Saturday, 8 May 2010

A sad day, although I knew it couldn't be postponed for much longer. Some weeks ago, in my local Oxfam shop, I fell in crowing triumph upon an old green Virago copy of Palladian, Elizabeth Taylor's hardest-to-get-hold-of novel. And I've been saving it up ever since, knowing that Mrs Taylor and I were coming to the end of a very enjoyable road ...
Although I haven't read all her short story collections, I have now read all of her novels. (And stories, I'm afraid, no matter how good, are simply not the same as a novel.)
But what a strange novel this is (Taylor's second, published in 1946) and I'm glad that I came to it late because it's not the best one to choose if you've never read her before.
It's a quirky satire on romantic novels and literary escapism from real life ... a dash of Northanger Abbey, a lot of Jane Eyre; and Nicola Beauman, in her biography of Elizabeth Taylor, seizes on a clever parallel with Howards End that I can't possibly explain here without spoiling a rather shocking twist at the end of the book.
But, to start at the beginning and the first sentence: 'Cassandra, with all her novel-reading, could be sure of experiencing the proper emotions ...'
Cassandra Dashwood is the orphaned heroine who takes a job as governess to the young daughter of a widower, still haunted by memories of his wife (shades of Rebecca here ... but you'll be playing 'spot the novel' all the way through.)
' "He will do to fall in love with," Cassandra thought.' Her employer is Marion Vanbrugh, no swarthy, growling Mr Rochester, but an effete, upper-class drip with a girl's name. And, of course, he does 'do' to fall in love with ...
Meanwhile, Marion's ne'er-do-well cousin is playing at Branwell Bronte, hellbent on drinking himself to distraction whilst carrying on an illicit affair with the wonderfully vulgar landlady of his local pub. (Another shocking twist at the end of the book when we discover what has driven him to drink.)
You are always aware, as a reader, that these people aren't meant to be real, they are fictional stock characters ... and I have a feeling that Elizabeth Taylor probably got great amusement from writing it.
Very clever. I'm still turning it over in my head hence this muddled review. Don't think I'll rank it amongst my favourite Taylors but I'm glad I read it.

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