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