you, I’ve read almost half if them now.
      I need to revisit Bowen.

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