Palladian by Elizabeth Taylor

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.

38 comments

  1. I agree about the ending – I thought that last line wonderfully chilling, demonstrating beautifully what kind of sunless existence Cassandra had to look forward to.
    It is Elizabeth Taylors subelty I love – I thought the death of Sophy was brilliantly done – shocking the reader without any undue drama.

    1. Hi Ali, yes, definitely – the subtlety of her writing always leaves me in awe. She has such an even, calm tone – that’s what sends the chill down your spine. I thought Sophy’s death was very well done too – I wasn’t expecting it, and it was so unsensational – it just happened, like accidents do – and everyone had to get on with it. Such an interesting and unique book – definitely much more than meets the eye!

  2. I read this a while back and haven’t re-read it, but I thought this an excellent and so perceptive review! I thought the novel rather uncharacteristic of ET’s work as whole — it will be interesting to see how others respond to it.

    1. Thank you Harriet! I am looking forward to reading more widely across Taylor’s ouvre. I have found her a consistently witty, perceptive and subtle writer, but each of the novels I’ve read has been quite unique in a way I haven’t found with other authors. How she is so underread, I don’t know!

  3. It’s interesting that Nicola Beauman considers this a work of satire (this mentioned in her Taylor bio), in the same way that Northanger Abbey mocks gothic literature. I didn’t see it that way at all. Like you, I thought Tom was an incredible character, and I was blown away when what I thought would be a fairly typical “governess loves her employer” book turned out to be something much deeper.

    Excellent post, Rachel, thank you!

    1. No I don’t think it’s just a satire, either – it’s actually a very good portrayal of the destructive power of grief and I don’t think it does Taylor any justice to simplify it to that level. I loved it, and it reminded me of just how good Taylor is. I can’t wait to read more – thank you for organising this celebration, Laura!

  4. Hmm, this review is most intriguing! I’ve only read one Elizabeth Taylor (Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont) and didn’t enjoy it at all, so I wasn’t planning on ever buying any more of her books. But this sounds like something I could like!

      1. I’m afraid I let my dislike of the characters get to me – I just couldn’t understand how Mrs Palfrey’s fake grandson could be such a hypocrite towards her, accepting dinner invitations and gifts in such a cold-hearted way. It made the story so unrelievedly stark I couldn’t bear it – and the language didn’t stand a chance!

      2. Well yes, I agree – he’s not very likeable at all! The whole book made me feel very sad, I have to admit – but I was still in awe of her writing ability by the end. Do give her another try!

  5. BOP! pulls himself off the couch, splutters into irrepressible life after a sip of tea and says, like a finely tuned rocket..... says:

    Right then. Ladies, I fear I have to decline this literary venture on the basis of hormonal inclination, gender psychology, and the undeniable fact of my X chromosome. Or is it Y. Anyway you get the gist.

    I do however applaud said bookish proceedings, and will pipe up, accordingly, when the opportunity arises from our luvvverly hostess R consistent with trousers, as it were, not skirts.

    In short, just checking in and cheering on, etc etc.

    As you were,

    Bop.

  6. What a terrific review! I loved Palladian and don’t understand why it is not rated among Taylor’s best. Great job pulling out all the literary references.

    1. Yes, I don’t really understand that either, Susan. I think it’s brilliant. And people often say it’s not typical of Taylor, but I can’t think of a ‘typical’ Taylor – each one I’ve read has been quite strikingly different – she’s a bit of a Marghanita Laski in that sense, I think.

  7. The writing is marvelous, with dozens of lines I marked to savor again, but I was disappointed in Palladian overall. There seemed to be a conflict in tone between the elements of pastiche and the realistic descriptions. The secondary characters and setting were sharply drawn, while Cassandra and Marion seemed less realized, as though the background of the picture was sharp and the foreground blurred. For me, the book didn’t fit together. But I loved At Mrs Lippincotes and the prose in Palladian, and would like to read more of Taylor’s work. Any recommendations?

    1. Disappointed, Susan?! I am sad! However, I am intrigued by your observation, and now I think about it, you are exactly right. However I think that her method of backgrounding and foregrounding is the novel’s strength, and demonstrates Taylor’s cleverness. She gives prominence to the secondary characters – because it is normally the secondary characters in novels that are really the crux of the action. For example, in Rebecca, the story wouldn’t be anywhere near as effective without the machinations of Mrs Danvers in the background. It’s the same with Bertha in Jane Eyre, or Mrs Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, or Magwitch in Great Expectations…I could go on. In bringing them to prominence and relegating the two main characters to the background, Taylor is demonstrating the importance of secondary characters, and giving them the depth they usually lack. Marion and Cassandra’s story is only interesting because of the people around them – perhaps that could be said of many novels with two main protagonists? I thought Palladian was so good because the little hints and tragedies that normally run under the surface of novels were the main topic – rather than being sacrificed to the tedious plot of a boring love story we’ve all seen a million times before between Marion and Cassandra.

      Recommendations…hmmm..I haven’t read masses of Taylor but if you want something more ‘typical’ of her style try Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont…it’s very sad, but so brilliantly perceptive. I hope you’ll love it!

  8. Definitely one of the more dysfunctional families I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading about. What a brilliant review and analysis, Rachel! And no, I didn’t buy into Marion’s ignorance about Sophy’s conception either. That poor child…there she was playing one minute and dead the next! For a brief moment I was a bit ticked off at Taylor for shocking me like that but predictable is one thing she is not.

    1. Dysfunctional is certainly the word, Darlene! Such an intriguing cast of characters! Glad you enjoyed my thoughts🙂 I know, poor little Sophy…I really wasn’t expecting that at all! I love how she is not afraid to totally throw over our expectations as readers…she’s brilliant. Why does nobody read her books any more?!?

  9. Thank you for your perceptive review. Could your memory of the child falling to death in front of his governess be from Henry James’ ‘The turn of the Screw’? I certainly felt that wa sanoithe rsource of literary reference I could identify when I read Palladian.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it Deb! It could be…but somehow I’m thinking of another book…and the mother was definitely in it as well. It’s going to drive me mad – it’s a mid century novel I think.

  10. Dear Rachel – Thanks for writing such a thoughtful and perceptive review of Palladian. Most of the literary allusions went straight over my head I am ashamed to say. Having acknowledged that weakness, I must say that I am fascinated by the little things in Taylor’s writing. I could have underlined lots of stuff and want to ask other readers “What does she mean here? And here?” I think her writing evokes a sense of wryness about everything…a sort of marvellous under-statedness….everything looks/feels drab/tawdry/woebegone on the surface but still waters run deep and all that…. So…can I posit a couple of questions? Let’s take Chapter 17 as an example…in my Virago edition we’re talking about the bottom of page 175 and I quote….”Cassandra went out through the cloakroom, which really was a cloakroom, to the leaf cluttered drive.” What on earth does she mean by that…”really was a cloakroom”….Is it something parochial which means something to English folk that I don’t get? Do you have cloakrooms that are really old sculleries or back porches or drawing rooms? Is it a veiled reference to a comment about her story over all? Aka – this is one small thing you can really believe or hold on to as truth in this book?

    Then again – last question I promise (and I know – they are questions about such trivial things and I feel such a duffer)…Page 184 – “Upstairs, Alma took up her slipper to squash a large spider on the wall above her chest-of-drawers, but remembered in time. Luckily, the girl in the next bed leaned over and smacked at it with her Bible.” What did Alma remember? Does Taylor mean the lecture from Mrs Turner and are we to assume that the lecture was about behaving better (and therefore not killing spiders????). I feel sometimes I miss out on Taylor’s humour a bit. There are phrases I don’t quite get – “kicking against the pricks” being one of them.

    So that’s the little stuff out of the way…big stuff now. I thought it was very brave of Taylor to knock off Sophie – yes it took me by shock too. I am fascinated that in the children’s books of my youth (aka Violet Needham) parents are often knocked off as quickly as possible to allow the children to go off and have adventures. Here the situation is somewhat reversed – only I’m still waiting for any of the adults to have any fun. What does Sophie’s removal do for the plot? Does it enable Cassandra to truly test Marion’s love for her i.e. as long as Sophie is around, he really only loves her for her child-caring abilities? Does it free Marion from doing the “right thing” i.e. looking after a child that isn’t his in order to protect her innocence?

    Finally – Nanny terrified me. Enuf said.

    1. Hi Alex! I love your thoughts – yes, it really is the little details that make Taylor such a good writer, and she certainly does run deep. Her intelligence oozes off the page!

      In answer to your first question, a cloakroom is also commonly used as a name for a downstairs toilet. So she could be saying it really is a place to hang up coats, or she could also be saying, this is actually a room that is used for a real, practical purpose – though I’m not sure what she’d be getting at with that.

      I didn’t really get that bit about Alma either – it could mean several things I suppose. I liked the use of the Bible – suggesting that it was only considered useful for squashing things – using a sacred object for such a brutal act is disconcerting, and something Taylor often does throughout her novels, with seemingly throwaway, meaningless sentences that are actually quite disturbing when you stop and think about them.

      Yes, Sophy’s death was shocking and felt very sudden, very brutal – it really changed my expectations of the text and demonstrated that this was no romance with a happy ending but actually a rather chilling tale of grief and neglect. I suppose Sophy’s removal kills off the continual presence of Violet – now there is nothing left of her living, Cassandra can truly take her place….perhaps?!

      It’s such a complex and clever novel that I’m not sure there’s just one explanation for everything. It certainly has a lot of subtleties to mull over and is a great novel to discuss! Nanny was terrifying, wasn’t she? I loved how bitter she was, and how she pretended to be mad so she could be horrible without any consequences – marvellous!

      1. Removing Sophy also ensured that the “truth” of Tom’s relationship to her (and to Violet) is revealed so that, even though there is no child to care for which would seem to “free” Marion and Cassandra for unfettered devotion, it also simultaneously reveals the charade of his relationship with Violet, the insincerity of his last “love relationship”, which doesn’t seem to bode well for that unfettered devotion bit after all. What an interesting question: I love the fact that there does not seem to be a single, clear answer to it. (Which is something wonderful about so much of her writing, anyhow.)

      2. Oooh brilliant analysis there – you put it far better than I did – indeed, it exposes Marion as a fraud and it doesn’t bode well for the future…does he even know what love is?!

  11. I move house and I seem to fall off the planet, Elizabeth Taylor read-a-longs and Henry Green weeks all seem to have passed me by in no time. I loved the first Tayor I read, I wish I had known. Oh drats.

    1. Simon, DO NOT DESPAIR! The Taylor Centenary is a year-long event; we’re reading one of her novels each month. Go here to learn more.

      pssst: I’m still looking for readalong hosts for August & December …🙂

  12. Late, late, late: I’m late. Somehow I find it harder — as much as I love the idea of re-reading — to make time to re-read when there are so many fresh reads pulling at one’s attention!

    And what an absolutely wonderful job you’ve done of summarizing the novel — and all of its intricacies and contradictions — and of calling attention to the layers therein. Wholly enjoyable and thought-provoking!

    So much of the heart of the novel has been astutely discussed already, I’ll just add a note of bookishness; I love the fact that all of her works (that I’ve read) feel bookish, even if only slightly, even if it’s only one character who is so inclined.

    In this one, I especially enjoyed the observation that Tristram Shandy and Little Women are adjacent on the shelf when Mrs. Turner pulls her TS off to loan it to Cassandra. “What odd neighbours.” she says. It took me to my own shelves, had me thinking of odd neighbours there!

    1. It’s ok – it’s hard to fit all that reading in, isn’t it? Thank you – I’m so glad you enjoyed reading my thoughts. Yes, you are so right – I love her bookishness too. Such a fascinating and clever writer – I am quite envious of her skill.

  13. In regard to Sophy’s accidental death, it recalls for me a similar incident in Antonia White’s The Lost Traveller in which Clara, in her governess capacity witnesses the accidental death of her young charge. It also occurred outdoors, as he fell from a stone wall. Could that be the incident that you are remembering?

    1. Kay THANK YOU that is EXACTLY the book I meant – it has all come flooding back. Yes yes yes it was Antonia White. I believe that was written before Palladian – it would be interesting to know whether Elizabeth Taylor took any influence from it at all.

  14. Rachel, thank you so much for hosting the February readalong. Your thoughts were so eloquent, and inspired some very good discussion. You’ve set the standard for the remaining months, that’s for sure!🙂

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