Palladian, a copy of which I borrowed from the library, was my Elizabeth Taylor choice for our challenge. I am an admirer of her other novels, and rank some of them amongst my absolute favourite books. I was very excited to try out one of her novellas, as opposed to the longer works which I have encountered to date. Palladian is ‘on one level, her rewriting of Jane Eyre‘; one of my favourite novels.
Originally published in 1946, Taylor’s second novel Palladian has found its way, along with much of her other work, onto the marvellous Virago Modern Classics list. The premise of the piece is wonderful; it has so many of the elements which I adore in works of fiction. To borrow from the original blurb, the novel follows “newly orphaned Cassandra Dashwood [who] arrives as governess to little Sophy, [and] the scene seems set for the archetypal romance between young girl and austere widowed employer. Strange secrets abound in the ramshackle house. But conventions are subverted in this atmospheric novel: one of its worlds is suffused with classical scholarship and literary romance, but the other is chaotic, quarrelsome and even farcical. Cassandra is to discover that in real life, tragedy, comedy and acute embarrassment are never far apart.”
Palladian has one of the most enticing opening sentences which I have read for such a long time: ‘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’. In his well written but perhaps over-thoughtful introduction to the volume, Neel Mukherjee writes that, ‘there is an answering literariness that runs as a dazzling seam through the book’.
Despite the premise and strong writing, I actually found Palladian to be rather a disappointing novel. I loved the overriding idea, and the echoes of the Brontes (and, to a lesser extent, Jane Austen), but something about it just didn’t feel right. There was a queer distancing effect to the whole, and I very much struggled to find any sympathetic feelings whatsoever for Cassandra throughout, despite the awful position in which she found herself. I can only be glad that Palladian is not the first of Taylor’s books which I read, as had that been the case, I doubt I would have been so keen to read her entire oeuvre.