Monday, 19 April 2010

Palladian by Elizabeth Taylor

My name is Tea Lady and I judge books by their covers. I know that it is wrong but I cannot help but refuse to buy ugly books; especially if I know that they have alternative editions bearing more attractive covers.

This is why I love the original Virago Modern Classics more than the new. The cover illustrations were taken from paintings that related to the content of each novel and make the books gorgeous objects as well as great reads.

My edition of Palladian has a section of a Stanley Spencer painting called Interior of Cookham With Flowers on it's cover. It depicts a vase full of spring flowers in front of a fire-place. There are Grecian urns and curling photographs upon the mantelpiece. The delicate jug holding fresh greens could refer to the leading lovers in the novel and the urns and photographs to the dark secrets and memories which surround them.

The book is the story of Cassandra, a 20 year old orphan, who has recently been engaged as governess to a girl of about 10, Sophy Vanburgh, at Cropthorne Manor.

The manor is a dilapidated and forlorn sort of building with several extensions from various time periods and an extremely rickety conservatory that threatens to come crashing down at any minute.

This conservatory is clearly a symbol, and there are many symbols, clues and portents in this book.

The idea of mould and decay is painted in very heavy strokes for the reader and especially in the first few chapters. The book that Cassandra reads on the train "has a strange, fungus smell", and she passes by "a mouldering lodge" on her journey. Tinty, her employer's old aunt is sitting with a Ryvita and a pot of old, stewed tea when she arrives and Sophy, Cassandra's charge is warned by her aunt, Margaret that if she does not eat her glucose then mushrooms will grow inside of her, "thick shelves of fungus branching out of her ribs...".

It soon becomes clear that certain cliches are being employed and that the events take place within the framework of a traditional, romantic novel (Cassandra's surname is Dashwood and Greer Garson's Pride and Predjudice is showing in town.) This is particularly apparent when Cassandra and her new employer, Marion Vanburgh, inspect the dark library with the use of a large candelabra and then kiss during a storm (this is not a spoiler, don't worry.)

"Marion you say?" Yes, his name is Marion and it is this character who initially relieves and makes it clear that this is not just a straightforward, dull romance. Marion Vanburgh is delicate, frequently referred to as effeminate by nearly all the characters and, as he puts it "reading himself to death."

His and Cassandra's love affair revolves around books and learning. He gives her Greek lessons and first kisses her in a library. When he chases after her and asks her to marry him, he finds her in a bookshop. Unlike a conventional leading man who would hurl the book she was holding over his shoulder, sweeping her up into a passionate embrace, Marion contents himself with taking the book from her hands, paying for it at the counter and taking her to a hotel for... a cup of tea.

All of the above is honestly not a spoiler, however it may seem. The story is not really about these two, you see. They are just ciphers; bland, almost non-characters, who merely serve as foils for the other, richer, much more subtly drawn personalities of Tom, Tinty, Margaret and Sophy.

These characters' story lines do not run the same smooth, fateful path of Marion and Cassandra's. Even calm and confident Margaret is unnerved and derailed by the close of the novel.

When Marion and Cassandra are described, they are compared to flowers or glass snow globes.
Tom does not shower and,as Sophy points out, always stinks of alcohol. Margaret is constantly eating and is described as having moisture in her hair from the drizzle, or static in it from tugging dresses on and off. They are physical, real beings.

Marion and Cassandra's story practically ends with "they lived happily ever after", but the others are afforded no such tidy conclusion.

A beautifully written novel that is self conscious and slyly deceptive at the same time.


  1. I completely agree with you about the old vs new Virago covers. Another example is the work of Barbara Comyns - the original green spine VMCs featured on point and enticing snippets from Stanley Spencer - and the illustrations for the new editions are not as attractive and also completely misrepresent the books!

    What a nice blog you have...

    Thanks for sharing


  2. Oh thank you Hannah! It does seem strange that while publishers such as Vintage and Penguin are producing their most beautiful books now, Virago seems to have taken a bit of a backwards step design-wise.

    I wrote that and then remembered their gorgeous cloth covered anniversary editions of last year. I half forgive them...

  3. I do the same about covers even if they are a little bit more expensive. Nothing beats a beautiful cover that makes your heart skip a beat when you look at it. Even better is that they encourage you to read them. I love covers with beautiful paintings, like the Persephone books and Vintage Yates, rather than photographs.

  4. Hi Mae, thanks for stopping by. I'm glad that you agree. I sometimes feel a bit foolish for buying books just because they are pretty, but it's all art, right?

  5. I can't help but think if the cover appeals the book might, and the old Virago's are super lovely to look at.

  6. Hi Hayley, I know what you mean.

    I think that if it's obvious that a publisher has really taken pains with the design of their books then you trust their judgement in other areas.

    I am definitely guilty of having dismissed good books because they had what I thought were 'chick lit' covers, however.