Welcome, all who are joining me for the Elizabeth Taylor Centenary read-a-long of Palladian! Please feel free to discuss in the comments section below. A little warning for everyone reading; I am going to talk about the plot in detail, including spoilers, as this is designed to be a discussion of Taylor’s methods and intentions, and without revealing the twists and turns of the plot, I can’t really do that effectively. So, if you haven’t read the book yet, I’d strongly advise you not to read any further, or I’ll ruin it for you! It’s a brilliant book, by the way, so if you haven’t read it, do – it’s a very well written, intelligent literary pastiche while also being an excellently characterised and intriguingly plotted novel that kept me hooked from page one. It’s a refreshingly different read, and has left me once again in awe of Taylor’s skill. If you want something entertaining, challenging, clever and witty, then this is the book for you!
So, to the details. The novel opens with poor orphaned Cassandra Dashwood wandering mournfully around the empty, dusty rooms of her parents’ rented house in some form of ugly provincial suburb. Only 18, and a sensitive, romantic, bookish soul, she has been cast out upon the world with nobody to rely on apart from her old Headmistress, who has found her a post as a governess in a ramshackle old mansion somewhere in the countryside. Cassandra has read Jane Eyre and has already decided that she will fall in love with her employer, as all governesses surely should. Conveniently Marion Vanbrugh, an effeminate, delicate and tragic widower with a character veiled in mystery turns out to be rather fanciable indeed, and he isn’t backwards in going forwards when it comes to making up reasons to spend time with the pretty and intelligent Cassandra. This doesn’t go unnoticed by the other inhabitants of the strange and rather menacing house, all of whom are living in varying degrees of misery. Margaret, Marion’s cousin, is temporarily staying while her husband is away. She reveals she is pregnant suddenly during dinner on Cassandra’s first night, and proceeds to grow bigger during the course of the novel, secretively gorging herself on food and quarrelling incessantly with her silly, anxiety ridden mother, Aunt Tinty, who acts as Marion’s very ineffectual housekeeper. Tom, Margaret’s brother, is a dishevelledly handsome bounder who spends most of his time drunk and the rest of it in the local pub, carrying on with the plump, powdered and rather vulgar publican’s wife, the brilliantly named Mrs Veal. Meanwhile, in the basement kitchen, faithful old Nanny creates a smokescreen of mental deterioration behind which she can hide her nasty, bitter comments about everyone, and tell stories about Marion’s late wife, the unbearably beautiful, capricious Miss Violet, who, as the novel progresses, we find out was not exactly the paragon of virtue she has been made out to be. Amidst this motley crew, Cassandra is expected to live and teach the fanciful Sophy, who makes up stories about the mother she never met and writes precocious, overwrought tales of tragic heroines.
On the surface, this appears to be a simple retelling of Jane Eyre, in which the shy and diffident orphan girl arrives at a house full of secrets and falls in love with the damaged hero, haunted by a former spouse, and then runs off into the sunset with him after an obstacle or two are thrown across their paths. However, dig a little deeper, and it’s soon apparent that Taylor is telling a far more complex tale, and drawing on a number of literary influences in the process. Most interesting for me was the character of Tom, a failed doctor, who is sensitive, artistic and intelligent, but has chosen to drink himself into oblivion and lower himself to becoming Mrs Veal’s disinterested and deliberately cruel lover. Taylor takes her time in unravelling his story, but the hints dropped casually into conversation – Sophy doesn’t call Marion daddy – Tom has heaps of drawings of Violet – Tom won’t go into Violet’s old rooms – make it clear to the astute reader, long before the series of shocks and revelations at the end of the novel – that Tom and Violet were lovers, and Sophy was Tom’s child. Tom has been ruined by the grief that has gnawed away at his heart, and the presence of Sophy is a continual reminder of his betrayal of his cousin, who Violet never really loved. His self destruction and desire to punish Mrs Veal as a way of expressing his self hatred is brilliantly drawn, and his vulnerability and loneliness are almost unbearable to read. Really, he is the centre of the novel; an incredibly sympathetic, tragic Branwell Bronte-esque figure, slowly disintegrating into a drunken wreck.
Disintegration is the major theme of the novel. Cropthorne Manor is slowly falling apart; its conservatory threatens to shatter into shards of deadly glass at any moment, the paint and stonework are flaking and crumbling, the rooms are dirty and dusty, and everything has an air of decay and neglect about it. Margaret might be pregnant, but her bitterness and dissatisfaction are far from the stereotype of the glowing expectant mother. She has a husband and a lover, both of whom are conspicuously absent, and her relationships with all other members of the household are difficult and tense. It is clear that she is intensely unhappy, and as her pregnancy progresses, her elegance and self control disintegrate and she becomes a gluttonous, heavy footed, querulous woman. Aunt Tinty’s mind is disintegrating into a constant stream of anxious, paranoid and doubt ridden thoughts, leaving her unable to relax or enjoy anything. Mrs Veal is destroying herself through her love for Tom, knowing full well that he doesn’t care for her but unable to stop herself wanting him anyway. And what of Marion? Haunted by his lost wife, unable to concentrate, muster enthusiasm for anything or involve himself in the lives of his family, he is also slowly disintegrating, becoming more and more detached from the world as each day passes. Only Sophy has liveliness and ambition, though the morbidity of her surroundings has somewhat affected her imagination. It is wonderfully apt that she is killed by a disintegrating statue in the garden of the house; youth, frivolity and happiness cannot survive in such a foetid environment – she is murdered, in a way, by her family’s wilful neglect of her and their surroundings. Nobody, apart from Cassandra, seems to be particularly bothered by her death; their self interest and private griefs are all consuming, and Cassandra’s eventual decision to marry into this shadowy world does not therefore carry the uplifting sense of a happy ending that Bronte’s Jane Eyre does.
So, there are shades of Austen, in the romantically named Cassandra Dashwood, who marries Marianne Dashwood’s naive sensibility with Catherine Norland’s desire to live within the plot of a romance novel. Taylor also seems to have borrowed from the plot of Du Maurier’s Rebecca, which was a contemporary novel Taylor certainly would have read, in the Mrs Danvers-esque Nanny and the mythically beautiful but ultimately rather cruel Violet, who only married Marion because she couldn’t be bothered to wait for Tom. Layered atop of this we have the Jane Eyre, Branwell Bronte and Wuthering Heights love triangle plots, as well as whatever novel features a child being killed in front of its governess in the garden – by falling off something – I know I’ve read one – can anyone help?! These literary allusions are clever and witty, but they do not result in Palladian being simply a literary pastiche. Far from it.
Palladian is an intriguing, beautifully written and incredibly clever novel that explores the nature of grief, self destruction, self deception (does anyone really buy that Marion didn’t know about Tom, Violet and Sophy all along?!), dissatisfaction and disappointment, and also of hope. Despite the misery and pain of everyone around them, Marion and Cassandra dare to believe that they can be happy. Isn’t that the plot of every romance novel? Love conquers all? Somehow I don’t think that Taylor believed this saccharine, hopeful take on the often disappointing reality of life. The final line of the novel is a description of the house being filled with knife-like dark shadows, opposed to the bright sunshine outside. Marion and Cassandra turn their backs on the sunshine and walk into the shadows; a highly symbolic movement that can’t help but suggest that the pair are not quite going to get the happy ever after Cassandra has read about in all of her romance novels.