A Wreath of Roses Summary
For years, Canlilla Hill and Liz Nicholson have enjoyed quiet, uneventful summer holidays with Liz’s former governess, who is now a painter. Endless, idle mornings have been varied by simple domestic tasks, coffee and gossip under the mulberry tree, walks along country lanes, and shopping in the town; high points in the weeks they have spent together have been the annual fair and a picnic on a hilltop overlooking the town.
From the beginning of the novel, the three women realize that this holiday will be different from the others, though the reasons for the change appear only gradually. Superficially, the changes in each woman seem fairly obvious and undramatic: Liz is thoroughly preoccupied by motherhood and by the demands of her marriage to a busy, popular, domineering clergyman. Camilla, feeling estranged from her girlhood friend because of her new concerns and aware that her own life is dulled by uninteresting routine and by her own solitary habits and reserved nature, becomes obsessed by a handsome, vaguely sinister man whom she met at the train station. Frances is also different: she has aged noticeably in the past year; she has stopped painting delicate, tenderly sad and lovely pictures; and she is now vainly struggling to express her awareness of the violence and chaos in the heart of even everyday life. Each woman feels some disappointment in herself, in the other women, and in life itself.
The events of the novel form a pattern in which the male characters repeatedly enter and leave the scene, each participating briefly in the life of one of the women before returning to his home (in Arthur’s case) or to the Griffin hotel (in the case of the other two), only to reappear and impinge once again on the lives of one or more of the other characters.
The book opens with an act of violence and turmoil. A shabby, unnamed, almost unnoticed man leaps from the footbridge over the railroad tracks as the train passes underneath. Shortly afterward, sitting in the same compartment, Camilla and Richard become acquainted. Camilla is so shocked by the incident they have just witnessed that she fears it will affect the future in some way. She fails to notice some odd elements in the conversation and behavior of the man, who both attracts and repels her.
The events involving Liz and her husband Arthur are by contrast relatively uncomplicated and ordinary. Arthur appears unexpectedly to ask that Liz return home with him overnight in order to make a speech at a church affair. Much against her inclination, she agrees, then admits upon her return that she has had a nice time. Arthur appears again when the fair takes place and arrives once more to join the others on the annual picnic. With each visit, unremarkable in itself, the marriage of the two seems to grow in strength and closeness.
Also making a marked difference in this holiday is the arrival of Morland Beddoes. Lodged at the Griffin, where Richard is also staying, Morland walks back and forth every day, gradually endearing himself to the women and reassuring Frances, who had dreaded his coming, but who now realizes that the opinions of others distract and silence the artist. Morland’s effect on all the characters except Richard is the result, not of anything he does, but of the kind of person he is: self-effacing, concerned, compassionate.
Ashamed and humiliated by her infatuation with Richard, Camilla realizes that she is using him as a weapon against Liz, of whom she is jealous. In turn, Richard is using Camilla to help him fight his fear, loneliness, and despair. He is never part of the group going in and out of the cottage. He and Camilla have a few drinks together, climb to the Saxon earthworks, and share a wretched dinner. He asks her to marry him, but he is seen by Camilla, Liz, and Morland on separate occasions in the company of women who are clearly of a very different type from Camilla: loose, pretty, common.
Having explored the town, Richard selects a house which he pretends to Camilla was his boyhood home. He continues the fantasy as they talk with the present owner and walk through the house; clearly, he enjoys Camilla’s embarrassment, distaste, and distress for him. In the last incident, Richard and Camilla are caught in a storm and seek shelter in an abandoned house. He confesses to her that he is a murderer and, realizing that she is not going to help him, lets her go after thoroughly frightening her, something he has previously told her he has enjoyed doing throughout his life. The story ends somewhat ambiguously, with Richard at the train station, echoing the opening scene, and Camilla meeting Morland on the way back to the cottage.
Austen, Richard. “The Novels of Elizabeth Taylor,” in Commonweal. LXII (June 10, 1955), pp. 258-259.
Barr, Donald. “Texture of Experience,” in The New York Times Book Review. March 13, 1949, p. 4.
Leclercq, Florence. Elizabeth Taylor, 1985.
Liddell, Robert. “The Novels of Elizabeth Taylor,” in A Review of English Literature. I (April, 1960), pp. 54-61.