by Elizabeth Taylor (1946)
Elizabeth Taylor is in my Pantheon, meaning I intend to read each and every one of her books. Her magnificent 1949 novel, A Wreath of Roses, made my recent list of The Best Books I Read in the 2010s. In fact, when it made that list I realized that I needed to get cracking and read the rest of her work. So I moved to her second novel, Palladian.
When I started the book, I thought, boy, this is perfect! It’s in those first pages that we meet Cassandra Dashwood, who, at age eighteen, has just lost her parents. Left with nothing, Cassandra relies on her old headmistress to find her a job as a governess at Cropthorne Manor, an old home in the country. Much like the protagonist in Anita Brookner’s wonderful A Start in Life, Cassandra has raised herself on romantic stories that have influenced her expectations. Here is how the book begins:
Cassandra, with all her novel-reading, could be sure of experiencing the proper emotions, standing in her bedroom for the last time and looking from the bare windows to the unfaded oblong of wall-paper where “The Meeting of Dante and Beatrice” in sepia had hung for thirteen years above the mantelpiece.
For example, having read Jane Eyre, Cassandra fully expects to fall in love with the head of this old home. To her it’s a part of who she is:
She was setting out with nothing to commend her to such a profession, beyond the fact of her school lessons being fresh still in her mind and, along with that, a very proper willingness to fall in love, the more despairingly the better, with her employer.
The man Cassandra will fall in love is Marion Vanbrugh, and in several of the most important ways he seems to fit the Mr. Rochester mold: he is a widower with a past that must be shady and tragic. The rest of the characters who frequent the hallways of Cropthorne Manor, though, really should have made Cassandra rethink the course of her life. There’s Marions’ two cousins, each with her and his own desires for oblivion: Margaret, who “casually” announces at Cassandra’s first dinner, “Forgive my mentioning my own private affairs, but I find, mother, that I am expecting a child”; and Tom, whom Cassandra first encounters when he’s drunk . . . not that, we see, he’s often to be found in a different state. There’s Tom and Margaret’s mother, Aunt Tinty, who, it must be said, has not done much to help her children avoid their own precarious expectations. There’s Mrs. Veal, Tom’s lover, whom Tom treats terribly. There is Nanny, another poisonous influence. And there’s the young ward, Sophy, who makes up stories about the mother she never met.
So naturally this absent woman, Violet, comes up. If only Cassandra had also read Rebecca or Washington Square, she might recognize a warning light when Marion says, in their first meeting:
“Not that Sophy is much like her mother. In any way. Her looks even. Beauty like her mother’s rarely reproduces itself. No, Sophy is more like her cousin, Margaret.”
But no. After their conversation, Cassandra displays the dangerous mentality that we see here:
“He will do to fall in love with,” Cassandra thought with some relief. She had never been spoken to in this way before.
I was completely on board with this set up and with what I assumed would be a slightly cynical take on the young Cassandra’s follies. However, Taylor seems to switch the focus of her story quite soon. I was surprised when Cassandra takes a back seat while all of the characters bully about, several heavily under the influence of Violet. I admit I didn’t enjoy the book so much in the middle third. I found it hard to latch on to the characters, who mostly seemed to wander about being cruel to one another while struggling with terrible guilt and existential dread.
It took me a while to get back on board, but I did; and once I did I was completely in Taylor’s hands again. Her lovely prose and dark cynicism that to me almost rivals Muriel Spark’s brings this tragic tale to a fitting conclusion. While it still seems Taylor was getting writing feet under her, there is no doubt she had a powerful point of view and a strong talent for articulating it even in her second book.