Elizabeth Taylor, A Wreath of Roses

Taylor, Elizabeth. Introduction by Candia McWilliam. 1949. A Wreath of Roses. London: Virago Press, 1994.
Like most of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels, A Wreath of Roses, deals with male-female relationships and loneliness. After a second reading, HM wonders how, according to the novel, can we distinguish between healthy and unhealthy relationships—those that help us escape our loneliness, those that help us alleviate our loneliness, and those that intensify our loneliness.

Taylor’s fourth novel provides us with three female characters who experience both healthy and unhealthy relationships.
Liz Nicholson struggles with her relationships with her lifelong friend, old governess, new husband, and baby son. As usual, Taylor does not offer her readers female friendship as the panacea to loneliness. Liz and Camilla–separately and collectively–fall apart. They drink tea and snipe at each other. They take walks and criticize each other. Platonically, they lie in bed together and chide each other. Here’s one example, Camilla speaking to Liz: “This flair you have for recognizing the spurious, it is a pity you never put it to use in your own case” (37). It gets worse. Repeatedly, Camilla tries to sabotage Liz’s marriage, admitting that she dislikes Arthur and claiming that Liz has settled. And Liz doesn’t even expend the energy to sabotage Camilla’s dangerous romance although she strongly senses that Richard will harm Camilla. Their friendship is failing not just because Camilla is jealous of Liz’s marriage and baby. Growing apart is not to blame. We see the healthy parallel of a friendship that withstands and even, flourishes amidst change when Liz invites her old governess to come live with Liz’s family. The reason that the Liz-Camilla friendship fails is because they are independently unhappy.  Consequently, together, they only intensify each other’s loneliness because each sees in the other that what she wants—marriage/motherhood or freedom—and sees that neither will ward off loneliness. Of the two, only Liz begins to accept her life–as a wife. She and Arthur, eschewing romantic illusions, learn that marriage is, unglamorously, hard work: “…marriage is an institution. It is a thing we build up, not perfect, but real.” After this epiphany, Arthur muses about his wife’s sweetness.   Thereafter, the narrator explains, “And it was as if Lady Davidson had risen, given the signal to the other ladies, and withdrawn” (231). His love for his wife dispels the other women’s sway over and interest in him. Put simply, we are faithful to those we love. According to the novel, working at their marriage is their only chance for becoming independently and collectively happy, thus alleviating their loneliness.

Camilla Hill turns to romance to alleviate her loneliness and almost gets herself killed. We know that this relationship can’t end well even before we know Richard Elton’s secret. We’re reading merely to see just how destructive their relationship will be. We sense danger not only because we know that Richard lies and is covering up something awful in his past but also, because Camilla exhibits the jejune symptoms of romance: “’I hate him and desire him. I mock him, I chide him, I despise him, but all my body shakes at his touch, and when he goes away I shall despair’” (193). Once we overhear these thoughts, we know that Camilla has no chance to self-actualize with Richard, so intent is she on falling into the black hole of romantic submission, rescue, and fantasy. While little Harry is latching on to Liz’s breasts, Camilla is latching on to Richard’s charm, which successfully disguises his true identity. Cap-a-pie, he is a drifter, con-man, and murderer. Lying about his past, present, and future, Richard’s state of mind threatens Camilla’s life.  He is not the only one lying.  Camilla lies to herself, to Liz, and to Frances.  No wonder her life and her relationships fall apart, for consistently, Elizabeth Taylor illustrates the cancer of deception.   Berating Liz for her marital choice, pursuing a dangerous romance, and breaching hospitality codes, Camilla finds no respite from loneliness. Nor should she.

Frances Rutherford, Liz’s old governess and painter, participates in the only healthy relationship with her new acquaintance, Morland Beddoes. With him, in their rare private moments, she finds a friend who loves her for who she is. He is Aristotle’s best friend, a soul-mate. Not coincidentally, Frances loves herself for whom she is. Together, their relationship extends beyond the initial common ground of her paintings to an authentic friendship.  They exit the novel, arm in arm, just after Frances has decided to be finished with her unfinished painting…and painting.

The novel supports her decision: “Life is an unfinished sentence, or a few haphazard brush-strokes. Nothing stays. Nothing is completed. I can make nothing whole from it, however small. Pinned down, like a butterfly, it ceases to be itself, just as the butterfly becomes something else; dead, unmoving, its brightness gone. The meaning of a painting is a voice crying out: ‘I saw it. Before it vanished, it was thus.’ An honest painting would never be finished; an honest novel would stop in the middle of a sentence” (222). Her life as a painter must change. Frances, even late in her life, must continue to evolve. The novel blesses her decision with another art-as-life metaphor: “Beauty and corruption touch us—at the same time, in the same place. Not separately, as in Frances’s pictures, but always the two going hand in hand; our days alternate between them, the truth contains them both. The search for beauty, lays bare ugliness as well” (227). And so does the search for human connections. According to A Wreath of Roses, life is no Manichean struggle, but an interconnection of good and evil.  To engage in life–in our friendships, our marriages, our parenthoods, and our guest-host relationships–we must learn how to integrate both beauty and ugliness.  Beyond that, we must authentically pursue only the good.

The good in A Wreath of Roses requires fulfilling your duty, which the novel clarifies: “What is my duty? And surely I have a duty to myself?” “Oh, no! Frances said. “That’s loose thinking, my dear. That’s a pitfall always. Anything that must be explained won’t be your duty. Duty is very simple and obvious. It is nearly always what you don’t want to do” (72). Duty represents the tough side of life, perhaps, the ugliness. But there’s also a life-enhancing side, which Frances explores: “She was tempted outside her range as an artist, and for the first time painted from an inner darkness, groping and undisciplined, as if in an act of relief from her own turmoil” (112).  Life, like art, is a mixture of duty and self-expression. A life that embraces both affords us protection against loneliness.

But is that a self-actualizing life?  Let’s review the criteria for self-actualizing: 1) self-examining and self-accepting; 2) rejecting forced and unfair acculturation; and 3) cultivating a better world.

1) Self-examination and acceptance…As already mentioned, we see this with the characterization of Frances–her decision to paint both the beauty and ugliness of life, as well as her determination to privilige her own artisitc vision over others’ opinions.

2) Rejecting unhealthy acculturation…Can Frances be both rebel and Stoic? Well, perhaps, she is not a Stoic, at least not as Marcus Aurelius dictated Stoicism–fulfilling your obligations to your family, state, and divinity. Note that Frances says that duty is simple and obvious. Perhaps, that’s why you can’t have a duty to yourself, which is complicated. To live the examined life has never been simple and obvious. In short, it’s a whole lot easier to know what you don’t want to do—your duty—than to know what you want to do—live for yourself.  Viewed in this duty and (not vs.) self-actualization dilemma, Frances’ speech takes on a rather rebellious tone. The older Frances is not advising a Stoic life for this young wife and mother.  Rather, the former governess is distinguishing between duty and self-actualization. This quote will illustrate my point more clearly: “She had no way to turn. There is no past for an artist. What is done is cast away, good only for the time of its creation. Work is the present and the immediate future; but her immediate future was a blank; the present this half-finished painting. ‘The mistake is listening to others,’ she told herself. ‘One has little enough of one’s own, but they will strip it away, with their kindness and their good advice. It is best to turn to no one, to seek to please no one, to paint as if there were only oneself in the world. The pleasure of others is a by-product after all…” (237). Frances warns herself to guard against others’ influences and cultural master narratives that denude her talent, her vision, and her endeavors. To know yourself is not good enough to self-actualize. You must also stay true to yourself—amidst (and sometimes, against) your relationships and society.

3) Cultivating a better world…Does Frances, by the novel’s end, cultivate a better world; or is her rejection of art a rejection of human connections and obligations? Hard to tell. Just after she thinks that the “the pleasure of others is a by-product,” she recalls Ophelia “handing out her flowers…the last terrible gesture but one,” glances at the wreath of roses on the bench, declares that her painting days are over, locks her studio behind her, and walks off with Morland to have coffee with Liz and Camilla. Morland “looked at her with love and concern as she stood in the doorway still holding the wreath of flowers.” It sounds so hopeful, doesn’t it? But when he inquires about the “faded garland,” she responds, “Oh, it is dead.” These are her last words in the novel. Thereafter, they walk arm in arm, the rain begins to fall, and the trees “clattered their leaves in a sudden gust of wind” (238). This is the same rain that leads Camilla inside the abandoned house with her sociopathic companion. This is not good rain. Embracing Ophelia, leaving her painting unfinished forever, carrying the dead flowers, and exposing herself to hostile nature are not the actions of cultivating a better world. They are the actions of loss.

HM shall continue to reread the rest of the novels of Elizabeth Taylor, searching for a female character who masters all three self-actualization categories. Until then, HM hears Elizabeth Taylor cautioning us against delayed self-actualization and against depending on others to alleviate our own loneliness. After all, life—like art—changes. And we will all someday, despite our best intentions and determinations, discover our wreaths of roses faded, then, dead. Carpe diem!


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