I recently finished reading a novel by the English novelist, Elizabeth Taylor (1912-1975). A Wreath of Roses is set just after World War II in an English town in the summertime. Two young women come to stay with their former teacher, Frances, who since retiring has become a painter of some renown. The main plot revolves around one of the younger women, Camilla, and her relationship with a charming but disconcerting stranger whom she meets on a train. But it is Frances who provides the powerful core of the story, Frances who Taylor hints may be dying and cannot stop thinking about the notion of immortality.
“The moonlight was enough to read by, the air humid as the inside of a flower. Orion seemed to hang and swing out across the sky like a man on a trapeze and, lifting her head, she thought, ‘One glance at the sky finishes religion for me. I know then that we and all the clutter we have made upon the face of the earth – our fantasies and our myths – count for nothing. The scum of little houses, the Parthenon itself, all of our frail properties, will fly like dust into the abyss. For all civilizations are like elaborate campings-out, a complicated picnic in the face of nature’s discomforts. And upon this impermanence we set up our easels and paint our pictures. What goes onto the canvas is the ticking of our hearts, the pulse of our lives. Yet when we die, what will happen? Other men and women will paint over our work; or those manifestoes of ours against the indifference of the world will lie, face down, among old books and ornaments in junk-shops, in attics... In the end, my heart-beats, my life’s work will fade away along with the rest, the Parthenon will go down on its knees like an aged elephant, and the embalmed words of the great will count for no more than Liz and Camilla chattering away up there in the lighted bedroom.’”
Interest in Taylor was revived in 2012 when two of her novels – Angel and A Game of Hide and Seek – were reissued by New York Review of Books. (Click here to read reviews in the New York Times and The Guardian.) Themes that reoccurs throughout her quiet, domestic novels are how women in the mid-20th century can find ways to express themselves and the struggle to capture the world through art.
Here is Frances picnicking on a hill with her guests when the weather takes a turn, and she suddenly sees the act of painting, which has been her sustaining happiness, in a new light.
“The blue was thickening into lavender as if evening were coming already. ‘This curious light,” Frances began, and then stopped. She put her parasol away and shaded her eyes with her hand, looking to left and right along the valley. She sighed, ‘Oh it flies away,’ she thought, striking her hands together in her lap, ‘It can’t ever be caught or described. For it is one earth one moment and another earth in a second or two. Life itself 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. There is no shutting life up in a cage, turning the key with a full-stop, with a stroke of paint.’”
“Before it vanished, it was thus.” That’s all the motivation one should need to paint, write, create. Producing a personal testimony of a moment of vision, sufficient unto itself – regardless of the outside world’s approbation or scorn. Words worth pasting to our laptops or easels and remembering as we carry on with the ticking of our hearts and the pulse of our lives.