Here at The Mookse and the Gripes I have put together a personal list of my favorite authors based on the following criterion: Once I finish a book by that author, I want to read everything that author has written. My list — what I’ve called the Pantheon, which you can see here — had twenty-one authors when I first published it in spring of 2013, and though I’ve often considered adding others (after all, there are many authors whose work I’m deeply interested in) I’ve withstood the temptation until recently, when I was spurred by K. Thomas Kahn (or Proustitute, as you may know him online) to read Elizabeth Taylor’s A Wreath of Roses (1949). Though years ago I read and enjoyed the last novel Taylor published in her lifetime, Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, A Wreath of Roses brought her back to the forefront of my mind. Elizabeth Taylor is now in my personal Pantheon.
The author of twelve novels and many short stories (a wonderful collection of which was published last fall by NYRB Classics), Elizabeth Taylor is one of those twentieth-century, British, female authors that we here in the United States will miss if we’re not paying attention. Fortunately, there are a few publishers that have focused on bringing her work to our hands: Virago Modern Classics and NYRB Classics. I’ve got all of her novels and the NYRB Classics edition of her stories, and I’m anxious to explore her work fully. A Wreath of Roses was an excellent reminder to me that the time to do so is now.
A Wreath of Roses is Taylor’s fourth novel (the other three coming in 1945, 1946, and 1947!). The novel is set in its contemporary time, the first years following World War II, and the horror still pervades even the most mundane or idyllic of settings. In this case, we go to an English village for a summer holiday, but this holiday is going to begin with an impersonal tragedy.
Camilla Hill is waiting for the train that will take her to meet her friend Liz and Liz’s governess Frances. These three know each other well, as this is an annual summer holiday, but each are one year older this time. That’s obvious, I know, but this year the passage of time seems to strike them all the harder as it has also seemed to spread them further apart: Liz has married a clergyman no one likes and has even had a baby; Frances is, well, simply getting old, and the turmoil she feels is manifest in her increasingly dark landscape paintings (boy, I’d love to see these).
As she sits at the railway platform, Camilla ruminates on this. Though we readers do not yet know the specifics, Taylor’s mood it perfect. We feel Camilla’s feelings. A man, a complete stranger, is standing some distance from Camilla on the platform, and he intrigues Camilla. For his part, the man, named Richard Elton, sees Camilla and essentially dismisses her: “the little beauty she possessed could be in the eyes of only a few beholders, so much was it left to fend for itself.” Meanwhile, the other people on the platform also go about their day while another man slowly walks across the footbridge. Though Camilla and Richard should never come together, though this chance encounter should be the same as many we have on the streets every day, something happens that links them together.
The station-master came out of his office and stood in the doorway. The three of them were quite still in the shimmering heat, the plume of smoke nodding towards them, the noise of the train suddenly coming as it rounded a bend, suddenly sucking them up in its confusion and panic. All at once, the man on the footbridge swung himself up on the parapet and, just as Camilla was putting out her arms in a ridiculous gesture as if to stop him, he clumsily jumped, a sprawling jump, an ill-devised death, since he fell wide of the express train.
It’s a pathetic death, and in its description we get a sense of Taylor’s dark sense of humor. The man doesn’t die right away. He’s broken his back, and dies while the ambulance is en route.
Throughout this description of this violent tragedy, Taylor allows us to feel the physical presence of time. Time sat still while we waited for the train, but then the suicide:
This happening broke the afternoon in two. The feeling of eternity had vanished. What had been timeless and silent became chaotic and disorganized, with feet running along the echoing boards, voices staccato, and the afternoon darkening with the vultures of disaster, who felt the presence of death and arrived from the village to savour it and to explain the happening to one another.
When Camilla finally boards the train, she senses that “the afternoon had taken one step towards evening.” Into this tunnel of time walks Richard Elton, and each of them find someone who has shared the recent trauma. Each of them, also, find someone who is sharing their current, more pervasive, sense of wandering through time, destined to reach the end without having done anything.
The book proceeds to introduce us to many fascinating individuals. Liz and Frances are central characters, fully realized and dealing with their own struggles in this year that has so emphatically changed everything from years before. The biggest concern is just what will each of them do to respond.
Of all of them, Liz is the most firmly ensconced in the present. She is tending to an infant and negotiating her somewhat strained relationship with her husband, but she recognizes how all of this is affecting her two friends. With the suicide that opened the book, we also worry about aging Frances and just what she’ll do if she feels the time that is coming is not worth the effort. But most concerning of all is what Camilla will do, she who feels she’s been languishing for years and who still feels she can benefit her future with further drastic changes, something that blinds her to the threat of Richard Elton, a veteran and a liar who gives off signals of his danger which Camilla willfully disregards. Though we’re right to mistrust Richard just from his interactions with Camilla (something the other characters do), Taylor gives us even more to grapple with. Richard’s past is dangerous, indeed, and he’s working making the future different as well. Here’s something he writes in the privacy of his hotel room:
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.
I’ve said a lot about the passage of time, and of course it’s interesting to see how the characters respond to that. But of course what they’re really responding to, and gearing up to face, is the world around them, which time continually change. They hope to enact a modicum of their own will on all of this, which is necessary and foolhardy at the same time.
Though this is an intriguing plot, filled with scandal, murder, suicide, and the constant potential for each of those to happen again at any moment, A Wreath of Roses remains focused on its exploration of more mundane qualities such as regret, disappointment, hopelessness. If you haven’t already done so, take this post as ardent encouragement to get to know Elizabeth Taylor’s work.