Monday, 28 November 2011

Palladian by Elizabeth Taylor

Palladian was Taylor's second novel (1946) and it is a playful homage to some of the themes which have concerned the great English women writers. The heroine is Cassandra Dashwood aged 20. She is to be a governess to Marion Vanbrugh's child Sophy. He,Marion by the way is pronounced Merrion, is the owner of a mouldering demesne and a residence with a Palladian applied front. Marion is still grieving over the death of his wife at the birth of Sophy who is now about 11. He reads Greek verse in the original and has a fin-de-siècle aestheticism which marks him as vaguely effeminate. His household is composed of Tom his cousin, drunkard, artist specialising in surreal anatomical sketches, failed medical student, handsome and dissolute. Also there is Tom's sister Margaret, a medical doctor, residing for the duration of her pregnancy and Tom's mother who is the housekeeper and an ancient Nanny. Clearly the big house regiment has fallen in strength but it still has representative members from all ranks.

The amusing thing about this book is that the ancient women retainers and staff are used as a hag's chorus gibbering by the range in the kitchen sustained by stewed tea and grievance, sinking betimes into the unity of weird sisterhood and then bethinking themselves to grovel or assert distinctions. The sister Margaret is a monster of tactless confrontation and sublime greed. Being pregnant she has to eat for four and her sorties against a gooseberry pie and a latticed jam tart in the larder together with her inept covering of tracks in the matter of assaults on bread and dripping are depicted with transgressive fascination. Being a lady she massacres the bread.

How far can you take homage before it turns into pastiche? Any writer but Elizabeth Taylor would have gone into that area and succumbed to it. She is able to manage it by an ironic subversion. Marion is no brute Rochester, Tom is no Heathcliffe howling on the moor but the lover of Mrs.Veal the Landlady of the Blacksmith's Arms. She is first met on the train in the compartment with Cassandra:
She had a way of settling her blue fox across her breast and smiling down with pleasure and approval - it might equally have been pleasure at the fur or the bosom, since both were magnificent. A dusky, pleasant perfume came from her as she stirred, and the little charms hanging from her bracelet jingled softly.

The other Elizabeth Taylor. Quite!

Cassandra, a bookish girl whose recently deceased father was a schoolmaster with a personal library of 2000 volumes, is well prepared to adhere to the template and fall in love with her employer particularly when he turns out to be a scholarly man. He is haunted by the death in childbirth of his wife Violet who he claims read Homer in the original at the age of 8. Will their love be crossed? Now there's an expression that Taylor would never permit herself.

She (Cassandra) had come a long way from the life of yesterday, of the day before that - the shabby home, the traffic, the bush full of tram tickets, the crowds on the pavements, clotting, thinning out, pressing forward; travelling across time, Marion had called it, but they were really going to work, or going home from work, or shopping, or wooing one another. 'Quite separate', she thought. 'Each quite separate. That is the only safe way of looking at it. And we can never be safe unless we believe we are great and that human life is abiding and the sun constant and that we matter. Once broken, that fragile illusion would disclose the secret panic, the vacuity within us. Life then would not be tolerable.'

This is a short novel of 191 pages with plenty of white. It's quite good. The Virago edition I borrowed from the library has an Introduction by Paul Bailey that is littered with spoilers. Taylor has written better novels, Angel and Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont in my opinion, but her good is very very good and she's never horrid.

No comments: