“Cassandra, with all her novel-reading, could be sure of experiencing the proper emotions, standing in her bedroom for the last time…” This is the first line of Elizabeth Taylor’s Palladian, and it certainly got my attention. Another novel about a life ruined by books? After all, you don’t idly name your bookish heroine Cassandra Dashwood. In fact I could write a nifty 500 words right now on what the characters in Palladian read, and what I make of their reading matter…. but that would be to undersell this sly little novel, because it would sound like an annoying meta-literary exercise instead of a tightly focused satirical romance.
Or is it a satire? Are we meant to take Cassandra — the drab orphaned governess in the big house — seriously? What about her tragic employer, migraine-struck Marion Vanbrugh, or her diabolically precocious charge Sophy? Taylor controls her tone beautifully; at the beginning and the end of the novel, she exaggerates description and allows the narrator sardonic commentary that puts a little bit of space between the reader and the story. Thus we meet Mrs. Veal (!) in the train, with her “way of settling her blue fox across her breast and smiling down with pleasure and approval — it might equally well have been pleasure at the fur or the bosom, both of which were magnificent.” She is the wife of the pub-owner in the village and she will play a secondary part in the plot, but as Taylor unfurls the action, Mrs. Veal loses her exoticism and becomes three-dimensional. Then, as the novel ends, she resumes her highly-colored, affected role, and we are distanced once again from the action.
What action, you ask? I think you know. What happens when a young and sheltered girl comes to an isolated country house where there is no wife but only a widower with cherished memories of the beautiful paragon he married? Taylor’s achievement is to mock while re-enacting the Jane Eyre trope with a post-Freudian spin. (There’s even, I’d say, a little hommage to Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, published eight years earlier. Palladian’s Nanny is Mrs. Danvers made slightly ridiculous but also slightly sympathetic.)
The title refers, of course, to the Big House, which is falling apart or perhaps to the architectural style of the hero’s namesake Sir John Vanbrugh. Taylor muses about a future in which “…the house became a shell only, seeming to foreshadow its own strange future when leaves would come into the hall, great antlered beetles run across the hearths, the spiders let themselves down from the ceilings to loop great pockets of web across corners; plaster would fall, softly, furtively, like snow… ” Then a character says prosaically, “‘On the whole though, decrepit as it all is, I think I was better here than at home in the flat.'” I loved the way Taylor punctures her own authorial flights of fancy, though the house itself reminded me of the one in Sarah Waters‘ wonderful The Little Stranger.
This is my second Virago Modern Classic of the week. I think I can manage one more, which will be Enid Bagnold’s The Loved and Envied. That makes for three mid-century English books, a pretty narrow range, but I’ve noticed that a number of bloggers haven’t liked The Loved and Envied which I adored on a first reading. So I’m going back for a second look.