As followers of the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group will know, we have been reading all 12 of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels to celebrate her centenary this year.
“The Wedding Group” is Elizabeth Taylor’s 10th novel and was published in 1968, towards the end of her career. The story contrasts two types of lifestyle, the first being that of Harry Bratton, a painter compared in the text to Augustus John. Henry presides at Quayne, a commune-like residence where he reigns supreme over his acolytes – wife Rachel, his three daughters and their wives, his grandchildren and even a tame priest, Fr. Daughtry (as the whole group is Catholic). The collective live a simple, rural life with home-made food and clothes, no modern technology or conveniences and what could be perceived as very much a hippie/back to nature approach.
The local village is represented by David Little, a journalist, his divorced mother Midge, plus antique shop owners Toby and Alexia Moorhead (who are brother and sister). Other characters are David’s father Archie, his great-aunt Sylvie plus Mrs. Brindle, who ‘does’ for both groups. This world has experienced the coming of modernisation – televisions, Wimpy bars, fast cars, modern disposable clothes.
The bridge between these two words is Cressida, daughter of Harry’s daughter Rose and her husband Joe. Cressy declares casually at breakfast one day that she has lost her faith – a shocking revelation to her mother in particular, as the faith referred to is not only the Catholic one, but that of a belief in Quayne itself and its way of life. Cressy longs for the modern world with a very much a grass-is-greener attitude – possibly inherited from her father Joe, who has in effect abandoned all effort and succumbed to the Quayne way of life instead of continuing with his writing.
David writes an article on Quayne which brings him into the orbit of Cressy, who then breaks away by taking a job at the antique shop and then by actually leaving Quayne and living in the Moorheads’ attic. Despite an age gap, David and Cressy marry but the meeting of worlds is not necessarily a meeting of minds.
This is just a brief indication of the storyline because this is a remarkable rich and complex book. It tackles a surprising number of issues for such a short work – generational differences, the clash between modernisation and traditional values, the inherent sexism of the commune set-up, the dangers of isolating oneself from the real world, the difficulties of breaking away from parents – and more! The novel also focuses on a number of delicate and complex relationships – Alexia and Toby’s, which relies on solitude; David and Midge’s rather warped one which displays mutual dependence; Cressy and the commune then Cressy and the outside world, both of which she cannot really cope with; and Aunt Sylvie and Archie, stuck in a routine of pointless habit.
As usual with Taylor, there is a wonderful array of characters. As has been remarked elsewhere, some of her sub-plots and incidental scenes are good enough to stand on their own out of the novel! Mrs. Brindle, who takes gossip between the two groups, is a real hoot. The Moorheads too are an intriguing couple – children of a rector, so self-contained that they ought to be twins and finding it hard to cope with the interruption to their routine of having Cressy in the attic.
The Quayne collective are a perfect representation of communal life – a central figure surrounded by a collection of devotees, mainly female handmaids, who minister to the men’s every needs. This is taken to the furthest extreme by Leofric Welland, the crony of Harry who impregnates one of his grandchildren Pet. Pet’s pregnancy develops at the same time as the more orthodox, marital one of Cressy and it is interesting to see the differences between the two women. Pet is much calmer and more matter of fact, carrying on pretty much with her normal life, whereas Cressy craves, eats too much, has mood swings and cannot cope with the baby when it arrives. Whether this just reflects the difference in the two girls’ temperaments, or whether it is meant to represent the different environments in which they exist is perhaps unclear.
Midge and David are in many ways the mother and son from hell! Midge’s husband Archie left her many years ago, and if he is to be believed, she was a slovenly wife, unable to cook and harsh, unpleasant and sarcastic to be around. If this is true, she has given herself a complete makeover to keep her son tied to her apron strings, as she is now always immaculately groomed and an excellent cook. Maybe this is meant to represent the differing perceptions we can have of a person, or maybe it is literal – it doesn’t really matter in the end. But Midge is a lonely and needy person, terrified of being on her own and with a totally empty life. When David is away, she has no resources to draw upon, nothing to do to occupy herself and rattles round the house in a panic. Because she has invested so much of herself in her son, she is dangerous when threatened.
However, oddly enough, Midge does not immediately perceive Cressy as a threat. She semi-adopts the girl, somewhat like a new toy to play with, something to occupy herself while David is away. Midge attempts to educate Cressy in the ways of the world, teaching her to dance, how to dress, and cooking lovely meals for her. I don’t think she was quite expecting that David would marry Cressy but when he does, she is well prepared to keep Cressy close to her and therefore David also.
One of the strongest strands in the story is Midge’s rather sinister annexing of Cressy for her own uses. She pampers her and fattens her up, rather like the Snow Queen in the fairy tale, making the poor girl entirely dependent on her. When the baby is born, and Cressy is a nervous and incapable mother, Midge takes complete control and Cressy lapses back into her slothful way of life, eating tins of beans and watching TV while things crumble around her. It is quite clear that Cressy has no way of dealing with the modern world, approaching it wide-eyed, straightforward and therefore vulnerable. David is soon dissatisfied with his marriage, longing to break away from the bleakness of country life but unable to leave his mother or his wife. It is inevitable that he drifts into an affair with Nell, an acquaintance from London and for a while I wondered where the story was going to go.
However, the recurring theme of dependence gives us the answer – Archie has cared for Aunt Sylvie for so long that when she dies, he just fades away too, leaving David with money and a determination to move to London with Cressy and start a new life. However, I felt the book ended a little ambiguously, with Midge still caring for the baby while David is plotting to get away. Will he have the strength to break away or will Midge’s grip on them all be too tight? As Taylor comments, Cressy fought a battle with grandfather and won, but doesn’t even realise there is a fight with Midge, and her rebellion seems more from a wish to be left lazily alone than anything else.
Apparently the character of Harry Bratton was based on that of the artist Eric Gill, who lived near Taylor while she was growing up and for whom she is reputed to have posed. Certainly, her depiction of the artistic colony is masterly. I enjoyed “The Wedding Group” a lot more than I expected to. This is a dark book with a scope perhaps missing in some of Taylor’s other works. Using the two differing cultures to represent a wide clash that was taking place in society as she wrote, she portrays the collision of very incompatible worlds. The characters were not particularly loveable, but they were human and complex and interesting.