This novel’s description led me to expect a fairly conventional “young governess falls for lord of the manor” story. I should have known better. Elizabeth Taylor does not write conventional novels; she writes deep studies of characters and relationships. In Palladian, Cassandra Dashwood finds work as a governess after her father’s death. Her employer is Marion Vanbrugh, a reclusive widower rambling about a big old house. Cassandra immediately takes responsibility for Marion’s daughter Sophy, and tries to fit in with the family and their household help. So far, pretty conventional. But that’s all just a set piece for a deeper storyline, centered on Marion’s brother Tom.
Tom is the black sheep of the family. He’s been through hard times, and has turned to alcohol to numb the pain. He is secretly carrying on with Mrs. Veal, who runs the local pub with her husband Gilbert. Tom spends entire days at the pub, drinking himself into a stupor. Completing the family tableau are Marion’s snobbish cousin Margaret. who is constantly judging everyone else, and his aunt Tinty, who runs the household, and worries about Tom:
It was getting worse and worse. At first (but that was years ago), when he was bored and restless, he would go down for a pint and a chat, something to do; that soon became a habit which fitted easily into his life. Now, it was no longer a habit, it was his purpose, the centre of him, the thing that was real, and his life must fit in with that, or he could not answer for living. … She knew that it was Tom’s mind that mattered, and his life being so empty of purpose that drink could have taken possession of the centre of him. (p. 52)
The setting is just as important as the characters, and captured in such beautiful prose:
The sky looked swollen, as if it held some darker, heavier substance than rain, as if at a finger’s pressure it would let down a stained syrup, like the blackberry juice dripping from the muslin net in the kitchen. (p. 124)
Taylor oh-so-gradually reveals the reasons for Tom’s despair, and places the reader right in the middle, where we can feel his pain. When she later unveils a dramatic plot twist, it is simultaneously terrible, and yet essential, especially for Tom.
No, this is definitely not your traditional governess story.