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.