Elizabeth Taylor’s Palladian: proscription without prescription

Taylor, Elizabeth. 1946.Palladian. New York: Penguin Books, 1985.

Spoiler alert. This discussion reveals plot details from the end of the novel.

Self-actualization thoughts after my 2nd read…

Is Elizabeth Taylor’s second novel,Palladian, a self-actualization novel? Unfortunately, no. Let me lay out how it comes close and why it fails.
Palladian comes close to being a self-actualization novel because it strongly fulfills the second category: rebellion against forced and unfair social acculturation, in this case, proscribing the female master narrative of the romance.
Although hundreds of versions of Cinderella  have produced thousands of variations, it narrative skeleton remains in tact: girl improves her social and economic status by marrying a more successful and socially endorsed man. In Paladian, such a man should be Marion.  However, as his name brings to mind early in the novel, he is effeminate. If readers missed those clues, Mrs. Turner spells it out for us at the end: “He was very civil and…he is not a very masculine type. By that I mean he looks delicate in a girlish sort of way…a studious young man…” Immediately thereafter, he’s compared to Margaret, whose “capability canceled his effeminacy.” This is followed by the series of dots that signify a break. Then, a 2-sentence paragraph: “Cassandra lay in bed reading. Her eyes travelled along the lines of print and then she sighed and turned back to page one again” (185). Juxtaposed to Mrs. Turner’s blunt assessment of Marion, Cassandra’s blindness to the meaning on the page replicates her blindness to Marion’s effeminate nature. But before I move on to Cassandra as the second reason for this being a proscription for romance, let me stay with Marion a bit longer. He is a cuckold. Tom has been the long-time (pre- and post-marriage) lover of Marion’s gorgeous wife Violet. She is dead now. And, therefore, she is adored by everyone in the household except Cassandra who has known of her only through photographs. Even her child—the infant she bore before expiring in childbirth—adores her as if she’d known her, such is the extent of the household’s adulation. We believe them until, typically Elizabeth Taylor style, the narrator lets a few crumbs drop (a trope in the novel for lacking gentility) that Violet’s memory should be brushed away. And not just because she’s an adulteress, but also, because she’s a narcissist and not a nice one. There’s a longer list, but my point is that Marion should never have married this beauty to begin with, such is her unappealing character. In fact, the narrator remarks that having had perfection, Marion doesn’t pursue a second best but the opposite—evidently, Cassandra. Clearly, her characterization is not flattered by that narrative remark; more clearly, his is not either. The most damning narrative critique of Marion comes at the end on the heels of the wedding. Referring to the estate that welcomes the new bride, the narrator becomes a Cassandra and prophesizes: “”The sound of voices—of doors slamming—seemed to have prolonged its life beyond what was natural and to be expected. But as the life was gradually withdrawn, the house became a shell only, seeming to foreshadow its own strange future when leaves would come into the hall, great antlered beetles run across the hearths, the spiders let themselves down from the ceilings to loop great pockets of web across corners; the chimneys and fungus branch out in thick layers in the rotting wardrobes. Then the stone floor of the hall would heave up and erupt with dandelion and briar, the bats swing up the stairs and the dusty windows show dark stars of broken glass. As soon as grass grows in the rooms and moles run waveringly down passages, the house is not a house any more, but a monument, to show that in the end man is less durable than the mole and cannot sustain his grandeur” (187). I quote lengthily partly because the passage keeps dripping decay in a Grey Gardens fashion, akin to the Poe tales that Marion is reading, but also, because although man cannot prevent nature’s ultimate ruin of façade, structure, and contents, men are supposed to be handy dandy enough to withstand time’s ravages for awhile. Lest the reader has missed periodic snipes about Marion being not just manliless but also handiless, the next paragraph resounds with such male master narrative criticism: “So, ‘You would think,’ said Margaret to her mother, ‘that he would have run to a coat of paint for his bride’” (187). Notice that the “So” is not spoken, but narrated. Big red flag, well, at least to me, a lover of narrative subtleties. So to wrap-up my first reason, Palladian cautions against romance because the groom is no prince.  As such, marriage is not prize.  There is no point for Cassandra to submit to marital bonds.  With this caution against pointless acculturation, the novel fulfills the second criterion for self-actualization–proscribing forced social norms, in this case, the female master narrative of romance. Let’s determine if the novel prescribes the first and third criterion.

The first criterion for a self-actualization novel is a prescription for self-examination and self-acceptance. Beyond learning Greek parsing, Cassandra learns nothing about herself and perpetuates self-doubts at the novel’s end. To be fair, Cassandra, changes. She becomes employed. She learns to deal with grief of her father’s recent death although we don’t actually witness much grieving. She learns Greek. She falls in love, is proposed to, and marries. But changes guarantee no self-reflection and self-acceptance. This is the case with Cassandra who learns nothing about herself, remaining emotionally restrained, innocently dense, and physically trembling through many of her encounters with others, especially the man she marries. As bride, she reenters his house in the same coat she arrived in as new governess. So little has she changed. As bride (and we expect, as wife) she remains an innocent child. Several characters remark on her simplicity. But it is our narrator who offers the final and most damning criticism of her lack of self-actualization on the penultimate page when Margaret’s pregnancy is finally coming to its end: “Mrs. Adams rushed through the baize door into the hall with a pile of napkins. ‘The water’s broke, miss, I mean Madam.’ ‘What water?’ Cassandra asked stupidly” (191). She is more than innocent; she is stupid. Although innocent she may have been, even Jane Eyre was not stupid enough to marry her unequal and reside in crazyland. Not so Cassandra who is stupid enough to take on this life—a house with a nutty nanny; alcoholic, womanizing, and sadistic artist; and ineffectual husband. Plus, the place—house and grounds—are on the verge of collapsing as they have already begun to crumble, killing Sophy. To wrap up, marriage is no prize despite its social and economic advancement for the bride.

The third criterion for a self-actualization novel is a prescription for cultivating a better world. Sadly, Cassandra improves no one’s life. In fact, she may be responsible for another’s death; for readers must wonder where she is when Sophy is wandering around these unstable buildings. Cassandra has no plans to help Marion with his grief, Margaret with her baby, Tom with his depression, or Margaret’s mother with her anxiety. Each character, Palladian points out, is constricted by an obsession—brutality, alcohol, eating, housekeeping, hypochondria, reading, etc. Cassandra is one of those people with her own obsession—romance. She continues to pursue that with her acceptance of Marion’s marriage proposal.

Although I’d like to esteem this second novel to be Elizabeth Taylor’s progress toward female self-actualization, I can’t. Far from a self-actualization novel, this reads more like Jane Eyre as Cassandra becomes a governess for a Mr. Rochester-type Marion with a Bertha Mason-like Nanny lurking behind the scenes. Elizabeth Taylor’s condemnation of the romance as a dangerous and feeble female master narrative serves well the second criterion for self-actualization. For that contribution, I am grateful and recommend you read this, her second novel.


One thought on “Elizabeth Taylor’s Palladian: proscription without prescription

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