Both novels are so bookishly satirical that we bookish folks have to squint to see the satire.
But where Stella Gibbons was casting glances at the work of Mary Webb and Sheila Kaye-Smith, Elizabeth Taylor is looking in the direction of the Brontë sisters and Daphne du Maurier.
And once we know it’s there, we might get a chuckle at it, but chances are we will simply enjoy the novel’s bookishness and overlook the barbs therein.
The trick is that we so readily identify with the quiet governess at the heart of Elizabeth Taylor’s Palladian.
Where the less-bookish reader might laugh out loud at Cassandra’s foolishness, the bookish reader is immediately sympathetic and only softly chuckles, at worst. The satirical edge is smoothed.
“She was setting out with nothing to commend her to such a profession [that of governess], 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.”
Let the tongue-clicking and head-shaking ensure: we bookish folks know exactly where Cassandra is headed.
Even if she is headed for the land of “Dear Reader: I married him”, there’s a madwoman in the attic who’s going to make her life hell first.
[Poor Cassandra. She might bear the name of a princess, but the classical Cassandra was thought quite mad. While she might have had inside knowledge of what was really going on with that wooden horse, nobody believed her story. And then there was all that kurfuffle in the temple when the statue of Athena got knocked down. Watch out for tipsy statuary!]
The drama plays out for Elizabeth Taylor’s Cassandra in Cropthorne Manor. Marion Vanbrugh employs her there, as governess to the young Sophy.
It’s impossible not to think of Mr Rochester when you think of Marion Vanbrugh, but he is as unlike Charlotte Brontë’s character as he is like.
And the satire resides there, in that gap, as well, but we bookish folks who want to see more of the classic romance with Mr Rochester are likely less-inclined to focus on the differences.
We, like Cassandra, have already made our minds up about certain things; we are not about to let reality get in the way.
For the reality is, that reality is not equipped to compete with romance.
Palladian opens with a sepia print of Holiday’s Dante and Beatrice, which has long hung on Cassandra’s wall. The characters therein read Tristram Shandy, Oscar Wilde, Little Women, John Vanbrugh, Russian novels, Anne Radcliffe, and Turgenev’s “A Month in the Country” (which focuses on the romance inspired by the arrival of a young tutor — rather than a governess — with the lady of the house).
Palladian‘s characters are stuffed full of expectations. Reality is bound to fall short.
Only Tom, who is the antithesis of Mr Rochester (or, at least, we are intended to think so, but, really, is he that different in essence, when you really think about it, without your rose-coloured-Jane-Eyre-glasses on?) appears to stand in contrast to this idea.
The sepia artwork on Tom’s bedroom walls? Anatomical sketches. Now that’s reality.
But even he is susceptible. He used to imagine walking in the wood with his lover like the couple in Rossetti’s “How They Met Themselves”.
Tom’s loneliness and sorrow seems to surpass that of Cassandra, and it is rooted in the gap between romance and reality.
(Or are we merely distracted by Tom’s intense unhappiness simply because we are so distracted by the Jane Eyre in Cassandra, because we are re-writing her an ending that suits us, overlooking all the portents of unhappiness that linger about her in Palladian, when we peer over top those rose-hued spectacles.)
Tom is unhappy (and the reasons for it are only revealed rather late in the novel) and the segments of the novel devoted to his character are soaked with it. But in the bulk of Palladian, the facade of the story, like the facade of the crumbling manor house, is mostly rather pleasant, or, at least, just fine.
The sharpness is glimpsed in passing. A train rips “through the sullen landscape like scissors through calico”. Sleep would “creep up stealthily, a timid little animal, would not come if it knew he was there, waiting, greedily, artfully”. Her head “became full of confusion like the snowstorm in a glass paper-weight”.
Efficient or deadly. Isolated or protected. Peaceful or pending doom. A safe place or a prison.
Palladian never crosses the line into caricature and, so, readers can draw their own lines, place the characters of Elizabeth Taylor’s novel in those gaps, as they will.
Satire viewed in the rearview mirror may be sharper than it appears.
[Note: The Read-a-long for Elizabeth Taylor’s A Game of Hide and Seek will launch here, officially, on Monday, May 7, 2012. Still time to join in!]