In his introduction to the Virago edition, the novelist Paul Bailey calls Palladian "this strange little novel". His discomfort with it is evident throughout the introduction -- later on he calls it "flawed", but I suppose that depends what you are looking for in a novel. Certainly it's not a particularly comfortable read -- if you are looking for a book to cosy up with on a cold winter evening (and we are having plenty of those in the UK at the moment), this is not it. But if you are up for a bit of a challenge, something a little unexpected, something to amuse and entertain with its intelligent, knowing nods in the direction of novels and writers you already know and love, then you might really enjoy it.
Elizabeth Taylor, whose second novel this is, was a huge admirer of Jane Austen, and it's Austen who is the primary presence in Palladian. The plot and the characterisation owe most to her, but there's also an obvious pointer to Jane Eyre, as this is the story of a young governess who falls in love with her widowed employer. But when you see that the governess is called Cassandra (JA's sister's name) Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility), it becomes clear that ET was not only thinking about JA but wanted to be sure her readers knew it. I think that makes a big difference to how we read the novel. Plenty of people have written sub-Austen books over the years, but this is not one of them -- ET was much too good a novelist for that. Rather it is an exploration of how to use many of JA's devices in a novel that is firmly set in the mid-20th century.
Cassandra is in many ways a typical Austen heroine. A good, intelligent girl, recently orphaned and missing her beloved father, she is also very innocent, indeed rather naive. She's read a lot of books and when she meets the handsome older man who is the father of her young pupil Sophy she is immediately sure that she will fall in love with him and that they will eventually marry. And of course she does, and of course the path of that love does not run smooth, so there is a moment when Cassandra, upset and disturbed by a very shocking event, disappears and has to be sought for by her erstwhile employer. And so on. The rest of the characters are wonderfully vivid, too -- and of course, as with Austen, all of them are in various ways selfish and flawed. Even Marion Vanburgh, Cassandra's boss and the object of her affections, is rather weak and effete and suffers terribly from neuralgia. Apart from her employer, the household consists of his cousins, pregnant Margaret, a who is a doctor and thinks herself above the ordinary ailments of her fellow human beings -- her put-upon mother, who is quite unable to stand up to her bossy daughter -- her brother Tom, a talented artist who is deliberately drinking himself to death and is involved in a heartless, manipulative relationship with Mrs Veal who runs the local pub. Then there are the servants, horrid old Nanny, who "feigned eccentricity as Hamlet feigned madness, and for more or less the same reason, so that she could speak her mind, set herself apart from the rest of humanity, and tell the truth", and her sidekick Mrs Adams, who cleans and washes up with a very bad grace and sees life as "Half the world scrubbing on its knees, the other half sitting on its arse". Not an expression you'd find in Jane Austen, and there's quite a bit of sex here which you wouldn't find in her novels either -- but if she'd been writing in 1946 you probably would have done.
I could go on, but I won't. I wouldn't necessarily suggest this novel as an introduction to Elizabeth Taylor -- Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is a good place to start, or Angel. But if you are up for something to amuse you and make you think, try it.