I read Elizabeth Taylor’s Palladian back in January as part of the highly enjoyable Virago Reading Week. As if it weren’t enough fun to read splendid books and read other people’s reviews of them, Rachel of Book Snob and Carolyn of A Few of My Favourite Books had prizes to distribute and I was lucky enough to receive A Game of Hide and Seek. I was thrilled — and that was before I read it.
Palladian plays with the Jane Eyre tradition, with a mousy governess and handsome widower in a decaying country house. A Game of Hide and Seek alludes to Madame Bovary, and there is a moment when poor Emma is mentioned explicitly. Harriet is the restless wife, married to dull solicitor Charles (Charles!) Jephcott in a nameless English provincial town in the 1950s. Her Léon/Rodolphe is Vesey, a childhood friend, but here the Bovary resemblance is reversed. It is Vesey rather than Harriet who has learned about life from unsavory books (“Wells and Tchekov, Kipling and Edgar Allan Poe”). Briefly, Vesey and Harriet flirt as teenagers, and when they meet again as adults, the sexual spark re-awakens. Vesey can’t resist twitching the thread of attraction and Harriet can’t resist… well, him. For Vesey is a bad boy, skinny and dark-haired — think the young Bryan Ferry, perhaps. He is neglected by his parents and prone to drama: “In his mother’s room one day he put on her jewellery, sniffed at her scent, varnished his nails, read a book on birth control, took six aspirins, then lay down like Chatterton on the window-seat, his hands drooping to the floor. When the housekeeper returned, he had half-opened his eyes. ‘I am doing away with myself,’ he had said. ‘I have supped my full of horrors.'”
Harriet’s appeal is more muted. She is loyal, shy, not obviously talented, the kind of girl for whom Something must be Found until she marries. When life separates her from Vesey, domesticity is her only option. And she tries, she really does: “When she married Charles, she had seemed to wed also a social order. A convert to it, and to provincial life, and keeping house, she had pursued it fanatically… No one had entertained more methodically, or better bolstered up social interplay.”
The tension in the novel twines around this mismatched pair, naturally. But in retrospect I also find fascinating Taylor’s focus on the various mothers, the good, the bad, the indifferent, and the fates of their children. Something in the air at the time (1951) when the book was first published? In any event I greatly enjoyed Harriet’s mother-in-law Julia Jephcott. An aging actress, she exists to needle her awkward son Charles and to entertain the readers: “Mad, raffish, unselfconscious, she had the beautiful and calm air of one who has all her life acknowledged compliments… She seemed to be lovely still to herself, as if no amount of looking into mirrors could ruin her illusion.” Well, with a mother like that, no wonder he yearns after serious little Harriet.
Despite the simplicity of her premise, Taylor keeps us guessing, both with the stop-and-go pacing and with the unexpected but deeply-felt emotional development of her characters. Some of the book is very funny — in particular a scene involving an arcane beauty ritual carried out by novices. Yet the scene that stays with me is Harriet and Vesey walking through a damp park at twilight, holding hands and yearning.