Palladian by Elizabeth Taylor is a sly and complex book that uses recognisable literary tropes as a starting point for its narrative, before heading in a much more interesting direction.
The novels opens as newly orphaned Cassandra Dashwood leaves her family home for the last time. A sensitive eighteen year-old, her knowledge of life comes from the books she has read and her emotions respond accordingly.
Cassandra, with all her novel-reading, could be sure of experiencing the proper emotions, standing in her bedroom for the last time and looking from the bare windows to the unfaded oblong of wall-paper where “The Meeting of Dante and Beatrice” in sepia had hung for thirteen years above the mantelpiece.
Like the heroine of Jane Eyre, a book she loves, Cassandra’s caring Headmistress has found her a position as a governess in a dilapidated mansion in the country. She is to look after Sophy, the precocious daughter of the widowed, intellectual Marion Vanbrugh and decides, before she even meets him, that she will fall in love with him. For is that not what young, beautiful and inexperienced governesses do with their brooding, bereaved and handsome bosses?
Before she saw or spoke to him, she had determined to love him, as if she were a governess in a book. Meeting him had merely confirmed her intention, made possible what she had hoped.
Over private Greek lessons, Marion and Cassandra do develop feelings for each other, both aware that in some ways that is what is expected to happen. Cassandra believes that the only obstacle to marriage is Marion’s lingering love for his first wife, the beautiful, capricious and intelligent Violet, but Violet is the least of her problems.
For Cropthorne Manor is a dark and crumbling mansion, echoing with secrets, devoid of happiness and filled with eccentric characters. Marion’s cousin Margaret is staying temporarily and announces her pregnancy on Cassandra’s first evening to the dismay of her mother, the skittish and anxious Aunt Tinty.
Tom, Margaret’s brother is young, handsome and a talented artist, but is drinking himself to oblivion and conducting and ill-advised affair with the village pub proprietor’s wife, Mrs Veal. Long since surplus to house requirements, Nanny is still in employ, providing a snide running commentary on the behaviour of all the members of the household, none of whom ever come up to her exacting standards.
Nanny feigned eccentricity as Hamlet feigned part of his madness, for more or less the same reason, so that she could speak her mind, set herself apart from humanity and tell the truth, keep her integrity in words, at least, and have every allowance made.
Sophy, Cassandra’s charge, is a confused girl. Her mother died giving birth to her and she pores her feelings of inadequacy into a journal while making up stories of a mother she has never met.
Palladian is simultaneously an homage to Jane Eyre and a subversion of that work. Taylor seems to be suggesting that no matter how closely life follows the plot of a novel, reality will always be a pale imitation. Cassandra has none of Jane Eyre’s self-confidence and pluck while Marion is Mr Rochester with none of his glowering charisma. Tom compares himself to Heathcliff but can find no passion within himself while Nanny is Mrs Danvers-lite, needling and annoying but never doing any real damage.
They are all playing assigned parts and all are hiding their true feelings for the sake of keeping up appearances. Little by little, every character is fading and crumbling, like the house that enshrines them and even when real tragedy strikes it does little to shake off their inertia.
Palladian starts in a way you think you recognise – a gothic romance – but becomes something else entirely; a beautifully written exploration of the nature of grief and the different ways it manifests. The novel is also, at times, very funny, with Taylor displaying a sharp wit and a shrewd eye for characterisation. The prose is exact and her descriptions often very beautiful.
The sky looked swollen, as if it held some darker, heavier substance than rain, as if at a finger’s pressure it would let down a stained syrup, like the blackberry juice dripping from the muslin net in the kitchen.
Like the literary genre she is revering, Taylor gives Cassandra and Marion the union they expected, but is clever enough to leave the reader wondering whether this happy ending is really a happy one at all.
Palladian is my first encounter with Elizabeth Taylor’s work and I have a feeling that it won’t be my last. Striking characterisation, beautiful prose and a biting wit meant that I enjoyed this book very much.
I know there are a few Elizabeth Taylor fans out there, so please do let me know which of her books I should try next.
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I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!