Elizabeth Taylor: A Wreath of Roses (1949)

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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.

Elizabeth Taylor: Angel (1957)

Angel

Angel was my fifth Elizabeth Taylor novel and it was nothing like the ones I’ve read before. It’s almost entirely a character portrait, covering one person’s life from her teenage years to her death. I can’t remember many other of her novels spanning so many years, with the exception of A Game of Hide and Seek, but even that stops before middle age, as far as I remember.

The novel starts with an éclat. Fifteen-year-old Angel is caught lying. She’s been telling two small girls of her glamorous life at Paradise House. In reality, she and her mother live in a crammed apartment above her mother’s shop and Paradise House is the place where her aunt, a lady’s maid, works. When her mother finds out about her lies, she’s so angry that she slaps her. Not something Angel’s likely to forgive. Since she was a child, Angel fantasizes about the house and thinks that she should be living there and not the other Angel, the daughter of her aunt’s mistress.

This early scene tells us a lot about Angel. Not only is she unhappy about her circumstances but she imagines a better life for herself, feeling that she’s entitled to it. Since she’s got such a rampant imagination, she thinks the best revenge is to do something with it and she begins to write a novel. Her mother and her aunt are horrified. Writing? What and idea! But Angel doesn’t care. No matter the cost, she will become a famous author. This is another of her traits – she is determined and when she’s determined she doesn’t stop until she gets what she wants. All this wouldn’t be so bad but Angel is also deluded. She thinks that she’s a great writer although what she produces is pure schlock. She loves to imagine things but she never does any research. She’s also quite ignorant. People in her books open champagne bottles with a corkscrew. Her books are not only risqué but full of inconsistencies, melodrama and bad taste. At first her novel is rejected but then she finds a publishing house that is willing to give it a go. The two publishers are so amused by her writing that they can’t let it pass, thinking that the public might enjoy it for its raunchy scenes and wild spinning of tales. And they are right. Angel’s novels are a major success, making her not only famous but very rich.

Unfortunately, and this is the true tragedy, she doesn’t know that her books are loved in spite of being bad and not because they are, as she believes, masterpieces.

It wouldn’t be an Elizabeth Taylor novel if it wasn’t astute, witty, and wonderfully well-observed. Not only Angel’s mother, but also her aunt, the publishers, the servants, her friend Nora, and Nora’s brother Esmé, are all fully rounded characters.

Obviously, delusions like Angel’s cannot last a life time. While the book is funny and often hilarious in the beginning, the tone and mood get darker and very melancholic in the end.

I thought that Angel was grotesque in many ways but she had endearing qualities. She discovers vegetarianism and a deep love for animals. The big house in which she lives swarms with cats and there are many wonderful scenes. Elizabeth Taylor must have had cats because so many details are so well captured.

Angel’s a lonely figure but she has some relationships. With her live-in friend Nora, her gardener, and others. While they are all exasperated, they stay with her. Not only because of her money, although that’s part of it, but because she’s so genuine. She may be deluded, she may be flawed, but she’s true to herself. Always and at any cost.

I was wondering the whole time while reading this book where the inspiration for this novel came from. Hilary Mantel, who wrote the introduction, thinks that in writing this book Elizabeth Taylor showed how bad writers can make money while good ones, like Taylor herself, are never fully recognized during their life time. But that’s not all, according to Mantel, it’s also a very astute depiction of the life of a writer. I’m not entirely satisfied with these explanations. I think she must have met someone like Angel. When I started reading the book, I found Angel unrealistic, but then I remembered a woman I once worked with who was almost exactly like Angel.

Angel is very different from the other Elizabeth Taylor novels I’ve read so far but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t as good. It’s an amazing book. It’s funny, clever, and so well-observed. I read so many novels that I forget within a month or two, but I’m not likely to forget Angel and its fascinating eponymous character.

Here are my other Elizabeth Taylor reviews, should you be interested. They aren’t in any particular order.

At Mrs Lippincote’s

A Game of Hide and Seek

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

Blaming

Elizabeth Taylor: At Mrs Lippincote’s (1945)

At Mrs Lippincote's

Published in 1945, At Mrs Lippincote’s was Elizabeth Taylor’s first novel. It’s my fourth Elizabeth Taylor novel and while it’s not my favourite, I liked it a great deal. It’s as sharp and witty as the others and a subtle exploration of truth and hypocrisy in wartime England, a time when the English society and its conventions changed rapidly. At the heart of the novel is the story of a marriage in dissolution. Julia and Roddy Davenant, and their son, live at the house of a widow, Mrs Lippincote. Her house is a stuffy house, filled with mahogany furniture. Roddy, who is in the RAF, was stationed in London before. His superior sent him to the countryside, hoping it would help save his marriage.

Julia is a great character. At times she’s a little intimidated by the formidable-sounding Mrs Lippincote and all the officers her husband works with, but most of the time, she just doesn’t care about convention and says so. This quote captures her particularly well:

Julia had a strange gift of coming to a situation freshly, peculiarly untarnished by preconceived ideas, whether of her own preconception or the world’s. Could she have taken for granted a few of those generalisations invented by men and largely acquiesced in by women (that women live by their hearts, men by their heads, that love is a woman’s whole existence, and especially that sons should respect their fathers), she would have eased her own life and other people’s.

Julia spends most of the time alone with her son or walking the small town at night, on her own, while her husband pretends he’s at his club. These nightly walks, more even than the way she expresses herself, shock her husband as they show an independence he doesn’t care for. He, who is anything but a model husband, hides his own shortcomings behind his hypocritical outrage. Her outings are quite harmless, although people start to talk because she’s visiting a man. Mr Taylor is someone they once knew in London. He’s the most tragic figure in this novel. He was the manager of an elegant restaurant in London but he has lost everything. His restaurant, his home, and his health. He is now the owner of a shabby pub. He and Julia are possibly the only really honest people in this novel. All around them people seem to be pretending:  that they have a better status than they really have; that they are faithful and morally superior or that they aren’t afraid of anything.

Here’s Mr. Taylor’s take on this.:

“Bombed out” is a phrase the world was now used to. “But you were lucky,” people would say, “not to have been sleeping there.” “No one was hurt,” he would say. It was like a game of tennis, that sort of conversation: the ball went back and forth but no one was really involved, the expected replies were dealt and after the game had been kept up for a while, the other side tired, and feeling it had done well, changed the subject. But the truth had not been spoken. Had he suddenly said: “My life ended just he same, whether I was killed or not. This that I have now means nothing to me and has no value,” they would still not have understood.

“And then, ” he continued, “there are all the people who refuse to have their morale destroyed. They are the worst part of the whole affair. Sometimes you feel it would be such a relief to say you’re frightened, but those awful people stop you. You go about all day longing to tell someone you’ve lost your nerve, or to hear someone say the same thing to you, but it never happens.”

Julia is so honest that she doesn’t even have illusions when it comes to herself:

“I think I am going on up, willy-nilly. This morning I read in the paper about something vile the Nazis did, and I thought: “It’s all right. It’s not as bad as the atrocity I read about last week.” I was very much shocked at myself.”

“War does that for one.”

“Yes. That’s what I said. The contemplation of brutality brutalises. ( . . . )”

Like in all of Elizabeth Taylor’s books, the best parts are the characterisations. She shows us people and their foibles and follies. There are some great, eccentric characters in this book.

Elizabeth Taylor is always astute and unmasks her character’s with her sharp mind. In this novel she unmasks a whole society and era – wartime England and all the small and big lies people tell themselves and each other. I think her subtle description of the mentality of the time – this clinging to the old conventions – the fear of the new – the stress of the war – is stunning. It’s what makes this a truly remarkable book.

Elizabeth Taylor: A Game of Hide and Seek (1951)

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I often read the best books of the year in December. Sometimes they don’t make it on the Top 10 list because I read them so late in the year. Luckily I’ve read Elizabeth Taylor’s fifth novel  A Game of Hide and Seek  just in time. This is my third Elizabeth Taylor novel and every time I read her I’m amazed to find out again how good she is. As much as I liked Blaming and Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, A Game of Hide and Seek is even better. It’s larger in scope, richer in themes, with many more protagonists, and stretches over decades. The mood and atmosphere reminded me a lot of Rosamond Lehmann’s Dusty Answer and David Lean’s movie Brief Encounter, both of which are favourites of mine.

The main story of A Game of Hide and Seek is the love story between Harriet and Vesey, an unfulfilled love story that lasts a life time. They meet as children when Vesey spends his summer vacations at his aunt Caroline’s house. Caroline is the best friend of Harriet’s mother Lilian. Caroline and Lilian are very modern, emancipated women, former suffragettes and, when younger, spent some time in prison together. Lilian is surprised to see that, in spite of their battles, the younger generation goes back to old ways.

“It took us years to get rid of those cumbersome skirts and now you go all meekly back in them like a herd of sheep. And all this make-up. You look like a woman of uneasy virtue,” Lilian had said with vague distress.

Harriet is very different from her mother. She has no ambition and fails in school. When the book starts, she’s about eighteen and helps Caroline with her paper work. In the evenings she often plays hide and seek with Vesey and his small cousins. When they are in each other’s presence, they are both awkward, muted by their feelings, exhilarated and fearful at the same time.

Harriet is mortified by her feelings because Vesey is such an imperfect person. He likes to provoke, is careless and selfish. He even manages to upset Caroline and her husband although they are the most tolerant people one could imagine. One of Caroline’s mottos is “houses are for people” – not the other way around- , which means, she doesn’t care whether its appearance is neglected. It doesn’t have to be clean, it has to be welcoming. The children and dogs are allowed to do everything they want. Nobody has to follow strict rules. The only thing she’s insisting on is vegetarianism. When Vesey and Harriet take out the children, Vesey reveals his recalcitrant character once again and orders steak for them. It’s the final transgression and he’s sent back home immediately. Harriet will never recover from this loss. She will never find anyone she’ll love as much.

A few years later Harriet works a sales girl. She’s part of a tight-knit group of women; some have boyfriends or fiancés, others have lovers. They tease Harriet until she meets Charles who’s much older and quite rich. Harriet likes him and finally marries him. They live in a big house and have one daughter, Betsy. Life is quiet. But then Vesey reappears. He’s become an unsuccesful actor, living under precarious conditions as his family doesn’t support him. All the feelings Harriet had been able to contain, break free.

The love story between Harriet and Vesey is one of the most intense and mysterious I’ve come across in literature. With only a few words, Elizabeth Taylor manages to convey the intensity of their feelings, the turmoil, the confusion that keeps them apart at first and then draws them to each other almost violently.

“His climate!” Harriet thought, staring down at the fire until her eyes smarted. The word expressed something of her feelings at being with him: how she had loved, when she was young, merely to stand close to him. When he had drawn away, he took something miraculous from her.

It is amazing how multi-layered the characters are although there are so many. Everyone is wonderfully well rendered. The main and the minor characters alike. Interestingly they are all flawed but even the most mundane person is fascinating because we see their strengths and their shortcomings, their hopes and lost dreams. Thanks to the number, there are many different themes and moods. Scenes in which Betsy, Harriet’s daughter occupies centre-stage, are light and playful. Harriet’s and Vesey’s scenes are often melancholic and nostalgic. I couldn’t think of any other novel in which even the minor characters come alive like this and whole lives are rendered in a few sentences. Lilian and Caroline’s friendship for example, their struggle for women’s rights, the way they live their lives – it only takes up a dozen pages but we feel we know them.

A part I enjoyed a lot was the part in which we see Harriet as a sales girl. It’s interesting to read about the work conditions of these early professional women. The camaraderie between the women is touching; their little ruses funny.

Their hours were long; they went up to the elevenses at ten, were often missing while they cut out from paper patterns, set their hair, washed their stockings, drank tea. Nothing was done in their own time that could be done in the firm’s. They were underpaid so they took what they could; not money in actual coins, but telephone-calls, stamps, boxes of matches, soaps; later when these were marked down as soiled, they bought them at the staff-price, a penny in the shilling discount.

The end of the novel is as mysterious as the love story between Harriet and Vesey.

What contributes to the scope of the novel is that we first see Harriet as a young woman and then as a middle-aged wife and mother, looking back, reminiscing, comparing how she thought of middle age and how she lives it now that she is in her forties.

I’m aware I wasn’t able to capture this book because it contains so many themes (childhood, first love, passion, married life, women’s rights, work, education, memory, growing older . . .) and is so rich— there’s a wonderful, bitter-sweet love story, accurate descriptions of a period, lifelike, flawed characters, and humourous observations. It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year. I even added it to my list of all-time favourite books.

Have you read Elizabeth Taylor? Do you have a favourite Elizabeth Taylor novel?

Elizabeth Taylor: Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (1971)

On a rainy Sunday in January, the recently widowed Mrs Palfrey arrives at the Claremont Hotel where she will spend her remaining days. Her fellow residents are magnificently eccentric and endlessly curious, living off crumbs of affection and snippets of gossip. Together, upper lips stiffened, they fight off their twin enemies: boredom and the Grim Reaper. Then one day Mrs Palfrey strikes up an unexpected friendship with Ludo, a handsome young writer, and learns that even the old can fall in love …

I am not that easily moved but Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont moved me a lot. What a touching story. Elizabeth Taylor is really a wonderful writer. Her style is so exquisite. I am really annoyed with myself as I read it much too fast. This should be savoured sentence by sentence. I think I will have to re-read it. I loved the style of Blaming too but I didn’t care for the characters. I found them so unkind. This is quite different. Mrs Palfrey is really a darling. But the other characters, even the embittered ones, are still endearing. They are all very eccentric and put up a front. They know exactly that the Claremont, that has seen better days, much like they have, will be their last chance at a little bit of freedom. After the Claremont comes the hospital and ultimately death. Their boredom and the way they try to grasp every little bit of excitement is described so well.

I don’t think hotels like this still exist and if so the people who live there must maybe even be richer than those described. The elderly women and the only old man at the Claremont are very well off. And lonely. No one visits them, they have become a burden to their families.

When Mrs Palfrey falls in the streets and handsome Ludo, an aspiring writer, kindly comes to her rescue she takes the opportunity and asks him to be a  stand-in for her own grandson who doesn’t visit her.

The other people at the hotel envy her immediately and she becomes quite a success thanks to Ludo. Their relationship is very special and Mrs Palfrey even develops a little crush. Ludo uses her as the model for his novel that he calls after something Mrs Palfrey said: “We aren’t allowed to die here”. He does have a bit of a bad conscience to exploit her like this but he does like her too and enjoys spending time with her. She is nothing like his own mother who couldn’t care less about him.

The novel is full of bon mots that are like little pearls on a necklace. Some are used by the narrator, some by the protagonists. Some are pretty, many are funny, like this one, uttered by Ludo during his first dinner with Mrs Palfrey: “I have never enjoyed myself more with my clothes on”. Here is what the narrator says about Mrs Palfrey: “She would have made a distinguished-looking man, sometimes, wearing evening dress, looked like some famous general in drag.” This may sound unkind but Elizabeth Taylor isn’t unkind, she really likes her characters, their crankiness and eccentricities.

I truly enjoyed this novel, it’s sad, funny, bitter-sweet and beautiful. And thought-provoking. After all, none of us is spared old age, let alone the grim reaper. And some of us may have old parents or grandparents. Maybe we really should visit more often.

I would like to watch the movie and attached the trailer for you.

Has anyone seen it? Joan Plowright is a wonderful actress and seems perfect in this role.

Elizabeth Taylor: Blaming (1976)

When Amy’s husband dies on holiday in Istanbul, she is supported by the kindly but rather slovenly Martha, a young American novelist who lives in London. Upon their return to England, Amy is ungratefully reluctant to maintain their friendship, but the skeins of their existence seem inextricably linked as grief gives way to resilience and again to tragedy. Reversals of fortune and a compelling cast of characters, including Ernie, ex-sailor turned housekeeper, and Amy’s wonderfully precocious granddaughters, add spice to a novel that delights even as it unveils the most uncomfortable human emotions.

Blaming was my first Elizabeth Taylor novel. I read a recommendation on amazon a few months back and was very interested to read it. It is Elizabeth Taylor’s last novel. She wrote it while she was dying of cancer and it was published posthumously. This got me thinking quite a bit. To think that someone who knows his own death is approaching rapidly would write such a depressing novel makes me very sad. From a stylistic point of view this is a fascinating book. She is an accomplished writer and I truly admire her art. Her descriptions of places, actions and people ring true. There is an episode in which Martha and Amy are having dinner. Amy waits for Martha to eat but she keeps on talking and puts her fork down again and again. Such an exasperating habit that I have watched many times in people. The world Elizabeth Taylor creates is a very desolate one. There is hardly any person in this book that likes any of the others. Amy is by far the worst. She seems very judgmental of people and most of the time she doesn’t even register them. Her grief is intense but more because she has lost comfort and company than because she seems to miss her husband. I got the impression that she uses everybody and found her very boring. Towards the end she seems to develop a certain consciousness of her failings. Hence the blaming. But she is not the only one who fails. They all fail each other one way or the other.

Elizabeth Taylor ‘s daughter wrote an afterword in which she said she liked this and other novels because of the sense of humour. Especially also in the depiction of the granddaughters. Now that is something that eludes me. I did not think it was funny in any way. Those two girls, especially Isobel, are the most obnoxious fictional children I have ever come across. Unfortunately they seem very realistic.

I don’t necessarily mind reading something sad but this seems such a restrained world and apart from the American Martha and the factotum Ernie, they are  uninteresting people.

Since I often read as a writer and not only as a reader I would probably read another one of her books some day.

Just a quote to illustrate why:

Back along the suburban streets with the admired privet hedges, the houses with their bowed and bayed windows, the skeleton laburnums which in spring would give such pleasure. Gardens were all in darkness now, but television lit up rooms, or shadows passed behind drawn curtains. Sometimes light sprang up in bedrooms.

Any suggestions for another of her novels? Did I pick the dreariest one?