Home » Novel Readings

“As if she were a governess in a book”: Elizabeth Taylor, Palladian

By (October 22, 2013) No Comment

palladian2I can’t take any credit for interpreting Elizabeth Taylor’s strange, gloomily elegant Palladian as a pastiche of Austen and Brontë. Not only does the back cover of my Virago edition baldly state that the novel “examines the realities of life for a latter-day Jane Eyre” and explicitly compare Taylor’s method here to Austen’s in Northanger Abbey, but the main character is named “Cassandra Dashwood” and criticizes her own flustered greeting to her new employer on the grounds that “Jane Eyre had answered up better than that to her Mr. Rochester.” Subtlety about its intertextuality, in other words, is not the most striking feature of Palladian … and yet what do we really know about the novel once we’ve identified those obvious connections? I’m not sure that thinking of it as a twist on the “governess novel” — or on the romance, or the gothic, plot — helps me out very much, because we still need to figure out to what ends Taylor has repurposed such familiar materials.

Having just worked through Jane Eyre with my 19th-Century Fiction class, I should be primed to consider what Taylor is up to. There’s not actually much that’s the same besides the bare outline: unprepossessing orphan accepts governess position at remote, slightly creepy country house, falls in love, endures trauma that threatens happy resolution, ends up safely married. Cassandra couldn’t be less like passionate, rebellious, creative, principled Jane, for one thing: while I lament the number of times my students (despite explicit instructions not to use the word!) called Jane “relatable,” I agree that it’s hard not to root for her — even as her novel (through her own retrospective narration) cautions us not to champion her uncritically. Cassandra, on the other hand, is a limp wanna-be, moping and hoping to live out a more interesting destiny, like a good fictional heroine. “He will do to fall in love with,” she thinks on meeting Marion Vanbrugh; “Meeting him,” she reflects later, “had merely confirmed her intention, made possible what she had hoped.” Jane is a fighter; she spends her book learning what she values most and how to stand up for it. Cassandra spends her book … hmm. Well, she spends it being in it, anyway, but that’s about as much as can be said for her.

Marion is an equally pallid recreation of Mr. Rochester: reclusive, scholarly, haunted not by a raging mad wife in his attic but by memories of his beautiful first wife, Violet. Why does he fall in love with Cassandra? Is that even what happens? Like Cassandra, he seems compelled by his implicit awareness of how their story must turn out. There’s no spark, no passion. Like Jane and Rochester, they kiss as a storm thunders, but while Brontë’s lightning, splitting the great chestnut tree, reflects the dangerous immensity of their love, it just seems ironic that nature surrounds limp Marion and passive Cassandra with such tumult:

Still holding the candles high, he drew her closer to him and kissed her. She received his kiss, but did not return it, for she did not know how, nor did it occur to her, so netted up in bliss was she, so content to be held by him not stirring, heedless of the next day and the next minute.

In their world, it seems that the most they can hope for is to go through the motions.

And even that isn’t easy, partly because they aren’t the only people there, and everyone else gets in their way somehow. Taylor populates her desolate manor with an assortment of characters, all in their own ways damaged or grieving, their paths day-to-day criss-crossing in an uneven pattern of tension and disappointment: Tom, holding the sins and regrets of his past at bay with drink; Margaret, awaiting the birth of her child, wandering the musty hallways hungry, always hungry; their fretful mother Tinty, always “full of little worries”; Nanny, grimly hanging on to her position in the family; little Sophy, the unknowing crux of the family’s unhappy plot; Mrs. Veal at the pub, pathetically needy for Tom’s attention and affection, resentfully in awe of the family at the ‘Big House.’ Only Margaret, a doctor, has any sense of purpose in her life; the rest of them seem cut off, somehow, not just literally by their isolated setting but mentally, from a world in which they can’t imagine, or find, direction or comfort. While the ending of Jane Eyre brings Jane to the end of her journey of self-discovery, nobody in Palladian gets anywhere. When Cassandra returns to the manor as its mistress, it is more decrepit than it was before.

It’s not an arch or satirical rewriting of those canonical stories: it is too fraught and specific for that. Paul Bailey’s introduction proposes that Taylor sets up the literary homage deliberately to collide with “that other, larger world out there, in which hurt and humiliation take their daily toll.” But he concludes that the result is “a fairy-story of sorts, with a happy ending for only two of its participants.” I’m not convinced, because I don’t believe in their happiness: it seems so baseless, so formulaic, so unearned. The prospect of the book seems more desolate to me even than that limited a fairy-story. When Cassandra arrives at Cropthorpe Manor, she’s warned to stay away from the greenhouse, as the glass panes have become precarious. Near the end of the novel, it has collapsed:

Like a cataract gathering speed, the sheets of cracked and splintered glass had come down a night or two ago, started by some small thing, something never to be known, a twig falling, an owl flying, or merely the last imperceptible change of quantity, a foreshadowing of what might happen to the house itself, how, after a long process of decay, one day it would suddenly not be a house any more.

Marion and Cassandra, married, go out to survey the wreckage and consider repairs: could this be an image of the future, a symbol of renewed possibilities? Why should we be so optimistic? “Marion wonders what can be done with it,” says Tinty, watching from the house. “He will never get beyond wondering,” replies Tom.

No, the pleasures of Palladian are not emotional, or not in an uplifting way. There are no romantic gratifications, beyond the artificial ones of seeing the cliché carried to its conclusion. There’s no social analysis or critique that I can discern — unless you count the general presentation of modern life as a malaise, a blight. What’s left? Literary pleasures, of course, or perhaps I should call them aesthetic ones. Palladian is only Taylor’s second novel (and it’s only the fourth of hers that I’ve read), and it’s just as distinctive as the others for its direct yet resonant sentences. They carry a moment, a mood, a mind, with few overt flourishes but many interesting choices, so that you read them once and then look again, to be sure, or to appreciate.  She’s particularly good at laying out how what seems simple — love, marriage — is actually unbearably complicated:

His head felt as if someone were doing knitting in it. Nothing was simple. He believed that he loved Cassandra tenderly; but marriage is not simple. It brought with it, Nanny had reminded him, so many complications which were beyond his energies. Tinty stood before him, and Tom, Nanny with her talk of refrigerators and change, the thought of beginning a new life in that fast-crumbling house, of leaving a smouldering and rank corner of earth to sons, perhaps, and then engaging servants, spending money, laying down wine, planting and clearing. In the library last night, no one, nothing, had stood between him and Cassandra. Now so much interposed. She was a child merely, to be led into so dark, so lonely, a wilderness as his heart. For her, so much unravelling of people, so much sorting out of possessions would have to be done. He might draw her to him and ease the passion which lay under her silence, lead her into the circle of ice which encompassed him: but the obstacles were still outside, where the world was, and even within him, there was Violet.