Reading Palladian again by Elizabeth Taylor

Some days only reading Elizabeth Taylor will do. I am sad to have read all her fiction – and reviewed it here on Bookword. But I am rereading them again when that mood takes me. I first read Palladian for a post in May 2013. I enjoy rereading her novels and find that I can concentrate more on her superb writing and less on the plot when I do so. In rereading Palladian, I am impressed by how she has conceptualised a large number of characters and how the story is narrated in her precise and elegant prose.


The novel was published in 1946 and was her second novel after At Mrs Lippincote’s. This novel has the feel of a small section of society, very much engaging with the post-war austerity. The decaying Palladian house is perhaps the most obvious example of this. 

Cassandra Dashwood is an orphan and as she finishes school her headteacher finds her a place as a governess for a young girl, daughter of a widower and the owner of a grand house, Cropthorne Manor. She leaves what she has known to work in a strange household: Marion Vanbrugh is the widower, his cousins Tom and Margaret are also staying there with their mother, Tinty Vanbrugh. In the house also is Sophy, a precocious and wilful child and Nanny who acts as cook and housekeeper and is poisonous in her speech.

It has been suggested that this is Elizabeth Taylor’s homage to Jane Eyre, and while there are some surface parallels, and literature permeates the novel, I think this is only meant as a nod. There is no mad woman in the attic and Cassandra is not asked to join in a bigamous marriage. Cassandra is, however, quite ready to fall for the widower and does. 

Daphne du Maurier published Rebecca in 1938, and the story of Palladium has some similarities with it: the handsome but distracted leading man; a beautiful house, an innocent, naïve girl and an older woman servant who remembers the first wife. Nanny is no Mrs Danvers, however. She is not threatening, merely small-minded and a bully.

Nanny had disapproved of Violet, but she disapproved of Cassandra even more. She had always loved her boys and was not above setting the girls against one another; whether dead or alive. It delighted her to bring Cassandra to the edge of despair about Violet.

Readers discover that Nanny is frequently wrong, for example when she gossips about Cassandra pilfering money (it’s Tom) and food (it’s Margaret) and a brooch (it’s a gift from Marion). 

The members of the household are all lonely – this is Elizabeth Taylor, after all. No-one does loneliness quite as well as she does. Marion lost his wife; Tom (his cousin) also loved Violet and has not, after ten years, recovered; Margaret is married to an absent sailor, but will eventually leave the house to give birth to her child; Sophy has no one of her age to play or socialise with; Nanny is poison. 

Cassandra observes the others in the household. Tom is an alcoholic and frequently visits the Blacksmith’s Arms, where he has been carrying on with Mrs Veal. Margaret has no friends and is a bit of a bully. Nanny makes difficulties for everyone. And then a disaster strikes, and everyone has to reassess their situation. Only Tom is still adrift after the accident.

Names in the novel

Look at the names she gives her characters. First: Marion. Mrs Turner, the headteacher, explains to Cassandra that despite a name usually given to women Marion is a man:

‘I discovered that it was one of those names like Evelyn or Hilary or Lindsay that can be either. With an “o”, you see. But “o” or not, I think it rather girlish for a grown man.’ (9)

And it is true that Marion Vanbrugh is delicate and not at all aggressive as many of the men of the time were required to be.

Cassandra Dashwood: Cassandra was famously the Trojan princess who made true prophecies but was never believed. Rather a portentous first name to saddle someone with. And it was the Dashwood family that were the subject of Sense and Sensibility, Marianne the impetuous sister, and Eleanor the more circumspect. Like Cassandra, they lost their father and had to live at the mercy of others.  

The title of the book, Palladian, refers to a popular style of architecture of the 18th century, where the façade was precise and balanced, featuring classical columns and symmetry. The façade is the important thing. All kinds of horrors can hide behind it, as Nanny points out. In any case the house has been badly neglected. But the title might refer to the attributes of those who, like the goddess Pallas Athene, acquire wisdom and knowledge. And it is Cassandra and Marion who gain these qualities.

Literature in literature

As well as a reference to Jane Eyre, I counted no less than eleven novels or other literary works that are quoted or referred to in Palladian. In addition, the setting of the library is a key location for some of the action.

A Month in the Country by Turgenev

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

Tom Jones by Henry Fielding

The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster

Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne

Homer, Sappho, Ruskin and Shakespeare are quoted 

Nanny takes Sophy to a showing of the film of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

I love how Elizabeth Taylor weaves these texts into her novel. She did something similar in her first novel, At Mrs Lippincote’s in which a small boy ‘snuffs up’ novels. Elizabeth Taylor is reminding us that readers are as influenced by their imagination as they are by their physical environments.

Palladian by Elizabeth Taylor, first published in 1946. Republished in the Virago Modern Classics series. 191pp


Filed under Books, Elizabeth Taylor's novels, Libraries, Reading, Reviews, Writing

10 Responses to Reading Palladian again by Elizabeth Taylor

  1. Jennifer

    I’ve never read anything by Elizabeth Taylor, but now I see I’m in for a treat. Many thanks Caroline.

    • Caroline

      Hi Jennifer,
      yes you have a treat, or rather lots of treats, awaiting you. I envy you coming to E Taylor’s novels fresh. But I am enjoying re-reading them.
      I can’t say that I think this one, Palladian, is a very good place to start. I would look at A View of the Harbour, or A Wealth of Roses first. She wrote more than 60 short stories and many of those are an absolute joy.
      Happy reading! xx

  2. Re-reading is always such a treat, isn’t it! I read all of Taylor’s novels, one a month, for a year and it was a fascinating experience. I agree this isn’t necessarily the best place to start and also agree about the two titles you sugggest, which were great favourites!

  3. Susan Kavanagh

    Your review of Palladian reminded me of how impressed I was by this book when I read it about ten years ago. It’s definitely time for a reread. Like you, I was fascinated by the many literary references. Recently, I attended a class on Elizabeth Taylor in which we covered Angel. Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, and some short stories. I was thrilled to find a class on her in the US.

    • Caroline

      People refer to ET’s chintzy writing, ie middle-class drawing rooms and domestic events, supremely British I guess. I find her writing quite invigorating, and often surprising. Palladian is quite surprising.
      I’m glad that she is being appreciated in the US as well as here in the UK, for I think her writing is excellent and her themes of interest to everyone.
      Thanks for your comment

  4. I love this one, I read them all in order alongside Kaggsy and others a few years ago, having read them all at various times. I also adore her short stories, I treated myself to the collected volume although it’s so huge I had to buy the ebook to actually read!

    • Caroline

      Thanks for adding your enthusiasm. She is worth rereading I am finding. Including her short stories.
      All her fiction has been reviewed on this blog at least once.

  5. Your first paragraph mentioning the postwar setting, a house and a segment of society already caught my attention, but having read what you write about all the literary parallels I am completely sold. I’m another one of the lucky ones who have yet to discover Elizabeth Taylor.

    • Caroline

      Thank you for your comment. Enjoy your reading of Elizabeth Taylor. I’m so pleased that my post encouraged you to read her fiction.

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