A Wreath of Roses by Elizabeth Taylor

“Afternoons seem unending on branch-line stations in England in summer time. The spiked shelter prints an unmoving shadow on the platform, geraniums blaze, whitewashed stones assault the eye. Such trains as come only add to the air of fantasy, to the idea of the scene being symbolic or encountered at one level while suggesting another even more alienating.”

Three women spend a week together in the country. They have done this for many years, but this year something has changed.

Liz has married and she has a baby son, but she is uncertain in the role of wife and mother. Camilla is a school secretary, and she is acutely aware that her frien’d life has changed while hers has not. Frances, their hostess, used to be Liz’s governess before she became an artist, and her increasing awareness of her mortality is beginning to influence her painting.

They all know that things have changed, but not one of them will admit it.

The plot is moved forward by the arrivals of three men.

Liz’s husband comes to reclaim her for just a little while. Frances meets an admirer of her work, a man she has corresponded with for many years, for the first time. And Camilla forms a relationship with a man she has doubts about, a man she met at the station when they were both witnesses to a tragedy.

The plot is light, but it is enough.

The joy of this book is in Elizabeth Taylor’s crystal clear drawing of her characters and their relationships, in the perectly realised world she creates for them in the country, and in the profound truths she illuminates.

Elizabeth Jane Howard, writing about another of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels, expresses it so much better than I can:

“… this book displays the full spectrum of her talents – the economy with which she can present a character, the skill with which she build the environment and the daily lives of her people so that you feel you know exactly what they might be doing even when they are not on the scene, her delicious funniness which is born of her own unique blend of humanity and razor-sharp observation that enables her to be sardonic, devastating, witty and sly, but mysteriously without malice …”

This is a book that will draw you in, take possession of your heart and soul, and linger long after you turn the final page.

There is so much that could be said, but I don’t have the words.

Others have said much so very well: Nicola Beauman in ‘The Other Elizabeth Taylor,’ Susannah Clapp in the introduction to the first virago edition, Helen Dunmore in the introduction to the new Virago edition …

I just want to think and feel.

If you have read the book you will understand, and if you haven’t I have a brand new copy to give away. Just tell me what it is you love about Elizabeth Taylor, or what it is that draws you to her writing.

And remember that the celebrations for Elizabeth Taylor’s centenary  are ongoing here.

Speaking of Elizabeth Taylor …

… I was delighted to encounter her today, inside the new edition of New Books magazine.

The new book in question is The Complete Short Stories, to be published by Virago in June.

All of the stories that Virago has already published in different volumes, and a few more besides. Introduced by her daughter, Jo Kingham.

My magazine granted me a wonderful look at the mother through the daughter’s eyes:

“Writers are often asked about their method of working. My mother wrote by hand into cardboard covered exercise books as she was never one to master machinery happily. Later, when we had left home she sat at her desk, but as a child I remember her sitting in an armchair beside the fire, shoes kicked off and her feet tucked under her, ready at any time to put down her pen and attend to us. Sometimes we would tip the old sofa onto its back and perform somersaults into it while she worked beside us, using the notes she had scribbled onto the backs of envelopes or shopping lists …”

That leaves me all the more awed by wonderful qualities of her writing.

I am coming to the end of my re-read of A Wreath of Roses, the novel that reawakened my love of Elizabeth Taylor a few years ago, and I shall be writing about it and giving a copy away tomorrow.

Elizabeth Taylor and I

I can still remember where I first met Elizabeth Taylor.

I was in my very early twenties, I was in the library in South Harrow, and there she was. Dressed in a striking green uniform that I had learned to recognise as a sign of quality because it said ‘Virago Modern Classic!’

I discovered then that there were two Elizabeth Taylors: one a hugely famous actress and the other a rather less famous author.

An unlucky coincidence for the author, who began her career before the actress but found success later.

The book I had picked up was named ‘Angel.’ It looked quite wonderful, and when I read it I found that it was.

I picked up two more novels by Elizabeth Taylor on later visits to the library – ‘At Mrs Lippincote’s’ and ‘The Soul of Kindness.’ I’m afraid I found them rather dull and so I didn’t look out for any more of the author’s books.

And that was very nearly the end of the story.

But then I moved back to Cornwall. And, because I wanted to keep track of the books I had in storage, I opened a LibraryThing account and started recording what I owned.

As soon as I entered a few Virago Modern Classics I received an invitation to join the Virago Modern Classics group. It was lovely to find kindred spirits, and wonderful to realise that LibraryThing was going to be so much more than a place to catalogue my books.

In time I noticed that many of those kindred spirits held Elizabeth Taylor in high regard, and that Virago had published every single one of her dozen novels – an honour not accorded to many authors.

I began to wonder if, now that I was a little older, I might appreciate her writing more.

And then I noticed a little hardback edition of a title that seemed rather elusive in the library: ‘A Wreath of Roses.’

I brought it home, I read it,  I fell completely in love.

And I realised that I had been too young when I first picked her books up.  I hadn’t appreciated the subtlety and sophistication of her writing, the brilliance of her characterisation, the depth of her understanding of human relationships …

The majority of her books were definitely not the right thing for a busy young trainee accountant, squeezing books in between work and study. They were grown up books, in the very best sense.

And now it is Elizabeth Taylor’s centenary year and a year-long celebration is underway.

A novel a month, in chronological order, with discussions on LibraryThing and a different host blog each month.

This month’s book is ‘A Wreath of Roses’ and the discussion will be here.  Because this is the book that made me realise just how wonderful Elizabeth Taylor is.

I’ll be reading it again, and launching a discussion on Friday 20th April.

I’d love you to pick up a copy, if you have one, or to rush out to find one if you don’t – Virago reissued ‘A Wreath of Roses’ quite recently, and so copies shouldn’t be difficult to find.

But don’t worry if you don’t have a copy, or if you don’t have time to read. I am rather late issuing this invitation, and so on the Friday 20th April I shall also be giving away a lovely new copy of the book.

It is a book, and Elizabeth Taylor is an author, I can recommend unreservedly …

A View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor

“No gulls escorted the trawlers going out of the harbour at tea-time, as they would on the return journey; they sat upon the rocking waters without excitement, perching along the sides of the little boat, slapped up and down by one wake after another. When they rose and stretched their wings they were brilliantly white against the green sea. as white as the lighthouse.

To the men on the boats the harbour was at first dingy and familiar, a row of buildings, shops cafe, pub with peeling plaster of apricot and sky blue; then as boats steered purposefully from the harbour-mouth to sea, houses rose up in tiers, the church-tower extricated itself from the roofs, the lettering on the shops faded, and the sordid became picturesque.”

Those words were penned by Elizabeth Taylor, but the picture is my harbour.

Isn’t it strange that in the month when the book selection for the celebration of her centenary was ‘A View of the Harbour’ I should find myself newly employed in a harbour-master’s office?!

But I was swept away to another harbour-town in another age. To Newby, a small town on the south coast just after the war.

Bertram Hemingway, a retired naval man, was a newcomer to the town. He intended to spend his days painting views of the harbour. He enjoyed the company of women, he enoyed being involved in the life of the town, but he gave no thought to the possibility that some would read much more than he meant into the interest he showed.

That was what happened to Lily Wilson, a shy and lonely war widow, struggling to cope with her responsibilities as proprietor of the town’s waxworks museum. Of course the was going to read things into the attentions of a man who bought her drinks, walked her home, sympathised with her.

But Bertram was more interested in the rather more sophisticated Tory Foyle. She and her husband had moved into their holiday cottage during the war, and when they divorced Tory chose to stay when her former husband returned to their home in London.

Tory was flattered by the attention, but she was caught up in  an affair with, Robert Casubon, the town doctor. They had known each other for years – they were neighbours, and Robert’s wife, Beth, was Tory’s best friend – but, quite unexpectedly, something had somehow changed between them.

Beth hadn’t noticed. She was caught up in the writing of her new novel, and rather more interested in the characters in her head than her husband and daughters. She loved her family, of course she did, and she did what she should, but she felt detached and guilty at the way her work called her away from them.

But Prudence, the elder of those two daughters, had noticed.

And maybe Mrs Bracey would notice too. She observed  the comings and goings of her neighbours so carefully, she loved to gossip., and her failing health often gave occasion to call out the doctor.

These, and other lives, go on behind the closed doors of this faded seaside town. And they are painted so beautifully, with understanding, with wit, and with wonderful clearsightedness.

Elizabeth Taylor’s characters are not, in the main, sympathetic, but they are intriguing. Flawed human beings, each one utterly real, and each one a product of a history that is not entirely revealed and would maybe explain much.

And so I was fascinated as I read of their overlapping lives, set out so beautifully. Wonderful prose carried me along, and so often I was touched by moments of pure insight and moments of vivid emotion.

I felt Lily’s pain as she realised she was not going to be rescued from her lonely life. I understood Prudence’s resentment as she had to fetch her father from Tory’s drawing-room when a patient called. And I smiled at the wonderful letters Tory received from her son, away at boarding school.

What didn’t ring quite so true was the portrayal of the town. There is a camaraderie and spirit among seafaring folk that spreads through seaside towns. And there are many buildings and activities around harbour-towns that you don’t find in other towns by the sea. All of this was missed, and the view was that of a visitor, not a resident.

But maybe that was deliberate; because  if there is a theme running through this novel it is that we so often see a less than complete picture, or a distorted view, of the world around us.

And as a study of human lives, in showing that, this novel works quite beautifully.

10% Report: Filling In The Gaps

It was a  wonderful idea: pick 100 books that you want to read, but somehow never get around to, and commit to reading at least 75% of them in five years.

It really shouldn’t have taken me more than two years to reach ten books, but it has. I’m too easily distracted by new books, new discoveries, library books …

And I have actually read thirteen books, but three of them I read when I was on a blogging break and I’m not going to count them until I pick them up again and write something about them.

But, for now, here are my first ten books:

Nightingale Wood by Stella Gibbons

Nightingale Wood is a fairytale says the cover, and yes it is. The story of Cinderella, set in the 1930s, still recognisable but twisted into something new and something just a little bit subversive.

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

It is a stunning portrait of one woman’s descent into madness. And a clear indictment of a particular society’s oppression of women. So much has been and could be written about The Yellow Wallpaper. But I feel so deeply for its narrator that I cannot write about her words intellectually.

Just Like Tomorrow by Faiza Guene

Fifteen year old Doria’s life is far from perfect. She lives with her mother in a tower block on the outskirts of Paris. Her father has returned to his Moroccan birthplace to find a new wife who will provide him with the son he so badly wants. And so mother and daughter are left to subsist on the meagre wages that a woman who doesn’t speak the language can earn as an office cleaner.

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo

Her impressions and experiences as she found her feet in London were wonderfully observed, and her use of language illuminated the gulf between Chinese and English in a way that was both beautiful and clever. I was also struck by the bravery of anyone who travels alone to a country with a very different language that they hardly know. A country so different, so far from home.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Merricat (well how would you abbreviate Mary Katherine ?!) is a quite wonderful narrator – engaging, unreliable and utterly unique. And her tale is quite extraordinary. But I’m not going to say too much about that tale. Much has been written already. And if you haven’t read the book you really should. And you will enjoy it more for knowing little beforehand.

The Victorian Chaise Longue by Marghanita Laski

Melanie thinks she is in a nightmare. She tries to wake up, but she can’t. This is real. She is trapped and helpless. Marghanita Laski conveys her feelings quite perfectly. The atmosphere is claustrophobic, and deeply unsettling. And the more you think the more unsettling it becomes.

Loitering With Intent by Muriel Spark

The Autobiographical Association? It’s the brainchild  on the supremely pompous Sir Quentin Oliver; a society that will support and assist people in  writing their biographies and preserving them until all of those mentioned are dead so that they can be safely  published. Because, of course, they will be of interest to the historians of the future!

Palladian by Elizabeth Taylor

It was so, so easy for Cassandra to cast herself and Jane Eyre and Marion as Mr Rochester. But reality would prove to be a little different.

The Man in the Queue by Josephine Tey

Elements of the modern police procedural can be seen, but this is very much a book of its time. The language, the world it describes tie it to the 1920s, and references to the Great War emphasise its lasting impact on a generation. I was caught up in that world, and with Inspector Grant and his investigation.

The Ladies’ Paradise by Émile Zola

It is an almost magical emporium, a huge department store that grew from a small draper’s shop, packed full of seductive colours, fabrics, clothes, furnishing, and so much more. The descriptions are rich, detailed, and utterly captivating.

Now I’ve perused my list again I have been inspired, so expect the next ten to arrive much more quickly.

And if you see a book you particularly loved on there, do say!

Palladian by Elizabeth Taylor

Cassandra Dashwood, at the age of eighteen is quiet, bookish and, dare I say, a little dull. And, after her father’s recent death, she is alone in the world.

Fortunately Mrs. Turner, her former headmistress, takes an interest in Cassandra, and finds her a post: Marion Vanbrugh is a widower with a young daughter, Sophy, and he needs a governess.

It was so, so easy for Cassandra to cast herself and Jane Eyre and Marion as Mr Rochester.

But reality would prove to be a little different.

Marion was as quiet, bookish and dull as Cassandra. And he was weighed down by his family; an elderly aunt, who kept house quite ineffectually; a cousin, pregnant by her lover, not her husband; another cousin, who was charming but quite directionless; and Violet, his wife who had died but still had a presence.

And they all lived together, their lives stagnating in a crumbling mansion.

It was fortunate that Sophy was charming, and that her father took a great interest in his daughter and her governess …

This is a story with echoes of other authors: Jane Austen in the heroine’s name, and in more besides; Charlotte Bronte in the heroine’s position; Ivy Compton-Burnett in some of the dialogue and relationships; Daphne Du Maurier in the presence, and untold story, of Marion’s wife; Molly Keane in the crumbling mansion; Thomas Hardy in some of the darker moments; and maybe even more that have passed me by when I was caught up …

Not a satire, not a pastiche, but something rather different, and rather more interesting. Something I can’t quite explain.

A dark tale, but the darkness is offset by wry humor and dry wit.

Events unfold slowly, but every sentence brings a new insight, or a new development. There are small, subtle changes, and there is one sudden, tragic, utterly real event that will change everything

Everything is driven by the characters; characters I found difficult to like, but they were pinpointed so accurately that I was always fascinated. Because I understood their situations, their inner lives, their motivations, and what made each of them unique.

And there is a nicely drawn love song threaded through. Though there will not be happy endings for all …

Palladian is a strangely intriguing novel – just as good as I had hoped but not at all what I had expected.

Books, Books and More Books

This year, I am changing the way I read.

Over the years I’ve changed from being a one book at a time reader, into a two book at a time reader, and then a many books at a time reader.

I used to think that was a bad thing, but I’ve realised now that it can work for me.

I’m more inclined to read big books, because with many books on the go I don’t feel that the big book is taking me away from so many other books I want to read.

And so many books benefit from a step away to think about things.

But there are limits, and I think I’ve just hit one.

Time to consider my books in progress:

I’ve been meaning to read The Man in the Queue by Josephine Tey for ages. It felt wrong that I had read Nicola Upson’s An Expert in Mirder without having read the book that inspired it. So when The Man in the Queue was chosen as a January group read by the GoodReads Bright Young Things I pulled my copy out.

I have a tendency to whizz through crime fiction, but this time I’m reading a chapter a day and I am appreciating the writing so much more.

It is a long time since I read The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald, and I decided a while back that I should read it again, before watching Baz Luhrman’s film version. I know that isn’t out until the end of the year, but I spotted a readalong this month and so its time seemed to be now.

I’m not enjoying the book as much as I did first time around, but I feel I am giving the book a fair chance by spreading it over a whole month.

At Mrs Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor is another book I read years ago, but I’ve picked it up again to read with the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics Group as we celebrate the author’s centenary. This one is definitely better second time around, and it is repaying careful reading and quiet contemplation.

I picked up The Perfect Summer: Dancing into Shadow in 1911 by Juliet Nicholson a while back on ReadItSwapIt, and I picked it up a few weeks ago thinking that it would be a good book to set the scene before this years WW1 War Through The Generations Reading Challenge.

Each chapter focuses on a different character, and so it suits reading over time. I’ve met the new Queen Mary and the young Winston Churchill, and it has been lovely to see both at a point in their life that I hadn’t really considered before.

And there are many more fascinating people to meet …

I started the Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens last year, but I drifted away from it. I’m picking up the threads and I’m going to finish this one before I pick up any of the other Dickens novels that are calling me.

This isn’t going to be my one of my favourites I’m afraid, but there are one or two characters I love and I am going to see their stories through to the end.

I took my copy of A London Child of the 1870s by Molly Hughes from the shelf for another group read – with the GoodReads Persephone Books Group. It is a wonderful memoir of a happy childhood and I am picking it up and reading a chapter whenever my spirits need lifting. I am so pleased that my library has the two sequels.

I ordered Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons from the library when I discovered that there was only one story about Cold Comfort Farm and that it was a prequel – so no preliminary  rereading was required – and that only a couple of stories were about Christmas.

I’m afraid I’ve ground to a halt on this one. It isn’t that I don’t like it, but I don’t like it as much as I’d hoped. It might be that Stella Gibbons needs the greater expanse of a novel to weave her particular literary magic, or it might just be that I read it at the wrong moment – Charlotte loved it.

So, now that I’ve realised just how many book I have in progress, and now that I’ve noticed someone else has a reservation and is waiting for it, I think I must take it back.

I have owned a copy of Les Miserables by Victor Hugo for years, and it has been one of those books I really wanted to read but never quite got to. But now that there is a year long readalong I have finally made a start.

A proof copy of Diving Belles by Lucy Wood came through my letterbox a little while ago. I read the first few stories and fell in love, but then I decided I had to spin the rest out, as I really didn’t want to come to the last one. But the book is out in a couple of weeks and  I must read on to the end so that I can sing its praises.

I started reading The Coward’s Tale by Vanessa Gebbie before Christmas. It was wonderful but it needed more attention than I could give it then, so I pushed it to one side. But now slow reading is paying dividends.

I started The Rose Garden by Susanna Kearsley weeks ago and I was loving it, but the book disappeared. It turned up a couple of days ago, under a pile of newspapers and magazines on the coffee table, and now I am happily reading on.

I probably shouldn’t have picked up another book, but I have to have a visit to the dentist first thing tomorrow morning, and I prescribed myself a day curled up with a big book afterwards. The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman has been waiting for a while, and once I read the opening I was lost. So tomorrow I shall be in Masada …

That makes ten books. And, even though I’ve decided multiple reads is the way to go, that’s more than enough for now …